Last week we explored the presidency of Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, who in recent months has seen her throne shaken by the Petrobras scandal – described by the Wall Street Journal as “the biggest corruption case ever in a country with a long history of scandals.” Even Rousseff’s predecessor as head of state, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (whose own administration was almost brought down by the 2005 Mensalão scandal), has been under scrutiny in this season of scandal, with authorities looking into shady financial activities involving both Lula and his son as well as into accusations that the former president had lobbied illegally (and profitably) for Odebrecht, a huge Brazilian conglomerate.
Even as the Petrobras probes were widening and arrests adding up, Brazil’s economy was in free fall. Brazil’s GDP, which had experienced annual growth of over 5% during the century’s first decade, sunk below 3% in 2012 and 2013 and to 0.1% in 2014. On September 9, 2015, Standard and Poor downgraded Brazil’s credit rating to junk status. Over the course of 2015, Brazil’s economy actually shrunk by 2.7%. Meanwhile, Rousseff’s numbers also dived. In December 2014, her approval rating was at 80%; by March 2015, it was at 34%; by August, 8%. In that month, protesters around the country called for her impeachment. By September, she’d become “Brazil’s most unpopular president in recent democratic history.”
In that same month, party treasurer João Vaccari Neto was sentenced to over 15 years in prison for corruption and money-laundering, the latter of which involved over $4 million. Sentenced to prison alongside Vaccari was Renato Duque, who received a more than 20-year term for “inflating contracts at Petrobras” and funneling the excess profits into the coffers of Rousseff’s Workers’ Party.
Not long ago, in response to state employees and business executives who’ve blown the whistle on the massive government corruption on her watch, Rousseff famously said: “I do not respect informants.” She cited with pride her refusal, back in her Marxist guerrilla days, to rat on her comrades under torture. Her remarks, of course, reflect a curious attitude (to put it mildly) toward corruption – and, indeed, toward the very concept of public service and stewardship of the people’s resources. In October 2015, maintaining that the mounting accusations against her in connection with the Petrobras scandal were utterly false, she declared: “I do not intend to leave power.”
To be sure, on October 19, a parliamentary commission (consisting mostly of pro-government legislators) issued a report purportedly clearing Rousseff and Lula of personal involvement in Petrobras-related crimes. But that report didn’t end the controversy, and nobody expected it to. Rousseff remains under a cloud, and continues to hold on to power by a thread; in late December, Reuters reported that the lower house of Brazil’s Congress would probably decide by March whether to recommend Rousseff’s impeachment.
Meanwhile her administration’s corruption has dramatically altered Brazil’s image on the world stage. Writing in Forbes on October 22, Kenneth Rapoza summed up the whole messy situation by noting that while Brazil, according to Transparency International, had been the “least corrupt” of “the big four emerging markets” (not really much of an accomplishment, given that the other three are Russia, China, and India), “2015 has shaped up to be the year that threw all that off a cliff.” The Petrobras scandal, wrote Rapoza, had “made Brazilian politics into Latin America’s Greece.”