On February 23, as we noted yesterday, Joao Santana, the James Carville to Dilma Rousseff’s Bill Clinton, was unceremoniously arrested in connection with the massive police probe into price-fixing, bribery, and kickbacks at Petrobras, the Brazilian state petroleum firm. Only six days later, Brazil’s justice minister, Jose Eduardo Cardozo, resigned. Why? Because he, too, had been implicated the corruption? No – because members of the ruling Workers’ Party were furious at him for having failed to put an end to the corruption investigation, known as Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash). Cardozo, a veteran member of the Workers’ Party who has previously served as congressman and mayor of São Paulo and who has long been counted as a “close and reliable friend to the president” and as one of her “most faithful champions,” was the second member of Rousseff’s cabinet to leave in recent months; the first was Joaquim Levy, who resigned in December from the position of Minister of Finance.
Cardozo’s resignation came in the wake of news that the probe had broadened to included none other than Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s widely revered ex-president, who was in office from 2003 to 2010. According to reports, courts were on the verge of subpoenaing Lula’s financial records. Cardozo’s refusal to interfere in police efforts – and thus keep the damage from spreading to more and more fellow Workers’ Party members – spelled the end of his tenure at the Ministry of Justice. Although Brazilian police are technically under the ministry’s authority, the Minister of Justice has no legal authority to interfere with their activities.
Operation Car Wash has already taken down a long list of top business leaders and Workers’ Party politicians. But as the probe closed in on Lula, the panic in the circles surrounding Rousseff intensified – as did outrage at Cardozo for failing to rein in what loyalists insist on describing as a political witch hunt. Lula, who had already been confronted recently with questions from the police about his children’s shady financial activities, is now being scrutinized over renovations performed at two of his properties, a luxurious beach-front apartment and a rural estate. The renovations were performed by construction firms implicated in the Petrobras corruption; Lula insists, however, that the two properties don’t belong to him.
Is Cardozo totally out of the government? Far from it. In a neat twist (leave it to corrupt autocrats to come up with moves so rich in poetic irony), he’s been shifted to the job of Attorney General – a position in which he’ll be tasked with protecting Rousseff & co. from the very same investigators who’ve been allowed to proceed with their work under his authority. Meanwhile, Cardozo’s replacement at Justice, one Wellington Cesar Lima e Silva, is expected to lean on those investigators to lay off Lula – and, of course, the president herself.
It’s looking likelier by the day, however, that any efforts to fend off the fuzz may be in vain. On March 1, the media reported on a plea bargain in which eleven officials of Andrade Gutierrez, Brazil’s second-largest engineering firm, admitted to having paid over $1.27 million under the table to suppliers for Rousseff’s 2010 campaign. As Reuters put it, this testimony represented “the first direct link between the widening ‘Operation Carwash’ investigation into bribes and political kickbacks at state-run oil company Petrobras and the election of Rousseff.”
The sands are shifting fast in Rousseff country. Stay tuned.