Brazil at the Crossroads of Corruption

This post is also available in: Portuguese (Brazil), Spanish

By Celia Bacelar Palmares


Millions of Brazilians took to the streets in nationwide anti-government protests in early March. Many of them had wrapped themselves in the Brazilian flag, faces painted in green and yellow, demanding “our country back.”

They also called for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, the arrest of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and an end to corruption.

Brazil’s economy is going through its worst recession in more than three decades. In 2015, the economy shrank by 3.8 percent, its worst annual performance since 1981. Inflation reached 10.7 percent at the end of last year, a 12-year high. Unemployment increased to 9 percent in 2015 and economists predict it could go into double digits in the coming months.

Brazil’s currency lost one-third of its value against the dollar in 2015 and its value dropped again after the mass protests of March 13.

One of the main complaints by the protesters who took to the streets on March 13 was the high level of corruption, which has reached the highest positions of political power in Brazil.

Since the Workers’ Party came to power in 2003, there has been a series of corruption scandals involving politicians from the governing party as well as opposition parties. The two biggest are:

Mensalao: The name given to a corruption scheme in which public funds were illegally used to pay members of Congress in exchange for backing the government in crucial votes. The scandal first broke in 2005. By the time the Supreme Court concluded its trial in 2012, 25 politicians, bankers and business owners had been convicted, some of whom were top members of the Workers’ Party.

Operation Car Wash: The name given to an investigation launched in March 2014 into allegations that Brazil’s biggest construction firms overcharged state-oil company Petrobras for building contracts. Part of their windfall would then be handed to Petrobras executives and politicians who were in on the deal. Prosecutors allege that the Workers’ Party partly financed its campaigns and expenses through these kickbacks.

President Dilma Rousseff’s approval ratings have sunk since she narrowly won the presidential reelection in October 2014. According to a Datafolha poll released on Feb. 28, only 11 percent of respondents across the country said the president’s performance was “good or excellent.” Rousseff was chair of the board at Petrobras from 2003 to 2010.

Former President Lula, Rousseff’s mentor who governed the country for eight years from 2003 and was one of Brazil’s most popular politicians, was briefly detained on March 4 as part of Operation Car Wash.

He was questioned over allegations that he received “illicit benefits” from the Petrobras kickback scheme. Prosecutors filed charges of money laundering against Lula. Federal Judge Sergio Moro will now have to decide if he accepts those charges.

President Rousseff has offered Lula the post of chief of staff, which shields him from Judge Moro’s investigation. Under Brazilian law, cabinet members can only be tried by the Supreme Court, not by a federal judge. Lula has hinted that he would be willing to run again for the presidency in 2018.

Recently, Judge Moro made public a taped phone conversation between President Rousseff and Lula, which has been interpreted by some to show that Lula was given the post of chief of staff to shield him from prosecution.

Moro should continue to bring light to all the darkness of corruption that has fallen over Brazil for decades. Moro is lifting the veil of deception not only from the Workers’ Party but also from Brazilian politics in general.

Having dual citizenship, I can’t help but draw a contrast between what is happening in Brazilian government with all its high-level corruption and what I experience in the United States. While the United States is not perfect, the level of respect the government has for the will of people is not so brutally and explicitly violated as it is in Brazil.

What is the answer for Brazil? How can this madness stop? In my point of view, just as it started it shall end, with a vote. Brazilian voters must become more conscious of the power of the commodity in their hands. They must not reelect those who have been previously investigated for corruption or prosecuted. They must think of the long-term effects their decision will have on the country, not just the short-term outcomes it will have in their lives in a campaign cycle, when their votes may be bought with a few Brazilian Reais, endangering the future of a nation for generations to come.


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