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The fortunes of embattled Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff are so precarious that, in an effort to boost her popularity, she has named former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as her chief of staff. Notably, Silva also is facing possible corruption charges in an ongoing investigation. In addition to supporting a teetering Rousseff, Silva will enjoy a broad – but not complete – immunity from prosecution for his alleged crimes. Meanwhile, anti-Rousseff protesters led the largest demonstrations in Brazilian history, voicing their anger and frustration at a government they claim is not fit-for-purpose. Protests were held across the length and breadth of the country, with almost half a million people demonstrating in Sao Paulo alone. The total nationwide was estimated at 3.5 million.
The economic indicators make for painful, dispiriting reading. Brazil’s economy shrank almost 4 percent last year, to mark the country’s worst recession in a century. Animosity towards Rousseff personally and her left-wing Worker’s Party was evident at the many demonstrations. Many observers publicly doubt that Rousseff will serve out her full term. When Silva left office at the end of 2010, his popularity was in the stratosphere, with approval ratings in excess of 80 percent. Unfortunately, allegations that he has accepted bribes are tarnishing his reputation. This month he was questioned by police – and his home and office were raided – as part of the ongoing lava jato – or “carwash” – investigation into corruption at the state-owned oil conglomerate, Petrobras. Since Rousseff governs as part of a coalition of several political parties, many of which have been dragged into the Petrobras investigations, she has had difficulty getting much needed reforms passed. She has also had to face the indignity of impeachment proceedings which were filed against her by the speaker of the Brazilian congress. These allegation stem from claims that she manipulated official government finance numbers in the run up to her re-election campaign in 2014. Awkwardly, the speaker himself is under investigation for corruption, so it is unclear whether the impeachment proceedings will actually gain much traction. In addition, a case is pending that would strip her of her 2014 election victory over claims that she used illegally obtained Petrobas money to fund her campaign. Unfortunately, the opposition parties do not appear to have popular support much deeper than Rousseff’s Workers Party or the other left-wing parties that are currently supporting here wobbly coalition. One government official who does enjoy significant support is Sergio Moro, the judge overseeing the lava jato corruption inquiry. Although several politicians close to Rousseff have been convicted as part of the investigation, so far she has remained outside the scope of Moro’s tribunal.
Moro’s most recent high-profile conviction was of Marcelo Odebrecht, head of the Odebrecht Group, one of the biggest construction businesses in Latin America, employing almost 200,000 workers. Odebrecht was sentenced earlier this month to 19 years in jail for his role in paying kickbacks to senior executives at Petrobras. Moro labelled Odebrecht as the mastermind behind an elaborate scheme that funneled money through Petrobras and into the hands of willing politicians. Moro is now setting his sights on Silva, forcing him to seek the relative safety of a senior Cabinet position in Brasilia, rather than take his chances defending charges of money laundering. Although now beyond the reach of crusading Moro, Silva could still face charges in front of the country’s Supreme Court. For supporters of Rousseff, the lava jato proceedings are nothing more than a judicial coup that is attempting to strip the rightful president of the country of her office, and “re-run” the 2014 election in order to achieve a different result. When the Workers Party first came to power in 2002, its stated goal was to move Brazil away from the rampant corruption that has been a feature of government and state-owned business for decades. However, many of the party’s longtime supporters now feel betrayed by Rousseff and are turning their backs on her and her party. The investigation into Silva has further weakened Rousseff’s hold on power and it is not immediately clear that bringing the formerly popular former president into her government will do much to slow or stop her decline in popularity among the electorate.
With the Summer Olympics less than five months off and Brazil’s economy unmistakably in stark decline, it will be difficult for Rousseff and her party to show the millions visiting the country and the billions watching the festivities from the comfort of their homes around the world an optimistic view of Brazil. The men and women and children who took to streets are demanding a better future for their beleaguered country. Brazil’s leaders must respond to these legitimate concerns swiftly and in earnest. A judge’s injunction barring former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva from becoming chief of staff to the South American nation’s current leader has been overturned — the latest, but hardly last twist in Brazil’s spiraling political crisis. The decision by Judge Candido Ribeiro, the head of the Federal Regional Court of the 1st Region in Brasilia, reversed an injunction issued earlier by another federal judge, Itagiba Catta Preta Neto.
But none of this represents the final word on whether the once wildly popular Brazilian leader known as Lula will have a new job — and new protections in a corruption investigation — in the Cabinet of current President Dilma Rousseff. Ten more actions have been filed to Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court asking that this high court bar Lula da Silva from becoming Rousseff’s chief of staff, according to state-run Agencia Brasil news. And a judge in Rio de Janeiro has also filed an injunction similar to that of Preta Neto.
More court battles mean no clear end in sight on a topic that has only sharpened political divides in Brazil. And this means that this country’s leaders, past and present — rather than gearing up for what was supposed to be a crowning achievement, as the continent’s first nation to host an Olympics this summer — will be busy dealing with the fallout, including the possibility of more unrest.