The New Yorker
We live in a world where it is no longer shocking to learn that major heads of state-Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte, Benjamin Netanyahu-are under suspicion for having misused the power of their office, although none of these has yet been formally charged with any wrongdoing. In Latin America, on the other hand, a slew of sitting and former Presidents have been swept up in corruption scandals, a number have been investigated and indicted, and several have gone to jail. Last month, in Peru, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned rather than face impeachment over corruption allegations, and his predecessor, Ollanta Humala, is in jail awaiting trial for alleged corruption. Ricardo Martinelli, the former President of Panama, has been in jail in Miami since June, pending extradition on corruption charges. El Salvador’s former President Antonio Saca is in prison on charges of embezzling public funds, while his predecessor, Francisco Flores, died, of a cerebral hemorrhage, while under house arrest pending his trial. (Flores was accused of having diverted, to his own pocket, several million dollars in foreign aid intended for earthquake victims.) In neighboring Guatemala, two former Presidents, Álvaro Colom and Otto Pérez Molina, are also facing trial, also for corruption. Others, accused of a variety of crimes, mostly bribery or embezzlement of public funds, are fighting in the courts, while a couple-Alejandro Toledo, of Peru, and Mauricio Funes, of El Salvador-have become fugitives, living in the United States and Nicaragua, respectively.
Latin America’s politicians, in other words, are not scoring very well in the honesty game, but perhaps it can at least be said that the justice system is prevailing in their countries. Or is it? In some instances, the evidence for the alleged corruption is clear, but in some it is not, as in the case of Kuczynski, where there was no clear proof of guilt but he was forced to resign after his political enemies launched a concerted campaign against him. There is a similar sense of a political vendetta at work in the case of the former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. On Saturday, amid high drama and widespread protests by his supporters, Lula, as he is known, who is seventy-two, turned himself in to begin serving a twelve-year prison sentence on corruption charges, after the Supreme Court denied his appeal for a writ of habeas corpus. Lula, who led Brazil from 2003 to 2011, as the head of the left-wing Workers’ Party, which he founded, is not only one of the most charismatic public figures in Latin America but is still the most popular politician in Brazil. He was planning to run for the Presidency again, and, according to the polls, if elections were held tomorrow, he would win by a wide margin. But the elections are scheduled for October, and, with his imprisonment, Lula is, most likely, out of the running.
On Saturday, after a daylong standoff at a steelworkers-union building in São Paulo, Lula told his supporters, “I will comply with the order, and all of you will become Lula. I’m not above the law. If I didn’t believe in the law, I wouldn’t have started a political party. I would have started a revolution.” He joked that he had been “born with a short neck so that I can keep my head high.” Then he agreed to surrender to the authorities.
Lula has denied any culpability in the case he has been sentenced for, a tangled affair involving a seaside apartment that he is said to have intended to buy at a favorable price from a developer. There are other cases pending, including one involving improvements to a ranch where Lula sometimes stays. His arrest has made him the latest and highest-profile figure to fall in Brazil’s all-singing, all-dancing corruption investigation, called Operação Lava Jato, or Operation Car Wash. For the past several years, the crusading judge Sérgio Moro-who also ordered Lula’s surrender-and a team of investigators and prosecutors have overseen Operação Lava Jato from the southern city of Curitiba. Hundreds of people have been arrested for their alleged involvement in bribery schemes operated out of the state-owned oil company, Petrobras, by executives of the construction giant Odebrecht, and at several other major Brazilian firms. Some of the former Latin American Presidents who are currently in jail, including Panama’s Martinelli, were fingered by Odebrecht officials for taking bribes in exchange for lucrative contracts.
Whatever the truth of the charges against him, Lula deserves credit for having transformed the economy of his vast, unequal country, lifting as many as forty million Brazilians out of dire poverty. Many of his loyalists believe that a vendetta against him began in earnest in 2016, when the National Congress, controlled by right-wing opponents of the Workers’ Party, impeached his protégée and successor in office, President Dilma Rousseff. The impeachment of Dilma, as she is known, came after massive public protests were staged against her government, in the wake of the Lava Jato revelations about the Petrobras corruption, in which several senior government officials were implicated. Dilma, however, was not accused of personal corruption. Her impeachment, as I wrote at the time, was initiated for much more abstract transgressions, consisting of “doctoring official budget figures and using money from state banks in order to hide the real state of Brazil’s shrinking economy, so as to help her win reëlection, in 2014.” In one of the episode’s many bitter ironies, Eduardo Cunha, the president of the Chamber of Deputies and the leader of the impeachment campaign, was himself found guilty of taking more than a million dollars from Petrobras. Last year, he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison.
It also emerged that Michel Temer, Dilma’s former Vice-President, a right-of-center coalition partner who replaced her in office, had conspired against her with members of Congress. Two years on, there is no doubt that Brazil’s government has veered sharply to the right, with Temer’s government seeking to push through bills to reduce protections for Brazil’s indigenous peoples and wilderness areas, to pave the way for new mines and other extractive industries.
Temer, too, has been implicated in corruption schemes, and last year he was formally charged with receiving five million dollars in bribes. His popularity is said to be at around seven per cent-the lowest for a Brazilian President in three decades. But Temer remains in office, for the simple but powerful reason that his allies control a majority of seats in Congress, where they have already thwarted several attempts to impeach him and to have him tried by the Supreme Court-as Lula was this past week. Meanwhile, more than half of Brazil’s legislators are under some sort of investigation.
There seems little doubt that Brazil will be a more divided place after this week. It is certainly a very different nation from what it was when Lula was hailed as the leader of one of the world’s emerging economic powers-known as brics (Brazil, Russia, India, and China)-seemingly ready to take its place on the world stage. Many Brazilians recall with pride the moment, in 2009, when Barack Obama, recently sworn in as President, shook Lula’s hand and said, “This is my man, right here. I love this guy.”
But, then, it is a very different world from what it was then. Brazil was the powerhouse in a Latin America that was at the height of the so-called Pink Tide of leftist governments. With Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, Pepe Mujica in Uruguay, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, and Michelle Bachelet in Chile, there was a sense that the region’s leftists had, for better or worse, turned some kind of corner. They were a mixed bag, but, with Lula, a pragmatist, at the helm in Brazil, there was a sense of promise that somehow socialism and capitalism could find functional synergies, and coexist in the region. Today, most of the Pink Tide’s original leaders are either dead or out of power, and, with only a couple of exceptions-including Venezuela, which, under Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, is in complete meltdown-the region is now in the hands of political conservatives.
Much of Lula’s social achievement may now be at risk. In an echo of what is taking place in the United States, Brazil is a country that is polarized between its liberals and its conservatives, and the latter have shown themselves to be determined, in as many ways as possible, to roll back the reforms that Lula and Dilma instituted. It is worth noting that, after Lula, one of the most popular politicians in the country, and a candidate in the upcoming Presidential elections, is Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing former Army parachutist, who is a champion of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. When Bolsonaro cast his vote against Dilma in the impeachment proceedings, he did so in the name of an officer who was responsible for the unit that had tortured her after arresting her when, as a young woman, she was a member of an underground leftist group.
In other changes, a conservative televangelist, Marcelo Crivella-who is, among other things, a creationist and homophobe-is now the mayor of freewheeling Rio de Janeiro. Earlier this year, in an agreement with Temer, he decided to tackle the city’s gang problem by deploying the military in the favelas. The most notable incident of the crackdown so far, however, has been the targeted shooting of Marielle Franco, a thirty-eight-year-old city councillor. A socialist and feminist, the outspoken Franco was a vocal critic of the military intervention as well as of extrajudicial killings carried out by police in the city’s favelas.
Brazil’s military has recently begun to make its presence felt in others ways. A few days before the Supreme Court issued its final verdict against Lula, the commander of the Army issued blustering public statements about how it was necessary for “an end to impunity,” making it clear that he wanted to see Lula in jail. Then, on Saturday night, as federal police prepared to fly Lula to Curitiba, where he was to begin serving his sentence, voices on the military’s radio frequency were recorded telling the pilots to “throw that garbage out the window.” In such ways-and with Lula in jail and Temer in the Presidency-it doesn’t feel as if anything close to justice has been done in Brazil, and that the battle lines are being drawn for confrontations to come.