It has been a fascinating week in Brazil. The conviction of ex-president and founding member of the Workers Party, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (“Lula”), for money laundering and corruption was upheld by three appellate court judges in the southern city of Porto Alegre. As the judgment was announced, helicopters circled overhead and police snipers patrolled rooftops.
Hopefully, this will end any talk of Lula running again for the presidency. He swears that he will, even though his conviction is for nine and a half years and the election is in October, 2018. The problem is that in Brazil, it ain’t over till it’s over, and even then it ain’t.
Lula, who held office from 2003-2011, is a first-rate opportunist. His hand-picked successor and chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff, was elected president only to be impeached in 2016 for playing fast and furious with the budget. Before being impeached, she tried to hire Lula as her chief of staff (it’s what friends do), but was blocked by the courts. At one point, her approval rating had dropped to three percent as millions of Brazilians protested in the streets. Meanwhile, Lula spouts the usual neo-Marxist rhetoric about workers’ rights, concern for the oppressed, and hatred of Yankee imperialism. He shares these talking points with his buddies, all Fidel protégés: Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, and Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela.
Morales is the guy who gave Pope Francis a hammer and sickle crucifix. Maduro is particularly loathsome for his Stalinist methods of violence against the opposition, suppression of free speech, and downright boorishness. Not surprisingly, he is also a buffoon, boorishness and buffoonery often going hand in hand. The massacre of Oscar Pérez and six members of his group, also this week, was a new low even for him.
Lula, however, surpasses them all in his lust for power and wealth, not to mention his ego. His conviction centered on a multi-billion dollar scandal with Petrobras, the state-owned oil and gas conglomerate, which is turning into the biggest corruption case in history. It involves nearly two dozen countries, bribes, kickbacks, Swiss bank accounts, Chinese suppliers, an embarrassing number of federal officials, and the largest construction firm on the continent, Odebrecht.
All of this might seem like a reality TV show, especially when the investigation into Petrobras is known as “Operation Car Wash,” except that average people are suffering, as they always do under oppressive regimes that care more about ideology than people. As Lula gathers his advisers to devise a way to run for office, Brazil’s economy is a wreck with unemployment at more than 13 percent, a mounting national debt, per capita GDP below the world average, and a Standard & Poor’s rating of BB-, which is as bad as it looks.
Drugs, violence, and poverty may not be the daily experience of most Brazilians, but they hurt the economy and discourage investment. And a culture of corruption eats up a tremendous amount of time, effort, and money in lost production and increased regulation.
The workers’ paradise envisioned by Lula has turned out to be a mirage. Still, it is encouraging to see the criminal justice system working as prosecutors, judges, and officials like Sérgio Moro stand up to the old guard of power and money. What are the lessons learned?
First, people are corruptible no matter their political party or ideology. Ironically, ideologues are more susceptible to corruption, because they believe they are better than everyone else. Second, self-delusion, like ideology, is a nearly impenetrable veil that prevents people from seeing the truth. It is disturbing to see Workers Party members continuing to swoon over Lula even after this judgment. How do you fight self-delusion? Civil discourse, with the accent on civil. Third, in Brazil, it ain’t over till it’s over. And even then it ain’t.
You want a piece of me? Go to Robert Brancatelli. For feature image, go to em.com.br; Lula in red star cap, Journal de Alagoas; street protest, The Guardian. Some information based on an article appearing in The Economist.