Last week former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva began serving a 12 year sentence for corruption and bribery. Prior to his surrender, thousands of Lula’s supporters gathered in São Paulo, insisting the charges are meant to prevent him from running, and likely winning, Brazil’s upcoming presidential election.
The scandal has deeply divided the country, but professor Mark Langevin says corruption in Brazil runs deeper than Lula and his left-leaning Worker’s Party.
“We have to recognize that it's not just Lula,” Langevin said. “Most of the major political parties, major political figures, including Lula, have had investigations and prosecutions regarding what some of us would define as the Petrobras procurement kickback scheme.”
Langevin heads the Brazil Initiative at George Washington University. He explained that the kickback scheme, often referred to as “Lava Jato” or “Car Wash,” is the result of systemic corruption extending into Brazil’s citizenry.
“In order to run a campaign in Brazil you need to pay the gatekeepers,” Langevin said. “These are people that can be a retired housewife in a neighborhood who allows you to campaign in the neighborhood, to mayors, city council people, who allow you to campaign in their neck of the woods. And they receive under-the-table payments to open the gates.”
A March poll showed Lula was favored to win the country’s 2018 election. Seen as a champion of the poor, Langevin said his support was buoyed by the recession that hit Brazil in 2014. But, Langevin says the specifics of the case brought by Judge Sergio Fernando Moro against Lula contributed to its polarizing effect.
“I was surprised that the prosecution chose this particular case to go after the former president, because it's a case that is weak on its merits, in terms of establishing the facts of a quid pro quo corruption case,” Langevin said. “And you would think that trying to prosecute a very popular former president, you would need a stronger case so that you could at least eliminate the appearance of politicization.”
Members of the Worker’s Party are doubling down on their support for Lula. More than 60 members officially changed their names, adding “Lula” as a show of solidarity. The move generated international attention, but Langevin hopes media will look beyond the rise and fall of individual politicians like Lula and examine whether Brazilian institutions and are actually reforming.
Langevin on how Lula’s conviction has divided Brazilians:
Brazil's split between those that feel that the prosecution, and the judge, and the appellate judges that upheld the conviction have been acting as, you know, as a political force, rather than a responsible judiciary. And then you've got others who highly disapprove of Lula and the Worker’s Party who have not expressed a critical understanding of the judicial process against Lula and some of the other elected officials that have been convicted under the Lava Jato or Car Wash scheme.
Langevin on how Brazil’s economic recession has played a role in recent political turmoil:
The corruption scandal in April of 2014 also came with the widespread recognition that Brazil was diving into a deep economic recession. And so clearly the impeachment of former President Dilma [Rousseff] of the Worker's Party in April of 2016 had a lot to do with the state of the economy... I think that if the economy had been booming a lot of things would have been swept under the rug, as they have been in the past in Brazil.
Langevin on the entanglement of corruption and Brazil’s democratic process:
To what degree are these gatekeepers and the illegal payments made to them essential for Brazilian democracy? And how can a political reform be moved through the Brazilian congress that directly relates to this challenge and brings it to a transparent surface, so that all Brazilians can decide for themselves what should be legal, what should be illegal, and that the illegal activities, including the slush funds, including people that receive these under the table payments be prosecuted for that?
Suzette Grillot: Mark Langevin, welcome to World Views.
Mark Langevin: Thank you for having me.
Grillot: Well, it's great to have you here and to talk about one of my favorite subjects: Brazil. Many of our listeners know I spend some time there, and that I really love the country. But, Brazil is undergoing some challenging times. Um, we also know that. The corruption charges against President Lula for example, former President Lula... But, Mark, can you tell us a little bit about some of the work you're doing or the things you're paying attention to specifically regarding the political environment?
Langevin: You know, we have to recognize that it's not just Lula. Most of the major political parties, major political figures, including Lula, have had investigations and prosecutions with regarding what some of us would define as the Petrobras procurement kickback scheme, which some people call "Car Wash," "Lava Jato"... So it's... It's... There's a lot of, you know, it involved a lot of kickbacks that were converted into campaign slush funds for politicians that were most of them in alliance with Lula as president and later Dilma as president, but not exclusively. There were opposition parties, major opposition parties who had elected officials caught up in the investigations as well.
Grillot: Now as far as Lula specifically goes, some have said, at least when I was there, that they really don't feel like his particular case was as bad as some of the others like like Temer's, like Dilma's, that he wasn't as embroiled in this. Would you agree with that? Or what does the public thinking?
Langevin: It's a great question, and I've been lucky enough in the last 18 months to spend some time with Judge Moro, Who was the judge for the original conviction of Lula. And I've spent considerable time and follow up discussions with Lula's lawyers. So, I've tried to look at this case from a couple of different ways, and I think that I was surprised that the prosecution chose this particular case to go after the former president, because it's a case that is weak on its merits, in terms of establishing the facts of a quid pro quo corruption case. And you would think that trying to prosecute a very popular former president you would need a stronger case so that you could at least eliminate the appearance of politicization. And so now Brazil's split between those that feel that the prosecution, and the judge, and the appellate judges that upheld the conviction have been acting as, you know, as a political force, rather than a responsible judiciary. And then you've got others who highly disapprove of Lula and the Workers Party who have not expressed a critical understanding of the judicial process against Lula and some of the other elected officials that have been convicted under the Lava Jato or Car Wash scheme.
Grillot: You mentioned the politicization of these issues, in particular the judiciary. You know, I'm always learning when I'm in Brazil, and it was interesting to learn... This last time I was there, I met a couple of legislators, and they were making this very comment, that the entire country is... they were just saying this is a very Brazilian... The entire country, everything is so politicized and even like social services. I'd love to get your thought on this. Social services are so heavily politicized. I mean, when you talk about this kind of Car Wash scheme and the kickbacks to the politicians for their campaigns, that this is also going on through social services that are being provided let's say in favelas. That in Rocinha, the biggest, and one of the wealthiest-- I mean, you know, air quotes there-- favelas in terms of like its location and that kind of activities going on there... That these services are also providing kickbacks to politicians in order to kind of play for votes in these communities. I mean, I don't... I'm not the expert, obviously, on this. Can you give us some sense of how that's working and how that's different than maybe here or anywhere else?
Langevin: I think there's a couple facts that we should recognize first. That Brazilian elected officials in some of the bigger cities wealthier states and certainly in Congress are very well paid, probably the best paid on a per capita income basis of any other democracy around the world, including the United States... So these are, you know, here in Washington in Washington D.C., we call them "plums," but they're more than plums. These are some of the best jobs that any Brazilian can get. And then, aside from that, one has to ask the question, of course there's going to be a great amount of competition to these elected offices, but they get free radio and TV time. They are prohibited by law of making these large expenditures on high priced items, like concerts, and food baskets, and other things to call attention to their campaigns. So why do they need all this slush money?
And I think that the media, Judge Moro, and the task force the Lava Jato or Car Wash task prosecutor task force have not spent enough time looking into this. And I think what we see, and this would include some of the smaller kickback schemes on contractors that provide public services, like school lunches, or this, that and the other thing, is that in order to run a campaign in Brazil you need to pay the gatekeepers, and these are people that can be, you know, a retired housewife in a neighborhood who allows you to campaign in the neighborhood, to mayors, city council people, who allow you to campaign in their neck of the woods. And they receive under the table payments to open the gates. And I think this would account for the high priced elections and having most, maybe half or more of the election campaign expenditures, come out of the slush funds that are, that were financed by the Petrobras kickbacks and other kickback schemes. Like, that's something that political scientists in Brazil and the media need to investigate. Is.. To what degree are these gatekeepers and the illegal payments made to them essential for Brazilian democracy? And how can a political reform be moved through the Brazilian congress that directly relates to this challenge and brings it to a transparent surface, so that all Brazilians can decide for themselves what should be legal, what should be illegal, and that the illegal activities, including the slush funds, including people that receive these under the table payments be prosecuted for that.
Grillot: Couple of really important things that I want to pick up on... What you said... I mean the transparency issue. I mean one of the things that I keep hearing from Brazilians is that they actually feel like, because there's this perception, right, that Brazil is just embroiled in all of this corruption and that it's somehow really bad and different from other parts of the world, even though we see this sort of activity everywhere. But their response to me is well but the system is looking at it, and we are facing... These, These people are facing corruption charges, and they are being prosecuted, and convicted, and that's a good sign, and that's something that would indicate that Brazil is really, you know, growing and developing in their democracy. Would you agree with that?
Langevin: I agree, but I think that it's not black and white. It's a marble, right? Where you have forces fighting corruption, and fighting for transparency, but they're doing it in an instrumentalist way to elect a political faction to office or candidate. And then you have others that really do want a popular democracy, including many members and leaders of the Worker's Party, Lula's party, who want transparency, but haven't mustered the courage to impose that same standard on their own internal operations and the conduct of their own elected official party members. And I think that's what we're seeing right now in this juncture, is a lack of political leadership, a lack of political courage to talk about the facts on the ground and to begin to have a discussion about what kinds of political reforms are necessary to really diminish the kind of corruption... And we're talking about kickback corruption on government contracts to finance political campaigns. There... Yes, there's some money that goes to Swiss bank accounts, but most of it is going to finance political campaigns that need to pay gatekeepers in order to win election to office.
Grillot: So, you also mentioned that, kind of asking the question, What is the economic necessity of this? Why is this economically essential? They're are highly paid. They get free airtime. All of these things... But, I mean, they also are experiencing a significant economic crisis in Brazil, too, because of diminished global energy prices, oil prices. And Brazil is obviously a major oil producing state and exporting state, that they have these significant economic issues as well. Is that related at all? Or is this just like an overall political and economic culture that we're dealing with in Brazil?
Langevin: It's hard not to relate to, because of the concurrent explosion of the corruption scandal in April of 2014 that also came with the widespread recognition that Brazil was diving into a deep economic recession. And so clearly the impeachment of former President Dilma of the Worker's Party in April of 2016 had a lot to do with the state of the economy. I like to remind everybody that in May of 2013 President Dilma's approval ratings were at about 78 percent-- higher than Lula, higher than any Brazilian president elected since the transition to democracy in nineteen eighty five. That's an important fact to establish on the ground. And then, of course, we have mobilizations in June of 2013, that start the process of what then became the impeachment in April of 2016 and so certainly the the recession in a sense inflamed the corruption scandal. I think that if the economy had been booming a lot of things would have been swept under the rug, as they have been in the past in Brazil. But, yes, there are legitimate forces that are fighting for political accountability and transparency and their struggle has been long term and a trend upward.
And I would look at those groups, especially the watchdog groups, like Contas Abertas and My National Congress, are really trying to render up information for voters and other organizations to understand what's going on in congress with campaign contributions, with budget expenditures, office expenditures for elected officials, and so forth. That's a good trend. But right now we're in the muck of a lot of people, in an opportunistic way, trying to take advantage of the corruption scandals to advance their own candidacies.
Grillot: Well, in the couple minutes we have left, Mark... I have to always end on a hopeful note. I ask people in Brazil all the time, you know, what is it that you're hopeful about? Where's the future leadership? Where, you know, are you looking forward to, you know, certain things happening and transpiring? Because, to me, you can't really bet against Brazil. I mean if anyone ever spends any time there you know it's an incredibly large, vibrant, amazing country with these incredibly resilient people that you just, have this, you know, just... It's just an incredible place. And, and so I can't imagine ever betting against Brazil. But what what can they be... What are you kind of hopeful about for Brazil? What do you see in terms of their future leaders?
Langevin: Well, there was a great public opinion study a couple of months ago. Not just ask questions about who people intended to vote for, but underlying themes, and so forth... And there's a couple of things that came out of the respondents, which were were quite representative. Seventy five percent thought that elections were the most important political action for changing the country, moving in the right direction. And I think that's optimistic and impressive.
Another 75 percent or so said that they would not cast their ballot for an incumbent. And I think democracies must go through these trends in which incumbents fail and other candidates come to the fore. Now there's a danger to that, because there's a lot of irresponsible populists that fill the void. But I think, uh, it's an opportunity for Brazil to create new forms of political leadership that are more accountable to the general population and voters. And that opportunity is center stage. And it's just a question, Are there enough Brazilians who want to step to the center, and run campaigns in a transparent way, and try to administer the public sector in a way that, you know, may not satisfy everybody but is honest and reflects some good governance?
Grillot: That being the case, this is an election year, obviously. This is a presidential election year this fall 2018. Any predictions?
Langevin: We can't, because... None of us know what will happen. A lot of it will be determined by the outcome of whether Lula's somehow allowed to run or whether he passes the baton to somebody that can run with it as Dilma did in 2010.
Grillot: Well we will definitely be talking about that again. And they've got a lot to resolve, clearly. So thank you so much Marc for being here and sharing your insights about Brazil.
Langevin: Thank you so much. Buh bye.