Brazil is no stranger to political scandal. Its last president, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached and removed from office. Her predecessor has been ensnared by the same investigation and her successor, Michel Temer, now looks vulnerable to impeachment as well. Worse, it appears as though no leading figure in the country’s political establishment is untainted. The breadth of the Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigation is breathtaking, and has already touched top officials in other Latin American countries. For some, exposure of this scandal, and its size and scope, is a promising sign of cleansing and renewal. For those with longer memories, it is a repeat performance and proof that corruption remains part of Brazil’s political culture.
The Lava Jato investigation takes its name from the gas station in Brasilia where bribes were paid and money laundered. The scandal involves payoffs from numerous businesses — the two most prominent are Petrobras, the state-run oil company, and Odebrecht, a construction conglomerate — to politicians. Bribes secured inflated government contracts; the companies then kicked back a portion to the politicians. Thus far, the investigation has found about $2 billion in payoffs, although the total could reach as high as $5 billion.
Sums that large suggest a sprawling undertaking and that appears to be the case. Temer, the man who assumed the presidency after Rousseff was impeached, is charged with approving a multimillion dollar payoff to silence the former speaker of the House. He claims the tape that is offered as evidence is doctored. In addition to five former presidents who have been ensnared, eight current Cabinet members are under investigation, as well as top senators and the heads of both houses of Parliament. More than 20 political parties have been touched by the scandal, and it is estimated that hundreds of people are involved, including politicians from all levels of government.
The size of the companies involved has meant that the scandal has spread beyond Brazil’s borders. Odebrecht has won contracts to build infrastructure projects in 10 different countries, and appears to have taken its Brazilian practices with it. Authorities in Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Argentina are conducting investigations and have already issued several warrants against officials. More cases of malfeasance are expected to be uncovered as Brazilian investigators probe the company’s operations, in particular an office that appears to have been set up to expedite payoffs.
Depressing as the scandal is, some see a silver lining. Exposure means that the public is now less tolerant of corruption. The indictments prove that no one is above the law and that clean government is expected of the country’s ruling elites.
The problem with this spin is that it has been used before. In 1992, President Fernando Collor de Mello was impeached for influence peddling, Ten years later, there was the Mensalao scandal in which politicians from President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s Workers’ Party were paid $50 million to support legislation. Both of those cases were supposed to end the corruption that was business as usual in Brazilian politics.
The only thing that differentiates Lava Jato from its predecessors is its size: The scale of this scandal is too big and will not allow one party to use it as an excuse to sweep away the opposition.
The problem for Brazil is that corruption is endemic. The size of this scandal reflects the expectations that guide politics at every level. Some blame the royal system that governed the country hundreds of years ago and used patronage as the overriding principle of political survival. Not only does that create personal relationships that can be indifferent to legal processes, but it has forged an interdependence between business and politics that has manifested in scandals that are exposed with painful regularity. This mentality is evident throughout the nation’s politics — at local levels, politicians ride “the Joy Train,” the popular term for embezzlement — and is reckoned by some estimates to cost as much as 5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
It is unclear who has the character and the clean hands to clean up Brazil’s politics. The only individuals who are as yet untainted are those who have labored on the fringes of national politics, and as a result, rarely have the standing to affect the structural change required. The danger is that an outsider may seize the opportunity to try his (or her) hand. All that is required are deep pockets to mount a national campaign and a charismatic individual to ride the wave of discontent. Sound familiar?