Operação Lava Jato (the investigation into Brazil’s graft mega-scandal, named so because it spiralled off from an initial money-laundering probe centred on a petrol station in Brasilia) has reached a crowning point with the order that two-term ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva be sent to prison after the Supreme Court’s rejection of his habeas corpus request – but it is still a long way from being a ‘Lava Tudo.’
While some high-profile politicians and businessmen have been jailed, corruption is manifestly rife throughout Brazil’s established parties, with President Michel Temer’s PMDB – a party which has already reached the presidency twice without ever being elected and even renamed itself MDB in a transparent attempt to avoid association with corruption – arguably at the head of the pack. Today, like Lula, Temer and many other lawmakers still stand accused of graft allegations, yet thanks to a combination of backroom dealing, immunity from prosecution and other shady manoeuvres, many of them are still walking free. Such hypocrisy is ethically disturbing.
Whatever Lula’s supporters might say, his fate is more likely to be the result of one-eyed justice rather than political persecution. Quite apart from the specific case against him (receiving a triplex in a beach resort near São Paulo as a payoff, where there is a confirmed conviction following all possible appeal – a fact that should not be dismissed lightly) the potential for other charges abounds from all the corruption accusations surrounding Petrobras, Odebrecht, etc. that date from his 2003-2010 watch. Added to that should be the fact that during most of his many trips around the subcontinent in his capacity as regional superstar, Lula was quite openly a fervent lobbyist on behalf of Odebrecht – behaviour which now invites considerable suspicion considering the firm’s admissions of guilt and the payment of million of dollars in bribes. It is important to consider balance again here: equally the potential also abounds for the MDB, including Temer himself, the main centre-right party PSDB and most other opposition forces.
But of more immediate importance to most Brazilians and outside observers is the election only half a year away because side-lining the opinion poll frontrunner has created an almost total vacuum, with no candidacy enjoying more than 15-percent support (with the highest behind Lula being the obnoxiously extremist right-winger Jair Bolsonaro). The political thus claims most urgency as always, despite the fact that the judicial sphere has already proved decisive. Even without this intervention, massive public indignation against corruption looked set to be a crucial factor in this election.
If Lula and his judicial nemesis Sergio Moro are the two most popular figures in Brazil today, what does this paradox say about public opinion? Firstly, the backlash against corruption is almost universal, even in the Lula camp – while a hard core of PT militants are in total denial, most supporters would acknowledge the Odebrecht, Petrobras and other scandals but would subordinate them to the virtues of a presidency which made Brazil the world’s sixth economy (the first letter in BRICS) and took 30 million Brazilians out of poverty. Corruption is thus relative for a third of the population while almost a quarter of the two-thirds with zero tolerance for graft would have time for Bolsonaro. But a not-so-silent majority resists both corruption and the nostalgia for military dictatorship which is part of the former Army captain’s appeal and this majority has nowhere to go, for now at least.
Yet in contrast to this political limbo, the economy is starting to look better off – and while some might attribute the golden days of Brazil in the previous decade to Lula’s genius, others might point to the global commodity price boom. These days could be returning thanks to US President Donald Trump – Brazil already has almost 54 percent of the Chinese soy market and now Beijing’s retaliation against Trump’s protectionism opens up the 35 percent previously accruing to the US for potential gain. These windfalls would accompany an economic tailwind already in motion from some labour reforms, a competitive exchange rate, a booming Mercosur auto industry and an economy with nowhere to go but up after contracting eight percent in 2015-2016.
Where this mix of political, judicial and economic factors will leave Brazil at the end of this year is anybody’s guess. But it deserves more attention here than the antics of Natacha Jaitt or bits of paper floating around Congress, both of which seem to have displaced serious news in recent days.