Oil Scandal Besets Brazilian Politics … Drip-by-Drip

By Matthew Taylor and Luciano Melo*

Nestor Galina  / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Nestor Galina / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Brazil’s oil scandal – the largest corruption scheme in Brazil’s history – probably won’t bring down the government of President Dilma Rousseff but will keep it in constant peril.  Since March 2014 the Brazilian Federal Police have been investigating the disappearance of tens of billions of dollars allegedly siphoned from the national oil company, Petrobras.  The company is a national symbol, founded by legendary President Getúlio Vargas in 1953, and a powerful economic force, especially in light of the discovery of massive deepwater oil off Brazil’s coast and the massive investments that have been undertaken to develop those fields.  No image captured Brazil’s triumphant resurgence over the past decade than a famous 2006 shot of President Lula holding up his hand covered in oil at a ceremony celebrating Brazil’s oil self-sufficiency.  (The picture itself was a takeoff on an iconic photo of Vargas.)

President Dilma Rousseff – who had close ties to the company as chairwoman of its board (2003-2010) and Minister of Mines and Energy (2003-2005) – is now confronting the dark underside of Brazil’s oil dream.  She is respected for her personal probity; nobody has suggested that she gained personally from the brazen corruption within Petrobras.  But critics point out that she was either cognizant of corruption or woefully incompetent.  As a result, the scandal weakens her considerably, just as she faces a revitalized opposition, a restive group of political allies, an economy grinding to a near halt, and a very real possibility that Brazilian debt will be downgraded to junk status.  Indeed, the scandal increases the chances of each of those four outcomes considerably.

The good and bad news from Dilma’s perspective is that the courts are very slow in Brazil.  If this case moves as quickly as the vote-buying mensalão scandal of 2005 – which was actually relatively efficient and effective by the standards of the Brazilian court system – final legal resolution of the case is unlikely before 2021.  Furthermore, for now there seems to be little appetite among the opposition for impeachment, possibly in part because some opposition members are rumored to be implicated as well.  So Dilma seems likely to survive politically, even as the scandal threatens to remain part of the political geography for the remainder of her second term.  This will be excruciating, as each week brings further revelations.  Indictments against a host of politicians are expected as soon as next month.  Perhaps most damaging in the long-term, though, will be the realization that nearly a decade after the mensalão scandal, legislative coalitions continue to be held together by the glue of pervasive corruption, and campaign finance appears deeply rooted in the misappropriation of public resources.

*Matthew Taylor is an associate professor at American University’s School of International Service and currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.  Luciano Melo is a Ph.D. student in the School of Public Affairs.

January 22, 2014

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