Why Brazil will one day celebrate charges against its beloved ex-president

Brazil's former president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Brazil's former president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Paulo Whitaker/Reuters

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the former president of Brazil commonly known as Lula.

On Wednesday, prosecutors charged him with money laundering. Last week, a separate group of prosecutors raided his property and hauled him in for questioning as part of their sprawling investigation into corruption at the national oil company, Petrobras. Lula denies any wrongdoing.

In the short term, the possible arrest and trial of Lula could bring further disruption to a country already reeling from multiple crises: the worst recession in decades, deep-rooted corruption scandals, and the possible impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, who is considered Lula’s acolyte.

But in the long run, several Brazil observers believe the country could emerge from this chaotic period stronger and with more robust legal institutions. As the country’s prosecutors target Brazil’s most wealthy and powerful people — a group considered untouchable just a few years ago — there’s hope that a new dawn of stability could be coming to a country long considered a den of corruption.

“What is being advanced in Brazil today is the rule of law,” said Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “Here is a potentially very, very positive story, with a very, very difficult short-term.”

The cases against Lula are further upsetting a country that’s deeply divided. During his 2003-2010 administration, Lula presided over phenomenal economic growth and launched policies credited with bringing tens of millions of people out of poverty. He remains popular, and was even considering running for president again in 2018.

This Sunday, Brazilians will hold deafening protests both against and in support of one of South America’s most influential politicians.

Brian Winter, vice president of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, said the temporary disquiet is understandable, given the prominence of the targets of the Petrobras investigation.

“This Petrobras probe has shown that if you bribe public officials at this scale, you will get caught, and that’s new — that has never been the case before,” said Winter, a close Brazil-watcher. “If the judicial institutions leading this drive are able to continue to do their work, then I think it leads at the end to a much better Brazil.”

But, as Winter pointed out, that’s a big if.

So far, more than 100 people, including several big names, have been charged in the Petrobras scandal. They include Marcelo Odebrecht, the former CEO of Latin America’s largest engineering conglomerate, who earned a 19-year prison sentence earlier this week

But in Brazil being charged with a crime is no guarantee that justice will ultimately be served. Winter cautioned that the judicial system still has a lot to prove, and said he won’t be confident the country has turned a corner until judges start handing out heftier sentences to those involved.

Brazil’s highly complicated legal system is full of loopholes that political and business elites can use to “game the system,” Winter said.

Recently, that’s changing somewhat, he added, and the Brazilian public is becoming more aware of the need for lasting, effective justice. 

“That’s really what the Petrobras case is all about,” Winter said. “The Brazilian elite have always thought themselves invincible when it comes to getting in legal trouble, and that is not as true any more.”

Sotero said his organization has quizzed Brazilians on whether they support continuing the corruption investigation, and an overwhelming majority said they do. He sees the current crisis as an opportunity for Brazil to wash its dirty laundry, which will hopefully emerge cleaner than before.

“Anything and everything that exposes Brazil to the world and the world to Brazil is good for Brazil,” Sotero said. “We have to get to the bottom of this. Brazil is a democracy, we built that democracy, there are many positive aspects of that, so I don’t take the view that we should be discouraged.”