Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets over the weekend to protest their government and to send a message to the country’s political class: No one is untouchable, notes Juliana Barbassa, the author of “Dancing With the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink.”
The Federal Police temporarily detained Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former president, for questioning earlier this month in connection with a huge — and expanding — graft investigation. President Dilma Rousseff, Mr. da Silva’s handpicked successor, could be next.
This investigation was born of the painstaking, steady construction over years of anti-corruption legislation and of the institutions that put these laws into practice. Mr. da Silva played an important role in laying the groundwork for this, building up civil society and improving the judiciary. Ms. Rousseff herself signed the laws that allow suspects and companies in corruption cases to become informants in exchange for lighter sentences — one of the legal tools helping move the investigation forward.
“This weekend may very well have proved decisive for President Dilma Rousseff’s mandate,” says Christopher Garman, head of Brazil analysis at Eurasia Group. “A highly polarised environment following ex-President Lula’s detention clearly played a key role in generating such a large turnout. The massive protests reinforce the odds President Rousseff will fall even more quickly than we had anticipated.”
The immersion in scandal of Mr Lula da Silva, who fought for democracy against the former military regime and is a hero among the poor for his welfare policies, is sad for Brazil, says Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Wilson Center:
“Lula was a transformative figure,” Mr Sotero says. But he adds that if there is one silver lining to the crisis, it is that corruption at the highest levels is being punished for the first time since Brazil was colonized.
“There is a story for the future here,” he says. “The era of Brazilian society in which there is impunity for corrupt people, I think it is coming to an end.”
“Because this investigation has remained independent and unafraid to go after the country’s most powerful politicians, it has emerged not as a tool for coup-mongers, as some have charged, but as evidence of the country’s maturing democracy,” Barbassa concludes.