Brazil: Why Lula detention underscores strengthened democracy

It was the previous president's administration that played a key role in building up the country's ability to fight corruption. Now those bodies, like the Public Ministry, are questioning him.

Andre Penner/AP
Brazil's former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva greets supporters who have gathered outside his residence, in Sao Bernardo do Campo, in the greater Sao Paulo area, Brazil, March 5, 2016.

When federal agents with a court order knocked on a door in a São Paulo suburb Friday morning, the anticorruption investigation that’s ensnared scores of Brazil’s top executives and politicians reached its most dramatic moment: bringing former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in for questioning.

The police said the surprise order, just like the unmarked cars with tinted windows used in the operation, was to prevent curious onlookers from photographing the former president and to stave off the protesters who would eventually gather around his home. But almost immediately news of the detention was already splashed across national media.

After his release, Mr. da Silva turned his ire toward Brazil’s aggressive anticorruption investigators, from public prosecutors to federal police and the iconic judge responsible for the case that’s rocked Latin America’s largest nation, Sérgio Moro.

“Let me tell you something: I’m a man who believes in strong institutions,” da Silva, who served two terms as president between 2002 and 2010, said in a scratchy voice while banging his fists. “But it’s important for prosecutors to know that a strong institution needs to have responsible people.”

Lula's brief detention underscores the growing tensions between the ruling party and anticorruption investigators. But it also highlights the increasing independence of Brazil’s institutions, such as the Public Ministry, which was behind his court order. The ruling party – which is often heard accusing the prosecutorial body of bias – is in fact carried out a number of reforms that fortified the institutions that are willing to hold accountable politically influential players in the name of justice.

"To a certain degree the PT [ruling Workers’ Party] governed at a time when the Public Ministry, these oversight bodies, had reached maturity. And so they are now, you know, paying the price,” says Matthew Taylor, a political scientist who has written extensively on Brazil’s anticorruption institutions since the country returned to democracy in 1985, following a 21-year military dictatorship.

'The feds knocked on my door!'

The “Car Wash” probe centers on a scheme involving kickbacks to political figures from construction companies contracted by the state oil company since 2004.

Prosecutors allege that da Silva owns an apartment paid for by a construction company cited in the probe, and that another company rehabbed a luxury apartment for him. They also allege he received at least $30 million reais (about $8 million) in speaking fees from six companies. Da Silva did not deny the latter accusation; he said he charges as much as former US President Bill Clinton does for speaking engagements, and referred to the popular Brazilian phrase that describes low national self-esteem, saying: “I do not have a mutt complex.” The real estate, he said, doesn’t belong to him.

"Lula" – as da Silva is popularly known – is the highest-profile suspect in the corruption investigation so far, but some wonder if his arrest means the probe is getting closer to sitting President Dilma Rousseff. She’s facing impeachment proceedings and dealing with a deep recession.

But for all the PT’s woes, it wasn't always at odds with Brazil's investigative agencies. In fact, it was during the Lula administration that many of these institutions came into their own.

Judicial reform in 2004 created oversight bodies for judges and prosecutors, leading to a level of professionalization that made reporting and punishing misconduct among colleagues more acceptable and encouraged. The number of federal civil servants suspended or expelled for wrongdoing climbed steadily during the PT’s 13 years in office, as did the annual amounts of financial returns from special audits from the national comptroller’s office.

Legislation targeting racketeering, money laundering, and plea bargains passed during the PT government’s rule gave officials new tools to investigate corruption, says Mr. Taylor. He says the establishment of the National Strategy for Combating Corruption and Money-Laundering, which began in 2004 and hosts annual meetings with 70 government agencies to discuss policies and strategies, allowed practitioners to better understand the roles of their colleagues. It led to the implementation of reforms in areas like money laundering legislation and integrating criminal justice databases. 

The federal police – the same agents who knocked on da Silva’s door Friday – underwent one of the largest transformations. Following Brazil’s return to democracy, federal police were considered passive, and “seldom” pushed the limits in “pursuit of malfeasance by public officials,” says Taylor. But during the da Silva years, its force grew from 9,000 to 14,000 officers.

The agents' role has became so prominent in the Car Wash investigations that a popular samba jingle recently paid homage to a federal agent of Japanese heritage who is routinely seen in the media: poker-faced, wearing dark sunglasses, and escorting executives and politicians to prison.  

“Oh my God, it’s going downhill,” the song begins. “The Japanese man from the Feds knocked on my door!”

'Tasting the same methods'

But as Brazilian authorities investigate the country’s most powerful figures, criticism has emerged of alleged excesses. Some question whether the detention of the ex-president was necessary, or simply a spectacle arranged for the media. Numerous political parties have been implicated in the Car Wash scandal, yet the PT’s woes repeatedly gain the most attention. Critics also say investigators selectively leak damaging information to the media, such as a would-be plea bargain of a prominent ex-senator from the PT, or da Silva’s visit from the feds.

“It’s evident that the ideological and political inclination, the going modes of thought in these institutions, influence the direction of the investigations,” says Luciana Genro, a 2014 progressive presidential candidate whose party was built by defectors from the PT.

Ms. Genro calls the coercive treatment of the ex-president and selective leaks to the press “unnecessary and arbitrary,” but says there is little outcry over these same excesses when it comes to ordinary citizens charged with or suspected of a crime.

“Nowadays in the Car Wash, you have the political and economic elite of the country tasting the same methods that invisible defendants see routinely in our penal system,” she says.

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