Despite turmoil, Brazil keeps up push to jail corrupt politicians

Corruption investigations and a legislative backlash have pushed Brazil to the brink of a constitutional crisis. But one thing has changed: Corrupt politicians going to prison.

Adriano Machado/Reuters
Brazil's Senate President Renan Calheiros gestures during a session of voting on a constitutional amendment, known as PEC 55, that limits public spending, in Brasília, Brazil, Dec. 13, 2016. Experts say he's unlikely to escape prosecution.

Several weeks of political turmoil revolving around Brazil’s Senate cumulated in its president, Renan Calheiros, being indicted on corruption charges on Monday, adding him to the list of politicians accused in Operation Car Wash, the country’s largest ever corruption investigation.

The new allegations are likely to make Senator Calheiros lose his mandate and came after a clash between Brazil’s legislative and judiciary branches, where Calheiros’s role has been central.

Politicians and citizens alike are holding their breath amid the threat of a constitutional crisis, raising questions about Brazil’s political future and the long-term legacy of the anticorruption crusade. With more prosecutions to come and presidential and congressional elections not scheduled until late 2018, Brazilian politics may be plagued with instability not seen in the young democracy since the years around the fall of the dictatorship in 1985.

But while the future is up for grabs, one thing has changed: Corrupt politicians, who for decades avoided prosecution with impunity, are going to prison because of wide-ranging judicial and police investigations. 

“We’re getting to a point where people are saying, ‘This thing doesn’t work, destroy it all,’” says Heni Ozi Cukier, a political scientist at the School of Advertising and Marketing (ESPM) in São Paulo. Brazilians’ dissatisfaction parallels a worldwide disgust with the political establishment, he says, citing Donald Trump’s election in the United States.

Delicate balance for court 

The battle between the Senate president and the Supreme Court infuriated the nation last week. After being indicted by the Supreme Court on charges that a construction company was paying for Calheiros’s child support from an extramarital affair, a single judge ordered his removal from office. But Calheiros defied the order, causing the full Supreme Court to put it to a vote. The court voted to keep him in his position. 

“The overall perception was that Renan [Calheiros] got away,” says Professor Cukier. “The Supreme Court was left with a very complicated choice – either fulfill the wishes of the masses [and remove him from power], or do their best to guarantee minimal institutional instability,” he says.

Then on Monday, Brazil’s prosecutor general announced Calheiros would be indicted in Car Wash, a separate charge.

Car Wash has become a take-no-prisoners investigation, dismantling a decades-old kickback scheme between the state-owned oil company, Petrobras, and construction giants. The investigation has resulted in the imprisonment of some of the nation’s wealthiest businessmen and high-ranking politicians.

Calheiros and a federal deputy from his party were accused of corruption and laundering $240,000, which originated from Petrobras, in exchange for political support to maintain a company director in his post.

Car Wash has prompted pushback from lawmakers in the form of political maneuvers, crafting legislation to undermine prosecutors’ and judges’ authority. The conflict between sectors of government have strained checks and balances and highlighted Brazil’s weakening institutions.

The build-up of charges against Calheiros comes at a politically charged moment. On Tuesday, the Senate passed controversial austerity measures, known at PEC-55, which will cap government spending for 20 years. The legislation is key for President Michel Temer, who took power six months ago when Dilma Rousseff was impeached. Without Calheiros at the helm, the legislation could have been derailed.

Calheiros denies the allegations brought against him in Car Wash and lashed out at the prosecutor general on Tuesday morning, saying he is being “vindictive,” acting “against the Senate,” and that his actions are “purely political.”

Experts say Calheiros is not likely to escape prosecution much longer.

After Tuesday’s vote on the austerity measures, which sparked protests around the nation, “Renan will be gone into oblivion,” says David Fleischer, a professor emeritus at the University of Brasília.

Brazilians in awe 

For Sandro Costa, who has participated in anticorruption protests over the past two years, the political maneuvers are indeed worrying for the success of the investigation. Nevertheless, the sight of top politicians and wealthy businessmen in jail was unthinkable until recently.

“I’m left with my mouth wide open,” says Mr. Costa, an engineer in Rio de Janeiro. “I never, ever imagined I would see something like this. This means Brazil is on its way to being a better country, even if it’s still in the long term.”

“What has happened with Car Wash is irreversible,” says Cukier, the political scientist in São Paulo. “Politicians will be afraid to pull anything corrupt or illegal people they know the federal police will be after them.”

Operation Car Wash and Brazil’s political crisis have a long road ahead. The nation awaits plea bargains from executives of the construction company at the center of the investigations, Odebrecht. On Monday, details of one of the 77 plea bargains were leaked to the press. In exchange for a lesser sentence, a company official cited more than 50 politicians in his deposition of criminal activity at Oderbrecht. This includes President Temer, who was listed for soliciting $3 million in illegal campaign donations. [Editor's note: This paragraph was corrected to show the criminal activity was linked to Oderbrecht.]

Many observers have already started to speculate about how the corruption investigations will affect the 2018 elections. Strong support from the public for the investigation has come hand-in-hand with an ever-growing rejection of the political establishment.

“The public is so disillusioned about everything, they might fall for crazy speeches and crazy narratives,” Cukier says. “Brazil can be victim to this worldwide trend [of political rejection], but our institutions don’t have the ability to absorb the shock. Nothing is impossible, it’s totally unpredictable.”

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