A Scandal of Olympic-Sized Proportions

By Adithya Sivakumar


As the world closely watches chaos unfold in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, another nation in the bottom half of the hemispheres is grappling with crises involving its elected officials: Brazil. Slated to host the Summer Olympics later this year, Brazil has already been swamped with concerns about the environment for visitors, especially with the prevalence of the Zika virus. However, a new problem of political instability could lead to massive negative effects on the Brazilian economy and major events such as the Olympics.

The current president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, was elected in 2011 to oversee a booming economy after the popular presidency of her mentor, Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva (Lula).  As the first female president of the Latin American nation,  she  is known as having a hard line on corruption, even removing six of her own cabinet members due to graft allegations. Her effective management of the government has won her praise from various sectors of the public.

Her honeymoon stage with the public’s opinion, however, began to see its end in late 2014,  when details of a massive corruption scandal involving Brazil’s state-owned energy company, Petrobas, were released. The premise of the scandal was that government officials enjoyed massive kickbacks from the energy company in exchange for contracts, a process that largely happened in Rousseff’s oversight of the company as head of board of directors. At first, it appeared Rousseff was safe from any real attempt at impeachment, as the Senate found her to be clear of benefiting personally from any of the aforementioned exchanges.

In early 2015, the scandal became even worse, engulfing politicians across party lines and those in Rousseff’s inner circle, which exacerbated the force against the President who was also facing high unemployment rates and a stagnant economy. Demonstrations ranging in the millions have been organized to protest the government, and Rousseff’s approval rating has dropped to abysmal levels. More arrests of senior figures began to cause Rousseff’s walls around her to slowly collapse, and the threat of impeachment was slowly becoming more viable which each new development in the scandal and products of the economic recession.

Then, after months of back-and–forth discussion, impeachment proceedings finally began against Rousseff in late 2015, and not even due directly to the Petrobas scandal; in fact, she was indicted based on possibly doctoring accounting to hide the extent of deficit in her reelection campaign. Additionally, the impeachment was approved by the speaker of the lower house, who himself was facing corruption charges from the Petrobas scandal, which may have given him political impetus to impeach Rousseff or fall just like countless politicians around him.

Interestingly, dissent against Rousseff mainly stems from the middle class, white, and privileged segments of society, not necessarily the poorer, less white segments. This divide may stem from the fact that Rousseff and her left-wing party pushed for relief for poorer Brazilians, which may have caused a loyalty among these segments toward Rousseff’s party. Nevertheless, the segments on the street have played a large role in pressuring lawmakers to do something about Rousseff, indicating the power these privileged groups hold in Brazilian elections.

Unfortunately for Rousseff, even with this group’s backing, her position in the government hit a new low in the past week. The earlier impeachment charges had died out, indicating that Rousseff could escape the imminent threat of dismissal. However, once Rousseff’s mentor and predecessor Lula was put under investigation for corruption, alarm bells went off for the Brazilian public who knew the two worked in conjunction. Their fears appeared to be realized when, in a surprise appointment, Rousseff appointed Lula to the chief of staff position in her cabinet. Subsequently, a judge heading the Petrobas scandal investigation released a phone call between Lula and Rousseff that implies that the appointment was to put Lula out of prosecutors’ reach; this is due to the stipulation that cabinet members can only be tried by the Supreme Court, not prosecutors like those heading the Petrobas scandal investigation. After the release of these calls, many Brazilians once again took to the streets, demanding Rousseff’s ouster. Impeachment proceedings were opened again, and a Supreme Court judge blocked Lula’s appointment due to the contents of the phone call. At this juncture, Rousseff has walked into what appears an inevitable demise. Her ruling coalition does not appear to be able to defeat a move for impeachment in the lower house, which would lead to near-certain conviction in the senate.

Despite the political upheaval that is likely to come about due to these developments, Brazil hosts a whole barrage of other issues, especially the new onset of the Zika virus. Many towns are unable to control the virus due to the lack of funding for medicine and prevention, a condition that is widely blamed on the recession. And with the eyes of the world already upon Brazil due to the Summer Olympics, it appears that without a change in governmental policy, instability will be the word of the year in Latin America’s most populous nation.


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