Andres Oppenheimer

The Oppenheimer Report: Brazil, from bad to worse

President Dilma Rousseff speaks about a possible 'impeachment' against her, during a health care conference in December.
President Dilma Rousseff speaks about a possible 'impeachment' against her, during a health care conference in December. AP

Brazil’s political and economic crisis has taken a new turn for the worse with the arrest of the ruling party’s star electoral strategist and presidential confidant Joao Santana, raising the possibility of an impeachment against President Dilma Rousseff or early elections.

If there were questions over whether Rousseff would be touched by the so-called Lava Jato (Car Wash) corruption scandal over the state-run Petrobras oil company’s massive unreported funds to her 2010 and 2014 presidential campaigns, as well as to former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s 2006 campaign, they are dwindling fast. Santana was one of Rousseff’s closest political advisers, if not the closest one.

He surrendered to authorities Tuesday on his return from the Dominican Republic, where he was an adviser for President Danilo Medina’s re-election campaign. Santana has also been a key campaign strategist for the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro.

Brazilian prosecutors are charging Santana and his wife with having received $7.5 million in funds from the giant Odebrecht construction firm, allegedly coming from Petrobras, for his services as Rousseff’s top campaign strategist in the 2014 elections. The funds were deposited in a Swiss bank account, prosecutors said.

Now, with growing chances that Santana or other politicians under investigation in the Car Wash corruption scandal might turn against Rousseff, there are growing questions on whether she will be able to finish her term in 2019.

Only 11 percent of Brazilians give her government a good rating, according to a new CNT/MDA poll. Critics are organizing a nationwide demonstration on March 13 to demand Rousseff’s impeachment. Meantime, Brazil’s economy, which contracted by 3.5 percent last year, is projected to decline by another 3.5 percent in 2016.

What comes next? Here are the most likely scenarios, in no particular order:

▪ First scenario: Brazil’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal determines that there was fraud in the financing of Rousseff’s 2014 election and calls for early elections. Under the constitution, the Tribunal would have to call new presidential elections to be held within 90 days. Both Rousseff and Vice President Michel Temer would be replaced after the election.

Opposition leaders are not unanimously supporting a snap election. Many are happy to see Brazil’s leftist ruling party go down in flames. It’s better to allow the ruling party to destroy itself so that it won’t win an election in the foreseeable future, they say.

▪ Second scenario: Rousseff is impeached by Congress and is succeeded by Temer. Problem is, Temer is also under investigation for possible illicit campaign-funding irregularities. A Temer presidency could prolong the political crisis.

▪ Third scenario: Rousseff survives an impeachment process and stays in power until the end of her term. The current president of the lower House of Congress, Eduardo Cunha, might stop an impeachment process because he himself faces charges in the Car Wash scandal, as are politicians from most major parties.

Guido Nejamkis, editor of the news agency, says Brazil’s situation is so fluid that there’s no serious political analysis that can hold for more than 24 hours.

“Last week, all political analysts agreed that Dilma was recovering and on the way to avoid an impeachment. This week, after Santana’s arrest, it’s the other way around,” he told me.

My opinion: Indeed, this is a political roller coaster that changes every day, but the first scenario — a decision by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to declare the 2014 elections invalid, followed by a snap election — looks increasingly possible. Congress might be unwilling to follow the second scenario, an impeachment route, because it would leave Temer in charge.

The only good news in Brazil’s current drama is that, at the end of the day, Brazil will emerge as a healthier democracy, with perhaps the strongest institutions in Latin America.

Unlike in most other countries in the region, where there are no independent judiciaries that look into corruption when it comes close to sitting presidents, Brazil’s prosecutors have now jailed the president’s top political strategist and more than a dozen top ruling-party politicians.

That’s a sign of a robust system of checks and balances, which is likely to help prevent corruption in the future. In the meantime, cry for Brazil.

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