In Brazil, the real crime is corruption

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff is mired in an impeachment process.
Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff is mired in an impeachment process. Bloomberg

As Brazil embarks on the wrenching process of possibly booting President Dilma Rousseff from office, here’s some advice from a country that knows something about impeachment: Make sure it’s about serious violations of law, not about politics.

There is, we hasten to say, no comparison between the charges or situations involving former President Bill Clinton, who was impeached by the House of Representatives almost 20 years ago but survived a trial in the Senate, and that of Ms. Rousseff.

He was accused of a dalliance with a White House intern and lying under oath about personal matters. She is accused of violating regulations regarding government finances, a budgetary trick designed to conceal a looming deficit.

On the face of it, these are two very different matters — except for the political impetus driving the impeachment process in both instances.

Mr. Clinton had indeed indulged in conduct that is beneath what’s expected of a president. But the Republicans who despised him never managed to convince a skeptical public that they had the country’s best interests at heart — as opposed to their own selfish political interests — or that Mr. Clinton’s actions were a big deal.

Similarly, Ms. Rousseff, by all accounts, did indeed play games with public finances. She wanted to enhance her prospects for reelection in 2014 and borrowed $11 billion from state banks to fund popular social programs designed to help the poor who make up her party’s base.

Whether this deserves impeachment is a question that has divided Brazil’s legal experts and constitutional scholars, and one that Brazil’s senators should ponder seriously as they prepare to vote this week on whether to hold an impeachment trial.

But the real issue behind this ruckus is not tricky bookkeeping by the president, but rather the corruption crisis engulfing Brazil. That is, indeed, a very big deal — an enormous corruption investigation that has snared some 50 politicians and a few business leaders. It’s left the political system in tatters.

Ms. Rousseff, as it happens, is one of the few ranking political leaders who is not accused of graft. But among those who are is Eduardo Cunha, the head of Brazil’s lower house, the man leading the impeachment drive. He’s being investigated for money laundering and taking bribes. Many of the accused, like him, are among the lawmakers deciding the president’s fate.

Then there’s Vice President Michel Temer, a widely disliked political figure who would replace Ms. Rousseff, at least during the Senate trial. Testimony implicates him and close allies in the graft scandal around Petrobras, the national oil company.

For Brazil’s army of dirty politicians, impeaching a weak and unpopular president offers a fortuitous distraction from their own crimes. It provides a scapegoat to quench the public’s thirst for justice, for a big name to take the fall for the country’s woes and shift the focus away from corrupt lawmakers.

Ms. Rousseff may be guilty of mismanaging the economy, but her hands are clean in the graft and corruption scandal.

There are no winners here, as there were none in the Clinton imbroglio.

The only way Brazil can emerge stronger is to continue to rely on democratic institutions to prosecute crime and to strip corrupt lawmakers of power. Ms. Rousseff’s violations, if proven true, are serious, but impeachment is a huge ax to wield for breaking the rules of budget management.

Brazilians should not be distracted. The crime that has brought their country low is thievery in office. Go after the crooks, and let voters decide the fate of incompetent politicians.