South America has been a special part of my life for four decades. I have lived many years in Brasil and Peru. I am married to an incredible lady from Argentina. I want to share South America with you.
The police telephone wire recording that may well cost Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff her job lasts only 30 seconds.
“Hello?” It is the gruff voice of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, her predecessor. He is put on hold while a breezy bossa nova tune plays. Then Ms Rousseff speaks: Mr Lula da Silva will receive a document approving his appointment as a minister — to be “used only if necessary, OK?” “Thanks, dear,” he replies.
For the opposition, the conversation is evidence that Ms Rousseff, Brazil’s first female leader — a former Marxist guerrilla who has governed Latin America’s largest country for more than five years — was trying to prevent the possibility of police arresting her mentor for corruption. The lower court that released the recording last month is presiding over a wide-ranging investigation into graft at Petrobras, the national oil company, with losses to the state estimated at up to $12bn. Under Brazilian law, a cabinet position would protect Mr Lula da Silva from its jurisdiction.
The recording sparked protests in 15 cities. It has also emboldened a congressional impeachment campaign against the president, culminating this week with her main coalition partner leaving the government. With ministers already resigning from her government, Ms Rousseff looks increasingly isolated. She is in grave danger as early as this month of becoming the second president in a generation to be ousted. The pretext is alleged fiddling of the public accounts to disguise a budget deficit, which she denies. But it is the vast corruption at Petrobras and a sinking economy that have truly outraged public opinion.
In a year when Brazil hosts South America’s first Olympics and contends with the spread of the Zika virus, suspected to have affected hundreds of babies in the past year, this is a test of her brittle management style. In the balance is also Brazil’s future as a globally important economy after more than a decade of leftist government under the Workers’ party. The country, one of the world’s most unequal, has rarely been more polarised between left and right, rich and poor.
“A climate of hate has been established on the streets of this country,” Mr Lula da Silva recently told foreign journalists. “I have never seen a woman subjected to as much aggression as Dilma.”
Impeachment would be an ignominious end to one of Brazil’s most extraordinary political careers. Dilma Vana Rousseff was born in 1947 in the southeastern city of Belo Horizonte, capital of the country’s mining state, to a Brazilian teacher and a Bulgarian-born communist lawyer. At 16 she began fighting an impending military junta. She met her husband (now ex), lawyer Carlos Franklin Paixão de Araújo, the father of her only child, before she was imprisoned in 1970 by the rightwing dictatorship. A photo from the era shows a defiant youth seated before a panel of judges, their faces concealed by their hands. She had been tortured and was haemorrhaging from her uterus. These years, she said this week, taught her never to give up.
Brazil gripped by Lula recordings
After Brazil returned to democracy in the 1980s, Ms Rousseff worked as a technocrat in state government before Mr Lula da Silva made her energy minister then chief of staff during his two terms between 2003 and 2010. During this time, she was also head of Petrobras, with ruling coalition politicians accused of using the company to enrich themselves and their election campaigns.
Having lost most of his other loyal lieutenants to earlier corruption scandals, he picked Ms Rousseff as his successor, tasking her with pursuing his “project” of lifting millions from poverty through a consumption-driven economic model. She won easily in 2010.
She is a micromanager and a tough boss, according to those who have worked with her, bringing unprepared ministers to tears. She is also prone to gaffes and non-sequiturs. “Today I am paying tribute to manioc [a root vegetable]. I think it’s one of the greatest achievements of Brazil,” she announced in one speech, bewildering a nation that is home to one of the world’s most successful aviation industries.
Her troubles grow as the economy heads for its worst recession in more than a century
She can also be charming. “Let me come and sit down there with you,” she said during one media briefing, descending from the podium. “I’ve been nursing my grandchild over the weekend and my back’s a bit sore.” Occasionally, she has tried to soften her image. Ahead of the 2014 general election, she released a video of herself cooking pasta at home in her official residence.
But her troubles are being exacerbated by an economy headed for its worst recession in more than a century and by the Petrobras scandal. She tried to counter the end of the commodities supercycle with traditional leftist Latin American remedies, such as price controls and state credit, but merely ended up killing investors’ animal spirits.
Her impeachment is not a certainty. She needs only slightly more than a third of the lower house of congress to block the motion; and it is not yet clear whether she can convince smaller parties to join a revamped coalition. But, if her opponents succeed, she may leave Brazilians at least one enduring positive legacy: the growing independence of its investigative institutions.
Through the Petrobras investigation, which she has allowed to proceed mostly unhindered, these groups have imploded a centuries-old culture of impunity for the rich and powerful. It is an achievement of which even the angry young student in the black-and-white photo would probably approve.
The writer is the FT’s Brazil bureau chief
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