RIO DE JANEIRO: One by one, Brazilian lawmakers rise on national television, faces red with indignation, voices shaking, to demand impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff.
The problem with this righteous scene playing out in Brazil throughout this weekend? An astonishing number of those deputies are themselves accused of crimes.
In Brazil’s often surreal politics, the oddest – and most ignored – aspect is that many of the politicians baying for Rousseff’s head should be in as much trouble as she is, or worst.
Rousseff faces impeachment on charges that she illegally used creative accounting to mask government shortfalls during her 2014 reelection. She does not deny this and defends herself saying that previous governments used the same tricks, a mitigating factor that numerous legal experts consider legitimate.
Now consider Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of the lower house of Congress and architect of the impeachment process plunging Brazil into political war.
He has been charged with taking millions of dollars in bribes linked to a massive embezzlement cartel centered on state oil company Petrobras. The Bible-quoting wheeler and dealer allegedly hid the money in Switzerland.
Far from being damaged, Cunha denies the charges and continues to wield huge power, fending off a congressional ethics committee where he is accused of lying about the Swiss accounts. On Sunday, he will oversee the lower house vote on whether to send Rousseff’s impeachment case to the Senate.
Meanwhile, Michel Temer – the vice president who turned on Rousseff and would become interim president if the Senate opens a trial – is alleged to have been involved in illegal ethanol dealings.
Temer and Cunha are the two most senior politicians in the country after the president.
The next in line, Senate president Renan Calheiros, also faces corruption allegations, including tax dodging and having a lobbyist pay maintenance to his former lover with whom he’d fathered a child.
Peek further down the power pyramid and the stench of corruption is overwhelming.
The NGO Transparencia Brasil says that 58.1 percent of the 513 deputies in the lower house headed by Cunha face or have faced criminal charges, which include corruption but also murder and rape.
In the run-up to Sunday’s vote a lower house committee first had to analyze Rousseff’s case, coming down heavily on the side of impeachment. Of those 65 deputies, 36 face criminal charges or have already been condemned, Transparencia Brasil reported.
And in the Senate, where Rousseff could end up making a final stand, the numbers are even more damning: no less than 60 percent of the 81 senators face or faced charges.
The unedifying spectacle of scandal-tainted politicians working to oust Rousseff recently left one Supreme Court judge gasping.
Describing seeing Cunha, Temer and others from the heavyweight PMDB party after announcing they would turn on their former ally Rousseff and seek her impeachment, Justice Luis Roberto Barroso said:
“My God in heaven! This our alternative government?”
Friends in high places
One reason that politicians appear so invulnerable is that their cases are judged in the Supreme Court. Although broadly respected, the top court is notoriously slow, allowing the accused to spin cases out.
Another reason is the sheer breadth and depth of corruption, as revealed in the probe, dubbed Operation Car Wash, that burst open the Petrobras embezzlement scheme.
In a country with that much corruption – Transparency International ranks Brazil 76th, just ahead of Burkina Faso and India – the corrupt might be anywhere.
This week police arrested a senator, Gim Argello, on charges of taking at least $1.5 million in bribes from construction companies when he was a senior member of a committee fighting corruption. His job, allegedly, was to make sure that the giant construction firms didn’t face tough questions.
Dozens of other high-ranking politicians and executives have been snared in the Petrobras probe, including two former presidents.
One is Rousseff’s close ally and mentor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is accused of taking bribes from construction companies that were given sweetheart details effectively robbing Petrobras.
A second is Fernando Collor de Mello, who resigned in disgrace in 1992 and returned to politics as a senator. When police raided his house in July last year, they confiscated a Ferrari, a Porsche and Lamborghini.
One famous Brazilian name that has not come up yet on any rap sheet? Dilma Rousseff.
“Here we have a person who has no investigation, no complaint, no indictment in any court and we find among those who will judge her in Congress people who have been accused, are under investigation and have cases pending,” said Luis Almagro, the head of the Organization of American States.
After meeting Rousseff in Brasilia, Almagro told reporters that the charges against her are political, “and that does not merit an impeachment process.”
Brazil “has always been an example of democracy in the Hemisphere, and we all need for it to continue to be so,” the Uruguayan diplomat said.