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Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (center) at the World Social Forum in Belem, Brazil in 2009, with then-presidents Rafael Correa, Hugo Chavez and Fernando Lugo as well as current president Evo Morales.  (Photo: RicardoStuckert/Brazil Presidency)
Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Moral Myopia: Lula No Hero

Not only did Lula end up betraying anti-corruption pledge; he appears to have propagated it.




QUITO --  Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva’s erstwhile forced stay at the Curitiba jail he himself inaugurated has sparked criticism not just among his still important domestic support base, but among commentators in foreign media.

From Brazil emanated a more attractive vision of social democratic modernization than from the maverick, Cuba-inspired gorilla populism of Venezuela that preceded it. Then it however became the country whose role in uncovering the massive corruption that accompanied the commodities-driven boom profoundly impacted legal and political developments in much of the region, including Ecuador. As global financial analysts descend on Washington for the International Monetary Fund/World Bank spring meeting, overseas observers should ponder the deeper implications of the cases of Lula, Dilma Rousseff, Rafael Correa, Cristina Fernández, or even Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, among leaders tainted by corruption allegations. Sadly, many commentators are prone to giving political sensitivities greater weight than rule of law, holding Latin American politicians to a lower standard than they would accept in their home countries.

To a significant extent, the foreign criticism of the jailing of Lula has mirrored that of the domestic sympathizers, tempered by a less visceral defense of his leadership. Lula needn’t have headed to jail given that the Brazilian constitution allows for a person to seek a stay of incarceration until the final instance, argues Der Spiegel. Justice is blind on the political right, considering that most Brazilian senators are also under suspicion of corruption, Le Monde insinuates. Lula had approval ratings around 80 percent after serving two terms and, at least until the doors of the Curitiba prison closed behind him, he was the frontrunner for this year’s election. Above all, according to numerous articles, Lula was the charismatic man who remade Brazil, creating an environment in which both the downtrodden of one of the most unequal countries in the world’s most unequal region and the private sector could benefit, allowing the country to make swift economic and social progress as millions entered the middle class.

This has made him a hero to many, including people who blast other leaders of “21st Century Socialism.”

Giving him the benefit of the doubt as an administrator, whether he could have done this without the ephemeral commodities boom that fueled state oil company Petrobras or the boom in soybean exports is questionable. His successor, Rousseff, soon saw herself having to deal with Brazil’s worst recession ever. Also giving her the benefit of the doubt as a manager, her failure to see the billions of dollars in corruption at Petrobras before she became president should have forced her to step down as president well before her impeachment, questionable as parts of that procedure may have been. Their criticism of the recent Netflix dramatization of the scandals that provoked their downfall called The Mechanism meanwhile reeks of intolerance, as well as of ignorance (unlike Facebook, one can’t “delete” Netflix, as they have called on people to do in protest for the drama series’ alleged distribution of “fake news”).

It is of course reasonable to assume that judiciaries in Latin America are indeed subject to greater political influence than in Western Europe and North America. The question is what to take away from the situation. In Latin America, the cry of “politization” belongs to the standard repertoire of defense whenever a politician must face trial. This has led Lula and others to present themselves as victims. But Lula is no hero. Outside the limelight, Lula remained a steadfast ally of the Cuban dictatorship. Like Correa after him, he rode to victory on a platform of fighting corruption. Not only did he end up betraying this pledge; he appears to have played a role in propagating it. In the case of Ecuador, there are complaints about his lobbying for infrastructure firm Odebrecht, now a byword for corruption, even before the dispute over the San Francisco hydroelectric plant that led first to a diplomatic dispute with Brazil in 2008 because of Correa threatened not to repay a state bank’s loan that financed construction of the troubled facility.

Later, with Odebrecht’s return in triumph, it formed the nucleus of the case that led to the conviction for graft of president Moreno’s running mate and Correa’s second vice president, Jorge Glas.

As Der Spiegel interprets it, from a purely legal standpoint, the habeas corpus argument could have held until the next instance, and the judges who ruled in favor of jailing Lula were under political and even military pressure. Yes, but they did have a choice to vote in favor or against allowing him to remain free, and the vote was close. It’s indeed unfortunate that the presidential campaign has become overshadowed by the ruling. It’s also questionable that, after two terms in office, Lula declined to retire, and, for his Partido dos Trabalhadores, that it failed to produce another capable leader to succeed him. A return to power, much like in Ecuador, would instead imply a threat to the independence of Brazil’s judiciary and a president more concerned with his legal defense than with governance for the poor. Regarding criticism that many other Brazilian politicians are corrupt and even sitting in congress, the jailing of a former president – if found guilty in a fair trial – is an important signal of the judiciary’s ability to carry out its tasks independently.

Also, Rousseff’s main rival, conservative Aécio Neves, is also under investigation. To jail only smaller officials on reduced charges, a method employed in Ecuador before the fall of Glas, delivers a message of impunity regarding corruption, one of the region’s worst scourges. But to heal the political system is not the courts’ job. It can help, but business and society need to react. Italy’s Mani Pulite investigations in the 1990s brought down the whole postwar political system, only for populist Silvio Berlusconi to inherit the spoils.

At the same time, the alternative – protection of self-declared socialist politicians from the courts because of their alleged kindness towards the underprivileged – would condemn countries to remain prone to corrupt, dysfunctional judiciaries, contributing to continued high poverty rates and other abuses.

This commentary originally appeared in Ecuador Weekly Report published by Analytica. Republished with permission. 

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