The View from Brazil: The Reaction to the Petrobras scandal.

The Background

The last month has been an interesting one for Brazil and its economy, if by interesting we may also imply the institutionalised corruption that has lasted decades which has recently been revealed in the country. For those who are unfamiliar with the situation, Petrobras, the state-owned former jewel of the emerging Brazilian economy, has been embroiled in a ‘kickback for contracts’ scandal after a former manager of the company, Pedro Barusco, told the country’s congress of the ‘institutionalised corruption’ that had been taking place. In fact, the scandal has become so bad that it has now expanded to implicate as many as 57 politicians. 

Now, this has all been fairly widely reported in the past few days, but there was something that struck me about the coverage. The fact is, probably largely for logistical reasons, rarely do we get an accurate picture of public opinion in the country where these momentous events take place, so I am here to change that. I would like to offer a brief breakdown of what Brazilian journalists have been saying of the events, rather than making sweeping claims on what the Brazilian populace feels about its politicians’ corruption, so if you would like to come on that journey with me, then read on, dear reader, read on.

Political Reaction

The first thing to say is that, whilst there has been some support for Dilma Rousseff herself, the general reaction has unsurprisingly been overwhelmingly negative. Ms Rousseff, the current President of the country, headed Petrobras for seven years and, while her name has not been directly linked to the scandal, there have been many questioning her leadership credentials, given that she has overseen both of the major parties involved in the corruption.

Journalists have at times been savage in their criticism of both Ms Rousseff and her government. José Neumanne, writing for the Estadão newspaper, lambasted her for her weak speech following the breaking of the news, saying ‘to ask for patience from a public that has only heard self-indulgent lies from her cannot fail to sound foolish, useless, arrogant and alienated’.

Strong language indeed, but he was not even the most vocal of her critics, the title of which goes to fellow Estadão writer Fernão Lara Mesquita who categorises Ms Rousseff as a farcical, incompetent, ‘supreme-leader’ type with delusions of grandeur. But he does not stop at criticism of Rousseff, going on to lament the whole political system in the country, saying that ‘those who play the political game must always be reminded who is in charge of whom – “Of the people for the people and by the people”‘.

Perhaps most significantly of all he questions the actual democratic nature of his country by claiming that you cannot call Brazil a democracy ‘without putting quotation marks around it’. Mesquita’s  opinion and tone have been echoed by many, and a number of people have called for the impeachment of Ms Rousseff less than 12 months after she won the presidency once more, with mass protests planned for this weekend.

Economic Impact

It is fair to say then, that politically this is one of the worst scandals to have hit South America in decades, but we must also not underestimate the economic impact of these events. It has been a widely held view that Brazil’s economy, which had appeared to be one of the rising stars in the world theatre, has stalled in recent years, and many commenters have linked this to the mistrust caused by the poor management of the state-owned oil company.

Fernanda Guimarães wrote soon after the news broke that ‘the poor governance of Petrobras was responsible for the exit of investors in all of Brazil’s economy’, while Míriam Leitão wrote in O Globo that the Petrobras situation was a tumour, and that ‘the economy is paralysed while Petrobras completes the surgery that it is having to go through’, which has implications for Brazilian business at every level.

Conclusion

Commenters then, have not held back their disgust at the way the news has affected their country, with wide-ranging economic and political criticism emerging as the scandal widens. It will undoubtedly have a huge effect on Brazil for many years to come. It remains to be seen how this will affect Dilma Rousseff’s presidency, or even if she will manage to hold on to her recently re-acquired power as more and more bad news emerges from the woodwork. What is certain, however, is that the words of Míriam Leitão offer the most poignancy here. Yes, it is a horrific abuse of power by those involved, and they should be summarily and swiftly dealt with, but the important thing for Brazil is to get its economy back up and running. To do this it is vital to find where Petrobras went wrong, fix the problem and make sure it never happens again. Easier said than done, of course, but we can only live in hope that this will be a learning experience, and that this will remain the biggest corruption scandal in South America for many, many years to come.

N.B. All Brazilian opinions were originally written in Portuguese, and the translations are my own. This post originally appeared on http://www.tremr.com

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