Regardless of where you are in São Paulo, you can hear them. All across this city of 20 million people, a palpable tension hangs in the air as the sound of discontent reverberates through the sky. It is called a Panelaço, and it is one of the most common forms of protest in Brazil. Whenever the president makes a speech, the people react. They open their doors and windows, bang pots and pans together, honk their horns, and flicker their lights on and off. It is quite a spectacle to behold, and it is representative of the massive frustration that tens of millions of Brazilians feel towards their government.
To provide some context, these past few days have seen important developments in the corruption scandal that is rocking Brazil’s government to its foundations. Earlier this week, Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, appointed Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as her Chief of State. In response, millions of Brazilians all across the country took to the streets in protest. Why, you may be wondering, did such a seemingly insignificant act provoke such furor? Well, to answer that question, there are a few things you need to know about Dilma and Lula.
First, it should be noted that Lula was the president of Brazil before Dilma, his close ally, succeeded him. He is widely considered the most influential politician in Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT), of which Dilma is also a member. As a left-wing party, Lula and the PT were immensely popular due to their social welfare policies aimed toward helping the poor. But today, PT’s reputation is tarnished. A corruption scandal involving Petrobras, the state oil company of Brazil, has ripped through the party. Billions of dollars disappeared while Dilma was the chairwoman of the company, and very powerful politicians and businessmen have been swept up in the case. Impeachment proceedings are underway against Dilma, and many of PT’s most influential politicians have been taken down by Sérgio Moro, the federal judge leading the investigation into the scandal.
A few weeks ago, Lula was the latest high-profile politician to be implicated in the scandal. His home was raided; he was taken into custody; and he was questioned by federal police. While he wasn’t charged, frustrated Brazilians have their suspicions. And if they weren’t suspicious before, Dilma just gave them a huge reason to question the integrity of both herself and Lula: her appointment of Lula as her Chief of Staff.
As a cabinet member, the Chief of Staff cannot be prosecuted by a federal court or by Moro. Instead, they are only allowed to be be prosecuted in the Supreme Court. Seems fair enough, except Supreme Court judges are appointed by the president. As a result, judges appointed by Lula and Dilma form a majority in the Supreme Court, making any real punishment unlikely. This is why Brazilians took to the street in anger. What Dilma claimed was simply a move to strengthen her government was interpreted by many of the citizens of Brazil as an attempt to shield Lula from the onslaught of the corruption investigation.
As of now, Lula’s appointment has been suspended by an injunction from a federal judge. Thus he is not shielded from investigation by federal courts. Nevertheless, a long legal battle is likely to ensue as Dilma has said she will appeal the decision. And quite a bit of damage is already done. While protests have been a regular occurrence in Brazil since Dilma’s re-election in 2014, the events of this week have renewed and invigorated them.
This year has been a tumultuous one in Brazil. While the corruption scandal is one of the primary complaints Brazilians have about their government, it has coincided with a sharp economic downturn. Brazil has entered its worst recession in decades; inflation has risen sharply; and its currency has lost half of its value against the dollar. After years of economic growth, things are looking down. So the sound of pots and pans banging together periodically rings through the air.
Perhaps, though, there is a silver lining to the tumult. Brazilians are demanding accountability and change. They are no longer willing to stand idly by as their government steals from them. Corruption is finally being challenged from the inside, and Moro has shown that he is not afraid to go after the big names. The scandal has ripped through the government like a wildfire. So while the next few years will be difficult for Brazil, the country may, like a forest, need a fire to clear the old and make way for the new.