Curtain Raiser

A Reboot for Rousseff & Brazil, Colltalers

​If you’re the president, second terms in office are tricky. Some, like President Obama after his party’s crushing midterm defeat, reverse the expectations and instead of resigning to a lame duck role, go on the offensive, and grasp, may actually get something done.
Such prospect seems at least distant at the moment for Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. Since her bare-knuckled win in October, she’s been battered daily by, yes, the opposition, but also, former allies in her own PT party, media pundits, a middle class sold on conservative ideals, assorted snipers from various political allegiances, even by traditional pillars of any government: public and private companies.
On top of it, Dilma, as she’s known in Brazil, is also facing an economic retraction, contrasting sharply from the eight years of growth of her predecessor and mentor, Inácio Lula da Silva, and, grasp again, a severe and unprecedented drought in Brazil.
Worse, rain shortages gripping São Paulo, South America’s largest city and capital of Brazil’s most powerful state, may naturally divert resources allocated by the new Congress inaugurated in Brasília yesterday. A congress where PT, the Workers’ Party, finds itself no longer in control may be fertile ground to sink its teeth on the biggest crisis of the Rousseff administration: the Petrobras scandal.
It’s arguable whether the drought could’ve been prevented. But unlike those pointing to its possible environmental and pollution causes, all but ignored by the national media, long before Dilma’s first term, allegations of corruption against her party were out and quite loud.
For the record, PT is not alone in this crisis. The state-run oil giant has been often called a cash cow for a succession of administrations even before the fall of the military dictatorship in 1985. And accordingly, it’s been at least part of a number of political schemes before.
The current downfall, nicknamed the Car Wash Operation, started as quaint as the previous big scandal of Brazilian politics, the Mensalão, a graft corruption scheme that quickly mushroomed into a gargantuan sore on Lula’s record. Even if it didn’t knocked out the president, it landed several of his close allies in jail, and considerably less charismatic Dilma has all reasons to be very weary about it.
It exploded in March of last year, when an estimated $1.6 billion kickback scheme, from Petrobras executives skimming from the company’s profits to politicians in exchange for contracts, was uncovered by the Brazilian Feds, and it only went downhill from there.
The arrest of a ‘doleiro,’ an informal money exchanger, caught red handed, ignited the crisis. Soon, a former supply director at the company was also arrested, revealing that the scheme benefited PT, PMDB, and PP, three parties that form the government coalition, and a number of executives of big Brazilian corporations that do business with Petrobras, such as Camargo Corrêa and Odebrecht.
There are now five separate Federal Police inquiries into the dealings that drove Petrobras, once poised to join the world’s top three oil companies, to lose much of its market cap and credibility. In fact, the crisis has generated so much fallout, which will likely lead to indictments and prosecution by Brazil’s Public Ministry, that even its inner workings and mismanagement have been exposed.
It was flagrant at the $1 billion 2006 acquisition of the Pasadena refinery in Houston, which had been sold by merely $50 million only two years before. Such blatant lack of due diligence is crucial to Dilma, who was part of Petrobras’ board of directors at the time.
Unlike Lula, she can count on only a few of her former political allies, and just like him, may depend a bit too much on an economic recovery that seems remote, at least for now. In other words, she may not be as lucky as her predecessor was, landing on her feet.
Media coverage has been pointing relentlessly to her apparent ‘deer in the headlights’ reaction to the escalation of the scandal, and daily highlights her perceived weaknesses and lack of popular support. It also helps (them, not her) that many of the media corporations are either aligned with chief opposition party PSDB, or belong to the radical religious right, none of which supported her reelection.
So, since it’s been hard to find shoulders to cry on lately, perhaps Dilma should take a page from President Obama’s playbook, and soldier on with reforms that could revitalize the economy, boost investments, and reverse Brazil’s trade deficit, all in her agenda.
Problem is that fiscal overhauls, albeit necessary in Brazil, are hardly the stuff that fires citizens’ imagination, even though there have been plenty of street rallies demanding changes in the legislature and governance of the country, which of course amount to the same.
But more than a better PR, Dilma has to take the lead in issues that seem appallingly under-covered by the media, and everywhere else but in Brazil, are deemed important enough to mobilize people. For instance, the environment, climate change, and the Amazon.
For anyone not biased by the immediate view of Brazilian politics, it’s startling that the country that shelters the world’s biggest Rainforest – whose deforestation and landowning archaic and slavery-driven structure may have devastating effects for generations ahead, on millions that live off the forest and billions around the world – doesn’t seem at all concerned about its biggest natural resource.
That was the missing issue during the past presidential campaign, even when a former Environment Minister, Marina Silva, was a contender. Not just environmental protection wasn’t high on her proposed agenda, but she wound up entangled with the religious right and lost precious support among women and several progressive segments of society.
It’s also astonishing that Brazil would choose to invest so much on oil, as its consumption is proved to be at the roots of climate change and environmental destruction worldwide. Even in-depth studies on the likely catastrophic consequences of an accident in Petrobras’s Campos subsalt basin reserves, off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s postcard metropolis of eight million people, are practically non existent.
Such one-track mind approach to energy resources has also impaired hydropower potential use. Taking advantage of Brazil’s huge network of fresh waterways makes a lot of sense; but building megadams, such as Belo Monte in the Amazon region, instead of small to mid-sized ones, most definitely does not. The brutal impact such a dam will have virtually counters any advantages and savings for investing in hydroelectricity.
Back to Dilma, it’s time she realizes that efforts to shield the PT from what appears to be an ingrained sense of entitlement within its rank and file, and an insulated attitude at governance, are wasting her political capital, and instead, start preparing the country for a new era.
Like President Obama, she certainly has little to lose. She’s already at odds with student movements, labor unions, landless workers, and many grassroots groups that used to be the staple of PT’s political support. But she needs to find her mojo fast, and reboot her presidency. Otherwise, her office in Brasilia is bound to become the loneliest place in Brazilian politics. Have a good one and a benção, Iemanjá. WC

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