Back in March 2014, when the Petrobras scandal was just getting started, some of President Dilma Rousseff’s top aides saw a golden opportunity to kill the investigation – or at least badly wound it.
Márcio Anselmo, the Federal Police deputy in charge of the probe, had given an interview (which can be seen here) to Jornal Nacional, Brazil’s most-watched news program. On-camera and on-the-record, Anselmo and others laid out the main points of the case, which would soon become notorious: A former Petrobras board member who had accepted a Land Rover as a bribe, the money launderer whose plea-bargain testimony would prove key, and the sordid connections with some of the country’s biggest construction companies.
Everyone in Brasília knew the stakes were huge. The election was just six months away, and Rousseff was facing a tight race. But some ministers were convinced the TV interview was actually a blessing in disguise. They believed Anselmo had broken a dictatorship-era statute that, they argued, prohibited Federal Police officials from discussing cases in progress with the media. Fire him, they urged Rousseff. Fire him now and attack the investigators for using the media to selectively leak information damaging to the government.
To their utter astonishment, Rousseff refused. “I’ll never do that,” she replied dismissively, according to someone who was in the room. “I’m not afraid of this investigation. It has nothing to do with me!”
I covered Rousseff closely for five years as a reporter, and if there’s a more “Dilma” anecdote out there, I don’t know it. This one has it all: her blustery arrogance, her refusal to listen to even her closest aides, and her apparent inability to understand just how much trouble she was in, right to the very end. But it also has what may prove to be Rousseff’s saving grace in the annals of Brazilian history: her refusal, for the most part, to stand in the way of corruption investigations at Petrobras and elsewhere, even when it became clear they would contribute to her demise.
Today, Brazil’s Congress will probably vote to remove Rousseff from office, almost certainly for good. She will leave under disputed circumstances, with the corruption scandals as the clear subtext, though not the official cause, for her impeachment. She will depart with a near-single-digit approval rating, primary responsibility for Brazil’s worst recession in at least 80 years, and very few genuine friends at home or abroad. And yet, Rousseff also appears to deserve some credit for the main achievement of this otherwise horrid decade in Brazil: the consolidation of rule of law under its young democracy, and the notion that the corrupt will be investigated, convicted and jailed, no matter how powerful they may be.
Acknowledging Rousseff’s role in this is controversial, in part because her behavior here, too, was not impeccable. Indeed, she may soon face charges for obstruction of justice for appointing her mentor and predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, as a minister in her final days in government – an act that was almost certainly designed to make Lula less susceptible to imprisonment, since ministers enjoy special legal protections. Time may tell, but Lula’s appointment seemed to me less an attempt to hinder the investigation itself, and more like an act of personal loyalty and realpolitik, based on the belief that only “The Man” (as President Obama surely regrets describing him) had the negotiating prowess to save her government from its death throes.
The truth is that, starting in early 2014, Rousseff had numerous opportunities to hinder, or at least delay, the investigation of Petrobras and other high-profile cases. The argument against Anselmo, the Federal Police deputy, seems in retrospect to be flimsy at best – but in any case Rousseff let the moment pass, and Anselmo remains in the post today. Alternatively, Rousseff could have declined in 2015 to reappoint the attorney general, Rodrigo Janot, who had already shown he would go along with the so-called Lava Jato probe. She not only retained Janot, but publicly reaffirmed his “autonomy” – a mandate he would soon seize upon by requesting charges against Lula and an investigation of Rousseff herself. Rousseff also could have put someone less apt to cooperate with prosecutors in charge of the Federal Police, or actively pressed her allies on the Supreme Court to strip Curitiba-based Judge Sergio Moro of the Petrobras case on the argument that judges in Rio de Janeiro, where the company is based, were better-suited to hear the case. Finally, she could have started attacking Moro as biased much earlier and more aggressively than she ultimately did – which would have been risky, but could have put Moro on the defensive and ultimately limited the scope of his investigation.
All along, Rousseff had senior figures within the Workers’ Party whispering in her ear, telling her to do all of these things. But instead, as recently as January of this year, she was publicly celebrating Lava Jato as a necessary purge of practices that had existed in Brazil for decades, if not centuries. “I have to emphasize the fact that Brazil needs this investigation,” she told Folha de S.Paulo, limiting her criticism to procedural “points outside the curve,” such as a supposed reliance on hearsay in plea bargains. Indeed, Rousseff didn’t begin to vilify the investigation in earnest until a few weeks ago, when Moro released wiretapped conversations between her and Lula. And there… well, let’s say she may have had a point.
There are those who will never give Rousseff any credit for letting Brazil’s judiciary do their jobs. Well of course she did, they say. What choice did she have? OK. But ask yourself the following: Would leaders elsewhere in Latin America have done the same? Let’s leave Venezuela out of this, for the sake of argument. What about recent governments in Argentina? Or Mexico? What about Brazil’s fellow BRICS? For that matter, what can we expect from the incoming Michel Temer government in Brazil? One irony of Rousseff’s impeachment is that it has brought increased fears of political interference in the Petrobras investigation. Temer has said there’s nothing to fear, but prosecutors in Curitiba and Brasília privately say they are preparing for setbacks. Unbelievable as it sounds, they may end up missing Rousseff most of all.
So, the final question: Why did she do it?
Why did Rousseff stand by as her government fell apart?
Some of the explanation probably lies in her origin story. Not the one we’ve all heard about – the Dilma Rousseff of her early twenties, the guerrilla who endured jail and torture, the “Braveheart” of her campaign jingles. No, I’m talking about Dilma Rousseff the adult, after her release from prison in 1973, the one who undertook a much less glamorous life as an economist and public servant. This is the bespectacled energy policy wonk who just 20 years ago was editing an obscure magazine called Economic Indicators, and never showed any interest in politics or higher office. This Rousseff’s only passion was for numbers – performance targets, spreadsheets, the arcane day-to-day business of government.
Even after Lula ran out of other options and plucked her from relative obscurity to be his chief of staff and ultimately his successor, even after the plastic surgery and makeover that preceded Rousseff’s run for president – her first campaign of any kind – she still had no time for anything but numbers. Unfortunately for Rousseff, this precluded her from making any friends, in Congress or elsewhere, who might have protected her toward the end. But it also made her intolerant of corruption – not for moral reasons perhaps, but because it might keep the numbers in the G column on Excel from lining up correctly. As such, from the very beginning of Rousseff’s government, when a minister or other aide was accused of graft or fraud, she made it clear that person was expected to resign. Six ministers left under such circumstances during her first year in office alone. This was a radical departure from the Lula years, and it contributed to a new culture that ultimately resulted in Lava Jato.
Of course, there are other, much less flattering explanations. Indeed, it’s clear that Rousseff, isolated and politically tone-deaf, failed until it was too late to fully grasp the threat to her own survival. Her choice of words when confronted over Anselmo in early 2014 – “It has nothing to do with me!” – was revealing. The Rousseff-as-earnest-technocrat theory also has a major hole in it: If she was so focused on numbers, then how did she miss the sheer scale of the robbery at Petrobras, especially during the years she was energy minister and the chair of the company’s board?
To me, the answer probably lies in the simplest, most damning criticism of Rousseff: She just wasn’t that good. Mediocre to the end, and overwhelmed by a position she was never qualified to hold, she consistently failed to ask the right questions of her aides or her party. She also harbored antiquated economic philosophies, believed she could dictate the day-to-day business of the country (including parts of the private sector) by personal fiat, and alienated most people she worked with through her often boorish, insulting behavior. Her presidency will go down as a case study in why leadership matters – why a democracy as big and complex as Brazil cannot simply be handed over to anyone and put on “automatic pilot.”
But yes, Rousseff had virtues, too. Even her enemies concede she was personally honest, and stole nothing for herself. In a region where many leaders spend their waking hours scheming about how to make themselves or their friends richer, or exact revenge on their enemies, Rousseff seemed genuinely focused on tackling Brazil’s still-legendary poverty and inequality. And in the end, any desire she had to stay in office or protect her party seems to have been outweighed by a long-term concern for Brazil and the need to build functioning institutions. That, I think, should count for something.
Winter is editor-in-chief of AQ.