Authorities in Brazil and Colombia have announced they will investigate former presidents for very different actions during their administrations. In Brazil, former president Luis Inácio “Lula” da Silva (2003-2011) may face investigations into how much he knew about the Mensalão scandal that recently led to the conviction of several politicians, including his former chief of staff José Dirceu, for corruption. The Mensalão, or “big monthly [payment]” scandal, involved politicians and the PT using public spending to pay politicians to vote for legislation between 2003 and 2005, based on the coalition-style politics that define Brazil’s legislature. [Social scientists debate whether or not Brazil’s system of “presidential parliamentarism” can exist in theory or in practice, and the Mensalão became one of the focal points in debating the merits or demerits of presidential parliamentarism.] Though Lula was never implicated in the scandal, given that it reached the upper levels of his administration, it appears investigators are ready to open an investigation. Complicating the picture, many of the programs that were passed in the first years of his administration (at the height of the Mensalao) have had a very positive impact on reducing social and economic inequalities in Brazil and strengthening the economy.
Meanwhile, on an even more serious note, former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) is finally facing an investigation into his ties to paramilitary groups that committed human rights violations and were tied to drug trafficking while serving as governor of Antioquia in the mid-1990s. Though Uribe alleged that the investigations are “criminal vengeance” from drug-traffickers in jail, it’s not clear how prisoners would have direct ties to investigators. This is not the first time Uribe has been tied to right-wing paramilitary groups; several high-ranking politicians and officials were arrested and convicted for their connections to groups like the AUC [United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia], including Uribe’s own cousin, even while Uribe insisted he never had contact with or connections to paramilitaries. The fact that some of his top officials had such ties, combined with the fact there is enough evidence to his own connections to at least prompt an investigation, provides yet another indicator of his government’s ties to human rights violations in Colombia.
And as an addendum, both of these investigations have the potential to strengthen transparency, democracy, and human rights. To what degree democratic institutions are strengthened in the wake of these investigations will depend largely on their outcomes; even so, the fact that presidents cannot act with impunity in politics or human rights without facing the potential of public investigations down the road is part of a notable transformation in the last thirty years or so, and provides an encouraging sign for Latin American politics in the 21st century.