Early Reflections on Brazil’s Odebrecht Documents

Yesterday, materials from Brazil’s massive construction company Odebrecht leaked [update: they were released publicly, not leaked]. This matters, as Odebrecht is at the heart of the corruption scandal that is currently affecting Brazil, with the company accused of using bribes to peddle influence among Brazil’s political class. The CEO, Marcelo Odebrecht, was arrested last year and sentenced to 19 years in jail a couple of weeks ago. He has now promised to work with investigators to shed light on the corruption practices/beneficiaries of his company’s bribery schemes. Somehow, an Odebrecht list leaked; the list allegedly points to payments to individuals, with over 200 politicians’ names at the municipal, state, and federal levels on the list. While Judge Sergio Moro (yes, that one) has since demanded that the document be sealed. [Update: Given all that Moro had allowed to remain public after it leaked, it initially seemed odd that this would be the one leaked item he wanted sealed; now that it’s clear that it was made public, and he still wants it sealed, which makes the judiciary look even less like an impartial interpreter of law.]  Nonetheless, it remains out there on the internet, and I had a chance last night to spend some time going through it. Some quick thoughts:

  • Over 200 politicians on the list, but there are two notable absences: neither current president Dilma Rousseff nor former president Lula da Silva is on there. That does not mean they’re not connected to schemes/corruption in other areas, but their absence there is telling.
  • Equally telling is who is on the list: José Serra, Aécio Neves, and Geraldo Alckmin – figureheads and leaders of both the PSDB and the charge to have the PT removed from the presidency – are all on there. Indeed, with their names being included, that means that the center-right PSDB’s last four presidential candidates (Serra in 2002; Alckmin in 2006; Serra again in 2010; and Neves in 2014) are all implicated in this document.
  • Also on the list, unsurprisingly: Both Eduardo Cunha and Renan Calheiros (of the PMDB). Of course, Cunha, as President of the Chamber of Deputies, is leading the charge for Dilma’s impeachment even while embroiled in a massive corruption scandal of his own that involves millions in overseas banks and actual evidence and charges (unlike the current case against Dilma). And Calheiros, who already had to resign from the Senate in 2007 over corruption allegations (but who, thanks to a climate of impunity, is back as President of the Senate now), is fourth in line to the presidential succession after Vice President Michel Temer and Cunha.
  • The PSDB, PMDB, and PT all figure prominently on the list, but they’re not alone. Indeed, twenty-four political parties have individuals who are mentioned on the list, revealing that, while the PT is far from innocent here – high-ranking party members Lindberg Farias is included, among others – yet it is also far from being isolated in its guilt/responsibility.
  • Relatedly, and interestingly, Odebrecht clearly did not operate along any particular partisan lines. If a politician could help Odebrecht (and vice versa), then they apparently at least attempted to work with that politician regardless of political party affiliation or ideology.
  • Given the frequency with which PSDB party members appear alongside the PT politicians they are targeting, it’s becoming even clearer that their claims that Dilma must step down/be removed because of corruption are disingenuous at best.
  • Also fascinating are the numbers of politicians at the level of municipal government (city council members, mayors) and state government (governors) – including Rio de Janeiro mayor Eduardo Paes, governor Luiz Fernando Pezão, and former governor Sérgio Cabral, all of the PMDB. (And of course, Paes and Pezão are two of the key figures who were responsible in trying to prepare Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics this summer, while Cabral played a key role in Rio getting awarded the Olympics in the first place.)  That it is at all levels of government just further illuminates just how systemic the system of bribery, kickbacks, and corruption has become.
  • That the list includes names of people across parties and across levels of government only further reinforces the reality that claims that this is just a PT problem are what they have always been: naked partisanship – an attempt by the former “owners of power” to discredit and remove the party that at least reached out to and offered real social and material gains to Brazil’s masses between 2002 and at least 2014.
  • Other notable names on the list include: José Sarney (PMDB), president from 1985-1989 and senator from 1971-1985 and 1991-2015; Roseanna Sarney (PMDB) former senator and governor, and daughter of José Sarney; Antonio Carlos Magalhães Neto (the right-wing Democratic Party), former Congressman and mayor from Bahia; Cesar Maia (Democratic Party), ex-mayor of Rio de Janeiro; Alfredo Sirkis, a former Congressional Deputy from the Partido Verde (and a student leader who opposed the dictatorship of 1964-1985); Fernando Haddad (PT), former Minister of Education and current Mayor of São Paulo; Paulo Abi-Ackel (PSDB), congressman from Minas Gerais, whose father, Ibrahim, was the Minister of Justice for João Figueiredo, the last president of the military dictatorship; Demóstenes Torres (ex-Democratic Party), who was expelled from the Senate in 2012 over allegations of illicit enrichment; and the late Eduardo Campos (Partido Socialista Brasileiro), who campaigned for President in 2014 before dying in a plane crash while campaigning, among other names on the list.
  • And finally, all of the above offers a powerful reminder of the reality that impeaching Dilma will do nothing to actually address the bigger problem at the heart of the current political crisis.

I hope to have more time to go through the list in greater detail, but those are some early reflections. The biggest takeaway here is that the issue of corruption is not a phantom in Brazil, but it absolutely is not a PT-only problem either. This is not an apologia for the PT – far from it – but a realistic understanding of the systemic degree of this scandal is important to understand. Perversely enough, by seeing just how deeply this runs, Brazil may finally be equipped to root out and thoroughly address the causes (and persons) behind these issues. Indeed, that the document leaked and remains online is one of the greater moments of transparency yet in the current investigation, and sent numerous politicians yesterday flying to issue statements about how the allegations are untrue, that they weren’t involved, etc. etc. etc. Perhaps this will lead to greater governmental transparency and less corruption; perhaps not. Time will tell. Either way, the next few weeks/months are going to be very interesting, and quite a political and social crucible for Brazil and Brazilians.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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