Public trust in Brazil is at an “all-time low,” according to Thomas Vicino, associate professor of political science, public policy, and urban affairs at Northeastern University.
And it’s easy to see why.
Brazil is embroiled in one of the biggest bribery investigations in history, in which executives at the state-run oil company Petrobras allegedly accepted bribes in exchange for awarding contracts to construction firms at inflated prices.
Just last week, the alleged mastermind behind the scheme—Brazil’s former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva—was found guilty of corruption and money laundering and sentenced to more than nine years in prison.
According to CBS News, the Speaker of the House, the leader of the Senate, one-third of the cabinet, and more than 90 members of Congress have also been implicated in the $2 billion plot. And The New York Times has reported that the country’s sitting president—Michel Temer—“is working furiously to avoid being put on trial.”
“It’s a very sad situation,” said Vicino, who has lived and worked in Brazil for parts of the past 20 years, including a yearlong stint as a U.S. Core Fulbright Scholar in 2014. “People don’t trust the government and they lack confidence in the political institutions that society established.”
For Vicino, da Silva is a symbol of the rise and fall of Brazil. Known to his supporters as Lula, he presided over Brazil’s government from 2003 to 2011, lifting millions of people out of poverty while helping to land the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. As a founding member of the Workers’ Party, one of Latin America’s largest left-wing movements, “Lula was the shining star of the political world,” Vicino explained, a “symbol of Brazil’s arrival on the world stage.”
In 2010, da Silva’s second-to-last year in office, Brazil’s economy grew three times faster than the U.S. economy. Da Silva enjoyed an 83 percent approval rating. Today he is known as the highest-profile politician to be convicted in the corruption investigation, in which more than 200 people have already been charged. Among many Brazilians, he is the poster child for corruption, political upheaval, and economic calamity. As The Washington Post reported, the bribery scandal “wrecked Brazil’s economy,” sparking mass layoffs and “hollowing out companies that were once world-renowned.”
“The corruption scandal has caused many people to question what happened in the past,” Vicino explained, referring to the economic boom of early-to-mid-2000s. “It definitely makes Brazil more vulnerable and shows us just how weak democracy can be.”
Da Silva, who has denied any wrongdoing in the bribery scandal, is still a beloved figure in Brazil among a large segment of the lower class. According to a public opinion poll in June, he is considered a front-runner for next year’s presidential election. “Half of Brazil’s population lives in extreme poverty, and poor people who are very loud supporters of Lula are willing to look the other way,” Vicino explained, noting that da Silva could run for president while his case is being appealed. “When he was president, the economy was good and growing, everyone had a job, and he took credit for it.”
Now corruption has plunged Brazil into political and economic chaos—and there’s no end in sight. “Brazil,” Vicino said, “is still a country of tomorrow.”