A wild controversy over leaked transcripts of a phone conversation between Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is pushing thousands of corruption-weary people into the streets to protest what critics claim to be the latest dirty play by an embattled government to shield itself from anti-corruption probes.
For more than a year, the South American nation has been enveloped in a worsening, multi-billion corruption scandal involving the private sector, government officials, and state-run oil company Petrobras. On March 4 the scandal reached new heights when Brazilian prosecutors detained former president Lula at his home for questioning over his involvement in the so-called Java Lato (Car Wash) scandal. He was released three hours later, but his implication seemed to push the case to the point of no return for the socialist-leaning Worker's Party government that Lula started and handed off to Rousseff.
To allegedly protect her predecessor, Rousseff, who narrowly avoided an impeachment attempt in December, this week responded by appointing Lula as her new Chief of Staff— an ornamental position that comes with immunity. Critics claim the move is meant to give Lula and Rousseff more leverage to negotiate a political solution that doesn't involve impeachment or jail.
As a government minister, Lula can only be trailed under the country's Supreme Court.
Rousseff denied immunity allegations and said her appointment is only meant to help revamp the Brazilian economy, which is facing steep recession and unemployment.
But on Wednesday a federal judge helping lead the anti-corruption charge released a transcript of taped phone conversations between the two presidents, in an attempt to prove rising suspicions.
Rousseff: Lula, let me tell you something…
Lula: Tell me, dear.
Rousseff: … I’m sending you Bessias with a paper for us to have it and only to use if necessary. It is the investiture documents. Okay?
Lula was president of Brazil during the country's economic miracle days. He gained widespread popularity by prioritizing social programs that helped lift many Brazilians out of poverty. But the increasingly hard-to-shake corruption allegations against him are now threatening to put a giant asterisk next to his name in the history books as Brazil’s beloved "man of the people."
A famous phrase by Lula back in 1998, when he was a combative congressman, is now going viral on social media: “In Brazil, when a poor man steals he goes to jail. When a rich man steals he’s made minister.”
The irony is not lost on Brazilians, who are taking to the streets in massive numbers in São Paulo, Brasilia and Rio.
Others are also taking to social media to mock the phone conversation.
Despite the worsening scandal, Rousseff is expected to push forward on Lula's swearing-in today.