Cutouts of politicians dressed as prisoners used during a protest against corruption. (Ueslei Marcelino / Courtesy Reuters)
Last month, Brazil's Supreme Court sentenced José Dirceu -- the chief of staff and closest political adviser to former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva during his first administration (2003-2006) -- to nearly ten years in jail. At the same time, the court convicted 25 other co-conspirators in Dirceu's scheme, which involved bribing congressmen to vote in lockstep with the government, and also implicated banks, advertising agencies, and politicians. The court estimated that the scheme involved the embezzlement of at least $150 million in public funds. The case is part of the Brazilian judicial branch's recent campaign against political corruption, a development that has unleashed public enthusiasm for the justice system.
The trial lasted for four months, and its sessions were televised daily. On some days, as many people tuned in to the proceedings as tuned in to Brazil's popular teledramas. At first, Lula tried to stay aloof from the trial, maintaining that he had been "betrayed" by the defendants and that he "knew nothing" about the scheme. Later, when the Supreme Court handed down its ruling, Lula said that the charges were simply an attempt to discredit his party and him.
That is unlikely. When he was sentenced to more than 40 years in jail, Marcos Valerio, an advertising executive and a principal in the scheme, told prosecutors that Lula had personally authorized him to borrow money from banks. Lula's party used the funds to buy off members of congress. In light of the revelation, Justice Joaquim Barbosa, the head of the Brazilian judiciary, who became an instant hero during the proceedings for his lucid arguments for conviction, said that he wanted public prosecutors to open a new investigation into Lula's role. Lula has denied Valerio's charges, but an investigation could nevertheless take place. Indeed, on returning from his New Year's holiday, Roberto Gurgel, Brazil's chief public prosecutor, announced that he had ordered a formal investigation of Lula's role in the scheme.
Beyond the crack legal education that the trial gave a generation of television-watching Brazilians, its most important lesson was that Brazil's highest court would no longer tolerate blatant corruption among the country's political elites. Tellingly, although eight of the 11 Supreme Court justices who sat for the trial, including Barbosa, had been appointed by Lula or his successor, Dilma Rouseff, the majority toed Barbosa's strict line. "The law is the same for everyone, not just chicken thieves or poor kids in the slum," Barbosa said at one point. And a majority of the other justices seem to have concurred.
The next few months, though, will tell whether the momentum against corruption is sustainable. For one, much of the public interest in the trial revolved around Barbosa. Like Lula, who rose from a blue-collar factory job to become president, Barbosa was born poor, in a town where slaves once dug for gold. The oldest of eight children, as a boy he helped his father, a mason, make bricks. He also made time for his studies, though, and attended university in Brasilia. After winning a competitive examination, he entered the foreign ministry and was posted in Europe. While in France, he continued his legal studies. He then became an investigative prosecutor at the Public Ministry where he was recognized as an eminent legal scholar. Barbosa was the first black person appointed to Brazil's highest court when Lula chose him; Lula, for his part, saw a political advantage to placing a minority on the highest court.
The president did not expect his appointee to be so independent-minded. Barbosa's colleagues, however, recognized Barbosa's leadership in building a case for convictions during the political corruption scandal and named him president of the Supreme Court in November. He will lead the Brazilian judiciary for two years, until the end of 2014. Now a celebrity, Barbosa attracts crowds wherever he goes. Such public popularity for a judicial figure is unprecedented in Brazil.
Somewhat reassuringly, many of the principles Barbosa has been following appear to be shared by a majority on the court. And that is good news for the sustainability of the movement against corruption. At this point, it seems that investigations into the charges against Lula will move forward. If there is a solid case, the public prosecutor will bring it to the court. Meanwhile, there might finally be progress on another politically sensitive case that has been on the Supreme Court's docket for nearly ten years. It involves illegal campaign financing for the centrist Social Democratic Party, Brazil's major opposition party. Barbosa has said that he wants the Supreme Court to try the case as soon as possible -- and there is every reason to expect that he will.