Last month, the respected Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Teori Zavascki died in a plane crash. He was overseeing the largest corruption investigation in the country’s history.
Even if his recently selected successor, Edson Fachin, rises to the occasion, Mr. Zavascki’s death remains a tragic loss and a blow to Brazil’s fight against corruption. Especially since it comes on the heels of lawmakers torpedoing in late 2016 a widely popular effort to make it easier for prosecutors and judges to clean up government.
While these events make it easy to despair, the reality reveals much more reason for hope. In our 2015 book “Greed, Corruption and the Modern State,” we argue that societies must push back against the influence of powerful economic actors in order to safeguard the public interest. The network of Brazilians exposing, prosecuting, and sentencing the corrupt politicians swimming in this mar de lama, or sea of mud, embodies that ideal. However, their effort would benefit from legal reforms that make it easier to fight corruption.
Brazilians have long had to accept corruption scandals as a chronic part of their government. Graft was present under military rule, despite what those hoping for the return of authoritarianism seem to believe. But corruption scandals have also plagued every presidential administration since civil order was reestablished in 1985.
Even the administration of the popular Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, who governed Brazil during a period of rising prosperity from 2003 to 2010, coincided with several corruption scandals. Most memorable was Mensalão, a scheme in which coalition parties accepted more than $40 million in clandestine payments to support Lula’s Workers Party (PT).
Yet even as the Supreme Court investigated the Mensalão case, the PT still won two presidential elections – one that reelected Lula and another won by Dilma Rousseff in 2010.
Ms. Rousseff’s administration began on a hopeful note for those battling corruption. She fired five ministers linked to bribery, kickbacks, and influence peddling and helped enact a major government transparency law.
But within a few years, the tide – and public support – turned against her as Brazil’s economic outlook worsened and crowds protested continuing corruption and the billions that were spent on new stadiums for the 2014 World Cup.
As a result, the country soured on her at the same time as Brazil’s largest corruption scandal, known as Lava Jato, began to unfold. That scheme involved construction companies colluding with employees of the state-owned oil company Petrobras to win inflated contracts. Petrobras employees took bribes, while politicians got kickbacks as personal gifts or campaign donations.
Meanwhile, Rousseff was accused of spending public funds without congressional authorization and was impeached in August, shortly after the 2016 Olympics. Although Rousseff herself was not accused of corruption, some argue that she was essentially used as a scapegoat.
None of the bribes and kickbacks would be known today if the federal prosecutors…