Brazil's Political Crisis, Explained in 500 Words

  1. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is at serious risk of losing her job. On Monday, a key committee in Brazil's National Congress voted to pursue impeachment charges against her; her vice president, Michel Temer, accidentally released a tape of himself practicing his presidential acceptance speech.
  2. On the surface, the impeachment charges are about allegations that Rousseff cooked the government's books to hide the scope of Brazil's deficit problem during her 2014 reelection campaign. But they're really about a bigger slate of problems in Brazil — most importantly, something called the Petrobras scandal.
  3. Between about 2004 and 2014, the state-run energy firm Petrobras — which is Brazil's largest company and one of the largest corporations in the world — engaged in one of the most astonishing corruption schemes ever to be uncovered. We're talking upward of $5.3 billion changing hands.
  4. Basically, construction executives secretly created a cartel to coordinate bids on Petrobras contracts and systematically overcharge the company. They then sent some of the profits they made from this to Petrobras workers as bribes, as well as to some politicians.
  5. An unrelated police investigation uncovered the Petrobras scandal in 2013; the first public arrests were made in 2014. And to say the Brazilian public was infuriated would be an understatement. Literally millions of people have taken to the streets to protest.
  6. The scandal played into Brazil's defining political issue: inequality. Ever since colonial times, Brazil has been dominated by wealthy elites who thought they could get away with anything — mostly because they usually did.
    The Petrobras scandal implicated leaders of Brazil's largest state-owned company, its biggest construction firms, and political leaders from across the political spectrum. It exposed elite corruption on a level that, even in Brazil, was previously unimaginable.
  7. This was politically devastating for Rousseff. Even though there's no evidence she was directly involved in the corruption, from 2003 to 2010 Rousseff was the chairwoman of Petrobras's board. This all occurred under her watch, a seemingly damning indictment of her judgment and competence.
  8. Moreover, her party — the leftist Workers' Party (PT) — has cultivated a reputation for cleanliness, for sticking up for the common people against a corrupt system. Evidence that a number of PT politicians were involved in Petrobras has tarnished that brand considerably.
  9. The most notable PT figure that's been implicated is Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil's last president and Rousseff's political mentor. In March, she appointed Lula to her cabinet; a released wiretap recording suggests she was trying to shield him from charges.
  10. To make matters even worse, Brazil is going through a devastating economic crisis. The Brazilian real (its currency) is rapidly losing value at the same time as the country is experiencing a recession.
  11. This all prompted the massive protests calling for Rousseff's ouster, mostly made up of people from Brazil's upper middle class. These protests are emboldening Rousseff's political enemies to pursue impeachment, even though the charges are unrelated — and causing erstwhile allies, like Temer, to abandon her.
  12. Read our full explainer to learn more about how the absolutely stunning scandal happened, how it got uncovered, and how it's reshaping Brazilian politics: http://bit.ly/1SfM5DW