A Breakdown of Brazil's Political Crisis

Here's a play-by-play of the craziness happening in one of the world's biggest democracies

Rachel Glickhouse
Mar 17, 2016 · 9 min read
Agência Brasil/Creative Commons

Given everything that's happening with the U.S. presidential election race, it's hard to imagine a more ridiculous political scenario. But what's happening in Brazil right now is beyond anything a House of Cards writer could conceive. It's truly stranger than fiction.

I've put together a rundown to assist journalists and English speakers trying to keep track of what's happening, including primary sources.

Am I missing anything? Leave a response or a note.


The left-wing Workers' Party, known as the PT, has been in power since 2003. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was a wildly popular two-term president who became a symbol of Brazil's ascension to the world stage and an inspiration for other left-leaning leaders in developing countries. Known as the "Teflon" leader, he left office with high approval ratings despite a large-scale corruption scandal that unfolded within his administration called the Mensalão.

Lula picked Dilma Rousseff as his successor, helping with her successful presidential bid. (He's planning on running for a third term in 2018.) Rousseff took office in 2011 as the country's first female president. One of the first things she did was clean house and get rid of corrupt ministers.

This GIF of Lula and Dilma went viral this week. You'll see why soon.

Rousseff ran for reelection in 2014, but it didn’t go so well. It came a year after major nationwide protests, as Brazilians expressed frustration with a host of issues from transportation fares to government spending on the World Cup. In the end, Rousseff won reelection by a small margin, making it the closest election in decades.

The tenor of the campaigns was divisive, and ideological divisions became much more pronounced, causing lots of fighting on social media and among friends and families. In her second term, Rousseff's approval ratings hit historic lows of under 10 percent, and several large anti-government protests took place last year.

To boot, the opposition is trying to impeach Rousseff, accusing her administration of violating fiscal responsibility laws.

There’s also a huge corruption investigation called Lava Jato, or Car Wash, which turned two years old today. The investigation, which has ensnared some of the country’s most powerful politicians and businesspeople, keeps inching closer to the presidential palace.

Meanwhile, Eduardo Cunha — the president of the lower house of Congress spearheading the push for impeachment — is under investigation in the Car Wash scandal and by the lower house ethics committee. He's accused of taking millions in bribes.

Now, Brazil's in the middle of an economic crisis (not to mention the Zika epidemic), so even more people are unhappy with the federal government.

Hank Green provides more historical context on the crisis.

The Latest Turn of Events

The popular ex-president was taken in for questioning for several hours by police as part of the Car Wash investigation. Lula stands accused of receiving financial and real estate benefits as a part of the large-scale kickback scheme.

Lula's press conference following his detainment.

The controversial move would offer Lula some legal protection in which he could only be tried in the Supreme Court. It could also potentially help Rousseff fight off impeachment.

It's the first in a series of bombshell documents to drop. While there's no smoking gun, it does make for fascinating reading into the life of one of Brazil's most powerful people.

Another bombshell. Senator Delcídio do Amaral was the first sitting senator to be arrested in Brazilian history for his involvement in the big corruption scandal. The former leader of the Senate made a plea bargain with police, and his accusations implicate even more of the country's most powerful figures.

They're reportedly the largest protests ever recorded in Brazil.

March 13 protest in Brasília. (Senado Federal)

Another bombshell. There are claims that one of the recordings prove Rousseff was purposely trying to shield Lula through the cabinet post. While still unproven, the accusation alone causes an uproar. (Also, it turns out that particular recording was made after the judge ordered the wiretap discontinued.) The government releases a swearing-in document referenced in the conversation.

Other recordings include conversations with top political brass, though while entertaining, there's no immediate smoking gun. The government threatens legal action against the judge.

There are more protests.

#TchauQuerida, or "Bye, dear" goes viral, since it's how Lula signs off in one call to Rousseff

Rousseff speaks out about the recordings, saying "This is how coups start."

And…you guessed it. More protests.

Though as it turns out from his Facebook page, this judge is rampantly anti-Rousseff and even attended anti-government protests. The government successfully appeals the ruling, but another judge in Rio blocks the appointment again. The government appeals to the Supreme Court.

It includes Paulo Maluf, who's wanted by Interpol and has a long rap sheet involving corruption. In fact, about a quarter of those on the impeachment committee are under investigation by the Supreme Court.

…meaning he's allowed to take office.

Lula speaks at the protest in São Paulo, saying that once again he's become "the little Lula of peace and love."

So he's yet again prevented from taking office.

So Lula is still not a minister. Someone creates a website, Is Lula Minister? to help people keep track.

Lula is still not technically minister.

They discover that the company — the largest construction firm in Latin America — had a department just for bribery, and that there were bribes involved in World Cup and Olympics projects. Later, Odebrecht releases a statement saying several executives agreed to cooperate with investigators. This could be more bad news for politicians tied to the probe.

But it doesn't give him the legal protections he would have as minister. A final ruling on whether he can become minister is still pending.

It's unclear whether they were bribes or not, though the amounts differed from publicly recorded campaign contributions, and the politicians are referred to by both their names and codenames. Later in the day, the judge in charge of the investigation orders the documents to be resealed.

Regardless, the PDFs are available in the link below.

Prosecutors deny that plea bargains were struck with Odebrecht executives.

It means the president is more vulnerable to impeachment.

This means the high court removed the case from the original judge's jurisdiction.

Meanwhile, impeachment proceedings against the president are in full swing.

The strange leak comes the same day that a congressional committee is set to vote on whether to recommend impeachment. In the recording, the vice president speaks as if the impeachment had already happened.

Complete audio here:

It lasts for 34 hours, the longest session in the history of the country's legislature.

The process moves on to the Senate.

It's part of the ongoing Car Wash probe, based on the allegation that Lula participated in a scheme to try to prevent a former Petrobras executive from helping the investigation.

Also as part of the Car Wash investigation, based on the plea bargain testimony from the senator and nominating Lula to her cabinet.

This is the guy who spearheaded Dilma's impeachment in the lower house. He lost his position as a result of being under investigation for corruption. Cunha is allowed to appeal the decision.

Waldir Maranhão, the man slated to take his place, is also under investigation for corruption.

This is based on the fact that Cunha has been suspended.

Temer will take over for Dilma if she's impeached.

The opposition appeals to the Supreme Court to overturn the decision.

On the Senate floor, the chamber's president confirms the upper house will go ahead with the vote.

He'd been facing threats of getting kicked out of his political party.

The Supreme Court refuses a last-minute request from Rousseff's administration to block the vote.

That means she has to step down for up to 180 days while the trial takes place, and her vice president becomes interim president.

To be continued.

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Rachel Glickhouse

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Trilingual journalist focused on Latin America and Latinos.