A recent opinion article I saw in the Guardian—the U.K.’s leading left-leaning news outlet—proposed that the real reason why there was an impeachment effort underway to oust Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s deeply unpopular and embattled president, is not so much because of the country’s ongoing recession—its worst in years—or the incredible corruption that has beset the Rouseff presidency. Rather, the Guardian offers, it is simply a rear-guard action by Brazil’s political right—who control the country’s newspapers—to overturn not just Rousseff herself, but undo her entire party, which has prevailed at the national ballot box over the last few election cycles.
It’s a handy theory, and we often see the same kind of charges thrown around in the United States when one party seeks to undo the legislative work of their rivals by challenging new laws in court. But the case the Guardian makes is different, and so off-target that I am reminded of a terrific merchandising campaign the U.K. satire site The Daily Mash spearheaded a few years ago:
Forgetting for the moment that the Guardian tends to wear its politics on its sleeve, and typically defaults to the defense of left-of-center politics everywhere, the central problem with the Guardian’s argument is that the impeachment effort would aim to install as Rouseff’s replacement, house speaker Eduardo Cunha, who is even dirtier than Rousseff, having already ben caught taking bribes, hiding them in Swiss bank accounts, lying about it, and then getting implicated in the Panama Papers release. Cunha’s moral compromises undermine the argument that Rousseff needs to go. But does it?
Nobody can argue that Brazil doesn’t have some serious corruption problems throughout its political system. And the effort to impeach Rousseff—which at the time of this writing has already passed a House vote and will likely receive similar treatment in the Senate—is not merely a symbolic measure. There is a very real chance Rousseff will be pushed out of office over this. (She is not the first head of state to lose their job this year over compliance-and-ethics-related issues, either. We have already seen Iceland’s prime minister step down over his connection to the Panama Papers leak.) And there is a very real chance that she would be replaced by those who are at least as dirty as she is, if not more.
But that is not a get-out-of-impeachment card, as much as the Guardian and Rousseff’s defenders would like it to be. The truth is, Rousseff has committed no small number of improprieties, especially when it comes to covering the tracks of her political ally and mentor, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Da Silva came to power in 2002 and holding the country’s top office during an extended economic boom proved to be too much for him—and many others—who used the state-owned Petrobras oil company as a kind of personal piggy bank. In part, Rousseff is paying now for the sins of da Silva, but she has not helped things by naming da Silva to her cabinet recently in a move that really accomplishes one thing: rendering da Silva immune to any kind of prosecution while Rousseff remains in power. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to see something like that and sense that somebody is forming a defensive hedgehog.
Whatever becomes of the fiasco in Brazil, the entire thing underscores just how crucial it is for ethics and compliance to go hand in hand to form better governance. Ethics on its own cannot really accomplish a whole lot, when surrounded by a culture of corruption; it simply comes off as toothless moralizing. Likewise, compliance can get very little done in a culture of corruption other than provide rules that nobody really intends to follow. (Enron’s famous code of conduct exemplifies this.) But when you have a solid ethical vision, coupled with a robust compliance framework, then you can get something done because you have the rules to shape behavior and the conviction to put those rules into action. It would seem that in Brazil, we don’t have a whole lot of that going on at the national political level. There are undoubtedly many strong, moral folks who are trying to reform a system that has become fundamentally compromised; they just don’t have the actual leverage to do much. And there are undoubtedly lawmakers in Brazil who are trying to use the law to drive meaningful, righteous change, but what can really be accomplished when whomever pays for their crimes is replaced by an even more accomplished criminal?
A Brazilian friend of mine never fails to tell me that the people of Brazil are fed up with this impasse, and are ready for true change. One hopes they will make that change, because what we are seeing here with the Rousseff crisis is a kind of perpetual instability that is good for no one in the long term, especially those who might be, for the moment, profiting the most from it.