Columns, Opinions

Cardoso ’19: Brazil’s democracy woes

Opinions Editor
Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Just yesterday, a Brazilian appeals court ruled to uphold the bribery conviction of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. With this ruling, the court has placed significant obstacles before da Silva, who is planning to run once more for president in this year’s election. However, what may ostensibly appear as a triumph for Brazilian democracy — the conviction of a popular former president seems to suggest a strong, independent judiciary — is in fact the opposite. Yesterday’s spectacle evinces a fiercely partisan court system that, rather than rendering a judicious verdict, has internalized the same antipathy toward the country’s traditional political class that is shared by most of the population. While Lula is himself still a member of that political class, many Brazilians fondly recall the prosperity of his years in office despite this widespread anti-elitism.

The issue with the proceedings against da Silva began from the get-go. His trial judge, Sérgio Moro, has achieved superstar status in Brazil for his work leading the investigation into Brazil’s all-consuming corruption scandal, “Operation Car Wash.” Indeed, his status is largely built on his reputation as the brave judge that would “clean up” Brazil’s corrupt political class. Convicting da Silva, then, would appear to be a crowning achievement in his effort to root out corruption in Brazilian politics. While fighting corruption is a laudable effort, Moro’s tactics seem to demonstrate that he had already adopted a grim view of those he was investigating before he tried them in court. He created a media frenzy when he had police surprise da Silva in his home and then drag him out for questioning. This was after da Silva had already publicly agreed to be questioned. Moro was also chastised by the Supreme Court when he released wiretapped conversations between da Silva and his successor, Dilma Rousseff.

Any hope of receiving a fair appeal would also have been sanguine. Before the ruling, the chief judge of the panel overseeing da Silva’s appeal called Moro’s decision “technically flawless.” The judge’s chief of staff posted publicly on social media that she supported da Silva’s conviction. It is not surprising, then, that the panel not only unanimously ruled to uphold Moro’s decision but also increased the severity of the penalty to twelve years and one month in prison.

In contrast to the chief judge’s praise for Moro’s ruling, the actual conviction was based on very poor and limited evidence. The prosecution’s sole piece of evidence is the testimony of one former construction company executive who had his sentence reduced in exchange for his cooperation. According to several analysts, no European or American court would have ruled to convict based on the evidence presented.

That a court would so readily convict someone based on personal biases and with little substantial evidence is worrying in itself. What is truly disturbing, though, is the ruling’s implications for Brazil’s democracy. Last year I wrote that Brazil’s democracy was in recess after the country’s then president, Dilma Rousseff, was, according to almost all objective observers, impeached for political reasons. Even though Rousseff won the popular vote, her opponents in the National Congress ousted her based on a common violation of a budgetary law. She was replaced by her vice president, Michel Temer, who began to implement harsh austerity policies — exactly the opposite of what Rousseff vowed to do. Fast forward to today, and the courts have blocked da Silva, who is the favorite to replace Temer in this year’s presidential election by a very large margin, from even competing. In doing so, the courts are placing their distrust of Brazil’s political elite before the will of the country’s people. Despite its good intentions, this type of judicial parochialism will only continue to harm Brazil’s nascent democracy.

By inserting itself into partisan politics, Brazil’s court system has chipped away at another pillar of Brazil’s quickly crumbling democratic institutions. Without reliable institutions to regulate political disputes fairly and peacefully, Brazil will continue its descent into vicious political tribalism. The response by da Silva’s Workers’ Party evinces the urgency of the situation. According to one Workers’ Party leader, “Lula will not be arrested, for Lula to be arrested, people will have to be killed. … They’re going to have to kill us, and kill Lula. It will not be peaceful.”

Connor Cardoso ’19 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to

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