By Juan Andres Misle
*The opinions on this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of Latino Giant.
When Brazil’s Luis Inacio ‘Lula’ Da Silva and Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe both left office in 2010 with whooping 83% and 75% approval ratings, respectively, few would have predicted the skeletons in the closet during their tenures would come back to haunt them. Even amidst their considerably unpopular successors maneuver the tremendous difficulties that lie ahead of their countries: Colombia is seeing their currency tumble due to falling oil and commodity prices on the eve of a historic agreement to settle peace between the government and insurgent rebels, after more than half a century of war. Brazil, also suffering (perhaps more acutely) from falling prices, has an economy in recession and increasingly risks an institutional crisis from government corruption and cronyism that may well lead to President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment. Now, two of the most consequential heads of state in Latin America’s recent history are seeing their entourage fall one by one, all but pointing the way to their increasingly imminent day of judgement.
What could have wrong? It all seemed that at the height of their power, the economic resilience of 2010 Brazil and Colombia could only spring hope for a future of continuity. Lula and Uribe had even reached messianic status among their most loyal supporters.
We begin with events in Brazil, South America’s “sleeping giant” that awoke in the mid to late 2000s to become the world’s seventh largest economy under Lula’s two terms as president.
Lula was detained for three hours on the first week of March after two years worth of investigations pointing to allegations that his ruling Workers Party had used federal proceeds to fund their electoral campaigns. Senior judges alledge that Lula and his family had used real-estate assets and his institute (the Lula Institute) to launder money from Petrobras, the country’s state-owned oil company.
The alleged money-laundering scheme, known as “Operation Car Wash” has already led to the arrests and imprisonment of over a dozen politicians close to the former president. According to prosecutors, Petrobras contracts had been overinflated in order to pay off bribes to political parties, including the Workers Party and individuals for personal gain. During Lula’s presidency, current President Rousseff oversaw the company as Energy Minister.
Notorious among the alleged bribes include construction companies suspected of paying massive amounts of money to politicians in exchange for lucrative contracts. Lula and his supporters have called the arrest “arbitrary” and “politically-motivated” by opponents of the former president. But some have now come to speculate how far is Lula willing to go to undermine the mere possibility of an investigation happening in the first place, now that President Rousseff quickly moved to name her predecessor Chief of Staff, shielding him from prosecution.
When it comes to Mr. Uribe’s troubles, the story is perhaps a little more convoluted. Last year, the head of the now-defunct DAS spying unit, who supposedly answered directly to the president, was incarcerated after being accused of illegally spying on Supreme Court justices, opposition politicians, journalists, and human rights organizations, some whom were later found dead under suspicious circumstances.
But it is Uribe’s alleged personal ties to paramilitarism that go back way before his presidency that could become his biggest headache. The former president may have to respond for the violent events that took place during his tenure as governor of Antioquia, a time when paramilitary terrorist organizations rapidly expanded and induced massacres in small Antioquia towns.
Today, the Medellin native leads the opposition to the peace talks between government and insurgent rebels, particularly regarding the sensitive issue of granting impunity for Farc members accused of grave human rights violations. Ironically enough, as president, Mr. Uribe promoted impunity policies on a mass scale by granting pardons to paramilitary groups during a disarmament process negotiated with various paramilitary and drug-trafficking groups. Some of these groups later re-armed to become emergent criminal gangs known today as “BACRIM”, an acronym for “Bandas Criminales” (Criminal Gangs).
Fast-forward a decade later, and just like Lula, the ex president’s entourage have begun falling one by one, including the president’s cousin, Mario Uribe, who served a seven-year sentence for taking drug money from paramilitary groups to fund his congressional campaign.
But when Alvaro Uribe’s brother, Santiago, was arrested on February 29 on charges of founding a paramilitary death squad known as the “12 Apostles”, it suddenly became clear Colombia’s most beloved and controversial leader was inching closer to a possible arrest over a lifelong career replete of scandals.
Curiously enough, supporters of both Uribe and Lula have come quick to the defense of the former presidents by using the exact same lines of argument in their defense: enemies going great lengths in tarnishing their popular legacies with dubious accusations out of fear and jealousy of their accomplishments.
These unprecedented legal troubles for the popular leaders amount to yet another layer of political problems in Brazil and Colombia. But the arrests underpin the countries’s democratic credentials in spite of the institutional shortcomings that underdeveloped nations with enormous inequalities inevitably face. The fact that the two most popular leaders in the histories of Colombia and Brazil may face some jail time demonstrate that not even their popularity can shield them from the uses and abuses of power. On paper, institutions are ultimately above the privileges of individuals endowed with the responsibility of governing a nation. In practice, this remains yet to be thoroughly explored.
To quote former Uruguayan president Jose Mujica and in risk of evoking a messianic undertone to this conclusion:
“As soon as politicians start climbing up the ladder, they suddenly become kings. I don’t know how it works, but what I do know is that republics were born to reaffirm that all men are equal, and that no one is above anyone else.”