SAO PAULO — The appointment of such a major figure as Brazil's ex-President Lula da Silva as Dilma Rousseff cabinet's chief of staff could be seen as just an expression of the government's terminal state of despair, stuck with incredibly low popularity poll numbers — and with little support in Congress to fend off the threat of Dilma's own impeachment. But there's more to it than just that.
Immediately after what had been expected for days was made official, a secretly recorded phone conversation between Dilma and Lula was leaked to the media by Sergio Moro, the federal judge who oversees the ongoing operation Lava Jato ("Car Wash"). The presidency denounced Moro's leak as illegal. But the consequences could be devastating for the government.
The words exchanged by the two Workers' Party leaders give clear indications that the reason behind Lula's ministerial nomination wasn't solely a political popularity calculation. It confirmed what the government's most passionate adversaries in the opposition had been quick to denounce as the move's main purpose: protecting Lula.
In the face of a potential imminent arrest after being charged with money laundering as part of the Petrobras corruption scandal, Lula wanted to shield himself from prosecution with the privileged status afforded by the government post. In the conversation, Dilma was assuring Lula that his appointment in the cabinet was ready and that she would send him over the papers he could use "in case of necessity."
Is it possible to understand this exchange as anything but a deal between concerned parties to escape justice?
Is the word "collusion" too strong to describe a president and an ex-president making a panicked rush to put together a desperate artifice to keep corruption from going unpunished, to paralyze the justice system, to keep the privileged above the law?
This time around, the pair surpassed all the cynicism, the recklessness and the provocation we'd already witnessed from the Workers' Party and those around it.
Cynicism because only a few hours before the leak, Dilma had given an interview in which she denied that Lula's nomination was intended to help him escape prosecution. It was, as a matter of fact, all about bringing in new political energies in the face of the country's financial crisis. Or so she claimed.
But that wasn't it. All elements indicate that the prepared argumentation was nothing but a masquerade, to hide what deserves to be called an attempt to obstruct the free course of justice.
It was an act of pure recklessness as well, as Dilma is still under the threat of impeachment, and her opponents now have this new scandal at their disposal to act against her mandate.
Finally, and most importantly, this move was a provocation against the people of Brazil. Just days after an unprecedented number of citizens took to the streets to protest against the government, Dilma and Lula teamed up to ignite an even more intense wave of popular indignation, this time probably irreversibly.
Last night, a crowd spontaneously gathered in front of the the Presidential Palace in Brasília. Protesters also gathered in São Paulo, and their numbers only grew when the damaging phone conversation was leaked.
It was already being said that Lula's ministerial appointment, essentially, meant the end of Dilma's government. Now that may happen sooner than we thought.