Amid scandal, Brazilians must find balance between justice and recovery

Last week’s release of the videotaped depositions in Brazil’s expansive “Car Wash” corruption scandal implicated much of the country’s political elite, leaving few parties or national politicians unscathed.  Executives from several more companies as well as officials already convicted are expected to cop pleas soon.

Operation Car Wash is three-years-old with no end in sight. Brazilians are asking themselves how do they make a much-needed institutional shift in the middle of a protracted economic crisis without jeopardizing the make or break package of structural reforms pending in congress? For example, 42% of the federal budget is currently allocated to pensions and rising rapidly.  The country is broke and in the absence of painful structural changes, at risk of losing its capacity to undertake much needed investments in infrastructure, education and healthcare.

The staggering scope of Operation Car Wash has dealt a crippling blow to the credibility of Brazil’s democratic institutions and global reputation on the cusp of a new election cycle.  While support for the Public Ministry, which is leading the investigations under the auspices of Judge Sergio Moro, shows that many Brazilians embrace a shift in the culture toward greater transparency and accountability from elected officials and business leaders.  The candid, almost breezy nature which executives from one of Brazil’s largest companies have discussed distributing astronomical sums of cash between offshore accounts and luxury hotel rooms has come amid a protracted economic downturn that has seen household incomes plummet.  This has sparked understandable public outrage.

In the past, the international community and individual countries have faced the challenges of dealing with decrepit regimes in the wake of wars of aggression, ethnic cleansing and apartheid.  The objective has been to reform and repair key institutions without creating a power vacuum through a process known as transitional justice[1]. To be clear, I am in no way equating Brazil’s current challenges with the atrocities of past wars or reprehensible behavior of repressive dictatorial regimes. But if we look at the underlying aims of transitional justice, they can serve as useful guide.  In short they are: the redress and acknowledgment of systemic violations; and the aim to prevent them happening again.

The never-ending flow of revelations are steadily undermining the governability of Latin America’s most populous country and greatest economic engine.  The time is fast approaching for the country to collectively ask how justice will be served and wrongs atoned for in a way that does not prevent Brazil from moving forward in a productive manner.

In this case an adapted approach could include the following steps:

  • Criminal prosecutions for at least the most responsible for the most serious crimes.  It is not practical to jail every participant in the myriad of corruption schemes, but the ringleaders must face sanctions for their roles.  Priority should be given to those that materially benefited from bribes in addition to illegally financing campaigns.
  • Truth-seeking processes into violations by non-judicial bodies. These can be varied but often look not only at events, but their causes and impacts. In exchange for leniency, corrupt companies, officials and parties should disclose the full details of their actions and accept responsibilities for the resulting societal harm.  Those that do not come clean would risk criminal investigations into their actions.
  • Reparations for violations taking a variety of forms: individual, collective, material and symbolic.  Responsible parties should formally apologize and illicit gains repaid to federal coffers. Current leaders of complicit political parties should be prohibited from continuing in their posts.  In some cases, guilty politicians could lose their political rights. Company executives and board members that oversaw shady deals should step down if their companies are to continue trading.
  • Reform of laws and institutions including political reform, campaign finance and ending special legal protections for elected official (so called privileged forum).

This is a discussion that will continue to unfold in the coming weeks and months as Brazil comes to grips with the enormity of its corruption problem and the stresses it places upon its democratic institutions and broader society.  There will soon come a point when “Car Wash fatigue” takes hold.  Amnesty for all guilty parties would deprive Brazil of its once in a generation opportunity for introspection and reform. Similarly, prosecuting every foot soldier complicit in the misconduct would take years and a heavy toll on society and the economy.  Brazilians must decide at which point to draw a line under past wrongdoings and turn the page to a future with reformed institutions and higher expectations for both political and business elites.


[1] According to the International Center for Transitional Justice (, transitional justice refers to the ways countries emerging from periods of conflict and repression address large scale or systematic human rights violations so numerous and so serious that the normal justice system will not be able to provide an adequate response.

I referred to ICTJ site to learn more about their work and approaches in dealing with human rights and rebuilding civic trust. The four steps referred to above are adapted from some of those approaches.