Brazil’s embattled Rousseff digs in against scandal

Rousseff is facing an impeachment drive, a bruising recession and a massive scandal at state oil company Petrobras, among other issues.
Rousseff is facing an impeachment drive, a bruising recession and a massive scandal at state oil company Petrobras, among other issues.PHOTO: REUTERS

BRASILIA (AFP) - Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff dug in Friday against a swirling political crisis, rejecting calls to resign and closing ranks with her embattled predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

With money-laundering charges against Lula adding to the pressure on her administration, Rousseff vehemently defended her mentor.

She said she would even be proud to have him in her Cabinet – a move that could be used to protect the ex-president.

Rousseff is facing an impeachment drive, a bruising recession, a scandal at state oil company Petrobras, and a probe into alleged electoral violations last year.

But the leftist president said her opponents’ calls for her to resign showed they lacked the evidence to remove her through impeachment.

“Resigning is a voluntary act. Those who want my resignation are recognising that there’s no real basis to request my exit from this position,” Rousseff told a press conference.

“There’s not the slightest possibility” of a resignation, she added.

She came out in defense of Lula, her once wildly popular predecessor.

“I would take great pride in having president Lula in my government because he is a person with experience and great political capability,” she said.

Rousseff did not say whether she was really considering such a move, as media have been speculating over recent days.

Some of Rousseff’s allies said that would leverage the ex-president’s charisma for the embattled administration and protect him from criminal charges in ordinary court.

Under Brazilian law, cabinet ministers can only be tried before the Supreme Court.

The powerful former president was charged with money laundering on Wednesday over his alleged ownership of a luxury condo linked to dirty cash from the Petrobras scandal.

Prosecutors requested his arrest Thursday and called for him to be remanded in custody pending trial.

Lula denies the charges.

A former steelworker and labour leader, Lula led Brazil through an economic boom from 2003 to 2011.

An icon of the Latin American left, he rolled out programs credited with helping lift millions from poverty.

But Lula’s administration was also haunted by scandals.

Now he is charged with hiding ownership of a luxury triplex apartment at a seaside resort in Sao Paulo state.

Prosecutors said they had documents and two dozen witnesses indicating Lula and his family are the apartment’s real owners.

Federal investigators are probing a massive corruption scheme centered on Petrobras, Brazil’s biggest company.

Petrobras executives allegedly took bribes to give contracts to big construction firms and other contractors, who then overbilled the oil company.

Some of the extra cash – estimated by Petrobras to total at least US$2 billion – allegedly went to politicians and party coffers.

Prosecutors say they suspect the apartment in question was given to Lula as a bribe by OAS, one of the companies accused in the scandal.

Rousseff faces multiple problems of her own.

Congress is mulling impeachment proceedings over alleged illegalities in the government budget. Meanwhile, the Supreme Electoral Court is considering a case that could result in judges invalidating her 2014 reelection.

So far, Rousseff has managed to fight off impeachment, but the opposition has been fired up by the case against Lula.

Government opponents have called for mass demonstrations against Rousseff on Sunday that they hope will send a powerful message to Congress.

Analysts say Rousseff could also be in prosecutors’ sights.

She has not been formally accused, but was chairman of Petrobras during much of the scandal-tainted period.