“In Brazil, when a poor man steals, he goes to prison – when a rich man steals, he becomes a minister”

The words of Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva in 1988. And how prophetic they now seem on a day when the former president returns to government, set to serve in current premiere Dilma Rousseff’s cabinet as her new Chief-of-Staff.

The move comes as Ms. Rousseff’s position appears increasingly beleaguered. Amidst swirling allegations of corruption, the last week has seen the country inundated by protests that took millions of ordinary Brazilians out onto the streets calling for her resignation, while rumblings of dissatisfaction emanated from the PMBD, the coalition partners of her ruling Workers’ Party (PT).

All this suggests patience is running out in the country’s corridors of power as well as the streets of its cities. And such a rare and potent mixture of popular pressure and political will, especially when splattered on a canvas of a deepening recession and tightening public budgets, might just see those much-talked-about impeachment proceedings gather critical momentum.

The hope, therefore – at least in PT circles – must be that Lula’s appointment will shore up the crumbling Rousseff administration. On the one hand, his common touch and residual popularity with the Brazilian people may well rub off on an incumbent president whose own approval ratings have struggled to limp into double figures. On the other, his political gravitas and background in the deal-breaking world of union politics may be of more tangible value to a ruling party that needs all the allies it can lay its hands on.

This is not to say that Lula’s appointment is a win-win. His arrival in cabinet is likely to herald a change of policy, with a tack to the left to match the ex-president’s political persuasions very much on the cards. And feathers have already been ruffled, with the head of the Central Bank, Alexandre Tombini, signalling his readiness to step down, news that saw the Real slide 2% against the Dollar.

However, there is one further – and not-insignificant – advantage in bringing the PT strongman to the governmental table. By happy coincidence, the appointment puts Lula beyond the reach of the federal investigation into corruption at state oil firm Petrobras, an investigation that only last week charged him with money laundering and misrepresentation of assets (as reported below). As a serving minister, Lula is now answerable only to the Supreme Court and, as luck would have it, 8 of its 11 serving members were nominated either by Lula himself or by his protégé, a certain Ms. Dilma Rousseff. While of course there is no suggestion of impending impropriety in Brazil’s highest court, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that they may be more susceptible to political persuasion than Sérgio Moro, the magistrate-cum-bloodhound leading the federal probe, who briefly detained Lula last week.

So, in an uncharacteristically shrewd move, Dilma Rousseff has endeavoured to kill two birds with one stone: bolstering her own position in government by bringing on-board a man with a wealth of political prestige and acumen, whilst simultaneously salvaging the reputation of the her party’s only truly talismanic figure.

Yet, it is difficult to observe this latest twist in Brazil’s current political troubles without appreciating the rather bitter irony in Lula’s 1988 declaration. Little can he have imagined that he might be alluding to his future self.

UPDATE  18/3/16: A twist in the twist, and how quickly things change in this tangled web of intrigue.

Mere minutes after the swearing-in ceremony in Brasilia, Lula’s appointment to the cabinet was blocked by federal judge Itagiba Catta Preta Neto on the grounds that it obstructed the “free exercise” of justice. But now, that injunction has itself been overturned by another federal court, clearing the way for Lula to take his seat at the table.

While the judiciary wages war with itself, Ms. Rousseff’s plan has been rumbled. Freshly-released transcripts of a tapped phone conversation between Lula and Dilma suggest the president brought her mentor back into government precisely to shield him from corruption charges. The revelations have prompted howls of outrage and even larger popular protests are expected over the weekend.  

By their own admission, even the House of Cards writing team couldn’t make this up.

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