RIO DE JANEIRO — Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was named chief of staff to current President Dilma Rousseff on Wednesday— a move that could help him avoid detention in expanding corruption probes that have ensnared the top of Brazil’s political leadership.
In a brief statement, the presidential palace announced the appointment and said the current chief of staff, Jaques Wagner, will become the head of Rousseff’s office.
Rousseff herself served as chief of staff under Silva from 2005-2010. It was a powerful role projected her into the spotlight and led Silva to anoint her as his successor.
A dexterous political operator, Silva is seen as Rousseff’s best hope for shoring up support for the government and its agenda by sealing alliances with key centrist and right-wing parties in Congress and securing the support of social movements. He’s also regarded as crucial to blocking impeachment proceedings against Rousseff over allegations of fiscal mismanagement.
Rumors of Silva’s appointment to a Cabinet post surfaced after the former leader was taken to a police station this month to answer questions connected to the main corruption probe, which centers on the state-run oil company Petrobras. The appointment will make it harder for prosecutors to investigate Silva because only Brazil’s Supreme Court can authorize the investigation, imprisonment and trial of Cabinet members and legislators.
The opposition reacted vehemently to Wednesday’s much-anticipated announcement.
Another former president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, blasted his successor’s appointment as “an error,” according to a report in the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper, and analysts have said Silva’s appointment will weaken Rousseff.
Dilma will be surrendering the presidency to Lula. He will become the new president.”
— Thiago de Aragao, political consultant at Brasilia-based Arko Advice
Aragao predicted that Silva would take over key decisions on political and economic matters and said the appointment underscores “the high level of concern with his (Silva’s) possible imprisonment and with the end of the government with Dilma’s impeachment.”
An analysis piece in the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper echoed the sentiment, saying that Silva’s signing in ceremony would effectively mark the end of Rousseff’s presidency.
“At that moment, in practice, Lula’s third term in office will begin,” it said, referring to Silva by the nickname by which he is universally known.
Silva was wildly popular when he left office in 2010, but his support has slipped along with Brazil’s economy and as the Petrobras corruption probe has implicated numerous members of his Workers Party.
Rousseff had been untouched by the turmoil, but the Supreme Court on Tuesday accepted a plea bargain by the party’s former leader in the Senate, Delcidio do Amaral, that alleged Rousseff at least knew about wrongdoing at Petrobras, which she formerly oversaw.
The scandal also has ensnared many opposition figures, including house Speaker Eduardo Cunha, who has spearheaded efforts to impeach Rousseff.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that Cunha’s wife and daughter be tried by a judge who is handling the Petrobras investigation. Investigators allege the two benefited from illegal funds from Petrobras contracts.
Amaral was detained late last year on allegations of obstructing the Petrobras probe, and Tuesday’s release of hundreds of pages of his testimony to investigators sent shockwaves throughout Brazil’s political class.
In the document, Amaral said Rousseff knew about a scheme to buy a refinery in the United States at an inflated price. He also alleged Silva ordered him to make payouts to another key operator of the Petrobras scheme to protect a close friend.
Both Rousseff and Silva have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, and the most of those mentioned in the plea deal have discredited the allegations.
In an interview published in Wednesday’s O Estado de S. Paulo daily, Amaral insisted his agenda and records of his trips would substantiate the veracity of his claims.
This week’s political turmoil, which has seen the stock market and the currency fall sharply, came on the heels of nationwide protests against Rousseff and her Workers’ Party that brought an estimated 3 million people onto the streets Sunday. Newspapers called them the biggest political demonstrations in Brazilian history.