Speed Reads

Brazil at the brink

Brazil's ex-president sworn in as successor's chief of staff amid criminal inquiry, political crisis

On Thursday, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff swore in her predecessor and mentor, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, as her chief of staff, theoretically shielding him from prosecution in a widening graft and corruption scandal at state oil giant Petrobras. A judge in Brasilia, the capital, quickly issued an injunction suspending the appointment, on the grounds that Rousseff may have interfered with the judicial branch of government — Rousseff's government will appeal — and the judge spearheading the Petrobras investigation, called Operation Car Wash, released audio of wiretaps on Lula's phone in which the ex-president candidly discusses the investigation.

Critics of the government say that by appointing Lula, 70, to her cabinet, Rousseff is protecting both her mentor — Lula can now only be prosecuted by the Supreme Federal Tribunal, Brazil's top court — and herself. On Thursday, the lower house of parliament reopened impeachment hearings against Rousseff tied to her alleged use of state bank funds to cover a budget shortfall, and Lula's significant sway with lawmakers could help defeat that effort. "Bringing Lula onboard is Rousseff's last card to play," Eurasia Group said Wednesday. "But the appointment is the right strategy at the wrong time."

Government supporters say that Judge Sergio Moro abused his authority by releasing Lula's phone conversations during an investigation and amid heated antigovernment protests. “This is how coups get underway," Rousseff said at Lula's swearing-in ceremony. Both sides agree that Brazil is approaching a constitutional crisis. It's not clear how it will end, or if Lula can escape prosecution. But the case and Thursday's hastily planned maneuver are sure to hit Lula's once high approval rating. Already, Brazilians are widely sharing a statement Lula made in 1988, when he was a trade-union leader: "In Brazil, when a poor man steals he goes to jail," he said. "When a rich man steals, he becomes a minister." You can learn more in the BBC News discussion below. Peter Weber