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Petrolão | Birth of a Meme


Folha de S.Paulo | Ombudsman Vera Magalhães

We have known since last year that a conjunction of political and economic factors promises a tumultuous second mandate for Dilma Rousseff. But not even the most bloody-minded opponent could have imagined the bad news that rained down on the federal government this week.

Ground Zero was an article in “O Estado de S. Paulo”, in which ex-president Fernando Henrique criticized the deterioration of the political system and defended extending the punishment for the disorder inside Petrobras to “the highest-ranking persons responsible.” The article, titled “The Time Has Come,” might have been read as a simple defense of republican values had it not gained a second reading in the context of the news coverage that followed in its wake.

Veja magazine revealed that, at the request of a public works contractor, the attorney Ives Gandra Martins had produced a legal brief supporting, “in an exclusively legal context,” a bill of impeachment against Dilma. The legal rationale: administrative impropriety, in the form of omission, incompetence, imprudence and negligence in the Petrobras case.

Dilma chaired the Petrobras board from 2003 to 2011.

On February (3), Gandra explained his thesis in an article in the Trends/Debates section (p. A3), with the caveat that an “impeachment” proceeding in the Congress is more political that it is judicial.

He also informed the reader that the brief had been commissioned by José de Oliveira Costa, who, as the Folha revealed the next day, is a board member of the Instituto FHC — the Cardoso Foundation.

What Is in a Name?

Publishing the Gandra article was a correct thing to do: It was newsworthy and was positioned in the traditional space for debate on page A3, inside the first section of the paper. The emphasis afforded by a call-out on the front page, however, confers disproportionate weight on an issue that lacks a corresponding institutional dimension.”

FHC himself recognized this when he said that removal from office “at this moment, lacks political importance.” Okay, then, so this statement is probably part of some of political theater, but it also reveals that the Toucan is aware that this horse has yet to be saddled.

There exist no political conditions for an “impeachment” process. The opposition may be tuning its instruments, but (dis)harmony is more pronounced in the government itself than among its adversaries. Since last Sunday, Dilma lost an election for the presidency of the lower house, faced a rebellion and a mass resignation in the board of directors of Petrobras, watch as a third parliamentary inquiry (CPI) into Petrobras was formed and ended the week with the accusation that her party received up to $200 million in bribes from contractors.

See also The Other R$ 200 Million Bribery Scandal | São Paulo TCE

MPF: «The name of this case is Operation Car Wash»

MPF: «The name of this case is Operation Car Wash»

With the news flow reaching a boiling point (the dream of any journalist), on Wednesday this newspaper officially adopted the topic name «Petrolão» for related news, substituting “the Petrobras Scandal” in use before.

Senior editors said the change was made because the term has been consecrated by common usage and expresses the political dimensions of the chaos inside the company.

A similar coinage is applied by the situation to the cartelization scandal in São Paulo mass transit, with “trensalão” — «the mensalão of the trains» — used to refer to cartel formation in public transit works under the PSDB governments of São Paulo.

This term has been “consecrated” by the unionist CUT and other organs of the left and according to a quick Google has been “consecrated” by 93,900, while «petrolão» has been “consecrated” by 706,000.

But “cartel +São Paulo” has attracted 967,000 pilgrims, 46,300 of whom represent hits on news sites.

The nickname «petrolão» is used by Veja and, with some frequency, by Época. In the major dailies, it has been used by two columnists and an editorial in O Globo. Taken together, this does not exactly amount to a “consecration” of the term, and its adoption at this point, like it or not, has uncomfortably partisan overtones.

The search for epithets that dispense explanation is a journalistic tradition. These dramatic phrases officiously label the case and make their way into common usage.

«Petrolão» has a chance to become the short, popular, definitive name for the scandal, but in the present context, I do not think it does credit to the objectivity and impartiality of the Folha.

I tend to use “the Car Wash case,” and other monikers coined by the federal police, in reference in this case to the fact that a car wash used as a money laundering front was what broke the case. For better or worse, law enforcement and prosecutors are responsible for the designation of large operations. These are sometimes politically nuanced, it is true.

The PF has a tradition of deft haiku-manship in naming its major cases — Satiagraha was a memorable case, and a recent case involving human smuggling into the U.S. borrowed the term “Coiote” — a figure well-known from the streets of Tijuana. Someone in the bureaucracy that processes these cases has a classical education, an ear for popular jargon, and a discrete sense of irony — «Pandora’s Box» …

Mino on the Origins of Petrolão

This week’s CartaCapital also ponders the memetics of the «petrolão», arguing that it is used to remove focus from other major players in the culture of bribery at Petrobrás — a culture that goes back decades.

The anxiety to frame the PT as a major source of corruption has as its symbolic expression in the term “petrolão.” As far as we know, the expression was coined by federal deputy Antônio Imbassahy (PSDB-BA), leader of the opposition, but was linked to the party by a faction in the press, including Veja and Época magazine and certain columnists during the Car Wash investigation.

The connection may have been be made without any critical analysis, but it can also have emerged from a the effort to create a specific political effect — an effort to reinforce the image, built on partial versions of reality, that the PT is the most corrupt party in Brazil.

The term petrolão conveys this in two ways: because it references the mensalão, which sent ranking petistas to prison, and because it simultaneously circumscribes the corruption at Petrobras, under PT management for 12 years now.

It is not exactly news that the term connotes a political bone of contention. A significant fraction of the establishment media is visibly dedicated to proving the thesis that the PT has a monopoly on corruption.

To question this “reality” in the newsroom is never easy. For reporters and editors, it is often an extremely sensitive undertaking to suggest otherwise, when it is possible at all. Among columnists, it is time to open the floodgates for personal attacks, as a recent example demonstrated. Anyone saying anything remotely positive about the PT must needs be receiving dirty money from the PT, isn’t that so?

The Semler  Betrayal

On January 21, executive Ricardo Semler, a PSDB member and former MIT professor, published in the Folha de S.Paulo an article headlined “Never have [so many] robbed so little” — “Nunca se roubou tão pouco” — in which he offers some thoughts on corruption in Brazil.

Semler said that it is impossible to do business with Petrobrás without paying a bribe, that he did not vote for Dilma, and that the “healing process” of anti-corruption measures was the project of the nation, and not of any particular party.

This last point was sufficient provocation for the Folha to run, the following day, an article by Demetrio Magnoli, a columnist who mainly targets the PT, in which he includes Semler in the ranks of  “courtiers” who desire to “normalize the scandal,” insinuating that Semler only expressed this position because he has a contract with the federal postal service.

Corruption Pre-PT

In fact, recalling corruption cases from the past is a strategic tool for the PT. It shores up the confidence of the rank and file and reinforces the myth of a victimization (victimization by the elite, by the press, by the system) that the party is struggling to overcome.

It does not work, however, as a way of concealing the absurd episodes that Car Wash has revealed and will continue to reveal.

The federal police investigation and the opinion of the Federal Public Ministry [prosecutor] in the Car Wash case leave little doubt about how deeply the PT is involved in the investigation. The name of party treasurer João Vaccari Neto is mentioned on various occasions and at least two former Petrobras directors – Renato Duque and Pedro Barusco – are accused of mounting a system of bridges for the diversion of public funds.

Other Petrobras directorates, say the PF and MPF, came under the control of the PP and the PMDB, revealing how the company was divvied up among political allies.

There is no hiding all of this, which makes it disappointing to see that in its anxiety to denounce the PT, some news media organizations are neglecting parts of Car Wash and, with that, the whole truth.

Taking note of wrongdoing in the PT, however, does not, or at least should not, prevent our discussing the general time-frame and the scope of corruption in Brazil. Because of its depth, Car Wash may be the most important investigation in history, because it includes in its sphere of activity, as the case files show … the will to paint a sweeping portrait of the system as it exists today.


Interesting times, worthy of the CPI of the End of the World in 2005. Over a period of years, it seems as though every invariably CPI in the Congress strives to end the world as we know it.