Suicide, coup d’etat, impeachment, scandal or prison: get elected president in Brazil and you’re almost guaranteed an unhappy ending.
When Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was locked up in federal police headquarters in Curitiba to begin a 12-year sentence for corruption on Saturday, it was a bombshell.
A two-term former president who left office in 2011 as one of the most popular men on the planet, Lula is the frontrunner in October presidential elections.
But seen another way, Lula’s brutal political demise was practically business as usual.
Brazilian presidents get to live in an incredible Oscar Niemeyer-designed palace in Brasilia. They rule over a resource-rich country of 209 million people with the world’s biggest rainforest and possibly the best football team.
Then somehow things tend to go wrong.
At least Lula finished his two terms. His successor Dilma Rousseff, whom he propelled to victory in 2010, was stripped of office in impeachment proceedings for cooking the budget books in 2016, halfway through her second term.
Inheriting the green and yellow sash was her vice president, Michel Temer.
He’s still there, but his future’s murky. Last year he was twice charged with corruption, becoming the first Brazilian president to face criminal prosecution while still in office.
For now, at least, he remains shielded by presidential immunity.
Go back a little further, to 1992, and you have president Fernando Collor de Mello. He was impeached after corruption allegations and resigned two years into his first term.
Prosecutors are after him again now and in 2015 they impounded his spectacular fleet of luxury cars.
Oh and just for good measure, another of the five living ex-presidents — Jose Sarney, who ruled from 1985-1990 — is also facing a corruption probe. It’s worth noting that he only rose to the presidency because he was deputy to Tancredo Neves, who’d won the election, but died before taking office.
“Going into politics is a risky business,” columnist Angela Alonso wrote Sunday in Folha de S.Paulo newspaper. “In Brazil there’s a risk of losing an election, your freedom (prison is in vogue) and your life.”
That was especially true for president Joao Goulart, known to everyone as Jango.
He became president in 1961 after the resignation of Janio Quadros, who lasted barely half a year in office. Then in 1964, Goulart was overthrown in the military coup which would install a dictatorship lasting two decades.
Escaping, he spent the rest of his life in exile, dying in Argentina in 1976 — officially of a heart attack, though there were unproven claims that he was poisoned.
Most tragic of all Brazil’s leaders was Getulio Vargas. A populist, he ruled in two periods through the 1930s-1950s, doing much to transform the country into an industrial powerhouse.
Then 24 August, 1954, he shot himself through the heart with a revolver in his presidential palace, leaving a suicide note to the Brazilian people, reading: “I gave you my life, now I give you my death.”
Question of democracy
Delving back into early Brazilian history, it doesn’t get any better. In fact, the country’s first president founded the republic with a coup d’etat in 1889, ending the Empire of Brazil.
Mauricio Santoro, at the international relations department of Rio State University, says the dismal experience of life in the presidents’ club reflects deep problems with democracy.
“Today, democracy is broader based than it used to be, but it remains marked by instability,” he said. “This makes it hard for presidents to have longterm policies.”
The good news is that the anti-corruption drive getting so many of Brazil’s leaders into trouble simultaneously reflects the country’s growing maturity.
“The difference is that here we have a judiciary enjoying quite a bit of autonomy, especially at the lower levels… with a huge investigative power,” Santoro said. “Society has changed far more quickly than the political system.”
In other words, Brazilians may one day start electing calm, stable, honest presidents. Could October 2018 be that moment?
Santoro isn’t holding his breath.
“Judging by the current presidential candidates,” he said, “I’m afraid it will take a little more time.”