RIO DE JANEIRO —Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on Wednesday appointed her predecessor and mentor, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, as her chief of staff in a move supporters say will help her fight impeachment proceedings and critics blast as a scheme to shield the former leader from possible detention in corruption probes.
Rousseff hailed the appointment, which capped days of intense speculation and hours-long meetings between the two leaders, saying she was “very happy with his arrival.”
“His joining my government strengthens my government,” she said at a news conference in the capital, Brasilia, adding, “Many people don’t want it to be strengthened. But he is coming and he’s coming to help.”
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 a sprawling investigation into corruption at the state-run oil company Petrobras. Wednesday’s 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.
Rousseff herself served as chief of staff under Silva from 2005-2010. That 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.
Rousseff vehemently denied that Silva had accepted the post as a way to delay investigations against him, stressing that Cabinet ministers’ special judicial standing does not grant them immunity.
“It doesn’t mean that he will not be investigated,” Rousseff said. “It’s a question of whom he will be investigated by.”
The head of Silva and Rousseff’s governing Workers’ Party, Rui Falcao, said on Twitter that Silva would be sworn in on Tuesday.
The opposition excoriated Wednesday’s much-anticipated announcement.
Another former president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, called his successor’s appointment “an error,” according to a report in the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper, and analysts have said Silva’s appointment could weaken Rousseff dramatically.
“Dilma will be surrendering the presidency to Lula,” said Thiago de Aragao of the Brasilia-based Arko Advice political consulting firm. “He will become the new president.”
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.”
“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.
Brazil’s stock market and currency both fell sharply on news of the appointment. Silva has made no secret of his desire to dip into international reserves in order to kick-start economic growth, an approach widely criticized by market analysts.
Rousseff denied any plans to use the reserves and said Silva’s two terms in office had proven his commitment to fiscal stability.
Silva, a former metalworker who entered politics as a labor union leader, presided over years of galloping economic growth that saw tens of millions of people lifted out of grinding poverty. Despite a massive bribes-for-votes that took down one of his chiefs of staff, he was wildly popular when he left office in 2010.
His support has since slipped, along with Brazil’s economy and the mushrooming Petrobras corruption probe that has implicated numerous members of his Workers Party and now embroiled Silva himself.
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, Rousseff’s sworn nemesis, who has spearheaded so-far unsuccessful efforts to impeach her.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court 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 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 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.
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