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Brazil's Former President Questioned In Corruption Investigation


To Brazil now, where earlier today police questioned the country's former president about a massive corruption scheme. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, still wields enormous power in Brazil. Even though he was released, investigators continue to look into how Lula may have benefited from an elaborate kickback scheme involving Petrobras, the state-controlled oil giant. Now, for more on what today's move means for Lula and for Brazil's government, we're joined by Simon Romero. He's the Brazil Bureau chief for The New York Times. Welcome to the program.

SIMON ROMERO: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: First, help us understand the scope of this investigation into Petrobras, the state-controlled oil giant, because it's been going on for a while, right?

ROMERO: It's been going on for well over a year now, and it's an investigation that has shaken the entire political establishment in Brazil, and now it's impacting one of the most powerful figures in the country. Lula was really the face of Brazil's boom in the previous decade and is one of the most towering politicians in the country today, so for this investigation to find get to him is an enormous deal.

CORNISH: And he served in office from 2003 to 2010. What sort of pull does he still have with the people who do control Brazil's government?

ROMERO: Well, Lula has an incredible amount of sway still. He's someone who came up from very humble origins, so his life trajectory is something that many people in Brazil still identify with. So within the governing Workers' Party, he has a lot of power. He has power to name ministers, some people say. And he's very close with the current president as well. She's his handpicked successor.

CORNISH: You mentioned Brazil's current president, Dilma Rousseff. She was also the chairwoman of the board of Petrobras. Has she been implicated in this scandal?

ROMERO: Not in the sense of investigators saying that she was personally enriched as a result of the scandal, but there are new reports emerging this week claiming that she may have had a hand in trying to derail the investigations. She was chairwoman of the board for years, so she has come under a good deal of criticism over not having identified the wrongdoing at that time.

CORNISH: What's been the response from the public to this investigation, especially now that it's turning to Lula specifically?

ROMERO: Well, there's an incredible amount of polarization. We saw groups of people gathering in front of Lula's house in Sao Paulo this morning. You had people shouting at one another, and some fistfights even broke out. Some of his supporters are claiming that this is equivalent of a coup attempt, an attempt to remove Rousseff from power and prevent Lula from running again. And other people are saying that this is simply a display of rule of law in Brazil, that no one in Brazil can be above the law at this time.

CORNISH: What are Brazilians saying about their government? I mean, we haven't mentioned here that Dilma Rousseff - she's already facing impeachment proceedings, right, connected to another issue with state banks. I mean, what are people saying about corruption more broadly?

ROMERO: You know, there's a growing level of disenchantment with governing institutions in Brazil. And in a sense, it's a healthy development because you have investigators and prosecutors going to work and finding out these things and revealing them to the public. But as a result, you have a lot of growing distrust in the way that government functions in Brazil.

CORNISH: Simon Romero is Brazil bureau chief for The New York Times. Thank you for speaking with us.

ROMERO: Thanks so much for having me.

CORNISH: And Simon Romero joined us via Skype. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.