- - Tuesday, March 22, 2016

SAO PAULO, Brazil — Two years after a massive police operation opened the largest corruption case in Brazil’s history, the scandal that has ensnared President Dilma Rousseff and other top figures is playing out in countless courtrooms and government buildings.

But the main stage of Operation Car Wash — which threatens to bring down much of the country’s political class — has long since shifted from government offices and courtrooms to the streets and squares of cities across South America’s most populous nation.

Protests drawing hundreds of thousands of citizens have become staples of public life as Brazil deals with the fallout of the billion-dollar corruption probe and simultaneously confronts its worst recession in more than a century.

Massive back-to-back rallies last week by supporters of the embattled Ms. Rousseff and her detractors, respectively, seem to suggest that the much-decried polarization is about to boil over.

In few places, meanwhile, are the tensions of a political system under strain as tangible as in Sao Paulo’s iconic Paulista Avenue, where a half-million people gathered last week to demand Ms. Rousseff’s ouster in what was billed as the largest political demonstration in Brazil’s history.

Five days later, police cleared the landmark thoroughfare just to make room for a sea of red-clad supporters of the president’s Workers’ Party and aligned trade unions assembled for a show of force by her mentor and predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who had last addressed a Paulista crowd shortly after winning the presidency in 2002.

Hours after the city’s largest street reopened for traffic Saturday, government critics were back once again, reclaiming their turf by beating drums and setting up tents to ready for the next round of protests while tourists snapped pictures from a passing bus.

“I came here on a Saturday — I’m in the street simply because the Brazilian people no longer tolerate the level of corruption and the disdain with which this ‘un-government’ treats the population,” said one of the protesters, 65-year-old Carmen Teresinha Lutti.

The retired lawyer and social worker, who arrived at the avenue clad in a Brazilian flag to join a lively crowd waving inflatable dolls of Ms. Rousseff and Mr. da Silva in prison garb, cited a feeling of disenfranchisement as the reason she shows up in person rather than writing, posting or petitioning.

“The street is the people’s public space par excellence,” she said. “Our partisan political system today doesn’t meet the people’s expectations in any way. And the street is where the people express themselves genuinely and with all their force.”

Ms. Lutti and other government critics count on that force to solve the divisive political crisis that could result in an impeachment trial against the president. Complicating matters is the fact that the two individuals next in line of succession — Vice President Michel Temer and House Speaker Eduardo Cunha — are facing corruption charges of their own.

Popular discontent has been fueled by a deep sense of disappointment and disillusionment. Brazil just a few years ago was seen as a rising global economic superpower, a leader of a bloc of emerging nations led by the charismatic Mr. da Silva. That sense of a rising Brazil seemed confirmed when the country in short order won the right to host the 2014 soccer World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. But a stagnant economy, hurt by falling world oil prices and a slowing China, has combined with the political scandal to spark a mood of anger and protest.

A poll over the weekend provided fresh evidence of the collapse of confidence in the country’s leadership. The poll, by the respected Datafolha agency, found that nearly seven in 10 Brazilians want Ms. Rousseff impeached, while just 10 percent rate the performance of her government as “good” or “excellent.” The percentage supporting impeachment is up 8 points from February.

Approval ratings for Mr. da Silva, a hero of the South American left and the best-known Brazilian politician of this century, also have been tarnished in the Car Wash scandal, down from almost 90 percent positive when he left office in 2010 to 57 percent disapproving today.

The scandal expanded again when Portuguese police in Lisbon announced the arrest of Raul Schmidt Felipe Junior, a suspected bag man in some of the influence-peddling schemes, The Associated Press reported. It was the first arrest in the scandal outside of Brazil.

Taking to the streets

Even among Brazilians not actively engaged in politics, there is a growing sense that taking to the streets is the only way they can make their voices heard.

“My daughter watched a report on the news that talked about [the Brazilian capital of] Brasilia ending up as a pit,” said 33-year-old entrepreneur Ana Rovai, who brought her two young children along with a stroller to the rally. “She woke up saying, ‘Mom, I want to go to the demonstration because I don’t want to live in a pit.”

Another explanation for the larger and larger gatherings may be that Brazilians worried about the country’s endemic corruption have seen the highly complex Car Wash investigation turn largely into a soap opera centered on a handful of archetypal main characters, including Ms. Rousseff, Mr. da Silva and Sergio Moro, the 43-year-old federal judge who has headed the case since its inception.

The Harvard-educated jurist caused a major upheaval — and an online firestorm — last week when he published a bugged phone conversation in which Ms. Rousseff told Mr. da Silva, her predecessor and political mentor, that his appointment as her new chief of staff was a matter of necessity.

Critics interpreted the remark to be a reference to legal immunities he would gain in the post.

To Ms. Rovai, the former president’s entry into the Cabinet — just days after Sao Paulo prosecutors asked a judge to jail the iconic leader and which late last week was at least temporarily blocked by the courts — was shameful. But Mr. da Silva’s defenders instead trained their sights on Judge Moro, whom they denounce as a demagogue.

“Judge Sergio Moro is no longer a judge; he is an opponent,” said Alexandre Putti, a 24-year-old journalism student who spent his Friday night at Mr. da Silva’s Paulista rally. “Politicians should listen to the voice of the people, but a judge needs to listen only to the law. And he hasn’t done that.”

Fellow protester Plinio Aguiar was among those accusing opponents of foul play in their attempt to taint Mr. da Silva and force his successor out of office. “We are living through a wave of coups — both [media-led] and judicial,” the 22-year-old said. “I believe [Ms. Rousseff] is a good president” but that “Congress has not let her govern.”

But Mr. da Silva and his backers lost another round Tuesday when a Brazilian Supreme Court justice rejected his appeal of the decision that blocked him from becoming Ms. Rousseff’s chief of staff.

A final decision on whether Mr. da Silva can assume the Cabinet post is not expected until the full Supreme Court convenes next week, the Associated Press reported.

Despite the vitriol, however, massive rallies on both sides have been remarkably peaceful. And though deeply worried about their country’s crisis, government critics and backers alike seldom tire of expressing their characteristically Brazilian hopefulness.

“I am optimistic because we still trust the institutions,” Ms. Lutti said. “We still have respectable judges, respectable prosecutors and [police] fighting for their autonomy and serving the interests of the people.”

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