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What's more poisonous: Brazil's politics or its toxic sludge?

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff
REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker
Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff gesturing as she attends the May Day celebrations in Sao Paulo on Sunday.

The Zika virus. Sewage-infested water. Toxic mud. A never-ending cascade of political scandals and a severe recession. Oh, and the president is being impeached.

Makes you want to rush off to Rio, doesn’t it?

Very few things are going right in Brazil, which will host the Olympic Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, starting in less than 100 days. But here’s a prediction: The games will go off reasonably well, even if that’s a result of athletes and spectators being largely sealed off from the turmoil.

The big reckoning will come later. And if Brazilians are determined, they have a chance to sweep away much of a rotten political class. There always are dire warnings about the readiness of Olympic venues at this stage. They are rarely borne out. Brazil’s problems do seem bigger, however.

It is the epicenter of infection by the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which causes microcephaly and underdeveloped brains in infants. Investigations by The Associated Press last year showed that Olympic sailors will be competing in water that is about as clean as raw sewage. A section of elevated bikeway, part of a coastal network being completed in time for the Olympics, collapsed last week, killing two people. 

Even though it won’t affect the Olympics, no one really likes toxic sludge. A wave of it traveled down the Rio Doce late last year after a dam at an iron mine collapsed. 

Overall, though, Olympic venues are reported to be about 98 percent complete.

Arguably, Brazil’s economy and politics are an even bigger disgrace.

On April 17, the lower house of Congress Brazil’s voted 367-137 to start impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff. There is a good chance she will be suspended from office while the Olympic games are going on. She may already have been removed.

Rousseff has made some big policy mistakes – her mishandling of a collapse in commodity prices helped create a deep recession. The budget deficit, unemployment and inflation are all way too high. She suffers some guilt by association in a huge kickback scandal, dubbed “Operation Carwash,” that centers on the state oil company, Petrobras. A decade ago, she was chair of the company’s administrative council. Her effort to bring her popular predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, into her Cabinet as her chief of staff, smacks of cronyism and perhaps an effort to shield Lula from prosecution.

But the grounds on which she is being impeached are flimsy – using smoke-and-mirror accounting to get around a constitutional requirement that the country balance its budget. By most accounts, Rousseff — an economist and former political prisoner — actually is one of the relatively few honest politicians Brazil has.

On the other hand, Congress provides a great port in a storm: members are immune from prosecution, except by the Supreme Court – which is pretty rare.

Here are a few startling facts, courtesy of the Economist: About 60 percent of the members of Congress face accusations of criminal wrongdoing. Twenty-one are under investigation in the Petrobras scandal. The speaker of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha, who presided over the impeachment vote, actually has been charged.

It’s quite possible that Rousseff simply isn’t up to the task of fixing the economy. But impeachment? Her real problem seems to be her distaste for the traditional give-and-take of Brazilian politics, which often includes the giving and taking of bribes. And she may be more of a target because she is a woman.

Brazil long was regarded as a country that could never quite reach its vast potential. It suffered from economic mismanagement, military dictatorships and corruption. But in the past decade, it seemed to be putting the past behind it. The economy was booming because of commodity exports to China and other markets. Millions were lifted out of poverty.

Being awarded the 2016 Olympic games was recognition of its new status. 

Its current troubles will set the country back. There may be an Olympic hangover from all of the infrastructure spending needed to get ready. It’s hard to see how any of the current crop of leaders will get Brazil on the right track. So the best option seems to be taking a deep breath and throwing the bums – all of them – out. Or at least most of them.

Fortunately, that’s not just a dream. The military, which has seized power in the past, isn’t interested anymore. Citizens are largely keeping their cool. Plus, the country has developed investigatory and legal institutions that continue to do their jobs in the midst of the turmoil. It has become very hard to hide.

If you look at it this way, the sheer number of politicians who are in trouble is a sign of a shift in what’s considered acceptable behavior. It’s actually pretty clear now who has been doing what. The trickier thing will be punishing them – legally, and politically.

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