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This stunning fact about corruption in Brazil helps explain its political crisis

Rio 2016 Olympic Games: President Dilma Rousseff Unveils the Olympic Aquatics Stadium at the Barra Olympic Park
Dilma Rousseff.
(Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

Late Sunday night, Brazil's lower house of Congress voted to impeach the president, Dilma Rousseff. The charges will now go to the Brazilian senate, which will decide whether Rousseff can keep her job.

Ostensibly, the case is about a cover-up: Rousseff allegedly fudged government accounting to hide the scope of the government's deficit problem during the 2014 reelection campaign.

But the impeachment drive isn't actually about anger at statistical manipulation. How do we know? Because the vast majority of Brazil's Congress is itself facing corruption charges, as the Los Angeles Times's Vincent Bevins explains:

Of 65 members on the impeachment commission, 37 face charges of corruption or other serious crimes, according to data prepared for the Los Angeles Times by the local organization Transparencia Brasil.

Of the 513 members of the lower house in Congress, 303 face charges or are being investigated for serious crimes. In the Senate, the same goes for 49 of 81 members.

So this isn't like Watergate, where a legislature was genuinely stunned by presidential misconduct. It's nigh impossible to imagine that a Congress this corrupt would seriously believe Rousseff's alleged number fudging deserves impeachment.

Rather, what's happening is essentially a political attack on Rousseff's presidency. Her opponents are taking advantage of public anger at her government to replace her: 61 percent of Brazilians citizens support impeaching her, largely for unrelated reasons. The charges of financial impropriety are just a pretext.

Why Rousseff is so vulnerable

Brazil protest Batman Rio
Protestor holding a sign that reads "Out Dilma."
(Steffen Stubager/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Why is the public so mad? The big reason is that Brazil is going through the largest corruption scandal in the country's history — which, if you can believe it, is totally unrelated to Rousseff's alleged electoral shenanigans.

The scandal centers on Petrobras, Brazil's massive state-run oil company. In 2013, investigators uncovered an ongoing scandal, which had been running for about a decade, wherein Petrobras executives secretly created a cartel to coordinate bids on Petrobras contracts. They coordinated with Petrobras workers to systematically overcharge the company, then sent some of the profits to these workers as well as to some politicians. Upward of $5.3 billion changed hands, making this the largest corruption scandal (in dollar terms) in the history of modern democracy.

The scandal played into Brazil's defining political issue: inequality. Ever since colonial times, Brazil has been dominated by wealthy elites who thought they could get away with anything — mostly because they usually did. Hence the mind-boggling percent of Brazil's members of Congress currently under investigation for corruption.

The Petrobras scandal exposed the true scale of Brazil's corruption problem. It implicated the leaders of Brazil's largest state-owned company, its biggest construction firms, and political leaders from across the political spectrum. It exposed elite corruption on a level that, even in Brazil, was previously unimaginable.

Rousseff hasn't been implicated in Petrobras. Ironically, the man leading the campaign to impeach her, House Speaker Eduardo Cunha, has actually himself been indicted on Petrobras-related charges. He faces up to 184 years in prison if convicted.

But Rousseff has gotten the lion's share of the blame nonetheless.

That's because from 2003 to 2010, Rousseff was the chair of Petrobras's board. The scandal occurred under her watch, a seemingly damning indictment of her judgment and competence. Moreover, her party — the leftist Workers' Party (PT) — has cultivated a reputation for cleanliness, for sticking up for the common people against a corrupt system. Evidence that a number of PT politicians were involved in Petrobras has tarnished that brand considerably.

At roughly the same time the public learned about the Petrobras scandal, Brazil's economy was going through a major crisis. Years of high government spending helped create a debt and inflation problem. The collapse in oil and other commodities prices has shrunk some of Brazil's most lucrative industries. It's an even worse version of the stagflation Americans experienced in the 1970s: The Brazilian real (its currency) is rapidly losing value at the same time as the country is experiencing a recession.

The combination of the massive corruption scandal and the recession drove literally millions of protesters into the street calling for Rousseff's ouster.

"The recession is driving the anger," Brian Winter, the vice president of the Americas Society and Council on the Americas, told me last month. "There was a corruption scandal of smaller, but still epic proportions, 10 years ago ... and the [incumbent] government survived, in large part because the economy was good."

Rousseff's opponents, like Cunha, are taking advantage of this massive public pressure to push her out — even though they're as corrupt, if not more so. Many Rousseff allies, like Vice President Michel Temer, have abandoned her, wanting to get on the right side of public opinion. Last week, Temer accidentally released a tape of himself practicing his presidential acceptance speech.

And so impeachment proceedings are considering apace.

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