Michel Temer, Brazil’s interim president, displayed poor judgment on his first day in office last month when he appointed an all-white, all-male cabinet. This understandably angered many in racially diverse Brazil.
Their outrage was compounded by the fact that seven of the new ministers had been tainted by a corruption scandal and investigation that have shaken Brazilian politics. The appointments added to the suspicion that the temporary ouster of President Dilma Rousseff last month over allegations that she resorted to unlawful budget-balancing tricks had an ulterior motive: to make the investigation go away. Earlier this year, Ms. Rousseff said that allowing the inquiry into kickbacks at Petrobras, the state oil company, to run its course would be healthy for Brazil in the long run.
Two weeks after the new interim government was seated, Romero Jucá, Mr. Temer’s planning minister, resigned after a newspaper reported on a recorded phone conversation in which Mr. Jucá appeared to endorse the dismissal of Ms. Rousseff as part of a deal among lawmakers to “protect everyone” embroiled in the scandal. That was the only way, he said, to assure that Brazil “would return to being calm.” Late last month, Fabiano Silveira, the minister of transparency, charged with fighting corruption, was forced to resign after a similarly embarrassing leak of a surreptitiously recorded conversation.
This forced Mr. Temer to promise last week that the executive branch would not interfere with the Petrobras investigation, which so far has ensnarled more than 40 politicians. Considering the men Mr. Temer has surrounded himself with, that rings hollow. If the interim president is to earn the trust of Brazilians, many of whom have been protesting Ms. Rousseff’s dismissal as a coup, he and his cabinet must take meaningful steps against corruption.
Under Brazilian law, senior government officials, including lawmakers, enjoy immunity from prosecution under most circumstances. That unreasonable protection has clearly enabled a culture of institutionalized corruption and impunity. Investigators found that Petrobras contracts routinely included a flat kickback rate and that money from bribes got steered to political parties. Petrobras acknowledged last year that at least $1.7 billion of its revenue had been diverted to bribes.
“Systemic corruption schemes are damaging because they impact confidence in the rule of law and in democracy,” Sérgio Moro, the federal judge who has overseen the Petrobras investigation, wrote in an essay in Americas Quarterly last month, adding, “Crimes that are uncovered and proven must, respecting due process, be punished.”
Brazil is not the only nation in the region bedeviled by corruption. A scandal in Bolivia has tarred the image of President Evo Morales. Colombia has begun an anticorruption campaign partly in response to revelations of kickbacks in state contracts. Under heavy international pressure, Guatemala and Honduras have agreed to let anticorruption task forces staffed by international experts help local prosecutors tackle high-profile investigations.
It is not clear how far Mr. Temer will go to root out corruption. If he is serious, and wants to end suspicion about the motives for removing Ms. Rousseff, he would be wise to call for a law ending immunity for lawmakers and ministers in corruption cases.
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