Pages

Friday, December 2, 2016

Who's Taping Whom? Paranoia Infuses Brasil's Scandal-Ridden Politics



Photo

President Michel Temer of Brazil in Brasília, the capital, in November. The country’s leaders have been engaged in open political warfare for more than a year. CreditUeslei Marcelino/Reuters

RIO DE JANEIRO — Michel Temer, the fledgling president of Brazil, is furious.
One of his own cabinet ministers secretly recorded their conversation, accusing Mr. Temer of pressuring him to help an ally in a property deal. Now Mr. Temer’s enemies are seizing on the scandal to call for his impeachment — just months after he became president through the impeachment of his predecessor.
“A minister recording the president of the republic is appalling,” a grim-faced Mr. Temer, 75, said at a news conference this week. “Absolute indignation.”
Brazil’s leaders have been engaged in open political warfare for more than a year, culminating in the impeachment of Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, and the triumph of Mr. Temer’s party only a few months ago.
But far from settling the matter, the maelstrom of Brazilian politics is entering yet another, tumultuous phase: paranoia.
Continue reading the main story
Much of the increasing nervousness in the capital, Brasília, stems from a sweeping corruption investigation that, despite the change in administrations, has refused to go away.
Politicians are so anxious that only hours after Mr. Temer declared three days of official mourning for a shocking disaster — the crash of a plane carrying a Brazilian soccer team to play in the final of an international tournament — Brazilian lawmakers held a marathon session until 4 a.m. on Wednesday morning. Their focus: gutting the authority of prosecutors and judges who are investigating politicians in corruption cases.
After learning how their lawmakers had spent the night after the tragedy, many Brazilians were furious.
“The entire political structure is corrupt,” said Marcos Defranco, a civil police investigator in São Paulo. “It’s like chasing rats out of one hole and straight into another. The attitude of Congress in their vote the other night shows their fear.”

Photo

Employees with the public prosecutors’ offices of various states in Brasília on Thursday protesting legislation that would allow judges and prosecutors to be charged with abuse of authority. CreditEraldo Peres/Associated Press

Ms. Rousseff’s supporters contend that her rivals impeached her primarily to thwart the investigation into extensive corruption at the national oil company, Petrobras. Indeed, some of Mr. Temer’s cabinet ministers have been caught in secret recordings discussing how to derail the inquiry, with one explicitly describing Ms. Rousseff’s ouster as a way to impede federal prosecutors.
But while Ms. Rousseff is gone, the investigation is not. Politicians are now growing especially jittery over a pending plea deal by executives from a giant Brazilian construction company at the center of the case.
According to leaks of testimony, executives from the company, Odebrecht — including Marcelo Odebrecht, the former chief executive now serving a 19-year prison term — are expected to reveal a web of bribes and kickbacks involving dozens of federal legislators and other prominent political leaders.
Odebrecht issued a statement on Thursday apologizing for its misdeeds, while Brazilian news organizations reported that the company had agreed to pay about $2 billion as part of the leniency agreement.
With tempers flaring and suspicions high, Brazilian politicians have turned to a trusty way of protecting themselves and betraying one another: secret recordings.
At each major turn in Brazil’s political crisis over the last year, the recordings are revealing tactics that would make Machiavelli proud.
The crisis entered high gear just a year ago when a struggling young actor secretly recorded a plot by Delcídio do Amaral, a former senator in Ms. Rousseff’s party, to spirit a jailed oilman out of the country to prevent him from testifying about the extent of corruption surrounding the national oil company. The ensuing scandal destabilized the government controlled by Ms. Rousseff’s leftist Workers’ Party.
Then more secret recordings emerged in March, revealing how Ms. Rousseff had offered a cabinet post to her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in a move that would have helped shield him from prosecution. The recordings were part of a graft investigation and damaged the reputations of nearly everyone involved, including the judge who released the intercepts and then apologized afterward, facing claims that he was biased against Mr. da Silva.
But after Ms. Rousseff was first suspended from office in May — on charges of manipulating the budget to hide economic problems — it turned out that Brazil’s double-crossing political class was just getting warmed up.

Photo

Dilma Rousseff leaving the presidential residence in Brasília in September after the Senate voted to oust her.CreditAdriano Machado/Reuters

Sérgio Machado, the chief executive of a subsidiary of the national oil company, revealed that he had been recording conversations with an array of leaders in Mr. Temer’s party, including José Sarney, a former president, and Renan Calheiros, the head of the Senate.
Mr. Machado’s trove of recordings promptly produced the resignations of Mr. Temer’s planning minister, Romero Jucá, who plotted to thwart the huge investigation into graft around Petrobras, and even the anticorruption minister, Fabiano Silveira, who also tried to stymie the same inquiry.
“This thing with the recordings shows that trust in politics is in extremely short supply,” said Antonio José Valverde, a professor of ethics and political philosophy at Catholic University of São Paulo. “The best allegory for this moment is an image circulating on the internet: rats devouring the flag of Brazil.”
Some Brazilians had hoped that Ms. Rousseff’s impeachment would calm the political system, enabling leaders to focus on mending an economy enduring its worst crisis in decades. This week, the authorities disclosed that gross domestic product shrank 2.9 percent in the third quarter from the same period last year, plunging the country deeper into a slump.
But the political drama of recent days has raised concerns that the scandals could distract the authorities from focusing on the economy. On Thursday, for instance, the Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Calheiros, the powerful chief of the Senate and an ally of Mr. Temer, should stand trial on graft charges.
Marcelo Calero, Mr. Temer’s culture minister, said shortly after stepping down last month that the president had pressured him to overrule a historical preservation measure that was halting the construction of a luxury tower in the northeastern city of Salvador.
Geddel Vieira Lima, a top political ally of Mr. Temer who held the title of government secretary, one of the most influential posts in the cabinet, had invested in an apartment in the building and wanted construction to proceed.
Mr. Calero sought to justify recording the president as a “procedural issue.”
Mr. Temer is now facing the most acute crisis of his short presidency, but few observers see him at any imminent risk of falling. His government’s coalition still controls Congress. The calls for his impeachment are coming from parties in the opposition. Mr. Temer has argued that he was merely seeking a “technical” solution for the problem in his cabinet involving Mr. Lima, who has also resigned.
But with technology advancing to the point where just about anyone with a smartphone can secretly record an office conversation, nerves are fraying about such betrayals in Brazil’s increasingly paranoid political establishment.
“I joke that the only safe place for a conversation between politicians is in the swimming pool, where recording equipment obviously cannot function,” said Renato Janine Ribeiro, a former education minister in Ms. Rousseff’s government who is also a professor of political philosophy at the University of São Paulo.

Continue reading the main story