São Paulo 11 Dec 2016. Another turbulent week in Brazilian politics. As Brazil lurches from crisis to crisis, it seems more like a country grappling to stay in the present than the country of the future.
The first revelations of the promised “end of the world” plea bargain have been published, exposing a vast and shocking scheme of kickbacks and bribes totalling millions of dollars, paid to many of Brazil’s leading politicians, including President Michel Temer, in exchange for lucrative contracts, tax favours, and laws and government measures tailored to their interests. Politically, it is a bombshell, weakening an already weak government even further.
The 48 politicians mentioned by name come from 11 parties, but the main targets are the top echelons of the PMDB, including several ministers in Temer’s government. Temer himself is mentioned 44 times, all of them referring to when he was a federal deputy and chairman of the PMDB. The details come from the leaked testimony of Odebrecht ex-director Claudio Melo Filho, the first of 77 plea bargains made by Odebrecht executives within the Lava Jato investigations.
Odebrecht, a Brazilian multinacional which during the PT governments became the most powerful construction company in the country, responsible for scores of huge infrastructure projects, set up a special department to coordinate bribe paying. Each politician was given a code name. Temer crony and minister Moreira Franco was the angora cat, because of his fluffy white hair, a nickname given to him originally by Leonel Brizola. Eduardo Cunha, ex-speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, now in prison awaiting trial, was the Crab. The present speaker, Rodrigo Maia, Senate government leader Juca Romero, and minister Eliseu Padilha, accused of landgrabbing and illegal deforestation in a separate case, are also on the list. They all belong to the PMDB.
There are also PSDB politicians, like Antonio Imbassahy, tipped for a post in Temer’s government, and São Paulo’s governor Geraldo Alkmim, of the PSDB, code named the saint, presumably because of his pious, holier than thou, demeanour.
All those accused have strenuously denied the accusations, which, if they are to translate into indictments, need to be supported by physical proof, and ratified by the Supreme Court.
Another PMDB notable on the Odebrecht list is Senate president Renan Calheiros, who was already in the news because of his confrontation with the Supreme Court.
This began when Supreme Court judge Marco Aurelio Mello decided to issue an injunction removing Calheiros from his post as Senate president because of a long-standing corruption charge. When a court official arrived at the Senate to deliver the notification, Calheiros refused to receive it. He got the presiding Senate ‘mesa’ or committee to issue a statement saying that only the full supreme court (STF) in plenary could order the removal of the chamber’s president, not a single judge.
Suddenly we were plunged into a power battle between the powers.
Brasilia went into overdrive: crisis meetings, declarations, conflicting interpretations …. black official cars sped backwards and forwards between the three powers, conveniently located in the same square, because at stake was not only Calheiros’s immediate future, but the future of the Temer government’s new austerity law, which has to be approved by the Senate before the Christmas vacation, to allow it to take effect in 2017. In Renan Calheiros, Temer had a safe pair of hands, something that could not be guaranteed if he was replaced by the senate vice-president Jorge Viana, of the PT. Although Viana, a moderate, might be personally disposed to play ball, he would be under huge pressure from his party to delay the vote.
But the confrontation which began with a bang, ended with a whimper as the STF caved in to pressure from the government and congress, and, in the name of political stability, met in plenary session to overturn Mello’s vote and allow Calheiros to remain as president. A light rap on the knuckles for defying a court order was meted out, he forfeited the right to remain in the line of succession to replace the President should the need arise, but basically Calheiros won.
The decision was widely condemned as a “jeitinho”, an example of the traditional Brazilian custom of finding a way round the law, ironically now practised by the upholders of the law. The bargain struck behind the scenes between the STF and the Senate chairman apparently included a promise by the latter to hold back on a law on the abuse of power, seen as a retaliation aimed at the judges of the Lava Jato investigation, whose targets, as the Odebrecht revelations show, include Calheiros.
The jeitinho might have saved the government’s austerity law, but support for the government is ebbing away fast.
The latest poll, taken just before these revelations, show over 60% of Brazilians want Temer to go, and elections to choose a new president.
Impeachment is now being talked about, although Temer, unlike Dilma, has a majority in Congress. That could change if public opinion begins to call directly for Temer’s head and significant numbers take to the streets.
In Rio they are already calling for the head of the governor, Pezão of the PMDB, in protest at his proposed draconian austerity measures targeting civil servants amid the collapse of the state’s finances. This led to the extraordinary spectacle of heavily armed policemen, looking like so many Darth Vaders, firing teargas and rubber bullets into the crowd from the window of a listed 18th century church, São José. Many of the protesters were themselves policemen and firemen in plain clothes.
The Rio archbishop described the episode as “lamentable” and the next day the Military Police commander apologised.
Another recent revealing photo, taken at a prize giving ceremony, showed two men laughing together, heads bent as one whispered to the other. No problem – except that one was federal judge Sergio Moro, in charge of the Lava Jato investigations, and the other was PSDB leader Aecio Neves, one of those accused. It added fuel to the speculation that while Moro has persecuted PT politicians with zeal, he has spared those PSDB politicians whose names crop up repeatedly in the evidence.
The coming week is crucial for the government. Congress has to approve the so-called PEC 241/55 putting a ceiling on government spending for the next 20 years. Those who oppose the bill say it will cripple education and health services. A recent OECD study showed Brazilian secondary school students near the bottom of a league table of 70 countries in maths, science and reading ability. Among the states, Alagoas, Renan Calheiros’ state, came last in all three categories. While the government wants to effectively cut spending on health, education and welfare, over R$900 billion in unpaid taxes is owed to the treasury by 13,000 individuals and firms.
The season of goodwill is upon us, but it is a safe bet to say that Brazilians are finding it very hard to feel any goodwill towards their government or politicians in general.
Header image: ‘The saint’: Geraldo Alkmim