It was early Wednesday evening, May 17. We had just left our weekly pick-up soccer game at Rio de Janeiro’s Flamengo Park. As usual, Raphael, Felipe and I walked to nearby Catete subway station, chatting as we went. We stopped at one of the entrances to the station to continue our talk before parting to our respective homes. Our chats usually cover history, politics or culture — this time we spoke about the runaway slave community of Palmares, miscegenation in Argentina, and the latest absurdities of the Donald Trump saga.
None of us suspected that at that very moment, at 7:30 p.m., journalist Lauro Jardim was lobbing a bombshell right into the heart of the country’s capital city, Brasilia.
When I got home I would find out, initially on social media, that Brazilian President Michel Temer had been caught on tape giving the green light to payments intended to buy the silence of disgraced former representative Eduardo Cunha and money-moving middleman Lúcio Funaro, both of whom are in jail. Moreover, Representative Rodrigo Rocha Loures, one of Temer’s right-hand men, was also filmed receiving a suitcase with R$500,000 (US$150,000). Both the tape and the suitcase were provided by Joesley Batista, owner of the food giant JBS, who was cooperating with the Federal Police as part of Operation Carwash, an anti-corruption investigation that has exposed rampant collusion between Brazil’s business and political elites.
While it is still unclear how journalist Jardim received the information Batista recounted to prosecutors, this is what was further revealed: Batista had paid the equivalent of US$1.5 million to Cunha after his arrest and admitted owing another US$6 million to the former president of the House of Representatives as part of a deal to approve a law guaranteeing tax breaks for the chicken industry. In a face-to-face meeting at Temer’s residence in March, the businessman told the president that both Cunha and Funaro were receiving “allowances” to keep quiet, to which the president replied, “We have to keep that going, OK?” When told that Batista had judges and prosecutors in his pocket, the response was “Great, great.”
At the same meeting, Temer indicated Rocha Loures as the go-to guy for Batista to solve other issues related to his businesses. The sting began with Batista offering Rocha Loures US$150,000 per week for the next 20 years, for a total of more than US$150 million, in exchange for helping out the EPE power plant, owned by Batista’s group, in negotiations over fuel prices with the Administrative Council for Economic Defense, a regulatory agency charged with preventing abuses of economic power. Roucha Loures took the offer up to the president for approval, and the first payment, caught on tape, was made in São Paulo.
But Jardim’s metaphorical bombshell didn’t end there: the Federal Police also taped Senator Aécio Neves, the runner-up in the 2014 presidential elections, asking for R$2 million (US$600,000) from Batista. The police filmed one of Neves’s cousins receiving the money, and then tracked the cash until it was deposited in a company owned by Senator Zezé Perrella, infamous for the episode in which 450 kilograms of cocaine were found in a helicopter owned by his family.
The Worker’s Party, whose 13 years in power came to an end with last year’s impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, of course, wasn’t unscathed: Batista revealed that bribes for the party were negotiated with Guido Mantega, who acted as minister of finance in the Lula da Silva and Dilma governments. Mantega reciprocated by defending JBS’s interests at the National Economic and Social Development Bank (BNDES).
All of these allegations set off a dramatic week in Brasilia. Opposition parties immediately demanded Temer’s resignation — to no one’s surprise — but then even some of the president’s allies joined the call, fearing that the pall hanging over the administration would lead to a situation of total ungovernability. Temer has been nonetheless defiant, declaring that same night that he had no intention of stepping down.
The past few days have been inevitably eventful. Supreme Court Justice Luiz Edson Fachin released the recordings and authorized the opening of an inquiry to investigate the president for obstruction of justice, passive corruption and forming a criminal organization. Temer doubled down, claiming that he was the victim of a conspiracy, and his lawyers began their offensive against the prosecutors. They alleged that the recordings had been doctored and filed a request to suspend the investigation, only to drop it two days later. As of Monday, 14 requests to open impeachment procedures had been filed.
Investigations and impeachments are slow moving processes, but in the end, it might not come to that. The Supreme Electoral Court is to rule on the eligibility of the Dilma-Temer ticket, accused of illegal campaign finance in the 2014 elections, between June 6 and 8. Although Temer’s acquittal in that case was, until last Wednesday, considered all but certain, the latest scandal and ensuing public uproar may present the judges, who are not always prone to purely technical decisions, with a new source of pressure.
So what would happen if Temer resigns or is removed?
According to the Constitution, indirect elections. Congressmen, not few of whom are under investigation themselves, would choose the new president and vice-president. Their choice — which could be any natural-born Brazilian over 35, affiliated to a political party and not deemed ineligible by a court — would hold the office until Jan. 1, 2019, when he or she would be succeeded by the winner of the 2018 elections.
The alternative of direct elections, although nearly a consensus among the population, would require a constitutional amendment and seems unlikely as long as Congress holds the cards. And in any case, the political field is so utterly discredited (between dirty, old names, new celebrities-turned-politicians and even a quasi-fascist demagogue) that no one candidate seems capable of restoring popular trust or satisfying the minimum requirements for a decent head of state.
I don’t know what the best end-game for this situation is. I’m not entirely sure whether Temer will fall or whether he’ll find an ace up his sleeve; if he falls, I’m not confident that Congress can choose someone better. But I do know what I’ll be talking about with Raphael and Felipe after soccer next Wednesday.