If Brazilian Politics Were a TV Script, They’d Fire the Writer

Politics in Brasilia have not exactly hauled themselves out of the gutter since Dilma Roussef was impeached, writes Joao Sette Camara. Sleazy real estate deals and secretive dealmaking have already touched the new president, even as it becomes increasingly clear to Brazilians that the people who removed Roussef were actually trying to hide their own misdeeds.

Ever since the impeachment of former president Dilma Roussef, Brazilian politics has taken on the air of the script of a bad soap opera, with plot twists and petty disputes in every new episode. Since he took office, former vice-president Michel Temer’s administration has been fraught with scandals, the first one being the very impeachment process that led him to the president’s chair.

These last few days haven’t been different. As Congress was preparing to vote in a package of anticorruption measures last week, the minister of Culture, Marcelo Calero, unexpectedly resigned saying that the president himself as well as his chief cabinet minister, Geddel Vieira Lima, were pressuring him to get the construction permit approved for a building in which Geddel had bought an apartment. The building in question is to be built in the historic part of the city of Salvador, and the National Institute of Historic and Artistic Heritage (Iphan, in the Portuguese acronym), part of the Ministry of Culture, embargoed the construction, saying it could only have 13 of the 30 floors planned on the blueprint.

Minister Geddel had however bought the apartment on the 25th floor; if the embargo was not overturned, he would lose it. After asking the minister of Culture to pressure the Institute of Historic Heritage to review the decision and hearing he wouldn’t do it, Geddel asked the President to intervene. And after a meeting in which the President pressured Calero to remove the case from the Institute of Historic Heritage, the minister of Culture resigned saying he had no place in the government anymore. He was the fifth minister to resign in only six months of the new government.

Public opinion was shocked by this new scandal: ministers and even the President using their offices to solve personal issues. At first, Geddel and Temer denied the accusations, but they had not counted on what emerged next: Calero had taped all of the conversations, which are being transcribed as I write. With that, Geddel became the sixth minister to resign, and opposition parties have now filed for impeachment against the President.

Political corruption of a slightly different flavor is meanwhile occupying the minds of the President and his allied lawmakers, though the legislative solution they originally contemplated might come as a surprise. As the country was discussing a package of anticorruption measures Congress was about to vote, rumors surfaced that the congressmen would add a side amendment “that would have retroactively protected any member of Congress from being punished for the use of so-called ‘caixa dois’ (second box) monies in campaigns, whereby politicians receive under-the-table contributions from oligarchs and corporations that they do not declare”, as Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept reported. Numerous current congressmen, and even the President, have taken such money and would benefit from this amendment, but they denied its existence. Until abruptly, seeing his popularity reach new lows, Temer acknowledged the existence of the amendment and launched a campaign against it, along with his remaining loyal congressmen.

In another chapter of the story, the Senate voted and approved last Monday the package of austerity measures proposed by the new Government. People took to the streets of Brasilia in a protest that was heavily repressed by the police and generated one of the images that is most emblematic of Temer’s government. Taken by Gisele Arthur and posted on Twitter, the striking picture shows an elegant cocktail party going on inside one of the rooms of the Congress building; through a huge picture window in the background, police are attacking demonstrators.

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Photo: Gisele Arthur

On the same day the picture was taken, Congress started voting the anticorruption measures. At 4 a.m., the measure was finally approved, though in vastly different form; of the twelve existing measures, only one survived as first planned. The president was successful in his campaign, and the amendment legalizing previous under the table payments was not added to the text. But among the changes to the bill, legislators had refused to classify as a crime the illicit enrichment of public servants (many of they themselves are of course guilty of this). The changes to the text and the backroom atmosphere of its approval infuriated many, and a national demonstration is planned for Sunday, December 4th. Establishment journalists who were initially favorable to Temer’s government are already beginning to reevaluate their support.

The biggest threat to Temer’s government once seemed to be its capacity for self-sabotage, with the many ministers and congressmen involved in scandals and unpopular measures being imposed on the population. But now it faces a new threat; people seem to be waking up to the fact that impeaching President Dilma was, paradoxically, a means to stop corruption investigations that might have sent an unprecedented number of politicians to jail. If Temer wishes to remain in office until 2018, he should really start listening to the streets and stop pressuring his ministers on petty issues like yet-to-be-built apartments with beach views. What Brazil needs the most now is political and economic stability, but the writers of this dreadful soap opera don’t seem to understand that, at least not yet.

Joao Sette Camara