As Brazil’s president races to change labor laws, investigators circle

Brazil's President Michel Temer

Brazil's federal police, who have a role analogous to the FBI, reported to the Supreme Court this week they found evidence that President Michel Temer participated in corruption and recommended he be investigated.

If such an investigation is opened, Temer would have to step down.

A 3-year-old anti-corruption probe called Operation Car Wash has advanced deep into the backrooms of Brazilian politics and business, implicating politicians from all major parties through its use of plea bargaining in exchange for reduced sentences. Repeatedly in recent months, Temer has been named in testimony for connections to bribes, but never so explicitly as when, in May, meatpacking magnate Joesley Batista turned over audio and video tapes of Temer approving a hush money payment to an ex-politician and a top Temer aide carrying over $100,000 in a suitcase from a JBS executive.

Temer has repeatedly denied wrongdoing, and, in a statement from his lawyer, declined to comment on the police report, saying that the police “do not accuse, they investigate.” Within a week, Attorney General Rodrigo Janot is scheduled to present charges against Temer to the court. Janot has previously stated that current evidence suggests Temer participated in corruption and obstruction of justice.

In Congress, more than 12 requests for impeachment have been filed against Temer, who has been in office since President Dilma Rousseff was impeached last year for budgetary crimes. His approval rating is under 9 percent.

Still, Federal University of Paraná political scientist Adriano Codato, who tracks power dynamics in Brazilian politics and business, says “currently, Temer has the congressional support to remain in office.” Any investigation of Temer’s wrongdoing by the court needs two-thirds congressional approval to proceed. Codato agrees with an analysis from longtime political journalist João Paulo Charleaux this week: Temer’s survival is currently guaranteed by support from Congress, support from business elites who want the continuation of austerity and labor reforms, and a lack of mobilization in the streets.

Tens of thousands of Brazilians protested nationwide after the meatpacking chief’s tapes were released in May, but per Temer’s orders, those at the steps of Congress were repressed by the army. Since then, says Codato, “it appears many in the Brazilian public have saturated their capacity for outrage, despite continued revelations. Temer benefits from this.”

So, too, does his legislative agenda, which includes freezing spending on health and education, described by a UN rapporteur as putting “Brazil in a socially retrogressive category all of its own,” and a bill to loosen labor regulations that is currently moving through Congress. Leonardo Sakamoto, director of the organization Repórter Brasil that monitors labor conditions nationwide, said, “Brazil’s labor code indeed needs reform, but this proposal has not been discussed broadly by society. It puts worker health, safety and security at risk” in a way that “would be very difficult to reverse.” Sakamoto described the labor bill as “social dumping” that reduces the “Brazil cost” of doing business by “unfairly worsening conditions for Brazilian workers.”

Carolina Soares, the director of a nonprofit in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre that helps residents mobilize around changes they hope to see, describes Temer’s year in office as an “extremely difficult period in which we’ve seen backsliding in various political rights, especially for the poorest.” A historic recession has also left unemployment at over 13 percent. Soares is currently dealing with the fallout from a federal decision to halt payments for viral testing of HIV-positive Brazilians nationwide for two months. “Porto Alegre is going through an HIV epidemic with five times more cases than the national rate, and doctors do not know how much medicine they need to be giving their patients,” she said.  

Soares believes that although accompanying political news “can be exhausting, paying attention is more important now than ever.”

If Temer does not finish his term, his successor may be chosen by Congress, and would likely make similar political decisions. The next direct elections are scheduled for October 2018.

Political scientist Juliana Bueno has been watching Brazil’s political mud fight up close in a temporary position as a Senate aide before she departs for a master’s program at Oxford in a few months. She is working in the office of the Workers' Party, that of impeached President Rousseff. “Rousseff’s administration had major contradictions, for example, the difference between the economic program promised on the campaign trail and that she implemented in office,” she said. “But it’s remarkable to see real proof of crimes committed by Temer that were far more severe than anything Rousseff did, without consequences for him.”

Similarly, she added that “the precedent used to detain various Brazilian politicians before trial change from person to person,” citing differences in the cases of influential senators Delcídio Amaral and Aécio Neves. “Seeing this, how can we confide that institutional measures in Brazil to put checks on power will work in the future?”

Away from the streets, for now, Brazilian political observers are still watching each development in the Operation Car Wash drama, which its prosecutors described as more like "The Walking Dead" than "House of Cards." When a leading newspaper tweeted Tuesday’s news that the police found evidence of Temer’s corruption, Brazilians responded by taking turns tweeting the lyrics to the 1990 pop Brazilian country hit “Evidence,” a favorite of karaoke-goers nationwide.

“I just want to hear you say yes,” they tweeted. “Say it’s true.”  

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