Corruption scandal throws Brazil's interim government into disarray

Brazilian interim President Michael Temer during his visit to Congress in Brasilia on May 23, 2016.
Brazilian interim President Michael Temer during his visit to Congress in Brasilia on May 23, 2016. PHOTO: EPA
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (centre) greets supporters outside the Planalto Palace, in Brasilia, Brazil on May 12.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (centre) greets supporters outside the Planalto Palace, in Brasilia, Brazil on May 12.PHOTO: EPA

BRASILIA (AFP) - Acting Brazilian president Michel Temer's government faced its first major crisis Monday (May 23) when a key minister stepped aside following a leaked recording in which he appears to discuss using the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff to derail a huge corruption probe.

Planning Minister Romero Juca said in a hurried appearance before television cameras that he would step aside starting Tuesday. Although he did not resign, he was not expected to return, the Globo news site reported, quoting sources close to Temer.

The scandal threatened Temer just 11 days after taking power from Rousseff, who was suspended from the presidency on May 12 by the Senate for the start of an impeachment trial on charges of breaking government accounting rules.

Juca, who is Temer's right-hand man, had been due to help lead the team asking Congress to approve urgent - and potentially controversial - measures aimed at pulling Brazil out of recession.

 

The Folha newspaper released what it said were recordings of conversations in March between Juca and Sergio Machado, a former oil executive. The recordings were allegedly made secretly by Machado who, like Juca, is a target of a probe into massive embezzlement centered on state oil company Petrobras.

In the conversations, Juca is heard calling for a "national pact" that he appears to suggest would stop the probe, known as Operation Car Wash, in which dozens of top ranking politicians from a variety of parties, as well as business executives, have been charged or already convicted for involvement in the Petrobras scheme.

In comments immediately taken up by Rousseff supporters as evidence for her claim that the impeachment process is a coup in disguise, Juca says: "We need to change the government to stop this bleeding."

"I am talking to the generals, the military commanders. They are fine with this, they said they will guarantee it," he says.

He also says that he has been clearing his plans with justices on the Supreme Court, which oversees impeachment proceedings.

Temer came under pressure from opponents and Brazilian media outlets to fire Juca. However, Temer made no comment after brief discussions on the matter with allies at the Senate building.

"I am considering all this story to see whether he will stay or not at the ministry, but I am waiting for explanations from the minister," Temer was quoted as saying by the Estadao news site earlier.

Temer took over from Rousseff automatically on May 12 because he was vice president, but he suffers rock bottom approval ratings and faces major challenges to his authority and legitimacy as his centre-right government seeks to roll back her leftist policies.

Hecklers greeted Temer at the Senate by repeatedly shouting "putschist!"

Protesters were also out in the Argentine capital Buenos Aires where new Brazilian Foreign Minister Jose Serra was visiting.

"Out with Temer, out with Serra," they chanted.

In Brazil, former Rousseff minister Ricardo Berzoini said on Facebook that the leaked conversations showed "the true reason for the coup against democracy and against Dilma Rousseff's legitimate mandate."

"The object was to halt Car Wash and push the investigations under the carpet," he said.

The senior member of Rousseff's Workers' Party in the lower house of Congress, Afonso Florence, claimed the scandal could "lead to the cancellation" of the impeachment process.

Juca did not deny the authenticity of the secret recording but said his comments had been in reference to stopping the "bleeding" of Brazil's recession-struck economy, not the Car Wash probe.

The Petrobras probe has seen prosecutors go after many of Brazil's most powerful figures. Rousseff herself is suspected of obstruction of justice, although she has not been accused of corruption for personal gain.

Temer has promised a fresh start for Brazil after growing economic and political paralysis under Rousseff.

Despite the disarray caused by Juca, the new government may hope to portray his departure as proof that corruption will not be tolerated. However, news that Juca's replacement in the planning ministry, Dyogo Henrique Oliveira, has been the target of a separate corruption inquiry was likely to cause fresh embarrassment.

Temer has suffered a series of other setbacks already, including an uproar over his naming of a Cabinet composed entirely of white men.

He has rowed back on an initial decision to axe the culture ministry, reinstating the post after an outcry from several of Brazil's best known actors and singers.

Juca was seen as the point man in the Temer government's plans to whip Brazil's bloated and underfunded budget into shape. The government faces potentially bitter resistance to suggestions that cuts may be necessary to social programmes, pensions and health spending.

It was not clear how Folha obtained the recording, where it was made or why it was leaked more than a month later.