Opinion by Jeb Blount
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – I’ve rarely been as depressed about Brazil’s future as I was watching the giant Brazil-wide protests May 30th against Brazilian President Michel Temer.
On the surface at least, the rallies were a popular call for the removal of an obviously corrupt president and a damned good reason to forego a quiet Sunday for an angry march.
The recordings not only captured Temer discussing acts of bribery, influence peddling, campaign kick-backs, public-contract fixing and insider trading on confidential economic data, and plans to obstruct Car Wash itself with hush money for witnesses and attempts to co-opt the Supreme Court.
But most marching last Sunday, through naïve righteousness or malicious design, ignored the full significance of the Temer tapes.
Temer is only the latest of dozens of senior leaders from all major parties swept up by the Car Wash investigation. He’s not even the first president implicated. Six of seven Brazilian heads of state since 1985 are under suspicion, investigation or indictment for corruption. The seventh is dead.
Yet someone utterly ignorant of three years of ceaseless Car Wash exposure of institutionalized graft should be excused if they concluded that protests were about a serious, but largely isolated, problem.
But Car Wash isn’t just Brazil’s biggest-ever corruption scandal, it’s the biggest such scandal ever, anywhere.
Car Wash has already exposed at least US$15 billion in direct bribes. Outright fraud has destroyed hundreds of billions of dollars in the value of stocks and bonds owned by private investors and Brazilian taxpayers.
It saddled important state-led enterprises such as oil company Petrobras and private partners such as construction giant Odebrecht with crippling debt and massive losses. Tens of thousands lost jobs, the Treasury drained and Brazil’s worst recession in at least a century deepened.
This oversight was intentional. Brazil’s leftist Workers’ Party, or PT, the main protest organizer, has long opposed Car Wash. It led the coalition that ruled Brazil from 2003-2016. Two PT presidents presided over the bulk of Car Wash corruption.
The first, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is under multiple indictments and the probe led to the impeachment of the second, Dilma Rousseff.
Temer replaced her because he was elected Vice President on Rousseff’s ticket. Every vote for her was one for him to take her place if she fell. His PMDB party was the PT’s key ally and co-conspirator and No. 2 beneficiary of Car Wash graft.
In the end, the protest’s focus on Temer was less about corruption than deflecting blame from the PT.
Car Wash’s snaring of Temer didn’t turn the protests into a march for the anti-corruption aims Car Wash itself. The main demand of most protesters was to replace Temer with an immediate direct election, ignoring constitutional requirements to replace him, until scheduled elections in just over a year, be chosen by Congress.
That so many buy this ruse beg belief. The PT’s Lula, fingered by co-conspirators as the over-boss of Car Wash corruption, leads all presidential polls. His likely rival is a vile, right-wing authoritarian even Lula critics would never vote for.
But by the 2018 constitutionally scheduled elections, Lula may well be in jail. If elected before that, he will gain immunities and power that could block or kill Brazil’s best chance ever to beat corruption.
Temer has to go, but most of those protesting Sunday were actively undermining the bigger corruption fight or they’re useless idiots.
That’s why I’m depressed.
* Jeb Blount is a journalist in Rio de Janeiro who has covered Brazil for 26 years for such publications and agencies as Reuters, Bloomberg, the Washington Post, Miami Herald and Los Angeles Times.