A new political scandal has managed to throw Brazil into turmoil in a matter of minutes. The newspaper O Globo reported on the existence of an audio recording in which President Michel Temer is heard authorizing the payment of hush money to Eduardo Cunha, the former speaker of the lower house who is in jail for corruption. If true, it would mean that the president of Brazil was trying to obstruct the justice system’s investigation into widespread political graft.
Minutes after the news organization published the information on its website, the matter was already the opening story on the nation’s main televised newscast, Jornal Nacional. Soon the Avenida Paulista – the main artery in São Paulo, which is Brazil’s financial capital – filled up with demonstrators demanding new elections. A deputy has since filed a request for the impeachment of the president (whether the request will be accepted or not remains unclear).
Nobody has heard the recording, and the government denies its existence. EL PAÍS contacted state prosecutors about the claim, but they neither confirmed nor denied it.
According to O Globo, Temer was secretly taped on March 7 while he was talking to Joesley Batista, a top executive at the powerful business group JBS. Batista is cooperating with authorities as part of a plea bargain resulting from the Petrobras graft investigation, and he had a recording device concealed under his clothes.
If the allegations are confirmed, they would drag the Temer administration to the brink of the abyss
The newspaper claims that Batista told Temer he was paying a monthly fee to Eduardo Cunha to ensure his silence. There is a widely held belief in Brasilia that Cunha possesses nearly encyclopedic knowledge of all the corrupt dealings that prosecutors are now investigating as part of the massive corruption case involving the state oil company Petrobras.
When he heard about the monthly payment, Temer allegedly replied: “You have to keep that up, all right?” The businessman asserts that Temer is not the person who came up with the idea of paying off Cunha, but that he was aware of the scheme.
If the allegations are confirmed, they would drag the Temer administration to the brink of the abyss. The president secured the position thanks to the fact that impeachment proceedings against former president Dilma Rousseff were accepted, ultimately leading to her ouster on September 1, 2016. He had been her deputy.
Ever since he took over presidential duties almost exactly a year ago (in an interim capacity at first), he has failed to elicit any significant voter sympathy that might guarantee him some stability in the post. His austerity policies, which he hopes will pull the country out of the worst recession in decades, have already earned him two general strikes and a multitude of street protests. And his administration has been engulfed in a series of back-to-back corruption scandals that have done little to improve his low popularity.
In fact, the government had recently been seeking support for its big project this year, pension reform, which requires approval by two-thirds of the house. These new revelations are dropping like a bomb on Temer’s efforts to push this reform through and keep economic powers happy – the same powers that, according to political observers, he owes his job to.
Additional reporting from Afonso Benites.
English version by Susana Urra.