Season 5 of House of Cards was released less than a month ago, but there is no need for you to tune in to the fictional show. Instead, turn on the international news, open a newspaper, and focus on Brazil and you will find a complicated story of political intrigue to rival the Netflix original, only this one is happening in real life.
In Portuguese, “temer” is the verb to fear. It also happens to be the last name of the current Brazilian president, Michel Temer. A coincidence? Of course, but regardless, it is oddly fitting. Although the president may have escaped possible impeachment earlier this month, Michel Temer, who ironically came to power after the former president was impeached, is still in hot water. The embattled Brazilian president is under fire for new corruption and obstruction of justice charges.
Brazilian politics has been the gift that keeps on giving, that late-night telenovela whose plot only thickens.
Brazilian politics has been the gift that keeps on giving, that late-night telenovela whose plot only thickens. So like a season summary, to catch you up before you binge watch the new season, here is the rundown on what is going on with our favorite beach-loving, soccer-scoring, and corruption-ridden Lusophone South American country.
It all started at Posto da Torre, a gritty 24-hour gas station in the heart of Brasilia, Brazil’s capital. It was at this busy gas station that a 2013 federal drug operation found a massive illegal money transfer business that is still at the forefront of Brazilian politics today. The operation, Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash), began as a case against a single money launderer, Alberto Youssef. When arrested, Youssef reportedly told prosecutors: “Guys, if I speak, the republic is going to fall.” And he was not wrong. Four years later and the gas station investigation has revealed a complex network of hush money, bribes, kickbacks, and of course, money laundering, mainly centered around Petrobras, the country’s partially state-owned oil company. The two former presidents, Rousseff and Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, have been accused of benefiting from the scandal. (Most recently, da Silva has been sentenced to 10 years in prison.) The current president, Michel Temer, dodges allegation after allegation. Nearly a third of his cabinet is under investigation for corruption tied to the operation. Literally, hundreds of business executives, legislators, governors, mayors, anyone connected with the elite, have been implicated or are under investigation. Some now call the scandal the largest corruption case in the world.
What exactly is the scandal?
For over a decade, Petrobras, Brazil’s largest company and at one point, the world’s 8th largest public company, engaged in an enormous corruption scheme. During the commodities boom of the 2000s, Brazil greatly benefitted from high oil prices. As money came in, the country’s elite devised an elaborate scheme to divert a good chunk of that money to stay in power and get richer.
How the scheme worked: Construction executives essentially created a cartel to coordinate and ensure business on lucrative construction projects with Petrobras. The construction companies purposefully overcharged the oil giant, with certain Petrobras directors knowingly and deliberately allowing the state-owned company to be charged ridiculous amounts. The heads of these major construction companies then took a cut from the overly-expensive contracts and funneled some of the money back to those in Petrobras who were in on the scheme. As a partially state-owned company, Petrobras directors can be appointed by politicians. In order to ensure their positions of power, Petrobras executives used some of their kick back money to ‘reward’ the politicians and political parties who had appointed them. And to be clear, we are not talking about small change. The total sum of corruption money is currently estimated to be more than $5 billion.
When arrested, Youssef reportedly told prosecutors: “Guys, if I speak, the republic is going to fall.” And he was not wrong. Four years later and the gas station investigation has revealed a complex network of hush money, bribes, kickbacks, and of course, money laundering, mainly centered around Petrobras, the country’s partially state-owned oil company.
And sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Some of the details from the scandal sound straight out of Hollywood’s latest blockbuster. Alongside the cash bribes, there were $3,000 bottles of wine, yachts, helicopters, Rolex watches, prostitutes, whatever you can imagine. And the money flowed, laundered in all different forms and traveling in any way possible, from Swiss bank accounts to sneaky overseas property deals. The New York Times reported that some was “hand-delivered by an elderly gentleman who flew around the world with bricks of cash, shrink-wrapped and strapped beneath thigh-high socks and Spanx-like vest.”
Mixing in the Politics
But in case this whole scandal has not been intriguing enough for you, it only gets crazier when you begin to mix in the politics. For this, let me introduce Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first female president.
Elected in 2011, Rousseff completed a difficult first term, but was narrowly re-elected in 2014, running on a ticket with Michel Temer as her VP. Before the presidency, Rousseff served as chief of staff for Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s controversial superstar politician who pulled Brazil onto the international stage during his two terms as president (2003-2011). With Lula as a mentor and friend, Rousseff initially rode his wave of popularity and continued many of his policies, but struggled with a harsher economic climate which greatly affected the Brazilian economy. It was during her presidency that Operation Car Wash was in full effect. The sunny South American country was contending with a major recession after the fall of the commodities boom, while seeing the extent of its own corruption in full display. As the common person struggled, more and more was emerging about how the rich were illegally exploiting the system to get richer.
The public was angry. Massive protests were held across the country. In response, Rousseff pushed anti-corruption bills, hoping to quell public discontent. During her tenure, her government passed an anti-corruption law allowing suspects to offer plea-bargain testimonies, a development which led to the outing of hundreds in the Operation Car Wash investigation. But as the corruption scandal grew, Rousseff was not spared the blame.
On August 31, 2016, the Brazilian Senate voted by a 61-20 margin to impeach Rousseff. This final verdict came less than two years after her re-election victory. So what happened?
The Tides of Impeachment
As Lula’s handpicked successor to the presidency, Rousseff provided a continuation of his policies and a continuation of the reign of the Workers’ Party. The party took power in 2002, with Lula’s election and by the time Rousseff was impeached, had been in power for 14 years. After years of the same party holding the presidency, others were itching to take control.
Along comes Operation Car Wash, which of course, shakes everything up. First, to be clear, Rousseff was never implicated, nor charged with any criminal offense related to Operation Car Wash. Still, the scandal devastated her legitimacy and ability to govern. The Workers’ Party was in power for the duration of the scandal. To make matters worse, Rousseff herself was on the Petrobras board from 2003 until 2010, key years during the Petrobras scandal. The scandal happened under her watch. She insists she knew nothing of it. Some say fishy, others say incompetent. Either way, it was lose-lose.
Rousseff was never implicated, nor charged with any criminal offense related to Operation Car Wash. Still, the scandal devastated her legitimacy and ability to govern.
With legislators and businessmen being implicated left and right, members of the Workers’ Party were not immune to the scandal’s fallout. With key party figures involved in the scandal, the party’s reputation took a major blow. And, last, but not least, the party’s superhero, and Rousseff’s personal mentor, Lula da Silva was also implicated in the multi-billion dollar scandal. In May 2016, police raided his home and detained the famous politician. He now faces five trials for his alleged involvement. With a major corruption scandal and the country’s difficult economic conditions, public anger was channeled to the party in power—the Workers’ Party—and Rousseff.
But the public was not the only group angry with Rousseff. She was also extremely unpopular in Congress. Often stubborn and secretive, Rousseff failed to maintain and gain support in Brasilia. As investigations continued on implicated politicians, many were furious that Rousseff did nothing to stop the corruption investigation, nor shield members of her own party. She had lost key support on the streets and in Congress.
Riding this wave of anti-government sentiment, the bid to impeach Rousseff was initiated in November 2015. Less than a year later, the country’s 36th president was removed from office. The reason: purposefully misrepresenting government accounts. Essentially, significant funds were shifted between accounts to hide the extent of the government’s deficit problem. The illegal maneuver is known in Brazil as a “pedalada” (pedaling) and has been used by previous administrations, without repercussion. The wrongdoing is not connected whatsoever to Operation Car Wash and there is no evidence against Rousseff in this corruption scandal. At the end of the day, the first female president got ‘got’ for relatively weak reasons. The impeachment is widely acknowledged as an act of political maneuvering. Her supporters, alongside various media outlets, have called the move a coup. And it is especially crazy once you begin to look into the people who led the movement to impeach her.
It is pretty odd when some of those who were pushing hardest to impeach Rousseff are also the ones facing serious cases of corruption. Spearheading Rousseff’s impeachment movement was Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of the lower house … at the time. He has since resigned his role amid charges that he took as much as $40 million in bribes, been expelled from Congress, arrested, and sentenced to more than 15 years in prison for his involvement in Operation Car Wash. Not to mention, he hid some of his corruption money in a shell company, Jesus.com. Guilty of corruption, money laundering, and illegally sending money abroad, the conservative politician has often been compared to Frank Underwood from House of Cards for his reputation as a political manipulator.
Then there is the rest of the mob: Brazil’s Congress, the ones that voted to impeach Rousseff. Leading up to her impeachment, The New York Times reported that “altogether, 60 percent of the 594 members of Brazil’s Congress face serious charges like bribery, electoral fraud, illegal deforestation, kidnapping and homicide.” Beto Mansur, one of Rousseff’s vocal opponents in Congress who voted for her impeachment, is charged with keeping 46 workers, including several children, in “slave-like conditions.” Éder Mauro, another opponent of Rousseff’s, has faced charges of torture and extortion from his time as a police officer in Brazil’s Amazon city Belem. And the list goes on.
Let me be clear, this is not to say that Rousseff was the perfect president. She was very unpopular, and she made serious political missteps in failing to conserve the trust and support of her public and fellow lawmakers. However, the movement to impeach Rousseff was politically manipulative and vindictive. One congressman, right-wing Jair Bolsonaro, publicly dedicated his vote for her impeachment in honor of Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ultra, a colonel in Brazil’s military dictatorship who oversaw and coordinated a torture unit. To put this in context, Rousseff was tortured for nearly three years during the dictatorship. The fact is, very few of the lawmakers who voted for her impeachment cited the stated charges as their motivation for their vote. Instead, they were all across the board, from “so that we don’t become Reds like Venezuela and North Korea” to a dedication “for BR 429 [an interstate highway].” You can read the ridiculousness here. And if all of this does not spell out clearly the politically manipulative nature of her impeachment, a secret tape even caught a Brazilian minister and close Temer ally, Romero Jucá, allegedly conspiring to impeach Rousseff because of the giant corruption probe.
A Precarious Union
And all of this sets the scene for our next actor in the chaotic melodrama that is Brazilian politics. Cue Michel Temer, the 76-year old politician now suddenly in power. After being thrown out of office, Rousseff was replaced by her vice president, Temer, who is politically quite different from the former president. Temer is a member of the centrist Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), a group without a set political alignment that has formed coalitions with every president in the past two decades.
To understand how the president and vice president can be of two very different political parties, we must take a step back. Unlike the United States, Brazil has many different parties that are consistently vying for power at the federal, state, and city levels. With plenty of competition and constant campaigning by each party, it is incredibly difficult for any one political party to gain a majority. In order to stay in power, parties form coalitions to gain support from other factions of the population.
During Lula’s presidency in the mid-2000s, the famed politician found himself with a minority in Congress and in danger of being impeached after his party was involved in a corruption scandal. With little else to do, Lula formed a coalition with the PMDB. As the largest party in Brazil, the PMDB enjoys important influence over legislation. In return for government ministries and important positions in state-owned companies, the PMDB has supported a range of political parties over the past decades. They have been called the “Kingmakers of Brasilia.”
Despite not having a concrete platform, the PMDB is generally conservative. The Workers’ Party, on the other hand, is left of center. This precarious marriage was strained at times, particularly with the PMDB blocking progress on certain social issues, but in general, it seemed to work. In 2010, Rousseff ran on a ticket alongside Michel Temer of the PMDB. In 2014, when seeking reelection she did the same thing. However, during her second term, with public and congressional discontent rising, key PMDB leaders Cunha and Jucá were the most vocal in pushing for her ouster. Later, with impeachment increasingly imminent, the PMDB left Rousseff’s governing coalition, stranding the weathered president. The impeachment of Rousseff in August of 2016 allowed her vice president Michel Temer of the PMDB to take over as president of Brazil. The kingmaker had become the king.
Temer: plenty to grapple with
PMDB and Michel Temer may have taken over, but the new president has faced an uphill battle. With a tail-spinning economy, widespread discontent, and a large portion of the population that believes Rousseff was unfairly thrown out of power, Temer has plenty to grapple with. When he took power on an interim basis in May 2016, prior to Rousseff’s official ouster, he was widely criticized for appointing an all-male, all-white cabinet. It was the first time since the 1970s that the Brazilian cabinet featured no women. Since assuming the presidency, Temer has shifted to more right-wing policies, at times actively reversing the work that Rousseff’s administration achieved.
But it has been difficult for the new president. Within the past month, pressure has increased on Temer to step down as the embattled president faces strong allegations linking him to the Operation Car Wash scandal. This past May, the country’s major newspaper O Globo reported that Temer had been secretly recorded authorizing hush money to Eduardo Cunha, the former speaker of the house and leader of the impeachment movement. The recording was made between Temer and billionaire Joesley Batista, the heir to JBS, the world’s largest meatpacking company, as part of a plea bargain deal by Batista stemming from corruption charges against him and his company. Within the same plea bargain, Batista alleged that Temer himself accepted millions of dollars in bribes.
In early June, Temer was on trial for receiving illegal campaign funds in the 2014 presidential election. Brazil’s top electoral court acquitted the president, but the uncertainty in Brazil has scared off investors and hurt the president’s popularity.
Since then, the scandal, and of course, the intrigue, continues. On June 20, Brazil’s federal police, the country’s version of the F.B.I, announced that investigators had found evidence that Temer did, in fact, receive bribes. Six days later, on June 26, Brazil’s top prosecutor formally charged the president with corruption, making Temer the first sitting president in the country’s history to be charged with a criminal offense, not merely an impeachable offense, as was the case with Rousseff. Now Congress must decide whether Temer should be investigated by the Supreme Court, which is the only body that can formally investigate the president. The indictment requires a two-thirds majority and if indicted, Temer will be suspended for up to 180 days. Temer may still have enough support to block the investigation, but analysts agree that he is slipping from power. With new evidence against him, alongside past allegations, the president will have a hard time pushing austerity measures through Congress, while also appeasing the public. Just a few weeks ago in early June, Temer was on trial for receiving illegal campaign funds in the 2014 presidential election. Brazil’s top electoral court acquitted the president, but the uncertainty in Brazil has scared off investors and hurt the president’s popularity. A recent poll puts the struggling president at a 7 percent approval rating.
What is next?
Over the past year Brazil has seen an absolutely massive corruption scandal bubble up and explode with everyone seemingly implicated. The country has seen its 36th president impeached in a sly and surreal way, while its new president also has the possibility of being ousted. All this with the backdrop of a floundering economy.
So what is next? It seems Brazilian politics will remain a perpetual cliffhanger as the country continues to battle deep-rooted corruption and public discontent. Currently, the question is whether or not Temer will finish off his term, which ends in 2018. What is certain, is that Operation Car Wash will continue to unearth more and more corruption and that Brazil, the fifth largest country in both area and population, will generate another season of political drama. With enormous potential, and once heralded as a new global superpower, Brazil proves time and time again to be a house of cards. Just as the country seems to find its way, something shakes, and the whole darned thing comes tumbling down.