Brazil’s Lula wiretaps mark watershed moment

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In one short outburst, Brazil’s ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva summed up his party’s predicament more succinctly than most analysts. “The president of the lower house is screwed, the president of the senate is screwed, I don’t know how many congressman are under threat, and everyone is in the belief that a miracle will save them,” he tells President Dilma Rousseff on the phone shortly after being detained for questioning this month over corruption at state oil company Petrobras.

The conversation, which was secretly tapped by federal police, was made public this week along with tens of others by Sérgio Moro, the crusading judge leading the sweeping graft probe.

The explosive recordings are proving to be a watershed moment for Brazil — an act of war between the ever more hostile executive and judiciary powers that threatens to plunge Latin America’s biggest economy into a full-blown constitutional crisis.

In the most damning conversation between Mr Lula da Silva and his protégé, Ms Rousseff appears to offer the ex-president a document confirming his appointment as chief of staff as a form of “get out of jail free” card.

Opposition politicians say the 70-year-old was only appointed as minister to give him immunity from prison after state prosecutors charged him with money laundering last week — allegations he denies.

Ms Rousseff called the recording unconstitutional, denying the accusations.

The wiretap prompted another judge to block Mr Lula da Silva’s appointment just as he was being sworn in at the presidential palace on Thursday, sparking clashes on the streets and accusations by the government that a coup was under way.

As minister, Mr Lula da Silva would only be answerable to the Supreme Court, which he also called “cowardly” in one recording. Supreme Court Justice Celso de Mello said his comments were typical of “autocratic and arrogant minds”.

Undeterred, the charismatic former unionist sent an impassioned open letter later on Thursday, asking for help from the Supreme Court to get “ justice”.

“I never had access to formal study, as Brazilians know,” he wrote. “I’m not a doctor, lettered or with a great knowledge of the law. But I know, like every human being, how to distinguish between what is right and wrong; what is just and unjust.”

Meanwhile, other audio recordings have eroded what is left of the government’s legitimacy, analysts said.

Brazilian television and radio networks have played the soundbites on repeat since Wednesday, sparking fascination and disgust in equal measure.

In one recording, before mass protests swept the country on Sunday, Mr Lula da Silva is heard joking with his brother, saying that if opposition supporters turn up near his house they will “get beaten up so badly they won’t know what’s hit them”.

In others, he promises to put the federal police and prosecutors “back in their place” and even chuckles as Rio de Janeiro’s mayor Eduardo Paes complains about Ms Rousseff’s bad temper — comments for which the mayor apologised at a press conference on Thursday.

Even US whistleblower Edward Snowden weighed in on the scandal to ridicule Ms Rousseff, making reference to 2013 revelations that the US spied on her.

“Three years after the wiretap headlines she’s still making unencrypted calls,” he wrote on Twitter.

On one hand, Mr Moro’s decision to release the wiretaps as well as Thursday’s injunction against Mr Lula da Silva’s appointment should be celebrated as proof of the judiciary’s independence ingrained in the 1988 constitution, analysts say.

However, on the other hand, while politicians must be prevented from obstructing justice, justices should also be prevented from obstructing politics, says Rafael Cortez, a political scientist at Tendências, a São Paulo-based consultancy.

Mr Moro has justified the wiretaps’ release by saying that Brazilians deserved to know who they were being governed by, drawing a parallel with the US Watergate scandal.

After Sunday’s mass anti-government protests where he was hailed as a hero, Mr Moro also issued a rare statement thanking “the people” and calling on the authorities to listen to the “voice of the streets”.

“The judiciary should regulate political conflict — this idea of the judiciary improving the democratic process should be viewed with caution,” Mr Cortez says.

The battle between Brazil’s judiciary and the government’s executive branch is in danger of becoming a battle between two personalities: Mr Lula da Silva and Mr Moro, says Carlos Mello, political scientist at business school Insper.

“A stable country depends on institutions, not people — when the country ends up in the hands of one person this is not a good sign,” Mr Mello says.

“There is a lack of collective political leadership so we end up creating heroes,” he said, referring to Sebastianism, a mythology inherited from Brazil’s Portuguese colonisers. According to the popular belief, King Sebastian, who went missing in battle in the 16th century, would return one day to fulfil Portugal’s great destiny.

While Workers Party (PT) supporters see Mr Lula da Silva as their only saviour, the rest of Brazil increasingly sees Mr Moro, or “Super-Moro” as he is known by protesters, as their only hope after opposition politicians have also faced corruption allegations.

“The king will not come back to save us though,” Mr Mello says. “Better institutions will.”

 

Source: Financial Times Online – 03/18/2016

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