In the latest of a series of explosive revelations that could bring down the Brazilian government, a secretly recorded phone call between former president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva and his successor, Dilma Rousseff, suggests his appointment to a ministerial position this week was motivated by a desire to avoid prosecution in Brazil’s corruption scandal.
Judge Sergio Moro, the lead prosecutor in Operation Lava-jato, a two-year investigation into corruption at the state-run oil company, Petrobras, released the tapes to the media on Wednesday evening, prompting chaotic scenes in Congress as opposition deputies demanded Rousseff’s resignation.
On Wednesday night, tens of thousands of Brazilians began gathering in São Paulo, Brasília, Belo Horizonte and other major cities to demand the president’s resignation.
Earlier in the day, Lula was appointed Cabinet chief in a controversial move that Rousseff said would strengthen her government, but which critics argued was an attempt to shield the former president, who is under investigation for corruption and money-laundering, from prosecution.
Under Brazilian law, government ministers can be tried only in the “privileged forum” of the supreme court. Opposition activists believe any trial in Brazil’s highest court is likely to progress much more slowly than in the federal court.
They also believe that the supreme court justices – many of whom were appointed by Lula and Rousseff – may prove far more sympathetic than Moro. The judge, from the southern city of Curitiba, has already handed down a number of severe sentences for some of Brazil’s top businessmen who have been found guilty of involvement in the Petrobras scandal.
In the most damaging conversation, recorded on Wednesday afternoon, Rousseff tells Lula that she is sending him his ministerial papers “in case of necessity”. The Brazilian media and opposition have interpreted the remarks to mean that she was giving him the papers quickly so that Lula could show them to police to avoid detention.
The former president is accused of receiving benefits in kind from construction companies involved in the Petrobras scandal. Prosecutors allege he is the real owner of two luxury properties registered in the names of others. Lula denies the charges.
On March 4, he was briefly detained by police in São Paulo and taken in for “coercive questioning”, along with his wife, Marisa Letícia, and his eldest son, Fábio Luiz. On his release, a highly emotional Lula told supporters he had felt he had been “kidnapped” and questioned why Moro had used such an aggressive tactic when he had repeatedly offered to testify in the case.
That same day he also vented his frustrations to Rousseff, in another phone call that was secretly recorded by investigators and released by Moro to the press on Wednesday evening.
In that recording Lula lambasted Moro’s actions as “an unprecedented firework display”, after Rousseff noted the coincidence of damaging revelations being leaked to the press the day before his detention.
Lula added that the prosecutors in charge of the case “think that with the press leading the investigative process they are going to refound the republic. We have a totally cowardly supreme court, a totally cowardly high court, a totally cowardly Parliament … a speaker of the house who is fucked, a president of the senate who is fucked, I don’t know how many legislators under threat, and everyone thinking that some kind of miracle is going to happen.”
Notably, however, in that same conversation Lula also said “he would never enter government to protect myself”.
Moro’s decision both to record the phone conversations between the former and current president and to release them to the press has come in for severe criticism, even by those appalled by Lula’s decision to join the government.
The judge justified the decision by stating that releasing the conversations were in the public interest. “Democracy in a free society requires that the governed know what their governors are doing, even when they try to act in the dark,” he wrote.
Moro also said he believes Lula had advance warning of the raid on March 4 and may have known his phone was tapped.
The latest revelations will further intensify the political polarisation in the country. On Sunday, millions of Brazilians took part in the largest antigovernment protests the country has ever seen. A pro-government rally is planned for Friday.
On top of the latest allegations, Brazil is suffering from its worst recession in at least 25 years, with the economy shrinking 3.8% last year and a similar forecast for 2016.
Rousseff is also facing separate impeachment proceedings, accused of illegally using state banks to plug budget deficits. Another case against her, in the supreme electoral court, claims her presidential campaign in 2014 was financed with cash from the Petrobras scandal. Last week, Rousseff insisted to the press that she had no intention of resigning.
Brazil’s entire political class is now in the firing line. Opposition politicians who attempted to join Sunday’s antigovernment protests were booed and forced to leave.
Alongside Lula and Rousseff, Brazil’s vice-president, the speaker of the house, the president of the senate and the main opposition leader have been accused of involvement in the Petrobras corruption scandal. – © Guardian News & Media 2016