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Markets sink as chaos takes hold in Brazil

May 19 2017 07:34
Bruce Douglas and Raymond Colitt, Bloomberg

Brasilia - The impeachment of one president was traumatic. The prospect of two back-to-back spread dread and disbelief across Brazil on Thursday as federal police raided politicians’ homes, helicopters droned over the capital city, markets collapsed and a defiant President Michel Temer declared he wouldn’t step down.

It has been just 12 months since the removal of his predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, on charges she broke budget laws. Allegations against Temer could end his tenure too, if what the O Globo newspaper reported is true - that he endorsed the payment of hush-money to the imprisoned former speaker of the lower house of Congress.

The news exploded “like an atomic bomb,” in the words of Alessandro Molon, an opposition lawmaker. Calls for the president’s ouster mounted. Temer was holed up with advisers for much of the day before saying in a televised speech that he intends to hold on to power and prove his innocence. “I know what I did,” he said. “I know my actions were correct.”

For investors who bought into his pledge to push austerity measures on a nation enduring the worst recession on record, the day delivered a crushing blow, including a 15% drop in the shares of state-owned oil company Petroleo Brasileiro, which is at the centre of the sweeping Operation Carwash corruption investigation. The stock-market losses totalled $150bn (R2trn).

Brazilians, long familiar with scandal and upheaval, aren’t looking forward to more legal proceedings and political wrangling, maddeningly reminiscent of the tumultuous months preceding Rousseff’s impeachment. In a gritty open-air shopping arcade in downtown Brasilia, some people said they’d be better off with a return to a military dictatorship.

'All clowns’

Francisco Rodrigues Araujo, a vendor selling clothes displayed on a blue blanket, had another idea. He suggested that Tiririca, a famous circus clown and a federal deputy who ran in 2010 on the slogan, “It can’t get any worse!,” be installed in the presidency.

“They’re all clowns anyway,” he said. “Why not put one in charge?”

The country’s tumble into its latest crisis began with the O Globo report on Wednesday night that the Supreme Court had received testimony that Temer approved payment of a bribe to buy the silence of Eduardo Cunha, the former speaker and mastermind of last year’s impeachment process. On Thursday afternoon, the paper’s website posted an audiotape that purports to be of Temer discussing the alleged payoff.

The paper said the testimony was submitted by Joesley and Wesley Batista, the brothers who run the meat-packing giant JBS, as part of a plea-bargain deal in an Operation Carwash case. The court is looking into the allegations against Temer and others implicated by the Batistas as part of Carwash, which started three years ago as an investigation into a money-laundering scheme run out of a gas station in Brasilia and blew up into a scandal that has tarnished most of Brazil’s political establishment.

'Spoiled children’

Opposition parties, which began filing for Temer’s impeachment within hours of the O Globo report, called for street protests in favour of new elections. As night fell, crowds gathered in several cities to demand the president’s ouster. In Rio, police fired stun guns and tear gas at rock-throwing demonstrators.

Outside the presidential palace in Brasilia, about 1 000 people waved flags and chanted a slogan, which rhymes in Portuguese, that calls Temer a thief who belongs in prison. Joao Bendito saw the rally as just the beginning. “It will need a lot more people to really make Temer resign,” he said, “the common people who are indignant at these spoiled children in power today.”

Resentment has been building for months against Temer, an unelected president - he stepped into the job as Rousseff’s vice president - with single-digit approval ratings who many Brazilians associate with shady wheeling and dealing. Eight of his cabinet ministers have been forced to resign over allegations of misconduct; three are currently under investigation. His political enemies frequently compare him to a butler in a horror movie.

As Thursday wore on, the Temer government suffered several blows, with allies jumping ship or threatening to quit if the allegations proved true. One cabinet minister did resign, according to local media reports.

In his speech, Temer said the renewed political uncertainty comes just as prospects for Brazil are improving, with inflation under control, signs of economic recovery sprouting and reform bills advancing in Congress. “All this immense effort to haul the country out of its worst recession could be in vain,” he said. “We cannot throw so much work for the good of our country into the dustbin of history.”

Janete Silva, a student protesting outside the presidential palace, wasn’t buying it. “Temer’s speech was hypocritical, insecure, authoritarian and arrogant,” she said. “It shows that he doesn’t care what people think."

The president is facing another threat: Brazil’s top electoral court is assessing whether to annul the results of the 2014 elections on grounds the joint Rousseff-Temer campaign was financed illegally.

As it is, “Temer’s refusal to step down means that political uncertainty will remain heightened in the near term, fuelling street protests and bringing Congress to a halt,” Thomaz Favaro, the chief Brazil analyst at consulting firm Control Risks, wrote in a note. “An unscheduled government change remains a credible development.”

michel temer  |  brazil  |  corruption

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