On Thursday, Magistrate Edson Fachin of Brazil’s Supreme Federal Tribunal approved opening an investigation on President Michel Temer. Temer is suspected of involvement in a payoff scheme to protect executives of JBS, the biggest meat-processing company in the world. Hours later Temer appeared on national television denying the allegations, and assuring the Brazilian public that he has no intention of resigning his post.
The allegations against Temer fell on Fachin’s desk because he is the leading jurist in Operation Lava Jato (in English it’s known as “Operation Car Wash,” because one of the first places where illegal activity was detected was a gas station/car wash), a series of police operations surrounding bribery and corruption by dozens of high-profile Brazilian industrialists and politicians. Fachin moved to approve the investigation on Temer following the surfacing of an audiotape that purportedly shows Temer discussing possible kickbacks with Joesley Batista, JBS’ CEO.
This newest scandal is only the latest in a series of political crises for Brazil. Operation Lava Jato has led to the arrests and convictions and uncovered to the public what everyone already knew to be true: Brazil’s political, industrial, and financial institutions are rotten to the core. Temer, who was the country’s vice president before taking office almost exactly one year ago, came to his post in the midst of a political scandal involving his predecessor, President Dilma Rousseff. In an highly controversial impeachment process, Rousseff was found guilty of misusing state funds and forced to hand over power. To complicate matters, Fachin was nominated for the high court by Rousseff. No doubt, many Temer defenders will see in this latest development a personal attack rather than a fair and transparent action.
And so it goes for Brazil, which just a few years ago was rising to the category of world economic power, part of the BRIC block — Brazil, Russia, India, China — that would challenge the United States’ global dominance in the 21st century. Today Brazil is going through one of the starkest economic depressions in its history. Economic progressives, supporters of Rousseff and her predecessor Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, argue that the government should continue to spend heavily on social assistance programs and other poverty- and inequality-reduction policies. Liberals, Temer among them, counter that Brazil can only be saved through a series of fiscal austerity measures analogous to those imposed in Spain and Greece over the last few years.
This ideological debate, however, will amount to nothing if Brazil’s leaders on the right and the left continue to fall like dominoes in scandal after scandal. No economic policy will work if there is no trust in political leaders or the country’s institutions. The one bright spot continues to be the legal system, which is pushing through a years-long campaign to cleanse the country of (at least) high-level corruption.