Corruption allegations increase pressure on Bolsonaro
The Brazilian president has come under further pressure after being personally implicated in an alleged corruption racket involving the supposed misappropriation of his workforce’s wages.
Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right populist who admires Donald Trump, took office in January 2019 vowing to “forever free the fatherland from the yoke of corruption”.
On Monday, however, a leading Brazilian news website published a series of reports that threatened to fatally undermine Bolsonaro’s already tenuous claim to be a clean-living conservative. UOL claimed its reports, called “the secret life of Jair”, suggested he had presided over an embezzlement scheme known as the rachadinha during his almost 30 years as a lawmaker in the lower house of congress, between 1991 and 2018.
One UOL story featured audio recordings, obtained from an unnamed source, in which Andrea Siqueira Valle, the sister of Bolsonaro’s second wife, allegedly discussed how her brother was sacked from his job in Bolsonaro’s congressional chambers. “André caused loads of problems because André never gave back the right amount of money that had to be given back, you see? He was supposed to give back 6,000 reals, but André would only hand over 2,000 or 3,000. This went on for ages until Jair said: ‘Enough – get rid of him because he never gives me back the right amount of money.’”
In Brazil, the illegal and reportedly widespread practice by which politicians demand a slice of their staff’s wages is known as the rachadinha, a slang term which roughly translates as the “salary split” or “cashback”. Bolsonaro’s senator son, Flávio Bolsonaro, has long been dogged by similar allegations that he oversaw such a scam during his time as a state congressman in Rio.
In a second recording obtained by UOL, the woman identified as Bolsonaro’s former sister-in-law says: “It’s not nothing I know. There’s a lot that I could do … to screw Jair’s life. That’s what they’re afraid of.”
The revelations – which Bolsonaro’s lawyer rejected as being based on “untruthful and nonexistent facts” – sparked renewed calls for the impeachment of a president who is already facing mounting public anger over his anti-scientific response to the Covid pandemic, which has killed nearly 525,000 Brazilians. Three mass anti-Bolsonaro demonstrations have been held since late May, most recently on Saturday when thousands of dissenters hit the streets after allegations of dodgy dealings involving the procurement of Covid vaccines.
“Bolsonaro’s tenure in the presidency is becoming increasingly intolerable,” tweeted Vem Pra Rua (Hit the Streets), a rightwing group that played a key role in the 2016 impeachment of the then president, Dilma Rousseff.
Leonardo Sakamoto, a UOL columnist, claimed the recordings provided strong evidence that Bolsonaro had presided over “a mafia scheme” and the presidency had been captured by a “crime conglomerate”.
Bolsonaro’s lawyer, Frederick Wassef, told journalists: “No ‘cashback’ scheme ever existed in the chambers of congressman Jair Bolsonaro or any of his sons.”
Bolsonaro is suffering a wretched spell, even by the turbulent standards of his two-and-a-half-year-old presidency, which critics say has inflicted historic damage on Brazil’s environment, public health and international reputation.
In March, his main political rival, the leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, roared back on to the political scene, with polls now suggesting Lula would trounce Bolsonaro in next year’s presidential election.
In April, the senate launched a parliamentary inquiry into Bolsonaro’s Covid response, with its televised hearings cementing in the minds of voters the president’s responsibility for Brazil’s chaotic – and, some now suspect, corrupt – handling of the health emergency. In late June, the inquiry heard explosive allegations that Bolsonaro had failed to act after being alerted to suspicions over a 1.6bn real (£232m) deal to import India’s Covaxin shot.
Bolsonaro has denied any wrongdoing and last week tried to distance himself from the claims of health ministry corruption, declaring: “I’ve no way of knowing what goes on in the ministries.”
At Saturday’s protests, however, many demonstrators carried placards denouncing what they called the deadly human impact of alleged corruption within Bolsonaro’s administration.
“Who did you lose because of a dollar?” said one poster, in reference to separate allegations that a health ministry official sought $1 kickbacks for the purchase of AstraZeneca shots.
Another protester’s placard said: “Bolsonaro behind bars now!”
Maurício Machado, a 43-year-old waiter who joined the rally, said: “He’s corrupt. He’s a denialist. I’m not a psychiatrist, but perhaps he is a psychopath.”
Despite growing calls for Bolsonaro’s impeachment – to which the rightwing New party added its voice on Monday – experts say that remains an improbable outcome. Bolsonaro’s ratings are plummeting but he has brokered a sturdy, if capricious support base in congress, including the lower house president, Arthur Lira, who would need to approve impeachment proceedings.
“Impeachment doesn’t depend on the opposition. Impeachment depends on Arthur Lira,” said Maria Cristina Fernandes, a columnist for the Valor Econômico newspaper. “And Arthur Lira has shown no sign of wanting to do anything.”