BRASÍLIA, Brazil – Eduardo Cunha, the suspended head of the Chamber of Deputies and the leader of the effort to oust the democratically-elected Dilma Rousseff, has stepped down from his post as his role in the massive Petrobras corruption case becomes clearer.
In early May, a majority in the Brazilian Senate (upper house of Congress) voted to remove incumbent Dilma Rousseff of the Workers Party (PT) from power; 55 voted for Rousseff’s impeachment while 22 voted against. A majority of the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of Congress) also voted in favor of impeachment several weeks prior to the Senate vote.
The vote saw Rousseff suspended from her position for up to six months pending an investigation into her alleged wrongdoing, meaning that a decision has to be made whether she will be reinstated or face a trial. According to the Impeachment Commission’s timetable, a decision will be made by August 2 by the full 81-seat Senate and requires a two-thirds majority (54 votes); 55 Senators voted to suspend Rousseff in May.
Rousseff voiced her anger and disappointment at the “unspeakable pain of injustice” carried out against her. “My government has been the subject of intense sabotage,” Rousseff said from the Palácio do Planalto, the seat of government, as she stood surrouned by her cabinet members and supporters on the day of her suspension.
Nearly 55 percent of Brazilian parliamentarians have some sort of criminal case opened against them, mostly in relation to corruption, bribery or money laundering while others are accused of assault and even kidnapping. Those same politicians, however, voted to unseat Rousseff, one of the very few politicians in the nation that has not been directly accused of illegal enrichment.
The official reason given for the action against the leader is that she allegedly transferred parts of the national budget between different funds in order to present a better picture of the national economy. This is standard practice in Brazil and in many nations (and has been seen especially in recent years with the global economic crisis) and while it does present a murkier view of a government and its transparency, it has never come close to toppling a national leader. In truth, judicial experts in Brazil have blasted the whole process as “irregular” and it seems to be becoming more likely that she will be reinstated soon.
Instead of punishing Rousseff’s party via democratic elections, politicians have used public discontent over a stagnant economy and rampant cases of corruption (in which most of them and their parties are involved) to use Rousseff as a scapegoat.
In particular, most members of the big-tent (but currently right-leaning) Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), which withdrew itself from the ruling coalition recently, have come out against Rousseff, as have members of other parties that were once allies.
The most notable PMDB members to do so include Eduardo Cunha, the man who started the impeachment effort and was the President of the Chamber of Deputies of Brazil until mid-May when he was removed due to allegations of corruption and obstruction of justice.
Another notable figure is Michel Temer, Rousseff’s Vice-President and now-interim leader who was recorded speaking of himself as President and about his presidential plans two months before the Senate’s impeachment vote even took place.
Lawyers speaking on behalf of Rousseff, who has still not been implicated in any corruption case, said that she was removed from power by other politicians with the sole purpose of putting an end to Operation Lava Jato (Car Wash), the investigation into allegations of widespread corruption.
With Rousseff out of the way, her legal team argues, the investigation would be sidetracked or stopped altogether by the interim government. In turn, the citizenry would not object much to the stoppage of the investigation because the most powerful politician in the country would be impeached as the biggest result of the ‘anti-corruption’ campaign.
Rousseff’s lawyers have presented tons of evidence to back their claims including numerous recordings held between members of the PMDB (whose members are the most represented on the corruption lists compiled by prosecutors) in which the dialogue clearly suggests ousting Rousseff with the aim of saving themselves by stopping the investigation. In fact, Temer has already seen three cabinet members resign since he assumed power on May 12 as each became implicated in the corruption case.
In the case of Cunha, he has been temporarily removed from his position as the President of the Chamber of Deputies since mid-May due to allegations of corruption and obstruction of justice. He has been scrutinized for several months now by the Ethics Committee (a parliamentary panel) for lying about his role in the Petrobras scandal and about having illegal, multi-million dollar accounts abroad in Switzerland and embezzling millions more with his wife Cláudia Cruz.
In an influential decision, that same panel voted last month that Cunha should be stripped of his position as a Federal Deputy. The 513-seat Chamber of Deputies was due to vote in August on whether to take this action against Cunha. A simple majority (257) was needed in order to see him removed from the position permanently and banned from serving in a political capacity for at least eight years.
Although Cunha has claimed innocence and said that he is being targeted unfairly by a biased group of politicians, he announced his resignation from the post on Thursday by reading his prepared statement on the floor of the Chamber of Deputies.
Cunha said that he had finally decided to “give in to pressure” because the “Brazilian Congress is leaderless in the midst of a strange situation” and that the “only way to stabilize” the country’s legislative branch is to “resign immediately.”
Cunha, an Evangelical Christian pastor and a known hardline conservative on social issues, had previously said many times that he would not resign. Given that his removal was all but a certainty, however, he seems to have made the decision to protect his seat as a Deputy (and the legal immunity that comes with the seat) by resigning as the Chamber’s head, thus sparing himself the ban on political office.
The vote concerning his removal will still go ahead in August, only now the vote will be whether Cunha will lose his seat in general and not just the position of President of the Chamber of Deputies. Given that this move was to “relieve the pressure,” as he put it, both on himself and more importantly the PMDB, it is now much more likely that more deputies will vote against his removal as he works to secure his political presence.
Operation Lava Jato has focused on the Petrobras scandal, in which prosecutors allege that over $1 billion was doled out and laundered to the the semi-state-owned energy company’s executives in exchange for valuable contracts with construction and engineering companies.
Although most of those named in corruption case do not come from Rousseff’s PT, the party has bared the brunt of the blame and so has Rousseff as she was Energy Minister (2003-2005) during a part of when the alleged crimes took place, and she also sat on the board of Petrobras during this time.
Several prosecutors overseeing the case, which began to filter out to the public in March of 2014 and is being called the biggest corruption case in Brazilian history, have cleared Rousseff of any wrongdoing and say that she did not know what was happening behind her back.
According to the Attorney General handling the case, the corruption began with kickbacks in 1997 (14 years before Rousseff even became President) during the administration of center-right Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003).
Regardless, Cunha and Temer led the charge against Rousseff and were successful in their aim of having her suspended from office with an eye on definite removal, but now Cunha himself is facing the same prospect.