Protests erupt across Brazil after release of taped phonecall

Thousands call for the resignation of President Roussef and arrest of predecessor Lula

Angry protests erupted in Brazilian cities on Wednesday night following the emergence of a taped phone conversation between President Dilma Rousseff and her predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

The tapes indicated Rousseff’s decision earlier in the day to appoint him a minister was designed to shield him from arrest.

Authorised by Sérgio Moro, the federal judge investigating Lula, the publication of the conversation which took place on the same day Rousseff nominated him to be her cabinet chief, revealed the scale of the confrontation between Brazil’s federal police, public prosecutors and Moro and the politicians they are investigating for widespread corruption.

Moro’s decision appeared to be an attempt to undermine the political impact of Lula’s elevation to Rousseff’s cabinet. Once he becomes a minister, Moro can no longer order the former president’s arrest as control of the investigation into him as part of a wider probe into corruption at state controlled oil giant Petrobras automatically passes to the supreme court.


Rushed nomination papers
In the conversation, which took place on Wednesday afternoon, Rousseff tells Lula she is rushing over his nomination papers "in case of necessity". The opposition claim she is guilty of obstructing justice as she wanted him to have the documents least Moro move to arrest Lula before he was formally sworn in.

The tape’s emergence as part of a batch of 50 recordings, was the latest in a series of dramatic events in the last two weeks that have plunged Latin America’s largest country into its worst political crisis in decades. It provoked angry scenes in congress between members of Rousseff’s Workers Party and opposition deputies demanding her resignation. The lower house is already debating whether to impeach her.

As night fell and word of the recording spread, thousands of protesters took to the streets in spontaneous rallies across several states demanding the president resign and Lula be arrested immediately.

In the capital Brasília, a crowd of several thousand gathered in front of the Planalto presidential palace and congress building - chanting for Lula’s arrest. Riot police fired tear gas and stun grenades as groups of demonstrators tried to cross the moat that surrounds the congress building. Largely made up of students and young people, the mood was one of anger replacing the carnival atmosphere that characterised massive anti-government protests held across the country on Sunday.

"We are furious. These tapes are the last straw. No-one can believe any more in the lies of the Workers Party. We Brazilians can no longer sit back. We have to come out to protect our constitution," said Rafaela Marciel, her eyes red from the tear gas wafting across the esplanade in front of congress.

There were also large protests in Porto Alegre, Belo Horizonte and São Paulo as well as rallies in another ten states. Anti-government groups were active online planning more protests for Thursday when Lula is set to be formally sworn in.

Calls 'misinterpreted'
President Rousseff claimed the taped conversation had been misinterpreted and that its content was of a "republican nature". In one of the recordings Lula says he would never return to government just to avoid prosecutors.

The Workers Party president Rui Falcão called the tapes’ publication “an absurdity” which proved “we are living in a kind of state of exception”. At a party rally in support of Lula in São Paulo, jurist Fábio Konder Comparato warned the country was “suffering from a grave illness similar to that which happened in 1964”, the year of Brazil’s last military coup.

The Workers Party has claimed for months that Moro’s investigation is an anti-democratic bid to undo Rousseff’s election victory in 2014. In one taped conversation Lula said Moro and federal prosecutors believe that working with the media “they will succeed in re-founding the republic”.

He dismissed the supreme court, other senior courts and the congress as “totally cowed” by the investigations. “We have a head of the lower house who is f****d, a head of the senate who is f*****d and I don’t know how many parliamentarians threatened. Everyone is hoping for a miracle and that they’ll all be saved,” he said.

Even jurists not aligned with the Workers Party criticised Moro’s decision, but the judge defended himself writing when authorising the release: “Democracy in a free society demands that the governed know what the governors are doing even when these seek to act protected by the shadows.”

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan is a contributor to The Irish Times based in South America