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Brazil's Supreme Court Launches Corruption Probe Into President

May 18, 2017
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Brazil is in the middle of its own political crisis, and it has blown up so much today that the president made a live TV address insisting he won't resign. President Michel Temer has been under intense pressure after a newspaper story alleged he's been caught on tape endorsing bribes. The country's supreme court says it's going to investigate. Stocks fell hard on the news, and Brazilians took to the streets, calling for Temer to go. We're joined by NPR's Philip Reeves in Rio de Janeiro. Hi, Phil.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hi.

SHAPIRO: What kicked all this off?

REEVES: Well, it was a report in one of the country's biggest newspapers, O Globo. The paper says it's found out that there's a secret recording in which Temer is heard endorsing bribes to buy the silence of a former political ally. That ally, by the way, is the former speaker of Brazil's lower house, who's in prison right now doing a long stretch after being convicted of corruption. The paper says that this tape is in the hands of prosecutors who have, for the last few years, been carrying out the so-called car wash investigation. That's basically a huge inquiry into an enormous interlocking set of scandals in which politicians here have basically been handing out contracts to the country's industrial giants in return for kickbacks into the party coffers or, in some cases, offering to pass legislation favorable to those industrial entities in return for payments.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about how the president responded to all of this today.

REEVES: Oh, well, all day there was absolute speculation, nonstop speculation, that this could be the end of Temer's government. And eventually, Temer went on TV and made a live address to the nation. It was short. He seemed passionate. You could say even angry. He said he didn't buy anyone's silence. He says he won't resign, and he wants a full and fair investigation.

SHAPIRO: And what happens now.

REEVES: Well, there's no doubt that his government is in considerable trouble. Two ministers resigned today. And remember, a third of his cabinet before this were already under investigation from those car wash investigators that I mentioned. And now it looks of it's - it's pretty unlikely. And this, by the way, is one reason that the markets reacted with such sort of spectacular negativity today. It looks pretty unlikely that Temer's program to kickstart Brazil's economy after the deepest recession in its history is going to go anywhere. He wants to pass labor law reforms and to overhaul the pension system. But now, you know, he's in deep political trouble. His support is ebbing, and he faces this supreme court investigation.

SHAPIRO: As we mentioned, Brazilians marched in the streets calling for the president to go. Tell us more about their response all of this.

REEVES: Well, it's important to remember that Michel Temer is not at all popular. Remember, he took over last year after his predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached. So there are those who feel that he just doesn't have a mandate anyway. Polls show that his ratings are in single figures. And so when the news came out, some people took to the streets to protest and to call for him to go. Some people banged pots and pans, which is the traditional way here of registering your dislike and disappointment with the much disliked political classes here who are the source of a great deal of contempt now amongst the public because of this huge rolling political scandal. And in Rio de Janeiro right now, and I think later on this evening, there will be demonstrations. The social - after Temer went on TV, the social media was - sites were full of messages from people who were calling on Temer to - either to resign or to face impeachment.

SHAPIRO: And, of course, this comes after Dilma Rousseff, the previous president, was forced from office.

REEVES: That's right. And so the concept of impeachment is something that is very real in the minds of politicians here. But the big question facing Brazil right now is when they do come to choose their next political leaders, who will that be? Because so many politicians here are caught up in this corruption scandal.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Philip Reeves speaking with us from Rio de Janeiro. Thank you.

REEVES: You're welcome.

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