RIO DE JANEIRO: The jailing of Eduardo Cunha on corruption charges put one of Brazil’s most Machiavellian politicians out of play — so why is the country’s elite so nervous about him?
Cunha was jailed Wednesday to await trial on charges of bribe taking, money laundering and stashing his illicit gains in Swiss accounts.
It was a shocking comedown for the former speaker of the lower house who launched the impeachment of former leftist president Dilma Rousseff, leading to his fellow center-right PMDB party member Michel Temer taking over the presidency.
But the possibility that the Brazilian wheeler dealer, often compared to Frank Underwood in Netflix’s dark political series “House of Cards,” could cooperate with prosecutors is causing alarm among other politicians, analysts say.
Prosecutors leading the investigation into a huge embezzlement and bribery scheme at state oil company Petrobras have repeatedly used plea bargains to extract new information and expand their probe. Cunha, the ultimate insider, would potentially be a mother lode.
“Who in Brasilia would be safe from a plea bargain with Cunha?” asked law professor Ivar Hartmann at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro.
“Cunha has a major destructive potential,” Alberto Almeida, director of the Analysis Institute, said.
The Petrobras scandal has already put a host of leading politicians in the crosshairs. Ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the mentor of Rousseff, is the subject of three cases and there is speculation that he could be next to face arrest.
However Temer’s government is also reeling from the probe. Three of his ministers facing investigation had to step down soon after he took over the presidency in August.
One of them, Romero Juca, resigned as planning minister after the leak of a recording in which he appeared to discuss wanting to shut down the investigation, dubbed Operation Car Wash.
Although Cunha was a close ally of Temer and others in the new government, they are likely to be fearful of what he might say if prosecutors put him under pressure.
“I have no doubt that if Cunha has to choose between saving his party’s reputation or his own skin that he’ll opt for his own skin,” Hartmann said.
Even without a plea bargain, Cunha is keeping Brasilia on its toes with his promise to write a book — something that being incarcerated will give him plenty of time to do.
If Cunha spills the beans on his insider knowledge “the crisis could affect the inner core of the government,” said analyst Marco Antonio Teixeira at the Getulio Vargas Foundation.
So far the Temer government has reacted with notable caution. Brazilian media reports said that ministers had been instructed to avoid comment.
Temer, on a trip to Tokyo, would not be drawn on speculation that more cabinet members could be downed by the Car Wash probe. “For now these are just allegations,” he said.
But Temer may end up having to sacrifice ministers, Hartmann said. The priority is “to shield Temer, protect him, because losing another minister is acceptable as long as Temer doesn’t fall.”