Crash exposes gulf between Brazilians and their leaders

As Brazilians mourned the recent plane crash that killed 71 people, including almost an entire soccer team, President Michel Temer spent days publicly wavering about whether to attend the memorial service in the southern city of Chapeco.

His allies in congress were even less tactful: They launched an around-the-clock session seeking to gut anti-corruption legislation on the same day people learned of the disaster, spurring violent protests in the capital of Brasilia.

Coming from an already deeply unpopular government, the bungled response to what is seen as a national tragedy has angered Brazilians to the point where analysts say it has put Temer's ambitious plans to cut spending and overhaul the pension system in jeopardy. And there are increasing calls, mostly from opposition politicians but also ordinary citizens, for Temer to be impeached just like his predecessor.

"The tragedy of the Chapecoense team was not only a missed opportunity for the president, it was also damaging," said Carlos Manhanelli, chairman of the Brazilian Association of Political Consultants. "Once more it gave the impression that politicians don't care about normal people."

The plane crashed outside Medellin, Colombia, late on the night of Nov. 28. The next morning Brazilians woke up to the shocking news, including that 19 players on the Chapecoense soccer club were among the dead.

Temer, the former vice president who took over the top job in August after President Dilma Rousseff was removed from office for breaking fiscal responsibility laws, called for three days of national mourning. But Temer's solemn words were not heeded by his legislative allies.

That night one chamber of congress rushed through an unpopular spending-cut measure, while the other moved to weaken anti-corruption legislation and even add penalties for prosecutors and judges who overstep their power.

The measure on corruption was particularly galling for many Brazilians as about 60 percent of sitting lawmakers are under investigation or already charged with wrongdoing — mostly graft, according to local watchdog groups. A sweeping probe into a kickback scheme at state oil company Petrobras has snared dozens of top politicians and business executives in recent months.

Television stations, which had been broadcasting the latest news on the crash all day, switched to the rowdy protests that erupted outside congress during the sessions. Several thousand demonstrators overturned and burned cars during an hours-long standoff with riot police.

"The public wasn't so distracted by the tragedy that they missed that unsavory act," said James Bosworth, a Washington-based risk analyst. "In fact, the congressional vote strengthened the public's view that the country's politicians are more interested in helping themselves than helping the country."

Presidential aides initially said Temer, who has been booed the rare times he appeared in public, would not attend the memorial in Chapeco on Dec. 3. Then, under heavy pressure, they said he would go to the city but only meet with grieving families at the airport.

Osmar Machado, a shoe salesman whose soccer player son Felipe was killed in the crash, became a national hero when he blasted Temer and other politicians for their response.

"What are these politicians thinking? The important people here are the families and the victims," a tearful Machado said at the stadium where the memorial was to take place. "This Temer guy wants families to go to the local airport of Chapeco to see him and get some medal. But he is the one that had to come here and talk to us."

"Doesn't he get that?" Machado said.

Temer, a 75-year-old career politician nicknamed the "butler" for his dour manner, eventually did attend the memorial. But the president, Cabinet ministers and allies who accompanied him were largely ignored by the 22,000 people in the stadium.

Leading columnist Clovis Rossi called on Temer's office to reveal which adviser persuaded him to attend.

"That way we would know that there is at least one person in the presidential palace who understands the stature of the job and the obligation of not hiding," Rossi wrote in the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo.

The day after the memorial, in more than two dozen cities, hundreds of thousands protested against Temer's and congress' attempts to defang the anti-corruption legislation. So great was the uproar that the measure has been put on hold, at least for now.

Political risk consultancy Eurasia has raised from 10 percent to 20 percent its estimate on the likelihood that Temer will not last in office through the end of his term in 2018. Temer is facing allegations that he received illegal campaign donations — something he denies — and his administration has lurched from one scandal to the next, losing six Cabinet ministers amid a steady stream of accusations of wrongdoing.

The turmoil in Brasilia, coupled with Temer's inability to connect with ordinary Brazilians, makes his prospects of winning support for contentious legislation like pension reform all the more unlikely. A poll published Sunday by DataFolha said 63 percent of Brazilians want Temer to resign. The survey interviewed 2,828 people Dec. 7-8 and had a margin of error of two percentage points.

"We need someone who can fix things, not create more problems," taxi driver Marcelo Veloso said. "I had some hope after Rousseff was removed, but now I think we need a man of the people to sort this out."


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