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AP Interview: Brazil's Temer denies graft, defends legacy

Last Updated Sep 24, 2018 at 11:00 pm EST

Brazil's President Michel Temer poses for a portrait at Four Seasons Hotel during the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018, in New York. Temer said Monday that corruption charges against him were the result of his administration's attempts to reform the country's pension system, an explanation sure to raise eyebrows, if not hackles, in Latin America's largest nation. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Brazilian President Michel Temer said Monday that corruption charges against him were the result of his administration’s attempts to reform the country’s pension system, an explanation sure to raise eyebrows, if not hackles, in Latin America’s largest nation.

Last year, Temer, a career politician known for his ability to whip votes in an often chaotic, multi-party system, was twice charged by Attorney General Rodrigo Janot in corruption cases involving alleged bribes and obstruction of justice. While as a sitting president Temer has been able to avoid trial, many political and legal observers believe those cases will be taken up after his term ends at the end of this year.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Temer denied wrongdoing and said his administration had suffered an “indignity” because it was attempting to take on the pension system, long one of the country’s most thorny issues. As part of that, Janot used all the resources at his disposal, Temer said.

“On one hand, I was trying to combat privileges, and on the other hand this man was trying to protect those privileges,” said Temer, speaking at the Four Seasons hotel. Temer was in New York to participate in this week’s high-level meetings of U.N. General Assembly.

In a statement to the AP late Monday, Janot, who stepped down as attorney general when his term ended late last year, said Temer’s comments were an attempt to “divert attention and justify the unjustifiable.”

“Federal police reports, videos, recordings and witness testimony make it impossible to miss the truth,” he wrote.

As vice-president, Temer came to power in 2016 after President Dilma Rousseff was impeached and removed from office for illegally managing the federal budget. While Rousseff accused Temer of being part of what she called a “coup” against her, he denied the accusations and promised to bring about reforms that would pull Latin America’s largest economy from its worst recession in decades.

His administration did pass a spending cap and a major reform to the labour code, and the economy returned to modest growth last year, just over 1 per cent, after contracting nearly 4 per cent in both 2015 and 2016.

“When I took office in 2016, we found the country in a state of economic disaster,” he said in the interview. “… Obviously, there is a lot more to be done. However, we enjoy peace of mind inasmuch as we’re leaving the government ready for the next administration.”

However, several of Temer’s Cabinet ministers, and Temer himself, have been at the centre of many scandals.

According to Janot, Temer allegedly orchestrated a scheme in which he would get payouts totalling millions of dollars for help resolving a business issue for JBS, a giant meat-packing company. Federal police caught on camera and arrested a former aide who was carrying a suitcase with $150,000 in cash, allegedly a payout for Temer.

Because Temer is a sitting president, however, only the country’s supreme court can try him. And that can only happen if a super majority in the lower Chamber of Deputies, considered the conduit of the people, vote to allow for a trial to proceed. Both times Temer got enough votes to avoid trial, with many deputies saying they voted with the president simply to save the country from the political turmoil that another presidential removal would cause.

Temer’s approval rating has consistently been in the single digits — at one point it was 3 per cent — and presidential candidates, even one-time allies, have gone to great lengths to distance themselves from him.

Brazilians go to the polls Oct. 7, with a second round Oct. 28 if no candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the vote. The new president will take office Jan. 1.

“Temer has few friends left and has been attacked by all the candidates,” said David Fleischer, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Brasilia.

Fleischer said Temer’s best prospect to avoid being tried for corruption — police have since begun investigating two more potential cases against him — would be if he can get appointed to an ambassadorship by the incoming administration, which would give him partial immunity.

“I’m not sure if any of the potential new presidents would take that initiative,” said Fleisher.

In the interview, Temer said he believed his administration would be appreciated with time. He noted that his reforms “were not popular measures” and that “people react negatively” to attempts at change.

“History will recognize the achievements,” said Temer, who earlier in the day said he would try to get Congress to vote on pension reform in the lame duck session.

Prospects are slim, however, given Temer’s approval rating combined with the reality that reforming the pension would take super majorities in Congress, not easy even when a president is very popular.

In the interview, Temer lauded Brazil’s response to a growing immigration crisis on its northern border. Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have crossed into Brazil, often famished and seeking medical attention, feeling economic and political turmoil at home.

Temer’s administration and higher courts have beat back repeated attempts of the northern state of Roraima to close the border. In the border city of Pacaraima and Boa Vista, the state capital, thousands of Venezuelans are sleeping on the streets.

Roraima Gov. Suely Campos has said state resources have been pushed to the max, and can no longer attend to all the needs. Suely has accused the federal government of lying about providing millions of dollars to the state to help with Venezuelans.

Temer said a program to relocate Venezuelans to other states was helping to alleviate the problems. As of last week, just under 2,000 Venezuelans had been relocated, a fraction of the estimated 50,000 to 80,000 in the country, mostly in Roraima.

And what about the funds?

“The governor, when she alleges the resources haven’t arrived, surely has not been visiting all the shelters” and not considering other resources the government is providing in Roraima, said Temer.

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Prengaman reported from Rio de Janeiro. Associated Press reporter Mauricio Savarese contributed to this report from Sao Paulo.