Neither the revolutionary commander of Venezuela, nor the charismatic president Lula of Brazil, but the senior staff of the construction company turned into the Major Elector when the Brazilian Senate had to vote on the incorporation of Caracas into the trading bloc. Based on the transcripts of the Lava Jato case, Marcelo Odebrecht personally led the lobbying campaign aimed to break the three-year blockage that prevented the entry of the Chavista regime into the club. The operation included the recruitment of three key Senators from the Workers' Party, as allies.
It was not just bribes. At the height of its international expansion - which coincided with the wave of progressive governments in the region in the early 21st century -, Odebrecht pulled the strings of the political balance in Latin America. And not the company but Marcelo Odebrecht, the so-called Prince of Brazil, personally oversaw that, for example, the Venezuela of Hugo Chávez —after defecting from the Andean Community of Nations (CAN), which the country had helped to establish 40 years before— was accepted with forceps in the Southern Common Market, Mercosur.
It was an eight-month process with lobby meetings called by the top levels of the now prominent Brazilian construction giant, even Marcelo Odebrecht. Already in March 2009, the Executive President of the corporation and top of the family brought together his senior staff to plan an action to guarantee the entry of Venezuela into the natural field of the Brazilian economy, a move of geopolitical nature that counted on stern resistance in the parliaments of Brazil and Paraguay.
In order to overcome the reluctance in the Brazilian Senate, Odebrecht recruited three key senators, Aloizio Mercadante, Antonio Palocci and Tião Viana of the then ruling Workers' Party (PT), the party of former presidents Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rouseff. This is evident based on the e-mails found in Marcelo Odebrecht's computer, collected on the pages assembled in the prosecutor's office and the Brazilian Judiciary, as part of the Lava Jato Operation.
Chávez government, with its proclaimed Bolivarian vocation, embraced a pretension of hemispheric integration that would crystallize into different initiatives. Alba, Celac, Petrocaribe, and Unasur were some, and Chavismo may be responsible for their origin. But this doctrine gave rise to one of the positions that transformed into a daring pirouette —Caracas decided to break with the old Andean Pact and, above all, with a solid commercial trade with Colombia, to join Mercosur.
At one point, leftist governments coincided in the four Mercosur capitals: Brasilia, Buenos Aires, Montevideo and Asunción. The scene seemed attractive to Chávez, an ally - and in many cases, a financier - of those governments. But the song of the progressive sirens led the Venezuelan leader to run aground on a stalemate. In spite of all the sponsorships, after three years of negotiations, Venezuela was no more than a figure with voice but no vote in Mercosur. The express channel towards the membership that the Venezuelan leader may have imagined was blocked. Six years passed before being admitted.
Chávez said that it was a "historic" event, referring to Venezuela's accession to Mercosur, and that the "path for the liberation of Venezuela" was in the southern bloc. However, three years later, the country status was in limbo. Although all the presidents had already said “yes,” the parliaments of Paraguay and Brazil had not given their approval.
Even with a majority in the Senate, not even Lula's political machinery managed to get enough support for the Committee of Foreign Affairs and National Defense of the upper house of Brasilia to agree to elevate the case to the Plenary, but Odebrecht intervened.
The power of the company ensured that Eduardo Azeredo —president of that committee, who had publicly emerged as one of Chávez's most tenacious adversaries in Brasilia— sit down with them to review and eventually change his position regarding Caracas.
Azeredo had positioned himself in 2007 as an anti-Chavez spokesman, promoting from the committee a resolution to reject the silencing, decreed by Chávez, of the main private television network in Venezuela, RCTV. Vehemently, Chavez did little to play down the dispute. On the contrary, he dedicated rhetorical darts to Azeredo and the Brazilian congress, whom he called "parrots that repeat everything the USA says." In general, he did not seem willing to win the goodwill of the parliamentarians. Persuasion would be left to Odebrecht.
Azeredo was asked for understanding. Venezuela then established itself as the destination of a fifth of the sales of the most important construction company in Brazil and one of the largest customers in the country forced to look outside what it could not find at home. Behind closed doors, the same senator who publicly confronted Chávez, told Odebrecht that although he would support his party's refusal against the Venezuelan leader in front of the media, he would not express particular resistance during the debate for Venezuela to join the regional block.
This was reported by Rubio Fernal e Sousa, one of Odebrecht executives, in an e-mail addressed to his boss, Marcelo Odebrecht, and four other members of the board of directors interested in the mission to open the door for Venezuela to enter Mercosur.
"Today, I was with Senator Eduardo Azeredo (PSDB MG), who recently held the Presidency of the Committee of Foreign Affairs of the Senate, where the project is coming," said Fernal, the company's executive, in an e-mail sent on Wednesday, March 11, 2009, at 3:12 pm. "He will try to be well-balanced without allowing any exaggeration and avoiding protections, and he is sure that entry will be approved if the Government wishes so (the committee has 19 votes and only 7 are against, led by the PSDB)."
Azeredo, however, challenges those agreements. Although he did not fail to admit the meeting with the company, now that he is away from the Congress and politics in general, this week he responded by e-mail that nothing affected his position. "My vote was against, as stated in the records of the Senate," he said. "There was no interference with the conversations with Odebrecht representatives. The entry was approved because most senators were in favor of the then Government."
On October 29, 2009, the Committee of Foreign Affairs finally brought the discussion of the adhesion protocol to a higher level, where the motion obtained twelve votes in favor and five against. Two months later, the Plenary of the Senate approved the incorporation of Venezuela into the regional bloc. But far from being a political decision, there was a binnacle of negotiations behind the scenes, evident in the exchange of e-mails of Odebrecht management.
As if it were the Brazilian Senate's debate diary, but two weeks in advance, the exchange of e-mails from Odebrecht executives show the forecast of the votes: "20 votes in favor, 14 against (and President Eduardo Azeredo, who only votes in a tiebreaker), and 3 indecisive."
The game had gone well for Marcelo Odebrecht. The businessman reached the goal that he had set with his people seven months earlier to contact important figures of the Brazilian opposition, like former Brazilian Ambassador to the United States of America Rubens Barbosa, for them to favor the entry of Venezuela when asked in a public hearing.
"Accompany this matter by supporting EA (Euzenando Azevedo, director of Odebrecht in Venezuela). Let me know if you need my intervention. There are many who we can influence. I do not know if it is related, but Ambassador Rubens Barbosa is looking for me," Marcelo Odebrecht said in a message sent on March 11, 2009, at 5:13 pm. Nothing was too much in this lobbying campaign. Two days later he suggested contacting former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso. "Rubio, talk directly with me to contact FHC."
When it all came down, Marcelo Odebrecht accepted his role in this plot at last. "I got involved, along with Claudio Melo Filho and João Carlos Nogueira in the process for Venezuela’s admission into Mercosur." He said this in front of the two prosecutors who, on December 14, 2016, took his declaration in the city of Curitiba, Paraná, south of Brazil, when he finally realized that he had no option but to accept a plea bargain agreement in exchange of reducing his inevitable sentence. "We sought, at that time, a number of politicians to support the approval that in the end materialized."
Based on a report that executive João Carlos Mariz Nogueira submitted in Odebrecht, the decisive pieces in the political chess played by Odebrecht were the senators of the Workers' Party (PT) Aloizio Mercadante, Tião Viana and Antonio Palocci, who were then implicated in the Lava Jato plot, as pieces of the construction company that received money in exchange for political favors.
Mercadante passed from the Senate to be the Minister of Education of the government of Dilma Rousseff, and was accused of having received one million reais (around $ 300,000) in 2010 for the electoral campaign. Viana received the double, two million reais (around $ 600,000). But he only officially reported a quarter for his campaign as a candidate for governor of the state of Acre. While Palocci, former senator and former finance minister, a strong man of the governments of Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, is in jail after being sentenced to just over twelve years for participating in the illegal payment and subsequent laundry of over ten million dollars, also for political campaigns.
And if it was not exactly a surprise that Odebrecht found correspondents in Brazilian politics through whom it operated, it obtained unexpected support from Venezuela. Opposition leader Antonio Ledezma, former mayor of Caracas and now a political exile surprisingly pushed the boat in the same direction as Odebrecht.
To make the final decision and vote on the thorny issue, the parliamentarians of the Committee of Foreign Affairs of Brazil opted to get the testimony of an expert in the matter. They called Ledezma to testify.
Although Ledezma had sent a letter to the Brazilian Senate in May 2009, warning that "it would be a very serious precedent to admit a president into Mercosur whose actions reflect an authoritarian escalation and who does not believe in the market principles and the processes of integration," five months later, he changed his position when he gave a statement before the Brazilian Senate.
Ledezma’s rectification probable surprised the most the Chávez government representatives, who had hastened to disqualify his statements in advance. The party leader of Alianza Bravo Pueblo (ABP) asked Brazil's senators to approve Venezuela's entry into Mercosur, even despite of his own reservations about the authoritarian drift of the Caracas regime. "The final vote will be today and, according to senators, the setbacks put by Chávez were cleared by his greatest critic, Antonio Ledezma," reported El Espectador de Colombia newspaper in its October 28, 2009 edition.
"One thing is integration and another thing is the policy of expansion implemented by the Government of President Chávez, and for the democracies of our continent, it is necessary that Venezuela respects the technical rules and adheres to the protocols that are the backbone that support Mercosur," said Ledezma in Brasilia.
As reported in this portal in July 2017, Ledezma is mentioned - along with other Chavismo and opposition leaders, like Diosdado Cabello or Carlos Ocariz - among the presumed beneficiaries of contributions made by Odebrecht to different electoral campaigns of local scope, also mentioned in the plea bargains of the company executives. In the case of Ledezma, always according to those testimonies recorded by the Brazilian justice, the contribution would was made in April 2008, just over a year before the former mayor's testimony to the Brazilian Senate, and precisely on the occasion of the local elections for the Metropolitan Mayor’s Office of Caracas.
Despite the efforts to contact the former mayor, including negotiations with five of his relatives and close associates, it was not possible to have Ledezma's version for this report. During the most recent week, according to the news agencies, Ledezma accompanied the opposition leaders Carlos Vecchio and Julio Borges on a tour through France and Spain, where they were received by presidents Maurice Macron and Mariano Rajoy, respectively.
In any case, and regardless of Ledezma’s appearance before the Brazilian parliament or Odebrecht’s boldness to overcome the political obstacles, the efforts, though successful in Brasilia, would be insufficient. Venezuela’s intention to enter Mercosur got stuck in Paraguay, a country of seven million inhabitants, a Lilliputian member of the trade alliance, together with Uruguay. The congress of Paraguay never approved Chavez's Venezuela, and it was necessary that the other members of the bloc suspended the Guarani in June 2012, following the parliamentary impeachment of President Fernando Lugo, for Caracas to join the club.
At that time, Hugo Chávez was already suffering from the cancer that killed him just nine months later. His successor, Nicolás Maduro, was kicked out of the group in 2017. And neither the Prince of Brazil nor Odebrecht, the construction giant that even set the political balance of Latin America, were there to prevent it.
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