Brazilian Ex-Minister Makes Quick Exit to U.S. as Inquiries Rattle Government

Brazilian Ex-Minister Makes Quick Exit to U.S. as Inquiries Rattle Government

Brazilian Ex-Minister Makes Quick Exit to U.S. as Inquiries Rattle Government

Brazilian Ex-Minister Makes Quick Exit to U.S. as Inquiries Rattle Government

BRASÍLIA — It was the apex of one of the most tumultuous weeks of Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency. A flurry of arrests and judicial orders targeting supporters of the Brazilian leader plunged the capital into crisis as the country’s coronavirus caseload surpassed one million.

Then on Friday, Abraham Weintraub, one of the president’s most pugnacious lieutenants, made a rushed exit to the United States just days after stepping down as education minister. As he departed, he signaled his concern over Supreme Court investigations targeting him and other officials suspected of orchestrating defamation and disinformation campaigns online.

His hasty departure was a dramatic illustration of how embattled and adrift the Bolsonaro administration has become amid mounting criminal and legislative investigations and a public health catastrophe attributed in part to the president’s cavalier attitude.

Mr. Weintraub hopes to assume a senior role at the World Bank in the United States. He gained entry to the country by circumventing a travel ban imposed to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Precisely how is unclear.

Shortly before boarding a flight to Miami on Friday night, Mr. Weintraub said he planned to leave Brazil “as quickly as possible.” He wrote in a Twitter post: “I DON’T WANT TO FIGHT!” adding, “Leave me alone, don’t provoke me!”

His brother, Arthur Weintraub, an adviser to the president, wrote on Twitter early Saturday morning, “My brother has made it to the USA.”

There was rampant speculation and plenty of outrage over Mr. Weintraub’s exit as mounting scandals throttled the Bolsonaro administration. One question lingering over the trip is whether Mr. Weintraub improperly used his diplomatic passport and privileges to travel to the United States even when he was no longer a government minister.

Shismênia Oliveira, a spokeswoman at the Education Ministry, said Mr. Weintraub had traveled on a commercial flight and paid his own coach fare. She said the purpose of his trip was to “get settled” for a senior post at the World Bank to which he has yet to be confirmed.

Ms. Oliveira would not say whether Mr. Weintraub used a diplomatic passport. Cabinet members in Brazil are issued diplomatic passports, and many visit the United States using visas for government officials traveling on official business. Governments typically pay travel expenses for such trips.

Bearers of such diplomatic passports are exempt from the travel ban the White House imposed on May 24. It bars entry of most foreigners who have spent time in Brazil recently.

The State Department said in an emailed statement that it does not comment on individual visa cases, and a spokesman for United States Customs and Border Protection did not respond to questions about Mr. Weintraub’s admission to the country.

Opposition lawmakers said Saturday that Mr. Weintraub’s departure amounted to obstruction of justice. They also said that if he indeed used a diplomatic passport, that would represent an abuse of power because Mr. Weintraub had left the cabinet before he traveled.

“It’s obvious this was done with the acquiescence of the president,” said Fabiano Contarato, a leftist senator who had called for all of Mr. Weintraub’s passports to be confiscated pending completion of the criminal investigations. “This is just the latest abuse of power. The damage gets worse and more irreparable by the day.”

Randolfe Rodrigues, another opposition senator, called Mr. Weintraub “an international fugitive” who ought to be deported to Brazil and imprisoned.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s office did not respond to emailed questions about Mr. Weintraub’s trip, and efforts to reach the former minister for comment were unsuccessful.

Mr. Weintraub, one of the most combative figures in the Bolsonaro government, had become an irritant in the increasingly strained relationship between the president and Brazil’s Supreme Court.

The court opened an investigation in April into allegations that the president sought to replace the director of the federal police to shield relatives and friends entangled in criminal inquiries.

The high court is separately investigating one of Mr. Bolsonaro’s sons and several allied lawmakers on suspicion of orchestrating covert defamation and disinformation campaigns online.

In his election campaign, Mr. Bolsonaro benefited from a well-organized disinformation effort relying on social media platforms and text messaging apps. Critics say that has continued in office, with his supporters spreading false information and attacking state institutions, including insulting Supreme Court justices who have opposed his policies.

Mr. Weintraub, who is among the Bolsonaro loyalists under investigation in the disinformation case, has ratcheted up the tension between the presidency and the judiciary. During a cabinet meeting in late April, he angrily called Supreme Court justices “scoundrels” who ought to be locked up.

  • Updated June 16, 2020

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On Wednesday, the court issued a ruling allowing the disinformation case to move forward with Mr. Weintraub as a target.

Mr. Weintraub then released a video on Thursday announcing he was leaving the ministry. Standing next to Mr. Bolsonaro, he said he had concluded he would be safer abroad and thanked the president for nominating him for a senior role representing Brazil and several other countries on the board of directors of the World Bank Group.

“My wife, my children and even our dog Capitu will be able to have security, something that I’m very worried about,” Mr. Weintraub said in an apparent reference to the Supreme Court cases.

Scores of Brazilian scholars, activists and artists signed an open letter last week calling Mr. Weintraub unfit for the World Bank job. They pointed to his disdain for affirmative action programs and statements disparaging Indigenous communities and Chinese people.

The Supreme Court opened an investigation on racism charges in early April after Mr. Weintraub posted a message on Twitter mocking Chinese people’s accents when they speak foreign languages. Racism is a crime in Brazil.

The Chinese Embassy in Brazil responded to the post with fury, calling it “very racist.”

Lilia Schwarcz, a historian and author who teaches at the University of São Paulo, said the Weintraub saga was the latest blow to Brazil’s reputation abroad. The country has come under intense criticism over the president’s cavalier handling of the coronavirus crisis and his environmental policies, which have led to a sharp increase in deforestation in the Amazon.

“The hasty exit from Brazil shows he was afraid of being detained by the Supreme Court,” Ms. Schwarcz, who was among the signatories of the open letter from scholars, activists and artists, said of Mr. Weintraub. “All this has turned Brazil into a pariah of sorts.”

Tabata Amaral, a federal lawmaker who is an expert in education policy, said Mr. Weintraub left a dismal legacy as minister. She said he undermined initiatives begun under previous governments to reduce illiteracy and expand access to higher education for historically marginalized communities, including Brazilians of African descent and Indigenous people.

“He was a minister who spent his time attacking people, being racist and xenophobic on social media,” she said. “He used the country’s most important ministry to wage cultural wars and weaken important initiatives.”

Letícia Casado reported from Brasília, Manuela Andreoni from Rio de Janeiro and Ernesto Londoño from Bogotá, Colombia.

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