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A scandal in Brazil is having far-reaching effects. It's a scandal at the state oil company. The economy is in turmoil. The president is facing a political crisis. But the story you're about to hear next is not about that. It's about the people being affected by the biggest corruption scandal in Brazilian history. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro went to one town where 20,000 people have been laid off, and she sent this report.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: I meet Joao Jesus outside the local labor tribunal in the town of Itaborai. He tells me this.
JOAO JESUS: (Speaking Portuguese).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: "This morning, I wasn't able to give my kids breakfast." He doesn't say this in anger or in tears. He says it as a man who can hardly believe it himself. Financial crises often get spoken about in the nameless, faceless lingo of world market downturns or changing patterns of consumption. But this crisis in Brazil has names and faces. So far, three dozen senior executives and 47 politicians have either been indicted or are under investigation for organized corruption on an epic scale. According to investigators, the way it worked was this. Some of Brazil's biggest construction companies would overcharge the state oil company, Petrobras, and then would funnel the extra money into the coffers of these politicians and executives. Among the main beneficiaries was President Dilma Rousseff's Workers Party, the PT. Just to give you an example, one executive was found to have accepted bribes to the tune of a hundred million dollars. You heard that right. He's had to agree to give it back. What they did has directly meant that Joao Jesus' two daughters, ages 9 and 11, went hungry this morning.
JESUS: (Speaking Portuguese).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says, "it's so ugly; I never thought I'd have to go through something like this." His story is similar to a lot of people here today. He came from his home state of Bahia to work for one of the companies that does work for Petrobras. He's an industrial plumber, and the company he worked for was doing good business, which brings us to now, what he's doing outside the labor tribunal on a sunny, summer day along with 3,000 other employees from the same company. One by one, they line up and meet with a company representative who signs their work card. What's happening is the result of a court order. Basically, this company hasn't paid its workers since December. All the men here right now are being formally laid off. And the court has ordered the company to give them back pay and compensation. Except, the company is locked in a battle with Petrobras because it says the state oil giant owes it over a billion reals. Until it gets paid, it can't pay its laid-off workers.
JESUS: (Speaking Portuguese).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Joao Jesus tells me he isn't on the street yet because his landlord has agreed to let him live rent-free for now. He says he's waiting for his money so he can go back to his home state and start over. My heart is cut in two, he says. There were a lot of big dreams in Itaborai in the boom years. Companies and people relocated here after a cluster of Petrobras refineries started being built nearby.
So I'm now walking down the main drag of Itaborai, and it's a study in contrasts. On one side of the road, the sort of older part of town, supermarkets, mom-and-pop shops, auto mechanics, but on this side of the road where I am now, there are these tall, gleaming buildings. They're painted white. They have floor-to-ceiling glass windows - completely new, completely empty.
RICADO VICTOR: (Speaking Portuguese).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sixty-nine-year-old Ricardo Victor has invested his life savings in buying apartments and offices in some of the new buildings. This was supposed to ensure him a comfortable retirement. He tells me he spent his life getting up at dawn, working several jobs, missing his children's childhood so he could provide for them.
VICTOR: (Speaking Portuguese).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: "This didn't only affect Itaborai," he says. "It affected all of Brazil. Petrobras is the engine of the whole country. This has stalled the growth of the whole country," he says. Back at the labor tribunal, Fabio Luiz Mendoza de Souza stands in a group of other laid-off workers. Back when the country was doing well, he had believed the hype that Brazil had changed, that things would continue to get better.
FABIO LUIZ MENDOZA DE SOUZA: (Speaking Portuguese).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Now I think about all that time when Brazil was booming under the Workers Party. It was all a sham," he says, "an illusion, a lie," he tells me. "We have politicians who only think of themselves. No one ever thinks about us," he says. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Itaborai.
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