Leaked tapes featuring a member of Brazil's interim government suggest that the recent suspension of Dilma Rousseff from the presidency, to face an impeachment trial, is part of an effort to derail the country's massive Lava Jato, or Car Wash, anti-corruption probe.
The bombshell recordings, released by the Folha de São Paulo newspaper on Monday, includes the newly appointed planning minister, Romero Jucá, saying that a change in government is needed to "stop the bloodletting" from the inquiry.
The two-year judicial investigation into systematic bribes for contracts with the state-run oil giant Petrobras has implicated dozens of top politicians. These include Jucá, as well as six other ministers among the 23-person cabinet named by acting president Michel Temer.
Temer assumed the presidency on May 12 immediately after the senate voted to suspend Rousseff for 180 days while she stands trial over allegations she manipulated national accounts to hide deficits before her reelection two years ago. Temer was her vice president.
Rousseff and her supporters insist the suspension, and the impeachment process in general, is a "coup" orchestrated by right-wing politicians accused of much more serious crimes.
It is not clear who made the recordings of Jucá in which he is heard talking to Sergio Machado, former president of Petrobras subsidiary Transpetro. The tapes appear to date from March, before the lower house voted in favor of Rousseff's ouster in the lead up to the senate vote earlier this month.
According to the transcript, Machado tells Jucá he feels the political situation is "very serious" and the pair talk about the then governing Workers' Party's political manoeuvring, including Rousseff's appointment of former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as her chief of staff.
Jucá says Lula's return, and the mobilisation of social movements and unions close to him, would damage the country's economic outlook. Both agree the only answer is impeachment.
"There has to be an impeachment," Jucá says. "There's no way out."
Machado then tells Jucá he fears the Car Wash prosecutors are coming for the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, the PMDB, to which both Jucá and Temer belong. He suggests the impeachment scenario, to which Jucá replies: "I think there has to be a pact."
Probably the most explosive part of the conversation, however, is when Jucá and Machado are apparently talking about Lava Jato and their concerns about the future.
"If it's political, what policy do you pursue? You have to solve this shit," says Jucá. "You have to change the government to stop this bloodletting."
The reports do not include what is said immediately before or after.
Jucá told Brazilian media on Monday that the content of the recordings revealed nothing incriminatory. He claimed the "pact" referred to bringing an end to the ongoing political crisis in Brazil rather than a promise to stop the corruption investigation. He also insisted he had no reason to resign.
"This recording is banal, I say the same thing in all the interviews I give to journalists," he told GloboNews. "It's nothing new, it's no secret. My conscience is at ease."
Plea bargain testimony in the Lava Jato probe has named Jucá as a beneficiary of some of the kickbacks, prompting a supreme court investigation into him. As an elected official he cannot be tried by an ordinary court.
Congressman Paulo Pimenta, of Rousseff's Workers' Party, said the tapes were "no surprise to us."
Whether Jucá is forced out or not, the tapes mark the latest knockback for President Temer's interim government that this weekend was forced into a U-turn over proposals to abolish Brazil's ministry of culture.
Temer had initially announced the ministry would be absorbed by the ministry of education amid government cutbacks as the country grapples with a historic deficit, which could reach 170 billion Brazilian reals ($48 billion) this year.
The announcement prompted an immediate backlash.
Brazilian legend Caetano Veloso and singer-songwriter Seu Jorge performed in front of a massive crowd at the Gustavo Capanema Palace, home to the Culture Ministry in Rio, on Friday.
The country's broader artistic community also organized mass sit-ins in cultural buildings in 18 cities around the country at the weekend, and spoke out against the government during the 24-hour Virada Cultural festival in São Paulo.
Mendonça Filho, the new education minister, announced the climb-down on Twitter on Saturday. "The decision to recreate the Ministry of Culture is a gesture from president Temer towards calming tempers and focusing on the greater objective: Brazilian culture," he posted.
A new culture minister, Marcelo Calero, is expected to be sworn in on Tuesday.
"This is the first victory against the government," said Marcelo Silva during protest in downtown Rio de Janeiro on Sunday. "There has been a change in legacy from the old government, which was about sharing income, guaranteeing social rights and investing in the poor. Temer is against this. We will protest for the next two years."
The protest was organized as a show of force against Temer who had been due to visit the city to inaugurate the new VLT light rail system, built as part of the preparations for this summer's Rio Olympics.
The opening was postponed to June 5 over security fears but protesters said they would keep up the pressure at any opportunity, including the Opening Ceremony of the Games on August 5.
"Many of the people who were in the movement to remove Dilma are now understanding that things don't just improve," said 51-year-old Jo Araujo, 51, of the banks' union. "These demonstrations are not just pro-Dilma or pro-Workers' Party. It's about democracy."
Another protester who would only be identified as Viviane added: "None of us believe this government is legitimate. It was much worse than expected, it was disappointing. They have done nothing that helps."
Meanwhile, the government is also facing the question of how to handle the country's serious economic problems, with the congress expected to vote this week on adjusting the nation's fiscal target to avoid a shutdown.
Eduardo Valle, senior consultant at corporate relations specialists Speyside, said this is something that cannot be delayed.
"Temer needs to promptly send the message that measures are being taken to balance public accounts, resume growth, even if timidly from 2018 , as well as fight inflation and recover investment and employment," he said.
Follow Donna Bowater on Twitter: @DonnaBow