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Petrobras | Operation Paulo Francis

The Manhattan Connection talk show hosts in the mid 1990s

The hosts of Manhattan Connection (GVT) in the mid-1990s. Frencis is second from left

Source: BBC Brasil | Lucas Mendes

The final days of a Brazilian Christopher Hitchen — Paulo Francis — are being echoed and linked to heavily today. The time-traveling obituary is used in order to sell an analogy between the current scandal at Petrobras and the monstrous SLAPP suit filed against Francis in 1996, whose death many blame on political persecution by Petrobras.

Major eethical lapses of the Globo stalwart are covered in his Wikipedia bio.

As to the outpouring of analogy, what is missing from what I can google up in a preliminary google is the definition of the term “petrolinho,” a neologism created by Francis in order to … odd.

Not one source defines the term as Francis used it, even though it figures in all the (identical) headlines: «Paulo Francis and the Petrolinho.»


I translate as an exercise … in translation and historical revisionism.

In October of 1996, at a pre-taping breakfast, Paulo Francis was in a bad mood. Nothing strange about that: He had just gotten out of bed.

Half an hour later, Francis was more cheerful.   We had finished the run-though of topics to be discussed that day. Petrobras was not on the menu. This was normal, too. Francis did not mention Petrobras until, in the middle of the program, he began making an outpouring of accusations, and here I cite the transcript:

Francis: “The directors of Petrobras all send their money [to Switzerland], there is an account with $60 million.”

Lucas: “What a case that will make!”

Francis: “It will. A Swiss banker had lunch with my attorney and they agreed that Brazilians who deposit $50 million and leave it there [are welcome.]”

Lucas: “Do the directors of Petrobras have $50 million?

Francis: “Of course they do. Just imagine it. Robbery, price gouging … it is the biggest criminal conspiracy in the history of Brasil.

Francis continued in that vein, but did not cite any directors by name or cite his sources. During the taping of the show, the figure grew from $50 to $60 million.

I was concerned and when the taping was over, I asked him if he wanted to cut that segment, though usually the show was not edited post-production. Francis said no.

In the news media, on a scale of 1 to 10, the market share for the show was less than a 2. It was the topic of several columns in the mainstream press. No one asked Petrobras about the charges.

I will always wonder why Francis never took his story to the mighty O Globo, O Estado de S. Paulo and Jornal da Globo, employers with a lot more firepower than GNT.

Was it a matter of  [Petrobras’] ability to silence the media, with their power to influence [content] using advertising sales as leverage? Or was the reputation of Petrobras viewed as above reproach? Was it the limited audience of GNT?

In November, again without previous warning, Francis announced on the show that he was being sued by the directors of Petrobras, who “want US$100 million in damages.” On the front page of the summons there appear seven names, but the sum deposited in the supposed laundering scheme is not reflected.

I have never discovered where and how this lawsuit originated. None of these sums are mentioned in the first communication of the plaintiff and the defense.

Francis Pays US$ 7,000

Francis was cast down into a legal inferno.  At the suggestion of his friend Ronald Levinsohn, he hired a lawyer and paid US$ 7,000. When I mentioned that this was a small price to pay, Francis was furious, saying that I knew nothing about his finances. The fact is that I did, because he talked with me about it …  defending himself in a major lawsuit would destroy his savings. If he lost, he would be ruined for much less than US$ 100 million.

News media coverage of the lawsuit? Little to none.  Terrifying notes circulated about the US$ 100 milhões.

A Beaten Man

In December, Francis traveled to Paris in the company of Sonia Nolasco and Diogo and Anna Mainardi. Diogo said he seemed depressed, a beaten man. A few weeks later, in January, he called Diogo and seemed in excellent spirits. Everything was under control. Diogo mentioned to his wife that Francis must have taken the right pill this time.

It is possible that Paulo Mercadante, Francis’ lawyer in Brazil since the days of O Pasquim, had informed him the suit could not be settled by an American court because the program was not broadcast in the U.S. In Brazil, this type of case yields a meager fistful of reais, not some terrifying liability like the one Francis bore.

January 28, a Friday. During the taping, Francis is seen rubbing his left shoulder and complaining of pain. He was immediately treated by Dr. Jesus Cheda, receiving a cortisone injection, as is normal when this type of pain presents. It was bursitis, they said.

Four days later, at around 5:00 a.m., Francis suffered a sudden heart attack and dropped dead … The phones would not stop ringing, Sonia would not answer … or rather, she answered one call, from President Cardoso, who scolded Francis posthumously for neglecting his health.

For years, however, Francis had stopped the drinking, smoking and red meat. The control exercised by Sonia was working, but it did not resolve the problem of preventive medicine and a sedentary lifestyle. She was unable to schedule appointments with serious physicians for regular checkups.


Francis improved his diet, but continued eating hamburgers at PJ Clarke’s, across the street from Globo, at lunch time, and Chien, a Chinese restaurant near his house where he ate his last supper. He seemed healthy as a horse. He had benign tumors in his neck, but these did prevent  him from continuing to work.

He never exercised. Never. The most he would do was accompany Elio Gaspari on a weekly stroll through Metropolitan Museu and dinner at Bravo Gianni, where he replenished the calories lost to the cultural outing.

This was his favorite daytime activity. At night, his favorites were accompanying Sonia to the ballet, or watching opera and old movies at home. On the night of his death, he watch Hitchcock’s Notorious, with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman.

Four months had passed between the filing of the suit and the death of Paulo Francis.

The directors of Petrobras went after the estate and the rights of the widowed Sonia, but with the help of the president (FHC) and his own lawyer, Paulo Mercadante, abandoned the suit. Luckily, Brazil has not given up.

The petrolinho prophesized by Francis grew into the Petrolão. Operation Car Wash should be rebaptized Operation Paulo Francis.

One last question, then: What is meant by petrolinho?