The fall of Brazil’s playboy billionaire
This week the businessman who was once a symbol of an era of hope in Brazil was sentenced to 30-years in jail for corruption.
Before his criminal conviction, maverick mining tycoon Eike Batista was widely considered Brazil’s most daring and successful entrepreneur of a generation.
But he is now the symbol of a new time in the country that is struggling to recover economically whilst trying to turn a page on a history of corruption.
No other country in the world has had quite a dramatic reversal of fortune as Brazil in the past decade.
Just a few years ago, Latin America’s largest economy was booming and playing catch up to more advanced nations.
And then it all crumbled. Political crisis, corruption, recession, impeachment and austerity measures – it all happened in a matter of months.
“From boom to bust” is how Brazil is often described in financial pages. Eike Batista’s personal story follows roughly the same timeline.
At the height of his powers Eike Batista was an impressive businessman who amassed a fortune in mining with hard work, charm and the right connections in the business world.
Batista went to university in Germany where he also worked as a door-to-door salesman of insurance policies. But when he read in a magazine about a gold rush in the central region of Brazil, he dropped out of school and moved back to his home country.
Batista borrowed money from jewellery makers in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo and bought a gold mine in Brazil, which made him his first million dollars.
Throughout the 1980s Batista expanded his business and went into partnership with global mining players such as Rio Tinto.
He was also making headlines elsewhere. Batista married Luma de Oliveira, one of the country’s most beloved top models and Carnival queens, who had also won international powerboat racing competitions.
But it was during the 2000s that Batista reached the peak of his popularity – also when Brazil was beginning to emerge economically.
By then he had created his “X” empire – all companies in the conglomerate had the letter which is a symbol for multiplication.
In 2012 Eike Batista was listed by Forbes magazine as the seventh richest person in the world, with a personal fortune of $35bn and inspired a generation of young entrepreneurs.
It took 30 years for Batista to reach the top of Brazil’s corporate world. But his downfall was much quicker.
By 2013 his companies were already in financial trouble. Batista had charmed many investors to get involved in complicated and expensive infrastructure, mining and oil projects.
But the oil wells he had bought were not producing enough barrels. Construction projects were delayed. And expected returns turned into financial losses.
He sold his companies, his yacht and much of his real estate in Rio de Janeiro and vowed to save his companies.
But his empire was built with something more sinister than just hard work and courage, according to investigators.
In 2017 Operation Car Wash – a wide investigation that revealed corruption in all major Brazilian political parties – revealed that Eike Batista used his connections with officials in Rio de Janeiro state to obtain public contracts.
A judge issued an arrest warrant while Batista was in New York. There was speculation that he might flee, but Batista booked himself a first-class flight to Rio de Janeiro, where he gave himself up.
Even in New York’s airport, fellow Brazilians showed support and admiration and asked for selfies with the disgraced tycoon. Within hours he was in a prison cell with other common criminals with only a squat toilet and cold water. Not having completed college, he did not have a right to a special cell.
He remains the second only top 10 Forbes billionaires to be arrested – after drug trafficker Pablo Escobar.
Batista’s time in prison lasted only a few months and he was released to serve house arrest while awaiting trial.
This week a judge sentenced him to 30 years in jail for allegedly paying $16.5m to former Rio de Janeiro governor Sergio Cabral – whose combined prison sentences for corruption add up to 123 years in jail.
“His crimes caused deep scars in the trust of investors and entrepreneurs who, in the recent past, saw Brazil as a good investment option”, read the prison sentence given by Judge Marcelo Bretas in a criminal court in Rio.
End of the road
Just a few years ago Batista had been hailed by then Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff as “a standard, a national pride” amongst Brazilian capitalists.
Eike Batista has been trying to reinvent himself as a YouTuber, with business tips on commodities and infrastructure.
But this week’s conviction will most likely be the end of the road for a man who once embodied a national dream of wealth and prosperity.
Meanwhile Brazil itself is struggling too to find a new path to growth. The country boomed during a golden global era of commodities but failed in its task of reforming its economy.
But Operation Car Wash shows one part of the system is slowly being reformed: authorities are tackling corporate corruption. They want to build a system that allows bold and innovative entrepreneurs to flourish.