Massive leak exposes the ‘soft coup’ that gave rise to Brazil’s far-right

Image of Mike Pompeo and Jair Bolsonaro, January 2019
John McEvoy

UPDATE: This article was updated at 2.25pm on 2 June 2019 to amend Michael Brooks’s quote about Bernie Sanders.

A massive trove of documents leaked to the Intercept has revealed “systematic wrongdoing” among top Brazilian prosecutors to prevent the left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) from winning the 2018 presidential election. The secret documents suggest that the prosecutors were neither apolitical nor confident in the evidence used to jail presidential front-runner Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – better known as Lula.

While Lula remains in prison, Brazil’s democracy is eroding under the racist, sexist and homophobic presidency of Jair Bolsonaro. The leak therefore shines a crucial light on the ‘soft coup’ which paved the way for Bolsonaro’s rise – one of the most consequential events of this century.

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Operation Car Wash

Brazil’s massive corruption probe, named Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato), began in 2014. The Car Wash team insisted “that their only consideration was to expose and punish political corruption irrespective of party or political faction” in Brazil.

Many were suspicious of Operation Car Wash, however, in light of the probe’s ties with the US justice department, the impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff in 2016, and the lack of tangible evidence for Lula’s imprisonment in 2018. And just days after being elected, Bolsonaro promoted Lula’s jailer, Sérgio Moro, to minister of justice.

The latest leak has vindicated such suspicions. As the Intercept showed, Car Wash prosecutors discussed ways to prevent Fernando Haddad, the PT’s presidential candidate, from winning the 2018 election. The messages reveal a damage control operation after prosecutors learned that Lula would be interviewed from prison by the country’s largest newspaper, Folha de São Paulo, just ten days before the first round of presidential voting. The following message from prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol, for instance, displays clear political bias:

I remain very worried about the possible return of PT, but I have prayed frequently for God to enlighten our population and for a miracle to save us.

Ultimately, the interview did not happen.

Ethical violations

The Intercept also revealed that for over two years judge Moro “repeatedly counseled prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol” on how to investigate Lula. As a judge required to be impartial and neutral, Moro therefore allegedly committed major and prohibited ethical violations during the case which led to Lula’s conviction.

Documents also show that Dallagnol doubted the legal basis for prosecuting Lula, who was accused of accepting an apartment (which the prosecutors luxuriously named a “beachfront triplex”) for facilitating a multi-million dollar contract with Petrobras, the state-controlled oil firm. As the Intercept detailed, Dallagnol had:

increasing doubts over two key elements of the prosecution’s case: whether the triplex was in fact Lula’s and whether it had anything to do with Petrobras.

The case against Lula, in the words of journalist Brian Mier, “has more holes than the proverbial Swiss cheese”. Indeed, no material evidence exists connecting Lula to any crime; one of the prosecution’s main pieces of evidence was an allegation from a man facing 30 years in prison. And despite a UN ruling, Lula’s imprisonment on “indeterminate acts” meant he was barred from running in the 2018 election and effectively silenced from prison.

Further than Lula

Though Lula was the most high-profile target of Operation Car Wash, its implications go well beyond the jailed former president. One overlooked aspect of the Car Wash operation, for instance, is how Moro “forced the nation’s biggest construction companies to paralyze their projects, causing 500,000 job losses in 2015 alone”. The BBC estimated that the operation led to a 2.5% fall in Brazil’s GDP.

Bolsonaro, meanwhile, continues to gut the Brazilian economy with mass privatisation schemes and austerity measures. The government also recently announced that Brazil will continue with the “piecemeal privatization” of Petrobras due to corruption revealed by Car Wash.

‘Eu avisei’ (I told you so)

For readers of independent news outlet Brasil Wire, the latest revelations will come as little surprise. For years, its writers have exposed the dark mechanisms behind Brazil’s soft coup, including evidence of the involvement of the US government.

Michael Brooks, who wrote the foreword for Brazil Wire‘s explosive new book about Brazil’s soft coup and hosts The Michael Brooks Show, told The Canary:

If you were reading great outlets like Brasil Wire, you would have definitely already known and been really clear about what the reality of Lava Jato was, and the political and very vindictive nature of Sérgio Moro. Beyond that, it’s really important… that we don’t fall into simplistic corruption rhetoric. We need to have a conversation about corruption as a function of capitalism, as a function of oligarchy, that really interrogates the whole system. Because this sort of pseudo-populist anti-corruption rhetoric, we have the results, it’s been a tool of the authoritarian right: Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, [Indian PM] Narendra Modi, [Hungarian PM] Viktor Orbán and so on.

He continued by speaking about the importance of the US response to the leak:

As with most areas, Bernie Sanders is head and shoulders above the rest on this and his clarity on calling for Lula’s release should be followed by all candidates. But with every single self-proclaimed progressive leader – even Democratic – running for president or otherwise, there needs to be far more action on this.

Shortly after Brooks spoke to The Canary, the Intercept revealed that Sanders had called for “Brazil’s judiciary to release Lula”.

Meanwhile, Brooks continued:

So there’s the role of the leadership of Lula in responding to our present predicament; there’s the global lesson on how the left deals with corruption rhetoric; then there’s the fact that everybody needs to speak out on this; and they also need to be speaking out very specifically on the role of the United States.

This should open up a broader conversation about US hemispheric interference and domination across Latin America and the Caribbean… We all need to demand Lula livre (free Lula).

Truth and justice

Brasil Wire‘s founding editor Daniel Hunt also spoke to The Canary about the significance of the latest revelations both in Brazil and internationally. He said:

If Brazil was a democracy, which it has not been for three years, and if it was under a functioning rule of law, likewise, the 2018 election would be annulled. There was already ample evidence of multi-faceted electoral fraud. Now this confirms it was a sham election, and that Lula da Silva, the leading candidate, was jailed to prevent him winning.

Lava Jato didn’t “lose its way”; it was always a political and geopolitical weapon.

He explained that while truth is an important vehicle for justice, Brazil remains endowed with Bolsonaro:

Nobody on the left wants Bolsonaro impeached, as it would just put a General in his place. Although many people are celebrating today and feel vindicated, there is little genuine optimism as yet that this will deliver any results. Annulment is the only way to fix this that I can see, beyond immediate freedom for Lula. But they put so much effort into securing power, there is no way they would simply relinquish it now, any more than they would have last year democratically. We were foolish to ever believe that they would.

Corporate journalists
Hunt then spoke about the response of corporate journalists to the leak:

Corporate journalists are going through intellectual gymnastics right now. Most of them were cheerleaders for Sergio Moro and Lava Jato, most of them denied or ignored that a coup was in motion from 2013-2018, especially those connected to Atlantic Council or AS/COA [The Americas Society / Council of the Americas]. There’s no way for any of them to come away from this looking good. Some are feigning shock, but they had the same information we all had, yet went with the coup’s own narratives. None are innocent. I said in 2016 that history would not be kind to these people, and this week the world of spin they constructed is finally falling apart.

Such journalists fill the ranks of ‘liberal’ newspapers like the Guardian and the New York Times. Former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff gave a two-hour interview to the Guardian in June 2018, for instance, in which:

she described how Lula’s prosecution was “phase two” of the Coup d’etat which removed her, and that it would open the door for the ascension of Neofascist Jair Bolsonaro.

The Guardian, however, never published the interview. Its decision to omit crucial warnings about the soft coup in Brazil was accompanied by a general hostility to the PT. And the US left was even less sympathetic to Brazil’s left. As Brasil Wire found:

Of 38 articles published on Brazilian politics… in Jacobin from 2014-2017, all 38 presented a negative view of the PT.

The same outlets have largely minimised the latest leak’s importance since the story broke. Ernesto Londoño and Letícia Casado in the New York Times, for instance, ran with the punctured headline: Leaked Messages Raise Fairness Questions in Brazil Corruption Inquiry. Perhaps more revealingly, the BBC foregrounded Moro’s denial over the evidence in the leaks themselves.

What next?

The public’s response to the leaks reflects the degree of polarisation in Brazilian society. Many have called either for Moro to be jailed, or for the deportation of the Intercept journalists who published the damaging information.

The Brazilian Bar Association has already called for the suspension of both Moro and the Car Wash prosecutors. The PT, meanwhile, has branded it “a political operation poorly disguised as a corruption fighting action”.

Internationally, the documents published by the Intercept are yet to mention US involvement in Operation Car Wash. Thanks to the work of Brasil Wire, we know already that the US department of justice collaborated with Brazilian prosecutors to achieve convictions. Future leaks may prove more explosive still.

More widely, the tactics of ‘lawfare‘ used in Brazil reveal what was effectively a war of corruption (rather than a war on corruption). We would be wise to monitor how the US has changed tactics when interfering in foreign affairs, using Brazil as a template. For instance, Fernando Cutz, in an opinion piece for the New York Times, encouraged the re-implementation of the lawfare model in Brazil’s neighbour, Venezuela.

Although the US may have changed tactics, it has not changed course. The slow coup in Brazil represents part of a wider US-led assault on the global left. Indeed, as the Intercept rolled out its latest revelations, news broke that US secretary of state Mike Pompeo had discussed stopping UK opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn from getting elected.

In times of terror…

“In times of terror, we choose monsters to protect us”, Lula told the Intercept‘s Glenn Greenwald in a recent interview. And as the leaks confirm, Bolsonaro is not a monster that eludes explanation: he is a monster engineered through a coup that few in the media dared to question.

Featured image via Flickr – US state department

Get involved

  • Check out Brasil Wire and their explosive new book Year of Lead: Washington, Wall Street and the New Imperialism in Brazil
  • Also check out and subscribe to The Michael Brooks Show, notably his recent interview with Glenn Greenwald of the Intercept.

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