American Involvement Poisons Brazilian Democracy
The United States has a long history of meddling in the political affairs of other nations and using shadowy military and espionage techniques as a means of overthrowing governments seen as being a threat to American political and monetary interests. Beginning with the Monroe Doctrine of the early nineteenth century and continuing through the Cold War, Latin America has been at the epicenter of American efforts to subvert democracy, deny national sovereignty, and serve capital abroad. From the American-backed coup that replaced Chile’s democratically elected president Salvador Allende and replaced him with the brutal fascist dictator General Augusto Pinochet to the recent failed efforts to depose of President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, the United States has a long history of attempting to influence politics and government affairs in this part of the world.
Brazil, the largest country in Latin America, has long weighed heavily on the minds of American political and economic elites wary of any perceived threats to U.S. hegemony in the Western Hemisphere and eager to profit from Brazil’s enormous mineral, petroleum, and agricultural wealth. In the early 1960s, as his administration prepared to back the 1964 military coup that would depose the democratically-elected President João Goulart and result in the establishment of over two decades of military rule in Brazil, President John F. Kennedy made his promise to “prevent Brazil from becoming another China or Cuba” a signature component of his Cold War-era Latin American policy.
While CIA-backed military coups may today be viewed as relics of a distant Cold War past, the recent political history of Brazil demonstrates conclusively that American involvement into Brazilian economic and political affairs has persisted well into the twenty-first century. Recent evidence consisting of leaked memos, messages from the encrypted messaging service Telegram and other documents have implicated the United States government and the Department of Justice in deeply entrenched plots to destabilize Brazil’s democracy for political and economic gain for years. The United States government worked closely with Brazilian “anti-corruption” probes into the activities of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, popularly known as “Lula” and his successor, Dilma Rousseff, drastically transforming Brazil’s economic and political trajectory to the apparent benefit of American and multinational business interests.
The most famous of these maneuvers was known as Operation Lava Jato, Portuguese for “car wash.” This less-than-scrupulous investigation, spearheaded by a Curitiba-based judge, Sérgio Moro, and prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol, was initiated in 2014 as a money-laundering investigation; however, the scope of the Operation quickly expanded to include allegations of bribery and corruption at Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned petroleum giant, eventually implicating a laundry list of prominent political and business figures. For several years, Lava Jato was widely praised, both in Brazil and internationally, as a long-overdue reckoning into political and economic networks historically rife with clientelism and corruption. Moro himself was celebrated as a hero, an impartial and independent crusader against the impunity of Brazil’s political and economic elite.
However, since 2019, investigations by The Intercept and Agência Pública have shown that Lava Jato, far from representing a non-partisan campaign against corruption across the Brazilian political spectrum, had a special prosecutorial interest in the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT), and especially in two of the Party’s most prominent figures: Lula and Rousseff. These investigations have further confirmedthat Moro and Dallagnol, almost from the inception of their investigation, enjoyed extensive assistance and cooperation from the United States Department of Justice and other American government agencies.
Leaked Telegram messages and other documents indicate that Moro engaged in many unethical and illegal acts during the investigation, including wiretapping Rouseff’s phone and leaking an edited phone conversation to Rede Globo, Latin America’s largest commercial television network.
When questioned in 2019 about the Department of Justice’s involvement in the operation by a group of United States congressmen and women, Attorney General William Barr’s response provided little in the way of answers, but did clarify that the Department of Justice was involved in the Lava Jato operation by including links to articles on the DOJ website proving collaboration between American and Brazilian officials.
While serving as Attorney General under the administration of George H.W. Bush, Barr was instrumental in issuing pardons to six officials from the Reagan administration who had been charged with serious crimes related to the Iran-Contra Scandal, indicating that he is unwilling to hold American officials who have participated in illegal acts in foreign nations accountable for their actions.
In July 2017, Moro sentenced Lula to nine and a half years in prison, ostensibly on charges of money laundering and corruption; according to the charges, Lula had received $1.2 million in improvements to a beachfront apartment from a construction firm that, in turn, had allegedly received large contracts from Petrobras. Announcing his verdict, Moro promised that the charges would ensure that Lula would be banned from political office for 19 years, or twice the length of his prison sentence. As Lula was 71 years old in 2017, such a sentence would in effect end Lula’s political career.
In April 2018, the Brazilian Supreme Federal Court, in a 6-5 vote, ordered Lula to begin serving his sentence, despite the fact that he had not yet exhausted all of his appeals. On the eve of the Supreme Court’s decision, with the outcome of the vote still in doubt, Chief of Staff of the Brazilian Army, General Eduardo Villas Boas, made an ominous statement that was widely viewed as suggesting that the Brazilian military would be willing to intervene in order to ensure Lula’s imprisonment and removal from the presidential race.
On November 8, 2019 – once Bolsonaro had won the 2018 presidential election and been sworn in as President of Brazil – Lula was released from prison after 580 days. Nevertheless, the damage had been done: as a result of his conviction, Lula was not allowed to run for president in the 2018 elections, even though he was the obvious frontrunner. By allowing Bolsonaro to ascend to the presidency with relative ease, this ban had dramatically changed the dynamic of Brazil’s modern political history.
Lula, while immensely popular at home – especially among Brazil’s poor and working classes – was regarded with some apprehension by American interests eager to uphold the neoliberal “Washington Consensus” in Latin America and distrustful of Lula’s close ties to left-wing governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Argentina. While his government stopped short of the policies of nationalization pushed by other foreign leaders famously overthrown by the United States, such as Salvador Allende or Mohamed Mossadegh, Lula strenuously opposed the privatization of Petrobras, and promoted Odebrecht, Brazil’s privately-owned engineering and construction powerhouse, at the possible expense of American business interests in South America, southern Africa, and the Middle East. Thus, Lula not only posed a large threat to his political rivals on the right, but also to American corporate interests.
Bolsonaro and Lula’s other political rivals had reason to fear his success in the looming 2018 presidential election. Lula, who President Barack Obama in 2009 referred to as “the most popular politician on earth,” had easily won two previous presidential elections in 2002 and 2006, and left office in 2010 with an 87% approval rating. There was no question that he was the obvious frontrunner in 2018.
With Lula barred from the ballot, Bolsonaro coasted to victory in the 2018 presidential election. Bolsonaro, for one, did not allow Moro’s crucial role in securing his victory go unrewarded. Only days after the election, Bolsonaro announced that Moro would serve in his administration, even creating a new post for him; this new position, commonly known as that of the Supreme Justice Minister, gave Moro immense power until his resignation in April of this year, as it put him in charge of a consolidated force of specialized surveillance teams and other law enforcement agencies.
Leaked phone conversations show that Moro colluded with Prosecutor Delton Dallagnol, violating the Brazilian Judiciary’s Code of ethics by not acting as an impartial judge. In fact, Moro exerted a huge amount of control over the entire legal process; he would let prosecutors know of his decisions in advance, decide the order in which individuals would be prosecuted, and urged other officials to move as quickly as possible, among other ethical transgressions. In essence, he acted as a consultant to the prosecution instead of a disinterested third party.
The main justification for initiating impeachment proceedings against Rousseff was her alleged engagement in a practice known in Brazil as pedeladas. This can be translated to English as “peddling,” and generally refers to the practice of delaying repayment to state banks as a means of masking public debt. The final report from Brazil’s Senate concluded that Rousseff had not engaged in any such practices, which should have effectively dismantled the case against her. However, Brazilian and American actors were already conspiring to ensure that this would not be the case.
A unique characteristic of Brazilian politics is that the Vice President is almost always from a different party than the President and each office has constitutionally separate terms. Thus, although Rousseff was a prominent PT member, her Vice President, Michel Temer, belonged to the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB), a center-right party that ultimately supported the impeachment proceedings against her.
Temer’s brief tenure as President was marred by scandal after scandal and deep unpopularity. Within less than two months after taking office, three of his ministers were removed from their posts due to allegations of corruption. Furthermore, taped recordings of conversations between these ministers indicate a massive conspiracy involving the military, mass media and Brazilian judiciary that had as its aim the removal of Rousseff from power.
Additionally, evidence from undercover informants indicate that that Temer was the recipient of illegally sourced campaign funds and massive bribes while also violating several election laws.
Given Temer’s own implication in massive bribery and corruption schemes – crucially, unlike Rousseff and Lula, Temer has been credibly accused of lining his own pockets with bribes, including payments sourced from Odebrecht and JBS, one of the world’s largest meat-packing companies – the political motivations underlying the push for Rousseff’s impeachment come into focus. For Temer, Bolsonaro, and the rest of the Brazilian right, removing Rousseff from office was never a question of accountability for alleged government improprieties or preserving the integrity of the office of the presidency. Rather, as Azadeh Shahshahani, a past president of the National Lawyers Guild who also served as a juror for the International Tribunal for Democracy in Brazil, writes in The Nation, Rousseff’s impeachment represented “an attempt by Brazil’s elite to regain power through non-electoral means and re-implement the neoliberal agenda” that had been rejected, at least partially, by successive PT governments.
In a 2016 speech in New York, Temer explicitly stated that the reason for Rouseff’s impeachment was that her economic policies were not in line with those espoused by the MDB. Lula, Rousseff, and the PT had won four consecutive presidential elections on platforms of increased public spending and modest expansions of social programs that lifted an estimated 36 million Brazilians out of poverty in the decade from 2003 until 2013. Temer and the MDB, meanwhile, sought the implementation of a more traditionally business-friendly, albeit electorally unpopular, agenda of privatization and austerity.
Further demonstrating the fundamental, political nature of impeachment proceedings against Rousseff is the fact that many members of the Chamber of Deputies who voted for impeachment cited bizarre, irrelevant reasons – such as their desire for “peace in Jerusalem,” to protect the freemasons of Brazil, or to prevent Communism from taking hold in the country – as the reasons behind their votes.
More hideously, Bolsonaro – then a congressman from the state of Rio de Janeiro – dedicated his vote in favor of Rousseff’s impeachment to Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, a notoriously brutal agent of the military dictatorship. Rousseff, who as a young woman was active in the left-wing armed resistance to the military regime, was imprisoned and tortured from 1970-1972 by the DOI-CODI torture unit headed by Ustra.
Ultimately, a report from the Brazilian Public Prosecutor’s office even concluded that Rouseff was not guilty of any of the crimes with which she had been charged. Even more damning, the aforementioned, independent International Tribunal for Democracy in Brazil tasked with investigating Rouseff’s impeachment concluded that, “what is happening in Brazil is a conspiracy against democracy. Impeachment is being used for partisan purposes to depose a democratically elected leftist president. This is, in effect, a coup, and those who engineered it are guilty of massive corruption and grave crimes, and must be held to account.”
The constitutional legitimacy of Rousseff’s ouster aside, upon illegitimately assuming the presidency in 2016, Temer wasted little time playing straight into the hands of American economic interests, giving American companies rights to oil reserves and other natural resources, and even going so far as to provide huge tax breaks to international petroleum giants such as Chevron and Exxon.
Brazilians were not the only individuals violating the laws of their country during the Lava Joto investigation. The United States’ Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) was instituted to prevent American citizens from bribing foreign officials or using other methods in order to help American business interests outside of the country. According to The Intercept, the FCPA is “the legislation through which the U.S. claims jurisdiction to prosecute the bribery of foreign officials, even if the acts occurred outside of the U.S., as long as the transactions — or the corporations or individuals who made them — use the U.S. financial system.” (Petrobras, for instance, is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, despite being a Brazilian state-owned enterprise).
The FCPA, therefore, is also frequently invoked by the American government in order to justify its involvement in the political and economic affairs of foreign countries, although the FCPA explicitly prohibits Americans from engaging in international operations of this sort without acknowledgement and approval from the government of the nation where such an investigation is taking place. Functionally speaking, the FCPA may be wielded abroad by the U.S. government as a powerful tool in the interests of American capital. For example, referencing the creation of a new Miami-based FBI squad dedicated to prosecuting corruption in Latin America, Leslie Backschies, the chief of the FBI’s international corruption unit, described her unit’s mission as ensuring that American businesses “can compete fairly” in Latin America.
Nonetheless, despite the consent of certain members of the Brazilian judiciary, the involvement of the FBI and DOJ in Lava Jato never received the necessary acknowledgment and approval by the leaders of Brazil’s executive branch. Rather, in violation of the FCPA, FBI agents colluded with Lava Jato prosecutors and judges without the required consent from the very PT-controlled executive branch that they sought to prosecute.
Citizen Truth spoke with Priscila D. Carvalho, a post-doctoral researcher at INCT -Institute of Democracy (Instituto da Democracia e da Democratização da Comunicação) in the Brasilian city of Belo Horizonte. She indicated that one must be careful of assigning too much agency to American or other foreign actors with respect to Rousseff’s impeachment, Lava Jato, and the ascendance of Bolsonaro. According to her, the Brazilian situation is perhaps more analogous to recent events in Chile – it has been documented that in 2014, as the center-left president Michelle Bachelet prepared to enter office, the World Bank unexpectedly downgraded Chile’s investment rating, precipitating massive foreign capital flight and contributing to the defeat of Bachelet’s Nueva Mayoria coalition in the 2017 presidential election – than to the 1964 coup in Brazil, the 1973 ouster of Allende, or even the U.S.-backed military coup this past November that removed Evo Morales from office in Bolivia. “The problems that our democracy has today are very much internal problems,” and originate fundamentally from Brazil’s “own institutions,” she emphasized.
Regardless of the real extent to which American actors and interests played a consequential role in Rousseff’s impeachment, Lava Jato, and Bolsonaro’s rise to power, recent events in Brazil undeniably demonstrate the contemporary significance of “lawfare” in Latin America, and America’s role in exporting and encouraging such tactics abroad. “Lawfare” can be generally understood as the manipulation of legal systems and institutions for political or partisan gain; in recent years, “lawfare” operations in Latin America – from Peru to Venezuela to Bolivia to Argentina – have almost unanimously targeted center-left or left-wing leaders and parties, and have been conducted with the support of the United States, often in collaboration with other multinational bodies, such as the World Bank (in the case of Chile) or the Organization of American States (in the case of Bolivia and Venezuela).
What might have been the motivations underlying American cooperation with a “lawfare” campaign aiming to cripple the PT and destabilize Brazil’s democratic system? Without a doubt, Rouseff’s 2013 decision to cancel a meeting with Barack Obama did not go unnoticed in Washington; the reasoning behind this decision shed even more light on America’s shadowy intrusions into Brazilian democracy. Documents leaked by Edward Snowden proved that the National Security Agency was using advanced espionage techniques to keep tabs on both Petrobras and the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy.
Lula, for his part, has also cast Lava Jato as an American-backed campaign to deny Brazil its economic sovereignty, and to punish him and the PT for refusing to privatize Petrobras, and for protecting the enormous “Pré-Sal” oil deposits off the country’s northeastern coast from foreign exploitation.
There is another troubling dimension of the FBI’s involvement in Brazil and other foreign nations – although the FBI is ostensibly a domestic intelligence agency and security service, the organization has hundreds of agents based in at least 90 countries, including Brazil .
As a result of the outcome of the Lava Jato operation, companies such as Petrobras were forced to pay upwards of $8 billion in fines to United States courts which had issued the sentences as a consequence of the corruption charges. Most of this money was eventually sent back to Brazil, but instead of being entrusted to the Brazilian government the majority went straight to Dallagnol, who planned to use the money to establish an independent anti-corruption fund, most like to appease friends in the United States. Nonetheless, Dallagnol’s plan was not successful, and Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled the proposal unconstitutional last year.
Today, Brazil has suffered nearly four million cases of the coronavirus and is rapidly approaching 120,000 deaths. The pandemic has struck Brazil’s indigenous communities with a particular ferocity – indigenous Brazilians are dying of COVID-19 at a rate nearly twice that suffered by non-indigenous Brazilians; in the Amazon region, the coronavirus mortality rate among indigenous peoples is nearly 250% higher than that of the general population. Few governments in the world have rivaled Bolsonaro in terms of callousness and incompetence with respect to his response to the pandemic. Meanwhile, fires are raging uncontrollably in some of the most ecologically rich regions of the planet – the Amazon rainforest and the Pantanal, the largest wetland on the planet which straddles the borders between Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay. According to Brazil’s national space agency, fires in the Amazon increased by 84% from 2018 to 2019 (Bolsonaro’s first year in office), and 2020 promises to be worse still; according to the same agency, fires in the Pantanal have tripled since 2019.
It is the slate of crises currently afflicting Brazil – simultaneously economic, political, ecological, and epidemiological – that is the true legacy of Moro, Dallagnol, and Lava Jato. Perhaps more than the egregious violations of the FCPA committed by the FBI and DOJ over the course of their involvement in the Lava Jato investigation; more than the active collaboration of American government agencies with an anti-PT, pro-capital plot thinly disguised as an apolitical war on corruption; more than Lava Jato’s slow erosion of Brazilians’ popular trust in electoral democracy; more than the ugly resonance that such collaboration has with previous instances of American intervention in Latin America during the twentieth century; it is Bolsonaro, and his crimes against Brazil and its people, that must be remembered as the outcomes of Moro’s zealous crusade.