Brazil’s Anti-Corruption Investigation Lava Jato Gave Us the Ultra-Corrupt Bolsonaro

Brazil's Lava Jato investigation in corruption jailed former president Lula da Silva and was lauded by anticorruption campaigners in the West. But its legacy is the most corrupt president in the country's history: Jair Bolsonaro.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL — Jair Bolsonaro after casting his vote during general elections on October 28, 2018. Buda Mendes / Getty Images

What happens when a landmark anticorruption investigation, its lead prosecutors and the judge that presided over it, are found to be corrupt? What if the cure to the corruption pandemic turns out to be worse than the plague? We need only look to Brazil to see an example of this in practice.

Brazil’s anticorruption investigation Operation Lava Jato (“car wash”) has been touted by everyone from Transparency International to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption as the anticorruption model for the Third World to follow, but it has also directly contributed to the economic and political crisis the country currently finds itself.

Brazil is in the depth of the worst crisis since its return to democracy in 1985. Jair Bolsonaro, an authoritarian bigot, rules the country. His government is stacked with military men and bug-eyed zealots alike driving an agenda to systemically dismantle public services and wage a crusade against “Cultural Marxism” that includes green lighting extrajudicial murder. Brazil’s economy was tanking, unemployment was at record levels and the president was facing over 30 different impeachment measures — and that was before COVID-19.

At the time of writing, over 2.5 million Brazilians have been infected and 90,000 have died from the coronavirus, in large part due to Bolsonaro’s murderous brand of denialism. Brazil has become the world’s leading example of how not to handle the pandemic: its president promotes snake oil cures (such as the unproven anti-malarial drug chloroquine) while hospitals across the country face shortages of basic medical equipment.

Bolsonaro has also, variously, undermined public health responses, fired his health ministers and led his supporters in regular protests against “communist” quarantine measures, even after coming down with the coronavirus himself.

No wonder then that the country has the highest number of deaths and infections in the world after the United States. But the simple truth is that Bolsonaro would never have been elected if Lava Jato and an ex-judge, then Justice Minister Sergio Moro, had not jailed the candidate leading the polls in 2018, former president Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party (PT).

Lava Jato is one of the major reasons for this ongoing tragedy in Brazil, once a beacon for the world in terms of public health responses to pandemics, regional leadership and poverty reduction under the Workers’ Party government. This investigation — which brought a murderous, authoritarian and incompetent government to power — was actively assisted by the International anticorruption community and the United States Department of Justice (DOJ).

What Was Lava Jato?

Corruption has been a feature of Brazil since it was a Portuguese colony, and anticorruption politics has thrived during times of political strife and economic crisis from the military coup in 1964 to the impeachment of former president Fernando Collor de Mello in 1992. But this time, the old cycle of outrage and elite impunity was meant to broken by a hotshot young team of crusading investigators and heroic judges. 

For the first time in Brazilian history, captains of industry and political giants were locked up. The operation has arrested over three hundred people and resulted in over one hundred convictions since 2014. In the process, the protagonists of Lava Jato like its lead prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol and Sergio Moro became international anticorruption superstars, hailed by the press and anticorruption institutions. 

Lava Jato was mythologized as the means through which Brazil would break through its endemic patrimonialism and modernize its chronically dysfunctional bureaucracy. But, in reality, it has brought the country further backwards than the point at which the investigation started.

Critics of Brazil’s anticorruption investigation have been labelled as “conspiracy theorists” for years by respectable commentators. But recently, after the Intercept‘s landmark “Vaza Jato” (jet leak) expose, we have confirmation that not only was the investigation a factional project with a political agenda but it broke the law repeatedly and flagrantly in pursuit of its prosecutions.

The revelations include evidence of Moro colluding with prosecutors — who openly admit their cases are based on weak evidence — as well as investigators expressing their open hostility to the Workers’ Party, the squashing of investigations targeting key political allies such as former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso and others in the center-right Brazilian Social Democratic Party. Those involved also protected key business allies, targeted investigations at Supreme Court judges considered hostile and facilitated collusion between other Supreme Court judges and investigators. 

The leaks confirm what critics have said about Lava Jato for years — that it was an instance of lawfare, using the legal system to take down your political enemies. Lava Jato began as an investigation but morphed into a powerful faction within the Brazilian state attempting to advance its own interests and build power.

It is not so much a political party as some have claimed, even if it had overtly political goals of bringing about political change, but rather a competing center of power within the state allied with Brazil’s monopolistic media and, at various times, the centre-right parties.

The American Connection

Brazil’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act allows for foreign businesses and individuals to be investigated and tried in the United States for corruption. It was under this act that the US Department of Justice got involved in Lava Jato and the dealings between Petrobras and Odebrecht. One of their stated reasons was the idea that the Americans were better placed to enact harsher fines on Brazilian firms.

This act clearly forbids US agencies from operating on the ground without the express permission of the host government. However, stories recently published by the Intercept and Agência Pública, have exposed the existence of a thirteen-strong Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) unit secretly working with the Lava Jato taskforce.

While the Lava Jato investigators claim that all their dealings with American agencies were through legal and official channels, the story shows that both the American agents and the task force went to great lengths to hide their involvement and keep the Workers’ Party government in the dark.

Following the Intercept’s revelations, over seventy Brazilian Federal Deputies are demanding the US Congress to release information on the relationship between the US DOJ and Lava Jato. Lula’s lawyer Christiano Zanin Martins has suggested that the cooperation between the FBI and Lava Jato was illegal and could call into question the legitimacy of all of the investigation’s prosecutions.

But why did the US DOJ get tangled up in a messy corruption investigation in Brazil? Simply put, it helped American capital and undermined a regional power seeking to build economic and political power without American involvement. It should be no surprise that pro-Western political projects such as this gain acclaim from anticorruption organizations based in the West itself.

What Next for Lava Jato?

A great irony of recent Brazilian history is that Lava Jato was only possible because of anticorruption reforms passed by the Workers’ Party, which were used by its enemies to destroy Dilma’s government.

Since Bolsonaro came to power riding the anticorruption wave, his government has begun dismantling these legal mechanisms to protect the president and his mafia-like clan, who are under federal investigation for everything from money laundering to dark money fake news schemes.

The Lava Jato crusaders admit this reality, as do the international anticorruption organizations and even the center-right parties that launched the coup against Dilma. For instance, federal prosecutors are resigning from the task force, claiming that Augusto Aras — Bolsonaro’s handpicked Prosecutor General — is tampering with the investigations into his family. Moro himself resigned as justice minister when Bolsonaro tried to appoint another crony as Prosecutor General.

With the Workers’ Party out of power, empowering Lava Jato ceased to be in the interest of the elite and the Vaza Jato revelations opened up an opportunity for those seeking to clip its wings. After finding out they were being illegally spied upon by Lava Jato, the Supreme Court moved to curtail its powers and even released Lula.

The president of the Congress Rodrigo Maia, along with Supreme Court justices, is pushing to introduce a new measure blocking judges from running for political office for eight years if they choose to leave judiciary. If successful, this would put an end to the political ambitions of Sergio Moro, who has attempted to position himself as a leader of the moderate opposition to Bolsonaro since leaving his government.

However, as former presidential candidate Ciro Gomes once said of him, “Nobody likes Sergio Moro, because nobody knows what he thinks about any issue. People fell in love with the idea of what Mr. Moro represents.”

Moro himself doesn’t have the charisma nor the popular touch. It also remains to be seen whether “anticorruption” can even be a credible political platform during an unprecedented economic crisis and global pandemic — going after misapplied campaign funds or overcharged public contracts won’t put food on people’s tables or lighten the load on the country’s hospitals.

Under threat, the Lava Jato task team has been trying to save face, the most recent example of this was the arrest of former foreign minister and centre-right PSDB presidential candidate Senator José Serra. Moro and his allies have been accused of protecting their friends in the PSDB for years, so what better way to demonstrate your impartiality in the crusade against corruption than going for one of the luminaries of the party?

There is also some talk of removing Dallagnol as lead investigator. While I suspect Lava Jato will remain around, it feels like Bolsonaro’s antics and the COVID-19 crisis will overtake it in the headlines for the foreseeable future.

The Legacy of Lava Jato

The legacy of Lava Jato is precisely the opposite of its supposed mission. It has done severe damage to the rule of law, democracy, and the fight against corruption.

It has empowered an authoritarian demagogue who has proceeded to dismantle the institutions and laws that made the investigation possible. This amounts to factional strife among Brazil’s ruling class, while its economy is collapsing and a pandemic is killing a thousand people per day.

These factional struggles have little to do with the struggles facing the Brazilian people, nor will they deal with the problem that is Bolsonaro. Despite widespread opposition to his rule, the president is widely considered safe from the impeachment motions waiting for him in the Congress.

The irony is that he is only safe from impeachment because he has done favors for the corrupt, ideology-free political parties that Lava Jato was supposed to vanquish. Jailing the Left and enabling the Right — that is the investigation’s true legacy.