The Brazilian Right Used Anti-Corruption to Push Its Agenda

Beginning in 2014, Brazil was consumed by a moralizing anti-corruption drive that helped right-wing forces oust the Workers’ Party and undermine Lula’s legacy. It took investigative journalism to unravel Lava Jato’s mythology.

Former president of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on February 13, 2020 in Rome, Italy. (Filippo Monteforte / AFP via Getty Images)

In October 1930, Paul Vanorden Shaw sought to explain why US citizens don’t take to the streets to protest corruption like their peers in Latin America. “With all frankness,” the Brazilian-born scholar and journalist wrote in the New York Times Magazine, “let us admit that there have been municipal, State and national governments in the United States just as corrupt as those overthrown by revolution in Latin America. Yet the Latin Americans revolted and American citizens did not. Why?”

Shaw raised a number of pseudoscientific arguments we would flatly dismiss today, like the idea that Latin Americans mature faster than people in cooler climes, leading to more intense political outbursts beneath the equator. But the heart of his explanation merits a closer look:

That the American does not revolt is not because he is a coward. His business interests and instincts develop in him an aversion to disorder . . . When he runs into graft and corruption, he groans with despair but makes a mental note to vote against the grafting party in the next election and also to ask Smith to help cast out the crooks with his vote.

In the United States, Shaw suggests, material abundance breeds civic complacency. By contrast, Latin Americans are deeply cynical that their governments are ever run honestly, which Shaw attributes to the improvisational fragility of democratic institutions in the region. Unlike the average US citizen, the Latin American is eager to dramatically act upon his political interests. “He fights because he has found that fighting is the only way he can get what he wants.”

Shaw’s analysis is riddled with anachronisms, but it does get one key point right: attacking corruption is an inherently political act driven by individual agendas. A nation that overlooks this essential insight wanders into dangerous terrain, as the recent history of Latin America’s largest nation makes clear.

Beginning in 2014, Brazil was consumed by a moralizing anti-corruption drive that right-wing forces fueled and exploited to advance their own ends. Operation Car Wash (Operação Lava Jato), a wide-ranging investigation into kickbacks at state oil company Petrobras, revealed the entrails of massive official corruption at almost every level of government. Prosecutors, the press, and conservative politicians presented the center-left Workers’ Party, in power since 2003, as uniquely nefarious. In 2016, when protestors clogged the arteries of Brazil’s major cities, calling for the removal of Dilma Rousseff, then serving her second term as the country’s first woman president, they claimed to be acting in the name of good government. Daft or insincere (or both), this movement purported to end corruption in Brazil once and for all.

But progressives in Brazil sensed something was off about the investigation. For one thing, the scale of the corruption being unearthed suggested that misconduct was systemic, involving representatives of virtually every political current. The Workers’ Party, however, seemed to be the only one truly debilitated by the revelations. Observers who pointed out the disingenuous nature of this crusade were dismissed as apologists of a vast criminal enterprise.

In 2018, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the popular former president then leading in the polls, was jailed on flimsy charges only loosely related to Lava Jato’s prosecutorial purview. This enabled the election of Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right former army captain who had served in Congress without distinction for decades. Bolsonaro consummated his ascension by nominating the judge who sentenced Lula to prison, Sergio Moro, as his minister of justice, thus laying bare the incestuous relationship between right-wing politics and a messianic anti-corruption agenda.

We now know that this anti-corruption campaign was, in fact, congenitally flawed. As I wrote in 2019, “it’s not every day that a reading of the facts dismissed as conspiracy theory by so many sensible establishment voices is ratified by extensive documentation.” But that is exactly the Intercept Brasil did when they released a series of bombshell reports based on hacked conversations between prosecutors and the judge handling the most prominent cases stemming from Lava Jato.

The Intercept’s findings confirmed suspicions that the prosecution against Lula was motivated by political animus and sustained by dubious evidence. Based on “a massive archive of previously undisclosed materials,” the outlet reported that judge Sergio Moro, hailed in Brazil, on the Time 100 list, and in a fawning 60 Minutes segment in 2017 as a paragon of courageous civic virtue, secretly aided the prosecution in Lula’s case, an egregious ethical violation in a justice system that depends upon the impartiality of the presiding magistrate.

The first articles brought the internationally feted heroes of Lava Jato crashing down to earth. Since then, Lula has regained his political rights, and the judge who oversaw his case was found by the Supreme Court to have been biased. It is hard to imagine how any of that would have happened without the incontrovertible proof put forth by a handful of journalists.

Even as conservative forces sought to discount the allegations against Lava Jato, the political landscape shifted beneath their feet. Today, Lula leads most polls for next year’s presidential election, just as he did in 2018, when he was barred from running. This sweeping saga would be impossible to recount without mentioning Glenn Greenwald, the mettlesome American journalist who has lived in Brazil for over fifteen years. For that reason, whatever one thinks of Greenwald’s personal political iconoclasm, his new book, Securing Democracy: My Fight for Press Freedom and Justice in Bolsonaro’s Brazil, is a historically significant artifact of our tumultuous, anxious age, with implications that extend beyond the borders of the world’s sixth-most-populous country.

The Measure of a Journalist

Greenwald’s critics are right about a few things. He is prickly and often contrarian. He is also undeniably important, breaking not one but two stories of profound global interest. Indeed, he begins his sixth book by reflecting on the sheer unlikelihood of that distinction.

“I’m sure you already know this,” Carl Bernstein told Greenwald over dinner in 2015, “but I’ll emphasize it anyway: this Snowden story is a once-in-a-lifetime scoop. You’ll never have anything as big or impactful as this again. So make sure to enjoy it while it lasts.” It’s hard to imagine Greenwald has enjoyed the fallout from the Intercept’s reporting on Lava Jato. He and his family have endured terrifying violations of their privacy, and bodyguards have become an essential part of his life.

The courageous work Greenwald has done in Brazil rebuts anyone in the United States who would categorically dismiss him. Greenwald has run afoul of progressives in the United States for several reasons, including his skepticism of charges that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign colluded with the Russian government during the 2016 election and his willingness to appear on Fox News.


Glenn Greenwald speaking in Tucson, Arizona, in 2012. (Gage Skidmore / flickr)

In Brazil, however, Greenwald is much more discernibly identified with the political left. His husband, David Miranda, serves in Congress as a member of the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) and he has been an outspoken critic of President Bolsonaro’s rank homophobia and authoritarian inclinations. “His instinct,” Ian Parker wrote of Greenwald in a 2018 New Yorker profile, “is to identify, in any conflict, the side that is claiming authority or incumbency, and then to throw his weight against that claim, in favor of the unauthorized or the unlicensed — the intruder.” This tendency paid off when the second scoop of a lifetime crossed his path in 2019.

Like his Pulitzer Prize–winning reporting of the Edward Snowden leaks, Greenwald’s reporting in Brazil began when “an anonymous source emerged who made convincing claims to have a massive archive of secret information regarding powerful political figures and institutions.” The book doesn’t quite capture Greenwald’s voice, but he does recount several moments of self-doubt throughout the process of reporting. For example, Greenwald recalls his husband’s concern over publishing articles implicating Bolsonaro’s minister of justice, Sergio Moro, the judge who had overseen Lava Jato trials and thrown Lula in prison, in a conspiracy against defendants. After all, when Greenwald started receiving the hacked conversations, Bolsonaro’s administration was in its early days. Moro was one of the most popular and powerful men in the country. What consequences might Greenwald and Miranda, two men whose very being is a living repudiation of everything Bolsonaro stands for, face?

Another concern was that “there was simply nothing in the culture or history of Brazil that provided a road map for how reporting on such a leaked archive would be received.” Again, following the approach established with the Snowden story, Greenwald sought local partners to help the Intercept’s small team work through thousands of pages of material. They eventually sealed a deal with the country’s largest newspaper, Folha de S.Paulo.

As new articles were published intermittently over several weeks, observers waited with bated breath for further revelations. Greenwald’s book includes images of several tweets to convey the energy of this fraught moment, a time when those paying attention to events in Brazil could sense a shift happening. One can imagine certain readers rolling their eyes at the inclusion of memes and snapshots from Twitter in the book, but they do serve a purpose. To a considerable extent, Bolsonaro’s rise was driven by social media savvy. The Intercept’s reporting was arguably the first real challenge to the president’s ability to drive a narrative on those platforms.

Reception and Legacy

Anti-Lula and pro-Bolsonaro voters — there is a great deal of overlap between those two categories, but they are not quite the same — dismissed the reporting. It naturally would have been harder for them do so if Greenwald were not married to a left-wing opposition politician. In the book, Greenwald recounts the myriad disgusting ways his family life was brought into the conversation after the Intercept published its bombshell revelations. One conservative commentator wondered whether child services should check on Glenn and David’s two sons, since their fathers seemed too busy to be able to offer much parenting (this homophobic jab was explained away as a joke). Greenwald guides readers through the engine room of Bolsonaro’s “very potent and well-orchestrated online attack machine.”

Nevertheless, almost immediately, some surprising things happened in Brazil’s political landscape as a result of the Intercept’s exposés. A columnist in a leading news magazine called for the once-irreproachable Moro to step down. The newspaper Folha de S.Paulo reported that members of the highest court say the once-high chances of Moro being named to the Supreme Court were now “close to zero.” While the president and his supporters closed ranks around the embattled former Lava Jato judge, the sustained barrage of damning evidence took its toll.

When Moro broke with Bolsonaro, accusing him of attempting to manipulate the justice system to shield his family members from legal scrutiny, there were few left in Brazil and abroad who saw Moro as someone worth defending. The judge’s epochal fall from grace culminated with his leaving the country in disgrace to find lucrative employment in the US private sector.

As Greenwald observes in closing, “Bolsonaro remains an effective demagogue, and with a besieged, though still powerful and well-organized, fake news network, he was able to control enough messaging to stave off impeachment and a full-scale collapse of his popular support.” Does this mean that the Intercept’s reporting, which revealed that Bolsonaro’s most potent rival in 2018 was wrongfully kept from contention, was all for naught? Obviously, no. While the legal case against Lula was unfolding in 2017 and 2018, those inclined to see Moro as a paragon of civic virtue asserted that the former president was being treated just as any other citizen would be, with all due legal rights and protections. Once it became clear that Moro’s conduct was defined by one egregious ethical lapse after another, they insisted that of course Lula had to be treated differently, lest he evade punishment forever.

If Greenwald and his team at the Intercept are guilty of anything, it is of exposing the hypocrisy, the double-dealing, and, ultimately, the fear at the highest levels of Brazilian politics — fear that Lula could not be beat in a fair electoral fight. Greenwald does not claim to have solved any of the fundamental problems bedeviling Brazilian society. But, in a moment of self-conscious candor, he recognizes his incredible good fortune, in terms of being a white American citizen living in Brazil and having the visibility and resources to offer a great deal of protection.

“If, with all of those tools, I’m not going to confront corrupt, powerful, and dangerous governments, and those who threaten Brazilian democracy, who should I expect will?”