The Biggest Beneficiary of the Lava Jato Leaks Is Jair Bolsonaro

As most GAB readers are likely aware, one of the biggest stories in the anticorruption world in the last couple of months has involved the disclosure of private text messages by Brazilian officials involved in the so-called Lava Jato (Car Wash) Operation. Lava Jato, which has been in progress for five years, is one of the largest anticorruption operations ever, not just in Brazil but worldwide. The operation has secured the convictions of scores of high-level Brazilian political and business leaders once thought to be untouchable, including former President Lula of the Workers Party (PT). Lula’s conviction rendered him ineligible to run in the 2018 presidential election—which he likely would have won—and this factor, many believe, helped far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro win the presidency. The prosecution of Lula, and a number of other PT figures, triggered accusations, mainly from PT supporters and others on the political left, that the Lava Jato Operation was a politically motivated conspiracy against Lula and the PT. That view had not been taken very seriously by Brazilian or international experts outside of a relatively small circle of left-wing activists, though when Judge Moro, who had presided over most of the Lava Jato cases, including Lula’s, accepted a position in Bolsonaro’s cabinet, it certainly fed into that narrative.

Then, last month, The Intercept published a series of stories based on leaked/hacked/stolen private text messages among the prosecutors on the Lava Jato Task Force, and between Task Force prosecutors and then-Judge Moro. According to The Intercept and others reporting on this these revelations (dubbed “VazaJato” on social media), the disclosed texts corroborate the longstanding PT narrative that the Lava Jato prosecutors and Judge Moro were ideologically biased against the PT, especially Lula, and that Lula was denied a fair trial as a result. The Intercept described its own reporting as “explosive,” and while one might quibble with the lack of humility (guys, it’s generally better form to let other people praise the importance of your work), the characterization is accurate. Now, I think the evidence of misconduct is less clear than The Intercept and other commentators have suggested (see a useful debate on the legal and ethical issues here), and I find the claims of ideological bias especially flimsy (see here and here). But there’s no doubt that the revelations have tarnished Judge Moro’s reputation, and have also damaged the credibility of the Lava Jato Task Force prosecutors (though unfairly and excessively so, in my view).

Who has benefited from these stories? The conventional wisdom seems to be that the VazaJato stories hurt not only Sergio Moro, but also the Bolsonaro administration—both because Moro is a senior figure in that administration, and because the VazaJato stories imply, or state outright, that Bolsonaro’s election was illegitimate due to the fact that the strongest alternative candidate was barred, on trumped up charges, from running. And the biggest beneficiaries of the VazaJato stories, the conventional view maintains, are Brazil’s left-wing parties (the PT and its allies), mainly because the VazaJato stories show (allegedly) that the PT activists were right all along when they claimed a right-wing conspiracy against Lula. That view is plausible, and seems widely shared (not least by The Intercept’s reporters and editors, who makes no pretense of journalistic neutrality). But I think it’s wrong.

Indeed, I worry that the biggest beneficiary of VazaJato may be President Bolsonaro, and the biggest loser may be the Brazilian left. I say “worry” because I view Bolsonaro as a dangerous bigot and wanna-be authoritarian, one who is also likely to worsen Brazil’s corruption problem. But my personal political views are not really important for present purposes—I mention them in the interests of full disclosure (much as I have been careful, in previous posts, to disclose my cordial professional relationship with Lava Jato Task Force lead prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol). Rather, my goal here is to explain why I think the VazaJato leaks, and the narrative they have helped to amplify, are likely to help Bolsonaro, while hurting the Brazilian left. There are four reasons for this perhaps counter-intuitive conclusion:

  • First, and most immediately, the VazaJato stories have damaged the standing not of President Bolsonaro, or of his administration generally, but of Sergio Moro specifically. And that could remove one of the few possible checks on Bolsonaro’s more lawless, corrupt, or outrageous tendencies. Now, I thought that it was a mistake for Judge Moro to accept a position in Bolsonaro’s cabinet, both because I worried that doing so might undermine the credibility of the Lava Jato Operation and because it might help to legitimize Bolsonaro. But those who defended Moro’s decision to join the cabinet had a couple of reasonable arguments. First, as Justice Minister, Moro could push through important reforms to the justice system—ones that Bolsonaro on his own might not favor—and might also help temper some of Bolsonaro’s excesses in this area. Second, Moro could help ensure that Bolsonaro and his inner circle didn’t try to interfere in investigations that might implicate or embarrass them. The reason Moro would be able to do these things is that Bolsonaro needed him, and that if Moro were to resign—especially if he were to resign “noisily” over an issue of principle—it would be politically damaging for Bolsonaro. Thanks to VazaJato, whatever leverage Moro might have once had over Bolsonaro is now gone. Instead of Bolsonaro needing Moro, Moro now needs Bolsonaro—and both of them know it. If Bolsonaro decides he wants Moro gone, he can easily engineer his downfall, even while continuing to claim in public that he supports him (if doing so is politically expedient). And were Moro to resign, even over an alleged issue of principle, this won’t carry the same sting that it might have before the VazaJato stories broke. Again, I never thought that Moro’s decision to join the Bolsonaro administration was a good idea. Whatever constraining effect Moro might have on Bolsonaro was outweighed, I concluded, by the damage that such an appointment would do to the credibility of Lava Jato and the legitimacy it would lend to Bolsonaro in the early days of his presidency. But those costs have already been paid, and at this point weakening Moro removes one of the few internal checks on Bolsonaro’s worst tendencies.
  • Second, amplifying the narrative that anticorruption investigations are politically-motivated “lawfare,” and that Brazil’s legal and judicial institutions are themselves biased and corrupt, helps Bolsonaro more than the PT or other left-wing parties right now. It’s true that although the Lava Jato Operation has secured the conviction of politicians from across the political spectrum, the PT and its allies have been disproportionately represented among the defendants. But that overrepresentation, as Lava Jato’s defenders repeatedly emphasize, is most likely because the PT was the party in power for most of the relevant period. Now Bolsonaro and his allies are the ones in power. And in my view it is highly likely they will be, or already have been, involved in serious corruption. Indeed, some investigations, most notably of one of Bolsonaro’s sons, are already underway. So what happens if prosecutors go after Bolsonaro’s allies, and judges convict them? Presumably Bolsonaro and his crew will denounce the prosecutors and judges as political enemies. It’s harder to make that charge stick in a society where trust in the institutions of justice is high. Where that trust has been eroded, the charge seems more plausible. The VazaJato stories, by undermining confidence in legal institutions generally, and in the impartiality and professionalism of anticorruption investigations specifically, will make it easier for future politicians to attack anticorruption investigations in this way. And at least in the near future, those politicians are more likely to be on the right than on the left.
  • Third, the VazaJato stories and the reaction to them seems to be contributing to the framing of anticorruption as a “right wing issue,” and the positioning the left (at least substantial parts of the left, including the PT and its main allies) as anti-anti-corruption. This is hardly an inevitable alignment. Indeed, it’s actually a bit surprising, since traditionally it was the Brazilian left that was more concerned with grand corruption in Brazilian politics, given the ways in which such corruption privileges wealthy elites and contributes to poverty and inequality. The explanation, so far as I can tell, is the left’s desire to defend Lula at all costs. Lula is, without doubt, an exceptionally important figure in modern Brazilian history, and his administration did a lot of good. But only the hardest of the hard-core PT activists would try, with a straight face, to deny that the PT under Lula (and his successor, Dilma) was seriously corrupt. As for Lula himself, the evidence suggests that he was personally involved in corruption, and at the very least he must have known about tacitly condoned what was going on. (If not, he was the most out-of-touch, easily bamboozled party leader ever.) But let’s put that aside for the moment, and assume, for the sake of argument, that Lula wasn’t personally involved in corruption, that the evidence against him was weak and legally inadequate, and that he shouldn’t have gone to jail. There are two ways that Lula and his defenders could have handled this situation: Option 1: They could have focused their criticisms on the specific charges brought against him, talked up the flimsiness of the evidence, expressed confidence that he would eventually be exonerated, etc.—but done so while refraining from attacking the legitimacy of the institutions of justice or the personal motives of the prosecutors and judges involved, and emphasizing the importance of the anticorruption efforts more generally. Option 2: Lula’s defenders (and Lula himself) could launch a scorched-earth attack on the Lava Jato Operation writ large, impugning not just the decisions of the prosecutors and judges but also their integrity, and attempting to undermine the legitimacy of the entire operation, not just the one case. They chose the Option 2. Indeed, it’s striking, to this outside observer, how much the conversation about Lava Jato is dominated by discussions of Lula. If one were to read only the left-wing commentary, one could be forgiven for thinking that Lula was the only person charged in the Lava Jato operation. In those discussions, there’s barely a mention of other high-profile Lava Jato defendants, including right-wing political leaders like former Eduardo Cunha and Michel Temer, as well as business tycoons like Marcelo Odebrecht. In pushing the simplified narrative that Lava Jato is nothing but an ideologically motivated vendetta run by conniving schemers, the Brazilian left has positioned itself as anti-Lava Jato generally  rather than as defenders of rule-of-law principles or as critics of a handful of particular prosecutions. And this is probably a political mistake, because while Lula remains very popular individually, Lava Jato is also very popular. Indeed, the last presidential election featured a face-off between a different PT candidate (Fernando Haddad) attempting to cloak himself in Lula’s mantle and a right-wing candidate (Bolsonaro) claiming to be the anticorruption candidate (among other things). And we know what happened. Of course, the VazaJato stories didn’t appear until last month, and so didn’t contribute to any of this. But they seem to have fanned the flames of the left-wing anti-Lava Jato, anti-anti-corruption narrative, and in so doing are further contributing to the ability of Bolsonaro, and the Brazilian right, to “capture” the anticorruption issue as their own. If that solidifies, it would be very bad news for the left, because anticorruption remains a popular and important cause in Brazil, and rightly so. Politically, the left would be better off developing and advancing its own message about how it would fight corruption in Brazil, and possibly also exposing and denouncing both individual corruption in the Bolsonaro administration and the various ways in which that administration may be quietly rolling back important anticorruption measures. Instead, thanks in part to the salience of the VazaJato stories, the left appears to be ceding the anticorruption issue to the right wing.
  • Fourth, and building on the previous point, the VazaJato stories seem to be contributing to what seems to me, as a left-leaning outside observer, to be the Brazilian left’s unhealthy, counterproductive obsession with Lula. I understand that Lula was a uniquely important figure, and an inspiration to many Brazilians. I understand that his policies are widely thought to have helped lift millions of Brazilians out of poverty. (I also know there are controversies about his administration’s policies and questions about how much those policies, rather than other factors, contributed to rising incomes, but for now I’ll assume that Lula’s administration did indeed do tremendous good for millions of poor Brazilians.) And I certainly understand the frustration that many Brazilians—especially those most vulnerable to the Bolsonaro administration’s vicious rhetoric and inhumane policies—feel about the fact that Lula’s disqualification from the 2018 election is what made Bolsonaro’s victory possible. But Lula hasn’t been president since 2010, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say he probably won’t be president again. He’ll probably still be incarcerated by the time the 2022 election rolls around (even if his current conviction is reversed, there are many more cases against him still pending), and by then he’ll be 76 years old. The Brazilian left’s fixation on Lula, and the injustice allegedly done in keeping him off the ballot in 2018, seems to me counterproductive. It’s backward-looking, not forward-looking, and seems to be inhibiting the left from cultivating a new generation of leaders and formulating a new set of policies that offer an alternative vision to address the problems that matter to most Brazilian voters (economic stagnation, violent crime, and, yes, corruption). The left’s political strength can’t be grounded, over the long term, in the personality cult of one man, especially one in his 70s. Yet the large number of Lula-to-Bolsonaro voters suggests that the left hasn’t yet managed to build a sufficiently compelling “brand” outside of the Lula personality cult. To fight a dangerous demagogue like Bolsonaro, the opposition needs to keep the attention on his administration’s many failings and abuses, and to offer a compelling alternative vision that resonates with voters. That’s not going to happen if the focus stays on 2018. But the VazaJato leaks have had the effect of keeping the conversation, particularly in left-wing circles, fixated on the injustices allegedly done to Lula. Maybe Lula’s supporters have a valid complaint. But, speaking as a matter of pragmatic politics rather than justice, Bolsonaro is one of the biggest beneficiaries of anything that gets the opposition to spend its time focusing on the past, and on Lula, rather than on the future.

Before closing, I want to make one thing perfectly clear: I am by no means suggesting that The Intercept was wrong to publish the VazaJato stories because of their political effects. My general view is that investigative journalists have both a right and an obligation to publish material that they believe the public has a right to know, without taking into account who the story will help or hurt politically. Indeed, it would be very wrong of me, or anyone else, to suggest that investigative journalists should refrain from publishing a story that would otherwise be newsworthy because of its alleged adverse political effects. I do not want my commentary above to be misread as making any such suggestion.

With that important caveat, I do think it’s important for the rest of us can and should try to better understand the likely political ramifications of major revelations of this sort, especially those of us (not me, in this case) whose framing and discussion of the story might influence the public narrative in significant ways. And in this case, for the reasons sketched above, I do think that the VazaJato revelations may turn out to be a boon for President Bolsonaro, and a trap for the Brazilian left.

17 thoughts on “The Biggest Beneficiary of the Lava Jato Leaks Is Jair Bolsonaro

    • What about PSDB, the fake “right wing” party? You forgot this US “friendly” party that gave American investors illegal advantages in Brazil’s privatization process. That’s the reason you do not see seriously the financial biased Lava Jato processes. Very convenient to American investors. But in my opinion they should be correctly advisors all investment in Brazil’s bonds are possibly to be reviewed.

  1. Farei o comentário em português, que poderá ser traduzido sem problemas.

    Excelente texto! Na minha opinião o Brasil vive em estado de exceção: as pessoas estão desorientadas, há poucas fontes informações realmente confiáveis. Nas eleições vários candidatos principalmente de esquerda reclamam que no período de eleições o ministério público abre diversos processos investigativos que maculam a imagem do político, que depois de algum tempo e de com repercussão muito menor é absolvido. Mas aí o estrago já foi feito porque a eleição já ocorreu e aquela “mancha” ficou associada ao candidato.

    No Brasil, especialmente na operação Lava Jato os procurados vem a público oferecer denúncia sobre os investigados em horário nobre da televisão Brasileira fazendo um linchamento moral de ainda se quer foi julgado. Com Isso, cria-se um estado de Exceção. Quando se aponta que um Juiz e/ou que um procurador agiu de maneira indevida, e é isso que as mensagens trazendo a luz da sociedade, tanto o Juiz quanto o procurador vestem-se da operação que conduziam com o argumento de que: Se estão me “atacando” é porque são a favor da corrupção.

    Esse argumento citado é uma grande besteira, todos somos do combate a corrupção, mas que isso seja feito dentro e estritamente na LEI, se a lei não é boa, vamos discutir a lei. Infelizmente a corrupção no Brasil é ambidestra, mas foi sugerido e a grande maioria das pessoas associa corrupção a partidos de esquerda. Na minha opinião até o supremo Tribunal Federal que é a última instância onde se pode buscar a justiça imparcial no Brasil fica refém da operação Laja Jato, pois quando há uma decisão contrária, mesmo que correta, procuradores, pessoas do ministério público e partidos políticos vão as redes sociais manifestar-se contrariamente, com isso, incentiva-se que muitas pessoas leigas protestarem e até peçam o fechamento do Supremo Tribunal como vemos frequentemente. A quebra das instituições é o primeira passo para uma ditadura. Espero que o Brasil resista a tudo isso.

    Grande abraço, e parabéns pelo texto!

  2. The left changed its narrative on Lava Jato :

    They support its motives , but condems its bias towards leftists , and its brutal tools of torture-alike imprisonment of defendants until they sign a highly controversial plea bargain , which MUST accuse Lula of aleged crimes – but with no evidence or proof whatsoever.

    • Thank you very much for sharing this excellent, thoughtful, and insightful comments on my post. Your criticisms are fair and well-taken. I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by all of your critical comments, but you raise some very good points that I will think about further.

      While your commentary deserves a fuller response, I do not have the time to provide that now. I’ll simply recommend that readers who found my post above interesting click on the link you sent to read your reflections as well.

  3. As an American living most of the year in Brazil, a couple of comments worth noting. I largely agree that the left’s obsession here with Lula is long-term counterproductive. Indeed, here there is an obsession with the big man theory of leadership. This is how, for example, a back-bencher congressman, with a razor-thin list of accomplishments after twenty-eight years in Congress and a reputation as a homophobic, racist and sexist blowhard can become president. Brazil needs strong institutions, especially in the area of justice with a population that respects these institutions from the bottom to the top.

    I would also add that I have never seen a society so thoroughly entrenched in their positions. None of Moro’s supporters I have encountered are upset that his arguable collaboration with prosecutors is a problem; they reserve 100% of their ire towards Greenwald,et al. This is a country ridden with confirmation bias, whether it is the anti-Bolsonaro side claiming that he was not actually stabbed in the assassination attempt last year or the Bolsonaro side putting forth the idea that Fernando Haddad created something called the “Kit Gay” for six year olds (too ridiculous to elaborate on just google if you’re curious). People are more likely to believe some rumor that a relative sends them via WhatsApp than a carefully researched newspaper article with citations and that involved a significant amount of research, interviews, etc.

  4. I think it’s on point, Professor Stephenson. Thanks for that. Other Brazilian commentators are pointing to the net result of the case being positive to the President.

    There’s some speculation that the episode even defeated the possibility of a Moro’s presidential candidacy on 2022. He’s still very popular in Brazil (even more popular than the President) but a much smaller political figure. Some would say he’s now a good Vice President. This is of course speculation but it meets your observation that Moro now needs Bolsonaro to support him and, as you may know, the President did that in may ways that even include grabbing him to a soccer match and wearing the most popular team’s jersey in a photo-op. Moro is also being supported by street protested, mostly organized by people supporting Bolsonaro, to demonstrate that somehow he has the public opinion on his side. These protests, although not neglectable, are significantly smaller than those we saw in the past in support of Lava Jato.

    The thing that I would add is that even before that Moro wasn’t performing as voice of moderation in Bolsonaro’s cabinet. To the contrary, he lost important battles in that field, as in the President’s anti-gun-control plan and in putting his team together, when the President vetoed the nomination of an expert in urban violence and criminal justice reform because of his supporters’ protests against her given her work on gun control issues. This episode happened after Moro publicly announced her name, forcing him to not only retreat from the nomination but also to publicly apologize from what happened.

    I agree that VazaJato puts Moro (probably definitively) alongside the right/far-right and reinforces the perception of anticorruption as a right-wing agenda. It also cages the left and the opposition in Lula’s/Lava Jato discussions when there is a much broader set of concerns in Bolsonaro’s administration. The most significant defeats the President face so far were actually articulated by the center (in the Portuguese jargon “centrão”), a group of career politicians less ideological and usually swung from the right to left to be part of the coalitions in power.

    We’ve been discussing a lot the need of structural reforms to really advance anticorruption efforts. But I feel it’s an increasingly less probable scenario. The anticorruption investigations are losing the public opinion, the left avoids to discuss it deeply because it could jeopardize their narrative and the center, who is probably the only force with the power to drive real changes, is probably the less willing to promote changes.

    On a sidenote: the President’s son is already investigated for a possible embezzlement scheme, as well as the Tourism Minister and some leaders of the President’s party. Their defense is, obviously, “this is a partisan political crusade”. Therefore your concern with deepening this sort of narrative is already reality to some extension.

  5. Pingback: Brazilworks: Sergio Moro, The #Vazajato, And Reflections On Stephenson | Poliarquia >

  6. Sinceramente, nada a ver! Como se diz popularmente ” escorregou na maionese “. O problema não é moro ou Bolsonaro, é sim o estado de direito e as ações cabíveis a um juiz, é o Sr. Como professor deveria saber disso.

  7. Pingback: Environment news | daryanenergyblog

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