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.