Janine Jackson: “In Brazil, a nerdy judge is a superstar,” declared the Washington Post in December of 2015. The glowing profile was of then-Judge Sérgio Moro, overseeing the trials of those caught in the enormous Lava Jato, or Car Wash, anti-corruption campaign—that, the Post explained,
has shaken some of Brazil’s most important institutions, including its state-controlled oil company Petrobras and the Workers’ Party that has governed the country for 12 years.
Readers learned that “friends and colleagues” described Moro as “deeply moral.” And he’s impartial: The Post cites Moro telling an audience, “The judge, as you all know, only judges following the law, following the facts and following the evidence.”
The Post and others raised an eyebrow when Moro released secretly taped phone calls between then-President Dilma Rousseff and previous President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in which they spoke of Lula taking a government post. And at least once, the paper quoted someone calling Lava Jato a “witch hunt.”
But Sérgio Moro and his anti-corruption crusade remained the heroes of the piece for years, even as, Lula’s imprisonment having cleared the field, fascist Jair Bolsonaro rose to take Brazil’s presidency—and then turned around and gave the famously impartial judge who made it possible a newly created, unprecedentedly powerful position in his government, and a promise of a spot on the Supreme Court.
Interesting, then, to see how US media deal with exposés reported last month by Glenn Greenwald and others at The Intercept Brasil, including internal discussions of the Lava Jato task force that do more than suggest that Moro and his team were not the above-it-all ethical crusaders we were told about.
Well, the news is not new to those following our next guest’s work. Brian Mier is co-editor at Brasil Wire. He’s Brazil correspondent for TeleSUR English’s news program From the South, and he’s editor of the new book Year of Lead: Washington, Wall Street and the New Imperialism in Brazil. He joins us now by phone from São Paulo. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Brian Mier.
Brian Mier: Thanks for having me.
The Intercept Brasil received, through a whistleblower, a large cache of materials, of which they have released a tiny fraction, but that fraction included communications among the Lava Jato task force, including Moro. What specifically did we learn from those communications, and what does it serve to illustrate?
We learned what everyone suspected all along, which is that Sérgio Moro is not even vaguely impartial, and that he was essentially coaching the prosecution team through the entire investigation. They admitted in Telegram [messaging app] conversations, three days before Lula’s final judgment, that they didn’t think they had enough evidence to convict him.
And we also learned that they had hidden information about corruption involving former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who was a neo-liberal. And we also learned that they had an unusual relationship with a Supreme Court justice, Justice Fux, who barred Lula, in a very unusual move, from speaking to reporters during the entire election year. And in Brazil, it’s totally normal for reporters to go in and interview mass murderers, drug kingpins, all kinds of people behind bars; it was an unusual exception. And the same judge also blocked a habeas corpus for Lula.
We even see at one point the chief prosecutor, Deltan Dallagnol, talking about how he was praying that the PT didn’t win the 2018 presidential election. Two prosecutors were talking about praying to God that the PT didn’t win.
And the important thing for listeners to remember is that this is while—I’m just going to cite one media source, NPR, in October 2017, this is in the context of Lula’s going to prison as a result of the Lava Jato, and that that might upend the presidential race, and NPR is quoting Moro saying, ”What happens outside the court is not my concern.” Over and over again, we were told that the task force and Sérgio Moro were not interested in the election itself, or not interested in keeping down the PT and Lula; they were just interested in corruption.
Frankly, it’s outrageous, the amount of coverage and lionizing, and the way the media in the US held Moro up as this kind of superhero figure—when he was only the judge, he wasn’t the prosecutor. So why did Time make this lower court judge from Curitiba one of their 100 personalities of the year? Fortune magazine made him one of the personalities of the year, Bloomberg made him one of the personalities of the year, all before Lula was arrested. He wasn’t the prosecutor.
Something that’s really unusual, too, that only is legal in Brazil, that dates back to the Inquisition, actually: Moro was the judge who oversaw the investigation. In other words, he’s the one who authorized all of the preventative imprisonments, all of the search warrants, all of the wiretapping authorizations, and then he was allowed to rule on the same case. That doesn’t happen anywhere except Brazil, because one of the roles of the judge should be to analyze whether all of the evidence is legal or not.
And in the case of Lava Jato, clearly, much of it was not. They wiretapped 14 hours of telephone conversations from Lula’s defense team. In any other country in the world, they would be debarred and jailed for that.
These are among many things that Americans are just learning about, but even amongst the coverage, what coverage I’ve seen of these latest revelations, except for your work, I really haven’t seen any consideration or noticing of the US role here. You know, Brazil is just, as the New York Times said a few years ago, just a “turmoil-prone nation.”
Of course, we know that the US has its fingers everywhere, really, but what specifically should we know about the US role in today’s Brazil, and in this Lava Jato investigation?
First of all, the entire investigation is a collaborative investigation between the US Department of Justice, the SEC, and the Curitiba public prosecutor’s office. It’s been that way from day one. People from the DoJ have publicly talked about the investigation. You can read about it on the DoJ website. People have come down and visited Sérgio Moro and his team during the investigation, like Patrick Stokes from the Department of Justice.
And they’ve actually collected something like $2 billion in fines from Brazilian companies. And these are companies that were crippled because of the Lava Jato investigation, during the lead-up to the impeachment. The investigation crippled the Brazilian economy. There’s a company called Odebrecht Construction Company, which laid off 230,000 workers after Sérgio Moro paralyzed their operations because of Lava Jato. And there’s several major Brazilian companies that were crippled in 2015. And a study cited in the BBC showed that because of Lava Jato specifically, Brazil lost 2.5 percent GDP that year; it was 500,000 direct job layoffs. And so this naturally destabilized the economy, causing a drop in popularity for the president, Dilma Rousseff, laying the groundwork for her removal on a budget infraction technicality that was legalized the day after she left office, by the senate.
So the US involvement, it isn’t just the fact that it’s a joint operation, but the tactics they used are very similar to traditional tactics from the DoJ. These kind of sadistic tactics, like arresting family members, creating a media circus, leaking things to the media and suppressing information beneficial to the defense. In the case of Lava Jato, Sérgio Moro barred 86 defense witnesses for Lula from testifying, for example.
If we had followed this in US media all along with any kind of balanced way, these revelations from The Intercept would be less surprising. But as it is, if I could characterize US media coverage, it would be the Washington Post quoting a source saying, “These revelations risk generating the perception that the entire operation is flawed.”
So we’re still three degrees, at least, of distance. And the idea is the evidence of collaboration between the judge and the prosecutor in the Lava Jato case “raises questions”—rather than answers them. What are you making of US media response to this?
I look at what Gramsci used to call the “integral [US] state,” which is the government, the political parties, educational institutions, think tanks and the big media companies. And what I see the big media doing is trying to guarantee that this investigation is completely undermined, that Lula stays in jail, that the PT doesn’t rise back up in power and undo the privatizations that the post-coup governments have enacted in Brazil, that directly benefited all of these huge US companies, like Exxon Mobil, Microsoft, Boeing, Monsanto; they all benefited immensely because of this process, which started with Lava Jato, that threw Dilma Rousseff out of office—she wasn’t directly tied up in Lava Jato, but they used, the investigators leaked, all of this misinformation about her in the lead-up to the impeachment.
And also Lula’s arrest. To his credit, Glenn Greenwald‘s the only big American journalist I’ve seen who, from day one, was saying Lula was arrested, obviously, to keep him from being reelected as president. And that was obvious to everyone down here, really, but at least he’s been saying it, but I haven’t seen that anywhere else in the news, all of the US news companies. Even the left media in the US is maddening, too, because they tried to act like the entire problem was due to failures of the Brazilian left. ‘That’s why PT didn’t win the elections, because the left sold out,’ or something, which is equally ridiculous.
And that feeds into the corporate media narrative, that Brazil’s problems are their own problems; there’s no US influence whatsoever, Brazil’s this kind of geopolitical vacuum. It doesn’t fit with the history of Latin America at all, if you look. A Harvard Latin America publication a few years ago, cited 41 US-backed coups in a 100-year period. That’s an average of like 2.6 coups per year in Latin America sponsored by the US, and that’s only the ones that are successful. I mean, we see unsuccessful coup attempts all the time, like in Venezuela right now.
A lot of narrative that I have seen in US media seems to say, Lava Jato—and I know you’ve written about this as well—Lava Jato “lost its way.” It started off good; the New York Times had it as, Lava Jato “appeared to mark a transformational moment,” but now the “legacy has come under scrutiny as more Brazilians have come to question whether the anti-corruption crusaders were motivated by partisan politics.” So there’s this idea that it was good in its intentions and its beginnings, but somewhere along the way, it got political.
Yeah, which is ridiculous, because some of the things that Lava Jato investigation did, they crippled the Brazilian economy by paralyzing the operations of some of its biggest companies. They destroyed a lot of strategic industries in Brazil. One thing people don’t talk about, but Brazil’s most important nuclear scientist was arrested by Lava Jato, and this killed Brazil’s submarine program. The shipping industry has been destroyed. The five largest construction companies were either destroyed or seriously weakened; 75 percent of Brazil’s petroleum reserves, which are huge, have been sold off at below market rates, mostly to American corporations.
And on top of that, it crippled Brazil’s defense strategy. Now, for the first time ever, the Brazilian military is going to engage in joint operations with the Naval Southern Command in the area. And Brazil’s aligned itself with the US against Venezuela, against the other countries that are specified in the latest address that the SOUTHCOM admiral commander made to the Senate earlier this year. The hostile nations in the Americas now are considered to be Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. And now Brazil’s lining up, allied with the US against those countries.
The investigation has really just restructured the economy, the defense strategy and destroyed strategic industries. Embraer was the third-largest airplane company in the world, and it was attacked by Lava Jato; the US government got something like $134 million in fines from Embraer, so it was weakened for the kill. They had to change the laws to allow Boeing to purchase it. And so now this airplane industry, that received hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer-funded government subsidies over the last 40 or 50 years, is now owned by Boeing.
Let me ask you about the message that US media are sending to US citizens. I’m looking at a Washington Post op-ed; you kind of need to untangle this a little bit, because the op-ed says, Look, these revelations from The Intercept Brasil show clear collusion between the judge and prosecutors; that’s illegal. Moro should resign immediately. He can’t be on the Supreme Court like Bolsonaro wanted him to.
And then it says, “But there’s more at stake here for Brazil.” And it explains that the Car Wash investigation was very popular. And it “was hailed abroad as an example of the strength of an independent judiciary going after powerful interests. If proof were to emerge that the investigations and prosecutions were politically motivated,” the piece says, that “would be a mortal blow to institutional independence”—and here’s the important part—“a dangerous development in a country already in the grips of right-wing populism…. Widespread distrust of institutions,” the piece says, is going to “feed the salvationist narrative taking hold in Brazilian politics. And Bolsonaro is a direct product of that.”
So what I’m hearing is, if you talk about how skullduggery got Bolsonaro elected, well, you’re doing the kind of thing that got Bolsonaro elected, you know, so better not undermine those institutions. I mean, oh my goodness.
What is it? It’s apology for fascism. You know, Bolsonaro is literally a neo-fascist (or client-fascist, as Noam Chomsky would say). I mean, he’s not like an old-school fascist, because he doesn’t place his country first; he places America first. He saluted the American flag, which is outrageous. So this is why you would call him a sub-fascist; he’s a fascist at the orders of the United States, and of international imperialism.
If you make these kinds of arguments, you’re really supporting Bolsonaro. Because what these revelations in The Intercept really show is that the election was fraudulent. And within Brazilian law, based on these facts, the elections could still be cancelled and reheld. That’s what Naomi Klein is suggesting, and a lot of Brazilians are suggesting this as a course of action as well.
Because we have the worst president in Brazilian history in power right now. He’s just out of his mind. They’re ripping down hundreds of hectares of Amazon rainforest per minute right now; everyone’s going to be affected by this. And we now have solid proof that the election was illegitimate—not even mentioning the illegal use of the social media app, WhatsApp, financed illegally by the private sector, with apparent support from Steve Bannon and his crew, which convinced a large part of the electorate that Fernando Haddad was a child molester in the weeks leading up to the election; Fernando Haddad was the opposition candidate. I mean, that alone should have been enough to annul the elections. So it’s obvious now, if democracy is going to return to Brazil, the elections have to be nullified and reheld, because we have solid proof. You’re not respecting Brazilian institutions if you allow the results of that election to continue.
Just finally, one 2016 Washington Post piece, among all the accolades for Sérgio Moro, it did note that Lula “remains popular among Brazilians, who remember his presidency as the best years of their lives.” And that sentence felt completely out of place, and almost incoherent amidst US media coverage that makes it seem as though—I’m talking about present-day coverage—there’s “Team Moro” and “Team Lula.” And it’s just this kind of simplistic ideological battle. There’s no real-world story being offered from the media that would explain why people in Brazil would support the PT, or support Lula at all.
And we talked, last time we had you on, about the lack of nuance in coverage. And I have to say, again and again, the narrative would be so different and more nuanced if regular, non-elite people and their lives and their priorities were the center of media coverage.
I think there’s this kind of infantilism of Brazilians, and Latin Americans in general, and all Third World peoples, especially people who aren’t white, in US news coverage, which plays into Americans’ inherent sense of superiority over other countries. And so I’ve seen things in the Guardian like, “Oh, well, the PT’s still popular, because a lot of poor people are going to vote for them.” Because they’re doing something in their own self-interest! Because when Lula was president, he moved 20 percent of the Brazilian population above the poverty line through massive increases to the minimum wage. They never mentioned the minimum wage increases as the primary factor of this happening, because God forbid anyone in the US would take inspiration from that. It’s almost like a kind of racism, the way they treat Brazilian people in the coverage. Or it is, literally, racism.
What should we look for going forward? Media, US media, are saying, “Oh, yes, these revelations are indeed…revelations.” And yet I don’t see it necessarily changing the meta-narrative. I mean, I see the New York Times that’s talking about how:
The revelations come as Mr. Moro is struggling to persuade Congress to approve a set of far-reaching reforms that would give investigators far more authority in corruption inquiries.
In other words, we’re still going to call those reforms, whatever it is that Moro wants to do. It just seems like you can have these kind of bombs that go off, in terms of information, and yet they’re really not going to change that narrative.
Let me give you an example, quickly, of one of his “reforms” that he’s unable to pass. He wants police to be able to shoot anyone they want, if they feel afraid. All it would take would be for a policeman to say, “Oh, I was scared,” to justify killing someone.
And Brazil has the largest number of police killings in the world, and in Rio de Janeiro right now, they’re killing five people a day, under this Bolsonaro-worshipping, pure fascist governor, who has ordered police to start using snipers and helicopters above favelas. That’s one of his “reforms” he’s trying to push through.
The meta-narrative, it’s maddening. I saw an article in Jacobin, for example, it’s all about “Solidarity With Glenn Greenwald,” because of the death threats he’s been receiving. Well, you know, he’s a very brave guy, and he’s been receiving death threats all year, because his husband took over for Jean Wyllys, the congressman who had to flee Brazil for being the first openly gay congressman; he fled Brazil because of death threats, and Greenwald’s husband took over. It’s terrible that he’s getting death threats.
But that’s not the main thing at stake here. The main thing at stake is that there was a coup. They turned over all of Brazil’s natural resources to foreign corporations at far below market rate. They crippled the public health and public education system. They say 100,000 people might die now because of the cuts made to the health system; there’s no more free antiretroviral drugs available in the state of Bahia right now. And that the elections were entirely fraudulent. And that there’s a neo-fascist in power, with 16 military generals in his cabinet, who were all active players in the military dictatorship, because everybody got amnesty, unlike Argentina. It’s about 230 million people. About 15 million people have dropped below the poverty line since the 2016 coup.
Media always try to dumb everything down into this either-or issue. It’s all binary. We shouldn’t allow media, even the left media, to try and individualize this issue into something about Greenwald, or about Moro. You know, it’s about 230 million people.
We’ve been speaking with Brian Mier; he’s co-editor at Brasil Wire, correspondent for TeleSUR English’s From the South and editor of the new book Year of Lead: Washington, Wall Street and the New Imperialism in Brazil. That’s out now, and you can get more information at BrasilWire.com. Brian Mier, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
Thanks a lot, Janine.