In 2014, the Brazilian government began an investigation into possible corruption involving its state-run petroleum firm, Petrobras. The allegations involved potential money laundering and bribery in exchange for construction contracts in Brazil and other Latin American countries. The scandal tied Petrobras to the construction firm, Odebrecht, and several high-profile Brazilian politicians. Initially, the investigation was praised as being tough on corruption and possibly securing Brazil a better future, but under the surface lived a dark truth. “Operation Car Wash” has led to two important legal decisions in the country, the impeachment of then- president, Dilma Rouseff, and the imprisonment of ex-president and presidential candidate, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva a/k/a Lula. Both Rouseff and Lula were members of the Brazilian Worker’s Party and hugely popular within the country. The investigation was headed by investigative judge, Sérgio Moro, and was originally believed to be apolitical. At first glance, the scandal appeared to be a triumph for anti-corruption missions in Latin America, but, as time passed, it was revealed that some of the allegations and the investigation itself were fraudulent and used to change election outcomes; most importantly, the one resulting the election of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro in 2018. The corruption of the judicial system of Brazil by right wing ideologues and the election of Jair Bolsonaro make Brazil poised for a resurrection of the past military dictatorship.
In 2017, Lula announced his candidacy for president under the worker’s party for his third term. Being consistently high in the polls, Lula seemed to be the likely winner of the presidential election with Jair Bolsonaro trailing as a far second. The polling showed Lula consistently receiving around 33% of the vote while Jair remained far behind at 15%. The Car Wash Scandal continued into this election year and became part of the election when Lula was charged and sentenced. This removed Lula from the election and, consequently, Bolsonaro won. It was not until recently that news agencies reported about communications between Judge Sérgio Moro and the lead prosecutor in the Car Wash Scandals, Deltan Dallagno, showing two years of collusion during the scandal. Within these conversations, the two discussed concerns about Lula’s reelection and concerns about the sufficiency of evidence to constitute imprisoning Lula and thereby removing him from the 2018 presidential election. These conversations showed massive ethical concerns within the Car Wash Scandal. Since Bolsonaro’s election, Moro has been promoted to Justice Minister of Brazil. This position gives Moro and, therefore Bolsonaro, immense power within the country’s legal system.
The concern for democracy in Brazil is grounded in Bolsonaro and his party’s stances regarding the military dictatorship of Brazil from 1964-1985, in which Bolsonaro was a military officer and the way in which he came into power. Bolsonaro has not yet recreated this military dictatorship, but it is well within his power, and he is making sure the people of Brazil know it. Bolsonaro and other party members have repeatedly made public statements about the possibility of restoring “AI-5”, an authoritarian measure that would allow governmental censorship, torture, and the closure of Congress. Bolsonaro and other party members threaten to restore “AI-5” each time major anti-government protests are threatened by organizers of opposition parties. Since Lula’s release from imprisonment in 2019, Bolsonaro has also threatened to imprison him again citing “national security reasons”. These threats, mixed with support for the previous dictatorship of Brazil and even dictator Pinochet, mark a troubling time for Brazil’s democracy.
When considering Bolsonaro’s rise to power, the writings of Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in How Democracies Die are instructive. One of the chief points of their argument describes how a soft coup or a seizing of power can happen without the public and outside forces realizing it in present time. They claim that in order to consolidate power “would-be authoritarians must capture the referees, sideline at least some of the other side’s star players, and rewrite the rules of the game to lock in their advantage, in effect tilting the playing field”. Brazil’s descent into the Bolsonaro regime exemplifies this consolidation of power described by Levitsky and Ziblatt. In an almost checklist-like pattern, the judicial system of Brazil was corrupted by partisan officials, effectively seizing the “referees”. The “referees” then removed the opposition’s star player, Lula. What is to be determined soon is whether Bolsonaro and his party will effectively implement “AI-5”, which would consummate the establishment of another Brazilian dictatorship and whether there is any linking evidence to connect these judicial processes with Bolsonaro or his party, or any opposition party to the Worker’s Party. The most likely reasons for their actions is simply being ideologues who wanted to prevent the return to power of the Worker’s Party.
The strategy to slowly and methodically erode Brazil’s government into a dictatorship is not new to Latin American right wing coups, and very similar to the tactics of Alberto Fujimori. In a New York Times interview in 1993, a younger Bolsonaro praised the work of authoritarian, Alberto Fujimori, and also pronounced his position as strictly anti-democratic. Bolsonaro goes as far in the interview as claiming that “Fujimorization is the way out for Brazil”. The poignancy of Bolsonaro’s praise of Fujimori lies in the fact that, similar to Bolsonaro, Fujimori consolidated his power by falsifying charges against his opposition and legally and peacefully becoming the tyrant of Peru. In the same interview, Bolsonaro claimed that a justification for the return of the military dictatorship would be “political corruption”. It is not outlandish to say that Bolsonaro has been planning the conversion of Brazil back to a military dictatorship with himself at the helm for the past twenty years, but what is yet to be seen is whether Bolsonaro himself had any collusion with Moro or the Car Wash Scandal. Now that he has the helm, the present question asks how long will it be until he consolidates power and reclaims Brazil for his military dictatorship.