Brazil on Fire: Free Lula (Episode 2)

Six months before the 2018 Brazilian election, a judge jailed frontrunner Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on what many considered sham charges. The result was a clear path for Bolsonaro.

September 6, 2022

The election of President Jair Bolsonaro was never a foregone conclusion. For most of that electoral season, someone else was ahead in the polls. But he was jailed on supposed corruption charges by a biased judge, six months out from the election, and blocked from running.

In this episode, we look at the fight to free former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva from prison, the corruption investigation that jailed him, the role of the United States, and what it all means ahead of the 2022 election, as Lula again leads in the polls.

This is Brazil on Fire. A podcast about Brazil’s descent toward fascism under President Jair Bolsonaro. Over these six episodes we look at Bolsonaro’s far-right government that has set the country ablaze, and how the United States helped him do it. We’ll visit the birthplace of Brazilian Nazism, evangelical churches, and Indigenous villages in the Amazon. 

Featuring host Latin America-based journalist Michael Fox.

This podcast is produced in partnership between The Real News and NACLA.

Sound design by Gustavo Türck.

Theme music by Monte Perdido. Thumbnail image by Michael Fox. 


Michael Fox: January 1st, 2019: Inauguration DayThe country’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, rides into the ceremony through the streets of Brasilia. He’s wearing a dark suit and tie, and he’s in the back of a black antique convertible Rolls-Royce. His wife Michelle sits beside him. Turnout is lower than expected, but he’s still greeted by over 100,000 supporters. They wear Bolsonaro t-shirts and wave Brazilian flags. Arms raised in the air. They chant, “the captain has arrived.”

“Today is the day that the people begin to free themselves from socialism,” Bolsonaro says after being sworn in. “Free themselves from inverted values, big government, and the politically correct. We cannot let wicked ideologies divide Brazilians,” he says, “ideologies that destroy our values ​​and traditions, destroy our families, the foundation of our society,” It’s a nod to the culture war that he has used to catapult himself to power. US president Donald Trump congratulates him over twitter. “Great inauguration speech—the USA is with you!” he writes.

Within 24 hours, Bolsonaro would completely reorganize the Brazilian government. He abolishes the labor ministry, dissolves the Ministry of Environment into the Ministry of Agriculture, and appoints an Evangelical pastor to head the newly renamed Ministry of Women, Human Rights, and Family. He also names more former military officials to his cabinet than any other president since the dictatorship. It’s a day of mourning for many on the political left.

But in Southern Brazil, hundreds have descended on an unlikely residential neighborhood in the outskirts of the city of Curitiba. Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been in prison here for eight months.

According to all the polls, Lula had been on track to win the 2018 presidential election – If he had been allowed in the race. But the country’s top electoral court barred him from running due to a controversial corruption conviction. It was handed down by Judge Sergio Moro. He is one of the country’s highest-profile judges. And, depending on who you talk to, he is either on a crusade to rid the country of corruption, or working to tank the left through biased lawsuits with scant evidence. That’s what people here say about Lula’s conviction, that it was just a political attack and a means of keeping him from returning to power. As Bolsonaro takes office in Brasilia, Lula’s supporters are holding their own ceremony outside the Curitiba federal prison, calling for his release.

At the moment Bolsonaro is sworn in, they release hundreds of red balloons. They float high into the air – A symbol of their hope that Lula will soon be free, and of their commitment to not give up. “Let Lula out,” they chant.

“My heart aches,” Katia Garcia tells me. She traveled a full 23 hours by bus for today’s rally. She’s from Brasilia, where she teaches geography and history in prisons. She wears red, the color of the Workers’ Party. Lula’s color. “I want to cry,” she says, “because we believe that everything that’s happening is a coup. And they locked Lula up because they knew that without a doubt at 3pm today he would have been sworn in as president.”

See, people here have no doubt that Lula is innocent. He’s not just a political figure in Brazil. He is a working-class hero. A living, breathing Brazilian icon. Imagine if you could combine, say, Obama and Mahatma Gandhi. That’s kind of like Lula. He was born poor in Northeastern Brazil in a home with dirt floors. As a union leader and freedom fighter, he led huge marches that would signal the beginning of the end of the dictatorship in 1985.

He won the presidency in 2002 and governed the country for two terms, lifting tens of millions from poverty. When he left office his approval rating was nearly 90 percent. His name is literally synonymous with democracy. And his imprisonment is a sign of how wrong things have gone. And his supporters in Curitiba have promised to fight until he is free.

This is Brazil on Fire, a podcast about Brazil’s descent toward fascism under President Jair Bolsonaro. This podcast is produced in collaboration with The Real News and NACLA. I’m your host, Michael Fox. I’m a long-time radio reporter and multimedia journalist. I’ve lived in Brazil for years, and I’ve covered Bolsonaro and his government closely. Over these 6 episodes, I’ll take you on a journey to understand the story of Bolsonaro’s rise and his far-right government that’s set the country ablaze. Last episode, I took you to meet Bolsonaro supporters in Porto Alegre. Today, I’m taking you into the corruption investigation that jailed Bolsonaro’s greatest adversary and the role the United States played in that process.

This is Episode 2: “Free Lula”

Crowd: [Chanting] “Lula, Lula.”

Michael Fox: The vigil outside the federal prison where Lula is being held is an around-the-clock rally. Every day, Lula supporters chant “good morning, good afternoon, and good evening” to the former president. He says he can hear them out the window of his cell.

Lula’s freedom has become the rallying cry of the left parties and social movements. Lula is considered one of the world’s top political prisoners. He’s visited by Nobel Prize winners, former presidents, and notables like Noam Chomsky. And the vigil has become ground zero for organizing and activism across Brazil. There are non-stop meetings, events, activities, music, and, of course, protests.

I’ve covered the vigil several times over the last year, for a variety of outlets. I’m fortunate to live just a short overnight bus trip away. Porto Alegre, where we visited last episode, is south of my town of Florianopolis. Curitiba is to the north, roughly 5 hours away. Curitiba is actually a pretty interesting place. When I first traveled there in the late 2000s, it was to report on its world-renowned rapid transit system. It’s known for its lush parks and sustainable urban planning. It’s considered one of the greenest cities on the planet. But that is no longer what people in Brazil think of when they hear the word Curitiba.

Today, it is associated with two things: conservatism and anti-corruption. It’s even been called the Republic of Curitiba because of the power it has wielded in recent years. And that power is due in large part to the fact that it is the headquarters for the landmark anti-corruption probe known as Lava Jato. And it is turning Brazilian politics on its head.

Beginning in 2014, Operation Lava Jato, or Car Wash, rocked Brazil’s political scene. It would go on to issue 1,400 search and seizure warrants and convict almost 280 people, many of them top politicians, including members of Lula’s Workers Party. It is why Lula is imprisoned here.

“We have to be persistent. We have to fight. Because we believe in a democratic government that believes in equality and cares about minorities and public policies,” Dile Aparecida Matias, a member of Brazil’s Black Movement, tells me at the rally outside the prison. “This is not our government,” she says.

Democracy is the theme that has been repeated over and over here. Lula’s supporters believe that he is not only the left’s best hope for returning to power, but the return of the country’s democracy. Back in 2016, Lula’s successor and former chief-of-staff, left-leaning president Dilma Rousseff, was impeached for so-called “budgetary maneuvers.” The final decision was made by an overwhelmingly corrupt congress. It was clearly a parliamentary coup—So much so that the day after Rousseff was ousted, the Senate officially legalized the very thing she had been removed for. Yeah, it’s crazy. But also totally par for the course in Brazilian politics.

The interim government of Michel Temer froze public spending for the next 20 years and pushed a shock doctrine package of fiscal reforms and privatizations. Many saw Lula as the guy who might be able to turn it around. And then… Prison.

One person is linked to Lula’s imprisonment more than any other. He was the man behind the Lava Jato anti-corruption trials and the one who signed the papers ordering Lula’s arrest: Sergio Moro.

That’s him in 2015. Super star judge. Young. Short hair. Clean cut. We don’t have anyone comparable in the United States. I guess the closest international analogy would be Antonio Di Pietro. You know, one of the Italian judges who oversaw the Clean Hands corruption investigations in Italy in the early 1990s? That’s a good comparison because Clean Hands was a big inspiration for Moro. And Moro, well, he became like a rock star for the Brazilian right. Middle to upper-class Brazilians cheered for him at rallies. They carried pictures and signs with Moro’s name. One banner at a pro-Bolsonaro rally I attended in Curitiba read “We are all Lava Jato: The operation that gave Brazilians back hope.”

Fabio de Sa e Silva: Lava Jato was an operation that started as a money laundering case and then it really discovered a corruption scheme.

Michael Fox: That’s Fabio de Sa e Silva.

Fabio de Sa e Silva: I’m an assistant professor of international studies and the Wick Cary professor of Brazilian studies at the University of Oklahoma, and I study the relationship between law courts, society, politics. All those entanglements.

Michael Fox: We’ll hear from Fabio often in this episode. I’m bringing him in to help make sense of all this, because it’s complicated.

See, there’s no doubt the corruption scheme was real. Much of it was tied to the state oil company, Petrobras, where executives allegedly accepted bribes in exchange for government contracts. We’re talking about billions of dollars. The corruption began in the 1990s, long before Lula and his Workers’ Party were in power.

But Fabio says the investigation deviated from its original focus on fighting corruption and took on the more political goal of tanking the Workers’ Party and, in particular, Lula. Prosecutors said he was the mastermind behind the entire scandal and that his party was responsible for sinking Brazil in corruption. This narrative spread like wildfire in the press.

Fabio de Sa e Silva: We actually know from some depositions in Lava Jato that it was something that had started before and that benefited multiple parties besides the Workers’ Party. So making it something that had been put in place by the Workers’ Party was, I guess, a first deviation of what used to be a promising route that Lava Jato could take. And then I think a second deviation was to go above and beyond the law to incarcerate Lula and to prevent him from running in the 2018 elections, which led us to Bolsonaro.

In 2017, Moro convicted Lula of passive corruption and money laundering for accepting a beach-front apartment from a company seeking government contracts. The ruling was based on plea-bargain testimony with scant evidence. Lula denied wrongdoing, claiming the charges were politically motivated. In April 2018, after Lula lost an appeal, Moro issued a warrant for his arrest. Lula refused to turn himself in, launching a three-day stand-off that kept Brazilians glued to their TVs.

I arrived in Lula’s hometown of Sao Bernardo do Campo just an hour before his deadline to turn himself in. He was inside his former union headquarters. Huge crowds were amassed outside. Thousands in the streets. They promised to defend the former president.

“This arrest order is absurd,” Leonardo Guimaraes, the head of the National Union of Students told me. “We arrived early yesterday morning,” he said, “and we’re here with thousands more to resist and say that Lula should be free, and this is part of a coup attempt against him.” When Lula said he would turn himself in, crowds formed a human wall to try to block him from reaching the federal police.

Lula was flown by helicopter to the federal prison in Curitiba, where both supporters and opponents rallied outside, awaiting his arrival. Federal police opened fire on Lula’s supporters outside the prison with tear gas bombs and rubber bullets.

The vigil began the next day. Busloads of people arrived from across the country, lining the sides of the residential streets with tents. Members of the Landless Workers’ Movement cooked meals in makeshift kitchens. Crowds rallied and chanted behind a row of shock troops standing between them and the prison. The vigil quickly became ground zero for leftist organizing across the country. I mean that literally. The Workers’ Party announced that it had moved its head office there the day Lula was imprisoned. “We are only leaving when Lula is free,” said then-Senator Lindbergh Farias the morning after Lula was jailed.

The country was split. Half of Brazilians thought Moro was playing politics, that Lula was innocent. The other half saw the former president as the root of all evil – The very source of Brazil’s problems. That was what they had been told time and again by anti-corruption prosecutors and by Judge Sergio Moro himself.

Moro’s fame was so great, in fact, that incoming president Bolsonaro asked him to join his cabinet. Moro accepted, becoming the Minister of Justice for the very man whom he had helped get elected by jailing his top opponent.

And that’s how things stood as Lula’s supporters rallied in his defense on Inauguration Day, 2019. But they would not stay like that for long.

In June 2019, The Intercept Brazil began publishing an investigation that revealed deep bias behind Lula’s conviction and sentencing. The Intercept had obtained millions of leaked Telegram chat messages between federal prosecutors involved in Judge Sergio Moro’s anti-corruption task force. “Obviously, the leaks changed things big time.”

The messages showed that prosecutors had been scheming about how to block Lula’s Workers’ Party from returning to power. They also showed that Moro illegally guided prosecutors in the Lava Jato operation while also presiding over the cases as a supposedly impartial judge. The messages between Moro and chief prosecutor Delton Dalagnol were particularly damning. Again, here’s Fabio de Sa e Silva:

Fabio de Sa e Silva: Those few conversations were sufficient to very clearly establish that they were violating procedural rules and that Moro was coaching Dallagnol. You know, make this argument. Go to the press. Congratulations on your indictment. You know, it reads perfectly and so on. Which is obviously something that is not consistent with the role that a judge should be playing.

Michael Fox: The leaks blew the lid off the anti-corruption investigation and Lula’s conviction. Within a month, the once super-star judge Moro was being booed alongside Bolsonaro at the final game of the 2019 America’s Cup in Rio de Janeiro.

The revelations also shined further light on the profound involvement of the United States in the Lava Jato investigations. And it was deep. Like, really deep. Just to give you an idea, here’s US Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Blanco in a talk just a week after Lula’s conviction:

Kenneth Blanco: The cooperation between the Department and Brazil has led to extraordinary results.

Michael Fox: According to reports, as many as 18 FBI agents supported the Lava Jato investigations in Brazil, and they were directly in contact with the anti-corruption prosecutors. This fell outside the official relations between Brazil and the United States. In the leaks, prosecutor Dallagnol warned his team not to publicize their relationship.

One of the Brazilian federal prosecutors wrote to his colleagues in a leaked message that, “without a doubt, the channel with the FBI is much more direct than going through the embassy. The FBI also has total knowledge of the investigations, which the embassy may not.”

Bob Fernandes is an investigative journalist in Brazil who has covered US intervention abroad closely. He says this was already happening in 2015, when news broke that the United States was spying on Brazil:

Bob Fernandes: On July 4, 2015, when Brazil learned through Edward Snowden that President Dilma Rousseff and 29 members of her government were being spied on by the NSA. At that time, FBI agents were already working inside the Lava Jato investigation. They were working far beyond the legal agreement between the two countries.

Michael Fox: The NSA also targeted Brazil’s state-run oil company Petrobras, which was at the center of Lava Jato.

Lula’s allies say the United States wasn’t just supporting the Lava Jato operation. They say it was guiding it.

Valeska Martins is Lula’s lawyer. A colleague and I interviewed her a couple of years ago for a documentary I was working on about Bolsonaro’s government.

Valeska Martins: I can guarantee that there is hard evidence that the United States, the Department of Justice of the United States, was behind the prosecution of Lula, as we have already presented exhaustively to the judiciary in Brazil asking for investigations and information regarding the United States’ manipulation of Brazilian law in order to remove a candidate in Brazil which did not correspond to American interests.

Michael Fox: I don’t know if you could make out that last line. She said, “in order to remove a candidate in Brazil which did not correspond with American interests.”

Those interests are both economic and geopolitical. When Lula was in office between 2003 and 2010, he didn’t just govern for Brazil’s poor and working classes, but he also thrust the country onto the international scene. He supported left governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. At the same time, he was brokering agreements like the Iran nuclear deal, which did not sit well with the Obama administration.

But in an interview with Michael Brooks and Brasil Wire a couple of years ago, Lula singled out two things, above all, that he thought encouraged the US to move against him: Oil and control over Brazil’s state companies, especially Petrobras, one of the largest state oil firms in the world. 

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva: It’s very clear that there were American prosecutors interested in my imprisonment. And I think that the goal was to change the logic of Petrobras so that it would no longer be a Brazilian company, so that it could no longer belong to the Brazilian people. Who do they think this oil should belong to? The multinationals, and within these multinationals, the United States.

Michael Fox: Over the last four years, Bolsonaro has pushed privatizations, not only auctioning off chunks off Petrobras, but also the country’s massive offshore pre-salt oil reserves and numerous state businesses.

Paulo Guedes: We will keep divesting. We will keep privatizing. We will accelerate privatizations.

Michael Fox: He’s had the help of his finance minister, Paulo Guedes. He’s a so-called “Chicago-Boy” who studied free market policies under Milton Friedman and worked as a professor in Chile during General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.

Guedes highlighted Brazil’s progress in deregulating the economy during an online forum a couple of years ago with the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce.

Paulo Guedes: We have concessions and privatizations in infrastructure, natural gas, in oil, in electricity, water and sewage. So we are approving all these regulatory frameworks to open the frontier for new investments.

Michael Fox: In fact, before the end of Bolsonaro’s first year in office, his government had already sold off or privatized more than $20 billion in state assets.

But in the meantime, this was happening….

On a warm overcast afternoon in early November 2019, thousands amassed once again outside the federal prison in Curitiba. This time, it was for Lula’s release. “This is an historic day,” one Lula supporter told me. “Now let’s keep moving. Lula for president!” Lula had spent 580 days in prison. The vigil had continued throughout. Lula’s supporters danced and cheered as the former president walked out the doors of the prison and through the crowd to a small stage.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva: Friends, thank you so much. Thank you, from the depths of my heart. I will be eternally grateful to you and loyal to our struggle.

Michael Fox: Lula was out. He was actually freed on what might seem like a technicality, because the Supreme Court decided that he, like many others in Brazil, could not be jailed until they had exhausted all their appeals. But over the next two years, top courts would toss out one case after the next against Lula for a variety of reasons. In the beachfront property case that landed him behind bars for corruption, the court ruled that the trial shouldn’t even have been held in Curitiba. His conviction was annulled.

In fact, of the more than two dozen cases of alleged corruption against Lula, all of them have been scrapped, clearing the former president’s way to run in this year’s election.

Fabio de Sa e Silva: It was clear that the law here was being used as a political weapon. I mean, you can’t file 20-something lawsuits against somebody and have all those lawsuits being deemed, you know, lacking grounds to proceed with by several judges in the country. There’s clearly something wrong here with the way you’re using your prosecutory power and your power as a judge.

Michael Fox: Last year, Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes called the Lava Jato operation the biggest crisis that has befallen the Brazilian judiciary in the country’s history. “This calls for serious changes,” he said.

Lava Jato officially shut down in early 2021, but the fallout continues. Brazil’s Supreme Court has pushed back on Moro, accusing him of judicial bias. In August, chief Lava Jato prosecutor Dallagnol was fined millions for charging outsized fees to speak about fighting corruption, seeking to profit off the investigations. Previously, he had been convicted of falsely publicizing, without evidence, that Lula was the mastermind behind the corruption scheme.

Meanwhile, Bolsonaro says he ended Lava Jato because corruption was no longer an issue in his administration.

Jair Bolsonaro: It gives me satisfaction to say to the wonderful press that I don’t want to end the Lava Jato operation. But I ended it because there is no more corruption in the government.

Michael Fox: The reality could not be further from the truth. Bolsonaro and his three sons, who are also politicians, are wrapped up in their own crime and corruption accusations. They are also allegedly connected to violent paramilitaries in Rio de Janeiro, including those suspected of participating in the 2018 killing of city councilwoman Marielle Franco. Many believe one of Bolsonaro’s reasons for wanting to remain in power is to hold on to immunity from prosecution. But that’s not all.

Fabio de Sa e Silva: Under Bolsonaro, corruption has become more widespread in the country, and the secret budgeting is, I think, the main indicator of that.

Michael Fox: This secret budget essentially refers to how Bolsonaro is now dispersing government funds together with his ally Arthur Lira, the head of the Lower House.

Fabio de Sa e Silva: This is really a way of allocating the budget in which it’s virtually impossible for citizens or for accountability institutions to understand where the money is going. And you know what is going to be done with the money, and obviously that’s linked to corruption on a national level, in a fragmented way. So there’s so much going on in terms of corruption now in the country compared to what we had before that it’s really a joke to think that Lava Jato produced any positive effect in the country when we see all this happening.

Michael Fox: I’m going to take a step back for just a second, because there’s something I want to tie in here that’s really important. In recent years in Brazil, we’ve seen corruption used as an excuse to open up space for right-wing or fascist policies. And it is not new. I don’t just mean in Brazil, but across Latin America. And it has led to some dangerous, dangerous outcomes.

Here’s Fabio de Sa e Silva, again:

Fabio de Sa e Silva: People don’t remember this, but the 1964 coup was, in part, sold to the Brazilian people as a remedy against corruption. And in many other countries in the region. You also see how anticorruption easily, first of all, becomes captured by the elites and the right-wing groups, but also how that gets weaponized against certain political groups, especially on the left or more progressive groups.

Lavo Jato, specifically I think it does help the rise of the far right in Brazil and Bolsonaro in a number of ways.

Michael Fox: And that brings us to the upcoming October elections. Bolsonaro says, for him, it’s do or die.

Jair Bolsonaro: There are three possibilities for my future. 

Michael Fox: Bolsonaro told Evangelical leaders last year. 

Jair Bolsonaro: Be imprisoned, killed, or victory. You can be sure that the first alternative, going to jail, will not happen.

Michael Fox: Lula is again ahead in the polls. But there are still many forces pushing for Bolsonaro.

Over the next three episodes, we’ll look at the top three key groups of support for Bolsonaro, how they have benefited under his government, and how they are fighting for him to remain in power. Chief among them are Brazil’s Evangelicals, who now make up roughly a third of the country, and who were key for Bolsonaro’s electoral victory. We’ll visit with those spreading the gospel for Bolsonaro…next episode on Brazil on Fire.

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