Hoodwinking a Nation: Bolsonaro’s Corruption

Featured Image: Jair Bolsonaro at a news conference at the Planalto Palace Brasilia on April 24, 2020 (Source: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

By Sofia Godoy

A fledgling democracy strode into the international arena, asserting itself as a force to be reckoned with. It was a member of BRICS, an exclusive new club of emerging economies. It hosted the 2016 Olympics, a privilege generally reserved for countries with the requisite infrastructural muscle. Its government was headed by a woman, a fact that defied long-standing sexist attitudes. Progress appeared to be the name of the game that Brazil was playing, but its image as a rising global power concealed the struggle raging within its borders. 

Since Brazil transitioned to a democracy in the 1980s, its social, political, and economic development has been stunted by widespread corruption. Presidents from Fernando Collor (1990-1992) to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011) to Michel Temer (2016-2018) have been convicted of bribery. Companies have developed a routine of incorporating the costs of corruption into their business models, referring to the sum as the “Brazil cost.” Billions of taxpayer dollars have been diverted away from priorities like poverty and healthcare. A great awakening to these realities arrived in the form of an extensive money laundering scheme: Operation Car Wash. Discovering the sheer scope and magnitude of Operation Car Wash—a plot that implicated hundreds of business and government elites—was akin to throwing a bucket of cold water into the international community’s face. Suddenly, everyone knew what Brazilians had always known: corruption in Latin America’s largest democracy is alive and well. 

Operation Car Wash exposed an elaborate network of crime, money, and power, the likes of which left Brazilians simultaneously shocked and unsurprised. For them, this was the last straw in a series of abuses carried out by a state that supposedly served them. Predictably, 2018 saw the transformation of outrage into an electoral outcome. Voters turned a blind eye to “tough on crime” presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro’s bigoted worldview and cast their ballots in the name of clean governance. But Bolsonaro hasn’t drained the swamp. Far from it, he has sought to make anti-corruption agencies additional arms of presidential power and is himself under investigation for corruption. Whereas in other countries like Mexico where newly elected populists are mainly symptomatic of institutional malaise, Brazil’s Bolsonaro is equal parts a red flag and an active threat to democracy.

In his quest for domination, Bolsonaro has targeted the Federal Police and Public Prosecutor’s Office, both of which are key apparatuses in Brazil’s battle against corruption, according to global watchdog Transparency International. While these bodies enjoy substantial autonomy by virtue of Brazil’s constitution, their true strength resides in their independence from the political sphere, a quality that relies upon foundational norms. In the case of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the prosecutor-general has traditionally been chosen from a shortlist of candidates provided by the National Association of Federal Prosecutors. The constitution, however, bears no mention of such a procedure. It merely stipulates that the prosecutor-general must be appointed by the executive, and doesn’t call for the prosecutorial community to have a say in the matter. Nonetheless, the practice has become a hallmark of the leadership selection process at the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and has had the welcome effect of diluting presidential, and therefore political, influence in choosing a prosecutor-general. A custom with a similar effect exists within the Federal Police. The director-general, who is the highest-ranking officer in the police force, historically exercises broad discretion in choosing regional police chiefs. In this way, appointment privileges rest in the hands of a technocrat, and not in the hands of a political figure like the executive. Troublingly, Bolsonaro has disregarded this norm and the aforementioned one, and by extension the corruption-fighting entities that they underpin. He has bypassed the Public Prosecutor’s Office internal approval mechanism and unilaterally chosen the next prosecutor-general, as well as attempted to replace the chief of the Federal Police’s regional office in Rio de Janeiro. These power grabs are worrying because they bring the Public Prosecutor’s Office and Federal Police further within the reach of political corruption. 

While Bolsonaro likes to paint himself as an anti-corruption champion, the myriad investigations surrounding him and his inner circle tell a different story. Scandals have plagued him and his three lawmaker sons — Carlos, Eduardo, and Flavio — for over a year, but recent raids of his allies’ homes suggest that the inquiries into the family are escalating rapidly. The inroads that investigators are making became fully apparent last month with the arrest of Fabricio Queiroz, a confidante and former employee of the Bolsonaros, in connection to a probe into Flavio’s alleged misuse of public funds and money laundering. A separate line of investigation involving the illegal dissemination of misinformation by Bolsonaro’s friends and relatives also ramped up this summer. Just over a week ago, Facebook announced that it had traced dozens of fake social media accounts back to the offices of Eduardo, Flavio, and Jair Bolsonaro as well as to the SLP, their political party. This discovery has the potential to shed light onto the online campaign of falsehoods and vitriol that Bolsonaro’s acolytes are suspected of sustaining. 

Of course, only time will tell whether Facebook’s revelations will advance the case against Bolsonaro. Still, it’s safe to say that they’ll deal a blow to his anti-corruption posture, the repercussions of which could actually further destabilize Brazil. Bolsonaro’s emerging hypocrisy, combined with his mishandling of the pandemic, has decimated his support among the public and weakened his position. As a result, those loyal to him appear to be entertaining the notion of a military coup as a means of preserving his presidency. Top officials in his cabinet, many of whom come from a military background themselves, have warned that the justice system’s actions against him could trigger an armed response. The New York Times reported that Eduardo Bolsonaro even went so far as to assert that a “rupture” in Brazil’s democracy is inevitable. Using the military to create such a rupture would constitute an ultimate abuse of power.

Despite his professed commitment to weeding out corruption, Bolsonaro is proving to be no different than his crooked predecessors. He is yet another cog in the corruption machine that causes Brazil’s government to work in service of a select few rather than the common citizenry. He is yet another president willing to shred the social contract apart if it means protecting his kin and his monopoly on state control. And most alarmingly of all, he is yet another leader too keen on military solutions to political crises.

Sofia Godoy is a rising sophomore in Saybrook College. You can contact her at sofia.godoy@yale.edu.