The sinister state of Bolsonaro’s Brazil

As support for president Jair Bolsonaro rapidly declines and he faces the prospect of defeat in the elections scheduled for 2022, CWI secretary TONY SAUNOIS reviews a compelling new book exposing the reality of capitalist democracy in Brazil.

Securing Democracy: My fight for press freedom and justice in Bolsonaro’s Brazil

By Glenn Greenwald

Published by Haymarket Boos, 2021, £19-99

It was the North American writer, Mark Twain, who declared, “truth is stranger than fiction. It has to be! Fiction has to be possible and truth doesn’t”. This assertion could possibly be apt for Glenn Greenwald’s gripping account of the dramatic events in Brazil prior to and during Bolsonaro’s ascent to the presidency. The book, while not a rounded out Marxist analysis, is a page turning read of amazing events, on occasions reading like a political espionage thriller. Yet it is a factual account with stunning revelations about the state, the media, the ruling class, and the reality of Brazilian capitalism. It confirms Glenn Greenwald as one of the most insightful investigative journalists of today.

His work and collaboration with Edward Snowden had a big impact internationally. What he did in Brazil, through his exposure of the corruption and political intrigue in ‘Operation Car Wash’, had direct political consequences. Apart from what it exposed about the ruling elite, Bolsonaro, and the governing institutions, it contributed in no small way to the release of former Workers’ Party (PT) president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) from prison. This allows him to challenge Bolsonaro for the presidency in 2022, which polls indicate he has every chance of winning. Greenwald, in undertaking this work, exposed himself and his family to personal vilification by the right wing, and serious physical danger. One deficiency in this work lies in not drawing rounded-out conclusions of what the left and socialist movement in Brazil should be doing now. However, for any reader who wishes to get a fuller understanding of Brazil and of Bolsonaro’s Brazil, this is a book to read.

Roots in the military

Thorough as ever, Greenwald begins his narrative back in the 1960s and the military coup which took place in 1964. This followed the election of a presidential ticket comprised of a centre-right politician Janio Quadros as president, and centre-left Joao Goulart as vice-president in 1960. Quadros resigned in 1961 as a “tactical bet, ultimately unsuccessful, that the population would rise up and demand his return, thereby strengthening him”. The population did not rise up and Goulart assumed the presidency. The ruling elite in Brazil were terrified of the consequences of this, denouncing him as a communist and a threat to democracy. Greenwald insightfully rebuffs this and rightly characterizes Goulart as “more a soft, European-style, socialist devoted to mild reforms”. The elite tried to put a noose around the presidency by accepting his assumption to power but with a weakened presidential system – a compromise which was subsequently overturned.

Modest proposals for rent controls, land reform and a plan to nationalise some of Brazil’s oilfields were enough to provoke the ire of the ruling class and US and British imperialism. In 1964 they struck in a military coup, forced Goulart out of the country, and bullied a tame Congress to legalise the military takeover which was to rule for twenty years. The media, owned as it still is by a handful of oligarchs, celebrated the coup as the “noble revolution” against a corrupt “communist” regime. The same justification Bolsonaro is likely to use if he attempts to cling to power and refuses to be ousted in elections in 2022.

The first decree of the military was entitled First Institutional Act (AI-1) which, in effect, suspended most rights enshrined in the 1946 constitution – something today’s Bolsonaristas have debated introducing again. As Greenwald points out, within two years of the coup roughly half of Brazil’s major industries were owned by foreign interests! The US CIA and British MI6 were all in on the act – training and assisting the military as it tortured, repressed and murdered its opponents. Bolsonaro was shaped by these events. He entered the elite military academy during this period and backed the generals. In fact, Greenwald quotes a latter-day Bolsonaro as criticizing the military regime for not “killing enough people” and failing to “exterminate the left”.

In 1999 Bolsonaro appeared on TV declaring: “Voting won’t change anything in this country. Nothing! Things will only change, unfortunately, after a civil war here, and doing the work the dictatorship didn’t do. Killing some 30,000 people, starting with FHC [Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the right-wing president at the time]. If some innocents die that is fine”. Bolsonaro was expelled from the military in 1988 for planning to detonate small bombs on military installations in protest at the low pay of the military. He entered politics initially standing for election to the Rio city council on a pro-military platform.

How did Brazil’s Trump get support?

For decades however, Bolsonaro was on the fringes of politics in Brazil. So how did he end up being catapulted into power at the last presidential election? Glenn Greenwald poses the question of how Brazil went from being ‘centre-left’ that fitted comfortably into the “mainstream ideological wing of the Western neoliberal order to one ruled by a figure as extreme as Bolsonaro”. Greenwald addresses these issues insightfully. He draws a parallel with Trump. He rightly concludes that “so many people were so angry with the political establishment that they were willing to gamble on anyone who could portray themselves as an enemy of the political class the population (rightly) blames for so much of their suffering and deprivation”.

Bolsonaro’s victory did not drop from the sky; it was many years in the making. The book correctly traces events back to the mass protests which erupted in 2013. Millions took to the streets, protesting against everything: corruption, unemployment, the Olympic Games, and the government of the time led by the PT and Dilma Rousseff who had replaced Lula as president. The disappointment and feeling of betrayal by the PT leadership, which had governed since 2002, led to a strong anti-PT sentiment. In 2002, Lula chose as his running mate José Alencar, who came from the banking world, in a bid to prove his reliability to the capitalist class. As Greenwald recounts, Alencar released a ‘Letter to the Brazilian People’, in which he repudiated any radical socialist ideas and pledged to respect the free market!

The 2013 protests reflected the seething anger present in Brazilian society. Yet, as Greenwald comments, they “defied easy ideological categories”. No clear force organized them and a very strong anti-party mood, anti-all political parties, was present. Sentiments of the left and the right were present on them. The anger was reserved not for one political party but all of them. It was against “anyone and everyone who wielded power in Brazil. In this critical regard, Bolsonaro’s ascension to power was driven not so much by agreement with his ideology, but rather a pervasive and justified disgust with ruling institutions and their prevailing orthodoxies”. It should also be added the crucial factor was the absence of a mass socialist alternative which had built strong roots in society and the working class, the urban poor and sections of the middle class.

Greenwald recounts that many Brazilians – including many friends of his and his husband, the PSOL Deputy David Miranda – voted for Bolsonaro, including “some of whom are black, some of whom are working-class or favela residents, and some of whom are LGBT or close friends of the LGBT community. They did so not because of his history of hateful and extremist comments, bigotry and support for tyranny, but despite them. They did so from desperation”.

Like Trump, Bolsonaro, was able to present himself as being from the outside and apart from these institutions and parties. If the political system hates and despises Bolsonaro, or Trump, then they must be on our side, is the conclusion reached by their supporters, fuelled by seething anger and discontent. He also rightly ridicules Obama for presenting himself as ‘anti-establishment’ having been groomed by it at Columbia University, Harvard Law School and the US Senate prior to becoming president. Something that along with his other criticisms of the Democratic Party, including of Biden, has earned Greenwald the ire of some of the ‘liberal progressive left’ in the US, especially those in or around the Democratic Party.

In reality, like Trump, Bolsonaro was far from not being part of the elite. Although not a billionaire, he has been a member of eight political parties, many of them implicated in the Car Wash investigations, and a member of the Brazilian Congress for years. In the election campaign he promised a return to the neoliberal orthodoxies of the ‘Chicago Boys’ school of economics as practiced in Pinochet’s Chile!

In the book, Greenwald rightly argues that Bolsonaro was able to tap into not just generalized anger but specific anti-PT sentiments, and defeated the PT candidate Fernando Haddad, who was backed by Lula. A political weakness here is that Greenwald is somewhat ambiguous in regards to criticism of the PT, in that it would have been better to back another ‘centre-left’ candidate such as Ciro Gomes. But such an alternative ‘centre-left’ candidate would have not offered any serious alternative to challenge Bolsonaro, and would have been viewed as part of the same ruling political caste.

The ‘Car Wash’ coup

These are the crucial issues dealt with by the book, which is a serious and insightful analysis of the run up to Bolsonaro’s election victory. Much of the meat in the book, however, centres on Greenwald’s role in exposing what took place around ‘Operation Car Wash’ and its central role in assisting Bolsonaro’s assent to power. The intrigue, corruption and conspiracies exposed in these chapters read like a John Le Carré political espionage novel.

The central character is one Sérgio Moro. In 2014 he was a little-known low-level federal judge in the city of Curitiba. From there, he would rise to one of the most powerful positions in government as Justice Minister under Bolsonaro. What began as a routine case involving a currency trader who was laundering money through a local petrol station car wash (hence the operation’s name) morphed into the biggest anti-corruption investigation ever, in any country, implicating key politicians, companies and capitalists. It included the exposure of secret kick-backs involving directors of the Brazilian oil giant Petrobras amounting to over $1 billion! Oderbrecht, a massive building conglomerate, had an entire department dedicated to buying politicians and government favours throughout Latin America. The spectacle of formerly untouchable billionaires and political leaders being put in the dock and being prosecuted was initially immensely popular and fuelled anger.

The majority of the ruling class lost control of the process, and later the political leadership to a far-right populist force which included some fascistic elements in it. There was a collapse in the confidence and authority of the traditional bourgeois parties and institutions. It reflected the splits which opened up and the political vacuum that existed, into which Bolsonaro, Moro and the far right were able to step in and fill. A perfect storm then unfolded as these forces were in charge as the Covid-19 pandemic struck, and has resulted in the mass slaughter of hundreds of thousands due to the policies and actions of the Bolsonaro regime.

Moro claimed he was non-political and independent. As he investigated and prosecuted politicians and business leaders his popularity grew. Yet so did his ambitions. His methods increasingly abused any semblance of judicial justice. As was to be exposed, Moro, supposedly an independent judge, was colluding with prosecutors before hearings, and then ruled against the defendant. Other totally undemocratic methods were also used by him and his team. It was a classic case of who was investigating the investigators.

The biggest ‘catch’ of his investigation was in 2017, when he secured the imprisonment of the former PT president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for corruption. This excluded Lula from running for the presidency against Bolsonaro, easing the path of the latter to victory. Moro was rewarded with the post of Justice Minister. At his insistence three departments were merged to give him unprecedented power in this post.

Was Lula corrupt? He had admitted that the PT was riddled with “systemic corruption” in one interview. Possibly he was but he was denied a fair judicial trial to prove the case one way or the other, as Greenwald argues. At the time the CWI called for a democratic popular workers’ tribunal to investigate and make a judgement, and placed no confidence in the capitalist state proceedings headed by Moro, who was out to get Lula and the PT. Despite the PT and Lula proving their reliability for capitalism, big sections of the Brazilian ruling class and US imperialism still do not trust them.

Fighting back

In 2019 Greenwald was approached by a ‘hacker’. After a series of exchanges to verify the reliability and trust from this new source, Greenwald and his team began processing and eventually publishing a series of exchanges, documents, and reports, which exposed that Moro and his team were also implicated in corruption and intrigue, with the objective of ensuring the PT was defeated and Bolsonaro was elected. The effects were devastating and, as Lula admitted, were crucial in securing his release from prison. Amongst the revelations were that Car Wash prosecutors had not pursued former president Cardoso on corruption charges – very similar to those levelled against Lula, because he was an important ‘political ally’. Car Wash prosecutors procured payment for speeches given to companies they were investigating. Moro released damaging tapes he had obtained involving Lula and Dilma for purely political reasons. This and much more was released.

The investigations and publication of this material inevitably provoked the wrath of Moro and Bolsonaro. The threat, including physical, was very real. David Miranda, a member of PSOL and elected to the Congress, had been subjected to homophobic threats and attack – including from Bolsonaro. Born into a Rio favela, Miranda became politicised partly as a result of his arrest at London’s Heathrow Airport carrying material related to Edward Snowden. As Greenwald recounts, the Brazilian left had been shaken by the political assassination of the PSOL councillor and activist in Rio, Marielle Franco, in March 2018. In the subsequent election David Miranda took a seat for PSOL in the Congress from Rio.

Under Brazils’ election system PSOL took four seats from Rio and Miranda was fifth on the list. Jean Wyllys was originally one of those elected. He resigned and left the country in fear of his life following threats and homophobic abuse and Mirada took the seat as fifth on the list. The day after the publication of the first set of stories, Bolsonaro’s youngest son, Eduardo, started resurrecting baseless allegations previously raised by the far right that Jean Wyllys had fled the country not because of fear for his life but because Greenwald had paid him US$700,000 and a monthly stipend of US$10,000 so Miranda could take the seat! The threats to Greenwald and his family were very real. Greenwald had, incredibly, been physically assaulted on a TV show by a right-wing Bolsonarista journalist, Augusto Nunes.

A full team of bodyguards and bullet-proof cars to ward off the threat of assassination by the right is the price paid for this investigative journalism. Greenwald defiantly argues that it was worth it and he would do it again. It has assisted in exposing the nature of Bolsonaro’s regime, which now seems to be heading to likely defeat, although not without a fight. Hundreds of thousands of his supporters took to the streets to support him recently. Bolsonaro has declared only God could remove him from Brasilia! A more serious Trump-style attempted coup to maintain power cannot be excluded. Yet rapid decline in his support points to his probable defeat. This book is an exciting, illuminating read and greatly adds to an understanding of what transpired in Brazil in the run-up to Bolsonaro’s election victory and after. The analysis and programme advocated by the CWI on Brazil can be found at