The US in Operation Lava Jato

Image: public domain


Current imperialism is not secured solely by coercion, but also by consensus mechanisms through social institutions that serve to justify and legitimize a system of domination.

That the United States has an extensive history of interference in Latin America is nothing new. For much of the XNUMXth century, these interventions were justified as a result of the Cold War in US containment of Soviet influence in the region. To contain this threat, it was permissible to use all means, including the military, to suppress leaders and movements that, supposedly, were aligned with the Soviet ideology, even if, in most cases, “convictions” remained and there was a lack of evidence of this alignment – ​​alluding to the “profound conviction” that the government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala was communist.

What may still sound like news to some is that, even with the end of the Cold War, the US still exercises interference in Latin America, acting to destabilize governments that are not sympathetic to its interests. The form of action is, however, more diffuse and less visible than before. Today, institutions are used for the creation and maintenance of consent, in a kind of informal imperialism, going back to the Gramscian approach.

More than a process of intervention by one “country” over another, this approach provides us with analytical tools to conceive US intervention based on close collaboration between dominant classes in the United States and in the countries in which they intervene.

In the close collaboration between dominant classes, current US interventions dispense with direct, military and clearly identifiable actions and focus on diffuse and more nebulous actions. In this sense, the concept of “hybrid warfare” presented by Andrew Korybko (2018) summarizes the form of current US imperialism: instead of using force to maintain the interests and privileges of the US ruling class (and even of the transnational capitalist class), there is now the use of a model of war indirect (or unconventional). In this sense, the close collaboration between the ruling classes in the US and Brazil is emblematic.

Since its emergence in 2014, Operation Lava Jato and its profound legal, political and economic impacts have been the subject of wide media repercussions. With the objective of investigating corruption and money laundering practices, mainly within Petrobras, the operation became the epicenter of the anti-corruption agenda in Brazil, especially with the arrest of politicians, contractors and directors of the oil company. The central actors of the Lava Jato Task Force in Curitiba, the nucleus of the operation, were the attorney of the Republic Deltan Dallagnol, from the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) in Paraná, and the federal judge Sérgio Moro, from the 13th Federal Court of Curitiba, responsible for , respectively, for filing complaints and prosecuting criminal cases.

Driven by the support of a large part of public opinion, these actors reached the status of celebrities in the fight against corruption and impunity, winning awards in Brazil and abroad, in addition to leading the national political debate, including promoting campaigns for legislative changes, such as Bill 4850/2016 (Ten Measures Against Corruption).

The Operation and its aftermath

The immense media and popular support made Operation Lava Jato maintain, for years, the image of “the largest anti-corruption operation in the world” (road, 2021), which dampened important criticisms made in relation to its modus operandi and its negative impacts on the economy and politics. In the legal sphere, the use of practices such as coercive conduct and preventive arrests stand out, used as instruments for the imposition of selective agreements of award-winning, as well as the use of illegal evidence leaked in a selective way.

This was the case of the telephone tapping that captured and disseminated confidential conversations between former President Lula and then-President Dilma Rousseff, who had forum prerogatives (Wheels, 2016). Although the practice was reprimanded and declared unconstitutional by the then Minister of the Federal Supreme Court (STF) Teori Zavack (Costa et al, 2016), its political effects were irreversible, contributing to the impediment of Lula's inauguration as Minister of the Civil House and to the political erosion of the Workers' Party (PT) in the face of public opinion. As a result of the political crisis, Dilma underwent a process of impeachment, completed on August 31, 2016, and Lula was convicted in the first instance by judge Sérgio Moro, on July 12, 2017.

In the economic sphere, research by institutes such as the IPEA: Dieese and GO Associates point out that Operation Lava Jato was responsible for the drop in GDP, for the increase in unemployment, for the crisis in strategic sectors of the Brazilian economy (oil exploration and civil construction) and for the advance of foreign exploration of the pre-salt and for the sale of assets of the Petrobras (refineries and pipelines) in favor of the interests of the large transnational oil companies.

In parallel, it is also argued that the anti-corruption crusade and the criminalization of relations between the State and the private sector have caused disbelief in politics as a way to solve social conflicts, strengthening authoritarian discourses that contributed to the electoral victory of Jair Bolsonaro (Bergamo, 2021). Such criticisms were deepened and gained greater relevance after the then judge Sérgio Moro accepted Bolsonaro’s invitation to be the “super minister” of Justice and Public Security of the newly elected government. In this sense, more critical sectors began to accuse Lava Jato of practicing a phenomenon known as lawfare – the manipulation of legal norms and institutions of the rule of law for the purposes of political persecution, turning individuals or parties into enemies to be fought (Streck et al, 2021), that is, the use of the law as a weapon of war (DUNLAP, 2001).

Since June 2019, from private conversations involving important protagonists of Operation Lava Jato, which were revealed and publicized by the Intercept Brazil and partner media vehicles, the discussion gained new empirical elements. In addition to corroborating some of the criticisms that were already being made, these conversations revealed a close collaboration between the Judiciary and the Public Ministry. The STF itself also changed its stance.

In addition to the public criticism made by ministers such as Gilmar Mendes e Ricardo Lewandoski, the Plenary of the STF confirmed, on April 15 of that year, the annulment of Lula's convictions, corroborating the monocratic decision handed down by Minister Edson Fachin on March 8. In parallel, the 2nd Panel of the STF recognized, on March 23 of that year, the suspicion of former judge Sérgio Moro in the judgment that condemned Lula. It was alleged that the then magistrate acted with political motivations in conducting the process, violating the principle of impartiality. On the 22nd of April, the Plenary of the STF formed a majority to maintain the decision on the suspicion of the magistrate, with no further review of it.

Contextualizing the international relations of the Lava Jato operation: the US role

Since the beginning of Lava Jato, more critical voices have pointed to the interference of the United States in the operation. In this sense, it is necessary to point out that the global anti-corruption agenda is linked to a multi-million dollar industry created in the 1990s and headquartered in the USA, which provides technical and financial assistance around the world through the export of US models of rule of law (Rule of law). Based on reports from US institutions such as USAID, international governmental organizations such as the World Bank, IMF, UN and OECD, and international non-governmental organizations such as Transparency International and the Open Society Foundation, it is possible to identify a broad global anti-corruption movement from the 1990s onwards.

Funded by large corporations, these organizations began to press for institutional and legal reforms around the world. Within the scope of this agenda, the concept of corruption is used to explain poverty and inequality on the periphery of the capitalist system, in addition to serving as a justification for external intervention in the internal policies of states.

In this sense, organized crime and corruption in Latin America appear as important threats to the commanders of the Southern Command (an entity linked to the Department of Defense) since 2001, but, in particular, since the administration of Barack Obama. Thus, “US relations with the military and law enforcement agencies are a source of influence, especially in promoting certain issues such as combating corruption and money laundering” (Milani, p.140, free translation).

With regard to Brazil, the anti-corruption agenda becomes an important US concern. Coincidentally, this same agenda is allied with the rise of the PT to the Presidency of the Republic. In fact, the active and proud foreign policy developed by Celso Amorim and by President Lula himself represented a more assertive and active role for Brazil at the regional and even international levels. The role that Brazilian companies, such as Odebrecht, Camargo Corrêa and OAS, played in South America and Africa (where they were beginning to expand their businesses) was symbolic of this activity.

For Thomas Shannon, US ambassador to Brazil between 2010 and 2013, the Brazilian project of regional integration raises concern in the US State Department, considering that “the development of Odebrecht is part of the power project of the PT and the Latin American left” (Bourcier and Estrada, 2021). According to a former member of the Department of Justice (DoJ), “If we add to that the deteriorating relations between Obama and Lula, and a PT apparatus that distrusted the North American neighbor, we can say that we had a lot of work to straighten out the directions” (Conjure, 2021).

Initially, it is possible to identify a network of exchanges and unofficial cooperation initiatives involving members of the Lava Jato Task Force in Curitiba and agents from the FBI (the American Federal Police), the DoJ and the US State Department. As revealed by the report published by the French newspaper The Diplomatic World, this network began to be built in 2007. At the time, magistrate Sérgio Moro was responsible for the Banestado case, involving investigations into money laundering in the public bank, in which there was effective collaboration with US authorities through a relationship program funded by the US Department of State that involved travel, information sharing and training.

Subsequently, this collaboration was deepened and expanded through a strategy promoted by the US Embassy in Brazil, which intended to form a network of Brazilian jurists aligned with its guidelines. In this sense, the position of resident legal advisor was created, occupied by the US Attorney Karine Moreno-Taxman, a specialist in the fight against money laundering. The prosecutor developed a program called “Projeto Pontes”, organizing training courses, seminars and meetings with Brazilian judges and prosecutors, in order to share information and “teach” them about US methods of combating corruption and money laundering. . Among these methods, the creation of working groups (task forces), the use of award-winning whistleblowers, informal international cooperation and the strategy of “systematically chasing the king”, identifying the alleged head of corruption schemes stand out. and eroding its image before public opinion (Bourcier and Estrada, 2021).

In the context of the Mensalão trial by the STF in 2012, external pressure is increasing from the US and the Working Group of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on Bribery in Commercial Transactions for Brazil to reform its anti-corruption legislation, making -the most rigid. One of the main internal spokespersons for these changes was Sérgio Moro, who, at the time, had been appointed assistant judge to Minister Rosa Weber. Publicly, Moro defended the import of the US model of plea bargaining, until then without legal provision in Brazilian legislation.

As a practical consequence of this US influence, we can mention the approval of anti-corruption laws inspired by US legislation, among which stand out Laws 12.846 and 12.850, both from 2013. These laws imported the US model of plea bargaining for the Brazilian legal system, in the form of leniency agreements for legal entities and award-winning collaboration for individuals, in which defendants benefit from agreements with the MPF in exchange for revealing new facts and information. Operation Lava Jato frequently used these institutes.

In this sense, Law 12.846, which incorporates mechanisms of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) of the USA, also allows the administrative and civil liability of Brazilian legal entities for the practice of acts against the foreign public administration , foreseen in a very comprehensive way, raising criticism. Among them, mainly, the fact that these legal frameworks expand the territorial competence of the US jurisdiction and end up being manipulated by the US against foreign companies that compete with US companies for large international contracts, as happened with the sanctions imposed by the US DoJ. US to French group Alstom.

It is argued here that the global anti-corruption fight can be used for the purposes of US foreign policy, and, more specifically, in defense of the interests of its dominant economic (and political) class. It is emblematic of the speech of Leslie Caldwell in 2014, then Deputy Attorney General of the DoJ stating that: “The fight against foreign corruption is not a service we provide to the international community, but rather a necessary enforcement action to protect our own national security interests and the ability of our American companies to compete in the future”. Within the scope of Lava Jato, the close cooperation of the Federal Public Ministry with US authorities, mainly from the DoJ, favored the application of the FCPA to punish Brazilian companies that operate abroad, such as Petrobras, Odebrecht and Embraer. In addition to having generated billions in fines for the US Treasury, this practice weakened the international competitiveness of these companies, favoring US companies that compete for the same markets (Conjure, 2020).

The importance of the collaboration of the MPF for the application of fines to Brazilian companies in the USA, through the sharing of information obtained in award-winning accusations, is recognized by the DoJ itself. In 2016, Kenneth Blanco, Deputy Attorney General of the DoJ, declared that: “It is difficult to imagine such intense cooperation in recent history as that which occurred between the DoJ and the Brazilian Public Ministry”. In 2017, this same prosecutor stated that US justice officials had “informal communications” regarding Lula’s removal from the 2018 Brazilian presidential election (Blanco, 2017 apud Prashad, 2020, p.156). This relationship between the Brazilian and US legal elites became even closer in the case of the non-prosecution agreement involving the DoJ and Petrobras, brokered by the Federal Public Ministry in 2018.

In order not to be sued in the US, the Brazilian oil company agreed to pay a fine of US$ 853,2 million, 80% of which would be deposited in an account linked to the 13th Federal Court of Curitiba and administered by a foundation controlled by the MPF, known as such as "Lava Jato Foundation”. In March 2019, Alexandre Moraes, minister of the STF, suspended the creation of the foundation to manage the resources arising from the fines paid by Petrobras, claiming that the competence for this would belong to the Union (Brigido, 2019).

The two arms of hegemony

The intervention of US institutions and public agents in Operation Lava Jato can be explained based on concrete interests, among which we can highlight: the acceleration of the Brazilian pre-salt auctions (Haidar, 2017) and the sale of Petrobras assets (Walnut and Slattery, 2020), in favor of the interests of large transnational oil companies, such as British Petroleum (BP), British Shell, Chevron, Cnooc, ExxonMobil, QPI and Statoil; as well as the decline in the presence of Brazilian civil construction companies (Odebrecht, OAS, Camargo and Correia, among others) abroad, opening up space for competing foreign companies (Oak, 2018). How Vijay summarizes Prashad, 2020 (p.156), “The Lava Jato investigation was a great advantage for transnational companies”.

More than presenting US dominance strategies in Latin America, specifically in Brazil, it is necessary to reflect on relatively forgotten (or marginalized) practices and concepts such as imperialism, hegemony and the role of consensus building. The hegemony exercised by the United States in the international arena is one that combines strategies of coercion and consensus. The first is quite familiar to us as Latin Americans, especially during the Cold War period. The second, though less visible, is no less subtle. Current imperialism is not ensured solely by coercion, but also (and mainly) by consensus mechanisms through social institutions that serve to justify and legitimize this same system of domination.

*Camila Feix Vidal Professor at the Department of Economics and International Relations at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC).

* Arthur Banzatto He is a doctoral candidate at the Graduate Program in International Relations at UFSC..

Originally published on the website of US Political Observatory (OPEU).


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