Polarization within Brazilian society, mounting since the inauguration of President Jair Bolsonaro, is fueling tensions within the political class and among different sectors of the population. This polarization has been made evident in the wake of escalating inflammatory rhetoric between supporters of the Bolsonaro administration and some members of the Brazilian media. Current tensions relate to a leak of conversations between Justice Minister Sergio Moro and prosecutors that occurred during cases surrounding Operation Lava Jato (Car Wash), a wide-reaching corruption probe initially launched in 2014. The controversy surrounding the leak has already incited widescale protest actions from opposing groups, which have consequently resulted in significant localized disruptions throughout Brazil.
Background of the Corruption Probe
The leaked documents paint Lava Jato as a politically motivated and ideological probe. Brazil's top prosecutors involved in the country's corruption cases allegedly conspired with Moro to mitigate the election prospects of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and the Workers' Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) in 2018. A notable instance indicated how prosecutors sought to block a Supreme Court (Supremo Tribunal Federal, STF) decision that came 10 days before the first-round election, to allow a newspaper to interview Lula da Silva. The former president, who was imprisoned in April 2018 following a failed appeal, was barred from running in the 2018 presidential election. Prior to his imprisonment, Lula da Silva was leading the presidential race in all major polls. When Bolsonaro chose Moro as justice minister, supporters of Lula da Silva decried the decision as evidence that Moro was never apolitical; the June leak has been used by many activist groups to strengthen that position and as evidence to detail alleged ethical and legal violations. The STF is still set to decide on a habeas corpus petition that demands Lula da Silva’s conviction be annulled due to Moro’s alleged bias.
Journalist Glenn Greenwald of the online news publication, 'The Intercept,' the outlet that first released the documents implicating Moro in malpractice, met with supporters of the Brazilian Press Association (BPA) in Rio de Janeiro, July 30, to condemn alleged verbal accusations by Bolsonaro. On July 24, the President had indicated that Greenwald could be imprisoned following allegations that Greenwald had aligned with hackers, four of whom were arrested July 23, following allegations that Moro’s phone records were illegally accessed. According to Moro's supporters, including the president, the allegations of hacking implicate Greenwald. The rhetoric from opposing groups is encouraging an uncertain and volatile political environment.
Societal Divisions Increasing Likelihood of Protests
Activist groups and supporters of Greenwald, which include members of the BPA, fear that the president's rhetoric is leading to the erosion of press freedoms. The feud highlights escalating divisions within Brazil, which have already resulted in mass protest action. Activists associated with the highly influential Free Brazil Movement (Movimento Brasil Livre, MBL) and Come to the Streets (Vem Pra Rua), rallied nationwide in support of Moro's innocence, June 30. This major action in support of Moro came despite the very same leaked documents indicating Moro had previously secretly criticized actions by the MBL itself. The unwavering support by MBL leaders, despite the revelation, highlights the profound lines of division within Brazilian society. Further large protest actions regarding the issue are likely to flare up again in the coming weeks, particularly in the wake of the recent escalating rhetoric.
Currently, as investigations continue into both Moro's conduct during Lava Jato, and into the related criminal hack on the justice minister's conversations, tensions from opposing groups are likely to remain particularly heightened. As distrust among opposing groups mounts, the threat to businesses operating in Brazil, as well as to travelers, increases. Encouraged by provocative rhetoric, the erosion of public trust in a once hailed corruption probe, and the possible alleged reducing of press freedoms, the potential for civil unrest is likely to remain of significant concern in the country in the long term.
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