Brazil's anti-corruption crusade shows why it's always dangerous to put too much faith in a single politician

Every week Operation Car Wash brought a new list of arrests, and the country was enraptured. But dividing politicians into heroes and villains leads to bad politics

July 03, 2019
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Corruption occupies the space of an original sin in the Brazilian mind, from which all other ills of Brazilian society stem. If there are children sleeping in the street; if scenes of warfare take place in densely populated neighbourhoods; if hospitals cannot provide vaccines because they were not supplied with needles—it is because of corruption.

The rise of minister and former federal judge Sergio Moro is intrinsically connected to this obsession. When Operation Car Wash was shifting from one of Brazil's ongoing minor scandals to a behemoth which engulfed the government, Moro became the country's newest crusader against corruption. With his black suits and apparently unshakeable moral rectitude, there was something fascinating about the way Moro locked up men previously seen as untouchable.

Every week, Operation Car Wash brought a new list of arrests, and the country was enraptured, anticipating the photos of politicians in handcuffs. These were the people responsible for everything that had gone wrong and had always been wrong in Brazil, and there was a public delight in seeing them being humbled, trying to cover their wrists, looking away from the cameras. Car Wash saw media as an integral part of its operation; only with the media by its side could it afford to take on the monster of corruption.

During this phase of Operation Car Wash, to a certain type of Brazilian—namely the upper middle class, right-leaning ones—Moro became not an emissary of justice, but a superhero figure. Moro was the antithesis to the figure of former president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva who even in 2015 cast a long shadow over the politics of his successor, Dilma Rousseff.

Moro was discreet where Lula was expansive; he was elegant where Lula was rough. Above all, Moro was a judge, a position of the utmost elite in Brazilian society, whereas Lula still framed himself—and was framed as—a poorly-educated trade unionist who got lucky. For Lula's allies, Moro used corruption as an excuse to politically prosecute the country's most important leftist party; for Lula's enemies, Moro was the chosen one to finally expose the country's rotten heart, controlled by the Workers Party.

Between 2015 and 2018, the Moro versus Lula clash was a slow-fought war, during which Operation Car Wash advanced inch by inch toward the former president. In the meantime, Dilma Rousseff was impeached; Petrobras, the country's beloved state owned oil company, had its reputation ruined; and much of the progress done during the 00s stopped or actively regressed.

Moro would finally win when a couple of months away from the election that would bring Bolsonaro into power he sent out the orders for Lula's arrest. For the Car Wash believers, it was a victory not just because of a job well-done, but a profoundly moral defeat of a man whose crimes went unpunished at the ballot box.

From there to now, Moro has gone from Superman to the incredible shrinking man. Moro joined the Bolsonaro government as Justice Minister almost as soon as the result was announced. He, however, did not anticipate that politicians face setbacks a judge never faces—particularly when allied to a politician as unstable as Bolsonaro. The new minister had already gone through a string of humiliations before the most recent one: the Intercept's exposé of his messages with the prosecution during his actions as Car Wash's assigned judge.

The material is both damning and banal. In the messages, Moro acts as an almost auxiliary prosecutor, complaining about Lula's defense, sharing information and advising the next steps to be taken. These are not the actions of an impartial, incorruptible judge: in fact, they are in themselves, corruption.

Yet in this lies the banality of it: every Brazilian knew, on some level, that Moro was not impartial or ethical. Any remnants of that illusion were shattered when he said yes to a job at Bolsonaro's government. Those who hate him are not surprised; those who love him will not care.

Sergio Moro will, in all likelihood, survive this scandal. Bolsonaro still has uses for him, and no amount of negative coverage can make a man who praises torture of dissidents feel shame. Corruption stretches on and on in Brazilian politics, and as these messages make obvious, that includes those who claim to fight it.

Perhaps Lula does belong in a jail cell, but Moro does not get to override due process to say so. Car Wash, in the end, was simply a corrupt process swallowing a another one. For the rest of the country, there are no saviours.