Prison report: Lula in, Leopoldo out

While all kinds of terrible things are happening in South America and around the globe, that continent recently supplied us with a couple of pieces of very good news.

Lula

In Brazil, almost a year after socialist President Dilma Rousseff’s removal from office, her mentor, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has been sentenced to nine years and six months in prison. Both were brought down by their roles in the Petrobras scandal, a.k.a. Operation Car Wash, the largest scandal ever in the history of that nation. Lula, a Worker’s Party politician who served two terms in Brazil’s highest office and who anointed Rousseff to succeed him, was found guilty of corruption and money-laundering. Lula plans to appeal the verdict; meanwhile, four – count them, four – other corruption trials lie ahead of him.

Dilma Rousseff

The specifics of Lula’s corruption are tawdry and rather dull: he was found guilty of taking a massive bribe – in the form of a luxury beachfront apartment – from a construction company, OAS. In addition to presenting Lula with the apartment, OAS also gave Lula’s party about $27 million in bribes in return for a suspiciously lucrative contracts with Petrobras. At the trial, Lula denied having anything to do with the apartment in question.

Protégé and mentor in happier times

It’s hard to explain just how staggering the conviction of Lula is in his home country. He’s not just a former president but a national icon. His admirers believe that his socialist policies helped boost the Brazilian economy, lifting millions out of poverty. As a result, he’s widely revered as a folk hero, the ultimate man of the people, the very personification of socialist largesse – so that the idea of him raiding the treasury on behalf of OAS in exchange for an apartment seems a particularly cheesy sort of betrayal.

Lula is actually eligible to run again for president, and, prior to his conviction, was leading the polls in the run-up to next year’s elections. But if his appeal fails, he won’t be allowed to be a candidate. In any case, his conviction has surely diminished him in the eyes of at least some of his fans.

Leopoldo López

So that’s the good news from Brazil. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court of Venezuela, which is basically a tool of President Nicolás Maduro, took an action that surprised the world: it ordered that Leopoldo López be removed from prison, where he has languished for more than three years, and placed instead under house arrest.

Nicolás Maduro

López, of course, is someone whose fortunes we’ve been following pretty closely on this site: as we wrote in March of last year, he is “the chavista regime’s most eloquent critic [and] the opposition’s most charismatic leader” and was plainly locked up “for no other reason than that he is …by far the most potent threat to the power of…Maduro.”

Hugo Chávez

This is a man who, as mayor of one of the five municipalities that make up Caracas, was recognized for his erudition and eloquence and showered with international awards for excellence and transparency in public service – making him the very antithesis of the crude caudillo Hugo Chávez and his lunkhead successor, Maduro. As we have put it previously:

López is so manifestly everything that Maduro is not, so completely the Gallant to his Goofus, that it seems almost too tidy a scenario; if this were a film script, the producer would almost certainly order the writer to make the villain at least somewhat less buffoonish and corrupt and the hero somewhat less noble and courageous.

Liliana Tintori at the White House in February with President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Senator Marco Rubio

Our most recent mention of López here was in March, when we noted that his wife, Liliana Tintori, had met with President Trump at the White House not long after the latter’s inauguration. At the time, Trump issued a call for López’s immediate release. It was more than President Obama had ever done for López, and it may well have made a difference.

In any event, López is out of jail, and that’s good news. But, like the rest of the people in his country, he’s not yet entirely free. We’ll continue to keep an eye on the course of Venezuela’s fortunes, and Leopoldo’s.

Enemies of reform in Brazil

Dilma Rousseff

Last August, the socialist president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, was removed from office for corruption. As we’ve noted on this site, fellow socialists came to Rousseff’s defense, with David Miranda (husband of notorious Edward Snowden helpmeet Glenn Greenwald) arguing in the Guardian that Rousseff was the victim of corporations and rich people who don’t like socialism.

But in the weeks leading up to Rousseff’s removal, millions of Brazilians took to the streets to protest her corrupt government and the deep and lingering economic recession over which she had presided, and to demand her departure from office. Ideologically, the protests were not unlike those currently rocking Venezuela (which, of course, is in far worse shape than Brazil): people were sick of having their freedom squelched and their economy mismanaged.

Michel Temer

Rousseff, a member of the Workers’ Party, was replaced by her vice president, Michel Temer, who belongs to the more conservative Brazilian Democratic Movement Party. Now, Temer is no saint. Like Rousseff before him (and like many others who still hold high positions in his government), he’s been implicated in the massive “Lava Jato” corruption case surrounding the federally owned oil company, Petrobras.

Here and below: some images from the General Strike

During his brief tenure, though, he has at least sought to rescue Brazil from the consequences of his predecessor’s socialist policies. Taking office in the midst of an economic crisis, he warned that Brazil’s economy faced a “meltdown” unless “severe fiscal discipline and belt tightening” were introduced.

Pronounced himself the head of a “national salvation government,” he began instituting the kind of reforms – including significant changes in public employment contracts and pension arrangements – which, although uncomfortable in the short term for many working-class Brazilians, sought to correct policies that simply could not be sustained in the long term without doing to Brazil something similar to what chavismo has done to Venezuela. Indeed, Temer’s reforms might well have helped Brazil, which has long been looked to as a nation of immense but unfulfilled economic promise, to finally develop, within a few years, a robust First World economy dominated by a large and prosperous middle class.

But many workers, unsurprisingly, weren’t happy with Temer’s new policies. The socialists felt threatened to their core. And the labor unions were outraged. On April 28, a new set of public protests began. This time, however, it wasn’t a matter of angry citizens taking spontaneously to the streets. This was a nationwide general strike, the first in Brazil since 1996, called by the labor unions. Schools were closed. So were most businesses. Public transport came to a near-total halt. The entrances to many airports were blocked. Media described the nation as “paralyzed.” There was widespread violence. Cars and trams and buses were burned. In the Sao Paulo neighborhood where Temer owns a house (he currently lives in the vice-presidential residence in Brasilia), protesters “broke up sidewalks and lobbed chunks of concrete at police.”

While socialist leaders celebrated the general strike as an effective pushback against Temer, others disagreed. Yahoo News, for example, quoted landscape architect Marcelo Faisal as saying that “reforms need to take place” and that the strike hadn’t (in Yahoo’s words) “lived up to the hype.” A shipping news website seconded this view, reporting with relief that the strike had “impacted the country’s ports, especially the largest port of Santos, less than originally feared.” Doubtless we haven’t heard the last of the enemies of reform in Brazil, but it may well be that despite their occasional noise-making, the necessary reform will, after all, be able to proceed. And in the end that will likely be good news for almost everyone in that huge and promising country.

Owen Jones: Britain’s answer to Ben Norton

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This is Norton

Recently we spent several days getting acquainted with Ben Norton, a baby-faced American whose callow, knee-jerk-leftist pieces for Salon and elsewhere have caused him, inexplicably, to be taken seriously as commentator on world events. He is a walking poster boy for unthinking ideological conformity: he hates his own country, he despises Israel, he’s been a consistent apologist for chavismo in Venezuela, for the Kirchners in Argentina, and for Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, and he’s a staunch defender of the Palestinians, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islam generally.

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This is Jones

You could be excused for getting Norton confused with the equally boyish-looking Owen Jones, who is currently a columnist for the Guardian. Jones used to write a column for The Independent, and has also contributed to the New Statesman, Mirror, and other leftist outlets. Like Norton, he’s also a fixture on political TV programs. The main difference between these two lads is that Jones is British. Otherwise they’re both singing almost exactly the same tune: anti-American, anti-Israeli, pro-all those Latin American socialists, and, last but far from least, pro-Islam.

Jones, an Oxford grad, has a far-left pedigree: his grandfather was a member of the British Communist Party, and his parents met as members of a Trotskyite group. So he’s not exactly a rebel; he’s just gone into the family business. At 31 (though he could pass for a high-school student), he’s already written two books: Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (2011), which made his name and resulted in his gig at The Independent, and The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It (2014). His rise, like Norton’s, has been lightning-swift: in 2013, The Telegraph named him the seventh most influential member of the British left.

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His masterpiece

What has he done to earn all this attention? As with Norton, one is compelled to conclude that he’s become a welcome voice in the pages of the left-wing press and on the politically oriented chat shows because, first, his views are entirely predictable and thus perfectly suitable for the crude this-side-vs.-that-side mentality that governs much of the legacy media and, second, he’s young and cute and lively, a creature of the social-media age whom the powers that be at geriatric media organs like the Guardian, the Beeb, and Sky News think will help improve their sickly readership/viewership numbers among members of his generation.

Certainly he hasn’t brought any fresh thinking to the table. “Modern capitalism is a sham,” he has written, and “democratic socialism is our only hope.” He has made this same statement over and over again, using somewhat different words each time, in innumerable pieces and media appearances.

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Sadiq Khan

As for the Islam issue, Jones, like Norton, is less interested in writing about cases of mass slaughter by jihadists than about incidents in which, say, some non-Muslim is alleged to have pulled a hijab off of a woman’s head or to have yelled some naughty word at her on the street. Indeed, his standard response to those giant terrorist attacks is to wring his hands about anti-Muslim backlash. Last November, he wrote that “in the US Muslims have to endure growing threats of violence and abuse.” He routinely spreads disinformation about Islam (“the Qur’an forbids the killing of innocent people”). This spring, he vocally championed the successful candidacy of Sadiq Khan, a Muslim, for mayor of London, despite Khan’s ties to a radical imam and Islamic State supporter. (Khan, who has supported the “right” of women in the UK to wear full burkas, has already ordered a sharia-like ban on images of “indecently” clad women on public transport and refused  to ban Hezbollah from London.)

What about that little above-mentioned detail about his own personal life – namely, the fact that he’s gay, and would therefore automatically be imprisoned, tortured, or executed in Islamic countries? We’ll get to that tomorrow.

The callow Kirchnerite: Ben Norton

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Ben Norton

This week we’ve been perusing the writings of highly prolific Salon contributor Ben Norton, who in a career that is now barely three years old has established himself as a leading American champion of Islam and hard-core socialism and a major detractor of the U.S., Israel, and “neoliberalism.”

Before we say goodbye to Norton, let’s take a quick look at another frequent topic of his work – namely Latin America. Unsurprisingly, he’s heaped praise on socialist leaders – such as Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina – who’ve damaged economies, arrested opponents, and suppressed civil liberties (after all, their hearts are in the right place!), while predictably demonizing “neoliberal” leaders who’ve brought their countries freedom and prosperity. Citing such far-left sources as Noam Chomsky and Glenn Greenwald, Norton has referred to the impeachment of Brazil’s leftist president, Dilma Rousseff, as a “right-wing coup.” In May, he attacked New York Times editorial-board member Ernesto Londoño, who in a recent article had done two things of which Norton disapproved.

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Glenn Greenwald

What two things? First, Londoño had committed the unpardonable act of “bashing Venezuela’s elected leader.” In fact, what Londoño had done was simply to criticize the human-rights violations committed by the government of President Maduro – who, as Londoño truthfully noted, had become “a petty dictator.” Second, Londoño had praised the man Norton referred to as “Argentina’s new right-wing [read: non-socialist] President Mauricio Macri,” whom Norton criticized for having “capitulated to vulture funds” and for “forcing through brutal neoliberal cuts.” In reality, Londoño, in commenting about Marci, had merely noted with obvious admiration Macri’s longstanding criticism of chavista human-rights abuses.

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Ernesto Londoño

What about those “vulture funds” – the Kirchner crowd’s disparaging term for the U.S. hedge funds to which Argentina owned billions of dollars, but that Cristina Kirchner refused to pay a single peso, preferring instead to vilify her creditors and let her country default on its sovereign debt for the second time in fourteen years? Londoño hadn’t said a word about those funds; but Norton apparently couldn’t forgive Macri for having decided to pay his country’s debts and move beyond Cristina’s disastrous default. As for those “brutal neoliberal cuts”? Londoño hadn’t mentioned them, either. Of course, to Norton, neoliberalism is a dirty word, and budget cuts are by definition brutal. But the plain fact is that Macri – who appears to understand economics a good deal better than Norton does (and better, for that matter, than Chávez or Maduro or Kirchner or Rousseff) – is simply trying to keep Argentina from heading down the same road that has led Venezuela to utter economic ruin.

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Mauricio Macri

But what does Ben Norton know or care about such realities and responsibilities? Or about the long-term impact of capitalist vs. socialist economics on the everyday lives of ordinary people? Or, again, about the reality of day-to-day life in free, democratic societies vs. day-to-day life under putatively progressive autocrats or Islamic totalitarians? Again and again, he has shown that the lessons of the twentieth century are lost on him. He seems to bang away at his articles in a child’s little corner of world, sheltered from the ugly, distant realities of theocracy and despotism and clueless about how fortunate he is to be living in a free, prosperous country that he’s been taught to regard as the planet’s chief purveyor of evil. In every word that he writes, in short, Ben Norton comes across as an utter naif – which is to say that he is every bit as callow about the way the great world operates as he appears to be in his photographs.

Defending Dilma: Greenwald and Miranda

In recent weeks we’ve watched the massive Petrobras scandal in Brazil spread wider and wider, taking down politicians and business figures, big and small, until it finally reached the most powerful person in the land: the country’s corrupt president, Dilma Rousseff. She is now facing impeachment.

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Brazilian Congressman Jean Wyllys

On April 20, Shannon Sims of Forbes reported on the novel responses by Rousseff’s stooges to the legislature’s vote to impeach her. Some of them are describing it as a “right-wing coup” – a ridiculous way to characterize a constitutionally legitimate action that is amply justified by Rousseff’s conduct in office. There are other, equally absurd takes on the impeachment: Congressman Jean Wyllys has called it “sexist,” an effort by anti-woman reactionaries to unseat Brazil’s first female head of state.

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Dilma Rousseff

Rousseff herself is one of those who have called the impeachment a coup. She’s responded in a characteristically authoritative way, threatening to have Brazil removed from Mercosur, the South American common market, if she’s removed from office. She’s accused her potential successor, Vice-President Michel Temer, of being a leader of the “coup” – a charge that he denied angrily, rejecting the notion that Brazil is “some minor republic where coups are carried out.”

David Miranda
David Miranda

Meanwhile one David Miranda contributed an article to the Guardian in which he purported to explain the “real reason Dilma Rousseff’s enemies want her impeached.” Never mind her corruption in office. Rousseff, insisted Miranda, was being targeted by “rich and powerful” conservatives and the major corporations they own, for no other reason than that they oppose her left-wing politics.

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Glenn Greenwald

Who is David Miranda? You may have run across his name while reading about the scandal surrounding Edward Snowden, the former contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency who stole sensitive secret papers and passed them on to journalist Glenn Greenwald, who in turn published them in the Guardian. At the height of the controversy, in August 2013, U.K. police detained Greenwald’s husband at Heathrow Airport on his way from Berlin to Rio de Janeiro and seized thumb drives containing tens of thousands of classified British Government documents. They’d been given by Snowden, who’d received asylum in Russia, to Laura Poitras, a partner in Snowden’s scheme, who’d then passed them on to Greenwald’s husband so that he could deliver them to Greenwald, with whom he lives in Rio.

The name of Greenwald’s husband? David Miranda.

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Miranda at the airport in Rio de Janeiro, after his detention at Heathrow

This past January, Britain’s Court of Appeal ruled Miranda’s detention at Heathrow legal. The editors of The Spectator approved, describing Miranda as “a mule for industrial-scale sabotage” and arguing that “the right to a free press [does not] extend to the indiscriminate release of secret documents which put agents’ lives in danger, or alert terrorists to the gaps in our capabilities.” Indeed, as The Spectator pointed out, many of Miranda’s staunchest champions in Britain, who invoked the freedom of the press in his defense, are not consistently fans of press freedom; on the contrary, their real reason for standing with Miranda was patently that his actions were potentially very harmful to the U.S. and Britain and very helpful to those countries’ jihadist enemies.

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An anti-Rousseff protest in Sao Paulo last December

It is no coincidence that Miranda, who in his capacity as Greenwald’s “mule” acted against the interests of the U.S. and Britain, is now standing shoulder to shoulder with the socialist regime of Brazil. His claim? That the massive, ever-growing street rallies against Rousseff’s corrupt regime are something of an artificial phenomenon – almost a mirage. The protests, he maintains, didn’t happen organically: they were incited by the anti-Rousseff media. Moreover, being “disproportionately white and wealthy,” the protesters themselves are “not remotely representative of Brazil’s population.” Miranda, as it happens, had already made much the same argument in an earlier article, published in March and written in collaboration with Greenwald and Andrew Fishman. 

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Anti-government protest in Venezuela: a picture from 2014

Attentive readers of this website may recall that supporters of the corrupt, authoritative governments of the late Hugo Chávez and his anointed successor, Nicolás Maduro, in Venezuela, have used much the same arguments (they’re rich, they’re white, they’ve been ginned up by the media) to discredit opponents of chavismo. The Tea Party movement in the U.S. has also been dismissed in similar terms. Somehow protesters aren’t authentic if they don’t fit the right demographic.

In this photo provided by Brazil's Presidency, Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, left, and Brazil's newly elected leader Dilma Rousseff, make a sign of victory, at the Alvorada palace, in Brasilia, Brazil, Monday, Nov. 1, 2010. (AP Photo/Brazil's Presidency, Ricardo Stuckert) NO SALES
Dilma and Lula

It’s worth noting, by the way, that the chavistas in Caracas have longstanding ties to Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in Brasilia. And the ideological continuities are obvious. And just as the chavistas’ incompetent administration, socialist policies, and corrupt conduct have combined to drag Venezuela’s economy into the gutter, so it has become increasingly obvious that the exact same attributes on the part of Brazil’s rulers threaten to bring down its own economy, which not long ago seemed to be on the verge of First World-level prosperity.

In any case, whatever you may think of Greenwald’s other activities, it’s certainly interesting to see him and Miranda – who made their names trying to compromise American and British security, all the while seeking to paint themselves as principled – shamelessly carrying water for the socialist thugs who run Brazil. 

The bag man and the money mole

We’ve been looking at some of the more colorful Brazilian stooges whose careers have gone belly-up as a result of the massive corruption scandal surrounding Petrobras, the state-run oil giant. Here are three more. 

Brasil, Brasília, DF. 18/10/2005. O doleiro Alberto Youssef, operador do mercado financeiro que teria ligações com a corretora Bonus-Banval, depõe na sub-relatoria de Movimentação Financeira da Comissão Parlamentar Mista de Inquérito (CPMI) dos Correios, no Congresso Nacional, em Brasília (DF). - Crédito:JOEDSON ALVES/ESTADÃO CONTEÚDO/AE/Código imagem:161138
Alberto Youssef

Let’s start with Alberto “Beto” Youssef. A Bloomberg profile last year described him as “Brazil’s black-market central banker” – meaning that over the years he’s “smuggled cash for the rich and powerful” as part of a plethora of sleazy schemes. As a result of all this sordid activity, he’s been arrested nine times on a wide range of charges.

But his most recent role is definitely the role of a lifetime. Youssef was none other than the bagman in the Petrobras affair. Which means that when a blizzard of construction firms “bribed politicians and executives to look the other way as they inflated contracts” with Petrobras and other government-owned firms, Youssef played banker. He’s fessed up about all this to prosecutors – and, in the process, has also fingered other participants in the scheme, all the way up to President Dilma Rousseff herself, who ran the oil firm from 2003 to 2010. In return for his cooperation, his prison sentence of nine years and two months for money-laundering was reduced to three years. 

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Rafael Angulo Lopez

Working as Youssef’s “money mule” in the Petrobras affair was a guy named Rafael Angulo Lopez, who “flew around the world with shrink-wrapped bricks of cash strapped underneath his clothing.” Last August, the New York Times quoted his lawyer as saying that Lopez “took hundreds of trips…with portable fortunes cinched under his clothing.” On one occasion, he traveled with five hundred thousand euros in cash on his person. “He wore the sort of socks favored by soccer players,” reported the Times, and, when the haul was especially large, an orthopedic undershirt.”

The Independent provided even more details: Lopez would wrap “piles of bills in plastic wrap, pricking the packages and then squeezing them to get all the air out.” He then “stuck the packages to his legs, torso and arms and concealed them with elasticated clothing like Spanx and compression socks, underneath a baggy suit.” In this way, he managed to transport “up to $1.4 million to Europe on his body on commercial flights.” Quartz suggested that the story be turned into “a Brazilian version of Wolf of Wall Street, with middle-aged couriers in baggy suits and compression vests in place of Swiss misses in stilettos and bikinis.”

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Paulo Roberto Costa

Then there’s Paulo Roberto Costa, Petrobras’s former director of refining and supply, whose acceptance of a $78,000 Land Rover from Youssef marked the genesis of Operation Car Wash and whose confirmation of Youssef’s testimony – and implication of several dozen politicians in the scheme – helped widen the probe dramatically.

It also brought his sentence down to time served – a year in the can – plus another year’s house arrest. Without my tip-off, the probe would not have existed,” he bragged in November. He’s now writing a book about his experiences. Presumably he’ll make a nice little sum off of that.

Marcelo’s way

The Odebrecht Group is one of those conglomerates whose international reach and level of diversification make one’s head spin. It’s the largest construction outfit in Latin America; Braskem, one of its innumerable subsidiaries, is Latin America’s biggest petrochemical producer.

“They are more than a company,” a Brasilia-based consultant, Thiago de Aragão, told the Wall Street Journal recently; “they are a symbol of modern Brazil.”

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American Airlines Arena

Indeed. It’s Odebrecht that is responsible for Miami’s $213-million American Airlines Arena, where the Miami Heat play. It’s Odebrecht that is Angola’s top private employer, with over 24,000 employees in that country alone. At this moment, among many other projects, Odebrecht is building a highway in Ghana that will connect the capital, Accra, to remote eastern regions of the country; it’s expanding and adding bridges to a highway that links Guatemala’s main ports with the Mexican border; it’s upgrading a major airport in Mozambique; it’s constructing an elaborate hydroelectric facility in Portugal; it’s installing “the world’s deepest and most complex sewage pump station” in Abu Dhabi. In 2014 the group celebrated its seventh decade in business.

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Marcelo Odebrecht

On March 8, the firm marked another milestone. That was the day on which its CEO, Marcelo Odebrecht, the grandson of the company’s founder, was sentenced to 19 years in prison after being convicted of paying $30 million in exchange for contracts and influence at Petrobras, the state-owned Brazilian oil firm that is at the center of the massive corruption probe known as Operation Car Wash. According to prosecutors, Marcelo’s firms “used Swiss bank accounts to launder nearly $270 million in bribes” between 2006 and 2014.

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Judge Sergio Moro

The presiding judge, Sergio Moro, said Marcelo Odebrecht was “directly involved” with this systematic bribery and money-laundering and “guided the work of others.” This intimate involvement was demonstrated by (among other things) incriminating messages stored on eight cellphones found at Marcelo’s home. While other construction executives nabbed in the probe have bought themselves shorter sentences by turning state’s evidence, Odebrecht refused to spill the beans, saying that he would punish his own kids more harshly for tattling than for cheating.

Marcelo Odebrecht in happier times, with Dilma Rousseff and Raúl Castro

Given the conglomerate’s dimensions and its importance to the Brazilian economy, the arrest and conviction of Marcelo – who took over the reins of the family firm in 2008, at age 40, and whose nickname is “Prince of the Contractors” – is of obvious significance. According to the Journal, Marcelo’s arrest in June of last year caused an economic earthquake, contributing to the onset of Brazil’s current recession. But what makes these developments even more momentousness is Marcelo’s intimate relationship with the Rousseff administration. When the president met with business leaders, Marcelo was invariably present. “Some of the other executives,” one São Paulo businessmen told the Journal, “were jealous that he always got invited and they had to fight for a seat at the table.”

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Lula

Marcelo is close not only to Dilma Rousseff but to her predecessor and mentor, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is himself being investigated for allegedly accepting illegal funds from Odebrecht.

One thing about having global reach is that when you get in trouble, the investigations, too, will have a global reach. Swiss and Portuguese authorities are now looking into charges of wrongdoing by Marcelo, and several other countries are considering similar probes.

Brazil: seeing the monster

Time for another quick trip down to Brazil.

We’ve reported earlier on the multibillion-dollar Petrobras scandal, which is making every American political scandal since Watergate – put together – look like a mere bagatelle. In recent months, as the investigation has widened, more and more top-level businessmen and politicians have been implicated in the kickback scheme centered on the country’s state-run oil firm.

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Dilma and Lula

And just as with Watergate, the net has reached ever higher. In just the past few weeks, authorities have raided the home of the beloved ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known popularly as Lula) and detained him for questioning, in response to which President Dilma Rousseff tried to name Lula as her chief of staff to protect him from prosecution – only to have the appointment blocked by a federal judge. Meanwhile, Rousseff herself has been drawn into the probe, leading to calls for her resignation or impeachment. In short, it’s looking very much these days like an endgame.

Brasil, Brasília, DF. 18/10/2005. O doleiro Alberto Youssef, operador do mercado financeiro que teria ligações com a corretora Bonus-Banval, depõe na sub-relatoria de Movimentação Financeira da Comissão Parlamentar Mista de Inquérito (CPMI) dos Correios, no Congresso Nacional, em Brasília (DF). - Crédito:JOEDSON ALVES/ESTADÃO CONTEÚDO/AE/Código imagem:161138
Alberto Youssef

Things have come a long way since March 2014, when, as David Segal of the New York Times reported in August, Alberto Youssef, described by Segal as “a convicted money launderer and former bon vivant,” sat in his jail cell and told two lawyers that about to reveal information to them that would bring down the Brazilian republic. As Youssef listed the names of the parties who, he claimed, had enriched themselves with Petrobras funds, the attorneys became increasingly aghast; one of them, Tracy Reinaldet, told Segal that “in Brazil, we know that corruption is a monster. But we never really see the monster. This was like seeing the monster.”

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João Vaccari Neto

In the case of Petrobras, the monster is many-headed one. So far over 100 indictments have been issued, several politicians arrested, and over a dozen companies sued. We’ve examined the cases of João Vaccari Neto, treasurer of the ruling Workers’ Party, and party hack Renato Duque, both of whom have been sentenced to long prison terms, the former for corruption and money-laundering, the latter for padding Petrobras contracts and transferring the excess take to party coffers.

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Joao Santana

We’ve discussed Joao Santana, Rousseff’s answer to Clinton campaign strategist James Carville, who was arrested for knowingly accepting payments from those illicit funds. And we’ve surveyed a number of others who’ve been nabbed for their roles in this massive scheme – among them, Paulo Roberto Costa, Petrobras’s former supplies director; Ricardo Pessoa, owner of UTC, a major construction company; and José Dirceu, Lula’s ex-chief of staff. Then there’s a couple of guys who turned state’s evidence: former Petrobras manager Pedro Barusco, who admitted he’d pocketed almost $100 million in dirty money, and businessmen Julio Camargo, who confessed to paying Petrobras $4.5 million in bribes.

But these names are just the tip of the iceberg. Several other big shots from both the public and private sector have also gone down, some of them since our previous look at this debacle. We’ll spend the rest of this week making their acquaintance.

Bye-bye to the bloviating Bolivian?

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Beware of socialists bearing gifts

We last looked in on Bolivian bossman Evo Morales a few months ago, after he gave Pope Francis a unique present: a “cross” made out of a hammer and sickle. As we noted at the time, Morales – “like the Castros in Cuba, the Kirchners in Argentina, and Nicolás Maduro (and Hugo Chávez before him) in Venezuela” – is “a card-carrying member of Latin America’s hard-left club.” Like those other socialist strongmen, moreover, he’s palled around with useful Hollywood stooges, such as Benicio del Toro, Oliver Stone, and Jude Law.

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Cristina Kirchner

But the winds have been shifting south of the border. As contact between Cuba and the U.S. increases, the Castros’ island prison seems to be on the verge of transformation. In Argentina, the corrupt, cronyist Kirchner era – that long national nightmare that climaxed in a sovereign-debt default – is finally over. In Venezuela, chavista socialism – which has resulted in Soviet-style shortages of toilet paper and other basic goods – is being taken on by a National Assembly newly dominated by the pro-freedom opposition.

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Rafael Correa

That’s not all. Rafael Correa, the longtime Chávez amigo and America-basher who’s been turning Ecuador into a socialist paradise since 2007, has said he won’t run for re-election next year. In Chile, a raft of corruption scandals – at least one of which is an ugly mess involving her son and daughter-in-law – has tanked the popularity of formerly beloved lefty President Michelle Bachelet. And in Brazil, which not long ago was on its way to genuine First World prosperity, President Dilma Rousseff’s socialist policies and massive corruption, as we’ve seen, have turned the economy into a Greece-like basket case. 

Latin America’s socialist leaders, in short, are being challenged on every front, buffeted by the gusts of liberty. And Evo Morales isn’t immune.

In office since 2006, Morales was re-elected in 2009 and 2014. During his presidency, he’s nationalized major sectors of the economy, created a massive welfare state, forged close ties with his fellow autocrats in Havana, Caracas, and Tehran, presided over widespread corruption, and entertained his followers with racist rants about the evil “gringos.”

His current term ends in 2020, and he’s prohibited from running for a fourth term. So on February 21 he had the electorate vote on a rewrite of the constitution that would let him stay in office.

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Zapata’s arrest

Bolivia voted no.

Morales was still dealing with this kick in the butt when another blow struck. On February 26, Gabriela Zapata, an executive with a Chinese construction company that’s been awarded lucrative Bolivian government contracts, was arrested on corruption charges. This is important because Zapata isn’t just any businesswoman: she’s Morales’s ex-girlfriend, and the two of them have allegedly conspired to sell influence in exchange for Chinese cash.

This one should be be fun to watch. It’s always entertaining to see an oligarch brought to his knees.

 

Brazil: another crisis for Rousseff

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Dilma Rousseff

Last September, as we reported on this site a while back, two top members of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff’s posse were sentenced to long prison terms. João Vaccari Neto, treasurer of the ruling Workers’ Party, got more than 15 years for corruption and money-laundering; another party hack, Renato Duque, got 20 years for inflating oil contracts and shoveling the excess profits into the party’s coffers. The convictions of these two men were only part of a large-scale disaster – a blend of scandal and economic crisis – that sent Rousseff’s popularity ratings south, making her, in the words of the Financial Times, “Brazil’s most unpopular president in recent democratic history.”

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Joao Santana

Then, on February 23, just as Rousseff’s numbers were starting to recover and she seemed to be emerging from under the cloud of possible impeachment, yet another member of her inner circle was put under arrest. Joao Santana, a journalist and political strategist, was the mastermind behind her two election victories and is one of Rousseff’s more intimate friends and advisers – the James Carville to her Bill Clinton. In addition to engineering her victories, he’s also successfully coordinated campaigns for leftist presidential candidates in the Dominican Republic, Angola, Peru, and – notably – for both Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.

According to the charges leveled against him, Santana knowingly allowed himself to be paid for his services to the Rousseff campaign with several million dollars in funds illegally diverted from Petrobras, the state oil company that is currently at the center of Brazil’s biggest corruption scandal ever. Santana’s homes and offices were raided by 300-odd officers; his wife was also taken into custody. The arrests reportedly came as a shock to Rousseff’s supporters, who fear that Santana may work out a plea bargain with prosecutors in which he throws Rousseff under the bus.

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Michel Temer

Even if Santana doesn’t turn state’s evidence, to be sure, the goods the cops have on him may be more than enough to sink Rousseff. If it’s proven that she paid Santana with money pilfered from Petrobras, it could mean the official overturning of her election victory. The Portuguese language has a lovely word for this act of invalidation: cassação. As Americas Quarterly staffer Stephen Kurczy recently explained, impeaching Rousseff would involve action by both houses of Congress – which in early December, in fact, initiated impeachment proceedings, only to see them stall shortly therafter. (The proceedings will supposedly resume soon.) Cassação, by contrast, is a process that only requires a ruling by Brazil’s electoral court, the Tribunal Superior Eleitoral – which, as it happens, is already investigating the funding of Rousseff’s 2014 campaign as part of Operação Lava Jato (“Operation Car Wash”), the probe into corruption at Petrobras. If the court determined that Rousseff and her vice president, Michel Temer, had funded their election campaign with illegal funds, both Rousseff and Temer could be removed from office at once, with Rousseff being temporarily replaced by the Speaker of the House, Eduardo Cunha, until a new election could be arranged.

“We’re on the border of changing eras in Brazil,” political consultant Thiago de Aragão told Kurczy. “Until recently, anyone involved in the PT [the Workers’ Party] was immune. Now people are discovering that it’s not like this. The times are changing.” In fact, they’re changing fast. Only days after Santana’s arrest, another Rousseff intimate suddenly resigned his cabinet position. Tune in tomorrow.