John Oliver is probably my second favorite political comedian after Cody Johnston of Some More News. He has a well-deserved reputation for delving into obscure and unpleasant details to present a compelling and deep analysis of pressing problems in the world. All of this is why I find it so disappointing that Oliver still has a mysterious inability to report well on anything happening in Latin America.
I first became aware of this flaw thanks to the work of Michael Brooks, whose ability to maintain a solid understanding of international affairs went beyond any other journalist I’ve seen. He died far too young, and we’re still all a bit worse off for his death. I can’t do as good of a response as he could have, but I’ll do my best.
For those of you who don’t know, Brazil is holding the first round of its presidential election tomorrow. The race is between former president Luis Ignácio “Lula” da Silva, and current president Jair Bolsonaro. Lula was not a perfect president, if such a thing exists, but from what I can tell he was far better for the working class and international reputation of Brazil than any of its previous leaders, or any president the United States has ever had.
Lula was imprisoned on a bogus corruption conviction in April of 2018, just six months before the presidential election, and the judge, Sergio Moro, blocked efforts to release him. Moro was appointed Minister of Justice and Public Security by Bolsonaro when he took office in 2019.
Later that year, The Intercept published evidence of a plot between Moro and the prosecutor to imprison Lula to keep him from participating in the 2018 election. The conviction was annulled in 2021, apparently over jurisdiction, and a retrial was ordered in a more appropriate court. It’s unclear to me where things will go from there, but all of this, including the apparent FBI involvement, makes this seem like yet another effort by the United States to undermine a popular left-wing leader in favor of a fascist.
And that brings me to Oliver’s discussion of Bolsonaro.
There’s a lot to like about this video. I think the biggest problem with it is that it seems to stop at the points where the situation is similar to events in the US. It makes a somewhat compelling case that Bolsonaro is dangerous, but it leaves out a lot of context. This is part of a pattern for John Oliver. When it comes to Mexico, Central America, and South America, he seems to have a bizarre aversion to actually digging into stories. The most charitable explanation I can think of is that they’ve got someone on staff who’s in charge of the Latin America segments, who is either lazy, or holding some kind of odd centrist bias.
He was right to cast Bolsonaro as a threat to democracy. Bolsonaro has been openly saying that he won’t accept any result other than victory or death, casting doubt on the electoral system without evidence (sound familiar?), and he got into power in the first place via a judicial coup more blatant than the one that put George W. Bush in power in 2000.
Unfortunately, it’s worse than that. Beyond his extensive ties to both the military and Brazil’s past military dictatorship, Bolsonaro also as ties to terrorism and political assassination. Bolsonaro was twice photographed with suspects in the murder of councilwoman Marielle Franco, and turned out to live in the same high-end apartment complex as one of them.
August, 2003: Jair Bolsonaro publicly defends Militias in a speech in Congress, saying, “I just heard a Congressman criticize death squads. As long as the State does not have the courage to adopt the death penalty, the crime of extermination, in my understanding, should be very welcome…. If it depended on me they would have all of my support…”
March 2007 – As a State Congressman, Jair’s son Flavio attempts to legalize militias. “For me, human rights are not for all humans, because some people cannot be called humans. They are monsters,” he says in defense of death squad executions.
August, 2011 – After Judge Patricia Acioli is assassinated with 21 gunshots by two militia members, Flavio Bolsonaro commits character assassination against her, “May God take her but the absurd and gratuitous way that she used to humiliate police officers contributed to her having many enemies,” he said. Before her assassination, Judge Acioli had convicted 60 police officers for acting in militias and for death squad activities.
February, 2018 – During a radio interview on Joven Pan, Jair Bolsonaro, again, defends Militias. “There are people who support militias,” he says, “because it is the way that they can live without violence. In those regions where people pay militias, there is no violence.”
March, 2018 – Marielle Franco and her driver Anderson Gomes are assassinated. Jair Bolsonaro is the only presidential candidate who does not publicly condemn the killings.
April 2018 – A motion is passed in the Rio de Janeiro State Legislature to posthumously award slain city councilwoman Marielle Franco with the Tiradentes Medal. Flavio Bolsonaro is the only lawmaker who votes against it.
September, 2018 – Alex and Alan Oliveira, two Rio de Janeiro Military Police officers, are arrested for committing acts of corruption and extortion as part of a Militia that operates on the West Side of Rio. It comes out that both had worked on Flavio and Jair Bolsonaro’s political campaigns, and that their sister was the Treasurer of the Rio de Janeiro state headquarters of the Bolsonaro’s PSL party.
October 2018 – Two candidates for Rio de Janeiro State Congress in Bolsonaro’s PSL party, rip a street sign honoring Marielle Franco in half at a campaign event, while gubernatorial candidate Wilson Witzel cheers. In the scandal that ensues, Flavio Bolsonaro defends their actions.
October 2018 – The Civil Police Organized Crime Unit, GAECO, arrests 18 members of a militia operating in the Rio de Janeiro suburb of São Gonçalo and discovers that they have been working on the campaign of retired Military Police Colonel Fernando Salema, running for State Congressman for the Bolsonaro’s PSL Party.
December 2018 – COAF, the Federal Board of Financial Activities Control, reveals that the Flavio Bolsonaro’s former driver, Fabricio Queiroz, made unusual money transfers valuing $R1.2 million in 2016 and 2017. The ex-Military Police officer committed at least 10 killings while on active duty.
January 2019 – COAF discovers that, in addition to the R$1.2 million, another R$5.8 million went through Queiroz’s accounts while employed for Flavio Bolsonaro during the two previous mandates.
January 2019 – COAF reveals that, during one month in 2017, Flavio Bolsonaro received R$96,000 in 50 bank deposits valued at just under the minimum limit to require money laundering investigations.
January 2019 – President Jair Bolsonaro issues a decree moving the COAF’s jurisdiction to the Justice Ministry, headed by Lula’s captor, former Lava Jato investigator Sergio Moro. In a move widely viewed as made to protect his employer, Moro fires the director of COAF and, two months later, replaces him with a former co-worker from the deeply politicized Lava Jato investigation.
January 2019 – Globo newspaper reveals that, before he went to the nation’s most expensive hospital, Albert Einstein in São Paulo, for what appears to have been frivolous treatment to delay testimony, Queiroz was hiding in the Rio das Pedras favela, which is controlled by the Escritorio de Crime militia under investigation for the assassination of Marielle Franco.
January 2019 – The media announces that Flavio Bolsonaro employed the mother and girlfriend of former Military Police special forces Captain and leader of the Escritorio de Crime militia Antonio Nobrega, in his state congressional cabinet for over a decade.
March 2019 – After legendary Rio de Janeiro Samba School Mangueira pays homage to Marielle Franco during Rio’s carnaval parade competition in an event transmitted live to tens of millions across Brazil, Carlos Bolsonaro tries to smear the group on social media, hypocritically accusing them of involvement with militias.
March 12, 2019 – Elcio Queiroz and Ronnie Lessa, two former Rio de Janeiro Military Police officers, were arrested for the alleged assassination of Marielle Franco. Lessa lives in a R$4 million home in the same small beach-side condominium complex as Jair Bolsonaro, which he purchased shortly after Marielle was murdured. During a press conference, Civil Police Organized Crime Unit officer Giniton Lages says that Ronnie Lessa’s daughter used to date one of Jair Bolsonaro’s sons. Immediately afterwards, he is removed from the case.
Maybe that’s not conclusive, but I think it’s certainly worth considering.
As I said, John Oliver is right to be concerned about Bolsonaro, but I find it strange that he would leave out so much of the history there. I also find it disappointing that Oliver’s “analysis” so often seems to rely on stereotyping and denigration of politicians who seem to be doing better by their people than anyone Oliver has lived under in the U.S. or the U.K.. I think the danger is greater that Oliver is indicating, and Bolsonaro holding on to power would be bad for all of us.
Sadly, this video from 2018 is still relevant:
If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into it. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!