A Organização: A Odebrecht e o esquema de corrupção que chocou o mundo, by Malu Gaspar, Companhia Das Letras, (The Organisation: Odebrecht and the corruption scheme that shocked the world)
Malu Gaspar has made an offer some ambitious Brazilian film director shouldn’t refuse. One of her country’s most respected journalists, she has with her latest blockbuster book provided the source material for a sprawling gangster epic. Her Brazilian mafia tale is not set among immigrant street toughs dreaming of going legitimate or the drug gangs that control many of the country’s favelas but instead is the deeply reported saga of the Odebrecht family. Ostensibly the owners of Brazil’s biggest construction conglomerate, the Odebrechts were in reality the operators of what the US justice department labelled “a massive and unparalleled bribery and bid-rigging scheme” that for decades suborned political elites on three continents for colossal private gain. By the end of Gaspar’s 560 pages of gripping narrative, in spirit closer to a thriller than any business book about three generations of civil engineers has a right to be, the reader emerges with one of the best educations in how Brazilian democracy is subverted by its political and business elites.
For anyone interested in the country but unable to read Portuguese an adaptation offers the best hope of experiencing this tale. Despite producing works of great quality that offer penetrating insights into Latin America’s most populous society Brazilian reportage does not typically make it into English translation. Gasper’s first book on commodities tycoon Eike Batista remains untranslated. This despite the fact that her account of this gold-smuggler turned corporate chancer who bluffed his way to the world’s seventh biggest fortune, only to go bust shortly afterwards, is both a ripping, often hilarious, yarn and an insightful report on the toxic mix of hubris and cynicism that consumed Brazil during its most recent economic chicken flight. But a film adaptation is in the works, meaning Eike’s biopic might soon be available on a streaming service near you. And with any luck it will eventually be followed by A Organização. The Batista story is a wild ride but the history of the Odebrechts is an altogether more penetrating exploration into the dark heart of Brazil’s money-power nexus. Eike was a gambler who eventually saw his bluff called; the Odebrechts, running a much more sophisticated operation, spent decades successfully rigging the game in their favour until at last they were brought down by the historic Car Wash anti-corruption probe.
It was the eventual ruin of The Organisation (the term by which Odebrecht referred to itself) that has allowed Gaspar to write such a detailed report on how it operated. Much of her research is based on court documents generated by the criminal proceedings brought against Odebrecht executives, as well as interviews with over one hundred and twenty of the key players. Many of these are now convicted criminals who offered up what they know in return for plea-bargain deals with prosecutors and then collaborated with the author in a bid to, if not justify themselves, at least contextualise their conduct. Gaspar provides most of them with anonymity “[g]iven the sensibility of the topics involved”. It is a major demand made of the reader’s trust. But Gaspar earns it through the rigorous and unsparing detail of her reconstruction and feel for the hidden channels through which power and money circulate in Brazil. Despite piling up examples of outrageous unethical behaviour she keeps her tone in neutral. There are no heroes or favourites. No righteous anger or sermonising. That is left to the local reader, who however they feel about what they have just read must come away from the book with the sense that this is how their country is really run. The politicians whose corruption she lays bare might disagree. One suspects few of them interviewed for the book but none have availed of Brazil’s defamation laws to correct an account that feels strongly authentic.
Their power game, running in the shadow of and contrary to democracy, is exposed in the telling of a classic rise and fall saga covering three generations of the House of Odebrecht. Founded by family patriarch Norberto in the northeastern city of Salvador in the 1940s, the family’s construction firm grew from its modest provincial roots until by 2013, on the eve of Car Wash, it was primus inter pares among Brazil’s powerful construction conglomerates. Most Brazilian readers will probably not be hugely surprised to read how the Odebrechts became filthy rich. Anyone paying attention to the last few centuries of the country’s history will already have been familiar with the broad outlines of its endemic corruption. But rarely have its inner workings been so forensically exposed. In summary we might say that Odebrecht was not a construction conglomerate earning a crust from public works but a lobbying operation that was hugely successful because of its skilful management of a vast system of kickbacks that paid political partners for awarding it contracts it then habitually over-invoiced. For all Norberto’s efforts to justify adopting the corrupt practices he knew were necessary for breaking into the corporate big time Odebrecht was a criminal enterprise hiding in plain sight, disguised as a successful Brazilian multinational. The great achievement of Gaspar’s book is to show in great detail how, through companies like Odebrecht and their lucrative state contracts, the occupants of Brazil’s presidential palace and congress link to a universe of dodgy lobbyists, shady middlemen and their front companies, secret bank accounts in offshore tax havens, right down to an army of black-market money launderers constantly having to come up with new means of sourcing and washing the ever greater quantities of untraceable cash the system demanded. For Odebrecht, which got its start under the military and flourished with the return of democracy, ideology never came into it. By the end of the book many readers will feel that for the politicians this also became secondary to the relentless grind of winning and holding power, which required access to illicit funds, which could be got from reaching understandings with the Odebrechts of the world, which in turn required allowing them to shape the economy to their own private needs instead of the public good.
For greater context the book offers three insights worth highlighting here. Firstly no one in it is responsible for creating this system. When the story opens, Norberto is shut out of the bonanza that was the construction in the 1950s of the new capital in Brasília. As he would later explain: “I didn’t have political backing.” Something he would rectify. Secondly, no one, not the Odebrechts or any president of the republic, is the owner of this system, which might better be thought of as a method. Brazil’s political and economic map is too big and diverse for a capo di tutti capi to emerge. It is more useful to think of this demi-monde of competing clans and factions engaged in illegality as somewhat resembling the loose, unco-ordinated, horizontal structure of the Campanian Camorra rather than the more hierarchical system of Sicily’s Cosa Nostra. The incestuous relationship between Emílio Odebrecht, the head of the family’s second generation, and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva during what might be described as both men’s imperial phase drives much of the narrative. But the reader is always aware that their scheme, hugely successful until it wasn’t, is just one of many operating across the land. Finally, some of the participants seem to have felt trapped in the system before it was finally blown up by Car Wash. One of the more tragic figures in the book is Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff, politically flawed but altogether more rectitudinous than the man who hand-picked her to succeed him. In one short, tense scene she is forced by Marcelo Odebrecht, head of third generation, to symbolically dip her hand in shit by acknowledging that, yes, her party’s dodgy former finance minister would take point on Odebrecht’s illicit financing of her election campaign. Dilma appears to have wrestled with internalising this price she was forced to pay for power and it perhaps explains her reluctance to interfere in the Car Wash probe which eventually led to Marcelo’s imprisonment and created the conditions for her own removal from office in 2016. But even within Odebrecht, executives had grumbled that they were increasingly being abused by politicians whose appetite for untraceable funds was proving insatiable. In 2012 Odebrecht alone kicked back $730 million to politicians, a figure repeated in 2013. The quantities of cash that had to be laundered and distributed around the world had become so great that the secret department the company set up in 2006 to handle bribery was struggling to meet the demands being made of it, even after it bought a Caribbean bank to help with the task. “This here is suicide!” its head warned Marcelo. So it proved. It was Car Wash’s discovery of the department’s existence that eventually did for Odebrecht. Led by Emílio and Marcelo, seventy-seven of its executives eventually admitted their guilt and turned state’s evidence, in doing so shaking Brazil’s political establishment to its foundations.
But that was then. It increasingly looks likely that posterity will have reason to thank Gaspar for getting this story down when she did. Brazil is beginning to once again rewrite its history and it is not totally inconceivable that many of the court documents she availed of will in the future be expunged from the official record. Today in Brazil it is Car Wash that is in the dock. Its political allies have all but deserted it, its enemies are back in the saddle in congress and the traditional guarantors of impunity in the country’s higher courts have it under sustained judicial counter-attack. The prosecutors on its task force who racked up unprecedented convictions against some of the country’s most powerful individuals now fear it is they who will soon receive an early morning visit from police as investigations into their alleged wrongdoing advance. The supreme court has declared Sergio Moro, the crusading judge who oversaw the investigation from the southern city of Curitiba, partial in his conduct of the trial that led to the first of Lula’s two convictions. It is a ruling that along with the inquiry into the conduct of prosecutors could open the way to overturning dozens of iconic Car Wash convictions. Confusingly, a supreme court justice has also vacated Lula’s convictions and ordered all his cases, including those involving Odebrecht, to start again before a new court in Brasília. The former president’s legal problems have been put on the longest of long fingers. After having been forced by Moro to spend the 2018 presidential election in jail Lula can now look forward to competing in next year’s race. Moro, in contrast, is left to stare at the enveloping ruin of his life’s great achievement, an increasingly isolated, not to say pitiful, figure.
These institutional reversals are accompanied by growing vilification in the public sphere. To read some of its press Car Wash is now to be held responsible for the Greatest Judicial Lie of the Last 500 Years. It was the probe and not Dilma that caused the deep economic recession behind the worst decade for incomes since records began. It attempted to wreck state oil giant Petrobras because the US could never tolerate Brazilians controlling their own oil reserves. Most damning of all Car Wash worked to eject the left from power so as to clear the path to the presidency for the far-right extremist Jair Bolsonaro. Not everyone shares such partisan views but it is a sign of how far the probe’s reputation has fallen in recent years that these attempts to rewrite recent Brazilian history in order to blacken its role have met with such equivocal and often embarrassed push-back.
No one is more responsible for this than Moro himself, and he deserves his current season in hell. It does not strain credulity to imagine that Car Wash could have faced down accusations that its zeal to hold the corrupt to account led it to overstep the law ‑ had he not made a colossal miscalculation. The probe undoubtedly explored the outer limits of new possibilities in the fight against corruption which were opened up by recently passed laws and an evolution in jurisprudence dating back to the supreme court trial of the Mensalão affair, the other great scandal to mark the Workers Party’s time in office. But Car Wash’s aggressive methods had been endorsed by higher courts, up to and including the supreme court. Now that these are starting to be reversed it is hard to escape the conclusion that Moro created the context by his decision to accept the position of justice minister in the Bolsonaro administration. Before then it was possible to view him as a zealous crusader combating corruption and the focus of the investigation he oversaw on the crimes of Lula and his Workers Party a reflection not of an anti-left bias but the inevitable result of the party’s political dominance of the previous decade.
That all changed when he agreed to serve under the former army captain and the decision retrospectively tainted everything that had gone before. It inevitably led to his previous decisions being reinterpreted in the light of his shock switch from the judiciary into politics. Justifications for the actions of Moro and prosecutors on the task force as having been taken with the sole aim of cleaning up Brazilian public life lost much of their traction after he joined the far-right administration of an extremist president, and a corrupt one to boot. Moro’s eagerness to embark on Bolsonaro’s sinister political adventure drained Car Wash of its moralising pretensions. It became too damagingly easy to portray it teleologically as a politically motivated inquisition whose ultimate goal was the ascension of the far right to power. Whatever his rationale ‑ and one guesses it was because he correctly saw judicial activism could only go so far and the endgame in the fight against corruption would always be political ‑ it was a historic error. It not only called into question his actions as a judge but robbed him of admirers of his achievements now embarrassed by his decision to serve Bolsonaro, a corrupt thug with no interest in his moralising agenda (see “The Ignoramus – In His Own Words” www.drb.ie/blog/comment/2020/12/06/the-ignoramus-in-his-own-words).
It is even just possible that Moro could have survived 2019’s revelations in The Intercept Brasil that he covertly guided the actions of the task force’s prosecutors had he still been a mere judge. Or a minister in a more reputable administration. The probe he oversaw is now blamed for clearing Bolsonaro’s path to the presidency in 2018. Moro and the Car Wash task force undoubtedly worked to derail the Workers Party campaign. It was not their place to do so but given that they knew the details contained in Gaspar’s book one can understand why they did not want the party back in power while the probe was ongoing. It was Moro’s acceptance of the justice position after the election that put such a sinister spin on this election interference. Yet to pin the blame for Bolsonaro on Car Wash remains a stretch, if not a cop-out. There were eleven other candidates apart from Bolsonaro and Lula’s stand-in, Fernando Haddad. Why from this broad field voters decided the answer to their demand for radical change after the probe’s revelations was the misogynist, racist, homophobic head of the political wing of one of the criminal factions that make up Rio’s criminal underworld is probably more a question for Brazilian society and its values than for Moro. In an alternative universe where Brazil’s dark id was kept in check it is easy to imagine him becoming justice minister in the administration of João Amoêdo, as much a right-wing outsider as Bolsonaro was in 2018 just without the violent appeal to something sinister in the country’s soul. Just why Moro did throw his lot in with an unhinged extremist will be a subject of analysis for years to come. It was such a grotesque unforced error and he has paid heavily for it.
As a minister in an increasingly disreputable government the leaks published by The Intercept Brasil signalled open season on Car Wash. But the damage was already done. Perhaps the most telling revelation was from a group chat in which prosecutors on the task force expressed indignation at the idea that Moro might accept Bolsonaro’s invitation, immediately aware it would call into question the partiality of their work. “Moro will get burnt if he joins up with him,” one prosecutor warned. And so he was, eventually to be expectorated from the administration last year, a shell of the man who joined it. He and the members of the task force now deserve to have the book thrown at them so that whoever in the future takes on again the herculean task of combating corruption knows that just because their cause is just they cannot break the law themselves.
Until then, the forces of impunity are back in the driving seat on both the government and opposition side of Brazil’s political divide as well as within the supreme court. The series of convulsions that have shaken the country since the eruption of street protests in 2013, of which Car Wash was just one, will not result in the deep changes the country’s citizens demand. The baby – the real advances made by Car Wash in revealing the extent of political corruption and holding it operators to account ‑ risks being thrown out with the bathwater, the excesses the probe committed in order to do so. Odebrecht executives complain to Gaspar that they have been offered up as a symbolic sacrifice by a method that remains in use. Her book ends with Emílio Odebrecht, his family sunk in internecine warfare and its conglomerate facing bankruptcy, wondering whether his old contacts in the military might open doors into the Bolsonaro administration. Meanwhile Lula, shaking off his legal constraints, is busily positioning himself as the country’s salvation from the ruin of bolsonaroismo. After the last two years of operational, institutional and moral degradation he would be. Bolsonaro does retain a hard core of support and Lula remains a polarising figure.
Lula’s role in A Organização should really end any remaining illusions about this assiduous curator of his own myth. Many Brazilians who believed in Car Wash now feel politically orphaned. But in reality there is no contest between Lula and Bolsonaro or between Bolsonaro and any other conceivably viable candidate. No one can look on Bolsonaro’s record over the last two-plus years and not declare him beyond the civilised pale. But whether by Lula or some as yet unknown candidate who emerges to represent the political middle, a defenestration of the far-right from the presidential palace would almost certainly represent a restoration of the wily operators described in Gaspar’s book. Many might now ask “so what?” Bolsonaro has already turned to some of Lula’s most unscrupulous former allies caught up in Car Wash to protect himself from being impeached for his various crimes. Brazil’s political choice is no longer polarised around corruption but other civilisational values. After the tumultuous Bolsonaro experiment, and Moro’s sorry role in it, the country’s traditional frustrations now seem almost appealing.
Tom Hennigan is the South America correspondent of The Irish Times and is based in São Paulo, Brazil.