Bernie Sanders has called for Lula da Silva, Brazil’s former president, to be released from prison. If you haven’t been following events there, here’s the short version:
The center-left Brazilian Workers Party (PT) lifted millions of people out of poverty. PT leader Lula served the two consecutive terms he was allowed under Brazil’s Constitution and his two-term successor Dilma Rousseff served one complete term and much of a second. Unable to beat the PT at the ballot box, the Brazilian right turned to lawfare.
After an unrelated corruption scandal involving the state-owned oil company Petrobrass, Rousseff was impeached for her use of a common accounting practice. Lula, who was now eligible to run for a third term, announced his intention to do so and immediately had a commanding lead in every poll. He was then arrested for corruption. This, too, was unrelated to the Petrobras scandal. He was accused of accepting a small apartment as a bribe. This in turn led to the election of neofascist Jair Boslonaro to the presidency. Meanwhile, new evidence uncovered by the Intercept shows that prosecutors in Lula’s case were working closely with the (officially neutral) judge and that they were motivated by zeal to prevent the PT from winning the 2018 election.
For leftists, myself included, this is a simple story. Lula is a political prisoner. He should be released immediately. That Bernie Sanders is the only candidate for president to call for this is yet another item to put in the long list of reasons that it’s still Bernie.
Even some progressive observers, though, may not be sure what to think. Glenn Greenwald told Michael Brooks in a recent interview that he was reluctant to call Lula a political prisoner because at least some of the corruption accusations might be true.
Here, then, is an analogy I find helpful. If you’re from Senator Sanders’s state, or anywhere else in the New England region, you’ll understand that what I’m about to say is a perfect way of encapsulating the idea that the case against Lula is ridiculous bullshit:
It’s Brazil’s Deflategate.
In both cases, unsympathetic observers were convinced that the accused party was guilty of this kind of thing for reasons largely unrelated to the microscandal of the moment. Outside of New England, where the local press tended to be pro-Brady and anti-Goodell, coverage of Deflategate was colored by accusations that the Pats had gotten away with cheating in the past. Similarly, while even many of Lula’s critics may have wondered why such a minor charge was the only one actually being brought, the general accuracy of Deltan Dallagnol’s public characterization of the former president as a “kingpin” of corruption is an article of faith on the Brazilian right.
In both cases, most of these are unproven allegations like running back Marshall Faulk’s suspicions about Super Bowl XXXVI or Dallagonol’s claim that Lula had accepted financial bribes in the past. And in both cases, even if neither Brady nor Lula was implicated, there were real prior offenses involving others associated with “the team” — the PT (Petrobras) or the Pats (2007’s Spygate).
The charges brought against Brady and Lula themselves, though, were almost bizarrely petty. Acting on a preference for footballs on the bottom end of the acceptable range of 12.5 to 13.5 psi wouldn’t in itself violate any rules. It wouldn’t even be newsworthy. The whole point of the 2006 rules change that let each team provide its own footballs while on offense was — explicitly — to make sure quarterbacks were using the footballs that suited them the best. The “gate” was about whether they were deflated beyond the level that was allowed, and that was so hard to prove that both sides of the argument ended up having to do surprisingly deep dives into the physics of air pressure and temperature.
Given distinctions that subtle, the idea that these footballs were weapons of cheating was hard to take seriously . . . or at least it was if you weren’t a diehard fan of a team that lost an important game “because” of those footballs. Similarly, the Brazilian prosecutors tried their best to inflate the importance of the dwelling allegedly accepted by Lula by calling it a “triplex,” but anyone who’s seen the pictures knows that Greenwald is right when he describes it as a fairly dingy apartment and says that if Lula had wanted one just like it he could have bought it many hundreds of times over.
In both cases, direct evidence for the charges is sorely lacking. As Kevin A. Hassett and Stan Veuger pointed out in the New York Times, all the physical evidence in the Wells Report used to “prove” intentional deflation was consistent with the mundane possibility (not contradicted by the report) that two different pressure gauges with slightly different sensitivities were used for the Pats’ and Colts’ pregame measurements. Things are even shakier in Lula’s case, where there’s no evidence that he was the owner of the apartment in question. Take a beat to think about that: it’s a bribery case, and there’s no evidence that he accepted the alleged bribe.
In both cases, though, even if there was some truth to the allegations, the disconnect between the triviality of the offense and the intensity of the prosecution is staggering. As Matt Taibbi said of Deflategate, it’s hard to imagine the NBA engaged in “a scorched earth prosecution of LeBron James over a shoelace violation.”
An Obvious Caveat
The difference, of course, is that very little was at stake in Deflategate. I do think that socialists should care about the labor rights of employees — even wealthy and famous employees — being treated unfairly by the boss. That said, in all of the drama about Brady’s suspension, there was never any serious doubt that he and his team would be just fine in the long term. Given Roger Goodell’s habit of acting as both judge and prosecutor, using secret evidence, refusing to let players face accusers, and just flat out making up new rules to retroactively accuse them of, a version of Goodell with the power to imprison or kill his victims would be terrifying. Happily, our Goodell has a more limited domain, and even there he’s often kept in check by (actual) judges.
The fallout from Sergio Moro’s violations of judicial neutrality and due process in Brazil is far more serious. When Lula was imprisoned, the absence of the clear frontrunner from the 2018 election enabled a neofascist to gain the presidency. This is not hyperbole. Bolsonaro is an open admirer of the military dictatorship that ran Brazil before the transition to democracy. He’s said that the dictatorship’s main flaw was that it didn’t kill enough leftists. In 2016, when he was a member of the Chamber of Deputies, he “dedicated” his vote to impeach Dilma Rousseff to the colonel who ran the prison where Rousseff had been tortured under the dictatorship. And Bolsonaro’s environmental policies are a threat not just to Brazil but to the planet as a whole.
Brady took his suspension and went on to acquire another couple Super Bowl rings. Lula is behind bars. Let’s hope he’s released and the analogy works even better.