“A repressão do Brasil à liberdade de expressão: A Suprema Corte é uma ameaça ainda maior à democracia do que foram os distúrbios de 8 de janeiro”
The Supreme Court is a even greater threat to democracy than the Jan. 8 riots were.
Some American politicians and talking heads are drawing a straight line between the mob attack on the unoccupied Brazilian Congress, Supreme Court and presidential palace on Jan. 8, 2023, and the assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Video of the smashing and trashing of federal government offices in Brasilia is apparently a horror show too good to waste on Brazilians alone. Since those who descended on the capital were backers of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s Trump-style former president, there are easy points to be scored against the Donald. The working narrative is that the Brazilian democracy is under threat from a populist right inspired by the 45th U.S. president.
This may be convenient for hammers that want to nail Mr. Trump. But it misses the imminent danger to liberty now lurking in Brazil: a Supreme Court that is gagging its critics, freezing their assets and even jailing some, all without due process.
The Jan. 8 events deserve unequivocal condemnation. Bringing those responsible for the destruction of government property to justice is a fundamental responsibility of the state. Failure to disabuse vandals of the idea that their sense of disenfranchisement is justification for violence will lead to more of it.
But spare me the pearl-clutching in Washington. The claim that the Brasilia riot is the fruit of Jan. 6, 2021, smacks of selective moralizing. When hard-left extremists vandalized Colombia for months in 2021, I don’t recall the D.C. chattering classes blaming it on the summer 2020 rampages linked to Black Lives Matter in the U.S.
Mobs sent to the streets, either from the right in Brazil or from the left as is happening now in Peru, threaten representative government. But liberty can also be strangled from within the government.
Venezuela was a democracy in the early 2000s when strongman Hugo Chávez grabbed control of the judiciary, eliminating minority rights and legal protections. Jimmy Carter applauded chavismo. Tyrants in Bolivia and Nicaragua copied the Chávez political playbook. Today the separation of powers necessary for democracy to survive is uncertain in many countries across the region, including Colombia, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico.
I have long held that the memory of Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-85) and its robust political economy, free press and civil society would be enough to keep the country from backsliding into one-party rule. Now I’m not so sure.
Starting around 2007 President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva and his Workers’ Party orchestrated the largest corruption scheme in the history of the Western Hemisphere. The Brazilian construction company Odebrecht was at the center of it all and even had a bribery department. Lots of people in business and government went to jail for padding contracts and kickbacks that robbed the public purse of billions of dollars—and for money laundering. Lula, who was convicted in 2017, was one of them.
Brazilians were relieved, believing that justice, even for the powerful, was finally possible. They were mistaken. In 2021 the Supreme Court vacated Lula’s conviction on a technicality. He was released and cleared to run for president, though he was never exonerated. He defeated Mr. Bolsonaro and took office Jan. 1.
Many Brazilians continue to consider him a thief who avoided justice because the high court played politics. On independent news platforms, in social media and in private chat groups, his crimes remain a hot topic.
This doesn’t sit well with Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, who has a pronounced authoritarian streak. Under his leadership as head of the electoral tribunal, which governed the campaign and the election year, a resolution was passed to criminalize “misinformation” and “fake news” even though there is no such law.
Justice de Moraes has become the face of a crackdown on free speech not seen since the country returned to democracy under the 1988 constitution. When a member of a private encrypted WhatsApp chat group quipped, in a leaked conversation, that he preferred dictatorship over the return of Lula, Justice de Moraes signed a search warrant for police raids on the homes of the chatters. “The authorities froze their bank accounts, subpoenaed their financial, phone and digital records, and told social networks to suspend some of their accounts,” the New York Times reported. Scores of other independent-minded Brazilians have been kicked off social media and otherwise silenced whenever Justice de Moraes considers their critiques “antidemocratic.”
This overreach has discredited the court and further fueled doubts about the fairness of the election. Yet airing them is verboten. When Mr. Bolsonaro’s political party presented legal challenges to the official vote count in the Oct. 30 runoff, they were summarily denied. The electoral tribunal fined the party more than $4 million for making the appeal.
Brazil’s Supreme Court is making up the law as it goes along. If no one stops it, the Jan. 8 melee will turn out to be the least of the threats to liberty facing Brazilians.
Write to O’Grady@wsj.com.