In an Airplane’s Crash, the Downward Arc of Brazil’s Public Trust

A symptom of Brazil’s political malaise under its corrupt right-wing caretaker government, writes International Boulevard’s Joao Sette Camara: the shifting morass of conspiracy theories surrounding the recent plane crash that killed a powerful judge.

It is the biggest corruption investigation in the history of Brazil: Operation Lava Jato, and in January, the Supreme Court justice leading it died in a private plane crash. Though there is no actual evidence that the crash was anything but a terrible accident, its enormous reverberation demands a careful investigation.

Predictably, perhaps, conspiracy theories blaming the crash on either left-wing or right-wing forces have dominated the press and social media ever since ‘the accident.’

And the circumstances to feed those theories seem perfect, for the judge, Teori Zavascki, was about to take one of the most significant steps in the process: accepting and formalizing the plea statements of top executives of Odebrecht, the construction giant at the center of the scandal.

“Those plea statements are widely expected to implicate leading members of the government of Michel Temer, who took over after helping to engineer Dilma [Roussef]’s impeachment, as well as oligarchs and executives, in all sorts of bribery and money laundering transactions, ” wrote The Intercept recently “. The current president himself has been mentioned 43 times in previous plea statements during this investigation, and, curiously enough, it is his job to appoint the judge that will substitute Zavascki in the vacant post he left on the Supreme Court. After that, the Supreme Court judges will decide among themselves who should take over the role of overseeing the investigation. Meanwhile, the many important people implicated on the investigation benefit from this delay.

But the paranoia which has seized Brazilian public opinion is the biggest culprit here. The impression that one gets is that people really want the conspiracy to be true so they can fill the void left by an apparent lack of sense in a political and economic reality that defies the imagination of fiction writers. Even when news of the crash was still a rumor and no one knew for sure if the judge was really in the plane, an internet post, had gone viral: “It is infantile to think that the worst kind of criminals would subject themselves to the law […]. If anything happens to any of my family members, you know where to look!”. The text was written last year by the judge’s son, Francisco Zavascki, who was referring to the threats his father allegedly received because of his work. The text didn’t mention physical threats, and Francisco himself has already stated that he doubts his father’s death was part of a plot. But that doesn’t matter: the judge of the only court in Brazil with the power and the evidence to prosecute the country’s top corrupt politicians died in a sudden and mysterious accident, and now in Brazil it seems that suspicions are as true as any concrete fact.

There are veritable blizzards of seemingly compelling details surrounding the crash. El Pais recently catalogued some of them: “It is said that Zavascki died carrying crucial documents for the investigation, which were lost forever (this claim is unconfirmed). […] Other people argue that on January 3rd, an image of a plane similar to the one that crashed was accessed 1,885 times in a website about airplanes (for reasons unknown). And a more sophisticated theory states that the accident was in fact an act of former president Lula”.

The reality is that, for now, what happened was: a dedicated public servant, one of our most important judges, who was a key figure in the biggest corruption investigation going on in Brazil’s history, lost his life together with other passengers and crew members, in a plane that crashed on the ocean near the town of Paraty, Rio de Janeiro. The investigations, which must be thorough and unbiased, should eventually uncover the causes of the crash. The problem is that many people have already decided who the culprit is, and they will only accept as true an investigation that supports their favored theory. Meanwhile, and conspiracy theories aside, those implicated in Operation Car Wash can for the moment breathe easily, the investigations delayed.

Joao Sette Camara