2019

to break the ties

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Things were going well in Macaé. A small Brazilian city along the Atlantic Ocean, oil was discovered here in 1974, bringing with it rapid economic development and urbanization — and the national oil company Petrobras, which made its headquarters here. Over the next 30 years, Macaé became Brazil’s national oil capital, and while development was messy and unequal, the gleam of prosperity didn’t dim.

Then, in 2014, Macaé came face to face with a two-headed monster: the plummeting of global oil prices, and Operation Car Wash. The embezzlement investigation into Petrobras spanned the country, but its epicenter was Macaé, reducing the city to survival mode. The investigation rocked Brazil’s political and business establishment, leading to the imprisonment of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — a move that barred him from reelection and paved the way for a win for far-right Jair Bolsonaro. A feeling of decay and abandonment took over Macaé.

The operation was hardly a Brazilian-only affair though. A trove of leaked documents — co-analyzed by The Intercept and the Brazilian investigative news outlet Agência Pública — reveal that Operation Car Wash was a secretive collaboration between the Brazilians and the U.S. Department of Justice that may have violated international legal treaties and Brazilian law. The documents also reveal clear misconduct and political bias by the judge and prosecutors who handled the case against Lula, and critics have argued that the U.S. had undue influence here.

For many Brazilians, it’s yet another dark reminder of the U.S.’s history of intervention in Latin American politics, particularly in light of the close relationship between Bolsonaro and Trump. For those left in Macaé, all that remains is a grim reality and the last, fading vestige of hope.