Action over the purchase of Swedish fighter jets is the last and most fragile one against Lula

The accusation is the only one remaining of more than 15 actions proposed by the Operation Car Wash

Brasil de Fato | São Paulo (Brasil) |
Former president Lula spent 580 days in prison and was prevented from being a candidate in the 2018 elections - Mauro Pimentel/AFP

On September 20 this year, Brazil's Federal Public Ministry advocated for continuing an open criminal action against Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Workers Party) for having committed alleged influence peddling in exchange for money. The accusation involves the purchase of 36 fighter jets by the Brazilian government from a Swedish company when Lula was no longer Brazil's president.

That is the last remaining open case against Lula. In recent years, at least 18 openings of inquiries, indictments, and criminal actions have been proposed against him. Lula spent 580 days in prison, had his political rights revoked, was prevented from being a candidate, couldn't give interviews during the 2018 election period, and even was forbid to accompany the burial of one of his brothers.

Currently, in the indictment that remains and that the Public Ministry still supports, Lula, who left the post of president in 2010, exercised or "intended to be able to exercise" mainly influence peddling that would lead the Brazilian government to acquire fighter jets from a Swedish company to the detriment of the other two companies that competed during the Brazilian defense aircraft acquisition process.

In the criminal proceedings, the Federal Public Ministry of the Federal District (MPF-DF, in Portuguese) accuses Lula of having “sold” the false idea that he could influence the Dilma Rousseff government to buy 36 fighter jets from the Swedish company SAAB, and not from the French company Dassault, who was still competing. The other competitor, the North American company Boeing, had already left the purchase process.

Everything took place as part of an intricate process of military equipment purchase by Brazil, which had been negotiated since the Fernando Henrique Cardoso government (1995-2002) and whose conclusion only happened during the Roussef government, in August 2015.

The prosecutors claim that former Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven would have tried to arrange a meeting with former President Lula at the end of 2013 and that this meeting intended to make Lula use his influence in the Dilma government to convince her to buy the Swedish fighter jets.

The prosecutors also allege that the Swedish politician (who, at the time, was not that country's prime minister) would have written a letter to Lula asking him to "do this favor".

That is what the MPF-DF claims. The indictment, however, does not contain any evidence that the letter even reached Lula, as pointed out in the case by the defense attorneys, nor explains how it would have been possible or if the illegal arrangement between the president and SAAD really happened. How would the former president have interceded with the federal government for the purchase to take place?

The prosecution made by the MPF does not provide these answers. However, it suggests a reason why the US company has left the purchase process before its end: "The determining factor in the choice of the former president [Dilma Rousseff] really seems to have been the crisis with the then US president Barack Obama, based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden”.

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“The purchase process of Gripen NG fighter jets [the Swedish product] was permeated with technical refinement and attention to the country's economic issues and fiscal situation. The complexity of the factors involved does not allow simple justifications elaborated by the prosecution to explain the decision-making process. Thus, the contribution of the Parquet (MPF) by issuing shallow opinions on issues that are beyond its purview is of little relevance", was the response of Lula's defense in the same prosecution.

The renewal of the Brazilian Air Force's fighter fleet is a long-standing project whose beginning goes back to the government of José Sarney and carries an important geopolitical decision, says Alcides Peron, professor at Fundação Escola de Comércio Álvares Penteado.

“The purchase of armaments is not like the purchase of any other product. It obeys sets of interests and geopolitical alignments that are very solid, important, and sensitive”, the researcher says to Brasil de Fato.

Peron studied the FAB's FX-2 program – as Brazil's fighter jets purchase was named – in his master's degree at the State University of Campinas (UNICAMP, in Portuguese). He points out that SAAB was chosen because the company offered the best offset, a term used to refer to the compensation package that accompanies the negotiation. The sale of Gripen fighter jets foresees the production of parts of the aircraft in Brazil, by Embraer, in addition to personnel training and technology transfer.

“We cannot think that it is just the government or three, five or ten soldiers in a small room discussing this. It had active participation from the national industry, sectors of the Fiesp [Federation of Industries of the State of São Paulo] and defense sectors that were widely engaged in this process”, evaluates Peron.

It was in this context, in 2010, that the then US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, visited Brazil and defended the purchase of the Boeing fighter jets. The US embassy in Brazil issued a statement supporting the purchase of F-18 fighter jets. In addition, Donna Hrinak, US ambassador to Brazil from 2002 to 2004, has been president of Boeing in Brazil since 2011.

However, Peron says that the United States was never close to signing the contract with the Brazilian government. The choice was between the French company Dassault, the favorite in the dispute, and the Swedish company SAAB.

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In 2013, an episode contributed to diminishing Boeing's chances: Edward Snowden's revelation that the US spied on the then-President Dilma Rousseff and Petrobras. The country also spied on other world leaders, such as the German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“The Edward Snowden episode helps to shake a little the relations between Brazil and the US. However, at that time, the choice for the North American fighter jets was already sidelined for a long time because what they offered as offsets was very fake. Besides, a purchase like this requires a set of benefits because it is a geopolitical alignment.”

The forecast is that the Federal Court in the Federal District is going to decide this year for the continuation or not of the criminal action.

Edited by: Leandro Melito