Mani Pulite: Italy’s “Lava-Jato”

Mani Pulite: Italy’s “Lava-Jato”

Brasil could ask its Italian cousins what happens when democracy is torn up in the name of anti-corruption - they have a couple of examples.

Shortly before his death in 2012, and seeking to make amends, Reginald Bartholomew, former US Ambassador to Italy in the early-mid 1990s, confessed to US State Department, intelligence and law enforcement’s involvement in Italian Anti-Corruption operation ‘Mani Pulite’ (Clean hands) – something long dismissed as conspiracy theory. Mani Pulite would serve as the blueprint for Brazil’s own Operation Lava Jato.

Terra Nostra

There are an estimated 35 million Brazilians of Italian descent. Parts of Brasil’s south, such as São Paulo are inherently Italian in character, with up to 60% of Italian ancestry. Dating back to the renaissance and with later waves of mass immigration in the late 19th century and during the 1920s, Italian cultural, economic & societal influence on these regions is strong, to the extent that it eclipses older Portuguese colonial foundations.

As a result, many Brazilians of Italian heritage qualify for an Italian passport, and move to and from the European Union with comparative ease.

Italians with relatives in Brasil who are now observing its distant judicial-political machinations could be forgiven for feeling a sensation of déjà vu.

Mani Pulite (or ‘Clean Hands’) was a sequence of mass prosecutions which was conducted during the 1990s and which had many parallels with Brasil’s own current anti corruption operation – Lava-Jato (‘Car Wash’).


Beginning in 1992, the Italian operation, led by prosecutor Antonio Di Pietro in Milan, operated on the pretext of investigating corporate bribes to politicians, but went on obliterate the entire political establishment through trial-by-media. It began with the Tangentopoli bribery scandal – the analogue to Brasil’s Petrobras scheme. (See also Professor David Nelken’s ‘A legal revolution? The judges and Tangentopoli.’)

I always thought that Tangentopoli was driven by the CIA – Paolo Cirino Pomicino

Mani Pulite cast a shadow over the 1992 election, particularly for the Socialist PSI and saw the eventual conviction of its former Prime Minister Bettino Craxi amid charges of corruption and illicit party financing. He denied corruption but admitted illegal financing, justified by his party’s lack of financial resources compared to competitors. The operation brought to and end the 4 largest and oldest political parties in Italy – the Christian Democrats, the Italian Socialist Party, the Italian Socialist Democratic Party, and the Italian Liberal Party. As a result, none of the parties that founded the Italian state in 1948 – the parties responsible for drafting Italy’s post-war Constitution – are present in today’s parliament. (Mussolini had previously come to power on an anti-corruption platform, later revealed to be riddled with it).

Shortly before his death in 2012, and seeking to make amends, Reginald Bartholomew, former US Ambassador to Italy in the early-mid 1990s, confessed to US intelligence and law enforcement’s involvement in the operation – something long dismissed as conspiracy theory.

Bartholomew remarked “A pool of magistrates in Milan who, in an effort to combat rampant political corruption, went far beyond, systematically violating the defendants’ rights of defense in an unacceptable manner in a democracy Like Italy”, echoing the words of exiled former Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, the highest profile casualty of the operation. “The political class was crumbling…” Bartholomew recalled “…posing risks for the stability of a strategic ally in the middle of the Mediterranean.”

During his 1993-97 tenure as Ambassador, Bartholomew was eager to break what were described as unusual ties between the US Consulate in Milan and the group of Mani Pulite judges based there.

Unlike convicted Socialist Craxi, Conservative Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti was eventually acquitted of having had a journalist murdered.

Mani Pulite was an operation with enormous ramifications, which effectively ended the First Republic and paved the way for the economically & culturally ruinous era of Forza Italia, the political vehicle of TV tycoon Silvio Berlusconi (himself a prime suspect in the operation) and also a spate of privatisations in what was called the “pillage of Italy”. Berlusconi was able to use nepotism and his control of media to evade prosecution for his own corruption scandals for many years.

Worse still, it enabled the emergence into powerful positions of “post-fascist” parties Alleanza Nazionale & the separatist Lega Nord.

As the Berlin wall fell and what was known as the cold war drew to an end, as a key strategic ally in the Mediterranean and NATO member, the United States felt that Italy had drifted too far from its influence and saw corruption as the tool with which to reset the traditional Italian political class in its favour.

On the American side, the administration had changed, the structures of intelligence believed that the Italians had gone a bit too far…and the CIA were ordered to begin collecting information on European corruption – Italian Politician Paolo Cirino Pomicino.

As in present day Brasil, the incentives were not only geopolitical but economic. Italy’s then enormous public sector was viewed as low hanging fruit for privatisation by a cabal of outside investors, as is the case in Brasil today.

In effect, Italy’s post-war establishment was swept away only to be replaced by something worse.

Some in Brasil have predicted a similar end to its party political system as a result of Operation Lava-Jato, which is led by 43 year old prosecutor Sérgio Moro who, in 2004, long before commencement of the operation, laid out considerations concerning the political & economic effects of Mani Pulite in this document. In it he discusses strategies, examples & similarities with Italy and also dangers facing Brasil if it follows the Italian example.

Distant cousins

There are other parallels and symmetries during turbulent periods in the two country’s respective political histories. Left movements in Italy had long been subverted & sabotaged by the United States since the second world war as part of a covert “stay-behind” operation codenamed Gladio. This included the ‘Strategy of Tension’, where domestic terrorism was used to convince the population that it was in the midst of a communist overthrow.

Brasil has known similar: in 1981 a faction within the Dictatorship attempted to stage “Left Wing” terrorism in order to roll back civil liberties and moves towards re-democratisation. A planned bombing of a workers day parade in Rio de Janeiro literally backfired, with one agent killed and another badly burned when one of their explosive devices detonated in a parked car. The Military government at first blamed Left Wing groups for the explosion, an allegation later disproven.

More successful was an instance in 1989. Days before the first direct election since the end of Military rule which saw Neoliberal candidate Fernando Collor come to power, high profile businessman Albino Diniz was kidnapped. Segments of the media blamed his capture on militants from candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Worker’s Party (PT), and with campaigning already forbidden in the days prior, they were unable to clear their name until the election was lost.

A bridge between the ‘Strategy of Tension’ era and Mani Pulite was Romano Prodi. He served as the Prime Minister of Italy, twice from 1996 to 1998 and from 2006 2008, was later President of the European Commission from 1999 to 2004, and is now a member of the Club of Madrid. Prodi was ridiculed for claiming in 1978 to have received the whereabouts of kidnapped prime minister Aldo Moro through a séance. It would be a story which would later see him twice accused of being a KGB agent.

Silvio is coming

A key difference though, between the Italian and Brazilian operations, is that Lava Jato also includes telegenic, high profile prosecutions of key personnel from large and state-protected companies such as construction giant Odebrecht, opening up the possibility of more foreign competition.

Similarly, Lava Jato’s imprisonment of Eletronuclear chief, Almirante Othon – long term mastermind of Brasil’s homegrown nuclear energy programme – has raised some eyebrows, perceived as an attack on the country’s energy sovereignty. Again a window opens on potential entry of foreign corporations into Brasil’s energy sector, which like construction, currently lays virtually paralysed by operation Lava Jato.

Another key difference between Mani Pulite & Lava Jato are the large ostensibly anti-corruption street mobilisations, publicised and encouraged by mainstream media in Brasil. 

Main opposition party PSDB, defeated last October, initially distanced itself from presidential impeachment calls, instead demanding new elections, but came out of the closet in favour of institutionally ousting Rousseff – neither of which have constitutional provision without proof of her wrongdoing. At the same time it is airing TV broadcasts which call supporters to what is considered a pro-impeachment protest on the 16th August. Although implicated in various corruption schemes, PSDB have themselves so far evaded any high profile casualties to Lava Jato.

August is a symbolic month politically in Brasil, marked by the 1954 suicide of President Getulio Vargas in the midst of a Coup d’Etat.

Meanwhile, beleaguered present-day President Dilma Rousseff insists she will fight to the end to prove she had no involvement in the Petrobras scandal. Rousseff is often referred to as “President” of Petrobras prior to her election in 2010. In actual fact she held the position of  chairwoman, as then Energy Minister under President Lula – a largely honorary role, set apart from the day to day running of the company’s operations.

However a symbolic audit of her government’s accounts is currently imminent, tabled by current congressional speaker and “national saboteur” Eduardo Cunha, of PMDB.

Those wishing for the end of the Worker’s Party as a political force could well be conjuring up Brasil’s own Silvio Berlusconi. Rather than a “market friendly” PSDB administration with a broad popular mandate, “cleaning” out Brazil’s political establishment could result in a saviour populist in the vain of the former Italian President. To an extent, it already happened before with Collor.

One Italian journalist Brasil Wire consulted described “twenty years wasted” as a result of Mani Pulite.

Be careful what you wish for.

If you value the work Brasil Wire does, please help keep us running with a donation. Our editorial independence relies on our readers support.

Amount to donate in $USD

0 1000