“Political Midas” João Santana, forgotten casualty of the coup, breaks silence

Former journalist and rock musician João Santana ascended to become one of Brazil’s most influential people, a high profile political strategist with his unique talents in demand at home and abroad. He then became a target.

One of the forgotten victims of Operation Lava Jato, he has finally broken silence, eighteen months since his release from house arrest, and recovery from cancer. Santana’s story is an overlooked piece of the 2016 coup and the election of Jair Bolsonaro…

In 2013 Brazilian political publicist João Santana was named number 53 one of Brazils 60 most powerful individuals. Seven years later he was featured in magazine Campaigns and Elections in a list of the most important political consultants in the world. Much had changed in the intervening years.

On the magazine’s list, 67 year old Santana was placed alongside luminaries such as David Axelrod, the man behind former US president Barack Obama’s successful election runs, Brad Parscale who performed the same role for his successor Donald Trump, and Gerald Butts, campaign manager for Canadian president Justin Trudeau.

Since founding his own company in 2002, Santana had a stunning record, running a total of nine presidential campaigns, across various countries in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa, and winning them all.

Santana was known principally as the mastermind behind three consecutive Workers Party presidential election victories in Brazil. He ran Lula’s successful bid for re-election in 2006, and Dilma’s two successful campaigns in 2010 and 2014. He was seen as key to the Workers Party’s impregnability at the ballot box during the country’s short lived golden age in the eyes of the world.

In 2016, under the shadow of now discredited operation Lava Jato, as his client Dilma Rousseff faced a multifaceted coup to remove her, Santana was arrested and sentenced to eight years and four months for money laundering through a slush fund – a so called Caixa 2 – during Dilma Rousseff’s 2010 presidential campaign. Undeclared payments would come and go from these electoral funds, whose use was standard practice in Brazilian politics.

Lava Jato’s selective pursuit of Santana, alongside other key figures in the PT party structure, further heightened doubts about the joint Brazil-US anti-corruption operation’s political objectives. To take out the Workers Party’s chief electoral strategist, when there were politicians guilty of massive personal corruption walking free, was seen as suspicious. Following his arrest, veteran journalist Alex Solnik called Santana “a political prisoner“.

In October 2018, from house arrest in his home state of Bahia, he experienced the first Brazilian election he had not worked on in twenty years. The Workers Party would suffer its first defeat since 1998, as far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro won a runoff vote against Fernando Haddad, the stand in for jailed Lula da Silva. In master strategist Santana’s absence, and with diminished resources, a rookie team had been charged with running the PT’s electoral campaign.

Leaked conversations would later confirm what was long suspected, that the Lava Jato prosecutors, and its internationally promoted judge Sérgio Moro, in cooperation with the Department of Justice and FBI, had acted deliberately to prevent frontrunner Lula’s candidacy and deliver the presidency to Bolsonaro. Moro was rewarded with both a ministerial position and military honours for his efforts, while the Lava Jato task force in Curitiba were due a massive financial kickback from the DoJ which was blocked by the courts.

In the first interview since his arrest, on TV Cultura’s Roda Viva, Santana spoke of Bolsonaro’s victory in 2018: “Bolsonaro was stirring since 2010….a strange mask in search of a strange time…In 2016, he starts campaigning, he becomes the first independent candidate in Brazilian political history because he had no party, he had no internal ties, he begins campaigning with very intelligent use of social networks and taking advantage of the whole anti-PT wave.” Santana observed.

He now sees a combined Ciro Gomes-Lula ticket as the most straightforward way of defeating Bolsonaro in 2022.

Words and Music

Born in the city of Tucano Bahia, João Santana studied art and graduated in journalism at the University of Bahia. With an interest in poetry, Santana became lyricist for rock band Bendegó, fronted by singer and composer Gereba. They released six LPs between 1973 and 1989. Salvador was then a hotbed of musical activity, spearheaded by Tropicalismo artists Tom Zé, Gilberto Gil, and Caetano Veloso, with whom João collaborated. Santana also worked on projects with artists such as Belchior, Ednardo, and Fagner.

Santana’s life in music was replaced by the newsrooms of Jornal da Bahia, O Globo, Veja, Jornal do Brasil and IstoÉ, where his greatest achievement was interviewing President Fernando Collor’s driver Eriberto França, in an award winning piece of journalism, a story which contributed the fall of the president in 1992.

João Santana would then go on cut his teeth in political marketing, initially in a partnership with Duda Mendonça from 1997, before forming his own agency, Polis Comunicação e Marketing, with his wife Mônica Moura in 2002. He saw political marketing as an exercise in persuasion, informed by his musical and cultural experience: “I am an amphibian in this medium. I am from Bahia, but I came from the journalistic and artistic mediums and ended up in advertising.” Santana once remarked.

He also talked about the dichotomies of manipulation and persuasion that have existed since ancient Greece: “The detractors of political-electoral advertising think that we just manipulate and that the masses are stupid. Today, my body, my affection and my sexual relationship pass through the world of the media. Why wouldn’t politics go there? And what do marketing and political advertising do? An exercise in persuasion, using legitimate instruments. And democracy is this: the clash of elements of persuasion.”

Santana also recalled that, after more than two decades of dictatorship, Brazil had to relearn how to carry out political campaigns in the new democratic era, and following his successes in 2002, Santana quickly developed a reputation for having a political Midas touch.

The Strategist

Until the entrance of João Santana and his generation on the scene, Latin American elections had come to rely on foreign consultants and publicists, and the practice continues. In April 2013, Obama strategist David Axelrod and Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa were enlisted to work on electronic strategy for Aécio Neves. Jair Bolsonaro used ex-Bloomberg strategist Arick Wierson in 2018, while twenty years earlier, Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s election campaigns were masterminded by US consultant James Carville, with strong support from the State Department, US Treasury, World Bank and IMF.

With Newsweek actually calling him ‘The Latin American James Carville’, in Santana, Brazil’s centre-left had a visionary political strategist of its own – the “maker of presidents” as he was often referred.

Santana was already close to PT politicians when he took the reigns of the campaign for Lula’s reelection in 2005.  Dilma Rousseff then inherited his talents from her predecessor and their relationship evolved to the point that opposition politicians complained about the influence of the publicist on the president. Some even called him the most important minister in her government.

In June 2013, Dilma first consulted with Santana before giving her televised address in response the demonstrations that had swept Brazil. In her speech Rousseff looked to harness the energy on the streets, and doubled down on earlier pledges that were in the  spirit of the protests’ messages.

In a sign of what was to come, a Workers Party television spot, “Ghosts of the past“, bearing all the hallmarks of Santana, was banned by the electoral court in the months ahead of the 2014 election, following complaints from opposition PSDB. The film, in the melodramatic style of Brazil’s ascendent national cinema, featured middle class families in a modern, prosperous reality, being confronted with visions of themselves on the streets in abject poverty. Derided at the time, it doesn’t look so sensationalist now.

During his period of successes with the PT, the former journalist and rock musician’s talents were in great demand, and not only in his own country.

In 2012 Santana worked on the campaign for Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez’s final re-election before his death. That year he also oversaw the elections of Danilo Medina in the Dominican Republic, and Jose Eduardo Santos in Angola, making three national election victories in the same year, an unprecedented feat in international political strategy.

He worked on dozens of campaigns for State Governors, Mayors, Congresspeople and Senators, in both Brazil and Argentina, including the São Paulo mayoral campaigns of Marta Suplicy in 2008, and Fernando Haddad in 2012. Among his proudest campaigns are of Mato Grosso Senator Delcídio Amaral in 2002, when the candidate began polling only 2% and went on to win, and that of José Manuel de la Sota’s victorious 1998 run for Governor of Córdoba, Argentina.

“The biggest political marketing scheme in Brazil”

In the interview with Roda Viva, Santana was fierce in his criticism of operation Lava Jato calling it “the biggest political marketing scheme in Brazil” and remarking that it “fed a network of hate”, echoing growing sentiment that the disgraced anti-corruption purge had always been a platform for the far-right.

Santana was accused by Lava Jato, along with his wife, Mônica Moura, of participating in a corruption scheme involving illicit contracts by Odebrecht and Petrobras for the benefit of PT electoral campaigns. The two were sentenced to eight years and four months in prison for various crimes of money laundering. The couple admitted to the use of Caixa 2 the practice of making and receiving payments that were undeclared to the tax authorities. Both eventually had their sentences reduced after a plea bargain agreement, approved by the Supreme Court, and sealed while Santana was urgently needing cancer treatment.

On Roda Viva Santana insisted that the practice of Caixa 2 was customary in Brazil and that few people were ever held responsible for it until Lava Jato came along. “Caixa 2 has always been the soul of the Brazilian electoral system, it was a general thing. And few were punished,” he said. Santana also denounced the media’s complicity, remarking that it was routine for journalists to ask their employers for leave to work on such political campaigns: “When you live in a system of moral ruin, everyone is an accomplice and everyone is a victim. The press knew about Caixa 2. It was customary for journalists to take leave of 2, 3 months to work in the campaigns and earn what they did not earn all year long, from Caixa 2”.

These remarks caused discomfort amongst the panel of interviewing journalists whose chair, Vera Magalhaes, is notorious for anti-Workers Party bias, and they quickly changed the subject.

Santana himself expressed some resentment towards the PT, explaining that after he felt abandoned by the party after his arrest. In turn Dilma Rousseff accused the couple of lying in their plea bargain settlement, as other Lava Jato defendants have since been found to have done. The plea bargain also described multi million dollar under the table payments for their work on political campaigns abroad, specifically incriminating current Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who was also revealed in leaks to the Intercept to have been a high profile target of Lava Jato, with its prosecutors caught “plotting to leak confidential information from the Car Wash corruption probe to Venezuelan opposition figures” at the suggestion of Sergio Moro.

Yet, when asked about the honesty of ex-presidents Lula and Dilma, Santana reiterated that he does not believe the use of Caixa 2 even constitutes a crime: “I don’t think it’s dishonesty. It was an electoral fund, it is a very complicated issue….I never said that Lula and Dilma are dishonest”.

Sign of love and danger

Since his release from prison, João Santana has returned to making music. One of the most successful songs he ever wrote was “Sinal de Amor e de Perigo” (Sign of love and danger), by Diana Pequeno. Such was the media dominance of Lava Jato’s master narrative at the time of his arrest, that the top YouTube comment on the track from 2016 laments that his talents were used for political marketing, and denounced his involvement in the “dark transactions investigated by Lava Jato”.

Yet many others had made similar moves from the world of popular music into politics. At the very same time that Santana faced arrest, a contemporary music artist, Pedro D’Eyrot from Curitiba group Bonde do Role, had a new career as co-founder of Movimento Brasil Livre, which was presented as a grassroots movement, but was in effect a social media-based political marketing project. D’Eyrot achieved some international success a decade earlier, off the back of a wave of interest in Brazil during the Lula years, aided by its investment in culture, something which MBL helped bring to an end. MBL organised street protests for the ouster of Dilma Rousseff, with funding from pro-coup political forces and the Atlas Network, to which it belonged, and pioneered the so called “hate office” which was institutionalised by Bolsonaro.

In the meantime Brazil has been almost completely consumed by automated, mass disinformation of the kind that brought a neofascist to the presidency. It seems strange now to recall that only six years ago, the kind of election campaigns masterminded by João Santana were denounced by conservatives as sinister, manipulative and inhumane.

They now look like a souvenir of a more innocent time.