By Ernesto Londoño
The votes had been tallied, and the skies of Rio de Janeiro crackled with fireworks as supporters celebrated the decisive election of a far-right populist, Jair Bolsonaro, as Brazil’s president.
But not everyone was jubilant. David Miranda, a socialist Rio de Janeiro council member who had campaigned for Congress, reached for a bottle that October night to mourn his electoral loss. His husband, Glenn Greenwald, a spitfire American journalist, popped a Xanax. The political era that dawned felt like a gut punch for the gay, biracial couple.
“We are the antithesis of Bolsonaro,” Miranda said in an interview. “We’re everything they hate.”
Since then, the two men find themselves on the front lines of the country’s increasingly bitter political divide. In June, Greenwald’s news organization published reports suggesting that Bolsonaro’s main opponent in the race was improperly jailed just six months before the election, raising serious questions about the legitimacy of Bolsonaro’s victory and testing the mettle of Brazil’s democratic institutions.
Now, Greenwald and Miranda — who ultimately took a seat in Congress — are under attack by Bolsonaro and his allies. They have faced death threats and, according to a conservative Brazilian website, the federal police are investigating Greenwald’s finances. Government officials have neither confirmed nor denied the report, but the suggestion that Greenwald is being targeted by the state for his news reports has ignited an outcry over press freedom in Brazil.
Greenwald — one of the two journalists who obtained and disseminated the trove of secret intelligence documents leaked by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013 — said he had doubted he would ever break a more consequential story. The Snowden revelations set off a global debate about government surveillance and privacy.
But the stakes of the exposé in Brazil seem higher in some ways, he said.
The information published by The Intercept Brasil, a news organization co-founded by Greenwald, challenged the integrity of a wide-ranging corruption investigation that ensnared some of the most powerful figures in Brazil’s political and business establishment over the past five years, landing many of them in prison.
Among them was the leftist former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was jailed and prevented from taking part in a presidential race in which he had a large lead over Bolsonaro.
The man presiding over that investigation, federal judge Sérgio Moro, became a folk hero of sorts for many Brazilians fed up with graft and violence. Later nominated by Bolsonaro to be justice minister, Moro became one of the most popular members of his Cabinet, lending legitimacy to the president’s promise to tackle rampant crime and crack down on corruption.
But a massive archive of private chats between members of the judiciary involved in the sprawling corruption investigation, obtained by The Intercept Brasil from a source it did not reveal, contains exchanges in which Moro appears to cross ethical and legal lines in his handling of da Silva’s case.
The exchanges show that Moro provided strategic advice to prosecutors and passed along an investigative lead. Judges must be impartial arbiters under Brazilian law. Moro has denied wrongdoing.
“I’m a big defender of the free press, but this campaign against Carwash and in favor of corruption is bordering on ridiculous,” Moro said in a statement, referring to the name of the corruption scandal.
The Intercept Brasil’s steady stream of articles has led to calls for Moro’s resignation, and made Greenwald, 52, the chief target of praise and fury for those on opposite ends of Brazil’s political divide.
The scandal has also become the first test of the resilience of Brazil’s democratic institutions under the leadership of a president who has spent much of his political career railing against democracy and lauding the 21-year period of repressive military rule in Brazil that ended in 1985, Greenwald said.
“There is a huge question about what kind of country Brazil is going to be,” Greenwald said during a recent interview at his heavily guarded home in Rio de Janeiro. “Will it be a country with functioning democratic institutions, or is it going to become the repressive authoritarian state that Bolsonaro desires and craves?”
Greenwald would probably not have ended up so invested in Brazil’s future were it not for a day in February 2005 when he was sitting alone on an Ipanema beach, nursing a broken heart, and a young man accidentally knocked over his drink with a ball.
Miranda, who was then 19, apologized profusely in broken English. Greenwald, who was 37, accepted the apology and asked the young Brazilian out to dinner. Three days later, the pair had essentially moved in together, to the dismay of friends on both sides, who saw nothing but red flags as two radically different lives began to meld.
Greenwald had a law practice in New York. Miranda, the son of a prostitute who died when he was 5, had been raised by an aunt in Jacarezinho, a poor favela in Rio, and dropped out of school at 13.
“I was not at all the type that ever fell in love with someone at first sight,” Greenwald said. “But the passion, David’s intensity, it was like two asteroids colliding.”
Miranda soon enrolled in college and Greenwald began writing about national security and legal matters in a blog called Unclaimed Territory. Among his many loyal readers was Snowden, who turned over to Greenwald and American documentary-maker Laura Poitras a huge cache of secret intelligence documents.
In August 2013, while Miranda was transporting a memory drive with Snowden files from Poitras’ home in Germany back to Brazil, he was interrogated for hours and threatened with arrest during a layover in London.
The experience prompted Miranda to lead a campaign to get the Brazilian government to offer Snowden asylum, an effort that ignited his interest in running for office. Soon after, Greenwald started writing about Brazilian politics. The pair soon crossed paths with Bolsonaro, who represented the state of Rio de Janeiro in Congress.
In 2014, Greenwald decided to profile Bolsonaro in The Intercept Brasil, which was then a new online news site funded by Pierre Omidyar, the American billionaire who founded eBay.
It fell to Miranda to interview Bolsonaro, a former army captain who was then a largely powerless representative notorious for making incendiary comments about women, gays and blacks. The story ran under the headline: “The Most Misogynistic, Hateful Elected Official in the Democratic World: Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.”
In 2017, when Bolsonaro was gearing up to run for president, he and Greenwald exchanged barbs on Twitter. After the journalist referred to Bolsonaro as a “fascist cretin,” the politician responded with a crude reference to anal sex.
Miranda ended up taking a seat in Congress in February, after a gay lawmaker in his party who had been sent death threats went into self-imposed exile. Soon after Miranda was sworn in, one of Bolsonaro’s staunchest allies in Congress, Rep. Joice Hasselmann, began suggesting that he had purchased his seat in Congress.
The claim is preposterous, Miranda and Greenwald say, but it came just as Miranda was struggling to get his bearings in Congress, where most lawmakers are white and hail from privileged families. The first time he grabbed the microphone to speak, his hand trembled, he said.
“I was feeling like I didn’t belong,” he said. “Everyone else seemed like they knew what they were doing.”
By April, the loneliness and alienation he felt in Brasília led to a breakdown.
“I am not doing well,” Miranda said he told his therapist, who prescribed antidepressants. The lawmaker took two weeks off and stayed home with the two sons he and Greenwald adopted last year.
Soon after Miranda returned to the capital, the political establishment was rocked by the first leaked Carwash chat.
Threats and taunts against Miranda and Greenwald have kept the pair largely confined to their home. They venture out only with armed guards, sleep little and lightly, and fear for the safety of their children.
Yet the two said they have no regrets about the cause they took on, calling it a make-or-break moment for the rule of law in Brazil.
“This can wind up strengthening democracy,” Miranda said. “It will depend on how institutions decide to act.”