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Lawfare: The Technocrats’ War on Democracy

The jailing of former Brazilian president Lula shows the power of “lawfare,” the use of spurious legal action for political ends. Former Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa and France Insoumise’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon discuss how legal harassment has become a key weapon against the Left around the world.

France Insoumise founder Jean-Luc Mélenchon and former president of Ecuador Rafael Correa share breakfast. (Denis Rogatyuk)

Interview by
Denis Rogatyuk
Patricio Mery Bell

Rafael Correa and Jean-Luc Mélenchon have become synonymous with the concept of “Citizens’ Revolution” — a people-powered project designed to build counter-hegemony to the neoliberal order. This approach is based on measures like the formation of constituent assemblies, the creation of social programs to fight poverty and inequality, and a foreign policy opposed to US and European imperialism.

As president of Ecuador from 2007 to 2017, Correa not only brought about a massive reduction in poverty and inequality, but he promoted institutions like the Council for Citizen Participation and Social Control as well as large-scale renewable energy projects. Over in France, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s presidential campaign in 2017 electrified the Left, advancing the demands of social movements like Nuit Debout and mounting a robust challenge to both Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen.

Today, however, both men face troubles in the courts. They are forced to defend not only their political record, but their own personal lives, as they come under attack from judicial institutions closely aligned with the neoliberal powers they have challenged.

In Ecuador, the attorney general and the supreme court — dominated by figures aligned with Lenín Moreno’s neoliberal government — have launched more than twenty-five criminal cases against Correa since July 2018.

Meanwhile, Mélenchon has faced constant character assassination in the media. This campaign peaked in October 2018 in an armed police raid on Mélenchon’s home — orchestrated on the same day that the new interior minister was sworn in — in which he was accused of misreporting campaign funds. After footage was released of Mélenchon’s emotional reaction, this Thursday he appeared in court on charges of “intimidating” the policemen who tore through his possessions.

Both men have held steadfast, moreover joining the campaign in solidarity with the greatest victim of such “lawfare” — former Brazilian president Lula, today languishing in jail. In June, documents were leaked showing that the prosecutors who indicted Lula were part of a conspiracy to stop his Workers’ Party from winning the 2018 presidential election. Today, Correa and Mélenchon are promoting a united front against “lawfare” — the use of judicial bodies for narrowly political ends.

The two leaders sat down with journalists Denis Rogatyuk and Patricio Mery Bell in Brussels (where Correa is based) to discuss the courts’ offensive against them, the politicization of the justice system, and its particular deployment by undemocratic and US-backed forces in Latin America.


PMB

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, tell us your thoughts on “lawfare,” which has targeted both you and former president Correa. What does it tell us that this political persecution is being used against progressive and left-wing leaders around the world?

JLM

This is, indeed, something we see around the world, but we were alerted to it by the Ecuadorian case and even before that by what happened to Lula . . . What we see is a worldwide propaganda offensive with similar themes everywhere. There are [accusations of ties to] Venezuela and Cuba, of antisemitism, of supposed corruption, and now a judicial and criminal treatment of everything that the opposition says. Take the example of my campaign accounts — they had already been certified and accepted by the special court, but still they continue persecuting me on this basis.

First, I was stunned by all this. That explains the anger with which I protested [the police raid] — I had been humiliated, treated like a thief. They burst into my house at seven in the morning, rifling through everything in search of I-don’t-know-what, months after the campaign was over. Then they filmed awful images of me, angry and shouting. The media focused on this part of the story — on whether I responded appropriately — but never spoke about the injustice committed against me.

RC

They entered your home? Incredible!

JLM

And the party headquarters, too. They wanted to come in and take the lists of members. But in the press, it was all as if this injustice hadn’t taken place. The press’s power is totally aimed at hiding what is going on, not to inform you [the citizen] or help you think. Or rather, it works to make sure you can’t think for yourself. I don’t know what else to tell you, it was a total surprise. There are six cases against me, I don’t know about you, Mr. President?

RC

Twenty-five criminal charges before the Court of Audit.

DR

What’s behind this, though? Why do the justice system and the media persecute left-wing leaders?

RC

First of all, I’d like to offer my solidarity to Jean-Luc — thanks for your constant concern for Latin America. Here we are experiencing a dictatorship, a bloodless one perhaps, but a dictatorship nonetheless. They hound you, they destroy your reputation, they take away your freedom, they chase you through the courts, they don’t respect your human rights. Yet the world sees things from the opposite perspective. Imagine for a moment if I had jailed the vice president — it would have been a scandal around the world. But the Ecuadorian government is doing that [today, to Jorge Glas], and there’s no response. An innocent man is going to jail for almost two years, in a case that should not exist in any rule-of-law state. This is the famous lawfare.

It’s a strategy around the world and also in [Latin America]; it’s no accident that it has happened to Lula, that it has happened to Cristina [Kirchner], that it has happened to us in Ecuador. It has two components: the press — which in Latin America has always been the bourgeoisie’s press — condemns you through the headlines to the point that even the finest people applaud for the greatest nonsense and for co-opted judges and attorneys. The United States has worked hard in this direction — for instance, the current illegally appointed attorney general in Ecuador was in the pay of USAID.

PMB

He was the linkman with the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), too, no?

RC

They say he is very close to the DEA, to the CIA and the US Embassy, there are also a lot of judges [like that]. They take over the justice system and the headlines, subjecting you to condemnation-by-media. They thus try and achieve what they couldn’t do at the ballot box, where they haven’t managed to defeat us.  After we have been in power for ten years and someone wants to damage us, they can always make a civil case into a criminal matter, and say that if there was some corrupt subaltern official then President Correa must have known. They ambush you time and again, and convince people all this is true.

This is why this strategy is more effective in countries like Brazil, Ecuador, and Argentina, where progressive projects have been in power with great success. It’s obvious that in ten years in power they can find some dot or comma out of place. But if you have captured the public attorneys, the judges and the media, then you are able to raise a scandal. They are not only depriving us of our freedom, as in Lula’s case. They know the history of the 1970s and they know that they do not need jackboots and blood.

PMB

They still don’t need it . . .

RC

Even now, they would resort to these methods if they needed. But they have found more effective ways, notably the media, to destroy the reputation of left-wing leaders, in order to make our own people believe that these governments were corrupt. “Honest government” doesn’t mean that there were never cases of corruption — that’s impossible. But an honest government is one that fights corruption. In their effort to fight me, they even hired an international firm, the Berkeley Research Group, to investigate me and Jorge Glas, to do an audit of our accounts and I don’t know what else. They found nothing, and they won’t do so, because there is nothing to be found.

As I said, they are not only stealing our freedom. They are stealing democracy itself. Take the case of Lula — if he hadn’t been jailed, he would be president of Brazil, but instead we have the fascist Jair Bolsonaro as president, and the judge who jailed Lula is a minister. The world ought to react to democracy being stolen like this, but since [these moves are] against the Left, it looks away.

DR

Why does Europe focus only on what’s happening in Venezuela, and not talk about what is going on in Ecuador or Mauricio Macri’s Argentina? Is there a media agenda? What is your stance on what is happening in these countries and, indeed, in Brazil?

JLM

We know that there is a global campaign being waged by the United States — it can only be this. Otherwise it would make sense that journalists are telling almost word-for-word the same stories, attacking Venezuela in order to attack us. It’s incredible. Everywhere in Europe, they’re attacking Venezuela and Cuba as if we in Europe knew better than the citizens of these countries what they ought to be doing there. There may well be errors, sometimes big ones, but please — first stop the embargo, and after we can talk. But don’t grip people by the throat and claim to want dialogue.

It’s like the president [Correa] said. They demonize and slander us, attempting to show that we are the violent ones — they attack us in order to provoke a nasty reaction so that we look like wild animals. In Pablo Iglesias’s case, they even got their hands on  his wife’s ultrasound scan. That is how far they will go to treat us like animals; there’s no limit. They make even our private lives a matter of suspicion; in my case they asked me and my partner if I had relations with another woman . . .

RC

Yes, they try and break your family up so that they can break you.

PMB

President Correa, you could mention the case of the journalists who came [from Ecuador] to Belgium to harass you outside your house . . .

RC

I told the Ecuadorian people that I would be retiring in 2017. Here I gave in to my own vanity, thinking that I had done enough. But I ought to have had the experience and understanding to know that someone who had expelled the gringos from the military base in Manta, who had shut down more than two hundred corrupt banking companies, who had confronted the press and tripled tax receipts, should not leave all power behind.

Yet I did just that, telling the Ecuadorian people that I was going to live in Belgium. We had lived twenty-five years in Ecuador, but my wife is Belgian and my daughters are studying in France. My family has sacrificed a lot because of an individual choice — a political choice, for the country, but which also implicates the family and especially a family like mine, given that my wife continued teaching. She hated the publicity.

But then [once in Belgium] we started to be harassed outside our house.  On May 30, my daughter had a bad accident, and on 3 or 4 July, some guy started insulting me — I didn’t recognize him at first, he was a journalist (or someone who purported to be one). He wanted to provoke me so that he could say, “Correa attacked me.” Fortunately, my daughter, who studies journalism, told me to film him. Each time he approached me, he gestured as if he was taking out a gun. Luckily, when the neighbors caught him in the act, they called the police, and he didn’t have any weapon. He was convicted here in Belgium, though the jail sentence was suspended because it was a first offense. But having to put up with this, the cost of lawyers, what my daughter saw . . . in any case, it was a good lesson for her, in her journalism studies.

JLM

None of us was prepared for this. We want to believe people act in good faith and that they ask you a question so that you can answer it, not just to land a blow on you.

RC

We are living in an era of hatred — there’s no limits or scruple involved. They accused me of authoritarianism, saying that’s the reason for my problems with the press or with my enemies. But it isn’t that. Just look at Lula and where that ended up, even though he wasn’t authoritarian at all. No — it’s that we are their class enemies. For the first time in a century, the power balance began to shift for the first time. They lost real power, and they’re not going to allow it again. Nothing is off-limits.

JLM

I have always seen you as having a measured character — very measured — and today I see you being subjected to the same things as I am. Nor did I imagine they’d enter my house. Look, I may have many flaws, and get angry, okay, but I am an honest man. I haven’t stolen from anyone.

RC

I’ll tell you a story. Jean-Luc was in a special delegation of members of the European Parliament who came to Ecuador. When I knew they were coming, I said to Jean-Luc, please, do us the honor of staying in the palace, there is a very fine residency that looks like a hotel for the president to live in. I never lived there — instead I stayed living in my little house in northern Quito. So Jean-Luc stayed for two days, and on the third day I asked after him. They told me he had gone to stay in a hotel. “What? Why would he leave?” I asked. Had we treated him badly? So we called him to find out what had happened, and he answered, “My official visit lasted two days, and now I should pay for my own hotel, as I stay over a bit longer visiting Ecuador.” That shows the honesty of a man like Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

I want to say something else. They accuse us of being confrontational. But of course you have to confront them, when you want to change things in the most unequal continent in the world. If Abraham Lincoln hadn’t been confrontational, he’d have been on the side of the slave-owners, like the traitor we have [in Ecuador] now who says he isn’t confrontational. Of course he isn’t — he’s on the side of power! To be confrontational, you have to stand against power.

PMB

Yet already [the Ecuadorian president Lenín Moreno] has closed media outlets that you never did . . .

RC

Okay, but let me finish what I was saying. We don’t have to fall into the infantilism of being against power for the sake of it. But if we’re talking about a power that has subjected us to underdevelopment for two hundred years and kept us the most unequal continent in the world, then yes, we have to confront it. And this other lot boast that they aren’t doing so.

To change things, yes, you have to be against the dominant powers that be. But, as you rightly say, Lenín Moreno has closed down media and imprisoned two journalists — they were in jail for seventy days. They have closed dozens of web pages, including even my own Facebook account. Yet all the big news corporations cover this up. Let’s be clear — they aren’t interested in defending the freedom of the press or human rights. They have their own objectives: they may quarrel among themselves, but they all unite to defend the system and they all unite to confront their class enemies, the leaders of the Left. Hence the persecution. Especially of those leaders committed to confronting and defeating the system.

DR

What can be done to end this situation? What do you, as leaders of the global left in Latin America and Europe respectively, offer as a message of hope in this critical moment?

RC

You always have to maintain hope. If we lose hope, we may as well go home. This doesn’t mean that we aren’t sad to see honest comrades in jail or being persecuted. I am fortunate enough to be in Belgium rather than in prison, but it is painful to see your comrades in jail, persecuted, and to see the country being destroyed. You shouldn’t lose hope: we have left a mark, and indeed now we see that people are already starting to react. This year there will be three presidential elections in Uruguay, Argentina, and Bolivia, and we will probably win all three. If I could be a candidate, I would also win; and in Brazil, they had to jail Lula to stop him winning the election.

We shouldn’t see things in catastrophist terms. For instance, the Workers’ Party is still the second-biggest force in Brazil, whereas in the 1990s, the Left was at 3 percent. There is hope: we have left a mark, and I have faith that our peoples will wake up again. We have to continue working in an organized way. So, careful with all these generals who come along after the battle to criticize us, saying we haven’t left organization or consciousness or transmitted our values.

But this was the role of the academics, for example — and where are they now? They are cowed into silence or else right wing. They are not protesting for freedom and democracy like they were before. They have fallen silent, as dishonest accomplices to these atrocities. Our lives pushed us into a more visible position, but we should understand that this is everyone’s responsibility: people change through collective decisions. I have faith that things will change. These are very tough times, but as our great Ecuadorian hero Eloy Alfaro said, “The darker the night, the closer the dawn.”

JLM

I agree with Rafael. What’s happening here in Europe is terrible, with the emergence of the new — but very old — far right. Last time this ended in war, and now a new war is being prepared against Russia. The Americans are sticking their hands into European politics in order to push confrontation with Russia, leading to all kinds of terrible anti-Russian ideas.

But the most interesting thing, here, is the new awareness among the people, especially the youth, about the ecological issue and the need for politics — state policies — to resolve it. We need committed leaders, resources, money, determination, and public action to deal with the environmental question. This brings out a collective mentality, in the good sense: we aren’t going to escape this crisis as individuals, but all together.

End Mark

About the Author

Rafael Correa was president of Ecuador from 2007 to 2017.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon is a member of France's National Assembly and is the founder of La France Insoumise.

About the Interviewer

Denis Rogatyuk is a Russian-Australian writer, journalist, and researcher based in London. He's written for Green Left Weekly, TeleSUR, LINKS, International Viewpoint and other publications.

Patricio Mery Bell is a Chilean journalist, filmmaker, and communications consultant. His articles have been published in RT, Panorama news, El Ciudadano, Kaosenlared, La República Ecuador, and others.

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