Operation Car Wash and Some of its Ubiquitous Terms

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Photo by Igor Ovsyannykov via Unsplash

Post by special guest author Ana Gauz

Soap operas are one of Brazil’s most distinctive cultural expressions, capable of unifying Brazilians of all social classes. And for the past three years, a political scandal has turned into one of Brazil’s most popular plots (no pun intended).

What I’m referring to is Operation Car Wash, or Operação Lava Jato, in Portuguese, which is laden with fun facts (curious facts would be more appropriate here), starting from its very denomination.

The entire ordeal is named after the spot where part of the illegal operations took place: a gas station called Posto da Torre, located in Brasília, the capital of Brazil. The business was a front for a currency exchange house where generous amounts of illegally obtained cash would be forwarded to the hands of the politicians involved. At this shopping center of sorts, there was also a convenience store, an eatery, even a dry cleaner. No car wash, though.

Another fun fact, now from the linguistic viewpoint, is that lava a jato (car wash) is the correct form of the term. However, the predominant usage of the term in the media, authorities, and everyone else is Lava Jato.

It’s also interesting to note that the operation’s name in English has appeared in the US media in two more ways, both acceptable: Car Wash or Carwash Operation.

This whole affair related to Operation Car Wash is something too familiar to Brazilians. It is just one more corruption-related scandal that riddles not only politics, but institutions and society alike. And its roots go deep and far, back to Brazil’s colonization history, based on powerful people exploring, or better yet exploiting, the country for their personal gain. Throughout time, Brazil came to be a nation where many, once they ascend to a position that gives them some power or a minimal chance to benefit from it, do not hold the country’s best interest at heart.

Here are some of those terms, as used by media and authorities in Brazil, and their respective translations in English.

• Delação premiada: Plea Bargain or Plea Bargaining (like many terms translated between different legal systems, there is no exact linguistic equivalent). In Brazil, delação premiada applies when the defendant agrees to provide valuable information to the investigation (“spilling the beans”) in exchange for a milder sentence, a reduced sentence or even a pardon. On the other hand, “plea bargain” is, in a simplified explanation, an agreement between the defendant and the prosecutor, where the former pleads guilty to a lesser offense in return for a reduced sentence, a more lenient sentence, or another benefit from the prosecution. According to Black’s Law Dictionary’s definitions and examples, one could translate delação premiada as “(to turn) state’s evidence.”[Black’s Law Dictionary, 8th Edition, page 1555]. However, “plea bargain” is the term more frequently used in writings about this operation.

• Suborno or propina: Bribe or kickback, where the latter applies to a contract under which the hired contractor gives part of the money received back to the client.

• Doleiro: Dollar Smuggler, and not “dollar exchanger” because the latter does not convey the idea of an illegal currency exchange operation. It’s also worth mentioning that there might be other currencies involved, besides the dollar.

• Propinocracia: Bribocracy, a government led by bribes.

• Falcatrua: Fraud, though it’s worth noting that falcatrua is a colloquial term in Brazil, whereas fraud has a higher register in English.

• Acordo de leniência: Leniency Agreement, one that is executed by companies that agree to collaborate with the investigation, providing valuable information while reimbursing the government monies related to the wrongdoing. In doing so, the companies are allowed to enter new contracts with the government.

• Estagflação: Stagflation, a term coined in the 70s in the realm of economics, which appears in many texts related to Operation Car Wash, refers to economic stagnation followed by an enduring inflation.

• Apropriação indébita: Embezzlement, an easy one, but worth mentioning for its consistent presence in texts on the matter.

The terminology used in Operation Car Wash offers a rich and intriguing material to professionals in the legal field or to someone who works with languages. It is worth noticing that this terminology mixes legal and informal terms, truthful to the usual jesting tone Brazilians like to use even when dealing with very serious matters.

  1 comment for “Operation Car Wash and Some of its Ubiquitous Terms

  1. Paulo Mendes
    July 14, 2017 at 11:54 pm

    For “doleiro” you could use “black market [FX] dealer.” Many Brazilians, especially those on the wrong side of 40, associate doleiros with buying USD banknotes on street corners, but nowadays you can buy your greenbacks at major banks and it seems that the doleiros, at least the ones involved in lava jato, have become, fundamentally, money launderers for hire. In addition to smuggling physical greenbacks, they are also well versed in other shenanigans such as offshore shell companies, bogus invoices and suchlike.

    You can find an interesting discussion of the doleiros’ role and image in Brazilian society at http://www.economia.puc-rio.br/gfranco/A148.htm.


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