Interview: Jonathan Watts reflects on five years as The Guardian’s Latin America correspondent

Jonathan Watts has been the The Guardian’s Latin America correspondent based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, since 2012. During that time, he has covered the region’s biggest stories: the World Cup and the Olympics, the sprawling Carwash corruption investigation, the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, and the challenges faced by indigenous communities in the Amazon. He has interviewed heads of state from nearly every major country in Latin America, covered Colombia’s peace deal and Venezuela’s economic collapse, and has traveled numerous times to Cuba during the opening of U.S. relations.

Before Latin America, Watts covered East Asia for The Guardian, including nearly a decade in China. After five years in Rio de Janeiro, he recently announced that he will be moving back to the United Kingdom to work as The Guardian’s global environment editor. I sat down with Watts for a wide-ranging interview in which he reflected on the enormous changes he has observed in Brazil and the region, and how he became an “accidental environmentalist.”

How did you end up in Brazil after covering East Asia for so many years? What was it like transitioning from China to Brazil at that particular moment in time?

It was a shock, because I had a lot of expectations and assumptions about Brazil that proved to be wrong. In my defense, I think I wasn’t the only one who made those mistakes, and in 2012 I was on the other side of the world and didn’t have an intimate knowledge of the country.

There were many reasons I came to Brazil — personal and professional — but on the professional side, one was to look for a new model of development. I’d been doing an environment post in East Asia for the previous three years, and had written a book about the Chinese environment. It had made me very pessimistic about the Chinese model of development because of the pollution in particular, but also the impact on wildlife, rivers… the story we all know about how shockingly the environment is deteriorating.

From my position on the other side of the world, it looked as if Brazil was making a lot of the same economic gains, but with more and better concern for people and the environment: investing more in people, in education and healthcare, and at the time it seemed that Brazil was making a lot of progress in reducing deforestation. So I was hoping to find a more positive model.

And at the time, there were other reasons to think Brazil was the go-getting country: it was about to host the World Cup and the Olympics, it had its first woman President, there was progress on deforestation so it was playing a very prominent role in climate talks, and the economy was going gangbusters — it had just overtaken the UK in terms of the size of the economy.

But it became apparent that although everything is stunningly beautiful — yes, there are wonderful blue skies and great forests — the economy was much weaker than people had believed, the problems of corruption and public dissatisfaction were apparent the next year at the 2013 protests, and the more I traveled around the region, I saw that actually Dilma was under exactly the same kind of pressures as leaders in other countries to put the economy before the environment.

I quickly came to realize that I was not covering the country I thought I would be covering. And I suppose that’s a fairly natural and healthy thing to happen: what you think a country is going to be, or as a journalist, what you think a story is going to be from distance when you’re planning, is almost never how it turns out. If you just write the story that you think you had, you’re going to write the story based on preconceptions, and so you’ve got to reflect the fact that things are not as you believed.

You interviewed then Mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Paes in June 2013 — when he described the Olympics as “a turning point, an opportunity to reinvent the city” — and then again in July 2016, when he called the Olympics “a missed opportunity” for Brazil. What happened?

I think that Rio and Brazil had oversold themselves in getting those bids, and promised much more than they would ever deliver, which anyone who is involved in Brazil will recognize as something that happens quite frequently, particularly with politicians.

And what they could deliver — for example, cleaning up Guanabara Bay, which would have been a fantastic legacy for the city — they gave that side up really quickly, which was a real missed opportunity. Brazil was also unlucky in that it hosted the 2014 World Cup just as the economy started going into decline, and by the time of the Olympics, the country was in the worst recession in decades. This made it much more difficult to do a good job because economic climate is crucial.

You could also say it’s bad luck, the timing of when Lava Jato (Carwash) began, and basically undermining the whole political class — for doing what they’d been doing for decades. If that hadn’t been hanging over them, there wouldn’t have been the same protests, the same sense of fury that many people felt at the time. You would have had a somewhat better atmosphere when the Olympics came.

So the Olympics and the World Cup didn’t deliver everything that was hoped and actually did a lot of damage to people who were pushed out of their homes for very little. And of course, it’s not only Brazil or Rio doing this, but [the Olympics] are an excuse for developers to push through projects that have been held up for a long time, often for good reasons — like environmental or social reasons. The stadiums are now horribly underused, crumbling, an embarrassment… but that’s the norm for these mega-events.

But I wouldn’t say they didn’t achieve anything: when you look at the construction of roads, or what’s happened to Rio’s Port area — that’s improved immensely. There are some good parts, but it could have achieved so much more. And in that sense…well at least Paes was honest about that.

What do you see as the future of the long-running Carwash investigation, now entering its fourth year?

I think it’s going in a bad direction now. The impeachment was clearly motivated partly by people who wanted to stop Lava Jato. I don’t think that was the only reason, but it was part of the reason, which we know from the secretly taped recordings of [Brazilian Senator] Romero Jucá.

Since President Michel Temer took over, we have seen a gradual undermining of the Lava Jato investigators’ ability to do their jobs. The effort to stop the investigation hasn’t succeeded yet, by any means, and there’s still a lot of public support for it. But when you see congressmen trying to introduce amnesty laws, trying to abolish plea bargaining… that would get them all off the hook. So I think unless there is huge public protest against evasion of justice, I am afraid that Lava Jato has already peaked. Yes, there are more politicians being implicated at the moment, but I would say there’s less chance of them being punished.

I would say that Lava Jato will mainly have achieved a short-term win for the judiciary, but what it means in political terms is no long-term change. The most corrupt politicians are still there, there’s a cabinet half-full of them at the moment.

So the people who will have been punished the most are the Worker’s Party, which allowed the investigation to happen in the first place by putting forward the law that allowed plea bargaining, by giving more independence to the attorney general and more resources and authority to the federal police. I’m not saying Dilma and Lula are innocent of the corruption — I think they almost definitely knew about it and even if they didn’t know about it, they definitely benefitted from it politically, if not personally. But I think they allowed the investigation to go ahead and now they’re the ones who got punished and others involved are running the country. Temer has been mentioned countless times in indictments and testimonies, but he hasn’t been charged. I think this shows that Lava Jato is not purely a judicial matter, there’s politics behind it.

Changing tack a bit — you’ve written extensively about the environment over the years — from indigenous communities fighting mining and infrastructure projects to the killing of environmental activists. This seems to be an issue that you are deeply passionate about.

I guess I’m a kind of an accidental environmentalist. When I started out in journalism, I mostly wrote about football, alcohol, TV, and sex. But I was young and foolish then… and I’m old and foolish now. But over time it became more and more apparent to me that this was the most important issue.

Maybe the real answer to your question is that covering China really made me appreciate that the environment is the story and everything else is a layer on the story. The environment is the base of everything. The next level is the economy — money and finance and how things go around — and the next level is politics. My theory from my experience in China is that the world is in so many political crises at the moment because our economy is running up against a developmental wall — we can’t grow as fast as we used to in the past — and that’s partly because we’ve run up against an environmental wall — we can’t get resources as cheaply or as easily as we did before. And we are now paying the costs of polluting the air and the water, the costs of climate change: all these things that have been off the books for years are coming onto the books. China made me think that the real basis of all the worlds problems is how we treat the environment, and that’s why I tend to focus on this more than any other issue.

It’s not so apparent when you live in Brazil, and you have beautiful clean air (most of the time) and in Rio you’ve got these gorgeous forests in the center of the city. So I think in Brazil it doesn’t feel so urgent, whereas in China you’re breathing the problem and it really hits home.

You can see that Brazil is making a lot of these same mistakes. They couldn’t even clean up Guanabara Bay, which is right next to your main tourist draw, at a time when the whole world’s attention was on it, at a time when you had oil money flowing in and your economy was the best its ever been and you still couldn’t do it? It’s hard to think that this is the model for anything.

What has it been like covering the massive transformations that have taken place in other countries in the region?

It’s a wonderful region to cover for a journalist — it’s such a privileged job to be a correspondent anywhere — and the most frustrating part is that it’s hard to do the region justice because it’s so big. We have stringers in many of the countries and they do a great job, but you always feel like you could do more.

And in the region as a whole there’s been some huge stories: The gradual collapse of Venezuela has been an incredibly depressing spectacle. The progress in the peace talks in Colombia has been very positive — the world’s oldest war finally has a peace deal.

Another thing about Latin America is that compared to China, the leaders are really accessible. In China, it’s difficult even to talk to a minister, but in Latin America, you can pretty much interview any leader — which is a good sign. This is still pretty much a democratic part of the world, and there is an accessibility and a degree of accountability that there isn’t in China.

And then Cuba is this piece of history that you visit and it’s visually still there because the economy never really moved on, so you’ve got all these old cars and old buildings, and yet at the same time, it’s reaching out and opening up in a way that it hasn’t done in a very long time. The visit by the Pope, the visit by President Obama, the emotional side of being there and seeing people watch the Rolling Stones, it’s wonderful to see all of that. And the future is far from certain, but sometimes it’s an antidote to some of the negative news.

I had been to the last election that Chavez fought — you knew he was sick with cancer — and I was invited on his campaign float as it went through the streets. I was hoping to interview him, and I was enjoying it and at the same time I was frustrated…like is he actually going to turn around and let me do an interview with him — clearly not, he had hundreds of thousands of people just screaming, but it was kind of poignant: I have this video of just the back of his head as he’s waving goodbye to everyone. There are those kinds of really special moments.

And then there’s the equally satisfying side being able to go to the middle of the Amazon and to talk to a community where maybe no foreign journalist has ever gone before and try to find out about their situation. I wonder how long these kinds of jobs are going to exist, so I’ve been really lucky to have this position at this time.

What’s something that people get wrong or misunderstand about Latin America? What is something that’s surprised you over these years?

It wasn’t a complete surprise, but the extent and the importance of it just grows stronger the longer you’re here, and that’s the two big historical shames of the region: How indigenous people have suffered — and continue to suffer — and the other is the legacy of slavery.

I knew about that legacy but mostly the image I had was of this harmonious multiethnic democracy, and then you realize how much you can still see the legacy of slavery [in Brazil], the scale of it, the number of slaves who were brought here, and how difficult things still are in terms of racial equality.

And the situation facing a lot of indigenous groups throughout Latin America was much worse than I realized before I came here. It’s the old story with a modern twist: as resources — food commodities and minerals — become harder to get in the world as a whole, some big companies are pushing to more and more remote places — in the middle of the Amazon, high up in the mountains. It’s in those final remote places that indigenous groups have been pushed, so they’re coming under all sorts of pressure in many countries from European, U.S., Chinese mining companies. Even though indigenous people have more rights and visibility — at least on paper — it’s still the old story that continues to this day.

I think it’s really hard to talk about the region as a whole. The countries are really different from one another and that’s quite striking when you come here. The degree to which the politics are more in favor of the old oligarchs or the degree to which popular movements have become more successful; the extent to which indigenous groups are a large majority with political influence or a small minority that’s just squeezed further and further away, the extent to which those countries had slavery or didn’t…

Any tips for your replacement? What do they have to look forward to?

They can look forward to an incredibly dynamic beat and a lot of very beautiful landscapes and having to jet up on a staggeringly large number of different political systems and leaders.

I don’t think I could say anything that will quite fit everything I should tell my successor. I would say just get out as much as possible, visit as many places as possible. But that is advice for journalists anywhere: Get out, don’t just read online and the newspapers. Really get out and see things and talk to people.

Kate Steiker-Ginzberg is a freelance journalist and producer who divides time between Rio de Janeiro and Philadelphia. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.