The Political Crisis in Brazil

Photo by Jordi Bernabeu Farrús

Since the 1980s, Brazil’s Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) has been one of the largest political parties of the left in Latin America. It has held power at the federal level in Brazil, in coalition with other parties, since January 2003, and figured prominently as one of the central representatives of the ‘pink tide’ running against neoliberalism in Latin America. But just as the pink tide has been fracturing, from internal challenges in some cases and electoral reaction in others, a deep institutional crisis is consuming the PT government of Dilma Rousseff and, indeed, exposing political rot across the state institutions. The opposition forces leading the parliamentary effort of impeachment of Rousseff are also implicated in a range of corruption scandals. The forces of the right, including the far right, have been marshalling street demonstrations of considerable size. Where the political crisis will head next is anything but clear. We present three recent articles about the political crisis in Brazil and the proceedings to impeach president Dilma Rousseff.

Progressive commentators writing in English are covering a lot of the important aspects of the current crisis, but a couple of key points are consistently missing.

Politics in Brazil is being divided between supporters of the workers party and ‘coxinhas’ (a breaded chicken snack) who are conservatives in an incredibly rigid way: so rigid in fact that it no longer reflects reality. The Brazilian national media is terrible and feeds the division openly and shamelessly campaigning for the right. In fact, it is less campaign for the right and more anti PT campaigns in daily newspapers, magazines and television.

The short version is that right lost the elections again in 2014. They lost narrowly. But following those elections, president Dilma ended up entirely dependent on alliances with right-wing parties who are the majority both in Congress and in the Senate. To date, the right did not accept that they lost the election. They began actively campaigning for impeachment the day after the election – before even deciding what kind of evidence they would try to arrange.

Since the election, the price of oil has fallen, the U.S. dollar’s value rose and the value of the Real – the Brazilian currency has fallen, all of which produced immediate economic effects. All of the associated economic problems are being attributed personally to Dilma by the media. Every single day this message is repeated. We export a lot of oil in Canada as well. Thus, the exchange rate is linked to the price of oil. Changes in international oil prices have an immediate effect on the exchange rate and on the Canadian economy. Imagine the media blaming the Prime Minister (personally!) for this 24 hours a day.

The right is doing its best to destabilize the current government while simultaneously, the media repeats the message that Dilma is weak and unprepared and that she continues to be personally responsible for the reduction of economic growth (in Brazilian politics everything is personal, nothing is institutional or structural). How a woman that fought against dictatorship, was arrested and tortured, and then managed to climb to the position of president in this extremely macho, patriarchal system a as ‘weak’ is really impossible to understand.

Who’s in the Streets?

Outside of the dedicated hard core on both sides, millions of people took to the streets wearing the colors of the flag – which, in fact, is an enduring leftover of dictatorship. Brazil “love it or leave it” type of politics. The left uses red and so right defines them as “non-Brazilian.”

Of course there are always diverse motives that take people into the streets. And naturally, a diversity of banners that people make to share their messages. Some are genuinely shocking – like ‘why didn’t we kill them all in 64’ (an explicit reference to the time when the military seized power and killed trade unionists among many others), ‘End Democracy, Military Intervention Now!’, most recently, most recently ‘End Islamisization of Brazil’, banners have appeared in two different Brazilian cities.

This message really has absolutely nothing to do with the current situation, but does strongly suggest the involvement of international fascist groups.

For the millions participating in the demonstrations of the ‘right’, the statistics are clear: more than 70% are white – in a country where national statistics indicate that more than 50% of the population is black. More than 70% receive more than five times the minimum wage (in the top 5% of earners in this country). Clearly, they have a class position that they will defend. Critical and intelligent Brazilian analysts have identified that these people have privileges and are committed to fight to defend them. This has nothing to do with rights. Rights are for everyone. The issue here is defend privileges and thus, inequality.

Everyone knows someone who participated in these demonstrations. I consistently ask two things that I think are important in order to explore and understand the underlying logic of these protesters.

  1. Do they know that there is a legal campaign for impeachment? After confirmation, I ask if it is important to allow the legal process to run until its conclusion or if we should force Rousseff out regardless of that process and have elections tomorrow. ‘Forget the legal process’ is the most common answer. They do not care about the legal process or the rule of law.

  2. Who is organizing the demonstrations? Again, the replies are consistent: ‘I don’t know and don’t care who’s doing the organizing!’ There are four main groups, all of which have seriously wealthy people funding them. The famous Koch brothers from the U.S. included. One of the groups openly campaigns for the return of military dictatorship. Another says clearly that they learned a lot from the ‘MovimentoPasseLivre’ a decentralized group of engaged young people that organized the 2013 demonstrations here in Brazil; a group which, by the way, is genuinely left and continues to do a great job in the community, discussing, debating, organizing in a deeply democratic way – all of which has absolutely nothing to do with any of the organizers of current demonstrations). They used the tactic of ‘PasseLivre’ of not having clear leaders with decision making power or party affiliation in order to hide the powerful leaders behind them, because their leaders have very little support at the base of the population.

Why Now?

The economic crisis is being used at this particular time with the 2018 national elections in mind. The biggest worry is Lula’s return. It is an entirely valid concern. Lula has an amazing base of support, particularly in the poorest regions of the country.

Although the protesters were white, educated (but ignorant – high levels of formal education, but do not want to hear about ‘facts’) and the rich defending their class position (saying things like “Out with the PT so the currency goes up and we can go back to Miami to go shopping” in their Facebook groups), many others taking part in the huge demonstrations do not support the return of military dictatorship or this clear defense of the elite and their specific interests.

Many of these demonstrators are very frustrated because they supported the political and social project of the PT. The PT was coming in from the outside of this political system that so many feel is so rotten. The PT won power nationally promising to end systemic corruption. It hasn’t ended. Of course, much of the corruption was not personal enrichment (although this also exists), but buying votes to stay in power.

This does not make any difference at all for most voters. Feelings on the streets are similar to that pervasive, deep level of disappointment in South Africa when the harsh policies of neoliberalism arrived. What a disappointment when hopes are sold and things get worse rather than improve after so much struggle.

For now, we remain in this unstable situation, which clearly corrupt politicians retain the power to decide the impeachment of a democratically elected president and then take power themselves. At least one third of the members of the special commission that will examine impeachment are currently under investigation for criminal charges in the Supreme Court, including corruption, money laundering and electoral crimes.

While a good part of the population remains convinced that simply not liking a government provides a legitimate justification for impeachment…

Euan Gibb is a graduate of the Global Labour University and the Labour Studies programme at McMaster University. He is a trade union activist that has worked with various unions as a researcher and organizer.

This article first appeared on BrasilDebate.com.

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