Brazil Political Reviews
Over the past year a lot has happened in Brazil. Jair Bolsonaro was elected as the new president in 2018, making many worried. Many view his positive attitude towards the military dictatorship as a threat to democracy, and many are alarmed by his failure to protect both minorities and the rainforest. Latin American groups are currently working on updating the country pages to provide a more up-to-date description of the political and social developments in Brazil. In the meantime, please read this 2016 article.
2016 should be Brazil’s year. After seven years of preparation, the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Fire is lit, and the world’s eyes are on the Latin American giant. Zika outbreaks and growing insecurity scare Olympic tourists, the economy is at a standstill, a giant corruption scandal encompasses the entire political and economic elite and President Dilma Rousseff is on trial. Brazilian democracy is facing its toughest times since the military dictatorship.
The word on everyone’s lips in Brazil in recent years has been corruption. The roll-up of the so-called car wash operation (Operação Lava-Jato) has uncovered the biggest corruption scandal in Brazil’s history. The case started in March 2014, when Paulo Roberto Costa, head of refining at the state-controlled oil company Petrobras between 2004 and 2012, was arrested on charges of laundering. Since then it has the ball on. Billions of kroner in bribes have gone from large construction companies to key figures in the Labor Party (NPT) and other members of the government. Through the bribes, the construction companies entered into contracts with Petrobras in the period 2003-2010. Dilma is not herself accused of being involved in the corruption scandal, but many believe she must have known something since she was chairing the Petrobras board during the current period.
Another key clue is finance. Following an adventurous growth since the turn of the millennium, Brazil’s economy has been in recession for the past two years. Increased inflation, lower trade surpluses, rising unemployment and weakening currencies mean that the population, regardless of social, economic and political background, has had less to contend with. Therefore, when it comes to how the corrupt political elite has received bribes and shunned funds that should have benefited the public, it therefore creates great anger and frustration. Massive demonstrations against corruption and mismanagement have therefore brought millions of Brazilians from across the political scale to the streets in recent years.
A third theme is national law. Dilma Rousseff has struggled with very low support since she won a second presidential term by a barely majority in 2014. Demand for Dilma’s departure has been a recurring theme ever since, and in December 2015, the House of Commons began directing her right. Dilma stands accused of decorating the national accounts before the 2014 presidential election, a practice she claims has been common among her predecessors. If there is a somewhat thin excuse, budget-making is a very thin foundation for casting a democratically elected president. The court case must therefore be viewed within the context of the ongoing economic and political crisis. To understand the political chaos that is taking place in Brazil today, we need to look back in time and look at the change processes that have been going on over the last decades.
First decade of the 2000s: PT and Lulas Brazil
According to Countryaah, the Labor Party (PT) has ruled Brazil continuously since 2002. When Dilma took over the presidency in 2011 after historically popular Inácio “Lula” da Silva, she inherited a Brazil where everything seemed to go the right way. Stable economic growth through two financial crises, massive oil discoveries, halving poverty and historic reduction of deforestation in the Amazon was crowned by the country winning the right to host both the 2014 World Cup and Summer Olympics in 2016. Dilma’s election campaign focused only on one thing – to continue Lula’s success recipe.
NPT’s major project in government has been economic growth linked to redistribution and poverty reduction. This was made possible due to a combination of several factors. High prices for Brazil’s most important raw materials on the world market in the 2000s created historical profits in Brazil’s foreign trade. Adventurous deep-sea oil discoveries in 2007 led to massive investments in Brazil’s oil industry and maritime industries. A third important factor for Brazil’s economic growth was a rapidly growing domestic market due to NPT’s social policy. An uneven distribution of wealth has always been an obstacle to long-term economic growth in Brazil. NPT’s offensive equalization policy has sought to change this. The flagship has been the social program Bolsa Família, which transfers money to poor families to ensure that their children attend school, follows public vaccination schemes and health programs for pregnant women. In addition, higher minimum wages, low unemployment and easier access to loans helped Brazil’s home market grow strongly. 20-30 million people were lifted out of poverty in NPT’s first decade in government, and half of the population is now considered part of the “new” middle class (the so-called “class C”, those who earn enough to have some money again at the end of the month when all expenses are covered).
Despite innovative social programs, economic policy has emphasized market-driven economic growth and integration into the global capitalist system. The World Cup and the Olympics have been promoted as tools for development. These events provide tremendous international exposure and should be Brazil’s opportunity to emerge as an international superpower. However, the challenges have been queued. Housing shortages, absent sewage systems, lousy public transport and a lack of public safety are just some of the challenges Brazilian big cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo face. Social inequality persists and, according to the UN, Brazilian cities are among the most diverse in the world. The World Cup and Olympics promised social and environmental investment to confront this, but after a decade of preparation, the back of the medal by arranging such sporting events has come out clearly. Billions are spent on infrastructure and stadiums that will not benefit the majority of the population. Corruption rumors have flourished and tens of thousands have been forced to relocate. The police who are supposed to keep “order” have also been accused of unnecessary use of violence. The latest in numerous scandals is the Zika outbreak that has created international headlines in the last six months. The virus that causes malformations in unborn babies is spread through the same mosquito that causes hundreds of thousands of dengue fever every year. The promised investments in sewage and clean-up of the highly polluted bay outside Rio have never materialized, and mosquitoes and rats continue to spread disease.
A major weakness is therefore that the countervailing measures have to a large extent been based on money transfers and loan-financed consumption. Despite the fact that more people have become part of the middle class, it is primarily consumption that has increased. Profound structural changes have failed, and public services such as health and education are still under criticism. This is part of the reason for the massive demonstrations Brazil saw in June in 2013. Millions of people took to the streets across the country demonstrating against mispricing of public investment and violations of social rights.
NPT in government has been dependent on support from the traditional conservative elites. Thus, reactionary forces with strong ties to the dictatorship have kept tentacles far into the corridors of power. Driven by a wave of economic growth and faith in the future, Lula succeeded in his reign – at least apparently – to balance the interests of the economic and political elite and the poor majority. Dilma has not had the luck of her predecessor with the timing of favorable international economic cycles. Lower demand for raw materials such as soy, the fall in oil prices and the significance of the corruption scandal for international markets’ confidence in Brazil have had major consequences for the economy. In times of crisis, underlying contradictions appear again. Budgets need to be cut and priorities set, and there are major disagreements as to how this should be done. Dilma lacks Lula’s charisma and diplomatic capabilities, and has therefore struggled to keep the broad government coalition together.
With the media group o Globo at the forefront, NPT has been portrayed as the big scapegoat for everything that has gone wrong in recent years. Since the re-election in 2014, Dilma’s membership has dropped to only 10 percent, and 60 percent believe she should step down. There is no doubt that Dilma has failed a lot. She is perceived as self-reliant and not very flexible, and many consider it unbelievable that she did not know anything about the extensive corruption that was taking place when she was chaired by Petrobras. Corruption is undoubtedly an important issue among the reasons cited by the opposition to legitimize the demand for Dilma’s departure. The justice system should be honored to have for the first time started a real wash of this systemic problem. At the same time, it is ironic that the political opposition has “capped” the corruption card.
In December 2015, Eduardo Cunha, President of the lower house of Congress, made a demand for state law. Often described as Brazil’s Frank Underwood in reference to the ruthless president of the TV series House of Cards, Cunha even has her pigs in the woods. His name is constantly appearing in connection with corruption charges and secret accounts abroad. He allegedly started the prosecution case against Dilma as a personal revenge attack for being investigated by these offenses. Admittedly, Cunha was finally confronted with her actions and deposited in early May.
The process of national law has evolved into a farce, where it is clear how rotten the political system in Brazil is. Sunday, April 17, when the lower house in Congress voted to sue Dilma for state law, will stand as a picture of this. One by one, the elected officials dedicated their “yes to state law” to God, their families, or the fight against corruption – something ironic in that 318 of the 513 members are under investigation for corruption or other offenses themselves. The most absurd moment came when Jair Bolsonaro, who represents a small party on the far right, dedicated his voice to a colonel who, under the dictatorship, ran a notorious torture chamber where, among other things, Dilma was tortured. His son, also a congressman, dedicated his vote to the coup makers in 1964. It took 81 representatives before anyone mentioned what Dilma is actually accused of and fewer than a dozen mentioned it at all. In this sense, this appears to be a politically motivated process, rather than an objective and neutral investigation of the crime Dilma is actually accused of. It is speculated as to whether opposition politicians who know it are burning under their feet as constantly new names are mentioned in the corruption scandal have a wish that the national court case could gradually drain the car wash operation into real content. Several judges have made decisions that are clearly driven by personal political interests rather than legal grounds. The process was passed from the lower house to the Senate, which on May 11 voted to take the matter further. Vice President Michel Temer, also accused of corruption, resigns as interim president until the final decision falls in half a year’s time. The opposition, which for months has shouted the slogan “out with Dilma”, has thus fulfilled its demand.
The massive demonstrations demanding Dilma’s departure have, in Brazilian and international media, tended to be portrayed as a popular claim against an unpopular despot who should listen to the streets and three of them. At the same time, it is worth looking at what part of the population these protesters represent. The majority are more notch whiter, richer, and better educated than average. For the first time since the military coup in 1964, the right side has managed to mobilize the masses. NPT’s government project has not been without shortcomings. But it has led to the poorest having more to contend with and taking greater part in Brazilian society. With more money in their hands, they have increased the pressure on private services such as health and education. The traditional middle class and the elite, who have had a monopoly on these privileges, therefore feel their position threatened, especially in economic downturns. These demonstrations are therefore a symbol of a growing conservative counter-reaction after a decade and a half of NPT’s redistribution policy.
Opponents of national law call the process an institutional coup, in which the opposition exploits the system to cast a democratically elected president they politically disagree with. Demonstrations against national law and in support of democracy have been organized in parallel with the right-wing protest marches. But they have not been able to mobilize as many people. The sword campaign against NPT in the media has undoubtedly had its effect. At the same time, it is also PT’s own fault. Government wear and disappointment over NPT’s policy and interference in the corruption scandal has left many disillusioned on the left. It is difficult to mobilize in support of a NPT that has fallen as deep as it has.
Lula and PT partly came to power as a moral alternative to the old, corrupt elite. As time has passed, the disappointment over how NPT has handled the challenges of managing Brazil has grown. Cooperation with the conservative political and economic elite has limited the scope for radical initiatives by the left wing in NPT, which disillusioned have had to realize that NPT in government is no longer a socialist and class-conscious party with the desire to introduce a labor-based democracy. NPT’s trademark in the 1980s and 1990s, namely direct political participation in the form of participatory budgeting and inclusive town planning councils, has slowly but surely been emptied of real content and influence. The collaboration with the big landowners and agrobusiness has also weakened the voice of the environmental movement,
After a decade and a half in power, the distance to the organized grassroots in the party and the rest of the left has grown large, and NPT is no longer the unifying voice from the left. Lula herself and other key NPT figures have been involved in the car wash operation. This is NPT’s unpleasant truth: they themselves have become the governing and corrupt elite they have always demonstrated against.