Closer to Impeachment in Brazil?

After meeting with the Minister of the Supreme Federal Tribunal to discuss the possibility of impeachment, the president of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies (the “lower” house of Brazil’s bicameral Congress), Eduardo Cunha, has announced that his party, the Partido Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, PMDB), has broken its coalition with President Dilma Rousseff and is now operating as an opposition party.

This is a not-insignificant shift. The PMDB is the biggest party in Brazil, and tends to be considered “centrist,” though given the party’s size, that’s a semi-misleading characteristic. While some in the PMDB lean toward more progressive issues, others lean much further to the right, meaning the party is more heterogeneous than either the initials or the characterization as a party of the “center” indicate. However, it is that size that makes the withdrawal of the PMDB’s support for Dilma a major issue. As I noted before, given the nature of presidential parliamentarism in Brazil, the president relies on coalition-building to pass her/his legislative agenda. With the PMDB withdrawing its support and serving as an opposition voice (joining the rightisth PSDB and Democratas parties, among others), it will be far more difficult for Dilma to get any of her desired policies that require Congressional approval passed through Congress.

This shift does not necessarily indicate impeachment is imminent, however. According to reports, the meeting with the TSE over the issue of impeachment found that it would be “difficult,” in no small part due to the fact that the House would need to muster 342 votes (out of 513) to move toward impeachment.

That’s not to say impeachment is less likely; indeed, with the PMDB now functioning as the opposition to Dilma’s PT government and coalition, it marks a significant rupture with the government. However, there are several other likely factors in play here. On the one hand, given how much Dilma’s popularity has sunk amidst emergent corruption scandals (that again well pre-date her administration) and economic slowdown (that has occurred under her administration), the PMDB could be simply abandoning a sinking ship, trying to sever its connection with an unpopular government. More interestingly, the PMDB could also be setting up a situation where it is more autonomous in an attempt to field a seriois presidential candidate in 2018. In the past, the PMDB has been content to form coalitions with other parties in order to gain a greater role in the Cabinet. Indeed, the last time the PMDB had a presidential candidate was in 1994, when Orestes Quércia ran (and received only 4.4% of the vote). This break with the government could be the PMDB’s first step to have a greater presence in the presidential elections, rather than operating as a “king-maker” as it has over the past 21 years.

What is not certain is that there will be a unified bloc against Dilma. While PMDB now joins the PSDB, Democratas, some in the PP, and others, this is far from a homogeneous group in things as basic as the function of the state, social policies, economics, etc. Indeed, with the PMDB relatively “late” to the opposition, it’s quite possible that there will be multiple, highly-fractured opposition voices as well. In other words, the PMDB’s abandonment of the PT does not mean that the opposition will suddenly be coherent or unified. Indeed, it will be interesting to see what the fallout is within the PMDB, too; given its sheer size, and the unpopularity of Cunha among many, it is not clear that his decision to abandon the PT reflects a large number of voices in his own party.

Whether that shift leads to an end to the back-room deals that have plagued presidential parliamentarism is less clear – I’m inclined to say no, simply because now the PMDB is working with other parties in contexts where such deal-making can happen. No matter what, though, the most recent development will be worth watching, as it could have considerable long-term effects on Brazilian politics. What is immediately certain is that, while impeachment is still some way off, the PMDB has effectively asserted its power in a way that will greatly weaken Dilma’s (and the executive branch’s) power for the remaining 3 years of her term (unless something brings the PMDB back), while Congress’s power to prevent her from passing her agenda is greatly enhanced now.

Posted in Brazil, Impeachment, Latin American Politics | Leave a comment

Attempts to Address Past Injustices for Indigenous Peoples

A couple of stories worth noting regarding indigenous peoples in Latin America last week. The more visible one came from Pope Francis’s trip to Latin America. At his stop in Bolivia, he gave an address that, in addition to calling for economic systems that offer better and more equal treatment for the poor, apologized for the often brutal treatment Catholics subjected indigenous peoples to under colonization in both North and South America (full address here). This apology is overdue, naturally, but that it came from Pope Francis (with a remarkable record of attempting to address injustice for the marginalized and oppressed in his short tenure as pope) is unsurprising. And there is plenty the Catholic church has to apologize for, from Diego de Landa’s destruction of virtually all Mayan texts in the Yucatan in the 1500s to the Franciscans’ abuse, exploitation of, and violence against the Pueblos of New Mexico; from the extirpation campaigns designed to destroy indigenous culture and religion in the Andes, to the Jesuit aldeais that relocated and centralized indigenous peoples for conversion in Brazil, but ultimately played a key role in the loss of their lands and their deaths through disease. Admittedly, such an apology does little to address the actual issues indigenous peoples suffered under colonialism, nor does it immediately impact the ongoing struggles many indigenous groups face in North and South America. But just as a state apologizing for past human rights abuses matters symbolically and institutionally, so too does this apology matter.

A story that flew under the radar, but that more directly impacted an indigenous group, was the announcement that the Brazilian Development Bank (Banco Nacional do Desenvolvimento, BNDES) has for the first time provided funds directly to an indigenous group. BNDES, typically funding infrastructure projects, has given $6.6 million reais (roughly 2 million US dollars) to the Ashaninka people to aid them in order to help them protect the forest where the 1,200 Ashaninka live. The money will hopefully help reduce illegal foresting. However, the Ashaninka’s location likely matters in BNDES’s decision – their lands border Peru, and the illegal logging expeditions often come from neighboring Peru. It is worth noting that BNDES has not provided aid for similar projects for indigenous people who face deforestation from Brazilians. Additionally, it is worth pointing out that BNDES’s funds to the Ashaninka represent .02% of its funding just for hydroelectric dams (most notably, but not exclusively the Belo Monte dam) in Brazil that are destroying indigenous lands. So the BNDES funding still overall supports projects that in general have proven/are proving devastating for indigenous groups in Brazil. Yet the fact that BNDES has for the first time directly aided an indigenous group with a project that addresses indigenous needs as they themselves defined it is at least an important and, like Pope Francis’s address, long-overdue move to try to address the ongoing inequalities, oppression, and injustices that indigenous peoples confront.


Posted in Brazil, Catholicism in the Americas, Indigenous Peoples, Latin America, Pope Francis

Impeachment vs. Impeachable Offenses

Boz responds to my thoughts on impeachment yesterday, and raises a point worth clarifying:

While it doesn’t live up to the democratic ideal, impeachment is almost always more of a political than a legal question.

1) Does the public want the president impeached?
2) Do the president’s opponents have the votes in the legislature to win an impeachment fight?

For those who try to measure political stability, those questions matter far more than whether the president has committed a violation of the constitution that meets the legal definition of impeachment.

Importantly, while most constitutions define reasons for impeachment, there isn’t any check on legislatures (other than voters in the next election) to make sure that they only impeach under those defined circumstances. Congresses can impeach with impunity. That was certainly a lesson from Paraguay, where President Lugo’s 2012 impeachment was seen as without basis, but wasn’t defined as a coup by most governments in the world.

To be clear, I do not think that just because there may not be anything to impeach Dilma for does not mean she will not be impeached. [And to be fair to Boz, I left the issue vague/undefined, so his reading was not uncharitable.] Indeed, I fully agree with Boz that impeachment can still happen, even if there is not an impeachable offense uncovered. However, I think the question of impeachment with impeachable charges vs. impeachment for the sake of removing a politician is an important distinction [and I do not mean to suggest Boz thinks otherwise]. As I mentioned yesterday, the Paraguayan Congress’s impeachment and removal from office of Fernando Lugo on the flimsiest and vaguest of charges in a process that was a mockery of due process is a recent and powerful example of how that can work.

This is why media narratives about impeachment matter so much, especially in a country whose mass media is overwhelmingly run by conservative elites/outlets based in the Southeast, targeting the middle and upper classes and the region that historically and comparatively is much better off than the rest of Brazil. These outlets have by and large spent well over 25 years doing their best to paint the PT and more left-leaning parties in the worst light possible [though given its presence on the national political stage since Lula’s loss in the 1989 elections, a loss in no small part shaped by O Globo’s highly questionable, if not outright manipulative, coverage], even while overlooking political issues like corruption in parties like the PSDB, which these outlets and many in their target audience support (explicitly or implicitly).

But that is also why it is worth highlighting the lack of an apparent impeachable offense. As I wrote in 2012,

the impeachment has revealed a true institutional threat to electoral politics and checks and balances in Paraguay; if Congress can remove somebody they do not like that quickly, it not only undermines the people’s power in choosing their presidents; it also undermines the power of the president himself, at least greatly reducing (if not eliminating) the checks and balances that are constitutionally supposed to define the dynamics of power between the Paraguayan President and Congress. The fact that this impeachment was successful simultaneously establishes the precedent for Congress to annul the people’s choice for president and grants Congress considerable power over the President.

This understanding of the politicization of impeachment would hold if Dilma were impeached without any actual impeachable offenses being brought forth, just as it would hold for any case in which impeachment is used as a political, rather than a legal, tool. To impeach a president (or any high-ranking political figure) over partisan opposition is simultaneously a considerable blow to the public power to elect leaders and to the function of checks and balances in democratic regimes.

It is not that protesting there is nothing impeachable (and again, that is as it stands right now – one never knows what could be uncovered later) means there will not or cannot be an impeachment. Rather, it is to call attention to the ways in which media shape public perception and political processes, the ways in which legislatures act, and the ways in which Congress, the media, and the public itself can ultimately undermine democratic institutions through partisan antagonism that abuses legal processes like impeachment as they’re defined.

Posted in Brazil, Impeachment, Latin American Politics, Legal Issues in Latin America

On the Possibility/Threat of Impeachment in Brazil

I thought I’d wade into the impeachment issue that has come up in Brazil in the past few months. The short version of the (very complicated) story is that a corruption scandal involving the state-run Petrobras, kickbacks, and embezzlement has emerged in the last several months. This scandal, alongside a weakening economy, has devastated Dilma Rousseff’s popularity/escalated discontent with her government. Adding to the complicated picture is the fact that, with the executive currently weakened by unpopularity and scandal, various political actors and blocs in Congress are jostling to assert more power. The result has been growing calls for impeachment, rising in March and April and returning again this week after the opposition party PSDB [which has lost elections to the PT’s Lula in 2002 and 2006, and then to Rousseff in 2010 and 2014] held its annual convention.

Greg and Boz have covered it some. Boz read Dilma’s interview this week as overly-defensive; perhaps it was, though that was not the sense I got from it. It rather seemed to me to be her responding to the emphatic (partisan) calls for her to leave office with an equally emphatic refusal to do so.

Like Greg, I’m not sure what is the impeachable offense here, and neither are most in Brazil. The general sentiment has been, “we don’t like her presidency,” but as Greg points out, that’s not an impeachable offense. The closest it comes is that Dilma was once on the board of directors for Petrobrás during part of the period of the corrupt practices that have since emerged, but that’s problematic for a couple of reasons. First, a single seat on the the board of directors is in no way, shape, or form an indicator of some sense of totalizing power. Additionally, her position was also largely ceremonial, as she was the Minister of Energy at the time, and thus was automatically appointed to the board. The likelihood of her overseeing some grand scheme of corruption in such a position as just one of many members of the board is even more improbable; while her detractors allege some sort of powerful, hidden machinations on her part, such language seems more of fantasy to depose her than of a reality, and such concerns never popped up in the mid-2000s when she was actually serving on the board. And finally, the reality is that the corruption scandal that has hit her government hard dates back to the presidency of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003) and continued under Lula da Silva (2003-2011) before finally coming to light in Rousseff’s second term. That this is a scandal that not only transcends administrations, but crosses partisan lines (Cardoso’s PSDB and Lula’s/Rousseff’s PT are major political antagonists) suggests this is a systemic problem, not something specifically borne of malpractice on her part as either president or Minister of Energy. To be clear, this is not some partisan defense of Dilma, but it just is not clear what the impeachable offense is, nor have I heard or read an articulate, clearly-defined case for her impeachment beyond either partisan politics or general discontent with the political system in Brazil.

I’ve heard some say she should be impeached on the grounds of corruption – not on anything specific, but based on its sheer existence coming to light (though it’s not like this is the first corruption scandal, given that there have been major allegations of corruption under virtually every president since the return to democracy in 1985) under Dilma’s administration. The charge basically being, even if it has been around for some time (and it has – Fernando Collor was forced to leave office over corruption, and the administrations of both Cardoso and Lula faced corruption scandals, to say nothing of the numerous allegations surrounding even more numerous members of both chambers of Congress over the past several decades), she did not do anything to stop it, and that’s an impeachable offense.

But this logic does not exactly hold up, either. If Congress does go after her for the vaguely defined existence of “corruption” and/or her failure to act on it, it will be more than a bit cynical. For instance, Renan Calheiros, the current president of the Senate, has faced no fewer than four charges of corruption that were brought to hearing on the Senate floor in 2007 (and is currently under investigation again); while the Senate voted to not continue the investigation, the vote to stop proceedings occurred through secret ballot, leaving many Brazilians furious and suggesting backroom deal-making that itself smelled of corrupt bargains. [The outrage was strong enough that Congress ended up eliminating the secret ballot on ethics violation votes – after Calheiros had escaped impeachment hearings himself.] If the Chamber of Deputies brought forth articles for impeachment, it is quite possible that Calheiros, as president of Senate, would play a key role in the trial. A man who actually faced four charges of corruption and maintained his office through questionable voting overseeing a trial based on vaguely-defined corruption would be beyond cynical and driven by institutional and/or partisan politics, rather than actual concern for the law.

And the partisanship issue here cannot be overstated, and in fact undermines the case for impeachment not just legally, but chronologically. In my own research, I’ve encountered calls for Dilma’s impeachment going back to 2012 and popping up both in the 2013 protests and in 2014. Such calls inevitably come from middle- and upper-middle class sectors in the Southeast, and especially from São Paulo. Of course, these sectors are largely white and well-off and bristle at the PT’s ties to the poor, be it through social programs that have aided the impoverished Northeast, through programs like affirmative action designed to reduce racial inequality in Brazil, or just through the fact that Lula was a former union-leader without higher education [though anecdotal, the number of times I personally heard conservative middle-class sectors zero in on his background as a laborer and so-called “lack of education” as the reason they hated him were far too many to count]. In other words, these calls for impeachment well pre-date any actual scandal or weakened economy; that they do so suggests that this is less a concern of institutional abuse of power, and more a case of partisan hatred.

As for general discontent with the political system, it is a problematic system (though point to a political system that is problem-free). The multi-party blocs in Congress require coalition building in the vein of parliamentarism, while Brazil still has a popularly-elected president at the head of the executive branch. This is, suffice to say, a unique system that some have come to call “presidential parliamentarism.” In grad school, I read several articles debating not only whether presidential parliamentarism could work in Brazil (most were skeptical), but whether it could work at all anywhere (several were still skeptical). One of the big questions/issues raised is that the very nature of multi-party blocs in Congress facilitate conditions that require the president and/or party leaders in Congress to do backroom deals that are less-than-transparent and often corrupt in order to get legislative agendas through Congress. And it’s not just that Brazil rejected a parliamentary system in 1993, as Greg points out; it has rejected parliamentarism multiple times. When João Goulart became president in 1961 after the resignation of Janio Quadros, the military tried to prevent the succession, fearing Goulart was a “leftist” (at a time where Cold War rhetoric shaped political perceptions). A number of social groups and political actors resisted the military’s efforts to prevent Goulart’s constitutional rise to the presidency. The result was that Goulart became president, but the military and the opposition conservative parties imposed upon him a parliamentary system, with a prime minister and cabinet having to approve his policies. This system remained in place until 1963, when Brazilians overwhelmingly voted to restore full presidential powers to Goulart and abolish this unique arrangement, precisely because it was ineffective. So calls for a parliamentary system now seem a bit misplaced.

Of course, Rousseff and her supporters (or, even more regularly, opponents of the conservative forces calling for her resignation) allege that the opposition is embarking down the road toward a coup. Such concerns aren’t necessarily entirely accurate, but nor are they entirely misplaced, as the opposition is calling for her forced removal before her term is up. Indeed, some people, either unaware of the horrors of the past or unaffected by them (or even supportive of them), were going so far as to call on the military to step in and overthrow the government. This seems highly unlikely, to put it mildly; the military is still dealing with negative perceptions for its dictatorship of 1964-85, and, perhaps more importantly, there is no Cold War context. As a result, the military does not fear a “communist” revolution that requires pre-emptive intervention.

Like Boz, as events and details stand right now, impeachment seems less likely to me. I agree with Greg that opposition politicians, conservative media, and the middle- and upper-classes that have often opposed the PT governments generally will try to make things so difficult and uncomfortable for Dilma that she has to resign. However, given her own strength of will (to say nothing of the fact that, less than a year ago, she won re-election by 3.5 million votes, with 51.6% of the popular vote to the PSDB candidate Aécio Neve’s 48.3% – suggesting that perhaps not all voices are represented in media narratives focusing on calls for impeachment), she seems unlikely to fade away quietly into the night, either. This is a person whom the military tortured during the dictatorship, after all, and who knows how to fight for her politics.

A coup strikes me as even less probable, at least in the traditional sense of the military intervening directly. Indeed, if there is a “coup,” it will not be the traditional coup that was all too common in the 20th century, with the Brazilian military stepping in to “right the ship” repeatedly (1889, 1930, 1937, 1945, 1955, 1961, and then the military dictatorship of 1964-1985, to name just a few examples). If Rousseff is to fall, it seems it would be more of an “institutional coup” a la what happened to Fernando Lugo in Paraguay in 2012, with Congress creating trumped-up charges with no real substance and no real chance for Rousseff to defend herself, while heavily conservative and biased media outlets that have been historically and overwhelmingly anti-PT shape public discourse and perceptions on the issue (anti-governmental language that the international press then uncritically parrots). I think this unlikely, though; rather, what I imagine we will see is a legislative branch strengthening at the expense of the executive, with Rousseff having to basically cede more to the centrist PMDB and its leaders (especially Renan Calheiros of the Senate and Eduardo Cunha, an open critic of Rousseff, in the Chamber of Deputies) and other parties than she would have in other situations. Indeed, it is the PMDB that seems to have the most to gain here; having allied with the PT for the last 13 years, it could withdraw its support, effectively undermining any ability for Rousseff’s presidency to effect her political agenda. Additionally, as the largest party, the PMDB could tentatively offer an alliance with the rightist PSDB in a way that is favorable to the PMDB. In other words, the PMDB, the sole party remaining from Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1960s and a party that has never had a presidential candidate win, could become a “kingmaker” in Congress. A strengthened Congress and/or the withdrawal of the PMDB’s support from the PT’s program, at least for the duration of Dilma’s term, would not necessarily leave Brazilians politically satisfied – after all, anger at Congress (including PMDB politicians like Calheiros) was no small part of the protests of 2013 – but such possibilities and uncertainties do make this a fascinating, if often frustrating, time to be watching Brazilian politics.

Posted in Brazil, Corruption, Governance in Latin America, Impeachment, Latin American Politics, Legal Issues in Latin America

Lynchings, or On Racism in Brazil in 2015

A few days ago, in the northeastern city of São Luís in the state of Maranhão, Cleidenilson Pereira da Silva and an adolescent attempted to rob a store. While an attempted theft in one of Brazil’s smaller states rarely makes headlines, it was the particular outcome of the theft that turned into a national story and again brought to the foreground the ever-present specter of racism in Brazil. For while what Cleidenilson’s attempt was a crime, the greater crime was what followed:

The public lynched him.

The body of Cleidenilson da Silva, stripped and beaten.

The body of Cleidenilson da Silva, stripped and beaten.

Da Silva’s attempted robbery failed, and angry at the levels of crime, a mob of people gathered and ultimately bound Cleidenilson to a pole before beating him to death. They also bound his adolescent accomplice, but police arrived and saved him before he could meet a similar fate.

Police have begun an investigation into who was responsible, but whether it actually leads anywhere remains to be seen. And while the immediate responsibility falls on those who killed Cleidenilson (and likely would have killed the already-injured adolescent had they been given more time), the responsibility does not stop there. It falls on the Brazilian police and state which have, since abolition in 1888, targeted Afro-descendents through both symbolic and physical violence, often with impunity, be it through the criminalization of samba (for daring to be a cultural expression of the poor in the early 20th century), to the mobilization of “death squads” in favelas in the late 1960s, to the murder, with impunity, of favela residents from the 1970s to the 2000s. It falls on the Brazilian population that often looked the other way or even supported such violence, viewing the urban poor as parasites or tumors on society who only got what they deserved through such violence. It falls on the economic policies and systems of neoliberalism that only intensified the gap between the rich and the poor, failing to construct adequate social programs to integrate the urban poor into society and driving them to the types of criminal activity like that of Cleidenilson. It falls on a legal system that operates differently for the wealthy and the poor, and a prison system that, far from rehabilitating, often ends up with gangs running prisons (as Robert Gay has recently illuminated with stunning clarity) and serving as a “graduate degree in crime” (as Rio de Janeiro Archbishop Dom Orani Tempesta, himself a victim of a mugging, put it).

Some on the scene said that Cleidenilson had been behind several robberies, which if true, bear investigation, trial, and if guilty, prison. Yet to suggest that he got “what he had coming,” in the form of an extrajudicial execution, with a public blaming him rather than confronting the systemic or structural issues that allow Cleidenilson’s to exist, is absurd. And while the Brazilian media regularly labeled such actions “barbarity” and “savagery,” the comments threads on newspaper websites were often less-than-sympathetic.

Symptomatic of this divergence is Rio de Janeiro newspaper Extra’s strong stance in response to both the lynching and the public’s response to it. For anybody who’s spent any amount of time in Rio de Janeiro, Extra is rarely a newspaper of hard-hitting journalism or investigations. It tends towards the more sensationalist (the fact that the first section of the newspaper is devoted not just to news but to “the bizarre” does not exactly mask that reality), or towards Rio de Janeiro sports. Indeed, it is this mixture of frequent salaciousness and emphasis on soccer alongside news that makes it such a popular read in Rio.

And yet, this was the cover of Extra yesterday:

The cover of Extra, making an openly political and damning statement on racism in Brazil. The main headline reads, "From the [tree] trunk to the [light] post]," thus drawing a direct analogy between the history of slavery in Brazil, and the attack on Cleidenilson, an Afro-descendent.

The cover of Extra, making an openly political and damning statement on racism in Brazil. The main headline reads, “From the [tree] trunk to the [light] post],” thus drawing a direct analogy between the history of slavery in Brazil, and the attack on Cleidenilson, an Afro-descendent.

And as compelling as the imagery and the headline paralleling the treatment of African slaves in colonial and imperial Brazil and the treatment of Afro-descendents in 2015 is, the text underneath the image is just as compelling.

“The 200 years between the two images above serve for reflection: have we evolved, or regressed? If before the slaves were called to the plaza to see with their own eyes the justice that saved only the ‘men of blue blood, judges, clergy, officials and aldermen’, today we have advanced backwards. Cleidenilson da Silva, 29 years old, black, young, and a favela-dweller like the immense majority of the victims of our violence, was lynched after robbing a bar in São Luís, in Maranhão. If in 1815 the multitude impotently watched the barbarism, in 2015 the overwhelming majority applaud the savagery. Literally – as in the suburb of  São Luís – or on the internet. Of 1,817 comments on Extra’s Facebook page, 71% supported the contemporary overseers.”

And Cleidenilson’s case itself is horrifying; yet it is not isolated. Investigating, Extra found no fewer than 8 other cases of similar lynchings in São Luís since January 2014, four of them in the last 7 months. And while such scenes are emerging from São Luís, such sentiment can be found throughout the country as many (though far from all) Brazilians, implicitly or explicitly acknowledging the failure of Brazil’s legal system and drawing on centuries of racial inequalities, demand similar treatment of other members of the generally darker-skinned urban poor.*

Certainly Brazil is far from the only country continuing to deal with the awful legacies of slavery, racism, and systemic physical and symbolic violence against Afro-descendants, as any number of stories from the United States in the last several months remind us. The myth that Brazil was a “racial democracy” free of racism should have died a long time ago; that this type of violence still happens in 2015 is yet another reminder of racism’s pernicious survival in Brazil.

*For example, in Maranhão, the average monthly income for self-identified “blacks” in 2010 was $740 reais, or roughly US$250; for whites in Maranhã, it was nearly double that, at $1305 reais. And while the average monthly incomes vary widely from state to state, whites earn more than blacks on average across the country.

Posted in Brazil, Race in Brazil, Racism

And Again, We Have to Ask: Who’s “Left” in Latin America?

I’ve written on the problem of defining/understanding what constitutes “left” in Latin America before. It’s an ongoing debate, in no small part because of the insistence of US media across a variety of political viewpoints to lump leaders as diverse as Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, Argentina’s Cristina Fernández Kirchner and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Chile’s Michele Bachelet and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and (until recently) Uruguay’s Pepe Mujica, as some sort of singular, homogeneous “left.” The homogenization of these politicians is highly problematic for any number of practical, theoretical, or ideological reasons, not the least of which is how such visions disregard significant differences each leader has on social policies, economic policies, visions of the role of the state, and vision for society, even while they ignore the ways domestic histories and contexts have led these leaders down different paths.

Over at Latin America Goes Global, Christopher Sabatini tackles this issue yet again, from the actual political/ideological angle:

Quick: when you think of a leftist or progressive movement or the ideology generally, what do you think of? As someone who considers himself of the left, I think of greater state involvement in the economy to better re-distribute wealth and improve social safety nets; I think of support for minority groups and the disenfranchised; and I think of greater protections for social rights and groups.

Yet, in the countries many like to label leftist or socialist—President Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela and President Rafael Correa’s Ecuador—only the first really applies, and in Venezuela, increasingly less so.

So, why do observers and the media continue to label Maduro or Correa leftists? I suppose it’s because those leaders themselves call themselves that. But let’s look at the facts.

He then looks at the records of leaders like Maduro and Correa when it comes to social arenas like indigenous rights, LGBTQ rights, and redistribution of wealth to improve the lives of the poor, he finds that, as far as leftism goes, Maduro, Correa, and Morales are….wanting.

Lost in all the facile labeling of Maduro and Correa as leftists is a simple fact: simply pumping money to the poor doesn’t make you socialist or even a leftist. It makes you a populist (and profligate).

A credible, ideological metric, though, never seems apply to Latin America. So as a result, anyone who declares themselves a socialist gets labeled so in popular media, despite that they exhibit none of the characteristics of the modern progressive left.   Have they championed the rights of minorities and excluded groups? Have they helped improve the lives of the poor in terms of security and sustainable social mobility?

No? No problem, as long as you declare yourself a socialist.

This is a very real problem, for failure to understand, or to take at face value, the ideological claims of Latin American politicians sets the stage not just for a grand misunderstanding of Latin American politics and societies (which is significant), but also for failure in any number of diplomatic, social, cultural, or economic spheres, due to the misunderstandings and mischaracterizations of Latin American politics.

Of course, complicit in these flawed narratives and understandings of politics, policy, and ideology is the frequent mis-portrayal of Latin American politicians and politics in much of the US media. Major outlets, be they print, television, or internet, accept that Maduro or Correa are “leftists” (or even “radical left”) because, well….because Maduro and Correa say so. There’s no real consideration of what it actually means to be “left;” rather, media portrayals of Latin American politicians so often accept such categorizations because they fit within the US’s own very narrow vision of a political spectrum, where the embrace of neoliberal policies like free trade combined with a limited program of social justice makes one a generalized “left,” while support for neoliberal policies like free trade combined with tax cuts makes one “right.” It’s all operating in a sphere in which neoliberalism dominates the political spectrum; while there are political voices outside of that spectrum in the population more generally, the media reflects the “beltway-bias” of political institutions in the US.

This isn’t just bashing on media narratives for the sake of complaining about a sometimes-easy target. It’s because these political representations of leaders, parties, and worldviews have a very real impact not just on understandings of the Lefts (rather than a singular “Left”) in Latin America, but of politics of the center and right, too. The fact that the US media can repeatedly refer to parties like Brazil’s PSDB (Partido Social Democrático Brasileiro, Brazilian Social Democratic Party) as “center-left” because it has the words “Social Democrat” in it is to disregard its platform that favors neoliberalism, free trade, tax cuts, cuts to social programs, and more recently, a reduction of the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16, which would have a devastating impact on vulnerable youths. Why do so many outlets see the PSDB as “center-left,” when, by any thorough metric, its policies lean right? Because since its formation in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the PSDB has claimed it is center-left, and too many, both in the US and elsewhere, accepted that claim without further consideration. Just as they do with Maduro when he claims he’s socialist.

Sabatini’s argument that we need to be more critical to those who characterize themselves as “left” is true, but it’s not limited to just them. Without a broader critical consideration of the actual policies that political leaders and political parties implement, the ability to actually understand not just Latin American politics or society, but politics and social relations more generally, will not just be wanting; it will be fatally flawed.

Posted in Latin American Politics, The "Left" in Latin America, The "Right" in Latin America

Get to Know a Brazilian – Ivens Marchetti

This is part of an ongoing series. Previous entries can be found here.

As we continue our look at the lives of the fifteen political prisoners exchanged for US ambassador Charles Elbrick, whom armed leftist groups took hostage in September 1969, we turn to Ivens Marchetti.

It is difficult to find much about Marchetti’s youth and the first decades of his life. By the early 1960s, he was an architect and was active in the Partido Comunista Brasileiro (PCB). He was also active in trying to address issues of social justice in urban centers, working in the favela of Rocinha, in Rio de Janeiro, where he saw the face of urban inequality in Brazil up close. With the coup of 1964, Marchetti, like many other members of the PCB, was caught up in the internal factionalism and fragmentation of the PCB, and like Onofre Pinto, João Leonardo da Rocha Silva, and others, he ended up joining a splinter group that came to be known as the Dissidência Comunista of Niterói, the large city that sat opposite Rio de Janeiro on Guanabara Bay. Early on, the Dissidências operated on university campuses, where they hoped to effect political revolution. However, by the end of 1968, as Brazil’s military entered its most repressive phase, the Dissidências turned away from political militancy and toward the armed struggle.

With this turn to the armed struggle, Marchetti’s group launched a failed attempt to establish a foco guerrilla movement in the southern state of Paraná. The foco theory of revolution drew heavily on the example of the Cuban Revolution and of the theoretical writings of Ché Guevara. Foquismo, as it is called in Portuguese, argued that small revolutionary groups operating in rural areas can strike rapidly, weakening repressive governments even while building broader connections with peasants and other people, ultimately sparking a general insurrection that could topple governments. At its best, Ché’s theory overstated the importance of guerrilla groups in Cuba while neglecting the role that a rural proletariat, urban university students, and others discontent with the repressive regime of Fulgencio Batista, played in the Cuban Revolution. Nonetheless, foquismo proved to be influential in Brazil in both the cities and the countryside, perhaps most famously in the failed Araguaia campaign.

Thus, Marchetti’s involvement in a foco in Paraná was part of a broader turn to armed struggle to try to topple Brazil’s military regime. Such efforts were not just limited to pockets of armed resistance; they also relied on “Expropriations Commands” in the cities, with armed members of the Dissidência or other opposition groups targeting banks, taking their money and “expropriating” it for the armed struggle in Paraná. Ultiamtely, hwoever, the Paraná foco, like other focos, ultimately fell, and military forces arrested Marchetti in April of 1969.

While imprisoned, the military subjected Marchetti to brutal forms of torture. In reports compiled for the Brasil: Nunca Mais (Brazil: Never Again) report, Marchetti was subjected to electrical shocks to his genitals and head, including while he was hung upside down. He also endured beatings and was subjected to the parrot’s perch, a favored mechanism for the regime to torture people physically. In addition to going through this torture, Marchetti was displayed to other prisoners while being tortured, with the other prisoners being told that if they did not provide information, they would end up in the same position as Marchetti.


The Pau de Arara (Parrot's Perch), a form of torture that exposed bodies to increasing pain and disorientation, even while the military deployed other forms of torture (including burning, simulated drowning, beatings, and electrical shocks) to political prisoners while they hung from the perch.

The Pau de Arara (Parrot’s Perch), a form of torture that exposed bodies to increasing pain and disorientation, even while the military deployed other forms of torture (including burning, simulated drowning, beatings, and electrical shocks) to political prisoners while they hung from the perch.


Although the military had virtually wiped out the initial members of the MR-8, as the Dissidência came to be known (based on the title of the group’s journal/pamphlets) by the middle of 1969, some of those leftists who were involved in the kidnapping of Elbrick decided to adopt the name themselves in an effort to show the regime, and the Brazilian public, that the MR-8 had not been, and could not be, so easily dispatched. Given his role in the first wave of the “MR-8,” Marchetti’s name ended up on the list of 15 political prisoners to be released in exchange for Elbrick.


Thirteen of the fifteen political prisoners released into exile in exchange for US ambassador Charles Elbrick in 1969. Ivens Marchetti is kneeling in the front row, second from the right.

Thirteen of the fifteen political prisoners released into exile in exchange for US ambassador Charles Elbrick in 1969. Ivens Marchetti is kneeling in the front row, second from the right.

Because of his training as an architect, upon arriving in Mexico, Marchetti immediately received “guaranteed” job offers to work in Mexico, which he said he would do when he had the “psychological conditions” to work again. Ultimately, Marchetti went to Cuba with the majority of the other political prisoners, before he relocated to Chile, where Salvador Allende was attempting the “peaceful path to Socialism” through electoral politics. Like so many other exiled Brazilians who hoped to be part of revolutionary social transformation in Chile, with the military coup of 1973 that installed the Pinochet regime, Marchetti was once arrested and imprisoned, this time in Chile, before again going into exile. Marchetti ended up spending most of his exile in Stockholm, Sweden, before returning to Brazil with the general amnesty of 1979. Ultimately, Marchetti lived until 2002, when he died of cancer. Although Marchetti survived the dictatorship, he did not live to see a renewed interest in, and examination of, the events behind the kidnapping of Elbrick. Unfortunately, this meant that his voice was not and could not be included in documentaries like Hércules 56, which interviewed both the surviving political prisoners and many of the leftists who participated in the kidnapping of Elbrick. For this reason alone, less is known of his life than of other prisoners; nonetheless, his story and legacy live on not just in the events of 1969, but in the memory of the regime’s use of torture and repression.

Posted in Brazil, Brazil's Military Dictatorship, Get to Know a Brazilian, Guerrilla Movements in Latin America, Human Rights Violations, Torture