Get to Know a Brazilian – Archive

“Get to Know a Brazilian” is part of an ongoing series. For those interested, below is an archive of past posts about significant, if not always well-known, figures in Brazilian history, society, culture, and politics.

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On Corruption, Public Will, and the Distinctions between the 2013 and 2015 Protests in Brazil

Maruicio Savarese’s regularly-excellent A Brazilian Operating in this Area has a thought-provoking piece up about whether the anti-corruption protests in Brazil are effectively sincere.

After waves of colossal protests in 2013 and 2015, it is very tempting to say Brazilians are fed up with corruption and want real transparency and accountability for whatever is done in their name. That may hold true for well-educated and politically savvy people that are now reshaping the country’s institutions; judges, prosecutors, investigators, controllers, intelligence agents, technocrats… But that vast majority in Brazil actually cares too little. Organized society is disorganized and citizen engagement isn’t nearly as important as it is in developed nations. Unlike the protesting crowds suggest, Brazilians only care about corruption when it involves those they reject for other reasons.

I’m inclined to agree here, at least to an extent. I certainly think the above applies to the current situation in 2015; the more recent protests were clearly about partisanship rather than corruption – betrayed in part by the fact protesters pointed to a politician now facing indictment for corruption as an example of a counterpoint to the allegedly-corrupt Dilma Rousseff.

However, I’m not as certain that the 2013 protests are a perfect analogy, or worth lumping in with the protests this year.

I think at the heart of the two protests (2013 and 2015) is the issue of what kinds of corruption are the target of the public’s wrath, something that’s all too often overlooked or simplified. Currently, it’s a case of massive kickback schemes and bribery – in other words, fiscal/institutional corruption. In 2013, the issues were substantively different, ranging from the lack of doctors to the high cost of public expenditures on World Cup stadiums, from the use of police violence to the (ultimately failed) Congressional amendment to make congressional representatives immune to federal investigations. While this was in a way a fiscal matter – public funding for World Cup stadiums could have gone to education and health care – it was as much a social and public issue, more immediately and directly affecting Brazilians in everyday life than the current corruption scandal. Yes, the money that Petrobras paid to businesses and politicians could have gone to public funding in the future, but Brazil only learned about the amounts and corruption after the fact; the public spending on stadiums, while (naturally) over budget, was publicly known to be expensive the moment Brazil was awarded the 2014 World Cup. And issues like health care or education were on the table long before actual costs of the World Cup spending went into effect. In other words, in 2013, both the failings of this “social” corruption and the gaudiness of spending on other projects were open, public, and known well in advance. By contrast, the details surrounding corruption scandals this year have come out in bits and pieces, revealing data and unveiling corruption long after it has already happened.

That is in part why so many people across the political spectrum were in the streets in 2013, whereas the 2015 protests have been far more partisan. If everybody could directly point to how the socially corrupt policies of social programs and sporting events affected their lives in 2013, the context in 2015 is different. Given how widespread corruption is – with former right-center presidential candidate Aécio Neves (who lost to Rousseff in 2015), who himself had participated in the August 16 protests, now being linked to the corruption scandal himself – the ground is more fertile for partisan demonstrations that conveniently overlook “my” party’s politicians while condemning “their” politicians. Put another way: there are so many politicians from so many different parties from across the political spectrum who have been tied to this type of fiscal/institutional corruption, it is virtually impossible to rail against just some politicians without being a partisan hack (whether one intends to or not), and to call for a complete restructuring of the Brazilian political system (just 27 years into its current constitution) may seem like too much to ask, or too much of a threat to the actual gains under democracy.

As a result, I think that, while there are important overlaps between 2013 and 2015, there are also important distinctions . While I agree with Mauricio that the current protests are not really evidence of a sincere desire to combat (one type of) corruption in Brazil, it does not necessarily indicate an insincerity among Brazilians regarding other types of corruption.  I think, due to the more institutionalized and fiscal nature of the corruption of backroom dealings and bribery among elites, it is not as immediately visible, coming to light after the fact and thus, belatedly bringing (generally fewer) people to the streets. By contrast, the social corruption of 2013 was visible at the moment of its occurrence – in the construction of stadiums, in the lines at understaffed public clinics, in police assaulting unarmed citizens – and thus easier to mobilize more people immediately. Companies paying off politicians is (only occasionally cynically) seen as typical and perhaps unresolvable, as it has already happened; pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into a month-long sporting event even while your health care system continues to suffer the crippling effects of neoliberal policies in the 1990s actually can and does have a more immediately visible effect on a broader swath of society, and lacks the generally partisan tenor that complaining about corrupt politicians from the opposition party (but not your own) proffers.

To be clear, I think Mauricio’s general observations on current protests, and the (alleged) anti-corruption sentiment, are fair. When politicians with a history of corruption – like Fernando Collor (though he’s certainly not the only example)- repeatedly win re-election, there is a real problem that voters bear at least some responsibility for (though one cannot ignore the structural issues that allow a non-representative elite to continually be elected to Congress, either). As Mauricio writes,

It is as if there were right-wing and left-wing crimes. People pick and choose what to protest against. That is why there is such a slow pace for public reaction against corruption cases; people start by thinking any accusation is both true and a result of partisanship. When the corrupt have more time to deal with charges, impunity tends to prevail [due to other structural issues – ed.]. Maybe it would be different if there were a widespread sense of urgency coming from citizens.

[…]

Political ignorance surely isn’t a Brazilian exclusive, but here tolerance with corruption and ignorance walk hand in hand like in few places. To make their combat to corruption more effective, Brazil needs more than improving institutions; it needs people to mature in the political debate. One that observes the quality of the Brazilian public square can only conclude that real improvement and a change in the tolerance culture will take quite a while.

I think Mauricio’s complaints about inconsistent public will in 2015 are spot-on. At the same time, so long as the issue remains in public discourse, the possibility remains that eventually, the people can directly shape politics not dissimilar to the way public pressure led to both Congress and Rousseff responding directly to the protesters’ demands in 2013. And while that happens, one can at least hope that, as in Guatemala, perhaps the public reaches a point where they become so fed up as to act in a way that genuinely counters elite corruption and impunity. Only time will tell if that is the case in Brazil.

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Twenty-First Century Monarchists

While the protesters demanding the military intervene and overthrow Dilma Rousseff amidst corruption scandals that seem to have infected all of political life (even if they in fact have not), they are not in fact the most out-of-touch pro-impeachment protesters in Brazil. Who could be more out of touch than those 14% “totally favorable” to the return of military rule, you might ask?

Monarchists.

“We join together to say enough to this Republic and to declare that the solution is Royal,” said an invitation sent across social networks for the Imperial House – which represents the Brazilian royal family […]

“Right? Left? Follow the best road: monarchy” said a little magazine of 30 pages in [Hayley Rocco’s] hand, which included a prayer to Our Lady of Aparecida (“restore a monarchical Brazil”) and listed “the benefits brought by the empire to the country” (such as the Casa da Moeda [Brazilian Mint] and the Banco do Brasil.)

Rocco explained her participation in the protest: “The monarchy was the only period of political, institutional, and economic stability in Brazil,” she said, while distributing pamphlets.

“Never did an emperor, for example, increase his salary,” she affirmed. “Already these politicians…”

Setting aside the grotesquely-selective cheerful revision of an imperial regime that was subject to global boom-and-bust markets, presided over the institution of slavery until 1888, and had an emperor who regularly disbanded a parliament that represented only the interests of the economic elites of the country – setting aside all of that – this is still such an absurd proposal as to almost make a mockery of legitimate issues confronting Brazil. But then again, when your family still receives a percentage of all real-estate transactions in Rio de Janeiro just 126 years after your monarchy was overthrown, it’s hard to imagine why you might pine for the “good old days.” After all, if you can still bilk the public out of money 126 years into a non-monarchical government, just think how much you could acquire with a family member on a throne again!

It’s not to say the monarchy might be a better or worse option than military rule, but of all the proposed alternatives to Brazil’s current political system that people are raising in the streets, this has to be among the least probable and most unusual of them all.

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Misogynistic Political Reporting in Brazil

I’ve commented on how the (overwhelmingly male) national political arena in Brazil is indicative of very real challenges facing women politically, and even wondered if some of the language used to express rancor toward Dilma Rousseff was at least in part due to her gender. One of Brazil’s largest weekly magazines, Época, demonstrates exactly why this is a serious concern in this appalling piece [written by a man] whose political “analysis” of Dilma hinges on how she is not “sexual” enough.

If that seems unfair, well…it’s not. The author (again, for one of the most popular and circulated weekly magazines in Brazil), João Luiz Vieira, opens by insisting:

Dilma needs to make the decision to turn us on. Not only me, who abdicated from my intention to vote in the past election…

So, Dilma is so sexually unappealing I decided not to vote!

…but, principally, to those she deceived with her disconnected or hard phrases, her distemper or her cynicism, her muteness or her verbal virulence.

So, Dilma’s simultaneously awful for being a woman who does not talk enough, and for her virulent verbosity. She simultaneously speaks too much and not enough. It’s hard to imagine this woman-hating being any worse. But wait! We’re only in the first paragraph. If you thought it can’t get worse, well…

Dilma, if I were your friend, I would tell you: make yourself erotic.

If you were her friend and told her that, you would be the worst friend ever.

But even setting snark aside, this is just beyond appallingly misogynistic. Dilma needs to talk just the right amount (according to this man), and if she just makes herself more “erotic” to the electorate, she will somehow overcome corruption scandals to which she as yet actually has no direct ties?

If you think it keeps getting worse, you’re right:

Sex has to do with power. The president of the nation did not understand the principal message of a good part of the protesters who went to the streets on Sunday, August 16: they want her to express a sexuality, a corporal communication that creates empathy, proposes, attaches, welcomes.

If that was the principal message of last Sunday’s protests, then that seems like a message worth disregarding, given that it lacks any actual political substance, constructive critiques, or productive outline for how Brazilian politics and society should change.

The article continues to be awful and misogynistic in every way possible. Vieira brings up the fact that she has been married twice and has a daughter and grandson, before commenting that

sexists and misogynists have produced a series of labels that extinguished her feminine expression.

Because the real misogynists have moved beyond her gender. (And a man telling a female president to become sexier to gain appeal calling others sexist and misogynistic is rich indeed.) He then fantasizes about what she might look like naked, and that she is likely lonely, and if only somebody were there to satisfy her (implicitly sexually), then perhaps she would have more support. She built her career on demonstrating her ability, rather than highlighting her gender and sexuality, Vieira says, and thus, by demonstrating actual skill and competency, she is now unpopular – something she could have prevented if she’d focused more on her physical appearance and femininity in her career.

This is so enraging as to almost leave one at a loss for words. Suffice to say, the content is appalling, abysmal, and the worst kind of patriarchal woman-shaming, even while being incredibly inconsistent in its ascribing of “proper” gender roles. Externally, it’s equally appalling, and reveals how misogyny plays into politics and into discourse in politics – it is safe to say that no major publication ever wrote an article about how Lula, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, or any other president before Dilma would be more popular if he just focused on his sexiness and masculinity more. Anyone who insists otherwise is either willfully obtuse, or holds the same misogynistic beliefs as Vieira. And given (once more) that this is in one of Brazil’s biggest weeklies, the number of people who agree with Vieira is likely frighteningly higher than it ever should be.

Posted in Brazil, Gender and Sexuality, Latin American Politics, Women's Movements & Issues | Leave a comment

Get to Know a Brazilian – João Cândido Felisberto

This post also appears at Lawyers, Guns & Money

João Cândido Felisberto remains one of the more overlooked figures in one of the more overlooked periods of Brazilian history. However, his life offers much insight into the transitional nature of race, society, politics, and life during Brazil’s First Republic (1889-1930) and beyond.

João Cândido Felisberto was born in Rio Grande do Sul in 1880 to parents who either were still slaves, or who had been recently manumitted. Either way, João Cândido was raised in a context in which slavery (which was only fully abolished in Brazil in 1888) was a daily part of living memory. At the age of 15, João Cândido attended the School for Naval Apprentices in Rio Grande do Sul. Apprenticeship schools (where orphaned boys were often sent) were one of two ways that most men entered the navy, with forced recruitment being the other typical route into the navy.

Sailors on the Minas Geraes in the 1910s. The photograph reveals the ways in which sailors were overwhelmingly of African descent, even while the officer class was overwhelmingly white. Thus, Brazil's navy replicated the racial hierarchy of Brazilian politics and society more generally.

Sailors on the Minas Geraes in the 1910s. The photograph reveals the ways in which sailors were overwhelmingly of African descent, even while the officer class was overwhelmingly white. Thus, Brazil’s navy replicated the racial hierarchy of Brazilian politics and society more generally.

João Cândido served in the navy for 15 years, a period that saw substantial transformations in both the navy and in Brazilian politics and society more generally. In 1889, Brazil’s military, with the support of republicans, abolitionists, and others, peacefully overthrew the empire of Dom Pedro II, bringing an end to the Brazilian Empire (1822-1889) and ending the reign of the House of Bragança. The First Republic, an oligarchic federalized regime, struggled to re-define the nation, even while it dealt with internal challenges (including no fewer than two naval revolts in the 1890s). Among its major concerns were how Brazil, a country of racially-mixed history in the midst of the scientific racism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, could project an image of modernity and civilization in the world.

By the early 1900s, the Brazilian government determined that military modernization would be one of the mechanisms through which Brazil would join the “civilized” countries of the world. Brazil had long had a strong navy, which played an important role in the eventual Brazilian victory in the War of the Triple Alliance, and the navy had also been key to extending the Brazilian state’s presence into the Amazon. With the Japanese victory over Russia, predicated largely on naval power, in the Japanese-Russo War had demonstrated the value of a modernized, steam-powered navy. With the debut of the Dreadnought in England, the first ship of its firepower, Brazil determined that improving its navy  with Dreadnought-class battle-ships would be the way to project its “civilized” status and “modernity” to the world. As a result, it pledged to buy three dreadnoughts (and, in the process, spurred an arms race with Argentina and Chile). By 1910, Brazil had the Minas Geraes, which was up to that point the largest warship in the world – not even Great Britain had an equal to the Minas Geraes. Brazil also commissioned the São Paulo, the second of its warships, while a contract for a third (the Rio de Janeiro) was completed. Each ship cost $10 million dollars (roughly $250,000,000 each in 2015). Beyond the two dreadnoughts, Brazil also purchased some cruisers and refitted older battleships and other ships. To demonstrate its new firepower, the ships went to Portugual in November 1910, arriving just in time to witness the Republican revolution that brought an end to the Bragança Family’s rule in Portugal.

The Minas Gerais on the sea around 1910.

The Minas Geraes on the sea around 1910.

While Brazil’s naval firepower had modernized substantially, the naval use of force had not. While Brazil’s 1891 constitution had outlawed flogging, a loophole meant that the practice remained common on enlisted men in the navy. While (almost universally white) officers defended the practice, going so far as to say it allowed sailors to show their physical strength, the (overwhelmingly Afro-Brazilian) enlisted men bristled at the practice’s ongoing survival. A naval force of men who, like João Cândido, had slavery within their living memory, bristled at the state’s assertion of control over their bodies through whipping, and the associations that the practice carried with slavery.  Much of the western world had banned flogging of sailors, either in practice or in legal codes, yet the practice remained in Brazil’s navy into the 2oth century. While legally, officers could not lash sailors more than 25 lashes a day, the naval code allowed for more, based on the “prudent discretion” of the officers. As a result, men like Marcelino Rodrigues de Menezes could be sentenced to 200-250 lashes in November 1910.

It was in this political and military context in which João Cândido entered into the national historical stage. Menezes’ punishment was the spark that lit the simmering resentment of sailors over abuses they suffered. Sailors had quietly been preparing a revolt in protest against the use of flogging and other issues. The revolt was initially planned for November 15 – the anniversary of the founding of the Republic in 1889 – but ultimately postponed. With Menezes’s whipping, however, sailors on the Minas GeraesSão Paulo, and other ships in Guanabara Bay determined the time to act had come. On November 22, 1910, nearly 2400 sailors (out of 5000) rose up, killing the commander of the Minas Geraes and some of his subordinates, proclaiming “Down with the lash” and “Long live liberty!”

Having not taken a part in the initial wave of violence, João Cândido nonetheless emerged as the leader of the revolt on the morning of the 23rd. João Cândido himself had never been flogged (though he had been periodically reprimanded for fights with other sailors), and indeed had recently twice received citations for good conduct. As part of the transitional generation that witnessed the move from Empire to Republic and the technological transformation from sailing to steam-powered ships, João Cândido had the respect of both the older and younger sailors, which aided in his position as leader of the movement.

João Cândido with his personal aide during the Revolt of the Whip.

João Cândido (right) with his personal aide during the Revolt of the Whip.

By the morning of the 23rd, two of the most powerful battleships in the world, whose firepower the Brazilian government had trumpeted as evidence of its development, were now pointing those very guns at the city of Rio de Janeiro, and the people who were once supposed to feel pride at Brazil’s military might now panicked as it was directed toward them. This fear was compounded by the deaths of at least two civilians when the ships fired toward the city in one instance.

The sailors’ demands were not revolutionary. In addition to the abolition of flogging (and of corporal punishment more generally), sailors also demanded the removal of “incompetent and unworthy officers,” an increase in pay, better access to education, and more workers (the naval forces were notoriously understaffed). As the revolt dragged on, sailors also added better food and an amnesty for their actions to their list of demands. Meanwhile, their manifesto insisted they acted as “sailors, citizens, and republicans.” In making such claims, they were not expressing political radicalism, but rather, were asserting their rights as citizens and equals in the new Republic. Indeed, the joining of “down with the lash” and praises for liberty revealed the subtle ways in which the legacies of slavery, and the affiliation of whipping with slavery, resonated among an overwhelmingly Afro-descendent naval force who worked for white officers. Thus began what came to be known as the Revolt of the Whip.

A Brazilian overseer whipping a slaves, both in the foreground and at the tree in the background. Such images were in the living memory of sailors during the Revolt of the Whip. That white officers still flogged black sailors mirrored the relations of slavery (abolished just 22 years earlier) doubtlessly resonated in the minds of the sailors and helps explain why lashings were at the core of the 1910 revolt.

A Brazilian overseer whipping a slaves, both in the foreground and at the tree in the background. Such images were in the living memory of sailors during the Revolt of the Whip. That white officers still flogged black sailors mirrored the relations of slavery (abolished just 22 years earlier) doubtlessly resonated in the minds of the sailors and helps explain why lashings were at the core of the 1910 revolt.

While politicians debated what to do, military leaders expressed begrudging admiration for the sailors’ planning and coordination of the revolt, and their ability to maintain secrecy. In order to prevent reprisals, the ships under João Cândido’s guidance (he’d been a helmsman, among other positions in his 15 years in naval service), regularly moved out beyond the bar at night, so that the military could not launch a counter-attack. After much debate,with opponents saying to capitulate to the (black) sailors would destroy Brazil’s ability to govern itself, the government of President Hermes Rodrigues da Fonseca – himself a soldier and the nephew of Deodoro da Fonseca, who led the coup of 1889 – agreed on November 26 to an amnesty and to consider the sailors’ demands. The navy retook control of the ships shortly afterward.

However, the amnesty did not produce an end to the tensions. Despite agreeing to consider the demands, there was no immediate pay raise, nor was flogging immediately abolished. On the ships themselves, officers remained tense, and their command was in reality tenuous, as sailors only obeyed commands that João Cândido approved. In this context, the sailors themselves divided: some, like João Cândido, sided with the government in the wake of the pledge to address their issues; others demanded more radical action.

In spite of its promise for an amnesty, the government quickly moved to crack down on the sailors who revolted, launching a wave of illegal arrests of sailors. By the first week of December, over 100 sailors were arrested in what amounted to a purge of the already understaffed navy.

In this context, the radicals plotted another revolt for December 9. At the fort in the Ilha das Cobras [one of the islands of Guanabara Bay], marines rose up and took the fort, holding it for 17 hours before the government re-took the fort. This second revolt did not express any specific demands, and caught many of the leaders of the first revolt, including João Cândido, off guard. Indeed, in the brief course of the second revolt, João Cândido expressed support for the government.

With this second revolt, the government and military quickly deployed repressive tactics, removing 1000 sailors from the navy and imprisoning 600 sailors and marines. Among those arrested was João Cândido, who had had no part in the second revolt and remained supportive of the government during the brief rebellion. João Cândido then endured some of the most horrific events of the crackdown. He, along with 28 other men, was imprisoned in the colonial-era maximum security prison in the fort at Ilha das Cobras (where the second revolt had occurred) on Christmas Eve. The prison cell itself lacked fresh water and was stiflingly hot. Making matters worse, soldiers had cleaned it out with quicklime. As the stagnant water on the floor of the prisons evaporated, the lime on the walls entered into the air that the prisoners were breathing. They called for help, but the jailor did not have the keys to the cell – the commander had taken them with him to Rio de Janeiro as he celebrated the holiday. By the time the cell was finally opened on December 25, twenty-five of the twenty-nine prisoners were dead from asphyxiation. João Cândido was one of the four survivors.

While news of the Ilha das Cobras scandal slowly emerged, João Cândido remained a prisoner, finally charged in June 1912 for involvement in the second revolt, in spite of the fact he had sided with the government during the second revolt and had played no part in it. In December 1912, just over two years after the Revolt of the Whip and nearly two years since João Cândido nearly died in prison, a court-martial unanimously found João Cândido not guilty of involvement in the second revolt.

Despite the amnesty of 1910 and the acquittal of 1912, João Cândido would not lead an easy life. He briefly worked for the merchant marine before Navy officials pressured his employers to fire him. He ultimately settled down as a fishmonger and merchant in Rio de Janeiro by the end of the 1910s. Meanwhile, the Revolt of the Whip had tapped into, but certainly not solved, questions of racial difference and inequality during the First Republic, even while highlighting the limits of “modernity” that the government had pursued. As time progressed, João Cândido, and the Revolt of the Whip, came to offer symbolic meaning and hope to other groups. When the Communist Party launched a revolt during the government of Getúlio Vargas, they appealed to sailors to rise up as they had done in 1910. In 1959, the governor of Rio Grande do Sul finally offered him a pension in recognition of his role in demanding an end to corporal punishment and the fight for equality during the Revolt of the Whip. And in March 1964, as marines and sailors went on strike to demand the right to vote and run for office, they invited João Cândido to speak. However, he lacked the exuberance of the young sailors, simply claiming that he “didn’t expect to witness another revolt” and suggesting that the sailors were “tempting fate.”[1] His assessment was remarkably prescient, as just one week later, the military, appalled at the sailors’ insubordination and fed up with what it perceived to be the growing “communism” of president João Goulart, launched a coup that ushered in a 21 year military dictatorship. The new conservative governor of Rio Grande do Sul used the opportunity to strip João Cândido of his pension.

João Cândido Felisberto ultimately lived long enough to see Brazil’s military regime enter its most repressive phase. He died in December 1969, at the age of 89 years old, leaving behind his (third) wife and several children. However, even after his death, his status as a symbol of resisting repression and standing up for Afro-Brazilians and the working classes grew. In 2008, nearly 100 years after the Revolt of the Whip, President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva granted a posthumous amnesty to João Cândido and all the other sailors involved in the Revolt of the Whip.

The monument to João Cândido in Rio de Janeiro.

The monument to João Cândido, the “black admiral,” in Rio de Janeiro.

[1] Quoted in Joseph Love, Revolt of the Whip, p. 112.

For further reading, recommended works are Joseph Love’s The Revolt of the Whip, and Ann M. Schneider’s PhD dissertation, “Amnestied in Brazil, 1895-1985,” an excellent study that explores the history of amnesties in Brazil and devotes a full chapter to the 1910 amnesty.

For additional reading on the mythic and social significance of the battleship, see The Battleship Book,which includes a chapter on São Paulo.

 

Posted in "Modernity", Brazil, Get to Know a Brazilian, Latin American History, Latin American Militaries, Race in Brazil, Race in the Americas, Weapons and Arms in Latin America | Leave a comment

Anti-Impeachment Rallies in Brazil

In response to last Sunday’s protests demanding Dilma’s removal from office, tens of thousands of Brazilians gathered in state capitals throughout the country in support if not of the government, then of institutional and social democracy. Some marchers called for Dilma to remain, but marchers also levied criticisms against the current state of governance, not only in the Planalto (the presidential palace) – as last Sunday’s protests did – but in Congress, too, where corruption is widespread and prosecutors have begun actually charging politicians (in contrast to the current lack of evidence of Dilma being directly tied to corruption).

The protests were not as large as those of last Sunday – perhaps because they fell on a weekday. The fact that tens of thousands (including 37,000 in São Paulo) gathered demonstrates that not all are willing to allow the pro-impeachment/anti-Dilma crowd monopolize public space or the terms of political discourse among the public.

In contrast to last Sunday’s protesters, who tended to be socially and politically conservative, Thursday’s protesters were unsurprisingly from the center-left or left (and not necessarily unified in their vision/goals – because there is no such thing as a homogeneous/monolithic, singular “left”), the demands were generally broad, with anti-corruption slogans, anti-impeachment slogans, and pro-democracy chants. At the same time, protesters were not uniformly partisan toward the PT or pro-government in their rhetoric (though some were openly supportive of Dilma), and many social and economic issues were also levied on the placards and chants of protesters. These issues included protests against lowering the age of adulthood from 18 to 16, calls for wage increases, opposition to Dilma’s and Congress’s move toward austerity measures. Some countered the calls for military intervention last Sunday, insisting 1964 “never again” happen. Some acknowledged both the need for Dilma to finish her term, and the need for her to improve.

In general, the marchers this past Thursday were rarely strictly pro-PT or pro-Dilma (though obviously, there were such voices). Rather, the march generally filled two functions: to protest against efforts to undermine institutional stability over partisan calls for impeachment or for military intervention; and to outline a vision of the social needs and issues the government should be addressing, but hasn’t.

While not enough to lead to some overwhelming turn of events in Brazil, the protests do reveal a few things. First, part of the discourse in the protests is whether impeachment should be a political tool or not, with last Sunday’s protests in favor of removing a president some don’t like through impeachment, and Thursday’s protests effectively collectively arguing that, even when a president is unpopular, that is not enough to impeach. Additionally, conservative efforts to shape the discourse and frame issues around Dilma (rather than Cunha, Renan Calheiros, Fernando Collor, or others) are not going unchallenged. The third issue may be obvious, but it’s still important to note: anti-corruption sentiment crosses the political spectrum. Last Sunday, anti-Dilma protests held her responsible for corruption and thus, eligible for impeachment; Thursday’s protests focused on politicians who have been charged with corruption. While targets of anti-corruption rhetoric fall into somewhat partisan lines, the fact remains that Brazilians generally feel it is a very real issue, one that have mobilized over in recent years and continue to do so. Put another way, while who they blame for corruption may fall along partisan lines, they all agree that it is an institutional problem that needs to be addressed.  Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, these two protests generally show the broader issues at play in the debate over the nature of democracy in Brazilian society more generally. Last Sunday’s protests operated on a more limited institutional democracy, hinging on electoral politics and institutional or (extralegal) military mechanisms to transform regimes; by contrast,  Thursday’s protests defined democracy more along social and economic lines, supporting institutional stability but demanding greater equality in social and economic policies.

Brazil has seen something not so dissimilar to this before, in the early 1960s, as the country polarized, ultimately leading to the military coup of 1964. However, despite this superficial similarity, a coup or even impeachment seems unlikely. If anything, the fact that this time, even many in the opposition is calling for the removal of Dilma through legal institutional means (namely, impeachment) suggests that the political ferment, and even the investigation of corruption, do not mark Brazil’s democratic weakness, but its strength. It seems fully conceivable that Dilma will finish her term; what happens in the 2018 elections, and how the next 3 years affect that context, are much more difficult to predict.

Posted in Brazil, Democracy in the Americas, Impeachment, Latin American Politics, Protests in Latin America, Social Movements | Leave a comment

Why Is Political Impunity So Frequent in Brazil?

Simon Romero has an excellent piece up about the widening corruption scandal in Brazil. The whole thing is worth reading for a better understanding of the context and possible direction of the scandal and the investigations into corruption. For those wondering about how and why a culture of impunity has reigned with regards to corrupt politicians, this passage is particularly eloquent for its simplicity and directness:

about 40 percent of the 594 members of Congress are facing charges of one type or another in connection with a long list of scandals, according to Congresso em Foco, a watchdog group. However, few lawmakers ever go to jail because they can be tried only by the Supreme Court, meaning years of delays and effectively enabling many of them to avoid convictions.

Brazil’s judicial system is notoriously slow at all levels, from the Supreme Court to the criminal court system. This slowness allows those in positions of power and/or with access to money, be they politicians or police, to outlast the charges and effectively retain their positions for the long haul.  And when the Supreme Court investigates 500 congressional members in 27 years, and sentences only 16, well, institutional rot and elite privilege only become further entrenched.

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