RIP – Patricio Aylwin

Patricio Aylwin, the man who became the first democratically elected president of Chile after the end of the Pinochet regime in 1990, has died at the age of 97.

As most people are, Aylwin was a complex figure. He had opposed the government of Socialist president Salvador Allende from 1970-1973, and even signed a document requesting military intervention a week before the September 11 coup that overthrew the Allende government and ushered in the Pinochet regime. However, his role as leader of the Christian Democrats party in the 1980s made him a key figure in the institutional political opposition to Pinochet, and a strong choice for the presidential elections of 1990 that ushered him into office.

As for his presidency, it too had peaks and valleys. On the one hand, he navigated a political scenario where the military (and Pinochet himself) remained remarkably powerful, managing to transition to democracy without having the military re-intervene. His establishment of the Chilean National Truth Commission (aka the Rettig Report) immediately forced Chileans to confront the systematic human rights violations of the military regime. At the same time, for reasons that are still debated, he did not pursue prosecution of human rights violators, and his embrace of the neoliberal econoimc policies first established under Pinochet led some to accuse Aylwin (not unfairly) of illustrating continuity with the dictatorship outside of the realm of human rights. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, the fact remains that Aylwin, while not immune to criticism, played an important and in many ways positive role in post-dictatorship Chile and was a monumental figure in the history of Chile. Que descanse en paz.

Update: Greg has more reflections on Aylwin and what Chile in the 1990s was like.

Posted in Chile, Deaths

Thoughts on Brazil’s Impeachment Vote Yesterday

As mentioned last night, the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies (Brazil’s lower house in the bicameral Congress) voted to move forward with impeachment proceedings against Dilma Rousseff. The final tally was 367 in favor of impeachment and 137 against impeachment, with 7 abstentions and two absences. All that was needed to move forward was a 2/3 vote – in this case, 342 votes in favor – so the vote was not close. Perhaps fittingly, a representative from the center-right PSDB (Brazilian Social Democrat Party), historically the PT’s (Workers Party) main opponent, cast the deciding vote.

The voting took nearly six hours, and was quite the spectacle. Each deputy was given the chance to briefly state why they were voting, and the responses were….various. The causes cited for voting to impeach Dilma included, but were not limited to: for their wives; for their mothers; for other family members (including grandchildren whose birthday it was yesterday); God; because they didn’t want (and I’m quoting here) his “kids to learn about sex in school;” for “peace in Jerusalem” (no, really); and against “children changing their sexes in school” (no – really). The racist, misogynistic, and homophobic dictatorship apologist Jair Bolsonaro went so far as to dedicate his vote in favor of impeachment to the late Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, one of the military regime’s worst torturers who from late 1970 to 1974 oversaw the very center where Dilma, and hundreds of other Brazilians, were tortured.

Suffice to say, none of these issues actually addressed the actual issue at hand in impeachment – the pedaladas fiscais, or “fiscal maneuvers” in describing the federal government’s financial situation in 2014. Of course, as I discussed here, this was not an impeachable offense – it was not made illegal until last year, and both the center-right PSDB’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003) and PT’s Luis Inácio Lula da Silva had used the practice, as had well over a dozen sitting governors in 2014.  Some deputies voted in favor of impeachment “against corruption,” but even that was not the issue at play here. Yes, there are numerous corruption scandals involving Petrobras, the Lava Jato investigation, and kickbacks, but the pedaladas fiscais are not a part of the actual corruption scandals. Dilma herself has not been tied to any of the corruption scandals; indeed while her name is absent from both the Lava Jato investigation and, more recently, the Panama Papers, the opposition is rife with politicians directly tied to both, including Eduardo Cunha, President of the Chamber of Deputies who led the impeachment campaign. That’s not to say there may not be something uncovered later, but impeachment is a reactive, not proactive, political action. Ultimately, fewer than 10 deputies actually addressed the issue at hand – the pedaladas fiscais. Perhaps Dilma’s use of them was unconstitutional (though given the historical precedent, that seems unlikely), but nobody bothered to really make that case.

It was a difficult six hours to sit through for a number of reasons. One reason was because of the sheer demagoguery on display. Many of those voting for impeachment took time to sign each other’s flags, which they (literally) draped themselves in, wearing the flag as a cape, as if they were superheroes saving the nation. There was also a hint of sexism on display, as some were carrying signs that said “Tchau, querida” (roughly: “Bye, sweetheart”) in a move that was patronizing to Dilma. As one person sardonically commented on Twitter, the sign could refer to Dilma or to democracy in Brazil.

In addition to demagoguery, hypocrisy was on full display as well. Numerous men voted for impeachment in the name of their “family”; when it was announced that one Congresswoman was absent (and thus her vote would count as “no”) because she was pregnant, the opposition roundly booed her, effectively because she was not present due to having a family.

More systematically, the hypocrisy was on display over the issue of corruption itself. Corruption is a real issue in Brazil, as evident yesterday – not in the actual impeachment vote of Dilma itself, but in the fact that around 300 of the people voting yesterday are directly tied to corruption, criminal activity, fraud, money laundering, etc., but remain in office either due to parliamentary immunity or to a more general climate of impunity in which investigations into and punishment of very serious cases of electoral fraud and corruption move at a snail’s pace and rarely lead to any real punishment. The fact that the sitting president of the Senate, Renan Calheiros (also of the PMDB) has been tied to multiple corruption scandals and even briefly resigned (only to be re-elected), and that Cunha was discovered to have millions of dollars in a secret Swiss bank account (something he vehemently denied until the evidence was incontrovertible) is evidence of that fact. As for the unequal move toward justice, Cunha oversaw yesterday’s impeachment of Dilma while he himself is a defendant in the Supreme Court over that very corruption scandal and his ties to Lava Jato. As one deputy put it, “I have never seen so much hypocrisy per square meter,” and she wasn’t really being unfair.

In all of this, it’s worth recalling that 137 did vote “no” (with 9 more abstentions/absences counting toward “no”). Many voting “no” against impeachment pointed out Cunha is directly tied to/named in Lava Jato. Indeed, there is fear among some sectors that Congress will impeach Dilma and pretend it has “solved” corruption without actually dealing with the branch of government where corruption is most endemic – namely, Congress itself. Indeed, many in the opposition celebrated Cunha yesterday, and it’s increasingly looking like his move to break with the PT government and impeach Dilma was intended to redirect attention and anger away from his own corruption scandals. While he’s not out of the woods himself, he’s definitely managed to take a major step toward taking Dilma, who’s not connected to any of those scandals, with him.

Of course, now the question is – what happens next? The immediate political process I described yesterday, but the effects on Brazilian politics will likely last long beyond the impeachment of Dilma. One thing that seems quite probable is that the very nature of executive politics has transformed. Since 1988, presidents had selected vice presidents in the hope of coalition-building in Congress (due to the parliamentary system of the legislature, where the numerous parties mean presidents rely on coalitions to get their programs approved). If the Senate decides (by a simple majority) to proceed with impeachment, Dilma must step down during the proceedings, and Vice President Michel Temer will become president. Temer, of course, is from the PMDB – the biggest party in Brazil, and the party of none other than Chamber of Deputies President Eduardo Cunha, who has led the charge for impeachment. Some allege that Temer has directly undermined and worked against Dilma (technically, his boss/supervisor) in the hopes of becoming president (the PMDB has never had a directly-elected president). Whether or not those allegations are true is in a way immaterial; from this point forward, presidential candidates are going to have to keep in the back of their mind the possibility that their vice president may ultimately work against them to become president, with the aid of Congress. This could dramatically transform the role of the Vice President in Brazil and alter the balance of power not just between President and Vice President, but between political parties and alliances themselves, as coalitions may have to rethink whom they select for presidential/vice-presidential candidates. And the public may consider whom the Vice President is more strongly going forward, given the potential that yesterday’s vote seems to open the door for Congress helping the Vice President become President more easily.

Meanwhile – was it a coup? I’m still not inclined to use that term, and not just because Dilma still is in office, but because of what past coups have looked like, and how different this situation is. I’m somewhat sympathetic to the nuanced idea that this might be a “legal coup” in the sense of removing a president out of partisanship but doing so through institutional mechanisms, a la what happened in Paraguay in 2012, but I think it is important to understand how 2016 differs from 1964 (or 1889, or 1930, or 1937), when the removal of a president (or empire, in the case of 1889) led to a very real transformation in the very state itself. That said, I understand some of the arguments for the term as well.

Either way, whether or not it is a coup, it is certainly a major step back for Brazilian democracy. It’s not just because the President has been impeached without doing anything evidently impeachable (and again, if the use of pedaladas fiscais was impeachable, nobody bothered to seriously make that case yesterday). It’s because yesterday’s impeachment vote is effectively a vote of no confidence in a system that relies on four-year terms. As I’ve mentioned several times, there is much debate over whether a presidential parliamentary system like Brazil’s could even work in theory, much less in practice. Yesterday’s vote reveals another crack in the system, as a majority of people can effectively vote in a president, only to have Congress attempt to remove that president. Some may counter, “well, Dilma is unpopular!,” which yes, currently she is (though let’s not pretend media narratives that shape public attitudes are somehow impartial). However, it’s still a system in which the public elects the president, and barring any evidence of overt corruption, treason, or abuse of power (which, at the risk of redundance, is not immediately evident in the actual impeachment charges), elected leaders should serve out their terms, because that strengthens the legitimacy of the democratic instituions themselves and illustrates the importance of participating in electoral processes. Put another way: if Brazil wants to remove a leader due to unpopularity, it should just become a parliamentary system; unfortunately, that’s not what it is, and it can’t be transformed quickly, primarily because presidential parliamentarism is the reality of the 1988 Constitution’s establishment of governance. Any transformations would require a fundamental rewriting of the Constitution, and that seems unlikely at best (and, given the current crop of Congressional representatives, it’s not clear it’s even desirable).

All of this is a very long way of saying that there are real systemic and structural issues remaining in Brazilian politics and democracy, and yesterday’s vote has greatly complicated the scenario in Brazil not just in the coming months, but for the coming years. Yesterday perhaps was not the first step in the end of Brazilian democratic institutions and democracy, but it was definitely a step in the wrong direction.

Posted in Brazil, Corruption, Coups in Latin America, Impeachment, Latin American Politics, Legal Issues in Latin America | 2 Comments

Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies Votes to Impeach Dilma Rousseff

Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of Congress) has voted to impeach Dilma Rousseff. This was the first, and arguably most difficult, step in the process.

That said, it’s not the final step in impeachment, though it may be the most difficult. Now, the process goes to the Senate, where senators will decide whether to proceed with the impeachment hearings. Whereas the Chamber of Deputies needed a 2/3 vote, the Senate just needs a simple majority to continue the process. If they vote to continue the impeachment process, Dilma will have to step down for 180 days as the Senate conducts the trial. It will take a 2/3 vote in the Senate to remove her from office. In the event the impeachment continues, Vice President Michel Temer (who faces his own allegations of corruption, with much more evidence than there ever was against Dilma) now assumes the presidency.

And of course, given how many voted for impeachment for things like “my family,” “god,” “against children changing sexes in school” (really), “for peace in Jerusalem,” (no – really), and many other causes not remotely related to the pedaladas fiscais that were (supposed to be) the basis for impeachment, it’s not impossible that an appeal to the court system could lead to an overturn of the vote, given how few addressed the actual issue behind the impeachment charge.

I’ll have more tomorrow, but for now, suffice to say, all those who voted “yes” likely thought they were making history, and they weren’t wrong; what side of history their vote will fall on remains less certain.

Posted in Brazil, Impeachment

Anti-Corruption Sentiment and Popular Culture in Brazil

The Guardian recently ran an interesting piece on a Brazilian graphic artist who has created a comic series that offers a unique socio-cultural insight into anti-corruption sentiment in Brazil:

While Brazil’s real-life political drama is more commonly compared to House of Cards, a comic strip called The Awakener offers frustrated Brazilians an even darker kind of fantasy.

As the fallout from the epic corruption scandal at Petrobras, the state-run oil company, implicates legislators across the range of Brazil’s political parties, the death-dealing crusader’s radical solution to the country’s political crisis is finding a growing audience.

The brainchild of the Rio de Janeiro-based graphic designer Luciano Cunha, the comic strip started life on Facebook in March 2013, just months before the mass demonstrations of June that year, which marked the beginning a new era of turmoil in Brazilian politics.

The story actually offers some important insight into the effects of the current situation and controversy around corruption and politics in Brazil. On the one hand, the strip reveals how, for some, anti-corruption is not merely a question of anti-PT sentiment, but of the broader hypocrisy of Brazilian politics. This is likely in part because the strip actually pre-dates not just the current scandals, but the 2013 protests, where the platform of anti-corruption was more systemic and not partisan in the ways more recent protests against corruption have been.

Additionally, the story shows the very real effects of corruption on everyday lives:

[Cunha] moved first into advertising, and then to the communications department of Petrobras, where he used to arrive hours early to work on the comic.

Then in November, he was fired. The company, which announced its biggest loss on record on Monday, has fired tens of thousands of workers over the past 18 months.

Because of a long system of graft, bribery, and kickbacks, likely going back to the 1990s and crossing presidential administrations as politicians and corporations acted with impunity, the fact that these scandals are finally emerging has had a profound impact on Brazilians not just politically, but socially. Cunha’s story of job-loss in the wake of the revelation of this systemic corruption is a story tens of thousands of Brazilians have experienced in very real, material ways, reinforcing a sense of economic uncertainty that many believed had disappeared for good with the Brazilian boom of the 2000s.

Indeed, it might be that generalized, non-partisan experience of the loss of a job and material well-being that makes Cunha’s comic book so fascinating. That both the left and right see it as politically biased reveals not so much its actual political stance as the systemic nature of corruption, and the fact that, by imagining a world where popular justice is violent and swift, Cunha’s work has alienated parties of all stripes even while resonating with the public. That is not to say it is necessarily a good thing, but it does reveal the ways in which the current scandal is resonating in society more generally and beyond the level of political demonstrations or slogans.

Posted in Brazil, Corruption, Latin American Cultures, Latin American Politics

Defending Democracy in Brazil

As I’ve noted before, the Brazilian media has portrayed the anti-Dilma/anti-PT/pro-impeachment protests as a case of the Brazilian people taking to the streets, with the implication that “Brazil” (and thus, the citizens of the nation) and the current administration are diametrically opposed. (That much of the international media relies on Brazilian media for its own understanding of the situation does not help.) Just a reminder that there are divergent views, and that not all Brazilians are in favor of impeachment, even if they are discontent with Dilma and the current political climate, here is a (non-exhaustive) list of people who have taken to the streets to either oppose impeachment and support democracy, and/or support Dilma.

Again, this does not mean that all of those people support Dilma and/or the PT. What it does mean is that the calls for impeachment, and those in the streets demanding Dilma’s removal from office, is not necessarily representative of all voices in Brazil; there are many dissatisfied with the current political and/or economic situation who still understand that, even presidents who are unpopular but have not been charged with crimes should serve out their term of office for the sake of democratic stability and legitimacy. That doesn’t mean that Dilma still won’t be impeached – indeed, the likelihood of impeachment is looking more probable every day – but that many are still opposed to it and view it as a partisan charade that will harm Brazilian institutions and society.

Posted in Brazil, Impeachment, Latin American Politics, Legal Issues in Latin America, Protests in Latin America, Social Movements | 2 Comments

Talking about Brazil’s Political Situation (with Bonus US-Cuba Relations Discusion)

I recently talked with Robert Farley on Foreign Entanglements about the Brazilian political crisis, and possible outcomes (along with some additional conversation on Obama’s trip to Latin America last week). You can see the whole thing here.


Posted in Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Latin American Politics, Latin American-U.S. Relations, United States | 1 Comment

Today in Even Worse, More Inaccurate Historical Analogies (or, “Pinochet Wasn’t a Populist”)

I thought “Trump is a populist/caudillo (because that’s the same thing)” would be the dumbest historical/political analogy I would read yesterday. Sadly, I was wrong:

Better than most, the people of Latin America know how to spot a caudillo, or populist strongman—Pinochet. Noriega. Castro. Chávez. Perón.

After yesterday’s post, it shouldn’t need saying, but apparently, it does: Latin American Populism means something – namely, a personalist, non-ideological, corporatist driven vision of society with one as the charismatic, paternalist leader appealing to the masses to strengthen popular support. Suffice to say, Pinochet – an uncharismatic, privatizing, neoliberal, anti-communist, right-wing ideologue who launched a coup and led a regime that worsened the lives of the masses after it overthrew a government that sought to improve the lives of the masses – is not a populist. Yet that din’t stop Ben Wofford from citing Pinochet as his first example of a “populist,” alongside “Noriega. Castro. Chávez. Perón.”(!)

If all of those men are populist, the word truly has no meaning. There are exactly three things that those men all shared in common: 1) they were men; 2) they were from the part of the world known as “Latin America”; 3) they served as the heads of government at some point. That’s it – that’s the list. At least three of them weren’t “populist,” for reasons I outlined yesterday. The only way that “Pinochet” and “populist” belong in the same sentence is exactly as follows: “Pinochet was anything but a populist.” If the Wall Street Journal’s attempt to paint Trump as a caudillo like Perón was misguided and inaccurate, saying Pinochet was a populist is downright Wrong. [And that’s to say nothing of the equation of Pinochet – a right-wing, privatizing, authoritarian dictator who came to power through a coup and whose regime deployed widespread torture and murder – with Chávez – a leftist, nationalizing, corporatist president who came to power through democratic elections whose regime did not rely upon widespread torture and murder.]

I said it yesterday, and I’ll repeat it now: The US in 2016 is not Latin America in the twentieth century, and clearly, analysts should either A) stay away from looking to a Latin American history they fundamentally don’t understand as they try to understand Trump, or B) there is no B.

Posted in Latin America, Latin American History, Latin American Politics, United States