The Complex Web of Environmental Devastation in the Amazon

The New York Times recently ran a story on the issue of piracy on the Amazon River. It offers glimpses into a lot of issues pertinent to the region and to Brazil more generally – ongoing poverty and inequality, and its role in the expansion of violence; the international nature of the drug trade within South America; the shifting (and not always clearly-defined) role of the police – but this passage in particular stood out:

Galdino Alencar, the president of the Union of River Navigation Companies of Amazonas State, said that pirates were increasingly targeting ships carrying large cargoes for the growing population of the Amazon, including cooking gas, electronic devices, cement and dried beef. But the most coveted cargo for pirates, he said, is fuel.

“It’s a product they can steal and go on to sell to gold miners operating illegally in the forest,” Mr. Alencar said. He added that pirates were also stepping up attacks on ships docked in large cities like Manaus, spurring calls by his organization to create a federal river police force.

When we think of environmental devastation, we tend to think only of deforestation, typically for ranching. Certainly, ranching is a major and highly-visible threat to and cause of Amazonian destruction, but it is far from the sole issue – illegal mining and the drug trade also have direct and indirect effects on the degradation of the environment int he Amazon. And these are not merely environmental issues; they are social issues as well, for the rapid demographic growth in the Amazonian basin and the ongoing inequalities within the region, and the national inequalities between the poorer North and Northeast (vs. the wealthier Southeast and South) of Brazil contribute to the causes of this deforestation.:

Huederson Paulino, a pirate who used the nom de guerre Mohican, confessed to killing and dismembering two men on a boat selling ice and salt. He led a gang that stole cash and fuel from the victims, and said his aim was to get spending money for Christmas.

“I needed the money, so I did what was best for me,” Mr. Paulino, 24, told reporters.

Those who cannot find well-paying jobs resort to piracy, stealing goods that they then sell to those like the illegal miners who need fuel for transport into the forest, where their open-pit mining furthers environmental destruction in the Amazon. Without greater infrastructure, socioeconomic equality, and opportunity for the majority in the Amazon, the incentives for such extralegal means to wealth will persist (much as they do in the urban centers of the Southeast, with very different causes and effects), and so too will the environmental destruction. Ranching is a problem, yes, but at the end of the day, without addressing the socioeconomic issues facing the region and Brazil as a whole, the probability of halting and reversing environmental degradation in the Amazon seems unlikely.

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Very Quick Thoughts on Castro

Fidel Castro has died at 90 years of age. Obviously, a lot will be said in the coming days. Some will make him out to be one of the greatest monsters of history (with inevitable claims that he was “Cuba’s Hitler”). Others will make him out to be one of history’s greatest heroes. Many more people will claim to be experts on Castro when they aren’t.

I’ll make no such claims, but studying Latin America makes Castro an unavoidable subject, and one encounters numerous historical attitudes towards him. Suffice to say, when you read the “monster”/”hero” narratives in the coming days, both are simplistic and overwrought. LIke virtually everybody who holds power on the global stage, Castro’s record is far too complex, his effects on people far too heterogeneous, to fit into simple “good”/”evil” narratives. What cannot be denied, however, is that he had a major impact on World History, not just in terms of his relationship with the US or his place in our understanding of the Cold War, but in broader struggles in places like Africa, South America, and elsewhere. It will only be with the gradual settling of the historical dust that we’ll be able to fully appreciate his legacies, for better and for worse.

Posted in Cuba, Deaths | Comments Off on Very Quick Thoughts on Castro

What Presidents Do Post-Coup

Greg has an interesting post up on the path of Latin American presidents who’ve been removed from office in recent times – Manuel Zelaya in Honduras in 2009 through a coup; Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo through a highly dubious application of impeachment in 2012; and most recently, Dilma Rousseff. As Greg points out, where presidents removed from office were once sent into exile (though Zelaya did spend some time in exile), now, they enter the legislative branch electorally. His tentative conclusions:

On the one hand, we might consider it a good thing. Political competition is taking place within institutions and not, for example, by calling on the military or forming a rebel group.

But on the other, this may just perpetuate the corrupt and largely unchanging political system. Perhaps you can work at the margins, but the same anti-democratic structural forces are in place. Along these lines, we could argue that at least to some degree contentious politics allows the possibility for greater change (though AMLO [Mexican politician Andrés Manuel López Obrador] certainly seems like a possible counterexample).

I think this is right, and maybe I’m uncharacteristically optimistic in regard, but I think the latter point about combating corruption from within a corrupt system is the best path available to each of these three candidates. Each was elected to, and removed from, office because of their willingness to help the historically and socially marginalized sectors of society, which the political and economic elites of each respective country saw as a threat to their own ability to govern in elites’ interests with impunity and without challenge. Such a historical precedent has reinforced a historical exclusion of the masses [further reinforced by the removal, forced or legislatively, of all three presidents] and undermined modern democratic practices in each country, even while allowing institutional corruption and impunity to remain unchecked. I think that each of the three presidents running and being elected to serve in the legislature after having been prematurely and even illegally removed from the executive is likely the best path available to them to continue to try to reform the system from within.*

Their presence in the legislature doesn’t suddenly abolish corruption within national politics, of course -were Dilma to run and be elected Senator, she’d still be serving in a body where over half of her colleagues are facing actual criminal accusations and charges. But the corruption within Brazilian, Paraguayan, or Honduran politics, and the impunity with which politicians act, is not on  Dilma, Lugo, or Zelaya, each of whom represented real threats to oligarchic political elites and their economic allies. If they couldn’t effect change in the executive, then serving in the legislature and keeping the issues they worked toward as president in the public and political eye is one of the better options available to them.

Indeed, Greg cites the case of López Obrador, and I think that offers a compelling counter-example. Though López Obrador never occupied the presidency, the path he took can still be instructive. After being declared the loser of the election in the incredibly-close 2006 election, and then losing in the 2012 election, his efforts to operate outside of the system and to try to rally people extra-institutionally have been minimally effective in transforming Mexican politics in the ways he’d envisioned (and enacted as the Head of the Government of Mexico City from 2000-2005). While Zelaya and Lugo (and possibly Dilma) might have less influence as legislators than they did as presidents, they would still have a greater direct influence on national policy than AMLO did with his decision to politically operate extra-institutionally.

And yes, those are often-corrupt institutions, and there’s nothing to guarantee that Lugo, Zelaya, or (possibly) Dilma would not end up being “bought” in the same system. That said, I’m not sure how working from without would be an option for them, given their dubious (or even forced) removal in each case, and the legislative option seems to be one of the better options for them to continue promoting their political visions and programs, even if it ends up being in a watered down or less immediate form.

*Opinions vary on whether those systems themselves are worth saving, but whether or not one agrees with that stance, each of the three clearly believes as much, given their efforts to reform from within, first from the executive and then from the legislative branches.


Posted in Brazil, Honduras, Latin American Politics, Mexico, Paraguay | 1 Comment

Today in “Terrible Historical Analogies” (or, Brazil in 2016 is not Iraq in 2005)

The impeachment of Dilma Roussef in Brazil has led to no small amount of writing over where Brazil heads next. Some of those pieces are thought-provoking as they shed light on the current situation in Brazil as well as outlining quite reasonable (if not guaranteed) possible outcomes.

Then there are pieces like this one.

A sense of uncertainty, and even fear, in Brazil right now is not irrational. The democratic process has suffered a massive setback, one that will take years to recover from (and there’s no guarantee there, either). But to say that Brazil “might become a new Iraq, but much worse” demonstrates overreaction of the worst kind.

It starts off benignly enough, highlighting the reality that a majority of the senators who removed Dilma over allegations of corruption are themselves corrupt. However, things quickly turn from a reasoned assessment to the comparison of Dilma and….Saddam Hussein. And not even in the vilifying way you might first think.

Amidst such scenario, Dilma Rousseff became the scapegoat of Brazil, in the same fashion perhaps that the Bush administration initiated an intentional and widespread fear mongering and deception campaign as to gain support to invade Iraq after the 9/11 attack.

In that case, however, the scapegoat was Saddam Hussein who was also perceived as a hindrance by the American oligarchy. So, history repeats itself but on opposite sides of the hemisphere. Truth is that both Hussein and Rousseff became guilty by association.

This is just a bizarre analogy on so many levels that it’s hard to tell where to begin. Yes, the removal of Dilma is  politically traumatic and institutionally concerning, but thousands of people didn’t die in a single day died because of Dilma’s removal from office. [And I’m not fetishizing 9/11 here, but at some point, context matters, and this seems to be well beyond that point]. Additionally, Saddam fell because a foreign power decided that he was public enemy #1; the impeachment of Dilma has been a strictly internal issue from the start, a question of the struggle between the traditional political oligarchy that served the interests of private capital and the economic elite vs. a political party that worked to improve inequalities in society more generally (while still operating within a market-friendly policy, for better or worse). Nobody was invading Brazil if Dilma remained in office (or if she’s removed), and nobody’s blaming their own domestic security issues on Dilma and Brazil. And even if the “American oligarcy” is satisfied with the outcome of impeachment, they weren’t the main engine behind it, nor were they the catalyst for it. This is, first and foremost, domestic politics in Brazil, not some Cold War US-led coup a la Guatemala in 1954.

And its not just the international context that seems so skewed here – even the domestic context seems….exaggerated. Is the rivalry between the PT and the PMDB real? Yes. Is it a rivalry of over 1000 years, with a long history of warfare and territorial acquisitions based upon a vision of what the supreme divine being intends for Earth, with centuries of religious doctrine blended modern political ideology, all with a contested history at play, as the Sunni-Shia split in Iraq is? In a word – No.

This isn’t to diminish what are very real problems like political corruption and violence that the piece mentions (and even issues that the piece does not mention, like ongoing inequalities, police brutality and impunity, environmental issues, etc.). But to say that these issues, and the uncertain impact they will have, is akin to what happened in Iraq between 2003 and the present, is to demonstrate a complete failure to understand either the situation outside of Brazil or any decent concept of useful historical analogies.

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A Final, Farcical Footnote to Impeachment in Brazil

As many already know, Brazil’s Senate formally removed president Dilma Rousseff from office this week, voting 61-20 in favor of removal (59 votes were needed). The process had been a farce since the moment Eduardo Cunha, leader of the PMDB in the Chamber of Deputies, broke with Dilma’s coalition last summer, and the farcical nature seemed to reach its peak with the painfully demagogic performances when the Chamber moved to impeach in  April.

While the Senate’s vote was pretty much a foregone conclusion, there still remained a surprise. While the Senate voted to remove Dilma from office, they did not vote to strip her of her political rights for ten years (a decision that accompanies removal from office for politicians). This may not seem like a big deal, but the insanity becomes clear when one realizes that this is now the reality in Brazil: Dilma Rousseff, who was removed from the presidency over poorly-defined and unsubstantiated allegations of “corruption,” can run for office in 2018, but Michel Temer, who is now actually serving as president in the wake of Dilma’s removal, cannot run for office in 2018 because he actually has had his political rights stripped due to his own corruption.

[And of course, let’s not forget that, in the first month of his then-temporary administration, no fewer than three of his cabinet members had to step down over corruption.]

Dilma’s removal from office may have seemed to mark the end of the farce that was the use of impeachment this year. Yet with every day, it becomes even more painfully clear how naked this undemocratic power grab was. One can never underestimate the kleptocratic elite in Brazil’s Congress, and so yesterday, they offered one final, farcical footnote to the whole process. Less than 48 hours after Dilma’s removal, Congress voted for a rules change that allows presidents to use supplementary credit when establishing the federal budget without needing Congressional approval. That may sound uninteresting and technical, but there’s another more commonplace term for this practice: pedaladas fiscais, or fiscal maneuvers.

In other words: Congress just legalized the very practice that they removed Dilma Rousseff over.

More specifically, Dilma’s impeachment was never about “corruption” (claims without evidence notwithstanding). The impeachment process centered on allegations that her use of pedaladas fiscais in 2014 was unconstitutional. Nevermind that the practice was only declared illegal (by Dilma’s government itself) in 2015; nevermind that pedaladas fiscais had been common practice not only among presidents dating back to the mid-1990s and among governors even in the present. [And one can say it’s an unsavory practice, and that’s fine, but it wasn’t illegal, which is what impeachment is about – removal from office for illegal activity.]

So the Senate removed the president from the PT from office over an act, and less than 48 hours after she was out of office, Congress legalized that very same act once again for the Michel Temer, the vice president who replaced her and who worked against the very president whom he served as he collaborated with the PMDB and PSDB throughout the entire impeachment process.

It was already quite visible that the impeachment was never about corruption – again, a majority of the senators are facing actual charges and documented allegations of criminal activity. Yesterday’s new law made clear that it wasn’t even about the allegedly “unsavory” (when Dilma used it) practice of pedaladas fiscais. It was about two parties (the PSDB and PMDB) seizing power after being unable to electorally win the presidency in 13 years. In the process, they removed from office a president whom a majority of Brazilians elected, vetoing the social, economic, and political projects of the PSDB in the process. This is a cynical and undemocratic politics, and one that becomes impossibly more naked and evident every day. It is a massive, unquantifiable step backwards for Brazilian democracy, and it will take many, many years – likely well past the next election in 2018 – to recover.

Posted in Brazil, Corruption, Impeachment, Latin American Politics | Comments Off on A Final, Farcical Footnote to Impeachment in Brazil

Some Quick Thoughts on the Latest Polls in Brazil

Three months out from the impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff and the imposition of Michel Temer as acting President, Datafolha recently published new polling data that gives some interesting insights into how the impeachment and the Temer administration are resonating in the interregnum between Dilma’s removal and her upcoming trial in the Senate. The snapshot finds that half of those polled were in favor of Temer’s continuity, with 32% preferring the return of Dilma, and only 3% wanting new elections (with another 4% wanting neither Dilma nor Temer, but not wanting new elections). Given the lack of support for new elections, it seems unlikely that they would happen, barring some unprecedented and unforeseeable event (though to be fair, 2016 has already been full of unprecedented and unforeseeable events in Brazilian politics already).

Of course, that half the country says Temer should stay in office does not mean he enjoys support. Indeed, he currently is only at a 14% approval rating. The discrepancy between his approval rating and those who say he should stay in office makes some small sense, however, if the latter is understood not as pro-Temer (nor anti-Dilma) sentiment, but as people likely just wanting no more political instability. That 32% also want the return of Dilma is likely only partly support for her, with the possibility that, while also unpopular, her removal was dubious at best – a possibility backed up by the fact that, while 58% want her permanently removed (down from nearly 70% in April), 35% want her reinstated. Thus, Temer is unpopular, but they’d rather not deal with anymore of the political insanity that Brazil has endured across the last several months. On the one hand, this is not necessarily a good thing, as it means that the highly-problematic tactics to impeach Dilma under spurious charges have become normalized; on the other hand, it also points to a desire for institutional stability, which is important as well – especially given the institutional instability behind a Congress impeaching a president without any evidence of illegal activity even while that self-same Congress is rife with corruption.

The data that has raised more eyebrows is the fact that one-third of those polled didn’t know the acting president’s name. While this led to no small amount of guffawing on Twitter and in Facebook comments, this actually taps into the more pernicious isolation of Brazilian politics. Politics in Brazil have long functioned as an arena for the elites cut off from the masses in any number of guises and historical moments, from the Empire to the 2013 protests; that 33% of those polled did not know which was the acting president only reinforces the perception of national politics not registering in or appealing to not-insignificant portions of the population.

Finally, in a separate poll, Datafolha found that, in a list of possible candidates for president in 2018, former president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva leads other named candidates like ex-senator Marina Silva and José Serra of the PSDB (who has lost the presidential elections twice before, is currently in Michel Temer’s cabinet, and whose name has come up periodically in the Lava Jato investigation). Interestingly, while Lula leads, he would lose a second-round runoff against either Silva or Serra, based on the poll. In some regards, this is just an entertaining game of “what if” for elections that are over 2 years away (and, based on what has happened just in the last 9 months, a lot can happen in 2 years). That said, it does show that Lula reveals some strong degree of support amongst a considerable number of Brazilians, suggesting that either the PT remains somewhat popular or that his charisma and nostalgia for the accomplishments of his presidency – which saw remarkable economic growth and social reform -transcends disgust with party politics (I suspect it’s the latter).

Posted in Brazil, Democracy in the Americas, Latin American Politics | Comments Off on Some Quick Thoughts on the Latest Polls in Brazil

The Lived Effects of the Rio Olympics

Recently, The Guardian has been running an excellent series on the lived experiences of the Olympics from a usually-ignored perspective: that of those living in favelas. Much of the concern over the upcoming Rio Olympics has fallen on Zika (despite August being low season for mosquitos in Rio, and a majority of the documented Zika cases occurring thousands of miles in Northeast), which isn’t surprising – the world tends to focus on the on-the-ground issues that they think will directly affect themselves. However, those more familiar with Brazil know the bigger issue around the Olympics is not Zika, but the longer-term inequalities in Rio and the burden for the Olympics that unduly falls on the poor, not just economically but socially, be it through forced relocation, allocation of funding to expensive construction projects instead of social care, further improvements in parts of the city that are already well off while ignoring the areas that need investment, or other issues. This ongoing inequality surrounding the Olymipcs is admittedly just another entry in a more than century-long history of “improvements” to Rio that dislocate and disenfranchise the urban (typically nonwhite) poor.

That is why the pieces in The Guardian are so important, so illuminating, and so necessary. Be it in discussing the ways in which the deaths (and thus, lives) of the poor are ignored while those of the wealthy are top stories, the sense of brutal violence as a daily reality, or  the ways the favelas are physical and symbolic examples of the ongoing racial, social, and economic segregation that Brazilians often ignore or even deny, the journals cover a wide array of topics: the way the lives of the urban poor are devalued, the ways police continue to operate with impunity when perpetuating violence against marginalized populations, the multifarious negative effects the Olympics have had on the residents of Rio, the ongoing social and economic inequalities in Brazil, the effects of the economic crisis on everyday Brazilians, the popular reaction to the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, the role of technologies (like What’s App) to communicate danger, and even the mundane (such as video games) alongside the extreme violence. In total, the pieces simultaneously demonstrate the complexities of favela life even while tapping into the ongoing and very real struggles of Brazil’s marginalized, offering invaluable insights into a wide variety of processes, experiences, and events from voices too often overlooked and disregarded.

Posted in Brazil, Favelas, Inequalities in the Americas, Rio de Janeiro, Urban Landscapes | 1 Comment

Early Thoughts on What a Temer Administration Looks Like

One of the things that distinguishes impeachment in Brazil compared to the US is what the president does during the hearing. Whereas in the US, a president facing impeachment continues to serve as president, in Brazil, the president is removed from office for 180 days, and the Vice President becomes President. In this context, then, the removal of Dilma last week means that her Vice President, Michel Temer of the Partido Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, PMDB) – the party that broke with Dilma’s government late last year, even with Temer as Vice President – has now assumed the office of the President for at least the next six months. Temer is not some upstart, either – he has a long background in Brazilian politics, having variously served in the São Paulo state government, as a Federal Deputy, President of the Chamber of Deputies during the neoliberal government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and Vice President under Dilma. While his past affiliations likely made him seem a poor fit for her policies (which is in hindsight increasingly clear), his status as a respected senior member in the PMDB made him an important figure in coalition-building with Congress – hence his selection as Vice President. And those political connections are not limited to domestic ties in Brazil. As Wikileaks documents have demonstrated, Temer has a long history with the US as a possible informant as well.

It’s likely that long history in politics that suggests that, at least rhetorically, Temer knows he’s not exactly operating with a mandate. Upon being sworn in, he semi-implored Brazil’s public to “trust him” and promised that he would govern “without rancor” (though whether the tens of millions of Brazilians who voted for Dilma are willing to be governed without rancor remains to be seen). He even framed his administration as focusing on a “national salvation” from the political turmoil of the past year – an ironic move, given that the previous governments that most regularly framed themselves as “saving” the nation were, as Steve Stern and others have demonstrated, the military dictatorships of the twentieth century.

That’s a lot of hopeful talk, but obviously, the real test will be in his policies, and when looking at them, his government is much more conservative and far less conciliatory than his speeches indicate. Though Temer said he would leave intact social programs of the PT that have gone a great distance in eliminating hunger and reducing inequality in Brazil, Wellington Moreira Franco, who is seen as one of the top advisors to Temer, has suggested that social programs will be cut under the new government. The Temer government has already announced that it is eliminating 4 Ministries – the Ministry of Culture; the Ministry for Women, Racial Equality, and Human Rights; the Ministry of Communication; and the Ministry of Agricultural Development. It is worth noting that a majority of these ministries addressed social issues, be it the question of gender and racial equality and basic human rights, the cultures of historically marginalized groups (Ministry of Culture), or rural populations (Agricultural Development), even as the Ministry of Sport and the Ministry of Tourism survived. Certainly, one could argue that Brazil’s ministerial bloat could be reduced, but that the reduction fell on areas that helped those who are historically disenfranchised politically and economically is likely not an accident.

Additionally, the government has already announced that it is cutting over 4,000 government jobs, which some praise as helping Brazil’s budget issues; however, the Temer government has also admitted it does not even know how much money it will allegedly save by eliminating those jobs. Nonetheless, it has already begun jettisoning public jobs with little objective beyond the vague goal of reducing government, a project that is neoliberal to its core.

Indeed, to fully appreciate just how neoliberal Temer’s project is already shaping up to be, one need look no further than Temer’s decision to reconsider and expand tercerização, or outsourcing, something that Dilma had effectively tabled by not making it a priority. And despite his pledges to work to bring people together and preserve social programs, Temer himself seems to be moving away from such promises already, saying there are vague “sacrifices” the Brazilian people will have to make going forward. Of course, when the government says it will need to make “sacrifices,” the first things sacrificed are often the basic necessities that affect the majority of the population, even while business and political elites’ interests remain untouched.

Of course, the Vice President assuming a circumstance where the President may return may not seem so unusual to some. What is more unusual is that, in Brazil, should the President be removed from office to face trial in the Senate, not only does the Vice President rise to the presidency -s/he also gets to create a new cabinet. This is part of the reason why some consider the removal of Dilma a “coup” – her removal is not just about replacing her with Temer; it’s about replacing her entire governmental program and cabinet with a more conservative one that lost the 2014 election. And it’s in looking at Temer’s cabinet where the real long-term effects of the impeachment might be clearer.

As I and many others have noted, the Cabinet is already a massive step backward for the sheer fact that, in a country with a majority population of women and a majority population of Afro-descendants, Temer’s new cabinet is made up entirely of white men – not exactly indicative of a government that actually represents its population (nor of a meritocracy).

The distinction between Dilma's cabinet (top) and Temer's cabinet (bottom).

The distinction between Dilma’s cabinet (top) and Temer’s cabinet (bottom).

And while that’s the most immediately visible problem of Temer’s cabinet, it’s far from the only problem. At least seven members of Temer’s cabinet are directly implicated in the Lava Jato corruption scandal that has highlighted the networks of kickbacks and bribes between politicians and corporations in Brazil – quite a high number for a president who came to power due to the alleged corruption of his predecessor. Further eliminating any notion that this was about anything other than partisanship, nearly half of the new ministers – 11 out of 24 – supported the PSDB’s presidential candidate, Aécio Neves, in the 2014 election. Neves, of course, ran against (and lost to) Dilma, and his party, the PSDB, has long been the main antagonist to the PT, objecting to the latter’s social programs and advocating a neoliberal platform that it implemented under Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003). That those who supported Neves in 2014 are now in office reveals just how problematic Dilma’s removal is, and adds fire to those who view this as a coup. Unable to have their candidate win a popular election in 2014, they now serve in the cabinet of a new president who came to power upon the removal of Dilma, representing the political views and platforms not of the PT that the majority voted for, but of the man who lost the democratic election.

And who those ministers are is also far more telling than any of Temer’s pledges to work “without rancor” or to defend social programs. For example, the new Minister of Agriculture, Fishing, and Supply is none other than Blairo Maggi – the “king of soy” behind one of Brazil’s largest corporations, the industrial agricultural giant the Amaggi group, which has played no small part in reducing land rights for peasants and in deforestation. [Conveniently, just last week, the Supreme Court decided to shelve an investigation into Maggi for money laundering.] The new Minister of Justice is Alexandre de Moraes, the São Paulo Secretary of Public Security who has openly said that left-leaning social groups like labor unions or the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto (Homeless Workers’ Movement) should be repressed and who just last week said that Brazilians’ protests against the impeachment were “acts of guerrillas.” José Serra, who twice lost a presidential election to the PT (in 2002, and again in 2010) and who since 1995 has left every job he was appointed to or elected to before his mandate was up, is the new Minister of Foreign Relations. The new Minister of Health, Ricardo Barros, previously advocated reducing the massively-successful Bolsa Familia program that reduced poverty by 10 billion reais (roughly a $3 billion dollar cut to one of Brazil’s most successful socail programs). The Minister of Education and Culture (the two have been merged, in a move that undoes the separation of the two ministries when Brazil returned to democracy in 1985), Mendonça Filho, has historically opposed affirmative action and funding programs that provided aid and access to universities for Brazil’s marginalized populations.

Meanwhile, in addition to Maggi, the new Ministers of Planning (Romero Jucá), Defense (Raul Jungmann), and Cities (Bruno Araújo), together with the Secretary of Government (Geddel Vieira Lima), and the Chief of the Civil Cabinet (Eliseu Padilha), have all been tied to corruption and fraud, including allegations that Jungmann was involved in illegal bribes and contracts between 1998 and 2001 when serving in the cabinet of Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Nor are those cabinet members the only ones tied to corruption, directly or indirectly. Indeed, just yesterday, Temer announced that he was hiring Gustavo do Vale Rocha to work in the Casa Civil (Civil Cabinet) as Subchief for Juridical Matters. While that name not jump out, who Vale Rocha worked for before does – he was none other than Eduardo Cunha’s lawyer. That Temer is hiring a lawyer who previously represented one of the more visibly corrupt politicians in Brazil’s Congress and a man who initiated the path toward impeachment is not a good look. Given that Congress voted to remove Dilma over allegations of “corruption,” the fact that so many in the new government are tied to corruption and even having their investigations archived now that Dilma is out of office only further strengthens the argument that this was never about corruption, and that investigations into what is very much a systemically and endemically corrupt system, particularly in Brazil’s legislature, will be slow-moving or halted going forward.

Indeed, there’s already an indication that the corruption hearings will not proceed under Temer’s own will. For example, a close ally/actor in the impeachment of Dilma was Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes, who, within 24 hours of Dilma’s removal, tabled the corruption investigation into her 2014 opponent and opposition leader, Aécio Neves. At the risk of belaboring a point I’ve made repeatedly here, this is the action of a blatantly partisan attack, and not of an institution genuinely interested in combatting corruption in politics more generally. Temer can insist the extant investigations will continue, but again, despite his rhetoric, there are real questions about whether anything positive will come of his government’s actions.

And this is the Temer government that is taking office – one that is not exactly operating with a great sense of legitimacy or a mandate, one whose cabinet does little-to-nothing to address that credibility gap. And it’s not like the Temer government isn’t facing real issues. In addition to corruption (which seems to be minimally important, based on his appointees), there are still the questions of small matters like the shrinking economy, Brazil’s dependence on exports, the Zika virus outbreak, and of course, the Olympics (which seem to be what the world is most focused on, but which is least relevant of these issues in the grand scheme of things). And let’s not forget – Temer, who’s already been convicted of corruption to the point that he’s serving as president even while he’s barred from running for public office for the next 8 years – could still face impeachment himself for his own ties to corruption and to the pedaladas fiscais that were the basis of Dilma’s removal (and that Temer, as a member of her government, also approved of).

All of this is to say that Temer can promise to be “saving” the nation. However, in less than a week, his embrace of corrupt politicians and neoliberal policies runs completely against the vision of government and its role in society that a majority of Brazilians voted for in 2014 (or even took to the streets by the millions for in 2013). Time will tell how long he has to implement his policies – after all, it’s still conceivable that Dilma could return to the presidency. It seems unlikely, but stranger things have happened in the past several weeks. What is clear is, through institutional and legislative fiat, Brazil’s Congress has managed to greatly weaken democratic stability in Brazil by removing a popularly-elected government and replacing it with one that is neither representative of the majority of the population or of the policies a majority supports.

Posted in Brazil, Corruption, Latin American Politics, Neoliberalism, The "Right" in Latin America | Comments Off on Early Thoughts on What a Temer Administration Looks Like

Thoughts on the Immediate Fallout of Dilma’s Removal

As many by now know, last week, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff was temporarily removed from office to face trial and impeachment over allegations of corruption for budgetary maneuvers that her defenders argue were legal at the time. Of course, the fact that Dilma was removed temporarily does not mean that the process is over; if anything, it is only beginning.

This reality is due in no small part to the fact that Dilma believes the charges against her are trumped up and baseless, as she did nothing illegal at the time – a defense that has a strong basis.  As a result, unlike Richard Nixon in the US (who was facing overwhelming evidence of his own corruption and abuse of power), she has not gone quietly into the night. In an address to Brazil shortly after the Senate vote, she blasted the “injustice” of the proceedings and damned her opponents’ “treachery” and continuing to refer to her removal as a “farce” and as a “coup,” a term she’s used throughout the proceedings. However, she was anything but defeated; referring to her past as a guerrilla and leftist who fought against the military dictatorship of 1964-1985, she lamented that she “never thought I would have to fight against a coup again.” And she denounced her opponents to the international media, insisting (not unfairly) that she has “suffered all sorts of sabotage.” Collectively, these are not the words of someone who has given up the ghost, which should not be surprising – after all, this is a woman who suffered torture and political imprisonment to fight a military dictatorship that deployed far more physically and psychologically devastating tactics, and she did not give up then; there’s no reason to believe political chicanery will suddenly change her.

Of course, her defense is not limited to public addresses. Dilma’s defense continues to appeal to the Supreme Court on the illegality/impropriety of the proceedings, and the Supreme Court could at some point decide based upon evidence that the hearings should be stopped. To be clear, the Court has had multiple opportunities to do so and has not yet issued such a ruling, but that does not mean it is impossible in the next 6 months – especially when one considers that not only was the process begun by Eduardo Cunha in a move that appears increasingly like it was done to (futilely) prevent his own removal from office over his own massive (and far more substantial and substantiated) corruption scandals. Adding to the farcical nature of a corrupt body charging Dilma Rousseff with corruption is the reality that well over half of Brazil’s Senators are facing their own charges for or connections to corruption and illegal activities. Indeed, 44 senators tied to corruption voted to continue Dilma’s impeachment process last week, and 34 of those 44 were in favor of moving forward in impeachment. Again, the Supreme Court hasn’t made a ruling based on these realities yet, but given how eventful the past six months have been, who knows what the next six might hold.

Meanwhile, the removal of Dilma adds a new wrinkle to governance in Brazil. Michel Temer, her vice president, has assumed the office of the Presidency, but the path is fraught for him and his allies, too. Despite the superficially overwhelming vote of 55-22 to proceed with the impeachment, a final conviction will also require a 2/3 vote in the Senate. Even if only 77 of Brazil’s 81 senators vote in the final ruling, if the prosecution loses just 3 votes between now and the final ruling, the vote would be 52-25 – enough to keep Dilma in office. (Or, alternatively, if all 81 vote, and the opposition loses just 1 vote, a 54-27 margin would also be enough to return her to the presidency). Again, Dilma’s permanent removal from office is anything but a certainty at this moment.

And the PT, like Dilma, is not going without a fight, either. It is now the largest opposition party in Congress, returning to the role it played from 1989-2003. With a deposed president as a symbolic (and perhaps hands-on) leader, they will work not only to ensure Dilma remains in office, but will also likely make any governing difficult for Temer’s (for now-temporary) administration. And given the fact that Temer himself has already been convicted for electoral financial corruption and is tied to the same charges that the PMDB and PSDB brought against Dilma, there’s no telling if the PT might not be able to move toward impeachment of Temer as well.

As for how Brazilians feel about all this, attitudes are unsurprisingly mixed across a population of 200 million. Some have obviously celebrated her removal and are acting like the mission has been accomplished (primarily because, once again, for most who wanted her out, it was always about her removal and never about corruption – if it were, they wouldn’t have insisted that “we are millions of [Eduardo] Cunhas“.) Likewise, others have obviously resisted in various ways, including not just taking to the streets in defense of Dilma and/or democracy (because those aren’t not the same issue), but through everyday criticisms as well. At the Universidade de São Paulo, law students played an excellent prank with thumbtacks and a bulletin board in the class of Janaina Paschoal, one of the original authors of the impeachment request, calling her a “coup-monger” without her realizing it. And as bureaucrats in the (temporary?) Temer government tried to remove a portrait of Dilma as president, they were confronted with a pointed suggestion that “Conspirators and coup-mongers, History will not absolve them.” However, the general sense among many more seems to be a mix of embarrassment and sadness at what has become of Brazilian government and politics, a “cardboard republic” that has become a victim of its own self-sown instability.

What’s next remains unsurprisingly unclear, but two things are certain: for now, Michel Temer is leading the government in a very different direction than the one 54 million Brazilians voted for, and the impeachment process is nowhere near over.

Posted in Brazil, Impeachment, Latin American Politics, Legal Issues in Latin America | 1 Comment

Dilma Removed from Office for (at least) 180 Days

As has become typical of Brazilian politics in the last 6 months, the last two days have proven eventful. On Tuesday, the interim president of the Chamber of Deputies, Waldir Maranhão, attempted to annul the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, saying the Chamber of Deputies’ April 17 vote was full of irregularities. My initial reaction on Tuesday was that the move was inconceivable, and the Senate may proceed anyway. Some argued (probably correctly) that Maranhão did not have the power to annul the vote of 367 Chamber Deputies (though one could also argue that 367 Chamber Deputies shouldn’t have the power to annul the votes of 54 million Brazilians), and they may have been right, but the point was rendered moot by the fact that, by Wednesday, Maranhão annulled his annulment.

Of course, that annulment was just the sideshow yesterday, as the Senate proceeded to hold its hearings on whether or not to vote to remove Dilma from office for 180 days so that she could be tried. After being given 15 minutes each to talk, the senators would then vote. The math was already problematic – there were 76 senators present at the beginning, adding up to the possibility of 19 hours before even reaching a vote (it took a little longer than that). Each Senator could vote (including Fernando Collor, whom, it is worth remembering, was also impeached in the 1990s and forced to resign due to actual corruption, was suspended from holding public office for years, returned to politics and is again tied to corruption scandals, and yet was present to vote on Dilma’s impeachment yesterday). While the absurdity of the demonstrations did not quite reach those of the April 17 vote in the Chamber of Deputies, familiar causes for voting for removal, including “God” and “family,” were still frequent. Of course, more like the Chamber of Deputies, out of all of the 81 senators who could vote yesterday, roughly 60% of them are under investigation for their own ties to corruption, criminal activity, and fraud, even as they voted to remove a president without any substantive ties to corruption (and the pedaladas fiscais really don’t count here, for reasons elaborated upon below).

The final vote ended up being 55-22 to remove Dilma and begin the trial (as the New York Times notes, she’s only technically impeached if convicted, though no doubt that’s of small comfort). The result is that Brazil’s first woman president, democratically reelected just under 2 years ago, has been temporarily removed from office over dubious charges. Of course, the process itself isn’t technically over, as yesterday’s vote just confirms that a trial will now begin. In this circumstance, there’s still a technical possibility that Dilma could return to power, but it won’t happen. The Senate needs a 2/3 vote to permanently remove her from office; given that yesterday’s vote to suspend her for 180 days was 55-22, Dilma’s permanent removal seems highly probable. If/when that’s the case, it will mean that the only time in Brazil’s history that three democratically-elected presidents consecutively finished their terms was from 1894-1906 in Brazil’s First Republic (when elections were extremely oligarchic and weren’t exactly uncorrupt).

So what now?

Well, for starters, Vice President Michel Temer takes office for the next 180 days and, in an unusual practice, gets to form his own cabinet to govern. Representing the PMDB, which has moved right to form an alliance with the PSDB, he has already committed to neoliberalism at a much greater pace than that under Dilma. However, he also remains an acting president with little legitimacy, representing a party that was a part of Dilma’s coalition when she (and he) won, but then switched sides last year, making him a member of the opposition and implementing policies that over half of the country voted against in the previous election. Temer himself is tied to numerous corruption scandals, including signing off as a member of the cabinet on the pedaladas fiscais that have led to Dilma’s impeachment process. Additionally, Temer has actually been convicted of misappropriating campaign donations, and the courts have ruled that he cannot run for reelection for public office for the next 8 years. So now, Brazil has a president who was not elected president and who could not run for re-election for any office, even if he wanted to, due to his own conviction on corruption charges.

And if the symbolism of what this impeachment did to the vote of the marginalized and disenfranchised in Brazil wasn’t fully clear, there’s this reality: women are over half of the country’s population, and Afro-descendants are also over half of the country’s population. Temer’s cabinet, meanwhile, is 100% white men.

That cabinet makeup is indicative of the realities at play here – primarily, that this was never about corruption, but about traditional power elites whose inability across 13 years to win the presidency made impeachment the only viable alternative. Indeed, if you thought it was about the pedaladas fiscais, the Senate itself did a fine job of making clear that that was not the case – none other than PSDB Senator Antonio Anastasio, former governor of Minas Gerais, put together the case for impeachment. Of course, while he was governor, Anastasio had used pedaladas fiscais in his own budgeting.

Meanwhile, the PSDB after Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who was president from 1995-2003, has been unable to win a presidential election since; meanwhile, the PMDB’s status as a “big-tent” party made it difficult to find its own serious presidential candidate, and the party settled historically for being king-maker in the 1990s and 2000s via party alliances. The inability of either party to win presidential elections in recent years (due in no small part to their inability/unwillingness to foster policies that address real inequalities in Brazil), led to them collaborating to rise to the presidency through institutional, but not democratic, means.

Is that a coup? Not as we’ve often thought of coups, but it’s time to reconsider what the word means in the 21st century, and how coups can and do operate. It’s not an old-school coup of the 20th century, with sudden, violent, physical overthrow. What it is is much what it was in Paraguay in 2012, albeit in a different national context: one branch of the government – the legislative – dominated by elites who are the traditional power-brokers, bristling at the executive branch’s ability to disrupt the elites’ traditional monopolization of power by improving the lives of the marginalized and the masses. Being unable to win the presidency themselves in this new context, they have reacted by using institutional mechanisms to remove a democratically elected president.

So what happens now?

As I commented in April, the dynamic of the power of vice presidents in future elections has fundamentally changed. I wrote after the Chamber of Deputies vote:

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). […] 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.

I think this will still hold true, and the process of selecting Vice Presidents for all future candidates will be much more fraught and have to take in new considerations that go beyond mere questions of coalition-building.

Ultimately, this may not be the death of democracy in Brazil, but it’s absolutely a massive blow against democracy. A popularly elected president in a system where people’s votes are supposed to determine the outcome  has been removed before her mandate on charges that are at best selectively-applied, at worst, a naked naked power-grab. One can say that this is just the “parliamentary” side of the presidential parliamentarism in Brazil, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a blow against democracy. If it were an actual parliamentary system, then the Senate could remove the prime minister, and then the people would go to the polls to determine whether to keep or remove the current government. Brazil’s electorate has no such democratic choice here. Instead, they must now sit through a government lacking any sense of legitimacy, even as it imposes neoliberal policies that Brazil’s electorate rejected in 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2014.

And who knows what the 2018 elections will look like? The removal of Dilma certainly won’t fix the economy immediately, nor will it end the question of corruption. After all, it’s worth remembering, the list of those tied to, or convicted of, corruption includes: the now-acting President of Brazil, Michel Temer; the PSDB’s 3 presidential candidates from the last 4 presidential elections; around 60% of current Senators; and around 60% of the current Chamber of Deputies. As the Odebrecht Papers indicate, corruption is endemic and crosses party lines.

One can hope that Brazilians keep this all in mind as they go to the polls in 2 years, opting to sweep out everybody in power and just try to wipe the slate clean. That would be nice, and its not impossible. But fatigue and inertia seem more likely, as it is clear that voting does not mean that the Brazilian people’s will will be fulfilled electorally. Certainly, the fact that all Brazilians are obligated to vote means turnout will not dip in the way that perhaps it did in the US in the 1970s, but that’s of small comfort. How the Brazilian electorate reacts – whether they use this blow to democratic processes in 2016 to fight back, or whether they take it as a harbinger of things to come – remains to be seen. What can be said is that the events of this year have been incredibly damaging to democracy in Brazil, and when we look back on this period historically, it will be a black spot with many “villains” in historical narratives and analysis.

Posted in Brazil, Coups in Latin America, Impeachment, Latin American Politics, Legal Issues in Latin America | 1 Comment