On Impeachment Protests in Brazil

Yesterday, Brazilians took to the streets to protest against the current government. The largest protests occurred in São Paulo, which has historically been one of the fiercer critics of the PT, voting 2 to 1 against her in the 2014 election (ironically, it is also the place where the PT began).  Elsewhere in the country, tens of thousands took to the streets in other cities to also demonstrate, albeit in numbers fewer than from protests this past March. While the country has been caught in a corruption scandal , it was already clear that yesterday’s protests were less about corruption, and more about the forced removal of president Dilma Rousseff. And many of the banners in the streets made this reality even clearer. According to those on the ground, banners calling for Dilma’s removal and the removal of the PT were the most frequent, which, once again, indicates this was largely about partisanship.

If one needed more evidence that corruption was not the main issue, one only had to look at some of the other banners. In Brasília, one banner called for the return of José Sarney who, among other things, was a pro-dictatorship politician until the tail end of the military regime, who has plenty of past allegations of corruption himself, and who, as a member of the PMDB, worked with the PT in Congress for 12 years – not exactly the “savior” from either corruptio or the PT. Another banner proclaimed that “We are millions of Cunhas” – in reference to the Leader of the Chamber of Deputies who is also from the PMDB and who recently broke with the PT coalition. Of course, Cunha himself is tied to allegations of receiving $5 million in a corruption scandal of his own. Some did point to the broader issue of corruption, indicting not Dilma (who, it bears repeating, has yet to be directly tied to receiving any financial benefits through corruption), but both Cunha and Senate President Renan Calheiros, who have been tied directly to personal benefits through corrupt payoffs. Some even turned to some old-fashioned Cold War red-scare mongering, vowing that “Brazil will never be Cuba” (which is true – Brazil’s health care system is in bad enough shape after the neoliberalism of Fernando Collor that it recently had to import Cuban doctors to address Brazil’s medical needs) and proclaiming “the PT wants to implant communism!” – this for a party that has held the presidency for 13 years without a single move toward revolution, class war, or communism in those 13 years. And of course, many wore their Brazil soccer jerseys emblazoned with the Confederação Brasileiro de Futbol (Brazilian Football Confederation, CBF) jerseys, which is quite possibly the only Brazilian institution with greater corruption.

And then there were the calls for military intervention and even a return to repression, as depressing as they were unsurprising. Referring to her time as a political prisoner during the military dictatorship, one woman’s sign said it was a “pity” that the secret police at one of the most brutal torture centers where she was detained did not hang her in the early 1970s. Another sign was even more generalized, asking, “Why didn’t they [the military] kill them all in 1964,” revealing just how morally bankrupt some of those in the streets demanding Dilma’s removal are. And then there were those who insisted that “The people are sovereign – military intervention is not a crime!” And then there were those just more generally in favor of police repression, proclaiming in São Paulo, “long live the military police!” – the same military police who appear to be behind the murder of 18 people last Thursday.

It’s easy to say that these are fringe elements, and they likely are. Yet the fact that they continue to turn to military demonstrates a remarkable historical amnesia, lack of empathy to those who often arbitrarily suffered under military rule, and a complete disconnect with the ways in which military rule harm not just democratic institutions, but society itself. At the same time, while such calls will likely go unheeded, the fact that some Brazilians see an authoritarian and non-democratic military as the salvation of the country reveals how little interest they have in genuine electoral democracy (to say nothing of social democracy). Indeed, when you are calling for the disenfranchisement of the poor, it is fairly clear what you think of actual democracies where the poor vote and have rights. And demanding that Dilma leave either through “Resignation, suicide, or impeachment” is not constructive – it simply feeds into a hateful rhetoric of incivility that in no way addresses substantive political or social concerns.

It is worth pointing out that these signs and chants were possible because Brazil is no longer a dictatorship, and thus, in one way, yesterday’s protests are yet another reminder of the strength of Brazilian democracy. Some even took to the streets to lament that, though they had voted for the PT in the past, it had lost the social and political ideals it once fought for. [And some did rally for the government.] At the same time, suffice to say, people taking to streets demanding the effective annulment of an election their candidate did not win makes for a very weak understanding or application of electoral “democracy” (to say nothing of actually democratizing socially and economically, which is certainly not on the agenda of many of yesterday’s protesters).

To be clear, there is much to lament about politics in Brazil, and the corruption issue surrounding Petrobras is damaging politically, economically, and socially. But removing Dilma does not fix that; all it does is undermine democratic institutions. Sometimes people elect bad presidents, or a large minority dislike the president who won – but that is not enough to demand they step down. And that was  largely the spirit of the protests yesterday. As one observer put it, it was not about corruption, or about democracy, or the failing of institutions – it was basically a call for the removal of everybody “until my [political] team wins!”

Many Brazilians are indeed fed up with corruption, and the Petrobras scandal is as serious as it is deep. But the way to strengthen democracy and transparency while reducing corruption is through stable reforms – something this scandal may finally be spurring – and not through partisan turmoil. And some openly rejected political reform, believing the removal of a president who has yet to be tied to impeachable offenses will somehow take care of all of the structural issues in Brazilian politics. But yesterday’s protests were not about institutional issues or calls for reform to combat corruption – they were about the rejection of electoral and democratic processes and institutions in Brazil.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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