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

Today in Terrible and Inaccurate Historical Analogies (or, “Trump is not a Caudillo”)

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial by David Lunhow arguing that Donald Trump’s campaign is reminiscent of Latin American caudillos, primarily because he has some superficial similarities with populists.

There’s so much historically wrong in here. First, caudillos were a particular historical phenomenon for the nineteenth century, when Latin American nations, states, and nation-state formation were in the midst of a drawn out, highly-contentious process. Caudillismo itself was varied enough that it’s difficult to pin down an exact definition, but by and large, caudillos tended to emerge in the context of weak institutions (again, due to the uncertainty of the post-independence state in the 1800s); began as military leaders who had support among private militias; enjoyed the support of the elite; and built a base of support on a system of fictive kinship, among other things. The key elements that define the existence and rise of caudillos – the lack of a strong state, local elites’ efforts to prevent state formation, the absence of civic institutions – certainly do not pertain to the US in the 21st century (or to Latin America in the 20th century). Sure there are elements of Trump that parallel that of caudillos – the reliance upon personal authority rather than institutional legitimacy, Trump’s rhetorical reliance on violence, even a sense of macho masculinity, spring to mind – but these are simply a few elements of a long list of characteristics of caudillos. If using violent language and machismo were all required to be a caudillo, well…many politicians globally would look like a caudillo.

Given the above historical understanding of who caudillos were, Lunhow clearly misapplies the term, and not just to Trump. Also not a caudillo? Juan Perón, whom Lunhow points to as the strongest example of how Trump is also a caudillo. Of course, Perón who was involved in Argentine politics from the 1940s through the 1970s (with Peronismo – and not “Perónismo,” as the editorial writes, setting up jokes that Latin American historians can laugh at). By the 1940s, the Argentine state was fairly strong and solidified; an understanding of Argentine-ness as a nation, built on European immigration and a genocidal campaign against Argentine indigenous groups in the nineteenth century, was quite clear. The use of personal militias was absent, replaced by appealing to the masses through political access and social programs rather than charisma or violence. In other words – not the context that gave rise to caudillos. What perhaps most stands out about Perón is his efforts to incorporate the working class masses into the body politic, with Perón as the (none-too-subtle) paternalist figure leading them (and with Evita as his intermediary). Perón was charismatic, as were caudillos, but again – if charisma is all it takes to be a caudillo, then the word has virtually no meaning. So historically, comparisons of Trump to caudillos don’t really hold here in no small part because Lunhow is building his argument of “Trump as Caudillo” by pointing to Perón – a man who wasn’t a caudillo.

And again, as with “caudillo,” Lunhow’s piece strips Latin American populism of any of its historical particularities or significance. Certainly, there are general qualities of populism that endure throughout the twentieth century – emerging mass movements, drawing on leftist tactics of mobilization without drawing on leftist ideologies, deploying a politics that’s more personalist than ideological – but comparing Trump to the populism of people like Perón or even the new phase of populism embodied in figures like Hugo Chávez or Evo Morales does not hold up. Populism first spread throughout places like Brazil with Getúlio Vargas, Argentina with Perón, Peru with Raul de la Haya Torre, and Mexico with Lázaro Cárdenas. What united the phenomena in those countries in the 1930s-1940s was a political program that advocated a stronger state; the direct involvement in aiding the previously marginalized; expanding access to voting and politics; corporatism; and a turn to import-substitution industrialization to build national economies rather than relying on industrial imports from the United States and Europe.

While Trump’s rhetoric makes claims to directly aiding those [white] people who feel marginalized, his actual program, such as it is, shows no evidence of doing that in the way that social welfare programs under populists in the 20th century did. Yes, Trump’s rhetoric is hypernationalist, but it’s not a corporatist vision of society. Even the modern versions of “populists” like Chávez (and whether or not they are populists remains the subject of some substantial debate) aren’t really analogous to Trump. Chávez deployed nationalizations and state-run companies to redistribute wealth away from a perceived oil-aristocracy to create social programs in Venezuela. His programs involved great state intervention and regulation of the economy and redistribution of wealth to provide for Venezuela’s masses; something tells me Trump will be less willing to dip into the coffers of the “one percenters.” Yes, Chávez and Trump were/are both “showmen,” but again, as with caudillos, just because some parts of the Trump phenomenon are superficially similar to populism does not make him a populist.

Indeed, in looking again at the historical context, there’s very little analogue. On the one hand, Latin American populists (not inaccurately) pointed to Latin America’s historical exploitation in global markets and to elites’ historical marginalization of the masses; on the other hand, Donald Trump blames immigrants and foreigners. Again, these are two completely incomparable situations. Yes, the US has lost jobs that have been sent overseas, but it’s not because China has exploited the US; it’s because US multinationals have shipped those jobs overseas themselves, primarily because other countries had lower pay and fewer labor laws than the US. To say that this economic situation is exactly the same as Latin American countries in the 1930s-1950s coming out of centuries of colonial extraction, liberal economic exploitation, and then the Great Depression is a highly selective reading of historical realities.

And with the title, and through the substance of the editorial, it seems as though Lunhow is equating caudillismo with populism, without defining either very well. He does suggest that populism involves appeals to the masses, but what politician in the 21st century isn’t doing that? Indeed, Lunhow himself undermines the “Trump as populist/caudillo” [and again, they’re not the same thing] by pointing out that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders also deploy similar language to speak to the masses – as has every presidential candidate over the last several decades. As one commenter on Twitter remarked, based on this definition, for Lunhow, a “populist” is anybody who is “not a bespectacled technocrat.”

Again, there are elements of Trump’s campaign that appear similar to caudillos or populists (which – at the risk of repetition, but it cannot be stated enough – aren’t the same thing) – his sense of masculinity, the personalism, the nationalism. But that does not make him either a populist or a caudillo – those were specific historical phenomena at particular moments and in particular contexts. The US in 2016 looks neither like Latin America in the 1820s-1850s, nor like Latin America in the 1930s-1950s, and that is where what really distinguishes caudillos and populists respectively rests. Perhaps finding new ways to understand Trump in his own context would be more fruitful than drawing on selectively-applied and inaccurate historical analogies.

Posted in Latin America, Latin American History, Latin American Politics | 1 Comment

Early Reflections on Brazil’s Odebrecht Documents

Yesterday, materials from Brazil’s massive construction company Odebrecht leaked [update: they were released publicly, not leaked]. This matters, as Odebrecht is at the heart of the corruption scandal that is currently affecting Brazil, with the company accused of using bribes to peddle influence among Brazil’s political class. The CEO, Marcelo Odebrecht, was arrested last year and sentenced to 19 years in jail a couple of weeks ago. He has now promised to work with investigators to shed light on the corruption practices/beneficiaries of his company’s bribery schemes. Somehow, an Odebrecht list leaked; the list allegedly points to payments to individuals, with over 200 politicians’ names at the municipal, state, and federal levels on the list. While Judge Sergio Moro (yes, that one) has since demanded that the document be sealed. [Update: Given all that Moro had allowed to remain public after it leaked, it initially seemed odd that this would be the one leaked item he wanted sealed; now that it’s clear that it was made public, and he still wants it sealed, which makes the judiciary look even less like an impartial interpreter of law.]  Nonetheless, it remains out there on the internet, and I had a chance last night to spend some time going through it. Some quick thoughts:

  • Over 200 politicians on the list, but there are two notable absences: neither current president Dilma Rousseff nor former president Lula da Silva is on there. That does not mean they’re not connected to schemes/corruption in other areas, but their absence there is telling.
  • Equally telling is who is on the list: José Serra, Aécio Neves, and Geraldo Alckmin – figureheads and leaders of both the PSDB and the charge to have the PT removed from the presidency – are all on there. Indeed, with their names being included, that means that the center-right PSDB’s last four presidential candidates (Serra in 2002; Alckmin in 2006; Serra again in 2010; and Neves in 2014) are all implicated in this document.
  • Also on the list, unsurprisingly: Both Eduardo Cunha and Renan Calheiros (of the PMDB). Of course, Cunha, as President of the Chamber of Deputies, is leading the charge for Dilma’s impeachment even while embroiled in a massive corruption scandal of his own that involves millions in overseas banks and actual evidence and charges (unlike the current case against Dilma). And Calheiros, who already had to resign from the Senate in 2007 over corruption allegations (but who, thanks to a climate of impunity, is back as President of the Senate now), is fourth in line to the presidential succession after Vice President Michel Temer and Cunha.
  • The PSDB, PMDB, and PT all figure prominently on the list, but they’re not alone. Indeed, twenty-four political parties have individuals who are mentioned on the list, revealing that, while the PT is far from innocent here – high-ranking party members Lindberg Farias is included, among others – yet it is also far from being isolated in its guilt/responsibility.
  • Relatedly, and interestingly, Odebrecht clearly did not operate along any particular partisan lines. If a politician could help Odebrecht (and vice versa), then they apparently at least attempted to work with that politician regardless of political party affiliation or ideology.
  • Given the frequency with which PSDB party members appear alongside the PT politicians they are targeting, it’s becoming even clearer that their claims that Dilma must step down/be removed because of corruption are disingenuous at best.
  • Also fascinating are the numbers of politicians at the level of municipal government (city council members, mayors) and state government (governors) – including Rio de Janeiro mayor Eduardo Paes, governor Luiz Fernando Pezão, and former governor Sérgio Cabral, all of the PMDB. (And of course, Paes and Pezão are two of the key figures who were responsible in trying to prepare Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics this summer, while Cabral played a key role in Rio getting awarded the Olympics in the first place.)  That it is at all levels of government just further illuminates just how systemic the system of bribery, kickbacks, and corruption has become.
  • That the list includes names of people across parties and across levels of government only further reinforces the reality that claims that this is just a PT problem are what they have always been: naked partisanship – an attempt by the former “owners of power” to discredit and remove the party that at least reached out to and offered real social and material gains to Brazil’s masses between 2002 and at least 2014.
  • Other notable names on the list include: José Sarney (PMDB), president from 1985-1989 and senator from 1971-1985 and 1991-2015; Roseanna Sarney (PMDB) former senator and governor, and daughter of José Sarney; Antonio Carlos Magalhães Neto (the right-wing Democratic Party), former Congressman and mayor from Bahia; Cesar Maia (Democratic Party), ex-mayor of Rio de Janeiro; Alfredo Sirkis, a former Congressional Deputy from the Partido Verde (and a student leader who opposed the dictatorship of 1964-1985); Fernando Haddad (PT), former Minister of Education and current Mayor of São Paulo; Paulo Abi-Ackel (PSDB), congressman from Minas Gerais, whose father, Ibrahim, was the Minister of Justice for João Figueiredo, the last president of the military dictatorship; Demóstenes Torres (ex-Democratic Party), who was expelled from the Senate in 2012 over allegations of illicit enrichment; and the late Eduardo Campos (Partido Socialista Brasileiro), who campaigned for President in 2014 before dying in a plane crash while campaigning, among other names on the list.
  • And finally, all of the above offers a powerful reminder of the reality that impeaching Dilma will do nothing to actually address the bigger problem at the heart of the current political crisis.

I hope to have more time to go through the list in greater detail, but those are some early reflections. The biggest takeaway here is that the issue of corruption is not a phantom in Brazil, but it absolutely is not a PT-only problem either. This is not an apologia for the PT – far from it – but a realistic understanding of the systemic degree of this scandal is important to understand. Perversely enough, by seeing just how deeply this runs, Brazil may finally be equipped to root out and thoroughly address the causes (and persons) behind these issues. Indeed, that the document leaked and remains online is one of the greater moments of transparency yet in the current investigation, and sent numerous politicians yesterday flying to issue statements about how the allegations are untrue, that they weren’t involved, etc. etc. etc. Perhaps this will lead to greater governmental transparency and less corruption; perhaps not. Time will tell. Either way, the next few weeks/months are going to be very interesting, and quite a political and social crucible for Brazil and Brazilians.

Posted in Brazil, Corruption, Latin American Politics

On Brazil’s Political Crisis

It’s been some time since I last waded into the political unrest in Brazil, in part because, in the first few months of the year, other matters had gained increasing focus/importance in Brazil. Certainly, the Zika outbreak brought considerable attention and resources; likewise, the Brazilian economy continued to worsen. Meanwhile, the impeachment process that opposition politicians had begun to pursue in late 2015 seemed to grind to a halt. However, the question of impeachment, and the rising social and political unrest in Brazil, has made a fierce return in the past few weeks.

It began at the beginning of March, when, on March 4, judge Sergio Moro (a name worth remembering) ordered the temporary detainment of Luís Inácio Lula da Silva, former president and figurehead of the Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT). Under the guard of nearly 200 police officers, Lula was forcibly taken to São Paulo’s airport to answer questions regarding the corruption scandal that has filtered through virtually all levels and major parties in Brazil’s political system. The temporary detainment was highly polemical – officials actually deployed more police officers than the military dictatorship had used when they arrested Lula for his labor political activism in the early 1980s. Even members of the Supremo Tribunal Federal (STF, Brazil’s supreme court) critical of Lula condemned the spectacle and overuse of force. Although released, it further divided an already highly-contentious political scenario: his opponents demanded he be arrested and tried for corruption, while his supporters said this was a baseless witch-hunt targeting the figurehead of a party that has sought to address social inequalities instead of representing traditional economically elite social groups.

It was in this context that current president Dilma Rousseff, who had served as Lula’s Chief of Staff from 2005-2010, offered him a position in her cabinet. The offer was not merely symbolic; if he were to become a cabinet member, then only the STF could try Lula in what would likely be, given historical precedent, a long, drawn-out process. Such an appointment would effectively remove Moro’s power to try Lula.

Suffice to say, those politicians and social groups (especially the traditionally conservative members of the upper classes and increasingly-radicalized conservative urban middle classes) pounced, saying it was proof of malfeasance; defenders said it was the only way to ensure Lula was not a victim of partisanship in the judiciary.

So it was that on March 13, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians took to the street to protest against the government. While some participants claimed the march represented a general anti-corruption sentiment, the protests were even more nakedly-partisan than similar protests in early 2015. Fueling this partisanship, the classist nature of the protests were equally obvious, with 63% of the protesters in São Paulo (the largest protest) making at least 5 times the minimum salary in Brazil; to put that in perspective, out of the entire population of São Paulo, only 23% make that much money. Additionally, 77% of the protestors having some university education (in a city where only 28% has at least some higher education). As obviously classist and (as is all too often the case in Brazil) racially that division was, perhaps the best example of who the protesters against the government were was captured in a single indelible image of a (white) couple walking their dogs at the protest while their (Afro-Descendant) maid pushed their baby in a carriage behind them.

Brazil Protest

13/03/2016. Crédito: João Valadares/CB/D.A Press. Manifestação contra Dilma e o Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT em Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro.

In this way, these protests were less disingenuous than similar protests last year that were also clearly anti-PT, yet tried to appear less partisan through appeals to anti-corruption. As one piece observed, “while protesters did not push for specific solutions, they demanded immediate change beginning with the current political chaos and the leadership of the Workers Party.” Meanwhile, the Federal Police (Polícia Federal, PF) marched alongside protesters last Sunday

As if the context did not seem unstable before, the events of the past week proved to be truly explosive. First, Dilma announced that Lula would serve as her Chief of Staff – the same role she had served in his government. Then, on Wednesday, judge Sergio Moro – the same judge who’d ordered Lula’s detention on March 4 – leaked a wiretapped conversation between Dilma and Lula. While the conversation was vague regarding Lula’s appointment, it was that very vagueness that lent an easy interpretation to Dilma’s and Lula’s critics that this was the evidence of corruption that they had thus far been unable to pin on Dilma in particular. While critics of Dilma once again pounced, Moro’s own critics pointed out the disturbing fact that the wiretap was leaked just hours after the actual conversation, raising real questions of judicial overreach and partisanship. On Wednesday, judge Igatiba Catta Preta blocked Lula’s appointment, something the STF’s Gilmar Mendes reiterated on Friday. (And more on both Catta Preta and Mendes in a bit). However, it was the wiretap leak that created the biggest tempest, and Congress ended up re-establishing an impeachment commission (with five of its members also currently under investigation for corruption) for Dilma, giving new life to a path to impeachment that seemed to be a dead end in January.

At the same time, those critical of the visibly-conservative effort to unseat Dilma have not remained on the sideline. On Friday, hundreds of thousands of more Brazilians took to the streets. While some were there to support the PT, others were there not in support of the PT, but in opposition to the right’s efforts to remove Dilma from office and the unusually-heavy handed role the judiciary has taken, particularly with regards to Moro’s actions.

Suffice to say, there is a lot to unpack in all of this. Dilma’s decision to appoint Lula is not incomprehensible or irrational, but it’s also yet another in what is a series of bad looks for the PT in recent years; for a party that was founded in the late 1970s and early 1980s based on a new form of politics that represented the disenfranchised and was above corruption, the PT has at least lost claims to the latter half of that political vision.

At the same time (and this is not an apologia for the PT), this is not a problem limited to the PT alone. Indeed, the very systematic nature of corruption throughout Brazil’s political system leaves no major party or individual untainted. The PT, the big-tent centrist PMDB (Partido Movimento Democrático Brasileiro, PMDB), and the right-center PSDB (Partido Social Democrático Brasileiro) have all had top-ranking officials tied to the massive and complex corruption scandal with roots in Petrobras, the state-run oil company, kickbacks, and payoffs. Removing Dilma would not solve the problem of corruption, despite what her opponents hope.

Indeed, take, for example, the case of former PT senator Delcídio Amaral, arrested last November for his role in a widespread corruption scandal and now offering information as part of a plea deal. If Dilma were to be impeached, Vice President Michel Temer (of the PMDB) would become president – except that Amaral’s testimony has said Temer was involved, too. So then, the presidency would fall to the President of the Chamber of Deputies, PMDB member Eduardo Cunha – who is under investigation for corruption (with far more substantive evidence against him than anything that has been levied against Dilma, even with last week’s wiretap leaks). In that case, the fourth in line for presidential succession would be Senate President and PMDB member Renan Calheiros – a man who already had to resign from office once in 2007 over corruption, and whom Amaral has also fingered as involved in the corruption scandal. And for those who might look to Aécio Neves of the PSDB, who ran against and lost to Dilma in a democratic election in 2014, as a possible savior, well….you guessed it – he’s implicated in the scandal. Thus, despite what the anti-Dilma/anti-PT protests would want to suggest, this is a systematic problem that goes well beyond any major party. [Update: Which is why claims that impeachment will “take care of most of the problems” are either extremely limited in their understanding of the problems or are evidence of the partisanship behind calls for impeachment.] Sure, parties like the PCdoB (Partido Comunista do Brasil, Communist Party of Brazil) or the PSOL (Partido Socialismo e Liberdade, Socialism and Liberty Party) have remained generally untouched by the scandal, but their presence in Brasília is slight compared to the PSDB, PMDB, and PT. Removing one president will not fix corruption in Brazil, in part because it is increasingly visible that the system of presidential parliamentarism Brazil’s 1988 constitution helped establish is extremely fertile to exactly the type of corruption scandals that have long plagued Brazil, and are now becoming overwhelming. [And it’s not like Amaral himself is some saintly figure above corruption, obviously, so one can’t rule out the possibility he’s just throwing out as many names as possible to save his hide.]

And while this situation is highly disturbing to those on both the left and the right in Brazil (if for very different reasons), it’s not like the executive and the legislative branches are the only ones behaving dubiously. The actions of some in the allegedly-independent judiciary have also raised very real concerns over political abuses of power. Perhaps most significant from a legal standpoint, there are real questions over judge Sergio Moro’s decision to wiretap Dilma’s and Lula’s conversation and then quickly turn around and leak it to the public. As alluded to above, as president, Dilma can only be tried by the STF – outside of Moro’s jurisdiction. Indeed, an ex-minister of the STF says that, constitutionally, Moro has acted outside of his authority by leaking to the public wiretaps that should have instead been sent to the STF. Other legal experts say that, constitutionally speaking, the wiretaps themselves are illegal. Moro’s function as the main judge in the Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) investigation that has lasted 2 years and led to the uncovering of systemic corruption, has given him an unprecedented presence in the Brazilian public. The result has been some celebrating Moro and others condemning him (and making the judiciary about an individual’s actions – arguably running counter to the social function of the judiciary)

Nor is Moro alone. Itagiba Catta Preta, who initially blocked Lula’s installment as Chief of Staff, also openly participated in the anti-PT protests last Sunday and has made clear on social media his opposition to the current government. While his insistence that it is his political right to participate is true, it has also gone no small distance in undermining the idea of his impartiality, or of the impartiality of the judiciary more generally. And then there is Gilmar Mendes, the STF judge who reiterated the halt on Lula’s appointment on Friday. Mendes is well-known not just as a former attorney for Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s PSDB government and his subsequent opposition to the PT, going so far as to claim that the PT was turning Brazil into a police state. And as judge, Mendes has his own checkered past, including ties to corruption himself. (This was also the man who initially freed the killers of land-rights activist Dorothy Stang.) While Moro, Mendes, and Preta are just three judges, their actions, past public proclamations, and role in this process have raised very real questions about the alleged impartiality of the Brazilian judiciary itself.

If the increasing brazenness of some in the judiciary is new and alarming, the role of the media is anything but. Across this process, the media has taken a sometimes-covert, sometimes-overt anti-Dilma/anti-PT tone. Of course, the biggest culprit in this process is the O Globo network of media – television, newspapers, and websites. O Globo’s has long dominated the television market, with its nightly news (and, often, “news”) program Jornal Nacional being the major source of news for many Brazilians. This would not be a problem if Globo had a long history of adhering to journalistic standards, but, well…it doesn’t. While the Globo network of media has a checkered past going back decades, its anti-PT/anti-Lula sentiment is particularly germane here; ever since 1989, when O Globo played a key partisan role in elections that ultimately led to Lula losing to (future massively-corrupt president [and later, corrupt Senator]) Fernando Collor, the Globo media empire has worked against the PT.

This overt bias has continued under the recent crisis; as mentioned above, the current corruption scandal involves Brazil’s three major political parties; yet O Globo has focused its attention overwhelmingly on the PT while downplaying the PMDB’s and, especially, the PSDB’s role. Last year, the corporation instructed its outlets not to mention Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s in reporting on the Petrobras scandal, despite the fact that the scandal actually goes back to Cardoso’s 1995-2003 administration. Meanwhile, the protests of the past week were met with dueling headlines/narratives:

Globo Headlines.jpg

A Tale of Two Headlines and Two Protests: on the left, the headline on anti-government protests on March 13 reads “Brazil takes to the street against Lula and Dilma and in favor of Moro”; on the right, the headline on anti-impeachment protests reads, “Allies [and not “Brazilians”] of Dilma and Lula protest in all [of Brazil’s] states.}

The headline on the left, covering last Sunday’s anti-PT protests, framed the protesters as “Brazil,” whereas those who took to the streets against the conservative politicking on Friday were framed as “Allies of Dilma.” While perhaps initially easy to overlook, the effect is anything but subtle – those who are opposed to the current government represent “Brazil,” and those who oppose the efforts to remove Dilma through dubious manners are not “Brazil,” but “allies” of a (none-too-subtly-framed) antagonist. And on TV, the aforementioned Jornal Nacional has been typically unsubtle in its own framing of the story.

All of this has led to a very serious question: is Brazil on the verge of another 1964? This isn’t mere hyperbole, as a number of thoughtful pieces have posed the question and made comparisons of the present to the context that led up to the military coup of 1964. Certainly, there are elements that are frighteningly similar, most notably in the obvious, visceral, and troubling mobilization of the economically and socially privileged middle- and upper-classes against presidencies that have worked toward a greater social leveling (although Dilma’s recent policies have resembled neoliberalism more than anything). Likewise, the role of the media in undermining support for the president is eerily similar to 1964 – though, to be fair, O Globo wasn’t the major media voice in 1964, primarily because it only gained its power by partnering with the military dictatorship after the coup.

That said, I think there are very real distinctions to be drawn here, both in new actors and the absence of old actors. On the one hand, the judiciary is playing a role in national politics in 2016 that is unprecedented, and without any 1964 comparison. When João Goulart faced institutional challenges, they came primarily from within the legislature and among opposition politicians at the state level, as well as (obviously) the military. However, the judiciary was comparatively quiet in 1964. As the examples above make clear, the opposite is the case in 2016. On the other hand, the military has been incredibly quiet. This is not surprising; part of the reason the military was opposed to Goulart was because of his progressive politics, but that was through the lens of Cold War ideologies that are not as prevalent in the armed forces today (the same cannot always be said for the middle- and upper-classes). Additionally, Dilma has done little to give the impression of eroding the military hierarchy in the ways Goulart did in 1964, when he supported a sergeants’ revolt demanding the right for non-commissioned officers to run for political office. Finally, the military dictatorship may have ended 31 years ago, but it very much remains seen as a low point among many in Brazilian society (anti-government protesters’ unusual, if unrepresentative, calls for military intervention notwithstanding). The historical scholarship has argued that part of the reason the military stepped away from power in 1985 was because it felt being involved in politics had corrupted the institution; it’s hard to see a change in attitude at a high-water mark in corruption scandals even as the military regime is remembered by many as a failure in Brazilian politics.

So, is it like 1964? I don’t think so – to a degree. Specifically, I don’t think military steps in and removes Dilma, nor do I think a military-led dictatorship is the outcome here. However, that is not to say I suspect that democracy will strengthen or be unthreatened, either. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say again – if we’re thinking of a coup, while there are parallels with 1964 (particularly in socioeconomic makeup of opposition protests in the streets), perhaps the closer analogue is Paraguay in 2012. There, a united opposition political bloc, aided by a conservative media opposed to the progressive project of an atypical president, (ab)used constitutional mechanisms to remove a democratically elected president. This seems like a much closer comparison to where Brazil is now than Brazil in January or February of 1964 does.

While it is still difficult to say what will happen – again, just 3 months ago, the train to impeachment seemed to have lost its steam – this appears to be a new moment in terms of political crisis in Brazil, the most severe since 1992.

Posted in Brazil, Brazil's Military Dictatorship, Corruption, Governance in Latin America, Impeachment, Latin American Politics, Legal Issues in Latin America, Protests in Latin America | 1 Comment