Brazil’s Glorious Rise and the Abrupt Fall of its Left

OPIX_Brazil_Political_Crisis.JPGThe world is still recovering from the Olympics in Rio. We have seen new world records being set. We have said goodbye to iconic sports figures such as Michael Phelps. The fastest man alive blew our minds away and the first Simone Biles amazed us. On the negative side, the LochteGate scandal caught us all by surprise when one of the world’s top swimmers tried to take advantage of Rio’s best known weaknesses: violence and crime. Nevertheless, the games were overall a success and the world was impressed. Amidst many concerns, Brazil pulled
it off and set a milestone as the first Latin American and the first lusophone nation to host such an event. As the city takes a break from the spotlight, the country is hosting another rather remarkable event, which will be, alongside with the Olympics, the highlight of this current year – the impeachment trial of Brazil’s first-ever female president, Dilma Rousseff. Unlike the former, the latter is not a first in Brazil’s democratic history, established in 1984. In 1992, former President Fernando Collor de Melo also faced an impeachment trial following a corruption scandal denounced by his own brother.

In this article, I put into perspective both mandates of the suspended President with its highs and lows and the downfall of Ms. Rousseff’s government due to a fragile coalition of parties and what I believe to be an orchestrated plan to remove her from power. In order to fully understand her journey as Brazil’s first female president we have to understand that she became President Lula da Silva’s chosen one to carry on with his legacy, and therefore her rise to power is undoubtedly linked to him.

Setting back the calendar to when he left office in 2010, he was the most popular president Brazil ever had. Lula – a unionist and before that an ironmaster (a job, which cost him one finger on his left hand at the age of only 14) – was the epitome of a non-privileged man whose life was full of struggles: a man of the people and above all, working for the people. Through his social policies combined with one of the most prosperous economic periods of Brazil’s history, he lifted millions out of poverty causing a huge transformation in the social pyramid of the country. It is estimated that 28 million people ascended to the Brazilian middle class between 2007 and 2011. Acclaimed by the UN and hailed as a hero by its people, it was during his presidency that Brazil became the unquestionable superpower in Latin America, distancing itself from its rival Argentina. The Brazilian economy’s exponential growth granted the country a place among the BRICS. Adding to that, the country became an exporter on the global energy market after oil reserves were found in 2007. The world financial crisis was at its peak severely affecting the developed economies of the world while the emergent ones were managing to keep robust growth and the global economy from sinking even lower. Brazil was set to become an important world player and Lula worked to strengthen its multilateral relations within the south-south cooperation, either through the BRICS or through talks and negotiations for a UN Security Council reform. With such amazing accomplishments during two mandates, it came as no surprise that Dilma Rousseff, his successor in the Workers Party, won the presidential elections with 56% of the votes.

Her first mandate was marked by the maintenance and boosting of internal social policies in order to continue the efforts aimed at ending extreme poverty in Brazil, which still affected 16 million people at the time. Many national programmes were propelled in order to extend preschool education, to provide housing to disadvantaged families and, at the same time, maintaining Brazil as one of the emergent world economies. She inherited the responsibility to set the country ready for the 2014 Soccer World Cup, something that wasn’t achieved without obvious controversy and widespread backlash. The total cost surpassed the original budget by many millions of dollars, causing huge deficits and an outrage among the people. When in 2007 Brazil presented its candidacy to FIFA, the official budget was 2.8 billion reais (more than 890 million euros)* . Yet in 2014, that amount was much bigger – 8 billion reais (2, 56 billion euros). Many other critics exacerbated this financial slippage. Concerns were raised about working conditions and security whenseveral  workers died in different stadiums. This culminated in a series of strikes. Apart from that, many criticized the choice of location for certain arenas due to those sites access conditions or to the fact that some places just wouldn’t be able to keep such infrastructures’ maintenance due to the inexistence of highly funded soccer clubs.

The country might have started its imploding mode back then but the world only saw Brazil’s disgrace when the national team was defeated by Germany 7-1 and that would soon pass because Brazilians should be nothing but proud. Proud because they put millions of soccer fans on samba mode. Pride was the feeling the world thought should prevail because its superficial lenses would dissemble the social uproar underneath.

Once again, the year of 2014 will go down in Brazil’s history as one marked by both a major sports event and a major national scandal: the Lava Jato investigation. It came as throwing ashes into a fire gradually spilling out of control. It brought to light the embroilment involving the national state runned oil company, Petrobras and high profile names from the political and entrepreneurial frames. The more the investigation progressed forward, the more it unveiled briberies, corruptive pacts, money laundering and frauds. The scandal involves all major Brazilian political parties. Ministries, senators, mayors, governors… Every category has a representative on this scheme. Among them, one will recognise Eduardo Cunha for example, now the former speaker of the lower house of Congress. He was considered Ms. Rousseff’s biggest opponent and pushed for the Impeachment trial. Now, on a twisted turn he is accused of corruption and money laundering. On top of that, secret Swiss accounts under his name were discovered in a traditional method to keep his undeclared wealth. Hence, one will not be surprised to know his name was also found on the Panama Papers. In May 2016, the Federal Supreme Court upheld his mandate. He is not alone on this peculiar journey and his name is far from being the only character leaving a stain on the country’s politics. The ugly truth is that the Congress is a haven for many suspicious politicians. More than half of the 513 congressional representatives are under investigation in several different schemes involving money laundering, corruption, conspiracy, deforestation, bribery and in some extreme cases, even murder. It is rather wondrous to accept that these men and women decided to start President Rousseff’s impeachment process earlier this year.

The bust of the Lava Jato investigation caused the already present displeasure among the population to grow grievously towards their political class. This led to huge demonstrations in dozens of cities to contest social inequality, the impunity of the upper class, and to demand more justice and the right usage of public money. This culminated in a very narrow and difficult victory from Ms. Rousseff in October 2014 after disputing the 2nd round of elections against the candidate Aecio Neves from the PSDB (Brazil’s Social Democracy Party). She won with 51% of the votes, which translates to 54 million Brazilians voting for her. Her short second mandate, with a government based on a nine party coalition, was rocked by the worst economic crisis in Brazil’s modern history. In 2015, the fiscal deficit was 10% of GDP and the public debt 70%. By the end of last year, three big credit ratings downgraded Brazil’s debt to junk statues. The economy is facing up to a 3% shrinkage prediction and the first quarter of 2016 was the 8th consecutive one marked by GDP contraction. It is the country’s worst recession in 30 years and currently the unemployment rate is 12% and the inflation rate is currently at 7% affecting more severely the middle class. This bad economic performance is tightly linked with the volatility of the commodities’ prices and the downfall of oil prices, allied with the lack of national strategy.

Now, one might think Rousseff’s impeachment accusations are related with Petrobras. The truth is these are two parallel yet somehow related processes. The fact is she presided over Petrobras before she ran for the presidency in 2010. However, her name was never linked with any suspicions of wrongdoing nor to criminal activities so she is not directly connected to the Lava Jato scandal as a suspect.

There are two reasons presented as the cause of this impeachment process. The official one claims the President signed official additional decrees without the Congress’ approval going against the Federal Constitution and she committed fiscal manoeuvres to cover a deficit in the public accounts in 2015 attempting to mask the federal budget. This action’s name is pedalada fiscal (pedalada meaning pedal). Well, the truth is one will find that these actions are a common practice in Brazil whether they are committed in the federal government or among state governors in order to make the accounts look more balanced. Furthermore, a Senate investigation in June proved that she did not commit these actions making one of the most powerful arguments for her impeachment to lose most of its strength. Albeit there is another reason for this impeachment trial: conservatives wanting to rise to power after failing to do so on the ballot box since the new millennium. There was a secret hope that the Lava Jato would be enough to overtly end Ms. Rousseff’s mandate. Some thought she would be indicted eventually but astonishingly it did not happen. Her clean record makes her a rare case in the country’s politics. Therefore, this conservative elite needed to come up with a plot strong enough to get rid not only of the President but also to diminish the role and participation of the Left in the country’s future. Their front man? Ms. Rousseff’s vice President, Michel Temer, from Brazil Democratic Movement Party, the 2nd one to hold more ministries on her government. Mr. Temer who also committed the same actions as the President. Mr. Temer whose name has been cited many times in the curse of the Lava Jato investigation. We would not need to search for long to find reasons to launch an impeachment trial against him. His party abandoned the government in March switching to the opposition and revoking its support for the executive. After this calculated move, the path was set for the impeachment process to begin since Ms. Rousseff lost most of her allies and therefore their support in Congress.

Once he rose to power, Mr. Temer put together the country’s current government – one 23 white men only executive of whom three have already resigned amid the Lava Jato investigation and 16 others are under investigation. It is rather ironic when the people chose a woman to lead the country. Also, bear in mind that more than 50% of the country’s population are women and according to the 2010 census 50.7% of its 205 million citizens considered themselves as black or mixed-race. He has also carried out a government restructure eliminating nine ministries, including the Ministry of Women, the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Racial Equality, examples of executive bureaus aimed at diminishing disparities in the Brazilian society. Brazil’s economic policies are also set to take different directions – a neoliberal turn with privatizations, austerity measures to cut public spending and a labor reform is on the way, which will weaken workers’ rights. Austerity, as we know it, is a false remedy, which only spreads the disease. The interim President has a 70% disapproval rate. However, a very powerful tool in modern democracies – the media, backs him. A small number of conservative, rich and white families owns the main TV broadcaster in Brazil, TV Globo. They are doing much more than just broadcasting the massive demonstrations Brazil has seen over the past few months. By denigrating PT and its main political figures, they pave the way to social dividedness and instigate the people’s anger towards those who have given Brazil a global voice and a place in the top world arenas. In Brazil’s most direct sphere of influence, Latin America, the suspension of the President was seen as a Senate coup and a threat to Brazil’s democracy with the majority of Latin states supporting the democratically elected President.

Now what can we expect to be the outcome of this trial? There is little hope. The decision is upon 81 senators. For her to lose the Presidency 2/3 of them have to vote for the impeachment, making it 54. This is very likely to happen since the number of senators expected to vote for the impeachment is estimated to be 60. If it is so, Mr. Temer will carry on with the electoral mandate until 2018 and Ms. Rousseff will be ineligible for 8 years. So, what are the prospects for the Workers’ Party (WP) and how will it be possible to reemerge from this rather shady process? Rumor has it, loudly and clearly, that Lula da Silva is set to rerun for President in 2018. Despite his latest implications on the Lava Jato investigation, where he is accused of justice obstruction for pressuring a member of the WP not to cooperate with the judicial system. He might also face charges on money laundering and passive corruption. Nonetheless, polls show he is still the number one candidate amongst Brazilians but it would be a tough run as his popularity has declined for obvious reasons.

For over a decade, Brazil showed the world how it is possible to push a nation forward relying on a socialist ideology in a capitalist-dominated world. Only time will tell if this political and economic crisis is ephemeral or if the country’s high fly among the world’s most prosperous powers is crushing down. What one can reckon is that the current period leaves undoubtedly a stain on democracy and its electoral process. The impeachment itself may be a feature of the system but it is its fragile founded causes and its outcome that may put at risk Brazil’s internal stability. The country does not need a coup nor an authoritarian-like government ruling against the people’s will. How to implement order in a country extremely affected by endemic corruption where a handful of greedy politicians succeeds in taking power while resorting to an orchestrated plan to overthrow the people’s will expressed in fair and regular elections? Who can guarantee that the progress already achieved will not be obliterated when we know there is a major turn, which will relegate social priorities to a much less relevant frame in the government’s political goals? As we know by now, Brazil’s national motto, Order and Progress, is at stake and as Portuguese speakers would say in a situation where hope is the last resource, seja o que Deus quiser (whatever is God’s willing).

brazil
Members of the lower house of Congress celebrate the approval of the Impeacement process on 17th April 2016

*To find more on the World Cup total cost, http://www.brasilpost.com.br/2014/02/11/custo-arenas-copa- 2014_n_4770487.html (written in Portuguese)

Carolina Lima Henriques 

 

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