4 things the international Left gets wrong about Brazil’s political crisis

By Bernardo Jurema, Research Associate & PhD candidate at Freie Universität Berlin’s Governance in Areas of Limited Statehood

Brazil has been going through a profound political crisis in the past five years or so. The narrative of the center-left Workers’ Party, which governed Brazil from 2003 until Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment nearly two years ago, has dominated the Brazilian institutional Left and academia. Perhaps because dissident voices are hard to come by in Brazil’s highly corporatized and oligopolistic media landscape and a political system based on patronage and clientelism, the self-serving narrative that exonerates those co-responsible for the country’s situation has taken hold within the global institutional left as well as academia. A recent tweet by Glenn Greenwald (left).

illustrates common misconceptions of the international left about Brazil’s political crisis

So, I set out to unpack it.

  1. Anyway: the impeachment of Dilma was a massive fraud

It’s a fraud only to the extent that every impeachment is a political, not a judicial process. Put simply, Rousseff had lost all her political support. That’s precisely what happened last time a Brazilian president was impeached: Fernando Collor de Mello, Brazil’s first democratically elected president, resigned from office in 1992 following a Congress vote to impeach him. Many years later, Collor was found not guilty of the accusations over which he was impeached. There was no outcry, at the time of the impeachment nor at the time of his acquittal, over the demise of Brazilian democracy. On the contrary — as one scholar wrote, “Subsequent presidencies have managed to achieve a far from trivial record of social and economic improvements carried out in a political context of broad freedom of the press and association, and expanding electoral and social participation.”

Only two out of the 13 parties that composed the coalition that helped Rousseff get reelected by a tiny margin in 2014 sided with her in the impeachment vote: her own party, the PT, and a small center-left party; all the others, including the largest ones, voted for the impeachment, while a couple smaller ones were divided but siding more towards impeachment (you can see the data here in Portuguese).

Even Lula acknowledged as much in a surprisingly frank book recently released:

“She made many mistakes in politics due to the little … perhaps because she had little desire to deal with politics; many times she did not do what was straightforward. I’m going to talk about the impeachment, which is behind us, it’s history: when you decide to face a war such as the impeachment, politically, those in government need to have a sense of the power it has. It’s not about meeting with a representative from one party! You call the party bench that supports you, with the speaker of the party that supports you, with the senators and the ministers of the party that supports you, and you put on the table: ‘Here we are, what is the game plan?’. This was never done, fictional numbers that we would have 300 votes, 280, 270 were thrown around, and in the end that’s not what we got … From a political perspective, it is nearly unimaginable being in government, with the parliamentary coalition that the government had, and fail to get 170 votes.” da Silva, Luiz Inácio Lula . A verdade vencerá: O povo sabe por que me condenam (Locais do Kindle 423). Boitempo Editorial. Edição do Kindle.

But if we want to talk about fraud, there’s the issue of campaign finance. On August 2014, one of the major Brazilian dailies reported that three corporations (JBS, Ambev and OAS) accounted for 65 percent of campaign finance up to that point. The three leading candidates at that point (Rousseff, Aécio Neves and Eduardo Campos) took up 94 percent of the total of campaign donations. And that’s only the legal campaign donations.

Last year, a majority of the Superior Electoral Tribunal rejected the chargesagainst the 2014 Rousseff-Michel Temer ticket. Judge Herman Benjamin, who argued for conviction, is a widely respected judge who has had a leading role in writing environmental and consumer protection legislation throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In a detailed and legally sound presentation, he demonstrated how the investigation of the US$2 billion dollar corruption scheme in the state oil company Pertrobras led to the uncovering of the illicit donation to the 2014 Rousseff-Temer campaign to the tune of US$45 million. His vote was defeated, however. One of the most vocal proponents of the acquittal was the notorious Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes, who has been thusly described by a leading constitutional scholar in Brazil, USP professor Conrado Hübner Mendes: “Gilmar Mendes’ behavior breaches any standard of judicial decorum. It is promiscuous and patrimonialistic. It is difficult to understand how we have come to normalize this. He grossly violates the law.”

In a detailed presentation, Benjamim demonstrated that the 2014 presidential election was unbalanced and biased because PT and PMDB used a sort of “bribery savings account” that had been accumulated over the previous years with money stolen from the state oil company. (It is worth pointing out that a conviction would mean Temer would be taken out of office; yet, Rousseff’s defense worked against that outcome, which is odd if you believe a coup had just taken place).

Talk about “massive fraud.”

2. one of the first attacks on Brazilian democracy

Except that it was not by any means the firstWe have seen how the 2014 election was funded by corporate and illegal money.

But that does not begin to scratch the surface. There’s an unending list of “attacks on Brazilian democracy” that predate April 2016: the systematic oppression of the poor and black Brazilians. The ongoing genocidal mega dam projects destroying the Amazon forest in the benefit of regional oligarchs, transnational extractive corporations and national corrupt construction firms. Brazil’s prison population skyrocketed under the PT governments. Right before her impeachment, one of Rousseff’s last acts as president was to have Congress approve an antiterrorist bill that criminalized protests and was denounced by social movements, NGOs and the UN. On March 2014, Rousseff signed the Law and Order Guarantee decree, authorizing the deployment of army troops to a low-income neighborhood in Rio, the Maré favela complex.

I could go on…

Rousseff’s impeachment, disgracefully hypocritical and an ugly freakshow though it was, was far from the first blow against Brazils democracy. It was already pretty shitty.

3. The people who did it pretended they were driven by anger over corruption

The political class was not the only one that had turned on Rousseff. She had very high approval ratings in her early years, but in 2014 she was re-elected by a whisker. By the time of her impeachment, 92 percent of Brazilians believed the country was heading in the wrong direction, and 61 percentfavored her impeachment (58 percent also favored the impeachment of her vice-president Temer). In the run up to her ousting the country had witnessed some of the biggest demonstrations in its history — by one account, the protests of March 13 2016 took well over three million people to the streets across the country. That’s not nothing. And many of these people were not pretending to be angry — they were genuinely angry.

4. even though they were among the most corrupt gangsters & criminal in Latin America & now rule Brazil.

The first part is true, many of those in the current Temer administration are criminals. The second part is misleading. They rule now, but they had never stopped ruling. They were key allies of the PT governments. Let’s not forget this inconvenient fact: Temer was Rousseff’s vice-president. When Temer took office following the impeachment, at least 11 of the 24 ministers had been under investigation for participating in various capacities in the Petrobras corruption scheme that took place during the PT years. Some of them had been minister or held key positions in the previous PT governments. Just to illustrate the point: Temer’s chief of staff, a key position, was Eliseu Padilha, who had been minister of civil aviation under Rousseff. Temer’s minister of “planning, development and management” (yes, I know), was Romero Jucá, who had been whip in the Congress for both the Lula and Rousseff governments. Another minister, Geddel Vieira Lima, had been minister under Lula. Henrique Meirelles, Temer’s finance minister, had been the president of Brazil’s Central Bank during both of Lula’s tenures.

What makes this even weirder is the fact that it comes from Greenwald, one of the leading dissident voices denouncing Russiagate and the McCarthyism that it yields. Russiagate functions for the Democratic Party much in the same way that the “coup” narrative serves the PT: it exonerates those responsible for current problems, provides a clean-cut narrative that retroactively and prospectively explains away every single social and political phenomenon, is used to shut down those who deviate from the party line, hinders any political self-criticism, diverts attention from the spurious relations with big business. The list goes on and on. One should be able to denounce some problems in Brazil, including the anti-PT bias in some powerful corners of Brazilian society, without having to fully embracing PT’s politics and narrative.When it comes to Brazil, Greenwald, disappointingly, reproduces precisely that which he denounces in the US. This can be seen across the board: Podemos in Spain defending what effectively is the PSOE of Brazil; Mélenchon defends the PS of Brazil; Varoufakis defends the PASOK of Brazil; Greenwald defends the Democrats of Brazil.

This denotes a limited understanding of Brazilian politics, in part explained by the hegemonic hold of the PT over the Brazilian institutional Left. Very few dissenting Left voices are heard within Brazil, much less outside. Since it reached power in 2002, the PT has never been transformative force; much in the vein of late 20th century European social democracy or Clintonist Third Way, it sought to accommodate with capitalist. (A thorough account of the last five years from a critical leftist perspective can be seen here, in Spanish). All throughout its time in power, the PT and its followers were fiercely intolerant towards criticism — especially when it came from the Left. This dynamic continues now, as I have pointed out on several occasions.

The PT and its leaders have fallen not because of its merits, but because of its own flaws, much of which stemmed from its accommodation with Brazil’s political and economic establishment. As a Brazilian leftist firebrand recently tweeted: “The good ol’ days when political prisoners were accused of attacking the bourgeois order and not of benefiting from it.”

Throughout the years, I have learned a lot from reading Greenwald’s coverage of American politics. Among other things, it has made me more aware of problems in Brazil, where his hard-hitting, no holds barred, skeptical brand of journalism is rather rare. I wish Greenwald applied the same standards to Brazil that he applies to the US.

This is not restricted to Greenwald, of course, and holds true for most of the global institutional Left and academia. The political situation in Brazil is messy and complicated and does not fit into this neat storyline of the intrepid leftist President who was taken down by the mean elite for working for the poor. As I have written before, those struggling on the margins of society, in the favelas, in the rural areas, in the forests — suffering the consequences of policy choices of the Workers Party — are the ones who need solidarity of the international Left.

This article first appeared on Medium.com