Brasil’s crisis is a mix of corruption, smears, resentment and mal-governance

Brazil’s political crisis, which starts in our flawed party financing system and ends on the streets with people that don’t feel represented by politicians, is like an airplane crash; there isn’t just one element that explains it all. Those that try to make it that simple are either misinformed or biased. There are many fans of the ruling Worker’s Party that do that and, truth be said, even more in the opposition that are fond of the easy ways to put this complex moment in a small box. If I can give you two tips, they are steer away from those and never take what they say for the face value.

Of course the corruption scandal at Petrobras puts heavy popular pressure against President Dilma Rousseff and her coalition, but the criticism — often hatred too — has more sources. Critics are mostly in two trends: moderate opposition and disappointed Brazilians who try to base their opinions on facts and another of bizarre tropical McCarthyists that believe communism is about to take over. The first group will say the second is not the majority, but there are people in both claiming Rousseff should be impeached. That’s why it is so hard to tell them apart.

The scandal at Petrobras, which has impacted the state-oil for four terms of three different presidents, is the main driver of protesters. The corruption began under President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, got a massive boost in the two terms of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and remained untouched in the first two years of Rousseff’s first term. It is surely the most well documented scandal in Brazilian history, which could end up in dozens of politicians arrested. The vast majority are in the current coalition that she needs in Congress. Some are in the opposition too.

Some of the moderates and disappointed people want more than protests; they think Rousseff is directly linked to the scandal because she chaired the board of Petrobras when many of those bribes were paid. But chairing boards in state-owned companies is not a proper job, all ministers hold that position in at least one. The state-oil is surely the jewel of the crown, but the affairs are handled by their CEO. Not knowing of the scheme, both as Energy Minister who oversights Petrobras or later as Chief of Staff, surely discredits the current President’s good manager platform that reelected her. Still not a link between her and the corruption.

Many others, including a some in the protests, will agree ousting Rousseff would be a coup and target their message as a “no to all the political establishment” — and that is why many key opposition members are not seizing the moment on the streets too. In a way, those are like the June 2013 movement; no clear leaders, no clearly obtainable agenda. They are more of a group that wants to let it all out because they think Brazil has tolerated too much corruption. Those are probably the people that the President will have to hear the most, since the hardcore opposition fans won’t talk to her.

Some will argue that not being aware of such a titanic corruption scheme is enough to impeach Rousseff. No, it isn’t. Our Constitution would only allow that extreme measure if the misdeed or negligence had taken place during her presidential term. Since that is not a possibility at the moment, the McCarthyists insist that the military intervenes to save Brazil from this former guerrillawoman who has as her finance minister a man who went to liberalism Mecca — the University of Chicago. The right-wing wackos lie about that intervention being a Constitutional possibility, and some do fall for that.

It is important to bear in mind that some that defend the military intervention use the corruption scandal as an excuse to put their resentments out. Rousseff, a woman who was arrested and tortured by the dictatorship (1964-1985), installed a Commission of Truth to look into the crimes committed by regime. It was just to tell the full story, not to punish. That is too much for some. In São Paulo, protesters championed a man who was close to one of the most prominent torturers. In Rio, in a more positive note, organizers managed to hide the mic from a military maniac Congressman.

The scandal at Petrobras could amount to billions and billions, and it is enough for people to take the streets. But bear in mind that the is more comprehensive and… selective. Also in São Paulo, an opposition stronghold, a massive international corruption scandal involving Alstom trains didn’t even get traction. Many of Rousseff’s critics on Paulista Avenue were open fans of Paulo Maluf, a former mayor that cannot leave Brazil; Interpol wants him arrested for embezzling public funds. With the help of anti-Worker’s Party, he has been a Congressman for many mandates.

So why weren’t there anti-corruption protests of that scale in 2005 when the kickbacks for votes in Congress scandal under President Lula came out? Why didn’t people rebel after Brazilian media accused President Cardoso of buying votes in Congress to change the Constitution so he could run again in 1998? Why didn’t protesters last Sunday target the speaker of the House and the president of the Senate, since both are about to be indicted in the same Petrobras corruption scandal?

That seems to do with two things: Brazil’s economy is not in great shape and the recently finished presidential election was the most bitter the country has ever had.

In number one, the blame does belong to Rousseff. Zero growth is something Brazil should have stepped out of after all the improvements of the last 20 years. When Cardoso’s administration was accused of buying votes, he was the man that stabilized Brazil’s economy. When Lula’s administration was accused of buying political support, he was the man giving poor Brazilians a chance. Now that Rousseff’s administration is accused of the same, she doesn’t have any economic improvements to counterbalance. Most of the resilient good figures come from years ago — unemployment is still low for our standards and reserves are still high, despite all the fiscal deficits she ran into.

In number two, she fought a fierce battle to remain in office. In her case, that meant burning some bridges with important business leaders and unions and using propaganda that was appealing to the left, which is now frustrated and not coming to rescue. Rousseff and her main adversary Aecio Neves hit each other very hard for weeks — very often with lies and smears coming from both sides. In 2010, as the clear front-runner, she excused herself from a violent battle against opposition’s José Serra, who decided to be violent anyway. Some of the mire of four years ago plus the recent one still hit Rousseff, with absurd accusations that I won’t repeat.

What is next will depend on how Rousseff reacts in the coming weeks. She has taken good steps by saying she respects protesters, but will only have a dialogue with those that want to talk. Not many on the streets wil do that. But the vast majority were not on the streets; they were home watching. It is their perception in that mix of corruption, smears, resentment and mal-governance that will determine how deep Brazil’s political crisis will go.


This article was originally published on Mauricio’s blog A Brazilian Operating in This Area on 17/03/2015

By Mauricio Savarese

Living la vida loca of journalism since 2003. Interactive Journalism MA at City University, freelancer and a junkie for football and politics. I worked at Reuters, FourFourTwo Brazil and news website UOL. I covered politics, sports, economy and general news. I have been to two Olympic Games, two presidential elections in Brazil, three elections abroad and a Pope conclave. Looking forward to being in the English written media for the 2014 World Cup, Rio 2016 and all things Brazil and Latin America. Yes, I am bold.