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

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”) programJornal 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 (futuremassively-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

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.


By Colin M. Snider

Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. Dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation.