Republic of the Snake

“Do we want to serve a snake? Brazil is not a Snake Republic!” – Janaína Paschoal

These words were of Janaína Paschoal, the lawyer who wrote the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff with other two lawyers (Helio Bicudo and Miguel Reale Júnior). More than words, the role played by Paschoal was similar to the neo-pentecostal cults. The gestures, the posture, all the symbolism she used was trying to emulate a well-known religious framework, designed to slam away any trace of rationality. In fact, some days earlier ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was taken “coercively” to make a testimony under judge Sérgio Moro’s orders. The awkward event was described by many (including supreme court ministers) as an “illegal” way to treat anyone who wants to collaborate with justice. Lula’s “coercive episode” promptly woke up the left about the intransigency and violence being used against social movements around the country. After his testimony, Lula gave a speech denouncing the arbitrary conduct he was being subjected to and used a Brazilian popular saying. Lula said: “If they think they have killed the ‘Jararaca’ (a Brazilian viper), they are wrong, they have beaten the Jararaca’s tail and not its head”.

While Lula was using very popular language to signal he was in the mood for a huge political fight, Paschoal used the “snake” image to mesmerise her audience with the idea of a “filthy”, “treacherous”, deceptive politician. This is in essence all the impeachment in Brazil is about, it is a fight for the right to reframe the last 13 years of Brazil’s history. Was Lula one of the great leaders of the world who took 40 million people from poverty and hunger or was Lula a dangerous, unreliable liar who stole from the country and used economic indicators to hide his crimes? The political fight in Brazil is not about Rousseff’s government, it is not about her economy or political misdoings. It is about Lula’s legacy.

Eduardo Cunha, the head of chamber of deputies when the impeachment was being voted proclaimed in his own vote: “May the God have mercy of this country!”. Senator Magno Malta said, while debating the reasons to impeach Rousseff, that the impeachment will not be given by the Senate, it will be a punishment given by King Solomon himself. The religious fanaticism and the biblical allusions were used almost every time against Rousseff. This procedure has two main explanations: (1) first, a major force in the Brazilian parliament (and Cunha and Malta themselves) are the neo-pentecostal movements, so by using their symbolism and their moral standards Paschoal, Cunha, Malta and the others are making an easy choice to people: a simple good versus evil alternative. The other explanation (2) remains in fact all accusations against Rousseff were weak, neither any crime nor any illegality by the President occurred. Avoiding any rational evaluation about the crimes attributed to Rousseff is the ultimate opposition concern. Suddenly Brazil found itself in a seventeenth-century Salem Witch Trial, and the Government were beaten trying to use modern arguments against faith, preconceptions and magical thinking.

To any (and almost all) external observers this situation is absurd. In the 21th century, appealing to political nonsense to withdraw an elected government is a “coup”. The problem is, internally, this fanatical religious narrative was not contested neither by the supreme court nor by the media. There are other political groups involved in actions against the government of course (Reale Junior’s father, for example, was leader of the Integralist (fascist) party in Brazil and author of AI-5, the Coup-within-a-Coup of 1968), but none of these groups are mass-oriented political forces. In order to fight a leftist government, the right wing opposition in Brazil took onboard these religious narratives. First, however, there was a dense campaign associating the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party) with “communism”. Since 2010, this anti-government propaganda remained unchecked and the result is now clear: the opposition could recruit large number of people who actually believe a centre-left, social democratic government is, in fact, communist.

Rousseff’s mistakes have a lot to do with this too. First, Rousseff implemented a neoliberal oriented economic policy and neglected several social movements who have fiercely worked for her election. Instead of easing the economic crisis, this neoliberal agenda enhanced its effects creating unemployment, inflation and public deficits. Secondly, the poor capability of the President to speak in public was exacerbated by the utterly ineffective communications and advisors during the last two years. These two factors make room for Political betrayals.

We need, nevertheless, to accept two more arguments to explain the downfall of Brazilian government: Brazil’s media is strongly concentrated and the world is suffering economic crisis. During the last two years, any situation in Brazil was presented to the public by the conservative media as “the worst in country’s history”. The corruption, the economic crisis, the political crisis and etc. Rousseff, for example, had inaugurated the Belo Monte power plant that certainly has its pros and cons, but, for the first time in 500 years, the main concerns of the Brazilian middle class were “ecological crimes” and “indigenous displacement”. One cannot simply let go of the “indigenous displacement” argument — in Brazil — as the dawn of altruism and anthropological grief.

The religious, fanatical, irrational account mixed with an anti-communist, elitist, authoritarian and prejudiced narrative mirrors itself in the symbol of the snake. The government took too much time to understand what was going on and could not come up with a way to effectively counter it. It is like Rousseff conceded too many yards to the opponent and now the opposition is one away from the end zone. No matter how good the defence is, the chances to escape are minimal. The right wing parties and the media has beaten the Workers Party (PT) in its own field.

To complete the grim picture of modern Brazilian politics, we need two more points to be addressed. We need to explain how in the last months the government could bring so many people to its defence and why the opposition accepts irrational narratives while knowing this could be a dangerous two-edged sword.

The answer for both problems is the same: Lula.

As presented in the beginning of this article, the real political battle in Brazil these days is not about Rousseff’s government. It is about Lula’s legacy. The opinion polls keep indicating that people think Lula was the best Brazilian president ever and he is leading in all scenarios for a presidential run in 2018. Although we need to understand that the results of these polls can not be taken too seriously so far ahead of 2018, but there are direct indications that Lula’s popularity has not yet been hit. When people understand that the attacks against Rousseff were in fact aiming to hit Lula and democracy itself the streets have filled. Probably it won’t be enough to save Rousseff’s mandate but will certainly reduce the political space the opposition will have to govern. On the other hand, the opposition knows Lula needs to be hit, and hit hard. Otherwise he will win in 2018 with a home-run.

There is no way to hit a political figure such as Lula in a rational way, but, the past can be rewritten. Paul Ricoeur and Reinhardt Koselleck have said that history is less about the past and much more about the present and the future. With Rousseff out of the game, the opposition’s main objective will be to destroy Lula’s past as well as his future. That’s why the opposition cannot depart from irrational narratives and are, in fact, more and more close to these feverous movements. In the war against Lula, if they need to destroy Brazilian democracy and its institutions it will be a fair price, in the view of the right wing parties and Brazilian plutocracy. After all, snakes bite most those who cannot pay for shoes and kills more those who cannot afford the price of an antidote to their venom.


By Fernando Horta

PhD in History of International Relations at the University of Brasília (UNB). Denver University Visiting Scholar.