Chuck Mertz: Remember all the reporting and media coverage being given to the protests against the alleged corruption of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff that led to her ouster in what at least could be called a soft coup hiding behind a mask of lawful impeachment? Remember that? So why is the media today ignoring the bigger protests against her successor and the far better evidence of his corruption than Dilma’s? Here to help us find out what the hell is happening in Brazil, Brian Mier is an editor of Brasil Wire and a freelance writer and producer. This week Brian posted the article, Brasilia, May 24: A view from the ground, on this week’s protests.
Narration from short film: On May 24 over 200,000 Labor Union and social movement members took to the streets in the largest protest in Brasilia’s history. The event was the result of 3 months of planning through democratic assemblies held across the country and the demands were clear: Out with president Temer, no austerity reforms and direct presidential elections, now.
Chuck: Brian, welcome back to this is Hell, great to hear your voice…. What were you going to Brasilia to protest? Let’s just start right there because you write that on the night of May 23rd you joined a group of activists from “Central de Movimentos Populares” social movement for the 16 hour bus ride from Sâo Paulo to Brasilia. The trip was coordinated as a bus caravan and as we stopped for dinner along the way it became apparent that this was going to be much larger than the solidarity act for Lula in Curitiba that took place a couple of weeks earlier.” So what were you going to Brasilia to protest?
Brian: That is an important question because when organized left protests take place in Latin America a lot of times the press tries to depict them as spontaneous, Arab Spring style protests where people don’t have any clear objectives. They spent 3 months planning this protest and the objectives were very clear. They gave three demands, 1) An immediate ouster of illegitimate president Michel Temer; 2) A halt to all neoliberal austerity reforms; and 3) Direct elections for the presidency, immediately.
Chuck: But when I see this reported in one of your favorite media outlets, the New York Times, or in the establishment media in general, it seems that the way that these protests are described in the media is that they are kind of spontaneous acts of people who are “passionate people of Brazil”, who have a lot of emotions and they are out there to just be upset about the government and it almost seems like its a completely uncoordinated event and just popular outrage that takes the streets as if it is spontaneous and there is no coordination whatsoever. To you, what explains that kind of packaging of these protests when as you’ve witnessed, they are incredibly organized.
Brian: I think that they package it that way to hide the demands and the message because Capital is against halting austerity reforms. Capital wants austerity reforms in Brazil because it will open up space for more foreign takeover of Brazilian resources, so I think its deliberate and it’s also ridiculous that the Northern media was completely unprepared for this protest. They didn’t send anyone up there to cover it. And they are scrambling right now. One journalist asked me if I could introduce him to a leader of the protest. No, there’s no leader because they were planned over the course of 3 months through hundreds of democratic assemblies across the country where participants voted on the objectives and tactics that were going to be used. So they were taken by surprise and another thing I’ve noticed is that after the coup, all of these big journalists who’d come down to Brazil to work to change the narrative about Brazil in the international media from that of a positive, winning country to that of a losing country – they’ve all left town. So the new people who’ve come in in their stead are unprepared and I’ve noticed that some journalists who’ve already left, like Alex Cuadros and Simon Romero are now writing and giving analysis about it and they don’t really know what is going on because they may have been down here for several years but they never made any contact with people on the organized left. They don’t even know who they are supposed to be talking to right now.
Chuck: And Simon Romero has an article in today’s New York Times that is just completely ridiculous about the dark humor that Brazilian’s have now when it comes to politics within their country. It’s just a stupid article and you can kind of tell that he is writing that from afar. But there is something I want to ask you. You said that there was a solidarity rally for Lula a couple weeks ago. Somehow that didn’t make it into my New York Times. I thought Lula was being swept up in Brazil’s corruption scandals. So what explains support for Lula?
Brian: if the elections were held tomorrow Lula would win and that terrifies a lot of people. That is definitely not what the United States wants. There has been 12 years of allusions in the press of Lula being involved in this or that corruption scandal. It’s just non-stop. For the last two years they have been talking about this scandal that ‘Lula is about to go on trial for corruption’. He has never gone on trial for corruption yet. So a couple of weeks ago, this judge who we know from leaked state department cables has been working with the FBI since at least 2009 named Sergio Moro, who has strong connections to the center-right PSDB party, ordered Lula to come down to Curitiba to testify on these corruption allegations. He wasn’t charged yet, it was just preliminary questioning, and at that point about 40,000 people came from all over Brazil down to Curitiba to hold street protests in solidarity with him because in this post coup environment there is a state of exception and people were afraid that he would get down there and they just wouldn’t let him out on some kind of trumped up charges. It turned out that he was only questioned on this issue of receiving free reforms on his luxury apartment in Guaruja. OK, so he got down there for questioning- the national news show Jornal Nacional on Globo TV spent 16 hours of coverage over the last year talking about this allegation. And he finally got down there and they were unable to prove that he owns the apartment in question- it was never registered in his name and the only evidence they were able to provide were two toll receipts showing that one of his vehicles visited that beach city two times in the last 5 years. There is no evidence that he actually ever visited the apartment in question or that he owns it. And the town in question, this beach resort, is only a 30 minute drive from his house. So it just turned out to be a complete sham and meanwhile a week later, video and audio tape was released showing that the Economist and America’s Quarterly-supported 2014 presidential candidate, Aécio Neves, who had hired David Axelrod’s former PR company to run his social media campaign in the run up to the elections – he was caught on video tape demanding R$2 million in bribes from the largest meat packing company in Brazil, JBS, and also caught on audio talking about killing witnesses in the Lava Jato investigation. And there have been 9 witnesses who have died in the last two years. So this is very incriminating evidence- they’ve traced the money and they paid the bribe money in marked bills. They’ve traced it and they’ve found the bank accounts, so this created a new scandal and it looked like president Michel Temer [also caught on tape receiving bribes from JBS] was going to resign last weekend but he said he’s hanging in there, even though he’s only polling with a 4% approval rating and now ex-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who is the darling of the New York Times, has come out and defended Aécio Neves. So as it turns out, the big corruption problem in Brazil was not President Lula, it was the opposition.
Chuck: That’s really insane and when it comes to whether Temer actually does step down, in your article you mention how his successor would be somebody from the party that represents the old dictatorship in Brazil. So what’s worse, having Michel Temer as the president of Brazil, or having his successor being somebody from the old dictatorship?
Brian: First of all, let me explain. Temer also was part of the old dictatorship and his political party, PMDB, was the official opposition party during the dictatorship. Basically during the cold war all of these Latin American military dictatorships had to have two political parties so that it would appear that there was democracy, that the US was supporting a democratic regime, but they were all the same people. The people would switch between both parties constantly so Temer is also a former Military Dictatorship official- he was the security chief for São Paulo state for the last two years of the Military Dictatorship and a public prosecutor previously to that. But of the two parties, this party DEM, which was formerly called ARENA during the dictatorship, is the more hard line, far right, neofascist political party. So it would be terrible to have them take the government back over and it’s kind of like the same situation we have in the US with Trump, you know. You get rid of Trump and get Mike Pence. Who’s worse? I don’t know.
Chuck: So what do you think the country would look like if that party that represents the old dictatorship did take power back? In your article you point out how the person who would be the successor ran for mayor in Rio de Janeiro and he only got 3% of the vote so clearly his party or at least he, is very very unpopular. So what would Brazil look like with this very unpopular politician running the country? What would happen?
Brian: Michel Temer is also incredibly unpopular. Imagine a 4% approval rate. So I don’t know if he would be any less popular then Michel Temer. He would probably be about the same. And I think that not much would change because the two parties, PMDB and DEM are aligned. I don’t think very much would change. It would just be an even less competent guy running the country. This guy is the son of the former mayor of Rio de Janeiro Cesar Maia, who brought the Olympics to Brazil. César Maia as mayor was incredibly fascist and corrupt. And his son doesn’t have very much charisma and he is even less competent than Michel Temer.
Chuck: When you went to these protests in Brasilia, these were protests that were organized by unions. Why are the unions so upset with Michel Temer and more importantly you mentioned Força Sindical which is the second largest union federation in Brazil. You mention how they were supporters of Temer but now are in the opposition when it comes to Temer so why are unions in particular upset with Temer and why did it take Força Sindical so long to come around?
Brian: Brazil has strong labor rights- much stronger than the United States. For example if you are hired, after the first 90 days which is considered a trial period, the employers have to sign your work card. After your work card has been signed, if you are ever fired they have to give you the equivalent of 5% of everything you ever earned plus a 50% fine plus interest. So it is a strong incentive against being fired. It limits what neoliberals would call “labor flexibility” but it reduces stress in the work place a lot and it’s really pleasurable. You also get a 13th paycheck ever year, one month paid vacation, and so Temer has introduced legislation that would basically decimate the work card. It would take away most of those rights and it would allow employers to permanently outsource people without signing their work card. So that would set labor rights back in Brazil by about 70 years. And that is one of the main reasons they are protesting, another reason is because Temer is not a legitimate president- it was a coup,and they want the right to vote on a new president.
Chuck: So do we miss something in understanding these protests when we think of them as anti-Temer protests or Pro-Lula rallies or pro Dilma rallies even? Do we lose something when we focus on the political leader and not the larger concerns of the population, especially when it comes to corruption in general?
Brian: Yeah, of course. And I think it’s a problem with American culture in general that Americans always try to individualize social movements. Like the movement against apartheid in South Africa, the way they depict it in America is that it was all Nelson Mandela. But Nelson Mandela was one member of a large movement who was chosen as their leader through democratic processes and so when you individualize everything you make it just seem like it’s this cult of personality. And in the case of the protests last Wednesday for example, the fact that the Força Sindical which historically considers itself to be an enemy of Lula, was out there in very high numbers shows that things are a lot more complex than the way that the media is treating it.
Chuck: On the protest Brazil’s defense minister Raul Jungman was quoted saying “a protest that was supposed to be peaceful “deteriorated into violence, vandalism and disrespect.” But protesters had a different story. One was quoted saying, “The main part of the demonstration had not arrived and the police started throwing percussion grenades, used tear gas and rubber bullets.” This is even before the main part of the demonstration had arrived. Were both sides equally provocative during these protests? Were the protesters or cops more provocative? Was there one side or the other that you think really lead to the violence ramping up?
Brian: Well, first of all that is a little bit misleading. I would say that about 70% of the people were on the street when the police opened fire on them with tear gas grenades. Because there were so many people, around 200,000.. There were so many people on the road that it took 2 hours for the CUT labor union federation to even get their people onto the street and the tear gas went off as they were just coming out. So, yes, police started it and at this point the crowd started dispersing even though some people were still arriving. But the actual protesters who had taken part in the planning and come from all over Brazil in bus caravans did not engage in any acts of violence. What happened, and this is something that’s been happening since 2013 in Brazil, whenever the organized left creates a big protest you get a couple hundred people who say that they are black bloc anarchists who, after the initial tear gas starts start breaking things and throwing rocks at the police and what happens then is that the media just focuses on that part. So this was maybe 0.1% of the crowd that engaged in violence after the protest organizers had already said, “it’s over, it was a success, let’s go back to our buses”. There was a couple hours of skirmishing between these people and the police. And time and time again they find that there were undercover police infiltrated in the black blocs and it’s frustrating, because , you know, I have a lot of friends who are anarchists up in Chicago and in the US and they hear me criticize the black blocs and they get angry with me but you can’t take a concept and treat it as an identical thing in every country around the world. For example, the Green party in Brazil is a joke. And Black Blocs in Brazil are not the same as Black Blocks in the United states. The fact is that the protest organizers continually invite anyone who wants to participate in the assemblies when they plan their tactics. And so it’s annoying that you get a tiny group of people, whether they are infiltrated or not, who ignore the tactics, ignore the democratic processes and decide that their tactic is the best one and create this kind of violence circus that the media loves. The media loves violence so, for example, there were 200,000 people on the streets in Brasilia on Wednesday. Globo Television network, which is the largest network in Brazil, waited until the official protest ended to start filming. They filmed a handful of people throwing rocks at the police and burning things and what not, and they said that that was the protest and they said that the crowd was only 5000 people. And it’s funny now but when you go to a protest in Brazil you see a huge mass of people, and then there is maybe 50-100 people in black with masks on with anarchist signs and there’ll be maybe 50-100 journalists just following them around, wearing helmets, you know, with their cameras and video cameras and stuff. They completely ignore the main protest, they ignore the demands of the protesters and then they just treat it as if it were an act of vandals in this kind of spontaneous protest action. So, I think the black block tactic in Brazil is now a failure. It’s time to find other tactics. Obviously since Genoa in 2001, Capital has had a chance to regroup and develop counter tactics to that tactic and it doesn’t work anymore down here.
Chuck: Temer sent federal troops to stop this weeks protest in Brasilia, the protest you attended. As the New York Times explained, the use of the armed forces in Brazil touches a nerve among critics of the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985, a period known for human rights abuses and the restriction of civil liberties. The Times then quotes Jairo Nicalau, a professor of political science at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, saying “the move to call in the armed forces by Temer was a mistake. It is a bad sign at this moment. It could signal weakness from the government. We are in a moment of insecurity and any act of this type creates more insecurity. We have had much worse demonstrations than this that were controlled by the police.” What signal do you think sending in federal troops sent to not only the protesters but all of Brazil. What message is Temer sending by sending in the troops?
Brian: OK, first of all that’s just yet one other inaccuracy in the New York Times. It wasn’t Michel Temer who ordered federal troops in. It was the Congressional president, Rodrigo Maia, who’s next in line for the presidency. The footage of what was going on inside the Congress at the moment he called in Federal Troops is hilarious. It’s just this circus. They had to take a break in the Congressional session for half an hour because there was so much yelling going on. And he just seemed terrified and completely incompetent to respond to the questions of the Congressmen who were criticizing him and his vice president had to take over. And then after a day or six hours or something they rescinded the order. But, yeah, it does send out a signal of weakness- he looks like a very weak leader on that video footage. And they are kind of panicky right now because the country is rising against them over these corruption allegations too- not even allegations but proof of active corruption on video and audio. So it definitely showed a sign of weakness on their part.
Chuck: So let’s get to the actual protest and what happened to you there. On the protest you write that as you were going away from the slowly advancing front lines of rock throwers and the Brazilian military police you heard random bursts of gunfire. Quote, “I assumed at the time that it was rubber bullets but it turned out that some police were using live ammunition. There were military police helicopters flying low overhead and I was hit with a cloud of teargas and temporarily blinded.” The next thing you encounter is what you describe as “jack booted riot control police”. Now I’ve read your account of what happened. But share with our listening audience. What happened after you were temporarily blinded by tear gas and suddenly you are confronted by riot control police?
Brian: OK, those two things weren’t suddenly one after the other. I got caught in a tear gas cloud and then I tried to make my way back towards the buses where we were going to leave from because the protest was officially over. I was just trying to get some video footage. And so at the top of this gigantic one mile long quad that has the government ministry buildings and the Congress and Senate on it, there is a bus terminal. And so you only got two roads that you can go through. So it created a kind of funnel where people were pouring in, and I went in on the right side of the bus station and I was kind of standing there catching my breathe and all the sudden these cops appeared and body slammed some teenage anarchist girl on the ground, poor girl, and then I saw another guy pepper spraying a woman in the face for no apparent reason and so I tried to film it and I was kind of panicky or whatever, I had my lens cap on, unfortunately. So then I took the lens cap off, filmed a little more, went around a corner and almost bumped into this riot control cop who had his tonfa stick raised and I kind of raised my hands in the air and I’m a middle aged white guy so he didn’t hit me. And I cut through the terminal and there was complete confusion going on because a group of military police were chasing somebody and everyone was running and screaming and I got hit with some vomit gas, which causes uncontrollable dry heaving. Luckily it was just a little bit, I dry heaved for 30 seconds or something and made it out of there.
Chuck: Holy Cow. So lets hear your choice, vomit gas or tear gas?
Brian: I prefer tear gas because I am used to it. I get nauseous just remembering the vomit gas.
Chuck: So do you think the protest was a success?
Brian: Yes. It was a huge success. It was twice as big as what they anticipated. And it was really good. It sent a very strong statement and as I mentioned before, the fact that the Força Sindical came out in huge numbers makes it impossible for people to say, “This was just a bunch of Lula supporters, this was just a bunch of PT party supporters”. Because the Força Sindical does not support Lula or PT. And so it just shows that the working class is now united, fighting against this illegitimate coup government and its neoliberal austerity reforms.
Chuck: And the next step seems to be a national strike. When is that national strike planned to take place?
Brian: As far as I know they haven’t defined the exact date yet. They are still deliberating, but it’s going to be within the next three weeks. This time it will be a two day strike. They held a one day strike last month on April 28 that was incredibly successful. They are saying it was the largest general strike in Latin American history and this new one is going to be two days. 35 million people participated in the last one.