Chuck Mertz: I am going to start by getting you angry about the New York Times. There have been protests of late in Brazil, but according to the New York Times those protests while not as widely attended as those that took down Dilma Rousseff, have gone further to the right. This is the New York Times article from March 26:
“A year after helping push for the impeachment of the leftist president Dilma Rousseff, fewer conservatives are turning out for protests in Brazil which is good news for her equally unpopular successor, Michel Temer. But the demands of those still demonstrating have hardened and turned even farther to the right. Tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets in at least 18 states on Sunday” – this is March 25th– “in support of the sprawling operation Car Wash graft investigation that drove Mrs. Rousseff’s impeachment for breaking budget laws although she was never personally accused of graft.”
So, is it true, are fewer Brazilians taking it to the streets to protest and are all the protests about corruption – the kind of corruption charges that took down Dilma Rousseff?
Brian Mier: That’s ridiculous. That is just a blatant lie. First of all, there was one right wing protest coordinated by the same people who, with the help of the biggest TV station, Rede Globo, and the biggest newspapers in Brazil, coordinated the anti Dilma Rousseff protests last year- the MBL, or Movimento Brasil Livre. They held a right wing protest in favor of the Lava Jato investigation in the middle of last month [fact check date]. And this protest only managed to put 600 people on the street in Brasilia. That was the right wing protest that was organized last month. The group that coordinated two very large protests, which are being billed as a warmup for national strikes which are going to kick in on April 28th is called the Frente Brasil Popular. This is a broad coalition of leftist political parties including PSOL, PT, the Brazilian Communist Party, labor union federations like the CUT, the National Students Union (UNE), the Landless Peasants Movement (MST) and squatters’ movements. That’s who coordinated these protests and on March 15th they put over 1 million people on the streets in Brazil, and on March 31st they had another one with several hundred thousand. And the big news of these protests is that it’s not just happening in the major cities. There are little towns with 50,000 people in them that had thousands of people on the streets. So what the New York Times does is it confuses a very tiny right wing protest with large, very clearly left wing protests where there were red flags flying everywhere on the streets and unions and everything. It confuses those two, then it lies about the size. Because there is a town with 400,000 people in it in Minas Gerais state called Juiz de Fora which had tens of thousands of people on the streets on March 31 and that was one of hundreds of protests that all took place on the same theme, on the same day, coordinated by the same coalition of social movements and unions. So that article is fraudulent and unethical.
Mertz: What I couldn’t find coverage of in the US press was the #M15 protests that took place on March 15th. Reuters in the UK had this, “Brazilian civil servants, rural workers and labor unions staged nationwide demonstrations against president Michel Temer’s pension reform plan, with hundred of protestors occupying the finance ministry in the capital, Brasilia. Bus and subway services were partially disrupted in São Paulo, the country’s biggest city, where small street demonstrations around the city snarled drivers and traffic. Temer and his allies in the ruling coalition say capping pension benefits and raising the retirement age is key to fixing public finances and pulling the country out of its worst recession in more than a century. Powerful unions have pledged to fight the proposed reform tooth and nail.” The AP also reported the story by saying the protest was a “fight against pension changes”. Do Brazilians simply have, because this is what they seem to be implying in both of these stories, do Brazilians simply have too good of a pension system like Greece had and its time to reign in their high spending on benefits?
Mier: First of all let me just say those were the only two articles that appeared in the major American press that talked about the March 15th protests and secondly, in São Paulo where Reuters lies about several small protests partially blocking traffic they had 270,000 people on the street that blocked the main avenue in São Paulo, Avenida Paulista, during rush hour. And so what you see in the hegemonic media that represents the expanded American state, which represents State Department interests in countries where the US government has geopolitical interest, is that when protests get too big to completely ignore, they vastly under report the crowd sizes and that is what happened there.
As far as Brazil’s pension goes, there has been a lot of misrepresentation about Brazilians’ retirement benefits. Brazil does have better retirement benefits than the US, better than Social Security, but Social Security is a disaster. Social Security is the worst retirement system of any country in the developed world. So in Brazil, the way things stood before these retirement reforms kicked in is that at age 65 I would have been able to retire and I would have received about usd$300 a month from the Brazilian government one minimum, and I would receive something like $179 from Social Security. So I, in my position having lived in Brazil for 22 years, would have got more money in a 3rd World country from retirement than I would in the US. But that is neither here nor there because both retirement plans leave a lot to be desired. One minimum salary in Brazil is not enough to really live on and it is hardly this huge beneficial thing where I would be drinking champagne and eating caviar at age 65. But that doesn’t matter anymore because Michel Temer just pushed my retirement age up to 74. And the life expectancy in most Brazilian states is 72 or 73, so he’s pushed the retirement age over life expectancy and that is why you had hundreds of thousands of people on the 31st and 1 million or so on March 15, coming out on the streets and angrily trying to revert this situation, and why on the 28th of this month there are going to be huge, massive nationwide strikes and shutdowns of all the major avenues in every major city in the country. Because people aren’t going to just sit back and let this happen.
Mertz: So it wasn’t reported here in the US, it was barely reported in the UK how if at all were these protests on the 15th and the 31st reported in the Brazilian media?
Mier: The most powerful media company in Brazil is Grupo Globo. The are the World’s 14th biggest media conglomerate and they [their TV network] were started by Time Life and Rockefeller during the military dictatorship and so a lot of what they say is reflected in the international media and they couldn’t completely ignore it liked the Washington Post or CNN did. They had to talk about the protests but they didn’t give the crowd sizes at all, they omitted the crowd sizes. As Douglas Izzo, the leader of the CUT labor union federation in São Paulo, which represents 2 million workers in the state of São Paulo said, when the left holds a protest the Brazilian media reports it as ‘protesters block traffic during rush hour’. When the conservatives hold a protest its, ‘look at this, it’s democracy in action! The people are coming to the streets to demand their democratic rights.’ So that’s what they said about these protests- ‘protestors block traffic’.
Mertz: So right before Dilma Rousseff was impeached or at least was forced out of office to face the impeachment trial the New York Times seemed to be stepping back from their support for the protesters and seemed to be reconsidering critics claims of at least a soft coup. There was a little bit of pulling back from their support of what they were claiming to be a huge groundswell of grass roots democratic activism overthrowing a corrupt leader. They seemed to be stepping back from that storyline a little bit. Does it appear that they have learned anything from the way in which they covered the anti-Dilma Rousseff protests to the way in which they are covering the protests now, within Brazil?
Of course not. That is just the New York Times strategy. If you look at how they covered the bombings in Syria the other day, what happened? During the first 18 hours, according to FAIR, the NGO that monitors accuracy in the media, the major American newspapers ran 16 articles favorable of Trump and favorable of the bombings. The New York Times actually ran a story called “Trump Follows his Heart”. And you saw Brian Williams on MSNBC going off about how beautiful the bombing was. After the first 24 hours is beginning to run articles that are critical of the bombings. Why? Because that is what the New York Times has done in every situation since the Viet Nam War, since the 1964 Coup in Brazil when they spent two years building up a change in narrative so that Americans would support a coup in Brazil. After the coup happened they started running a few op ed pieces saying, ‘oh, a military coup just happened’ to give the impression that they are being objective, which is fundamental for their reputation.
Mertz: So there was an article at Brasil Wire called #15M: The Big Hush, which states that “this kind of censorship is a practice we have observed in motion first hand and documented several times before. Does the lack of mainstream media coverage when the Brazilian left go to the streets merely reflect neoliberal or conservative bias and or a US and UK foreign policy towards Brazil which includes support for the Temer presidency and his platform which is afterall undoubtedly of benefit to foreign capital? If none of this is the case, it would be fascinating to hear an alternative explanation.” Isn’t it simply the policies of those who control the media in Brazil, the media that the outside press depends upon and the private control is so intense that they can thoroughly control the message or is it more than local corporate control of the media? Isn’t the only reason that this stuff is not making it to the western media because of corporate control and corporate interests within Brazil? Isn’t it a local problem and not necessarily something that is being imposed from the outside?
Mier: I wouldn’t say it’s imposed from the outside. I would say that the capitalist media works together to advance the objectives of capitalism. If it were merely a case of American newspapers getting misinformation because they are getting all of their information from the Brazilian press, then why do they pay very high wages for their reporters to come down and live here in luxury accommodations? [The New York Times Brazil correspondent] Simon Romero was living in a two-floor penthouse apartment in Ipanema while he lived in Rio and that is one of the most expensive real estate neighborhoods in the World. So they don’t really have any excuse to say that they are getting misinformation from the Brazilian media, because they have people on the ground down here reporting on things. And a reporter’s job is to try to get objective coverage of issues that are happening, ostensibly anyway. So it is more than just that, I think they are just working together to advance capitalist interests and business interests and the interest of the advertisers in these publications which are oftentimes the same companies in Brazil and the United States.
Mertz: That Brasil Wire article also points out that there was no coverage of the March 15 general strike or mass demonstrations in the Guardian, Times of London, Independent, Telegraph, Washington Post, LA Times, or on CNN, BBC, SKY News, Fox, MSNBC and no mention of the general strike or mass demonstrations on the Twitter accounts of Brazil correspondents for the New York Times, Guardian Latin America, the Economist, BBC Latin America, CNN, Reuters, LA Times, yet when it was mentioned Bruce Douglas of Bloomberg tweeted, “Lula’s currently addressing anti-government protesters in Sâo Paulo” and Dom Phillips of the Washington Post tweeted, “Big crowds at demonstration on São Paulo’s Avenida Paulista against pension reform.” So were these protests simply a Lula rally?
Mier: No. Not at all. He addressed them because he is the founder of the CUT labor union federation and the PT party is involved in the Frente Brasil Popular and he is the leading candidate for the 2018 elections if they don’t arrest him on trumped up charges or kill him by then. So he is an important character on the Brazilian political scenario and he was invited to give a speech at one of hundreds of different protests that took place at the same time across the country, as he often does.
Mertz: When it comes to workers gains in Brazil that were made under Lula and Dilma, how many of those could be lost and how soon?
Mier: They are already being decimated. The main gain that workers made under president Lula was the huge increase in minimum salary. When Lula took over the presidency the minimum wage was around $79/month. When Dilma was illegally thrown out the minimum wage was over $300/month. That had a huge affect on quality of life for all of the workers and it didn’t create a huge inflation crisis like Republicans always say it will if they raise the minimum wage by a tiny fraction in the US. Another major workers gain was that he tied the retirement pension to the minimum salary. Before he became elected it was lower than the minimum wage. So what has happened since the coup? President Temer has announced that he will discontinue annual above inflation minimum wage adjustments. Minimum wage will start being adjusted at a rate lower than inflation every year. This means that over the course of the next twenty years, which is the length of time that he enacted this measure for, the real value of the minimum wage will be cut in half. In Brazil you have really strong labor rights. You have this thing called the work card. Once your work card is signed by an employer it is very difficult to be fired. If you are fired they have to give you a severance package representing something like 5% of everything you have ever earned there plus a 50% fine on top of the employer plus interest. And it also guarantees that you get a 13th paycheck every year, you get one month paid vacation plus around 16 paid holidays. They are really nice benefits. And recently Michel Temer vastly increased the rights for outsourcing, so that now just about any worker in Brazil can be hired without signing a work card. This essentially destroyed one of the strongest labor rights that workers had in Brazil, which was established in 1943. So it is getting pretty bleak. Hunger has come back to Brazil, unemployment is going up, homicide rates are going up but hopefully in the mid-term we can revert this situation.
Mertz: How much is there a feeling in Brazil that Temer is in power because of outside interests? To what extent do we diminish the amount of responsibility we should be applying to the right wing within Brazil? How much is this driven by the outside, how much do Brazilians believe this is driven by the outside and does that take away agency from the far right in Brazil?
Mier: I don’t think that you can separate the far right country by country anymore. If you look at the collaboration between the Trump supporters and the European far right, LePen and the Brexit people in England. There has never been much separation between the Brazilian far right and the American far right because the American government invested a huge amount of money training thousands and thousands of Brazilian military personnel and police officers during the military dictatorship at the School of the Americas in Georgia and in Panama, including training on torture techniques. So basically the ideology of the Brazilian far right is basically an American far right ideology that has been imported from the United States. But that doesn’t mean that the comprador class of Brazilian elite didn’t collaborate with the American far right. But instead of answering your question about US involvement with my own words, I’d like to read what Douglas Izzo, the president of the CUT labor union federation in São Paulo, who is the legitimate representative of 2 million workers, said about the coup:
We believe that there is North American interventionism in Latin America. It is very clear for us that the old North American strategy to use tanks and bombs has shifted to a more subtle strategy of propaganda, buying political agents and using the means of communication to build movements to destabilize governments using the same narrative everywhere– associating the governments with a sea of corruption. We’ve seen this happen around the world. This is what happened in Paraguay. This is what happened in Honduras with the Zelaya government. This is what is happening in Venezuela and it’s what happened in the Arab Spring when various governments that were against North American interests were deposed. It is important to emphasize the foreign interest in the pre-salt oil reserves behind all of this interference. Until recently, the petroleum reserves were considered a path to the future for the Brazilian people but we see the leaked state department cables that show Senator and former coup government Foreign Minister José Serra had secret meetings about privatizing the pre-salt with American petroleum corporations. We believe they helped finance the coup and that they financed destabilization, created agitation through the means of communication and the social networks and built a narrative that manipulated one part of society to impose a de facto coup against a democratically elected government. This strategy is very clear to us because the same people who were defending ethics and transparency 6 months ago are now trying to bury the Lava Jato investigation. This government didn’t take power to try to solve Brazil’s problems. It took power to guarantee the interests of the North Americans– of North American imperialism and capital and elite interests here in Brazil.
Mertz: The union leader, Izzo, that you were just quoting also mentions the communication monopoly in the hands of 5 families that collectively decide what news the people are going to see every day. What could have Dilma or Lula done to possibly break up that media monopoly and why wasn’t anything done to break it up?
Mier: This is now being considered one of the biggest mistakes that Lula and Dilma Rousseff made. They could have done a lot of things. They could have stopped buying advertising in their publications. They spent hundreds of millions of dollars in 13 years funding these organizations. They seem to have either been afraid of taking them head on or thinking that if they continued funding them as every president before them did – since Dilma left office Michel Temer has increased funding for these 5 families by something like 40%- so they didn’t invent the idea, but they could have cut or eliminated funding and advertising in their publications, and they could have taken them for trial for tax fraud because the biggest media company in Brazil, Globo, owes hundreds of millions of dollars in back taxes. And after charges were opened against them the paperwork [and collected evidence] just disappeared. They had to arrest a woman in the public prosecutors’ office for burning the records and then she was pardoned by the same Supreme Court Justice who pushed through the impeachment process. So they could have done a few things. They could have also enacted Teddy Roosevelt-style anti-trust legislation too, although they never had control over the House and Senate. But I don’t think they tried hard enough. There is a general consensus on the Brazilian left that they dropped the ball on that one and it came back to bite them.
Mertz: What is the likelihood in your opinion that this can all be fixed with the next election as Brazil’s voters will rise up against what they finally realized was a coup that facilitated the most egregious, draconian cuts for the most vulnerable done by the corrupt?
Mier: They are talking about either Lula running or Ciro Gomes, who is a center-left technocrat who is OK. But the question is, will there be free elections? There weren’t free elections in Argentina when Macri got elected and Obama came to congratulate him and compliment his neoliberal reforms afterward, because we know there was US interference in that election. There was US interference in 2014 when David Axelrod’s former PR firm came down to run the electronic media campaign for conservative opposition candidate Aécio Neves. So the question is, how free will the elections be? All of the polls indicate that if elections were held tomorrow Lula would be the clear cut winner if he ran for office again. Not that that would perhaps be the best solution but he would be better than any of the other candidates they are talking about, like Ciro Gomes, but the question is will there really be free elections and I am not sure.
Mertz: So in the end is the outcome of Dilma being impeached which was cheered on by the US and UK media- is the outcome a more corrupt government being in place with cuts for workers and the most vulnerable?
Mier: It’s very clear that this government is much more corrupt. That is not even an issue. Dilma was not successfully accused of any corruption. The technicality that they used to impeach her was not a crime of responsibility and therefore, according to the Brazilian constitution, not admissible in an impeachment hearing. There is no evidence of her enriching herself or taking bribes or anything like that, although a lot of people really disliked her because she swung to the right to try to save her hide during the last year of her presidency and appointed a neoliberal finance minister and started enacting some neoliberal reforms herself.
Mertz: Brian it’s always great to hear from you. Live from São Paulo it’s our irregular correspondent in Brazil, Brian Mier, is an editor at Brasil Wire, a freelance writer and producer. He’s also a research associate at the Council of Hemispheric Affairs Brazil Unit.
You can listen and subscribe to the show here.