The following article is an edited version of the transcripts of an interview Chuck Mertz conducted with Brasil Wire editor Brian Mier on This is Hell radio show, on Chicago’s WNUR, on December 16, 2017.
Live from São Paulo, Brian Mier explains why the Northern media gets Brazilian politics so wrong – echoing US State Department master narratives that empower Brazil’s post-coup criminal elite government, and obscuring the larger takeover of Latin American politics by a marginal, but powerful right operating without a consensus anywhere but the op-ed pages of American newspapers.
Brian’s book of interviews, Voices From the Brazilian Left, is available to order now from Brasil Wire.
Chuck Mertz: The Northern media – that’s us – does not talk to the Brazilian left and therefore does a horrible job explaining to the public what’s happening in Brazil, which is the kind of thing that led so many outsiders to support the recent coup in Brazil. Here to tell us what the left has to say in Brazil is someone who actually asks them. It’s our correspondent in São Paulo, Brazil, Brian Mier. He has a new project he’s working on called Voices of the Brazilian Left, which is a collection of interviews with Brazil’s left, who are rarely mentioned, if ever, in the media.
Let’s talk about your book first. The description of your book project on the Brasil Wire page says, “During the past three years, very rarely has anyone in the English language, corporate media taken the time to speak with members of the Brazilian organized left – the labor union and social movement members and organic intellectuals who support them. These are the masses of Brazilians responsible for four consecutive presidential election victories which conservatives were only able to reverse through a Coup d’etat”.
We’ve talked about the difference between the US media coverage of Brasil and what you’ve seen happening on the ground in Brazil before. But how aware is the Brazilian left that their message is so ignored in the US media and the Northern media, and when it is reported on, that the Brazilian left’s message is misunderstood?
I would say probably not very aware, because since the US supported the 1964 military Coup in Brazil it became out of fashion to speak English if you are a leftist Brazilian intellectual. Their foreign language of choice is French. So there is a lot more interaction between the intellectual left with French intellectuals than American or English ones. So I would say it’s not something a lot of people know about really.
How much do you think Brazil’s left doesn’t understand the United States? For instance, US Policy. Someone would possibly say, “this just doesn’t make sense to me. Why would the US be acting this way? It seems completely antithetical to what their democratic tradition would suggest.” So how much do you think Brazil’s left doesn’t understand US policy in Brazil because they are unaware that in the US there is this completely skewed vision in our media of what Brazil’s politics are like?
I think they are probably not as concerned about the media as they perhaps should be, but they definitely have an understanding of what US policies are and what is behind them because we had a president down here in the 1990s named Fernando Henrique Cardoso who’s policies were almost 100% Washington Consensus. So everyone knows what the Washington Consensus is. Everyone knows what neoliberalism is and what the logic behind the neoliberal structural adjustments are that the US-supported new Coup government is implementing. So I don’t think it’s a problem of lack of understanding about the US government or imperialism or the motives behind it down here I just don’t think that they have much knowledge of the US media. It’s not like people on the Brazilian left sit around reading the New York Times or something, or even Jacobin or other publications that would be considered more progressive in the US. When I speak about the Brazilian left, I don’t want to sound like I’m this massive spokesperson for the Brazilian left, but we do have this book coming out which is based on 15 interviews with some of the most important characters on the Brazilian left and so I feel like I can speak in terms of what I’ve learned during the course of preparing this book and also my 22 years living down here interacting with people on the left.
Let’s talk about what you’ve learned because we’ve talked about the difference in US coverage of Brazil and what you see taking place in Brazil in the past and we’ve had guests on our show recently who say that this is certainly not unique to the coverage of Brazil but also, as Jake Johnston of CEPR told us, it’s happening in Honduras, as Suzy Hansen has told us in Turkey and Greece and so on, in fact Suzy argued in her book, “Notes on a Foreign Country: an American Abroad in a Post American World”, that she learned a lot about the US from people in Greece and Turkey, a lot she didn’t know. What have you learned about the United States from Brazilians that you think most Americans simply don’t know? What could the average American learn about the United States from a Brazilian?
I think that when you live in a foreign country you begin to perceive this huge gap between what the American media is reporting about events abroad in general and what people living abroad actually think about them. What you discover is that – you know I have a lot of friends up in the US who consider themselves to be progressive or liberal but even the information that they receive in the English language media about a lot of issues- the middle east, about Libya for example, and about Latin America – is just very different from what’s really happening on the ground. So I guess there is just this disconnect. For example, living down here I’ve learned for example that you can’t trust almost anything you read about Venezuela in English. The gap between what’s really happening in Venezuela and the way it’s reported in the United States, even in some ostensibly progressive publications, is just glaring. You would think that the majority of the people in Venezuela do not support President Maduro from the reporting you read in the US when in fact he has the support of the majority of the population. You can say the same thing about coverage in Brazil. I’ve noticed in left and progressive publications there is a kind of narrative that the Brazilian left is just furious with the PT party and Lula. The fact is that people on the left have some serious criticisms of this 13 years of center-left governance that we had down here, very serious and very valid criticism. But the vast and overwhelming majority of the Brazilian left is supporting Lula in the 2018 presidential elections. And there’s a lot of reasons for that which you won’t read about in, for example Jacobin, or even some of the more left publications up in the US. If you read Jacobin, one of their writers about Brazil is a member of the Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (Socialism and Liberty Party/PSOL) which is a kind of very small moral criticism party that doesn’t have a serious plan for governance- they average about 1-1.5% of the vote in the presidential elections. They are very critical of the PT party and a lot of their criticism is valid but just getting your information about what is happening in Brazil from this party and people who are sympathetic to it would be tantamount to basing your analysis on American politics in 2016 based entirely on talking to Green Party members without talking to any Bernie Sanders supporters.
How much do you think the US media ignores the Brazilian left because the US media does not want to, is purposely ignoring how Brazilians understand the United States, which does not live up to some idea that the US media may have of American exceptionalism? Do you think that the media is simply ignoring the Brazilian left because they don’t like the story that the Brazilian left is saying about America?
Exactly. If you look at Noam Chomsky’s writings about manufactured consent, I think that the American media and specifically the for-profit American media acts as an arm of the US State Department, a publicity arm. So they build master narratives and you see these narratives echoed in all the different publications. When you start talking to people on the left you hear opinions that don’t fit that narrative. The master narrative about the coup last year was, “Brazil’s democratic institutions are working. The PT government is inundated in a swamp of corruption, and what happened took place according to legal procedures ”. If you start talking to anyone from the PT party or anyone connected to the PT party, which was Dilma Rousseff and Lula’s political party that ran the country for 13 years, you would hear wildly different opinions about all of that. And also if you just look at the basic facts- the impeachment was illegal. You cannot impeach someone, according to Brazilian law, for the infraction that Dilma was accused of committing and then exonerated from afterwords. Basic facts just don’t appear in the master narrative and it seems like the new narrative, which I’ve seen in tweets from American journalists like Mac Margolis from Bloomberg, is that, “well the new president is unpopular but his reforms are really important for the Brazilian people”. These reforms are, for example, tax abatement that is going to hand out $300 Billion to foreign oil companies and a $20 billion increase in judges salaries while slashing funding for public health and education and destroying 50 years of labor rights advances. That’s not in the best interests of the Brazilian people at all. But the narrative is like, “Brazilians really need retirement pension reforms.” They don’t talk about what the retirement reforms are. There are some pension issues in that, for example, an alderman can leave office after four years and he gets a very high salary for the rest of his life as a pension. That is an example of something that does need reform. But we definitely don’t need the retirement age raised to as high as 74, which is part of the legislation supported by the US media hacks like Margolis and Dom Phillips that they are trying to push through right now. It’s very similar to the retirement reforms that they are trying to push through in Argentina which brought millions of people to the streets in protest in the last couple days.
One of the interviews you did for your new project on interviewing people from Brazil’s left was posted at Brasil Wire this week, with the headline, “Inside the MNLM squatters movement”. You write since 1988 when the constitution was ratified, more than half a million Brazilian families have received land deeds after squatting in informal settlements and empty buildings. The interview now posted at Brasilwire.com that will be part of your new project, is an interview with Miguel Lobato, one of the leaders of the Movimento Nacional de Luta pela Moradia (National Movement for the Housing Struggle/MNLM), which is a poor people’s or “popular” social movement which fights for squatters rights in 26 Brazilian states. To you Brian, what explains why poor peoples movements are so powerful in Brazil? Is it simply because fighting against poverty and landlessness is actually a right written into the constitution?
The fact that it’s written into the constitution is a result of the social movements, not a cause. The social movements basically arose through organizing work that was conducted by the liberation theology branch of the Catholic Church during the military dictatorship. Because they were religious and Catholic they got away with more political organizing, and the kind of political organizing that was repressed when done by labor union activists. So they started a lot of really interesting organizing work, for example Paulo Freire-influenced critical adult literacy methodology where you teach people to read but with a a sense of criticism to ask thinks like, “why am I poor?” They started linking people in these adult literacy courses together from different poor communities around the country and this led to the rise of these giant social movements which still exist today. But most of them disconnected from the Catholic church during the 1990s, as Cardinal Ratzinger began to destroy liberation theology funding, and also over the question of gay rights. One of the biggest social movements in Brazil, the Central de Movimentos Populares (Popular Movements Central/CMP) broke from the church because the church was complaining that they were allowing gay rights issues into their movement. So the constitutional amendments which guarantee that any Brazilian citizen who doesn’t own property has a right to squat in an empty building who’s owner is not paying real estate taxes and then force the government to appropriate it and convert it to social housing, that is a result of the social movements. And there is something I would like to point out – the Guardian did a one week reporting series on Sâo Paulo a few weeks ago and they characterized squatting activities as illegal. This feeds into the narrative that social movement activists are criminals, which is being build up by the current government and used as an excuse for kicking them off their land, beating them, arresting them, and all of this. So in the guise of trying to act progressive the Guardian erroneously characterized these people engaged in legal activities, fighting for their constitutionally guaranteed rights, as criminals.
In ignoring the Brazilian left and misreporting it in the Northern Media, how much does that lead to the Northern media ignoring the issue of poverty? Does ignoring the Brazilian left mean ignoring the huge impact of poverty on Brazil?
I think it does. Because in not ever talking to anyone from the poor or working class left, you might think that these retirement pension reforms that are being pushed through would be good for the Brazilian people, which is the line that most northern journalists are giving today.
So you also point out that Miguel Lobato, who you interview, is also a member of the National Urban Reform Forum and you mention that you interviewed Lobato while he was in São Paulo last Saturday for a meeting of the Frente Brasil Popular, the broad based coalition that was organized in 2016 to fight against the coup. How broad based is that coalition? Isn’t it only the far left against the right and centrists? Because that’s the way the media is telling it to me up here.
The Frente Brasil Popular is a coalition made up of three of the largest union federations, which represent around 13 million workers. It also includes the Landless Rural Workers Movement, the MST, it includes students unions, academic and professional associations like the national association of Geographers. There are actually two coalitions of social moments and unions and their sympathizers in Brazil that are fighting the coup right now. Of the two, the Frente Brasil Popular is sometimes characterized as being center left and not even radical left by people who are associated with the other movement [Povo Sem Medo/People Without Fear]. So it is hard to really call it radical left if you include these labor union federations who make up the majority of the membership. Most of the unions are center left, basically. So it would be a mischaracterization. And its a shame that no one ever talks to anybody in the union federations because it creates this big gap in understanding what is happening down here.
I want to talk about the criticisms that Lobato has, that Brazil’s left has of Lula and Dilma. But you point out to Lobato that some middle class conservatives like to try to discredit social movements like the MNLM by saying that they are a group of people who suck up to the PT party, that they are lazy, don’t work and just want free handouts from the government. And Lobato tells you, “It is true that there are a lot of people who support the PT party in the MNLM but we have members who support all the different parties and we have members who don’t like any political party at all. Our task is to organize people who need housing and who need the right to the city. We fight for democracy.” How outside of politics is the MNLM? Do they endorses candidates?
Yeah they do. They are going to endorse Lula in 2018. But the point is, as Saul Alinsky used to point out during his organizing work in Chicago, when you start interacting with the organized left – social movements and unions and things like that – you’ll find that they are normally much more pragmatic than academic leftists. So they will always support candidates, and they’ll support the candidate that they think meets their demands the best and once that candidate is elected they’ll still protest against him. The CUT Labor Union Federation is always accused of being very close to the PT party because they helped found it. But when there was a PT party mayor of São Paulo, for four years (2012-2016), public sector labor unions affiliated with the CUT had a series of strikes against his government. In fact in a lot of situations the striking increases when a candidate that they support becomes elected. Because they want to put more pressure on them as a tactic to make them afraid that they’ll lose their support that was was essential to their election victory. Just like in the US, well the labor union situation situation in the US is very complicated – I don’t want to get into it. But you have people in left cells within labor unions, like Teamsters for a Democratic Union. If you talk to them, their position is much farther left than that of the candidates that the Teamsters’ Union supports. They support those candidates out of pragmatism. You are not going to get anywhere supporting a candidate who has no chance of getting elected.
Lobato tells you how he feels that the Temer government is a criminal enterprise. How much is that position, that belief, that view, now increasingly being held by the Brazilian public? Are you seeing more and more people across the political spectrum saying that this is a criminal enterprise?
Of course, because there’s been a series of audio tape and video tape leaks implicating – first of all you’ve already had , in the first year of his administration, 7 of his cabinet ministers forced to resign because of corruption charges. And there are various corruption charges against Michel Temer himself, involving millions of dollars of personal enrichment. Key members of his coalition who helped him get in power, such as [former PMDB party congressional president and leader of the impeachment process against Dilma Rousseff, Eduardo Cunha] are already in jail. Furthermore, he was declared innocent of the first set of charges against him in Congress but it came out that he shelled out R$13 billion, which is about USD$4 billion, in pork to the Congress and Senate so that they would vote him innocent, to exonerate him from the charges and he has around 6 more sets of charges against him. So I don’t think anyone in Brazil is under the idea that he is not a criminal. And his popularity rates are currently at 4%, which makes a lot of people who I interviewed for this book think that they are just going to cancel the elections next year.
What do you think that that likelihood is, that there will be no elections? Can this Coup be beaten by an election even if there was one?
Instead of giving my opinion I will just give the general opinion from the people I interviewed in the book, which is that there is a very good chance that they are going to try – and I’m sure this will be reported differently in the Northern media – they are going to try to change the political system from direct elections to parliamentary elections so that this incredibly corrupt Congress and Senate can choose the president instead of allowing the Brazilian people to decide. There’s a good chance of that happening. The second thing that’s happening is that just as in Argentina, where a US-backed, conservative judiciary is trying to put Christina Kirchner in jail on trumped up corruption charges before she can run for the Senate, a similar process is happening against former president Lula. He was sentenced to 9 years in jail for allegedly receiving free renovations on an apartment that he owns, except that the judge, who is also the prosecutor in a legal arrangement that is very unique to Brazil that goes back to the Spanish Inquisition – the judge can judge on his own prosecution – this guy was unable to prove that Lula had ever owned the apartment or visited it. So there is no physical evidence whatsoever and he sentenced him to 9 years and there is an appeal coming up in a month and the judge who is going to decide on his appeal has long ties to the conservative PSDB party. So there is a good chance that Lula will be arrested – I think there is a chance that he might be killed – to cancel his chance in running for election. He’s currently polling at double the popularity level of any other candidate. And as the people interviewed in the book point out its not because the people are just overwhelmed with joy for ex-president Lula. It’s a pragmatic choice. There is a lot of criticism that people on the left made of his presidency. He did some very good things, but he also cow-towed to the banking industry. He didn’t do much to adjust Brazil’s neoliberal macroeconomic policies. There is a lot of criticism of him but the majority of people in Brazil according to a recent poll think he’s innocent, that he should not be arrested, and he’s poling at 41% in popularity, with double the popularity of his next closest competitor who is a neofascist former former military dictatorship official who is campaigning on racism and homophobia named Jair Bolsonaro. And so in that context he’s wildly favored to win. And as one person I interviewed, Avanildo Duque, points out, the fact that the right is so intent on getting him arrested shows that they’re not happy with their candidates either. The neoliberal right has been unable to launch any candidate that is even polling at 10% right now. And a lot of them are not happy with the idea of another Trump type neofascist coming to power, so there is a division in the right as well.
One last question for you Brian. Lobato tells you it’s no longer just the poor it’s everyone who is losing out right now in Brazil. “Nearly the entire country is losing. Latin America in general is being deconstructed to recuperate the US power that was lost in the 21st Century. It started losing power over Brazil in the 3rd year of Lula’s first mandate, when Lula helped strengthen Mercosur, when Brazil let go of its dependance on the US and started spreading out through the rest of the World and strengthening other countries in Latin America. When the Kirchner family and Venezuela agreed to start strengthening Mercosur it was a defeat for North American imperialism. The growth of China and its entrance in the BRICS was another blow to US hegemony.” How much do you think the coup in Brazil is about the US trying to reclaim lost power in Latin America?
I think that it is a strong factor. One of the major factors obviously is privatizing Brazil’s massive petroleum reserves. And you see now that the coup’s happened, with lobbying support from a British governmental minister [Minister of State for Trade and Investment Greg Hands], which was leaked by Greenpeace recently, you see now that Shell Oil and British Petroleum have come in in full force, other petroleum companies have come in, so that’s definitely one of the reasons that the coup happened, but the question of hegemony is an important one because you see what was going on in the BRICS, China, Russia, Brazil, India and South Africa all together talking about for example, abandoning the use of the dollar in purchasing petroleum from Iran. That certainly worried a lot of people in the US government. There are other instances. Dilma Rousseff purchased fighter jets from Sweden instead of Boeing, which angered a lot of people. We know that the NSA was spying on Dilma, monitoring her emails, tapping her cellphone conversations. That is a fact that was released all over the media a couple of years ago but it seems like everybody’s forgotten those things because of this flurry of talk about corruption in Brazil up North. Everyone is acting like, “oh, it was corruption, they had to take care of the problem”, but the fact that Brazil divested a lot of its economic activity from the United States to Europe, to China to Africa, that worried a lot of people in the US State Department. You can find conversations with them talking about how worried they were about Brazil in 2009 and 2010 on C-Span. So I think it’s definitely one of the factors. The media always tries to make you think everything is binary. Everything is ‘either or’. Nothing in the World is so simple that you can say one thing entirely caused something else. I’m sure there are 10 reasons why the coup happened. And if you look at the level of importance Oil is one of them but hegemony is also an important factor.