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Democracy and Uncertainty in Brazil


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This is a guest post by Dr. Colin Snider, Assistant Professor of Latin American History at The University of Texas at Tyler. 

Of late, much attention has focused on the question of democracy and its decline in Venezuela, and the particular nature of that process, and the trauma – political, economic, but above all, human – around it is understandable, as it has become a pariah state in the hemisphere. However, the problems facing democracy, representation, and political impunity are not limited to Venezuela. Since the removal of Dilma Rousseff in 2016, Brazil’s political landscape has become only more tumultuous and nakedly corrupt. The result is that while the world focuses on the admittedly-extreme events in Venezuela, democratic representation in Brazil has faced its own frightening, if more asinine, threats to democracy politically, institutionally, and socially, reminding us that the erosion of democracy does not always come through overt violence, declining electoral options, strongman politicians, or institutional seizures of power.

To cover everything that has occurred in detail since the impeachment of Rousseff last May and her removal in August would require a book-length post, but some quick blows can be found in conversations Rob and I had here and here. The short (or as short as I can make it) version: Rousseff was removed on allegations of “corruption” that hinged on fiscal maneuvers during the 2014 election that were not illegal at the time (and were in fact deployed by over a dozen governors as well), being banned only after the election. The removal was pretty nakedly an attempt to deflect away from numerous, far more serious and substantiated allegations of corruption against numerous politicians in the Brazilian Congress, members whose names had come up repeatedly in the Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigation that began in 2014. While these politicians were able to remove Rousseff, they have thus far been unable to stop the investigation (though they have tried). As a result, you’ve had instances like that of Aécio Neves, who ran against Rousseff in 2014 and who many conservatives championed as the ethical candidate against the “corrupt” Dilma, was facing arrest for asking for kickbacks (and whom Congress decided he could retain his seat despite far more evidence of Neves’ corruption than anything ever offered for Dilma – though Neves is again facing possible imprisonment). Temer himself is banned from running for election for another 6 years due to the misallocation of campaign funds in 2014; when he was caught on audio in a conversation that suggested he may have been aware of efforts to pay of Eduardo Cunha, his already-poor reputation took a greater hit, and he currently enjoys just 5% approval – an all-time low in Brazil’s modern political era. Meanwhile, Cunha himself, who led the charge for impeachment against Dilma, is currently in jail for having received millions of dollars in bribes. A full 1/3 of Temer’s cabinet has been tied to corruption and is under investigation. And just this past Wednesday, when Congress voted on whether Temer should remain exempt from indictment (in the first of at least three such cases), they voted 263 in favor of Temer’s impunity, compared to 227 against (2 abstained and 19 were absent). Temer’s removal in this vote was unlikely, given that 2/3 had to vote to strip him of immunity, but the fact that a full 42% (111) of those 263 who supported Temer are themselves facing charges or indictment on various crimes reflects just how rotten the system in Brazil is.

If this seems like no politician actually faces the consequences for what at this point has become naked and systemic corruption, well that is not quite the case – but if anything, the implications are even more depressing.

Which leads us to Luís Inácio Lula da Silva, the President from 2003-2011. Lula is a cause celebre among many; as a metal worker and union leader who became president, he symbolically broke with the long line of oligarchical or highly-educated elites who had governed. While a disappointment to some on the left with his ongoing market-friendly policies, Lula also marked a major shift, dramatically expanding social programs to improve the well-being of the working classes and poor, helping lift wages for the majority working classes and earning the enmity and antagonism of much of the middle and upper classes. Indeed, in many regards, the impeachments of Rousseff – Lula’s self-appointed heir – was an attempt to roll back the PT’s social programs. With Rousseff’s removal last year, Temer and his conservative allies, especially in the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) that had lost the previous 4 presidential elections to Lula and Rousseff, began to ram through austerity measures that were extremely unpopular. In short, after four elections in which the Brazilian majority openly rejected neoliberal austerity by voting for Workers Party (PT) candidates who offered at least some (albeit decreasing) social welfare and leveling, Congress removed one president under the flimsiest of pretenses in order to impose upon Brazil a program that the masses had repeatedly electorally rejected.

However, Lula’s name had also come up in the investigations for corruption, and unlike Neves or Temer, he was not treated with velvet gloves. At their essence, the charges revolved around alleged bribery through an apartment he allegedly owned. Ultimately, Judge Sergio Moro – who has emerged as a key figure in prosecuting Lava Jato and who effectively operated as prosecution and judge in the Lula case (but not others like Neves) – sentenced Lula to nine and a half years in prison. However, “alleged” is primary here – Moro was never able to provide evidence Lula actually had ever owned or lived in the apartment. Indeed, Moro’s evidence was so flimsy that, upon ordering his arrest and freezing his assets, Moro included a $200,000 bank account, and even his pickup truck, but not the apartment – because he had no evidence it belonged to Lula. This is not to say that there is not still some extremely shadowy relationship here – anything is possible. But courts don’t typically make rulings on “possible, but lacking evidence.” Additionally, Lula – a folk hero among many of the working classes and long-loathed by the middle and upper classes and conservative political parties – faced a remarkably fast trial in the context of Lava Jato hearings with much less evidence, even while the court had much more evidence against Neves, Temer, and many others in Congress, yet did nothing. Perhaps uncoincidentally, all polls showed Lula as the most popular presidential candidate (though only with a plurality) for upcoming elections in 2018, when he would be able to run again.

If this all seems like a giant mess, well….it is. But there are a few things to take away from all of this, and none of them reassuring for democracy – electoral, popular, or social – in Brazil in the short term.

With an impending election next year, there is a general sense among the public that there’s no point – politicians have begun to operate independently of public will, often acting in direct conflict with what they promised once they are elected. The result is fringe characters like Jair Bolsonaro – a right-wing ideologue who supports the military dictatorship, has been openly racist, misogynistic, and homophobic – are increasingly picking up steam – much as they have elsewhere in the world, to mixed results (Bolsonaro is often placing in 2nd or 3rd in current opinion polls for next year’s elections).

Additionally, in the wake of Lula’s conviction (though his imprisonment is stalled while he appeals – not a fast process itself), many have rallied around him as the “only” savior of the left. This is, simply put, terrible for Brazilian politics. While the PT had once been solidly left, it’s market-friendly policies in the 2000s did alienate many, and Rousseff’s gradual turn to austerity, while nowhere near as shocking as Temer’s was still a move away. Yet the fetishistic focus on Lula as the one person who could save Brazil in 2018 – “after all, he helped the economy in the 2000s, he can do it again, even while improving social conditions!”, the reasoning goes – stunts viable alternatives beyond the personalist politics of Brazil general, and of the PT specifically. Partly a result of the long-term legacies of military dictatorships, partly a result of longer-term political culture in 20th century Brazil, few political parties have been able to really drum up a widespread grassroots structure. Yes, there are many who participate in the parties, but just as many are mobilizing through groups like the Movimento Passe Livre (Free Pass Movement) that protested bus fare hikes and that led to the widespread mobilizations of 2013. Put another way – there is a very real problem in connecting these mass movements and grassroots organizations with political parties like the PT (or PSDB, whose progenitor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, governed from 1995-2003 and who still serves as the intellectual grandfather of the party today) are bound to individuals. This is not to say that there are not parties seeking leftist paths and a transformation in participatory politics in Brazil – but they are relatively young, and overshadowed by larger parties like the PT and marginalized in the coalition-building challenges inherent in Brazil’s Congressional system and ornate electoral laws. The result of Lula’s arrest has been to galvanize people around him, when the exact opposite is needed – a stronger, more institutionally entrenched set of activists, policies, and leaders (in the plural) who can continue to work to address inequalities in Brazil without the baggage of a figure like Lula. A quick look north at Venezuela under Chávez and what has happened since – or, for those more historically inclined, Brazil with Vargas, or Argentina with Perón, or even the transformations in Peru’s APRA over time under Raul de la Haya Torre –  provides an all-too-fierce reminder of what happens when politics are bound to a single leader rather than an institutional and multivalent system that works towards such changes.

Of course, that Temer remains in power is not good for Brazil’s political democracy, as he continues operating without a mandate and with apparent impunity, even as many in his Cabinet and Congress likewise continue to enjoy similar impunity as their names are repeatedly tied to corruption, yet there are no major prosecutions or removals from office forthcoming. Again, after the genuinely neoliberal (sorry) policies of Fernando Henrique Cardoso in the 1990s and early 2000s, the PT did mark a real shift in social policy, even if it maintained market-friendly policies on the global level. The fact that the majority voted for the PT four times – 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2014 – over the PSDB candidates tied to Cardoso and to the austerity programs of the 1990s, speaks volumes on what the public prefers. That austerity is now being rammed through Brazil – be it in the form of a 20-year freeze on medical and education spending, be it through dramatically stripping labor’s power, be it through a controversial pension reform even while Congress approves increasing salaries for government employees even in the face of a massive deficit – the PMDB, PSDB, Democrats [another party on the far-right], and others have effectively told the Brazilian electorate, “if we don’t like how you vote, we will simply remove your president, replace her/him with one sympathetic to our side [and, in Temer’s case, with all of the corruption, he is heavily dependent on Congress in order to remain in power and not be removed], and impose the measures you have already electorally rejected repeatedly.” In this light, it is not hard to understand why there is often a sense of defeat and a lack of major street demonstrations – there were demonstrations in 2013 against the state’s lack of investment in areas like education and health, and Congress’s response was to remove one president and place another in power who only exacerbates those exact problems.

Finally, and more structurally, this reflects poorly on social democracy more generally in Brazil. There has long been a dual-system in Brazil’s legal institutions, in which the poor and marginalized are subjected to an entirely different punitive and legal code than the rich. There’s no other way to explain why a poor woman caught stealing an Easter egg to give to her children received a harsher sentence than any politician for corruption has. Meanwhile, Rafael Braga – who was the only person arrested in the 2013 protests (not-incidentally, he was from Brazil’s socioeconomically and racially marginalized sectors) for carrying cleaning products – remains in jail, having been arrested again for the crime of carrying money to buy groceries. Yet that did not stop police from arresting him with impunity, charging him with trafficking, and imprisoning him up to the present as his request for habeas corpus continues to get delayed – even while a president with multiple direct ties to corruption continues to govern. One cannot find a much more stark contrast of the political impunity of the elite, and of the inequality of the law in Brazil, than that.

In short, institutionally, this is a real moment of uncertainty for Brazil. The reality of endemic corruption across parties has become undeniably evident in the Lava Jato investigations; yet it is clear that very few are paying for their criminal and in many regards, undemocratic, actions, operating in a culture of impunity that has existed for decades. The judiciary has played an important role in operating from a stronger position in the past, showing just how rotten the Legislative Branch in particular has become, but it has had its own problems in consistently applying its judicial ethics across the parties (it is especially worth pointing in passing here to Gilmar Mendes, a Supreme Court judge who has openly socialized with Neves, Temer, and others on the right, even while deploying a double standard on cases against the PT vs. cases against the PSDB and PMDB in his Supreme Court rulings). The uneven application of investigations and punishment in the judiciary has further worsened matters, as the case of Lula’s conviction illustrates, even while many progressives’ ongoing emphasis on Lula as the only one who can turn Brazil around plays exactly into the kind of personalist politics that stunt genuine institutional transformations and democratic participation. Brazil is not facing the types of violence, economic and material want, social unrest, and erosion of open electoral and institutional democratic practices that Venezuela is. But as numerous events in the past days, weeks, and months have made clear, institutional and popular democracy in Brazil face some very real challenges themselves, in the short- and long-term.

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