Brazil’s soft coup hardens
The word ‘coup’ suggests a sudden and violent action, literally a ‘blow’.
Citizens may wake up to a coup d’état to find tanks on the streets and radio stations off-air or playing patriotic music.
And if the takeover is anything like that which occurred in Brazil in 1964, or Chile in 1973, or Argentina in 1976, it will be followed by students, activists, trade unionists being rounded up, tortured, disappeared.
The coup that took place in Brazil last year was not like that. Not a shot was fired when President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party (PT) was ousted from office and her former coalition partner, Michel Temer of the centre-right Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), took her place.
After months of political plotting, street protests and a media campaign that accused Rousseff of corruption, she was first suspended and then, in August 2016, impeached by members of the Brazilian Congress.
The political agenda that Temer kicked into action bore little resemblance to the socialism of the past 13 years under Workers’ Party rule. The interim president’s new cabinet imposed a 20-year freeze on public spending and promised to gut labour law and radically reform the pension and taxation systems. Their ‘new era’ for Brazil was austerity, neoliberalism and privatization – with rocket-boosters.
Rousseff was impeached not for corruption but for unauthorized movement of funds to cover holes in the budget. The fact that previous administrations had done the same without being punished was neither here nor there.
Too many parliamentarians were baying for her blood and the pro-impeachment lobby got the votes it needed. The public mood, stoked by a hostile corporate media led by the O Globo group, had turned against a president who had once enjoyed a 79-per-cent approval rating.
The impeachment proceedings were peppered with pious and emotive speeches about the evils of corruption. The most impassioned and persuasive came from Eduardo Cunha, the Congress’s speaker and a close Temer ally. Cunha is now in prison serving 15 years for receiving more than $40 million in kickbacks. An evangelical Christian, he had stashed the cash in a shell company called Jesus.com. Another Temer ally, Senator Romero Jucá, was recorded plotting to remove Rousseff because she refused to halt the Operation Car Wash corruption investigations .
It should be noted that Rousseff – a former Marxist guerrilla, imprisoned and tortured during the 1970s by the military dictatorship – was one of a dwindling number of politicians not personally associated with corruption.* Currently, almost half of all deputies and senators – including Temer – are being investigated by the Supreme Federal Court.
The Brazil coup goes on
Impeaching Rousseff was just part one; the next stage of this incomplete, slow-motion, soft coup is to make sure that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (or Lula), Brazil’s popular former president and Rousseff’s mentor, is not returned to power in the 2018 presidential elections.
According to polls, he is still way ahead. But will he be able to run? In July, Lula was convicted by Car Wash judge and prosecutor Sérgio Moro for accepting a bribe in the form of an apartment from Brazilian contractor OAS. He was sentenced to nine-and-a-half years in prison. Lula denies wrongdoing and says the case against him is fabricated. There was no evidence that Lula or his wife accepted the apartment or ever stayed in it. Almost all the evidence comes from a convicted criminal and former OAS employee who managed to get his 16-year sentence reduced by 80 per cent for testifying against Lula.
While on appeal Lula remains free, but he faces five other charges. Many believe that the Car Wash investigators are biased against Lula and the Workers’ Party. But the party itself can hardly claim innocence. It has a history of bribery and secret illegal payments to party coffers. One of the early scalps in the Car Wash investigations into money laundering was party treasurer, João Vaccari Neto. Other political parties, sheltered from the media glare, are just as compromised. Temer’s PMDB features prominently on the list of suspects, as do members of the rightist Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB).
Earlier this year a recording emerged of President Temer talking to serial briber and co-owner of the giant JBS meat-packing enterprise, Joesley Batista. They were discussing the need to keep funds flowing towards imprisoned congressman Cunha to keep him quiet. Temer denies the allegations and claims the recording was ‘doctored’. A few weeks later film evidence appeared, showing a Temer aide collecting a suitcase stuffed with $150,000 from a pizzeria. And recently, $16 million in cash was found in a flat allegedly used by a former minister and Temer ally.
According to Batista, corruption flourished under the Workers’ Party but Temer and his cronies were the greediest.1
Falling out of love
Corruption is at the rotten core of Brazil’s current political and social crisis, but it’s not the only reason the coup was possible.
Let’s roll back to 2013. Eleven years of Workers’ Party rule had delivered many benefits. More than 30 million Brazilians had been lifted out of poverty. The Bolsa Família welfare programme had ended hunger, increased school enrolment and was reaching 14 million households. Many new universities were built and, thanks to affirmative action, enrolment rose by 18 per cent in Rousseff’s first term. The Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life) programme had built three million homes. What’s more, Brazil had won the bidding for both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. You might think Brazilians would have been proud and happy.
But in April 2013, a rash of street protests began, which over the next three months involved hundreds of thousands and spread to 100 cities. It started with students complaining about an increase in public-transport fares. Soon it fanned out into other issues: the cost of living, the poor state of public healthcare, corruption, police brutality, the cost of preparing for the World Cup and the Olympics.
Heliosa Melino, who protested in Rio, recalls: ‘Up until then, the streets were the place where people on the Left protested. Suddenly there were people from the Right and the Far Right on the streets. It was very confusing.’
The traditional middle class was disgruntled. They had benefited from Brazil’s growing economy but didn’t feel better-off because the gap between them and the poor had shrunk. The introduction of labour rights for nannies and domestics had made them more expensive to employ. And the economy was shrinking fast, thanks partly to plunging commodity prices – most dramatically, oil.
The growing discontent was harming Rousseff’s chances for the 2014 presidential campaign. She was re-elected, but by a whisker, polling 51 per cent against her rival Aécio Neves of the PSDB.
While electioneering, Rousseff promised supporters more socially progressive policies. ‘She said she would tackle the banks,’ recalls João Machado, who teaches economics at São Paulo’s Catholic University (PUC). ‘But after the elections she launched a very conservative programme, adopting some rightwing social- security measures from the opposition. Lots of people who voted for her felt they had been betrayed.’
Leonardo Sakamoto, journalist, academic and activist with Repórter Brasil, comments: ‘She was impeached because of mistakes she made in her first term, because she lied in her second and she lost control of the economy.’ But he adds: ‘Dilma suffered a perfect storm of the economic slow-down, declining commodity prices, and rising unemployment. People could no longer buy their citizenship through the consumption of goods. If we had had an economy growing at seven or eight per cent like before, I don’t think [she] would have been impeached.’
During 2015, the clamour for impeachment, in Congress, on the streets, in the media, grew.
One young journalist employed by a large mainstream media outlet told me: ‘I think the press has to take a lot responsibility for biased reporting, for taking one side – against Dilma.’
But another factor was that the Workers’ Party had become institutionalized in power, losing touch with its grassroots supporters, who were not there when it needed them – a story familiar to labour parties in other countries.
‘We are living in a crisis without precedent,’ says Bernardo Kucinski, novelist, veteran journalist and a founding member of the Workers’ Party. ‘It’s a mess, a political crisis that is affecting all areas, all branches of the state – legislative, executive, judiciary. The parties are in disarray. No-one has a mandate to do anything. And on top of that, the economy is in a very bad shape.’
Unemployment has hit a record 14 million, debt is rising and the country is barely emerging from protracted recession. Between 2012 and 2016, GDP per capita fell from $12,364 to $8,731.
The neoliberal answer to such problems is to cut public spending and squeeze the poor; privatize public assets and enable the rich to get richer. This is the time of the oligarchs – Brazil’s big landowners, agribusiness entrepreneurs, cattle ranchers, mining company owners and construction tycoons who seek unhindered access to the country’s natural resources. Already, Temer has delivered on several of their key demands by sacrificing the rights of indigenous people, peasant and family farmers, and the environment. And in July controversial labour reforms were passed: worker protections removed, business costs reduced and more labour market ‘flexibility’ introduced. The unions had protested and called strikes, but to no avail.
The government is hoping to pass unpopular pension reforms – which will hit low-paid, seasonal and female workers the hardest – by the end of October.
Investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald highlights the link between the coup and the austerity agenda: ‘In a remarkable admission that Brazil’s corporate media ignored, Temer went to New York in September  and, speaking to a group of hedge-fund tycoons and foreign-policy elites, explicitly admitted that the real reason Dilma was impeached was her resistance to greater austerity.’
Greenwald has also observed that whenever Temer’s political survival looks doubtful, the Brazilian currency and stock market is punished; when he looks safe again, they rally.
So is the coup all about making Brazil oven-ready for foreign investors? A recent announcement that the state power company Electrobras is to be sold off and the buyer could be a foreign transnational suggests as much. Temer’s government is engaged in a veritable fire-sale of public goods, with 57 public companies, including airports, port terminals, highways, even the national currency-issuing mint, slated for privatization.
And in August, a presidential decree (later challenged by the Supreme Court) opened up a protected Amazonian reserve the size of Switzerland to mining, which environmentalists say will set back rainforest protection by 50 years.
‘People speak of the indirect involvement of the US and of big international capital in the coup. I think it is possible and probable,’ says Machado. ‘But fundamentally the coup was the action of the Brazilian bourgeoisie, which is anyway internationalized.’
Nonetheless, the US was quick to recognize the Temer government. As it was to recognize other coup governments in the region – in Honduras in 2009 and Paraguay in 2012. Wikileaks’ revelations show Hillary Clinton playing an important role in preventing the ousted leftist Honduran leader Manuel Zelaya returning to office.
We now know the extent to which the US was involved in the military coups of the last century in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay and how this was all part of the Cold War. Today the US’s main rival is China, whose influence spread throughout Latin America during the ‘pink tide’ period of left-leaning governments. China is now Brazil’s biggest trading partner – galling and concerning for a US that still views Latin America as its ‘backyard’.
With neighbouring Venezuela descending deeper into chaos, some are asking: ‘Could Brazil be the next Venezuela?’ Perhaps a more pertinent question, politically, is: ‘Will Venezuela, post-Nicolas Maduro, become another Brazil?’ Maduro, whatever his failings, was democratically elected. Temer, who enjoys a public approval rate of just five per cent, was not.
The Trump factor
Brazil has shifted to the Right – and it could go further. Citizen anger, disillusion and disgust with the entire political class creates an ideal climate for a rightwing populist leader, an anti-establishment ‘saviour’.
There are two obvious candidates: João Doria, São Paulo’s authoritarian mayor, casts himself as a political ‘outsider’. A millionaire owner of several companies, he also happens to be a former presenter on the Brazilian version of The Apprentice. His politics are free-market liberalism and social conservatism: he opposes abortion, is against decriminalization of drugs and is tough on homeless people.
More alarming is the Rio congress member Jair Bolsonaro. A former army captain, he openly praises the military dictatorship of 1964-85 and promises to appoint generals to his cabinet if elected president. He is attractive to rightwing, law-and-order conservatives: Brazil has one of the world’s highest murder rates, a rising crime toll, and some of the planet’s most violent police. Openly racist, misogynist and homophobic, Bolsonaro also appeals to anti-feminist young men who think it’s cool and counter-cultural to be against human rights. Some Brazilians told me he was too loathsome to become president – then they thought of Donald Trump.
Violence against vulnerable groups (see: ‘Agribusiness seizes power in Brazil’) has increased since the coup and the past few weeks have seen intense militarization of public space, with thousands of soldiers drafted into and around Rio favelas, supposedly to fight a ‘war on crime and drugs’. Troops on the street crank up fear and play to the Right’s agenda; the worst outcome would be if next year’s general and presidential elections were postponed. Meanwhile, Christian Evangelical religion has become massively popular, gaining a strong presence in parliament, mobilizing across all sectors of society, and spreading a socially regressive message.
Is another Brazil possible?
But the Left is on the move too. In August, Lula embarked on a ‘Caravan of Hope’, a 2,300-mile tour of the northeast, visiting nine states and 25 cities.** The reception was rapturous – millions in the region have been lifted out of desperate poverty thanks to the Workers’ Party’s social programme. This tour echoes a previous one: Lula’s ‘Caravan of Citizenship’ in 1992 which helped construct the social programmes that defined his government. But a note of contrition and humility has crept in. Fernando Haddad, former mayor of São Paulo, said that the party would need to ‘incorporate the criticism that arises from the people, the workers, and to take note of the errors they point out.’
Whether the Workers’ Party can rekindle the hope and enthusiasm lost during the years of scandal, corruption and detachment remains to be seen. But Lula is giving it his best: ‘I really trust in the future of Brazil,’ he said. ‘A new government, a legitimate one, the fruit of the popular vote, with a progressive vision for the country, can perfectly take Brazil out of the quagmire in which it is today.’
And in a message to the young and disaffected: ‘I do not think we have the right to give up. My mother taught me that. We always have to fight, always try to make tomorrow better... If you think politics is bad, get into politics and try yourself to be the militant or political leader you dream of for Brazil.’
‘I think Sérgio Moro [the Car Wash judge] is on the side of the US and what he is doing will destroy the Brazilian national economy. This is a coup d’état of the market’
Tereza Briggs, playwright and PT activist, Rio
‘Brazil has a corrupt economic and political system. It has to stop. There is now an open battle between the vested economic interests, the Car Wash judges and the ‘old politics’ of Congress. It’s bad for Brazil but good if we have a better country afterwards.’
Leonardo Sakamoto, activist, academic, São Paulo
‘I don’t have any hopes for Brazil any more… The Lula era was an interval in a 400-year history of domination by a local bourgeoisie that does not want progress , does not have a national project. They just have their own short-term
Bernardo Kucinski, prize-winning novelist, São Paulo
‘I’m an activist lawyer who confronts the police when I see them behaving violently towards people. I can do that because I’ve a middle-class face, I could be “somebody’s daughter”. But they can be as violent as they like to anyone who is black or trans or poor.’
Heloisa Melino, feminist academic, Rio
‘I don’t like the way companies manipulate the party in power.
I will vote for PSOL, they are on the Left and not corrupt. Of course I want security in my favela – that’s why I want the police out of it; they are the ones shooting at kids, the youth. Drugs are illegal, but guns are not. It’s crazy – it needs to be
the other way round.
Mariluce Maria, community artist, Complexo do Alemão, Rio
‘It’s unusual to be gay in the favela – and yes, it can be tough. People attack you, say things, and then there is religion… But I had a very supportive teacher at school who opened debates on LGBT. And I belong to a group, Theatre of the Oppressed.
Lucas Francisco, student, Maré, Rio
Lula remains the most able and charismatic leader Brazil has ever known and the Workers’ Party’s best bet, but he may well be campaigning for an alternative presidential candidate – possibly Haddad. Few are calling for Rousseff to return. While Marina Silva, environment minister under Lula, with a good record on Amazonian conservation, was polling high earlier in the year and she and her Rede de Sustentabilidad party should not be discounted.‘I do not think we have the right to give up. My mother taught me that. We always have to fight, always try to make tomorrow better... If you think politics is bad, get into politics and try yourself to be the militant or political leader you dream of for Brazil.’
But perhaps the spark needed to unite and mobilize the Left will come from outside the party political system. Vamos! (Let’s go!) is an initiative recently launched by the People Without Fear social movement.
Under the slogan ‘Another Brazil is Possible’, the aim is to bring together people from all walks of life and across political parties, including the Workers’ Party and the leftwing Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), to build grassroots democracy – rather as Podemos did in Spain. ‘What kind of Brazil do we want?’ is the big question.
Activist Guilherme Boulos explains: ‘We are facing an abyss and the systems are broken. But it’s the Right that has managed to channel popular discontent, not the Left. So we are creating a project for the country, a project of the Left. An open debate on what we can do to contribute to the democratization of the country.’ As a jaunty video on the Vamos! website says: ‘We can’t let disillusion destroy our chances.’
Vamos! kicked off in late August, with a gathering in São Paulo, which is being followed by public debates across the country. Participants will examine key areas to be democratized: the economy; political power; media and communications; the environment and gender, race and sexuality.
‘We want to create a new space for debate; new paths for Brazilian democracy,’ says Boulos, who also leads the dynamic Homeless Workers Movement (MTST).
Social mobilization is the priority now, he says, along with the skill that the Left used to have – ‘trabalho de base’ or ‘work at the grassroots’.
It’s a lesson that many around the world are having to learn. But few as urgently as Brazilians today, as a rebranded dictatorship of corrupt plutocrats stares them in the face.
* On 6 September, for the first time, a criminal charge was levelled against Rousseff, accused with Lula and others of ‘forming a criminal organization’. The allegations are denied.
** A DataPoder 360 survey on 12-14 August 2017 shows Lula still in the lead at around 32%, followed by Bolsonaro at 25% and Doria at 12% for the first round of the presidential elections.
Header image: Pro-Dilma political protest at Estádio Nacional during the 2016 Summer Olympics. Creative Commons, Rodrigogomesonetwo / Wikimedia Commons1 Epoca, ‘Temer é o chefe da quadrilha mais perigosa do Brazil’, 2017/06/19. ↩
This article is from
the October 2017 issue
of New Internationalist.
- Discover unique global perspectives
- Support cutting-edge independent media
- Magazine delivered to your door or inbox
- Digital archive of over 500 issues
- Fund in-depth, high quality journalism