Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Brazilian Coup

Suspended Brazilian President
Dilma Rousseff (Photo ©
One topic I've meaning to write about for a while is the current political crisis in Brazil. As has been widely reported (with the best English language coverage I've seen appearing on Glenn Greenwald's The Intercept and TeleSur's English language site), on April 17, 2016, Brazil's Lower of House of Congress, led by now former-President of the Chamber of Deputies Eduardo Cunha, of the center-right Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro, or PMDB), voted to forward to the Brazilian Senate impeachment proceedings against the democratically elected president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, a member of the leftist Workers' Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT). A few weeks later, on May 12, Brazil's upper house, led by Senate President Renan Calheiros (PMDB, from the northeastern state of Alagoas), voted 55-22 to have Dilma stand trial on the charge of budget manipulation, or "pedaladas," in which she allegedly used public bank funds to cover a lack of funding for government programs, with the goal of hiding deficits in order to ensure her reelection. As of that date, she was formally suspended as President, and the lawyer Michel Temer, her vice president and a member of the PMDB, like Cunha, assumed office as Acting President.

Just two years ago in the 2014 general election, Dilma won a second presidential term, defeating her centrist opponent Aécio Neves of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira, or PDSB). With her reelection victory, Dilma extended the Workers' Party's control of the presidency to four consecutive terms, the first two coming under her once highly popular predecessor and former labor organizer Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva.  Under Lula and then Dilma, during her first term, the federal government created a series of programs, including the Bolsa Familia, that lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty, and the overall economic successes of this era, based on rising commodity prices and a roaring manufacturing sector, helped to dramatically expand the country's middle and working classes.

Under Lula and Dilma, Brazil's per-person GDP ascended from around $3000 in 2001 to high of $13,000 in 2010, and the country weathered the global recession far better than nearly all its South American peers and most of Europe. It's also important to note that as Brazil rose economically, its demographics were shifting so that by 2014, a majority (51%) of its citizens were self-identifying as brown/mixed or black, a striking fact in a country that at one point had undertaken an official state policy of whitening, beginning under its former emperor Pedro II (1825-1891, his reign lasting rom 1831 to 1889 ), by actively inviting European immigrants to settle on its shores and where state-sanctioned slavery lasted until 1888 and violence against Afrobrazilian, mixed-raced and Indigenous populations has continued for decades since. Many of these brown and black Brazilians saw their fortunes rise under Lula's and Dilma's stewardship of the country's economy, and provided crucial support for both during their presidential runs.

Not long after Dilma's second victory, the bottom fell out of commodity prices, the economy slipped into a recession, inflation began rising, and jobs started to dry up. Dilma had also continued her predecessor Lula's progressive and successful social programs and increased public spending overall, leading to a growing deficit and national debt. Additionally, in preparation for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Brazil spent hundreds of millions of dollars on new stadiums and facilities, provoking a series of pre-tournament protests from a cross-section of the populace who preferred that the funds go towards more pressing needs, like support for public transportation and education. To make matters worse, during the event Brazilians endured global humiliation when eventual victor Germany's powerhouse squad defeated the acclaimed home team by a 7-1 score. The public dissent leading up to the World Cup could not bode well for Dilma's public standing, and it did not help that in two years, the 2016 Summer Olympics would be held in Brazil's second city and former capital, the densely packed, favela-ringed Rio de Janeiro, which meant that the country would have to spend many hundreds of millions more on athletic facilities, housing and related infrastructure, while also undertaking major environmental and security upgrades.  

One of the main Olympic venues, Guanabara Bay and the ocean area outside it, around which the city of Rio unfolds and in which rowing and some swimming events were to occur, tested so dangerously polluted that athletes competing in it for pre-Olympic events have repeatedly fallen ill with a range of diseases, including serious staff infections. (I have suggested elsewhere that that the sailing and other water events be moved to the far south of the country, to Florianópolis, where the water quality is much better, and that other events be distributed to several other central and southern Brazilian capital cities, like São Paulo, Curitiba and Porto Alegre, that already have first-class athletic facilities). Both Brazil and the International Olympic Committee, however, are dead set on not changing their minds or the sites, and many of the promised infrastructure improvements, which the government claimed would benefit not just the Olympic visitors but denizens of Rio, have yet to materialize. In addition, part of at least one favela has been razed and its residents displaced, and the military's "pacification" of others has led to increased violence against some of the city's most vulnerable people, most of them black and mixed-race.

Brazil's Congress Building
(Photo by RNLatvian)
Alongside the toxic mix of an economic slowdown and the costly international athletic events, last year Brazil found itself grappling with a new public health crisis when pregnant women, primarily in the country's northeast but eventually in other regions of the country, began giving birth to babies suffering from microcephaly. Research determined that this and related illnesses, including cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome, were the result of infections with the Zika virus, caused by Aedes mosquitoes. While Zika appears native to parts of Africa, it had not previously struck in Brazil, though there had been outbreaks in the South Pacific, and one conjecture is that it might have arrived with a 2014 World Cup attendee. After initial government paralysis, Brazilian authorities have worked, in conjunction with officials and organizations across the globe, to address the mosquito threat, but a great deal remains unknown about the virus, which also appears to transmissible between humans through semen and bodily fluids, and which does not appear to result in birth defects in all pregnant women. Chaos at the upper reaches of Brazil's government, however, makes ongoing coordination of Zika prevention a challenge.

Lastly, the problem of endemic corruption among political, economic and social elites, which has plagued Brazil for centuries, finally sparked widespread public backlash after revelations about the Petrobrás scandal began to emerge two years. During Lula's consecutive terms, from 2002 to 2010, several high-level Workers' Party members were convicted of corruption, but Lula avoided indictment. Since taking office, Dilma has not been charged with corruption, but as Lula's Minister of Energy she led Petrobrás, the state-owned oil company at the center of a vast corruption scandal, from 2003 through 2010. The Petrobrás scandal, in a nutshell, involved construction companies creating cartels to offer inflated bids on Petrobrás contracts, with Petrobrás employees approving the bids, which then led the construction companies to pocket the difference. This surplus included kickbacks to the Petrobrás employees, and to government officials, some of whom helped to place pliable employees in the ranks of Petrobrás, creating a perfect corruption feedback loop. 

The scandal came to light when Brazil's federal police began an investigation in 2014, under chief prosecutor Sérgio Moro, called Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash), initially investigating money laundering, until one of the chief suspects, Alberto Youssef, spilled the beans on how extensive the alleged scheme truly was. The subsequent scandal has stretched far beyond Brazil's borders, and may have involved the illegal transfer of more than $5.3 billion state funds. Over 90 people have been convicted, and many more are currently under investigation, including several dozen sitting lawmakers, as well as ex-president Lula himself. His personal charity allegedly pocketed $7.8 million in donations from construction company executives linked to Petrobrás, leading to a recent police raid and arrest at his home. Shortly thereafter, and before her ouster, he was abruptly appointed Dilma's chief of staff, temporarily shielding him from the law's arm. A wiretap of their conversation arranging for his post spurred considerable public anger.

Palácio do Planalto, the official work residence
of the Brazilian President, Brasília
It should astonish no one that this confluence of grave economic, social and political crises spurred public outrage, but nothing suggested that Dilma, who I should note again has not been accused of any direct personal criminality, would suffer impeachment. Continuing street protests, calls for her resignation, defection of coalition partners, and increased criticism from the opposition parties seemed the likely outcome, and with her popularity falling to a low of 9% and her base voters stating in opinion polls that they disliked her tenure, she might well have chosen to step down. Federal deputy Eduardo Cunha, however, took matters into his own hands, however, and launched impeachment proceedings based on Dilma's alleged role at Petrobrás during the corruption scandal, combining this charge with her acknowledged use of federal funds to cover the deficit, even though her predecessors had taken this very same budgeting step without penalty. Lacking enough allies in the lower house, Dilma suffered a massive defeat, with Deputies voting 367 to 137 to send impeachment proceedings to the Senate, one third of whose members are under investigation for an array of crimes, some quite serious and linked to Lava Jato; one of them is Brazil's disgraced, impeached former president Fernando Collor de Melo (of the right-wing Brazilian Labor Party). With its vote to initiate its official trial of Dilma, her post now goes to Michel Temer.

In noting all of this I want to underline that as we witnessed in the late 1990s, impeachment can occur on the flimsiest grounds even in the US, and that governmental stalemate can occur here as well, as Barack Obama's battles with the US Congress over the last six years in office have underlined. Yet Brazil's democratic system has greater instability baked into its DNA, because a broader array of parties can hold power by forming tenuous coalitions, much like a parliamentary system and unlike in the US, where two fairly stable parties jostle for power, but without the presence of a prime minister to marshal forces on the president's behalf (i.e. France) and without a parliamentary presidential system's ability (cf. France again) to dissolve a failing government. To a far greater extent than in the US, one major conglomerate, O Globo, controls most of the public media, giving the right-leaning company outsized influence, and the presence of state-owned companies like Petrobrás, which lack strong independent oversight, open up vast possibilities for financial pillage.

Supreme Federal Court of Brazil, Brasília
President Dilma Rousseff, Lula's hand-picked successor, was a trained economist and a survivor of Brazil's two decade-long military dictatorship, during which she suffered detention and torture. Though an anti-dictatorship activist in her youth, she has not been a lifetime politician or handler, and although she was able to continue Lula's coalition with the PMDB, she did not cultivate the kinds of necessary relationships, through gladhanding, favors and monetarily greasing the wheel, that might have retained PMDB support and forestalled her impeachment. In any case, by removing Dilma, Eduardo Cunha, Senate President Renan Calheiros, and former Vice President and now acting President Temer, all from Dilma's former coalition partner the center-right PMDB, have effectively canceled the outcome of the most recent Brazilian presidential election, i.e., the majority votes of 54 million Dilma supporters. Immediately before taking office Temer announced one of his first moves would be "pension reform," a neoliberal hobbyhorse and fixation of the global right, and since assuming office, he has appointed an all male, all self-identified white cabinet that includes figures linked to Wall Street firms such as Goldman Sachs, and begun pushing for right-wing goals like privatization of public assets, while also eliminating ministries through consolidation, and championing greater government austerity through a lower fiscal target and reduced public expenditures.

The response has been still more protests, with one particularly notable challenge to Temer's radical shift emerging from Brazil's artistic community in response to the elimination, through consolidation and merger, of the Ministry of Culture. As a result, Temer has announced that it will be restored. The growing sense within Brazil and across the globe that Dilma's impeachment was a coup gained strength after three sensation recent wiretaps were made public via the influential Folha de São Paulo newspaper. 

First, in April 2016, just before the lower house was set to vote on whether to refer impeachment proceedings to the Senate, a wiretap captured Temer discussing Dilma's impeachment as if it were already a fait accompli, and he was the new president. Wikileaks documents had previously shown him to be a US informant since 2006, particularly against former President Lula. Then, an even more explosive wiretap from May 23, 2016 captured Interim Planning Minister and Senator Romero Jucá (PMDB, from the distant Amazonian state of Roraima) conferring with ex-senator Sérgio Machado, also a former CEO of Petrobrás subsidiary Transpetro, about the former's talks with the Brazilian Supreme Court, which will be responsible for trying Dilma and which has launched investigations of many legislators, and with key figures in the Brazilian military, which ran the country from 1964 through 1984, to guarantee that Dilma would be removed from office. In addition, the tapped conversation appeared to suggest Jucá was working to quash the Supreme Court's investigations of legislators. O Globo, the main newspaper organ of the Globo conglomerate, editorialized against Jucá, leading him to resign from his cabinet post, though he still holds his Senate seat.

Today, yet another wiretap, released to the media, appears to show Senate president Renan Calheiros also telling Sérgio Machado that they needed to change the the laws dictating investigations into corruption, primarily the plea bargain rules, because a number of politicians were "afraid" of the ongoing corruption dragnet. As with Jucá, Calheiros also appears to have been in conversation with Brazil's Supreme Court about forcing Dilma from office. 

The least generous appraisal of these wiretaps would lead one to conclude that Dilma's impeachment is the result of a concerted effort not only to oust her in undemocratic fashion while ostensibly using constitutional tools, but also to shut down the metastasizing corruption investigations. In so doing, the center-right and centrist parties, which cannot win the presidency, would thwart the will of a majority of Brazil's voters, and maintain the elite networks of corruption--into which certain fortunate new political actors can enter--while imposing failed conservative and neoliberal policies that will only enrich the uppermost stratum of Brazilian society while once again impoverishing those at the middle and bottom.

By involving the Supreme Court, politicians like Jucá and Calheiros are tainting the investigation process and showing that there is no real separation of powers, and by bringing military officials into the discussion, they appear to be setting the stage for an even more horrifying eventuality, which is to say, the transition from what is essentially now a "soft coup" to a hard one, with the military in control. In any case, the goal appears to be less about rooting out corruption and more about returning unpopular elites to untrammeled power, including the power to rob the country blind, while reversing the economic and social gains of the Lula (and Dilma) years.

Among the impeachment leaders, Eduardo Cunha is now suspended from the House of Deputies for alleged intimidation and attempted obstruction of investigations of his receipt of bribes totaling $40 million, which he is said to have squirreled away in a Swiss bank account. Acting President Temer also faces potential impeachment proceedings because he approved the same sorts of budgetary sleights of hand as Dilma; he had already been ordered to pay a fine for campaign finance violations and barred from running for office for eight years, yet was allowed to assume the interim presidency just the same.  Also under investigation are Calheiros and Machado, as part of Lava Jato. Indeed, in Calheiros' case, there are other investigations still brewing; he had previously been  involved in a 2007 scandal in which he was investigated for having received funds from a lobbyist to pay for child support for a child from an extramarital affair. A secret Senate ethics panel vote decided not to impeach him on the charges, but he currently still faces three other charges related to the scandal nine years ago. 

With Dilma out, and Temer barred from running for office and potentially under impeachment, this would tip the presidency to Interim President of the Chamber of Deputies Waldir Maranhão (Progressive Party, from the northeastern state of Maranhão), who has said he will not assume the post, thus handing it to Calheiros, who is...under investigation. And on it would go. To call this situation a hot mess hardly does it justice. To say that it deeply harms Brazil's democratic present and future is an understatement. In fact some Brazilian politicians, among them federal deputy, evangelical Christian, and extreme racist and homophobe Jair Bolsonaro (Christian Social Party, from Rio de Janeiro), have praised Brazil's military dictatorship and expressed nostalgia for its return. Bolsonaro event went so far as to publicly praise the very general who had inflicted torture on Dilma during her prison detention! If not the military, then a rightist Trump-like candidate could step into the breach. Multiple scenarios bode ill for Brazil, the world's fifth largest economy, which nevertheless must get through the rapid conservative changes under Temer, the Olympics, and the impeachment trial before anything else.
Palácio da Alvorada, the official
resident of Brazil's President,
in Brasília
One other disturbing note: the current US ambassador (ambassadrix) to Brazil, Liliana Ayalde, was Ambassador to Paraguay in 2012 during the period when that country's parliament shockingly and abruptly impeached and ousted its leftist president, Fernando Lugo. His two-day removal from office placed his Vice President, from an opposing party, and a year later a subsequent general election presidential vote installed Horacio Cortes, a conservative multimillionaire businessman from the party that had governed Paraguay for 50 years before Lugo's election. A US cable allegedly discussed a desire by some opposition figures to remove Lugo from office via impeachment, and when he was drummed from office, the US issued a bland statement that gave tacit approval to the process and outcome. Ayalde's presence during both impeachments seems to underline which side the US, yet again and quite unfortunately, is on.

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