Brazil’s soft coup gets harder

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Brazil’s soft coup gets harder


Pro-Dilma political protest at Estádio Nacional during the 2016 Summer Olympics. Creative Commons, Rodrigogomesonetwo/Wikimedia Commons

Vanessa Baird writes about how Brazil is giving dictatorship a new meaning.

The word ‘coup’ usually means a sudden and violent action, a ‘blow’. Citizens may wake up to a coup and find tanks on the streets and radio stations off-air or playing patriotic music.

After the coups in Brazil in 1964, or Chile in 1973, or Argentina in 1976, there was torture of students, activists, and trade unionists, who then all disappeared. The coup in Brazil last year was different. Michel Temer of the centre-right Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) was President Dilma Rosseff’s coalition partner. No one fired a shot when he took her place. After months of political planning, street protests, and when the media accused Rousseff of corruption, the Brazilian Congress suspended her and then, in August 2016, impeached her.

Temer’s political ideas were different from the socialism of the past 13 years under the Workers’ Party. The president’s new government ended public spending for 20 years, promised to change labour laws for the worse, and to completely change the pension and tax systems. Their new time for Brazil was austerity, neoliberalism, and privatization.

They impeached Rousseff not for corruption but for moving money to help problems with the budget. But other governments did the same and no one punished them. Too many politicians wanted her to go. She had a 79-per-cent approval rating but the public and the media were against her.

Eduardo Cunha, the Congress’s speaker and a close friend of Temer, made the most emotional speech about corruption during the impeachment trial. But Cunha is now in prison for 15 years for receiving more than $40 million in bribes. An evangelical Christian, he put the money in a company called Senator Romero Jucá was another friend of Temer and he planned to remove Rousseff because she refused to stop the Operation Car Wash corruption investigations. We need to remember that Rousseff was a Marxist guerrilla. She was in prison and the military dictatorship tortured her during the 1970s. She was one of a small number of politicians not associated with corruption. At the moment, the Supreme Federal Court are investigating almost half of all deputies and senators, including Temer.

The Brazil coup goes on

Part one of the soft coup was to impeach Rousseff. Part two is to make sure that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (or Lula), Brazil’s popular former president and Rousseff’s adviser, does not come back to power in the 2018 presidential elections.

Lula is still a long way ahead in the polls. But can he be there in the election? In July, Car Wash judge and prosecutor Sérgio Moro convicted Lula for accepting a bribe of an apartment from Brazilian contractor OAS. They gave him nine-and-a-half years in prison. Lula says he did nothing wrong and that the case against him is not true. There was no evidence that Lula or his wife accepted the apartment or ever stayed in it. Almost all the evidence comes from a criminal and OAS employee. For speaking against Lula they reduced his 16 year sentence by 80 per cent.

Lula is appealing and is free now, but there are five other charges. Many believe that the Car Wash investigators are against Lula and the Workers’ Party. But the party has a history of bribes and secret illegal payments to party bank accounts. The party treasurer, João Vaccari Neto, was charged in the Car Wash investigations. Other political parties including Temer’s PMDB and the right Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) are also in trouble.

Earlier this year there was a recording of President Temer talking to Joesley Batista. He is a briber and co-owner of the giant JBS meat-packing company. They were talking about the need to keep money going to congressman Cunha in prison to keep him quiet. Temer says he did nothing wrong and the recording was ‘doctored’. A few weeks later a film showed one of Temer’s helpers collecting a suitcase full of $150,000 from a pizzeria. And someone found $16 million in cash in a flat, which people say a former minister and friend of Temer used.

Batista says there was so much corruption under the Workers’ Party but Temer and his friends were the greediest.

Falling out of love

Corruption is at the centre of Brazil’s political and social problems, but it’s not the only reason the coup was possible.

In 2013 eleven years of the Workers’ Party brought many good things. More than 30 million Brazilians were no longer in poverty. The Bolsa Família welfare programme ended hunger, increased school enrolment, and was reaching 14 million households. There were many new universities and enrolment increased by 18 per cent in Rousseff’s first term. The Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life) programme built three million homes. And Brazil had the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Surely Brazilians were proud and happy.

But in April 2013, street protests began, which over the next three months involved hundreds of thousands in 100 cities. It started with students protesting about an increase in public-transport fares, and then the cost of living, poor public healthcare, corruption, police brutality, the cost of preparing for the World Cup and the Olympics.

Heliosa Melino protested in Rio. Heliosa says: ‘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 unhappy. Brazil’s growing economy helped them but they didn’t feel richer because the gap between them and the poor was smaller. The new labour rights for nannies and domestics made them more expensive to employ. And the economy was going down fast, thanks partly to lower commodity prices – most of all, oil.

The protests and unhappiness were making Rousseff’s chances for the 2014 presidential campaign worse. She was re-elected, but with only 51 per cent against Aécio Neves of the PSDB.

During the election, Rousseff promised more socially progressive policies. João Machado teaches economics at São Paulo’s Catholic University (PUC). He says, ‘She said she would do something about the banks. But after the elections she started a very conservative programme, with rightwing social- security ideas from the opposition. Lots of people who voted for her felt she did not keep her promises.’ Leonardo Sakamoto is a journalist, academic, and activist with Repórter Brasil. He says: ‘They impeached her because of mistakes she made in her first term, because she lied in her second, and she lost control of the economy.’ But he says: ‘Dilma had the problems of the slow economy, the lower commodity prices, and rising unemployment. With an economy growing at seven or eight per cent like before, I think she would still be president.’

During 2015, the call to impeach her, in Congress, on the streets, in the media, grew.

One young journalist told me: ‘I think the press has to take a lot responsibility for taking one side – against Dilma.’

But another reason was the Workers’ Party lost contact with its supporters.

The backers

Unemployment is now a record 14 million, debt is increasing, and the country is only just coming out of a long 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 make things difficult for the poor, privatize, and help the rich to get richer. This is the time of Brazil’s big landowners, big agribusiness, cattle ranchers, mining company owners, and construction millionaires who want to use the country’s natural resources. Already, Temer has helped them by giving up the rights of indigenous people, family farmers, and the environment. And in July workers lost rights and business costs reduced. The unions protested and called strikes, but nothing happened.

The government is hoping to make unpopular changes to pensions by the end of October. This will be worst for low-paid, seasonal and female workers. It seems that when Temer’s political future looks doubtful, the Brazilian currency and stock market goes down and when he looks safe again, they get better again.

So is the coup about making Brazil ready for foreign investors? They are selling the state power company Electrobras and the buyer could be a foreign transnational. Temer’s government is selling public goods, with 57 public companies, including airports, port terminals, highways, even the national currency-issuing mint.

And in August, a presidential decree (later the Supreme Court challenged it) by opened up a protected Amazonian reserve the size of Switzerland to mining. Environmentalists say it will set back rainforest protection by 50 years.


Shall we just sell the Amazon?’ Michel Temer (right) with his vice-president Rodrigo Maia at an environment meeting¬¬¬. Note they both have green ties! Picture: Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters

‘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 the coup was the action of the Brazilian middle classes, who are in fact international.’

Yes, the US was quick to recognize the Temer government. It was also quick to recognize other coup governments in the region – in Honduras in 2009 and Paraguay in 2012. We now know 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 is now big in Latin America. China is now Brazil’s biggest trading partner – a problem for the US that still sees Latin America as its ‘backyard’.

Venezuela is now in deeper and deeper crisis. And people are asking, ‘Could Brazil be the next Venezuela?’ Perhaps a more important question, politically, is: ‘Will Venezuela, after Nicolas Maduro, be another Brazil?’ Maduro was democratically elected. Temer, who enjoys a public approval rate of just five per cent, was not.

Another Trump

Brazil has moved to the Right – and it could go further. Citizen anger, protest against politicians makes a good situation for a rightwing populist leader. There are two obvious candidates. First, João Doria, São Paulo’s authoritarian mayor and a millionaire owner of many companies. Also he was a presenter on the Brazilian TV programme, The Apprentice. His politics are free-market liberalism and social conservatism: he is against abortion, is against making drugs legal, and is tough on homeless people.

Second and worse is the Rio congress member Jair Bolsonaro. He was an army captain, he likes the military dictatorship of 1964-85 and promises to have generals in his government if he is president. He is attractive to conservatives. Brazil has one of the world’s highest murder rates, increasing crime, and some of the most violent police. Bolsonaro is openly racist, misogynist, and homophobic. He is attractive to anti-feminist young men who think it’s cool to be against human rights. Some Brazilians told me he was too horrible to be president but then they thought of Donald Trump.

Violence against weaker groups has increased since the coup and the past few weeks have seen the army in public spaces, with thousands of soldiers in and around Rio favelas, they say, ‘ to fight a war on crime and drugs’.

Is another Brazil possible?

But the Left is on the move too. In August, Lula started a ‘Caravan of Hope’, a 2,300-mile tour of the northeast, visiting nine states and 25 cities. People are very happy to see him. Millions are out of poverty thanks to the Workers’ Party’s social programme. But Fernando Haddad, who was mayor of São Paulo, said that the party would need to listen to criticism from the people, the workers, and to take note of their mistakes.

Is it possible for the Workers’ Party to bring back the hope lost during the years of corruption? But Lula is giving it his best: ‘I really trust in the future of Brazil,’ he said. ‘A new government, with a popular vote, with progressive ideas for the country, can take Brazil out of its many problems.’ And in a message to the young, ‘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.’

Lula is till the best leader for Brazil and the Workers’ Party’s, but he may campaign for another candidate – possibly Haddad. Not many are calling for Rousseff to return. Marina Silva was environment minister under Lula, and she has a good record on saving the Amazon. She was doing well in the polls earlier in the year.

But Vamos! (Let’s go!) is a new party from People Without Fear. With the idea ‘Another Brazil is Possible’, they want to bring together people from all parts of society and across political parties, including the Workers’ Party and the leftwing Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), to build democracy – like Podemos in Spain. ‘What kind of Brazil do we want?’ is the big question.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).