Amid political storm, will Brazil drift into oligarchy?

On March 18, supporters of the center-left government of President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party (PT, or Partido dos Trabalhadores) marched in a score of Brazilian cities to oppose a coup which they say is under way against the embattled leader. 

This came after similar numbers of opposing demonstrators came out March 13, demanding the impeachment of Rousseff. Another anti-impeachment rally is scheduled for March 31.  Anti-impeachment activists have accused the pro-impeachment faction of attempting to carry out a coup to reverse the results of the elections of 2014 by undemocratic means.  The fact that the pro-impeachment marchers have been overwhelmingly white in this multi racial country has not escaped mention by defenders of the government.

The street action is likely to advance as the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Brazilian Congress, moves to act on impeachment perhaps as early as the second week of April.

A crisis rooted in inequality

Brazil, with a population of 200 million– the fifth most populous country in the world– is more industrialized than most poor countries. It has also bet on international commodities sales from vast offshore oil deposits being exploited by the national petroleum company, Petrobras, as well as from the country’s vast agricultural exports and other things.

The sharp drop in oil prices over the past year and a half, along with slowdowns in production in China(which was buying much of Brazil’s commodities exports), has put the economy into deep recession.  The resulting slowdown in improvements of poor people’s living standards has undercut President Rousseff’s popularity.  Brazil’s economy shrank 3.8 percent in 2015; domestic demand (i.e. not originating in China) was down 6.8 percent. Unemployment was 4.8 percent in 2014, and was up to 6.8 percent by 2015.

But these events represent a sharp reversal of the fortunes of ordinary Brazilians, which until very recently were on the rise.

The improvements in Brazilians’ standard of living, since the election of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva(known as “Lula”) in 2002, were immense and very popular.   According to 2014 analysis by Mark Weisbrot, Jake Johnston and Stephan Lefebre of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the economy doubled in size, while poverty was reduced by 55 percent (and extreme poverty by 65 percent).   Informal employment went down, the real minimum wage sharply up, and coverage of workers by social security also increased greatly.  More resources went into health care, housing and schools, and an affirmative action program was established in all universities for people of Afro-Brazilian descent.  

Moreover, Brazil has become a major player in international politics, especially concerning trade, as part of BRICS, the group of emerging economic powerhouses that include also Russia, India, China and South Africa.  Although BRICS is by no means a socialist-oriented bloc, it represents a challenge to the power of international monopoly capital based in the United States and the European union, as it is seen as an alternate source of trade and development financing for poor countries trying to get out from under the control of Washington, Wall Street and Brussels.

All this was accomplished in the context of a balance of political power that favors the elite.  The wealthiest families have highly concentrated power in the media, in the Congress and other institutions. Furthermore, neither Lula nor Rousseff have ever been able to count on unqualified support in Congress for their measures.  After being elected twice, first in 2002 and then in 2006, Lula was term-limited out in 2011 and was replaced by Rousseff, also of the Workers’ Party.   It was Rousseff’s misfortune to be president when the recession began, but she also has been the target of a re-energized national and international right wing. 

The Workers’ Parties and close left wing allies, such as the Communist Party of Brazil (Partido Comunista do Brasil) have never had a majority in the crucial lower house of Congress, the Chamber of Deputies, and thus both Lula and Rousseff have had to govern through coalitions with parties well to the right of them. (Included in this coalition is the large Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), of which Rousseff’s vice president, Michel Temer, who would replace her if she were successfully impeached, is a member.)  The 2014 general elections, in which Rousseff barely eked out a win, complicated the situation even more. No fewer than 25 parties won seats, some of them brand new.

The economy, now, has gone into a severe slump.   This is caused in part by the economic retrenchment in China, which had been buying huge amounts of Brazilian commodities.  But Weisbrot, Johnston and Lefebre, in the study previously cited, point also to mistakes by the Rousseff administration, including trying to fight the recession via austerity measures, and allowing the Brazilian Central Bank to maintain sky-high interest rates which have harmed the economic recovery.  The result is that although the net impact of the Lula-Rousseff governments on the interests of workers and the poor is still positive, the economic difficulties of the country are bad indeed, and this is reflected in popular dissatisfaction. 

Late last year,  Rousseff replaced her pro-austerity finance minister, Joaquim Levy, with an anti-austerity official, Nelson Barbosa.  Former President Lula has also been arguing for a move away from austerity.  This has alarmed both Brazilian elites and international finance capital.

The Petrobras scandal

Into this tumultuous political climate came the Lava Jato corruption scandal.  Brazil has always had a huge public corruption problem, but in this case corruption scandals coincide with economic downturn.  Lava Jato, meaning “jet (car) wash”, refers to a scheme, which started over a decade ago, whereby crooked construction companies would sign contracts with inflated price tags with Petrobras, and then kick back part of the extra money to politicians and officials who helped to set up the arrangement for them.  Several construction companies are involved, the most notorious being Odebrecht, the largest such firm in Brazil.  Hundreds of politicians, officials and business executives have been implicated, and many have now been arrested and jailed.        

Though a number of high ranking members of the Workers’ Party have been arrested and jailed, even  more members of opposition parties, including the ones that are pushing hardest for Rousseff’s fall, have met this fate.  Severely implicated is Eduardo Cunha, the Speaker of the Lower House of the Brazilian Congress, who is from the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, the PMDB, formally a member of the government’s coalition in Congress.  Cunha is an extreme right wing evangelical Christian, and he has been prosecuted for allegedly stealing $40 million from PETROBRAS and laundering the funds “through an evangelical megachurch” (Cunha denies the accusations).  Aceio Neves, of the opposition Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), whom Rousseff narrowly defeated in the presidential runoff election in 2014, has been accused in an earlier bribery matter.  Currently, the PMDB is debating whether to withdraw its support for the Rousseff government.

The next presidential election in Brazil happens in 2018, and the Workers’ Party and its allies were hoping to run former President Lula Silva again.  Lula’s popularity is still high, much higher than that of any other Brazilian politician including Rousseff and any in the opposition.  So it is perhaps not surprising that efforts are now underway to prosecute him also in the “Lava Jato” matter. Rousseff has been attempting to appoint Lula as her chief of staff, but this has been blocked by the courts, and the opposition accuses Rousseff of appointing Lula to the cabinet level position so as to make it harder, though not impossible, to prosecute him.  The police have searched his house and obliged him to give testimony about properties which he denies belong to him, but which prosecutors say they think might have been placed at his disposal as part of Lava Jato. The evidence against Lula seems thin, however.  

Nobody has accused President Rousseff of personal involvement in the corruption, or of benefiting from it, in spite of the fact that she was chairperson of the Petrobras board during part of the period when this was going on.  She is, however, threatened with impeachment in another matter:  Her enemies accuse her of using state funds to cover up a budget gap which developed when the economy began to go into recession.  But opponents of impeachment question whether it is legal to use this mechanism to remove the president from power, absent a clearly proved case of violation of the law on her part. 

Furthermore, as Olivia Santana the head of the anti-racism commission of the Communist Party of Brazil points out, of the 61 members of committee in the Chamber of Deputies that is to decide on impeachment, 36 individuals are themselves seriously compromised in the scandal.  Santana and many others suspect that the impeachment effort is a ploy to distract attention from opposition politicians and others who are culpable in Lava Jato, as well as to reverse the economic and social gains that poor, working class and minority Brazilians have made under Lula and Rousseff. 

How would impeachment work? First, the lower house of Congress must vote with a two-thirds majority to impeach, and then the Senate must follow suit.  If Rousseff is impeached and removed from office she would be succeeded by Vice President Michel Temer.               

Can Brazil weather the storm?

But at this point the Brazilian drama has moved from the realm of Byzantine politics to that of surrealism.  It turns out that the judge who has been supervising the whole mess, Sergio Moro, is hardly impartial.  Moro has been shown to be actively promoting the pro-impeachment demonstrations.  Furthermore, he released to the press, it would appear illegally, the results of a wiretap of a conversation between Lula and Rousseff on the subject of Lula’s proposed appointment as Rousseff’s chief of staff.  Finally, Judge Moro is refusing to investigate a list of 200 people who appear to have got kickbacks from the construction firm Odebrecht, which leads to the suspicion that he is protecting members of opposition parties whose names are on the list.

Moro is now being built up as a Messiah or savior of the Brazilian people by the oligarchy-controlled Globo media empire.   But neither Rousseff nor Lula nor the labor movement and other opponents of impeachment are ready to throw in the towel.  Millions of Brazilians fear that the purpose of the impeachment move is to erase the progress that ordinary people have made since 2002, by imposing radical austerity measures, and they are not going to stand for it. 

Photo: Eraldo Peres/AP


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.