The brief: Attend a debate on the current state of Brazil and report on it for Agogo.nl. See also: http://agogo.nl/homenews/articles/item/political-crisis-in-brazil-roundtable-and-public-debate
Two elegantly dressed women are seated in the lobby of the Balie, a well-known political and cultural venue here in Amsterdam. They have propped a rolled-up banner next to them and are talking animatedly in Portuguese. They are waiting for this evening’s round table on the situation in Brazil to start. More and more people arrive: by seven all the 80-odd seats in the meeting room are taken, and soon there are students crowding the aisle, people standing at the back. The doors to the corridor stay open; it is tropically hot.
An SOS for Brazil
The two women come in with their banner and unroll it along one of the walls. ”#SOS coup in Brazil,” it proclaims: President Dilma Roussef was suspended today. People take photos and greet each other, but the chatter quickly dies down when the chair of the debate, Fábio de Castro, takes the microphone. De Castro works at the Centre for Latin American Research and Documentation (CEDLA) at the University of Amsterdam, organisers of the event. “This is a sad day for Brazil,” he opens and introduces the panel members. They are Kees Konings of the Universities of Amsterdam and Utrecht, José Luiz Ratton of Pernambuco University, and Marianne Wiesebron of Leiden University.
Ratton opens with a joke he just saw on the internet. “What’s the worst job in the world at the moment? Being a social scientist in Brazil.” Many members of the audience chuckle. They know Ratton is a social scientist himself, trying to keep up with his country’s rapid changes. He promises to look at the factors that have brought Brazil to this point. The economic crisis leading to popular dissatisfaction. Mistakes made by Dilma and her Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) workers’ party, which failed to build on the successes of Dilma’s predecessor, Lula da Silva. Corruption in the name of governability. The multi-party system and the constant bargaining it entails.
The golden rule of democracy broken
His outrage at recent events is clear. ”The constitution states that the president must be proven to have committed a crime of responsibility to warrant impeachment. It is an extreme measure which is always traumatic.” Ratton sees no evidence that Dilma has committed such a crime and believes the threat of impeachment has been used as a form of parliamentary censure. Moreover, ”it has broken the golden rule of democracy; respect for the vote.” From the murmurs that greet his words it is clear that many in the audience agree.
Professor Konings speaks next and is quick to disarm his audience by admitting he is an outsider, a foreigner. He sees economic decline as a key issue: it fuelled anxiety and dissatisfaction among the old middle classes, particularly since Dilma’s re-election in 2014. Furthermore, less money all-round means less money for politicians too, and this opportunistic breed has been quick to let go of the alliances painstakingly built by Lula. Dilma is less blessed with charm than her predecessor, less cohesive.
Getting rid of Lula
Professor Konings also cites the politicisation of the judiciary during the recent corruption scandals, notably the Lava Jato affair. In his eyes Lula’s trial is a case of blatant political manoeuvring, designed to remove the ever-popular former president as a potential candidate in the 2018 elections. Now it seems Dilma has been eliminated as well.
The right wing opposition has been emboldened by popular unrest. Demonstrations in 2013 and ’14 against the soccer world cup and Dilma’s re-election showed that the PT could no longer count on the automatic support of the people on the streets.
Marianne Wiesebron, who speaks last, is clearly saddened by the likely loss of the much-praised Bolsa da Familia programme and PT’s other anti-poverty measures. She is scathing about the worries of the old middle classes. She shows an image of an earnest couple marching against rising wages for domestic staff while a nanny trots behind them, pushing their children in a stroller. ”And she is working on a Sunday!” Wiesebron cries.
The role of the U.S.
The professor believes that the vote against Dilma was carefully orchestrated by a coven of conservatives outraged at losing four general elections in a row. It used the channels of the dominant media group Globo to help spread unrest and has the support of the American government. The U.S. has been disconcerted by Brazil’s growing confidence on the international political stage, which set up the BRICS Development Bank as an alternative to the IMF and World Bank, and cancelled a state visit to Washington to protest the National Security Agency tapping Dilma’s phone.
Wiesebron concludes by wryly observing that U.S. businesses can hardly wait to invest in Brazil. State ownership of these companies stands in the way and it is expected that a more compliant right-wing government will privatise these.
When the discussion opens to audience participation the panel is urged to address the role of the oil industry, the role of gender, the politicisation of the judiciary, and the likelihood that the PT will collapse and Lula brought down.
Yes, oil has played a part: not only has the Lava Jato corruption scandal soiled PT politicians (and others), but Petrobras is one of the companies most likely to attract outside investment.
Yes, the Supreme Court is a murky place, the opinions of the judges are rarely clear, leading to a suspicion of corruption. ”Only a suspicion?!” the person who asked the question counters. There is laughter, but it has a bitter edge.
”The left needs to rebuild its narrative ”
Now the panel addresses the future of the PT. Ratton: ”The left needs to rebuild the narrative of the PT.” He urges party members to put passions aside and look at what has brought them to this point after 14 years in power, to look at their relationship with the people, at their policies on business, corruption and the environment. ”And Lula is not immortal,” he reminds us: the party needs to concentrate on its next generation of leaders.
Konings believes the PT got too comfortable during the commodities boom, that it needs to become more programmatic and effective. He moves on to the issue of Dilma’s gender, agreeing that politics in Brazil is male dominated and that misogynistic comments were made during the parliamentary debates of 17 April, but that right-wing female politicians loathe Dilma too.
”The constitution has been raped”
Looking deeper into the issue of the role of the judiciary and the media in Dilma’s downfall, Ratton brings up the wiretap that recorded Dilma offering to protect Lula by appointing him Chief of Staff. A wiretap on the head of state should have been approved by the Supreme Court. It wasn’t. And the conversation should not have been released to the media without the required authorisation. It was.
”The constitution has been raped,” says Koning. ”But the situation could get even nastier if the country abandons its institutions altogether.” He believes it is important that the interim government is allowed to stay in place until scheduled elections in 2018. ”As long as they aren’t cancelled,” he adds gloomily. But many members of the audience clearly want the PT to return to its rightful place in power as soon as possible. ”54 million people voted for Dilma, 54 million!” calls a member of the audience to general approval.
Marianne Wiesebron is quick to quash these hopes. ”Hate for the PT is very strong in some parts of society,” she reminds us. A young man just back from Brazil explains that neighbours, even members of the same family, are at each other’s throats there over what is best for the country and that there is a lot of hate on social media.
Predicting the future
Now there is a surprise speaker, Ed Amann of Manchester University in the UK. He wonders if the country can continue to build sustainable economic and social policies. The trade balance is strongly positive and foreign capital is likely to be injected, both promising factors for short term recovery. However, it is important for long term growth to broaden the base of the economy and invest in education. ”Is this likely to happen now?” he ends delicately.
”Of course not!” someone in the audience calls out. Professor Wiesebron cites examples of moves in the opposite direction, with the members of the new government saying they will slash spending on training, science and technology.
Criminalising social movements
Ratton is pessimistic too. He believes the PT will lose the gubernatorial elections in November. The interim government will have the support of the markets, but economic recovery will be slow. Social programmes like the Bolsa da Familia will be rolled back. Rights for women, blacks, gays and other minorities will suffer, and supporting social movements may even be criminalised.
Konings speaks last, predicting that right-wing neoliberal parties will dominate politics in Brazil for the next 16 years while the PT licks its wounds. ”No, no!” shouts my neighbour, appalled at the prospect. It is the woman with the banner.