3 Ways to Understand Rousseff’s Impeachment and the Growth of the Right in Brazil

by Alanna Maeve

31 May 2016

On 12 May, the Brazilian Senate passed a vote which banned the president, Dilma Rousseff of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party, PT), from holding public office for 180 days. She will now be investigated for allegedly concealing part of the public deficit during her election campaign.

With Rousseff out of office, an interim government has been formed, headed by her vice president, Michel Temer of the PMDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party), the PT’s formal electoral ally. Brazil has been in a tumultuous political moment since 2013, when the hegemony of the PT was broken by some of the biggest street protests in Brazilian history. The party narrowly won elections in 2014, but the price of the country’s main exports had been declining since 2011. Doubled levels of unemployment, inflation and falling wages have brought the limitations of the PT’s politics into sharp relief. Since 2013, the right has successfully narrowed the focus of the anger of many to focus on corruption alone.

Whilst the PT scrambled to move with the changing tide, in 2014 an investigation – known as Operação Lavo Jato, or ‘Operation Car Wash’ – began into money laundering at Petrobras, Brazil’s main oil company where ownership is around 50-50 public and private. The investigations spiralled, and two years later almost two-thirds of the Senate, alongside key figures of the business and political world, face allegations including money laundering, fraud, bribery and more. Such wide-ranging investigations of this type are unprecedented in Brazil, but the immense political weight of the allegations requires considering a broader, more historical context.

1. Corruption allegations are a mask for wider power dynamics.

Protests in 2013 brought politics out of institutions and onto the streets. They went far beyond the organised left – a spectrum of ideological influences converged, both left wing and right wing. Institutional politics struggled to respond; no party was capable of capturing the movement, despite concessions by the PT. Anger at corruption, sometimes combined with a nationalist sentiment of the need to ‘save’ Brazil, was one among various ideological strains.

When Lavo Jato began to emerge, the Brazilian right wing took on an opportunistic form of moralism. The subsequent protest movement borrowed tactics and discourse that might typically emanate from the left; one key organisation, the Free Brazil Movement (MBL) lifted its name from the Free Pass Movement (Movimento Passe Livre), the driver of the protests against bus fare increases in 2013. MBL built on a growing following of students, such as the organisation Students for Liberty, which receives a large portion of its funding from US-based think-tank Atlas Network, and pumped money into social media outlets while taking to the streets, with stamping out corruption the movement’s declared raison d’être. Protesters typically portrayed Brazil as decadently corrupt, mismanaged by an inept socialist government.

This combination of nationalism, anti-communism and fixation with corruption in 2013, and more recently in pro-impeachment protests, has a longer history in the country. At times the protesters’ discourse has resembled that of urban middle-class who took to the streets in favour of a military coup in 1964, asserting a situation of crisis and creeping Communist threat. Within this logic of crisis and disarray, extra-parliamentary solutions such as military intervention – or, in the present day, impeachment – appear legitimate.

Last week a recording of a telephone conversation between Michel Temer’s minister of planning, Romero Jucá, and former Petrobras executive Sérgio Machado, was leaked. In the conversation, Jucá asserts that removing Rousseff could quieten the Lavo Jato investigations, and that the military and most of the national judges are aligned with him to oust her.

The leak implies what many already supposed – that corruption allegations have provided a veneer of good intention for the right to gain office. Now they are in office, they will attempt to minimise the impact of the investigations. This is not the first time conversations from the corridors of power have been leaked. In March Sérgio Moro, a federal judge, leaked a telephone conversation to media outlets between Rousseff and her PT predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula), in a move that demonstrates the theatrical scorn which members of the judiciary hold for any neutrality of the legal system. Pro-impeachment protests intensified.

Corruption is a conveniently ahistorical critique, which often leaves aside broader political questions. This makes it an easy idea to instrumentalise for different political agendas, as has been in the case of Rousseff’s impeachment. As the screws tighten on an economic recession, corruption is not only being used to justify the impeachment, but is facilitating economic agendas of privatisation – particularly in Petrobras – and public spending cuts across areas including healthcare and education. With the daily reality of cuts to an already dismal level of public provision, the idea that Rousseff’s administration stole the funds seems plausible to many. The rapid backtrack on her electoral promises has also made the formal impeachment accusations (that she concealed public deficit) widely believable.

With scandals burning through Petrobras, now cited as “the world’s most indebted oil company,” privatisations and sell-offs are common outside of the company’s key areas of oil extraction. Gaspetro and BR Distribuidoras, two Petrobras subsidiaries, were partially sold last year. Transpetro, another subsidiary, is currently for sale, as are operations in Argentina, Japan, the US and across Africa. In February 2016, a law was passed which lifted the monopoly of Petrobras in the deep-sea oil reserves located in the north of Rio de Janeiro state. Discovered in 2014, the so-called ‘Pre-Sal’ reserves are Petrobras’s most valuable asset, and could put Brazil amongst the top five oil producers in the world by 2020.

2. It’s more complicated than being pro-impeachment or anti-impeachment.

The PT’s 2014 electoral campaign relied on ‘best of the worst’ rhetoric, reminding voters of the possible return of the old right. This draws on the history of the party, which grew from the social movements of the working-class and landless that toppled the dictatorship. But after successive electoral defeats in the 1990s the PT’s sources of funding began to resemble those of more traditional political parties – large construction companies, agro-business and more – moderating the party’s programme accordingly. The PT remained entangled by the political forces of the dictatorship throughout its time in power. The Truth Commission – opened to investigate state crimes during the dictatorship – lost direction in the face of the silence of the military. A widely-criticised amnesty law guaranteed no punishment for those who participated in state repression during 20 years of dictatorship.

Since Lula’s first election, the PT has governed during a time of prosperity in Brazil based on high commodity prices and a surging domestic market. It used this buoyant economy to drastically reduce extreme poverty, principally through welfare programmes and increased access to financial credit. These policies lifted millions from extreme poverty into a new demographic of the working class. However, welfare programmes such as university bursaries ended up subsidising the private sector to provide public services, whilst public services in general remained bad quality. Brazilian capitalism expanded like never before through partnerships between the state and large private businesses. And from 2011 the price of the country’s main exports collapsed, exposing the contradictions of the PT’s approach.

Whilst welfare programmes maintained a solid base of support, economic redistribution from the upper classes remained a distant possibility, and land reform untouched. Millions of working-class Brazilians were materially better off, but their collective power and working conditions were not. With the expansion of credit, consumer loans are now double that of neighbouring countries. In 2014 around a fifth of average disposable income was spent on interest payments on household credit. Access to education improved, but precarious labour flourished. Sectors with ever more precarious conditions drew their workforce largely from a demographic of young Black women and LGBT people.

The PT’s historic support base has now withered to the extent that there has been no major strikes in their defence. In part this is due to the institutionalisation of social movement and especially union leaders under Lula, contributing to their depoliticisation and loss of autonomy. Whilst the left assimilated into the state, the right at times appropriated their space in the streets, albeit with a different demographic of support. In 2013 the organised left became disorientated by a commonplace ideology of ‘no party’ – against the co-option of social movements, against the left as much as the right.

At this point in time, to call the PT a left-wing project directed towards radical change requires outlandish stretches of the imagination. The impeachment is not a reaction of the old guard against a fundamental challenge to their interests, as some in the anti-impeachment camp assert. The PT and its supporters now attempt to define the contours of the right as those who do not defend the government, from inside a project that drifted wayward, rightward and ‘neoliberal-ward’ even before its election.

3. Between a rock and hard place: hope?

Temer cuts a vampiric figure, accompanied by a cabinet comprised entirely of white men. Seven of the interim cabinet are under investigation for corruption, and Temer himself could face impeachment. Temer’s deputy, André Moura, is accused of attempted murder amongst other allegations. The interim minister for justice is the former head of security for the state of São Paulo, where in recent years homicides committed by the military police have soared. Meanwhile the minister for agriculture is Blairo Maggi, the billionaire owner of Amaggi, one of the world’s largest soya producers.

The organised left, many of whom were yesterday fighting drastic spending cuts pushed by the PT-PMDB alliance, are today stuck between a rock and a very hard place. For those who cannot romanticise the PT, the question is how to build a movement that can take power back from the right, principally away from passive support for impeachment across the working class and into an organised alternative, without dreaming to the tune of the PT.

Although support for impeachment goes beyond those who attended the protests, polls conducted in the weeks before Temer assumed the interim presidency suggest his popularity is very low – with many also supportive of his own potential impeachment. With Temer’s minister Jucá forced to resign overnight over the leaked telephone call, the administration is under pressure to appear legitimate. Many amongst the millions of working class Brazilians who previously supported the PT have yet to enter the stage on either side of the impeachment battle.

Temer and the PMDB’s gains might prove difficult to maintain. Old forces have gained new ground, but the current conjuncture reflects more of the momentum from discontent with the PT – which the organised left have so far failed to capture – than a wholehearted embrace of right-wing politics.

Photo: José Roitberg/Flickr

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