Two Essays from Al Jazeera America on Brazil’s Coup

Marcelo K. Silva and I wrote two pieces for Al Jazeera America, one earlier on, in March of last year on the Elite Revolt, and then one in December on the Impeachment Dilemma.

I re-post them here to have them all in one place.  It’s sad how correct they were about the right-wing origins of the coup.

Brazil’s elites are revolting

Last weekend’s mass protests reveal the strength of conservative backlash against redistribution

March 22, 2015 2:00AM ET

On March 15, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators across Brazil flooded the streets. It was the biggest mobilization since June 2013, when millions took to the streets in protest that began over increased public transit fares and grew to encompass a range of other causes, including World Cup megaprojects, the poor state of public education, the need for political reform and many others.

A different cause united this month’s mobilizations. Protesters could be heard chanting Cold War–era anti-communist slogans, demanding the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and even calling for army intervention in domestic politics. Thirty years after the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship, Rousseff and her center-left Workers’ Party (PT) face a growing challenge from the right.

The PT has held national power in Brazil for the last 13 years. But Rousseff is increasingly politically isolated. Re-elected last fall by a slim margin, she now has to contend with the most conservative National Congress since 1964 as well as a decelerating economy, hostile media and a corruption scandal that implicates her party. She has very low approval ratings and has increasingly alienated her party’s traditional base of trade unionists and social movement activists, many of whom are disappointed with her pro-market political appointments. Although opposition parties are not yet calling for Rousseff’s impeachment, there is no question that difficult times lie ahead.

Corruption is a very serious issue. But the recent protests have been conspicuously silent about political reforms — such as full public campaign financing — that could help address the problem. And although politicians from several major parties, including the opposition, are currently under investigation for corruption, the only political party mentioned during the protests was the PT. In fact, the one overriding theme of the protests was the anti-PT sentiment.

What accounts for this hostility? Last weekend’s protests must be understood as part of a growing conservative backlash in Brazil against years of PT-directed redistribution. Elite and middle-class hostility toward minorities, the poor and their political patrons has now come to the fore in unprecedented ways.

Eyewitnesses agree that the protesters were generally whiter and wealthier than the typical Brazilian. A survey of participants from Porto Alegre and São Paulo confirms this: Nearly 70 percent were college-educated (in a country where 11 percent are), and more than 40 percent were in the highest income bracket (occupied by only 3 percent of the general population). Former Finance Minister Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira remarked that he was witnessing, for the first time in his life, “collective hatred on the part of elites, of the rich, against a party and a president. It wasn’t worry. It was hatred.”

Since Rousseff’s re-election in 2014, political discourse in Brazil has become more polarized than ever. Legislators from historically progressive states now defend torture and the extermination of indigenous peoples.

Since Rousseff’s re-election campaign in 2014, political discourse in Brazil has become more polarized than ever. Legislators elected from historically progressive states openly defended policies such as torture and the extermination of indigenous peoples. Congress now includes a sizable “bullet caucus,” which supports militaristic responses to crime, as well as a substantial Christian fundamentalist caucus opposed to gay rights and a very large rural caucus that opposes land reform and indigenous rights. Meanwhile, the PT and parties to its left lost seats, and nearly 30 percent of voters cast blank ballots or abstained — a historic high.

Rousseff’s administration has fallen short of expectations on certain scores, including land redistribution and the reform of the political system. But most progressive commentators agree that the PT represents a significant break from the free-market orthodoxy that previously prevailed in Brazil. There are a number of impressive social achievements based on the unapologetic redistribution of resources and opportunity. Extreme poverty has been reduced by 75 percent since the PT came to power, and overall poverty gone down 65 percent, largely by means of direct cash transfers now received by 44 million Brazilians, or nearly 1 in 4. The inflation-adjusted minimum wage has doubled in the last 12 years, and domestic workers have won expanded rights, including paid vacation.

All this upsets the nation’s elites. But the issue that many find most offensive is affirmative action in public universities, which are the most prestigious academic institutions in Brazil. Though they charge no tuition, the schools are a traditional bastion of elite privilege, the place where senators, ministers, presidents, judges and newspaper editors are all educated. Since 2003, the number of college students has doubled, with the biggest gains among the working class and lower middle class. In the last few years, the universities have set aside nearly half their slots for affirmative action candidates, bringing the subject of racial inequality into public debate after a long period of neglect.

Despite these achievements, the future of the Workers Party looks rough. What happened to the organization once so effective at harnessing social movements to bring about pragmatic social change? Maybe it has failed to mobilize new constituencies or to follow the lead of new social movements. (This was certainly the case with the 2013 protests.) Or perhaps the problem is a political one. The PT has failed to present the redistributive project as one that benefits the entire nation and not just the dispossessed. But one thing is certain: The party failed to predict the revolt of the upper middle classes and elites, whose discontent now threatens the policy accomplishments of the PT era.

Gianpaolo Baiocchi is an associate professor of individualized studies and sociology at New York University and a co-author of “The Civic Imagination” and “Bootstrapping Democracy.”

Marcelo K. Silva is a professor of sociology at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre, where he directs the research group on associativism, engagement and contestation.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America’s editorial policy.

Brazil’s impeachment dilemma

Left-wing movements want to prevent President Dilma Rousseff’s removal without endorsing her policies

December 11, 2015 2:00AM ET

Even in a country whose political history is full of tragicomic moments, last week’s impeachment proceedings against Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff stand out as especially theatrical. For several weeks, politicians from the right and center-right opposition parties threatened to move in Congress against Rousseff, who leads the left-wing Workers’ Party.

Since the beginning of her second term, the beleaguered Rousseff has been dealing with a wide-ranging corruption investigation that has uncovered evidence of massive graft across the private and public sectors. Emboldened by conservative mobilizations in the streets, the media have been marching to the drumbeat of impeachment for months, and the currency is in free fall.

The only person who may initiate the impeachment process, though, is the speaker of the house, Eduardo Cunha of the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), nominally an ally of the ruling coalition. He too has been dogged by ethics charges, owing to recently surfaced evidence of graft and secret Swiss bank accounts in his name worth millions of dollars. The ethics committee he faced was made up of legislators from various parties, including the PMDB and the Workers’ Party.

Within hours of Workers’ Party representatives announcing they would vote against him in the ethics committee, Cunha formally initiated impeachment proceedings, in an apparent act of retaliation, exacerbating Brazil’s ongoing political turmoil. Vice President Michael Temer, also of the PMDB, has been silent in recent days. Some observers have interpreted this as a signal that he might support the impeachment as a way to ascend politically.

For impeachment to succeed, it must first survive legal challenges mounted by government lawyers, then clear a congressional committee and Congress before moving to a Senate vote, where the impeachment would take place. Although the corruption scandal has ensnared members of all major parties, Rousseff’s name has not appeared in any of those allegations. The legal claim for the impeachment is a technicality concerning the national budget: releasing funds from one year’s budget to the next, a questionable but widely practiced fiscal maneuver in Brazil at all levels of government.

Legal opinions aside, whether impeachment happens will have less to do with technicalities than with political alliances and mobilization in the next weeks. At the moment, the numbers appear favorable for Rousseff, with enough legislators opposing the process in both houses of Congress to defeat it. A number of important figures from other political parties have come out against impeachment, as have major civil society organizations, including the National Association of Lawyers and the National Conference of Bishops. They are united in defense of democracy and its institutions rather than in support of the Workers’ Party or Rousseff.

But it is still early, and the government has an interest in holding votes on impeachment as soon as possible. Members of the congressional coalition could desert the president and shift the balance against her, and analysts predict that social mobilizations against her could start up again, especially after Carnival in February.

Avoiding a coup is a priority, but restoring the progressive project now that the national Workers’ Party seems to have abandoned it is a longer, much more elusive goal.

Beyond the congressional numbers game, there are fundamental social conflicts at work. Brazil today is in its most politically polarized state since the return to democracy in the mid-1980s. Like other countries in Latin America, Brazil is facing a wave of discontent and a backlash against the redistributive projects of the so-called pink tide that appeared to dominate the region in the mid-2000s. From Argentina to Venezuela to Paraguay, conservative political forces have gathered momentum in recent years by leveraging middle-class dissatisfaction with the policies of center-left governments.

Though Brazil is undergoing a conservative backlash, it is not clear that conservative forces will be able to rally around the impeachment. Congress is more conservative than at any other time in recent memory, and there is an openly right-wing discourse in Brazil that was unknown just a few years ago. But large-scale right-wing mobilizations driven by hostility to the Workers’ Party and corruption, which had been taking place regularly since 2013, seemed to run out of steam in the last few months. As corruption investigations have decisively implicated all political parties, it has become difficult to justify protests only against the Workers’ Party. That Cunha, the man leading the impeachment process, is deeply implicated in graft schemes has undermined the anti-corruption wave.

Moreover, calls on the far right for a return to military dictatorship have alienated more moderate allies. Rousseff is an unpopular but democratically elected leader, and to many Brazilians, it seems contradictory to campaign in favor of democratic institutions while supporting a white coup against the president.

On the other hand, whether the Workers’ Party will be able to maintain a progressive majority, both to survive the impeachment and then to successfully govern, is an open question. Some analysts have argued, not entirely without cause, that the threat of a coup could realign progressive forces in Brazil, ultimately conferring new legitimacy on the president. And it is true that the impeachment process has brought out energized supporters as well as left-wingers who had abandoned the Workers’ Party in recent months.

But Rousseff has become very isolated from her base. Since the beginning of the year, the national government has found itself carrying out increasingly neoliberal economic policies in an attempt to improve a stalled economy and reinvigorate investor confidence. Workers’ Party legislators have found themselves making deals in Congress to approve measures the party has historically opposed, alienating its traditional social movement and union base.

In October, in response to the downgrading of the country’s credit rating, Rousseff announced a multibillion-dollar austerity package that promised severe cuts across all areas of government, including abolishing 10 of the country’s 39 ministries. A stopgap measure meant to assure investors and arrest the currency’s months-long free fall, the plans threaten several of the government’s important projects, including its marquee housing and social programs.

In recent days, traditional allies of the Workers’ Party, including the national unions and progressive social movements such as the student movement and the landless movement, have come out against the impeachment, promising to take the struggle to the streets as long as necessary and using slogans that evoke the resistance movement that fought the 1964 military coup. But these movements are still searching for a way to support the government without endorsing its recent policies. Avoiding a coup is a priority, but restoring the progressive project now that the national Workers’ Party seems to have abandoned it is a longer, much more elusive goal.

Gianpaolo Baiocchi is an associate professor of individualized studies and sociology at New York University and a co-author of “The Civic Imagination” and “Bootstrapping Democracy.”

Marcelo K. Silva is a professor of sociology at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre, where he directs the research group on associativism, engagement and contestation.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America’s editorial policy.


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