São Paulo, 20 March: On Friday São Paulo`s long Avenida Paulista became a sea of red flags, balloons and banners as hundreds of thousands of red-shirted demonstrators rallied under the slogan For Democracy, For Social Rights and No to Coups. “We Won’t Let the Future Repeat the Past” read one placard.
In over 50 large towns and cities up and down the country, over a million people turned out to protest against the proposed impeachment of President Dilma, and in defence of Lula, vilified and condemned by the press after he accepted a post as government minister, but so far not formally charged with any crime in the Lava Jato corruption scandal.
Demonstrators in the Avenida Paulista, Sāo Paulo on 18 March
While most of the demonstrators were militants of organisations which support the PT, such as CUT (the trade union body) and the MST (Brazil’s Landless Movement), there were also many who said they were there to defend democracy against the attempts to remove the legitimately-elected president from power which, in their eyes, would amount to a golpe, a coup.
Speaking at the rally on Avenida Paulista, Lula said his aim by becoming a minister was not to fight, but to bring peace and unity to Brazil. He criticised the pro-impeachment protesters who had filled the streets a week ago. “They wear green and yellow to show that they are more Brazilian than us, but they go to Miami to shop while we go to 25 de Março [a popular street of cut-price shops in downtown São Paulo]. “
Lula defended the government’s social programmes like Bolsa Familia, criticised by the right wing as handouts for the workshy. He said: “People don’t just want the right to eat. They want to actually eat”.
As though to emphasize the class differences between the pro- and anti-impeachment camps, FIESP, São Paulo’s powerful industry federation, has been handing out filet mignon sandwiches to the green-and-yellow protesters camped outside its impressive headquarters on Avenida Paulista. In Rio de Janeiro, (white) pro-impeachment protestors went to the demonstration, accompanied by their poodle and their (black) nanny, who was pushing their toddler in a buggy.
This brilliant photo was taken in a pro-impeachment demonstration in Rio de Janeiro. As the journalist Stephanie Nolen, commented: ““Brazilians, who are deft and fast with memes, reposted the picture with a thousand snarky captions, such as ‘Speed it up, there, Maria [the generic ‘maid name’], we have to get out to protest against this government that made us pay you the minimum wage.’”
FIESP is actively campaigning for the President to resign. Maybe inspired by the events of 1973 in Chile, its leader, Paulo Skaf, is calling for a general strike. (Let’s hope he doesn’t follow the Chile precedent too closely and call on the Air Force to bomb the Presidential Palace in Brasília).
The impeachment question is polarizing Brazil, as organisations, political parties and interest groups take sides. Nine state governors from the Northeast and North came out against impeachment, declaring: “Instead of coups, Brazil needs union, dialogue and the return of economic growth with income distribution.”
The OAB (Bar Association) decided to back impeachment but other associations of judges and lawyers have criticised the process. Some university law professors have even called for the arrest of Sérgio Moro, the judge who released phone-tap tapes revealing details of Lula’s private conversations with the President and other government figures, saying that authorisation to tap Lula’s phone conversations had expired. Indeed, the tapes had nothing to do with the corruption enquiry and clearly intended to feed into the political crisis.
But another Supreme Court judge, Gilmar Mendes, has suspended Lula´s appointment as minister. As Mendes has publicly attacked the PT on more than one occasion, his decision is far from impartial, and could be overturned in a plenary session.
Others have warned that the mobilisation in the streets could swamp democratic process, with dangerous results. For instance, the Former Supreme Court judge, Carlos Ayres Britto, said: “There is the voice of the streets but there is also the voice of the ballot boxes”.
In its editorials and coverage the mainstream press is openly anti-Dilma, pro-impeachment and anti-Lula, with relentless insistence on the ex-president´s alleged crimes.
One unexpected effect of this has been to catapult Lula back into prominence, reinstating him as Brazil’s only charismatic leader, after years of playing second fiddle to his disastrous protegée, Dilma. Lula emerges as the only national figure combining popular appeal with political ability, aided enormously by what appears to many as persecution by the press and the police. For the right, Lula is a corrupt criminal, a hate figure but for the millions of poorer Brazilians who have been lifted out of poverty and the thousands who have acquired higher education thanks to his government programmes, he is a hero.
One of the most vehement attacks against the right came, not from a PT leader, but from a former governor of São Paulo and member of a right-wing party, Claudio Lembo. Criticizing the attacks on Lula, he said: “The Brazilian oligarchy doesn’t want any social progress”.
On the other hand, Guilherme Boulos, coordinator of the Homeless Movement (MTST), has criticised the government’s proposal for solving its economic problems with a programme of austerity cuts as a right-wing solution, which could have very serious social and political consequences.
The selective leaks from the Lava Jato corruption case, which find their way into the news bulletins of TV Globo and the pages of anti-PT magazines like Veja and Epoca, focus on the PT, downplaying the involvement of the other major political parties.
But while right and left fling accusations, the wheels of the actual impeachment process have begun to turn. In blatant defiance of what might be seen as ample grounds for demoralization, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Eduardo Cunha, himself accused of corruption, taking bribes and holding illegal foreign bank accounts, has decided to speed it up by holding sessions on Mondays and Fridays, something extremely rare for Congress, which normally only holds sessions three days a week.
Of the 65-strong special committee, which will analyse the accusations against the president, 40 have been accused of receiving donations from companies involved in the Lava Jato scandal, and several face corruption charges themselves.
The PT´s coalition partner, the PMDB will decide on 29 March if they will abandon the government ship or stay. If they go, Dilma will be even more isolated than she is now The PMDB holds seven ministries, besides the vice-presidency, and is the biggest party in congress, with 65 of the 513 deputies and 18 out of the 91 senators. It is divided on the impeachment issue, but at the moment it appears that most will vote for it.
The impeachment bandwagon may be difficult to stop, once it is underway. If Dilma is voted out – a process that might be achieved in under three months – the PMDB will also hold the presidency, as vice president Michel Temer will take over.
One thing is certain — the Brazilian political rollercoaster will continue.