São Paulo. May 12.  Brazilians looked at their new government with incredulity and disbelief. Amongst the crowd of gleeful white males who elbowed and jostled for a place next to their diminutive new leader, Michel Temer, there was not a woman to be seen. And exactly 128 years after the abolition of slavery (it was abolished on 13 May 1888), not a single Afro-Brazilian, much less an indigenous face.

In his inaugural speech, Temer said his motto would be Order and Progress, the positivist slogan chosen by Masonic military officers for Brazil’s first republican flag in 1889, and beloved by the military who took power and ruled for 21 years.

Temer spoke of pacification but outside women, who tried to stage a peaceful protest by lying down on the ramp to the Planalto Palace, were attacked by security guards with pepper spray and batons.

Women at an earlier protest (before the impeachment vote).
Women at an earlier protest (before the impeachment vote).

At 75, Temer is Brazil`s oldest ever president, and he has chosen a ministry that reflects yesterday’s, or even the day before yesterday’s, Brazil. Eighteen of the new ministers are millionaires, in a country where the average yearly income is still less than £9,000.

Temer's New Cabinet Credit: Lula Medonça/Agência PT
Temer’s New Cabinet Credit: Lula Medonça/Agência PT

Several are the scions of rural oligarchies whose wealth has accrued from exploiting the poverty and ignorance of millions in the northeast and north. Three are being investigated in the Lava Jato corruption scandal, and several others face charges of various sorts.

Temer’s criteria was not experience, knowledge or competence, but to reward the congressmen who voted enthusiastically and unquestioningly for the impeachment of President Dilma. So 19 of the 23 new ministers are Congressmen or leaders of political parties. Eleven parties are represented.

Having promised to cut ministries to show efficiency, Temer has done it by merging ministries. The result is what one journalist described as a “Frankenstein government”. Education and Culture are lumped together. The new minister, Mendonça Filho was greeted with angry protests by hundreds of civil servants. He belongs to the Democratas, the direct descendents of the pro-military Arena party, which went to court to try and stop the PT government introducing affirmative action quotas at universities.

The separate ministries for women’s rights and human rights created under Dilma have been dumped into the Justice Ministry, which would not be so bad if the new minister were not the shaven headed, truculent São Paulo police boss, Alexandre de Moraes, who looks more like a convicted criminal than the wealthy lawyer he really is. As a lawyer, Moraes has acted for disgraced Lower House speaker Eduardo Cunha and for a transport firm said to have links with organised crime. As police chief, he has become known for the unapologetically belligerent behaviour of the military police against demonstrators and student protestors.

The ministry of science and technology, which was almost handed over to a creationist evangelical bishop, has been merged with the Communications Ministry and awarded to a man who knows nothing about either, party leader Gilberto Kassab, a former mayor of São Paulo.

Osmar Terra Credit: www.brasil247.com
Osmar Terra Credit: www.brasil247.com

The ministry for Social Development has been merged with Agrarian Development (or Land Reform), and given to Congressman Osmar Terra, a strong advocate of the war on drugs, who sent a protest note to Uruguay’s President Mujica when he liberalized marijuana.

The foreign ministry has gone to Senator José Serra, who immediately antagonised Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Unasul by repudiating in harsh terms their notes of protests at the impeachment of the elected president, which some of them called a “parliamentary coup”.

It was reported that President Obama had not called to congratulate the interim president, because although suspended, Dilma is still president. He would only call when, and if, the impeachment is finally confirmed at the end of the Senate process. The portrait of Dilma, which an over-enthusiastic aide had triumphantly removed from the president’s office at the Planalto, has been reluctantly returned to its place.

Subtlety has been notably lacking from the first hours in office of the man described as looking like a butler in a B movie, because of his smooth but treacherous behaviour. Immediately after his first speech, still in the palace, Temer met a group of evangelical pastors, known for their anti-gay, anti-abortion views. From there, he went on to attend the installation of the blatantly anti-PT Supreme Court judge, Gilmar Mendes, as president of the TSE, the Higher Electoral Court. Mendes’ first act was to dismiss accusations of illegal campaign financing against Aécio Neves, the PSDB senator.

In the general gloom, there is one small glimmer of hope – the Environment Ministry has gone to congressman José Sarney Filho, who, as  leader of the Green Party, at least understands the issues and has heard of climate change. He was Environment Minister during the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

But what most people are looking at is the key ministry of Finance, which is now in the hands of Henrique Meirelles, an orthodox banker, who occupied the same post in both of Lula’s governments.  Meirelles said that to meet the deficit and reduce inflation, now running in double digits, he would have to raise taxes, introduce a minimum pension age and review social programmes.

This caused considerable dismay to fervent impeachment supporters, like the rightwing union leader Paulo Pereira da Silva, known as Paulinho, from Força Sindical, and FIESP chairman, Paulo Skaf, whose entire campaign against Dilma was based on the need to reduce taxes. FIESP is reported to have provided a fund of R$500 million (£99 million) to reward deputies who voted for impeachment. Three Congressmen from leftwing parties are suing the organisation for the misuse of public funds, claiming the money was taken from programmes for training and sports, funded by the Federal Government.

For the PT, now out in the cold, the take-over by a reactionary government bent on dismantling much of what they have achieved in the last 13 years has to mean a period of self-criticism, reappraisal and regrouping of forces to find a common platform with other leftwing forces for the 2018 elections.

The “pink tide” which engulfed South America in the first 15 years of the 21st century has hit the rocks. The removal of a president elected with 54 million votes, and her replacement by a government apparently intent on turning back the clock, is bad news for all of the region.

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Veteran correspondent and regular LAB contributor Jan Rocha writes about life in São Paulo and Brazil