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Dilma’s impeachment — a threat to Brazil’s fragile democracy


A book, entitled “A Resistência Internacional ao Golpe de 2016” and made up of a seriesof articles about the impeachment from Brazilian and foreign writers, has just been published in Brazil. The UK contribution came from an article written jointly by Sue Branford nd Hilary Wainwright. This is their article. nossolivrocaparesistenciainternacional-1

The View from the UK

As British writers and journalists who have been following Brazil for many years, we are profoundly shocked by what is going on in the country today. The spurious impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and the consolidation of the illegitimate Temer government would not only be a huge setback in the construction of democracy in Brazil, but also a serious reverse for the left on the international stage. Its consequences would ripple out, far beyond Brazil, into Latin America and the rest of the world.  There seems little doubt that the overthrow of Dilma is part of what Nobel Peace Prize winner, Pérez Esquivel, from neighbouring Argentina, has called the “the US project for the recolonisation of the continent”. During its years in government, the PT made important social advances, lifting millions of families out of absolute poverty and significantly reducing social inequality. These achievements were widely praised abroad, including in the USA. But the PT’s foreign policy, particularly under Lula, was far less favourably received in Washington. The PT set out deliberately to increase Brazil’s presence in Latin America, with its own independent policies, which at times clashed directly with those drawn up by Washington. The PT moved decisively to back President Evo Morales when it seemed that Santa Cruz, the heartland of the country’s energy sector, might secede, with US support. The PT strongly backed Hugo Chávez against US attempts to destabilise or even overthrow him. Lula’s first foreign trip after his re-election in 2006 was to Venezuela, where he supported Chávez in his own re-election campaign. The PT lobbied unsuccessfully to overturn the US-backed coup in Honduras. It also campaigned, this time successfully, to against the expansion of US access to military bases in Colombia in 2009.  These and other actions clearly irritated successive US administrations, though the relationship remained superficially cordial. Other countries in South America sought in different ways to break away from US dominance and to tame corporate capitalism – Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador and Chile – but Brazil was, by far, the largest and most influential. Brazil began to emerge as a regional superpower: while the USA would dominate Latin America north of the Panama Canal, Brazil would become a regional power in much of South America, particularly in the Southern Cone. There seems little doubt that in recent years the USA ha become increasingly anxious to reassert its dominance over its old backyard.  If Dilma had lost the 2014 elections, Brazil would already have been brought back into the US fold. Aécio Neves would have taken the country out of Mercosul and re-opened discussions with the US for the creation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Brazil and probably much of South America would have been subsumed into an expanded North American Free Trade Agreement (FTAA), where the terms of trade would be dictated in the main by US state and corporate interests. President Bush Sr’s dream of asserting hegemony over the whole of the Americas would have been realised. But Dilma somewhat unexpectedly won the 2014 elections, if by a small margin. Nonplussed, Washington began to look for ways of helping to get rid of the PT before it finished its four-year term. Like others, Rui Falcão, president of the PT, has spotted a new trend: “There is an operation spreading through Latin America in which coups, once carried out by the military, now occur with a legal façade, through constitutional processes. This happened in Honduras [with the overthrow of Manuel Zelaya in 2009] and Paraguay [against Fernando Lugo in 2009].” While it is highly unlikely that the US ever contemplated direct intervention, there is some evidence of indirect meddling behind the scenes. Two of the new street movements that campaigned against Dilma – Movimento Brasil Livre and Os Estudantes pela Liberdade – were funded by Charles and David Koch, the owners of Koch Industries, second-largest, privately-held company in the US. This is similar to the kind of funding that for years the US provided to Cuban dissident groups – including the hip-hop movement – in an attempt to destabilise the Castro regime. While US funding may have played a role, it is nonetheless clear that the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff would not have occurred without serious mistakes by the PT. One of us (Hilary Wainwright) had travelled several times to Porto Alegre at the beginning of this century to look at the way PT administrations had implemented “participatory democracy” at the municipal and state level, as part of a broader study of new forms of popular democracy throughout the world.[1] Disturbed by the revelations of systematic corruption within the PT, she had returned to Brazil in 2005 to examine more closely what was going on. She found that many of its more radical founder members had already left the PT, after sounding the alarm at an earlier stage about signs of the leadership bypassing grassroots radicalism.  She spoke to Chico de Oliveira, the Marxist sociologist, who had just written an excoriating letter of resignation from the PT over the government’s economic policy. His disappointment with the PT was profound. He said that, from the outset, it was clear that the PT had to tackle two inter-linked problems. The first concerned the Brazilian state, which gives greater powers of patronage to its politicians than possibly anywhere else in the world, offering huge opportunities for clientelism. The president had 25,000 jobs in his gift; the French socialist president, Francois Mitterrand, by way of contrast, had 150. The second was the electoral system, in which people tended to stand not on party lists but as individuals, which made for weak parties. As a result, patronage and bribery had become a normal way of getting measures through congress, and through the assemblies of regional and municipal government, which mirror the presidential system. It was exactly because of this system that the PT had come up with the idea of the “participatory budget”, he said, which had been introduced with some success in Porto Alegre. The idea was that instead of bribery and patronage, the mayor or governor (and, it was imagined, eventually the president) would rely on a process of shared decision-making. This would be underpinned by a process of direct and delegate democracy that councilors and regional deputies would be unable to ignore because their voters were part of it. Hilary’s visit to Porto Alegre confirmed this. “We ruled for 16 years without bribery,” said Uribitan de Souza, one of the architects of the participatory budget, both in Porto Alegre and for the state of Rio Grande Do Sul.  The essential principle guiding Uribitan, Olívio Dutra and the other pioneers of participatory budgeting was the recognition that electoral success does not on its own bring sufficient power even to initiate a process of social transformation but that an electoral victory can be used to activate a deeper popular power. Such an approach, without immediately developing new institutions, would have led at least to the kind of mobilisation that petistas expected from Lula in dealing with the IMF and a hostile congress and Brazilian elite. Indeed, one government insider told Hilary that bankers had expected it too and had been reconciled to some tough bargaining. But from the time of Lula’s 1994 election defeat to the successful campaign of 2002, the leadership of the party had not been in the hands of people with a deep commitment to participatory democracy. For José Dirceu, a key Lula aide during this period and now in prison for corruption, the only way of getting Lula into the presidency was by ruthlessly playing by the existing rules of the political game. In election campaigns, political campaigning in the market places and street corners gave way to marketing on the conventional model, with activist campaigning giving way to paid leafleteers. Meanwhile, Lula drank bottles of whisky with the bosses of Globo, Brazil’s Murdoch-like media monopoly, thinking he could get them on his side. The PT had established Brazil’s first mass political party according to its own ethics of popular democracy, but after the disappointment of 1994 – and even more so of 1998 – it accepted the rules of Brazil’s corrupt political system.  The PT’s reputation for democracy has been based partly on the rights of different political tendencies to representation at all levels of the party. But from the mid-1990s, according to César Benjamin and others, Dirceu started to use the slush fund to strengthen the position of the “Campo Majoritário”, building a network of local leaders who depended on him. This, along with the autonomy demanded and granted for Lula’s group, meant that the PT’s democracy become ineffectual as the majority tendency monopolised central control and no other mechanisms of accountability were put in place.  People who tried openly to warn of corrupt deals with private companies, like César Benjamin, a leading official of the party until 1994, were rebuffed as disloyal. “We believed too much in Lula,” confessed Orlando Fantasini, a deputy for São Paulo. A radical Catholic, Fantasini had been part of a “Left Bloc” of around 20 deputies and a few senators that had been quick to demand an investigation into the corruption revelations. Many of these later joined other parties, most notably the PSOL, a party formed by PT deputies who split from the party over the pension reforms. Hilary had listened to party activists and ex-activists at every level. She had visited Fortaleza, where a radical PT member, Luizianne Lins, had stood for mayor against the wishes of the leadership and won; José Dirceu had flown in from São Paulo to campaign against her. Here, 2,500 miles from Porto Alegre, she had found a participatory administration that had taken the process further and deeper than its original and world famous home. She had attended meetings of citizens deciding on their priorities for the city after the mayoral election. Participation had been strong, pushing municipal policies in a more egalitarian direction. The coordinator of the Office for Participatory Democracy, Neiara de Morais, had explained how they were developing the politics of participation. “Popular participation is about more than the budget. We aim for it to run through every aspect of the municipality,” he said. There was also a process of training, or formação, explaining the workings of the government machine and “helping people to become fully conscious of the process, improving and taking control over it”.  All these experiences, from meeting the organisers of Fortaleza’s new-born participatory democracy to chatting to a veteran leftist advising Lula in the Palácio do Planalto, had made it clear to Hilary how interlinked the two processes were: the neoliberalism of the government and the systematic corruption in the organisation of the party went hand in hand. The steady strangling of democracy – which is, after all, what corruption is about – meant that the party had lost all autonomy from the government. It also meant that all the mechanisms linking the party to the social movements, and therefore acting as a political channel for their expectations, their pressure and their anger, had been closed down. Even Marco Aurélio Garcia, co-founder of the PT and Lula’s chief advisor on foreign affairs, felt he had no way of calling the economics minister to account.  After Hilary’s visit, the problems besetting the PT grew worse. By the time Sue was back in Brazil in 2013, large sectors of the population no longer identified with the PT. Alarm bells should have sounded shrilly after hundreds of thousands took to the streets in that year to protest over the government’s inadequate investment in public services, particularly in transport, health and education. But even then the PT did not act decisively, with President Dilma refusing to incorporate demands from the social movements or even to meet them regularly. The right seized its chance: in 2015 it increasingly gained control over the street protests, which until then had not specifically targeted the PT. Aided by Brazil’s extremely conservative and manipulative “grande imprensa” (mainstream press), the right progressively politicised the demonstration and introduced calls for Dilma’s impeachment, particularly after press reports had repeatedly (and unfairly) suggested that the PT was more corrupt than the other political parties. All this paved the way for the impeachment process in Congress, which had moved decisively to the right after the 2014.  The PT is far from being the only left-wing party to have committed serious errors. In our country the British Labour Party, which has made only weak attempts at popular democracy, has lost ground in many parts of the country, especially those severely affected by de-industrialisation. Former supporters see the Labour Party as being caught up in the Westminster bubble and failing to understand the problems of falling income and precarious work conditions that many of them face. Even the new radical Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who has been enthusiastically endorsed by thousands of left-wing activists, has failed so far to reverse the erosion. Some of the old supporters have defected to the extreme right-wing party, UKIP, which encourages them to blame their problems on “uncontrolled immigration”, even though numerous studies have demonstrated unequivocally that migrants bring real benefits to Britain. Others say they have lost trust in the whole political system. This pervasive mistrust in politicians is perhaps the main reason why the Labour Party found it extremely difficult to mobilise supporters to vote for staying in Europe in the referendum held on 23 June. At the time of going to press, it seemed likely that, as the result of simplistic and, at times, mendacious arguments put forward by UKIP and right-wing, dissident members of the Conservative Party, the Brexiteers (those in favour of the UK leaving the European Community) were on course to win the referendum by a small margin, with potentially serious consequences for the left in Britain and elsewhere in Europe.  What unites the British and Brazilian experiences is the growth of far-right political forces, who have managed to capitalise on the widespread disenchantment with politics. Temer’s government is intent on such a frightening degree of deregulation in both in the labour market and the environment that virtual slavery and the unbridled destruction of precious ecosystems may become legalised. With the growth of right-wing forces, Britain may similarly be faced by the privatisation of its hugely admired national health system and further savage cuts in the living standards of the most disadvantaged in society. If later this year Donald Trump is elected President of the USA the world will face an unprecedented lurch right, with the possible emergence of neo-fascist governments over large areas of the planet. What makes the crisis in Brazil different and more serious is that what at stake is the country’s fragile political democracy. One of the authors (Sue Branford) reported from Brazil in the 1970s and she accompanied at first-hand the courageous mobilisation of trade unionists in favour of basic labour and political rights. In the south of the country, landless peasants began to occupy land to demand agrarian reform. Neighbourhood associations, often with the support of the Catholic Church, mobilised in support of better housing, transport, education and medical services. All this resulted, after many reverses, in a return to civilian rule in 1985. These were exciting times, with very real advances, with the enshrinement of important social and political rights in the progressive 1988 constitution and the recognition for the first time of the rights of excluded groups, such as Afro-Brazilians, peasant communities and indigenous groups. Serious errors were made – with hindsight, one of the most serious was to allow Congress to double up as Constituent Assembly, which meant that the new Constitution did not introduce urgently needed electoral and political reforms – but the progress was remarkable. Although the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff is permitted technically under the Constitution, it is illegitimate: she is not being forced out of office for fiscal irregularities (the famous pedaladas fiscais) but because she will not halt the Lava-Jato Operation, which now threatens to engulf many politicians linked to the interim government) and because she was not pushing ahead rapidly with the severe neo-liberal reforms demanded by the right. Such a step attacks the roots of democracy in Brazil. A new precedent will be created in which a powerful political force need no longer respect the results of the ballot box but can manipulate the constitution to oust a president it dislikes. In turn, opposition forces will feel that they are not bound by existing rules but can resort to any effective means of opposing an illegitimate government. There is still time for Brazil to draw back from the brink. If it does not, the country faces an unpredictable and probably violent future.  * Sue Branford is a journalist who reported from Brazil for the Financial Times in 1970s and has subsequently made numerous trips, reporting for the BBC, The Times, The Economist and The Guardian. She has published five books, including one (with Jan Rocha) on the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST).  ** Hilary Wainwright is a fellow of the international think tank for progressive politics, the Transnational Institute. She has written extensively on the emergence of new forms of democratic accountability. She is the editor of Red Pepper and is a frequent contributor to The Guardian, The Nation, New Statesman and openDemocracy, as well as appearing as a commentator on the BBC. .

[1] See Hilary Wainwright, Reclaim the State: Experiments in Popular Democracy (Verso/TNI, 2003))

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