Overseers punishing slaves on a rural estate. Painting by By Jean-Baptiste Debret Image: Wikimedia

Taking the ‘country of the future’ back to the past

Sao Paulo, 20th October. It seems that Michel Temer will stop at nothing to buy his survival as president: even changing the rules to make it more difficult to rescue workers trapped into slavery and to punish employers caught using them.

All this to please the powerful Bancada Ruralista, rural lobby, many of whom use modern  technology to produce record harvests, but reserve the right to treat some of their employees as slaves, subject to debt bondage and appalling conditions.

The proposed changes would make inspections more difficult and would effectively end the publication of the Labour ministry’s ‘black list’ which brings with it a ban on government loans. The chief inspector of the Ministry of Labour’s unit to combat modern day slavery was also sacked for criticising the lack of funds which has been hampering their work.

The result of this grotesque bribe to the rural lobby was a deluge of criticism, not only from the opposition and human rights groups, but from the ILO, the UN, the Chief Prosecutor, and ex-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, during whose government the programme was introduced.

Protecting slave labour employers

Michel Temer: Photo: Marcos Corrêa

To justify his action, Temer cynically cherrypicked, as an example of the inspectors’ alleged excess of zeal, the most minor of the 42 infringements discovered at a company accused of employing slave labour – namely ‘not supplying a soap dish’. Meanwhile, he glossed over  all the more serious charges like lack of payment, exhaustive work, degrading conditions, polluted drinking water and  inadequate food.

Supreme Court justice Gilmar Mendes immediately sprang to Temer’s defence, claiming his work as a judge was also exhaustive, but he did it ‘with pleasure’, and didn’t consider himself a slave, as though there could be any comparison between the extremely well paid work of a supreme judge, in his comfortable offices, and the toil of a peão clearing forest in a situation of debt bondage.

Temer’s move to protect slave labour, rather than the slave, was also enthusiastically supported by the millionaire mayor of São Paulo, João Doria, who has blatantly, but unofficially, pitched his hat into the ring for the 2018 presidential elections.

Human dog biscuit

While potholes and broken traffic lights multiply in the city of São Paulo and the bus service worsens, Doria dashes around the country in his private jet, presenting himself as the ‘gestor’ the man who gets things done, and even pops up in New York to woo foreign investors as the best option for ‘the market’.

 

Racão humana

Applauding a reduction in the rooting out of slave labour is not his only trick. He has also proposed the distribution to the poor and hungry of ‘farinata’ -a compost made from food waste, but dubbed ração humana ( human dog biscuit) by its opponents.    Foodstuffs near their sell-by date would be processed into flour and biscuits for poor families and school meals.

João Doria announces the ‘farinata’ initiative, with backing, apparently from Cardenal Dom Odilo Pedro Scherer, Archbishop of São Paulo. Choice comments on this Youtube post include: “Brazil is the land of the rich with a people in poverty: ‘Food parcel’, ‘Church parcel’, ‘Media parcel’, ‘Politician’s parcel’, Parcels, parcels, and always of course in the name of the poor.” “Ha, Doria: so you want to share your dog’s rations with the people of São Paulo?”, etc.

The proposal, dreamed up without consulting food experts or any of his own staff actually involved in providing school meals or social welfare, was immediately condemned by nutritionists as a further retrograde step by an administration which has already reduced the distribution of free milk to poor children and the programme for acquiring fresh  food for school meals. “Obesity, not hunger, is the main problem now”, said one of them.

The main beneficiaries of the human dog biscuit initiative turn out to be the firms which supply the food waste, because instead of paying to have it collected, they will be given tax exemptions.

Geraldo Alckmin. Photo: Wikimedia

São Paulo governor Geraldo Alkmin, who expected a clear run as the PSDB’s 2018 presidential candidate, but now finds himself competing with his own protégé, the upstart Doria, wasted no time in announcing the expansion of a programme of popular restaurants, where real food is served at R$1 a plate.  Although Doria likes to present himself as the young, new option, he is in fact only 5 years younger than 65-year-old Alkmin.

The candidates for 2018

The field for 2018 is taking shape. The PT’s Lula maintains a commanding lead in the polls, and is greeted by huge adoring crowds on his trips around the Northeast. But will he be able to run, or will the many charges of corruption against him stick and lead to his imprisonment?  He has bested judge Sergio Moro in  court duels so far, but it is Moro who has the power, and he has already found Lula guilty on at least one charge. Lula could go to prison if the appeals court confirms the sentence, though that could take many months.

Moro himself, some believe, will be a candidate, backed by the Globo Network, reassuming the role of kingmaker it exercised so successfully with Fernando Collor. In his time Collor was presented as the ‘caçador de marajás’ or persecutor of the corrupt – – Moro’s platform is similar, presenting himself as the scourge of the corrupt, the jailor of bent politicians and company executives, the upholder of law and order. He already has a huge fan following, but he has no party or political experience.

And he has a rival for the right-wing, law and order vote in ex-army captain Jair Bolsanaro, who has risen to second place behind Lula in the polls.

Jair Bolsonaro: his direct, populist and nationalist speeches go down well with an electorate that is more and more conservative and anti-political (Photo: Fernando Chaves/PSC Nacional)

Bolsanaro, a federal deputy for the PSC, or Social Christian party, wants to end gun control, same sex marriages and the public health service, and reduce government.  Meanwhile he and the three sons who have ridden into politics on their father’s coat tails, do very well out of the public purse.

Bolsanaro likes being a divisive figure. He has been fined by the courts for hate speech against women, gays and quilombolos. He also defends the 1964 military coup and if necessary, another military intervention.

Nostalgia for the military

‘Bring back the military’ is a refrain that can be heard quite frequently now, as Brazilians grow despondent with the cases of corruption revealed on a daily basis and disgusted with the cynicism of their representatives, voting in their own, not their electors’ interests.

This idea that the military are magically free of vice was exposed as wishful thinking in a recent  Epoca magazine cover story entitled A Corrupção Fardada, or  Corruption in Uniform. It revealed that military prosecutors had discovered over 250 cases of embezzlement of public funds by military personnel between 2012 and 2017.

But it didn’t stop army general Antonio Hamilton Martins Mourão suggesting, during a talk to a Masonic lodge, that military intervention is needed to remove the corrupt from power. His speech set off shock waves, not so much because of its content, but because he was not disciplined by his superiors for making what in a democracy are manifestly subversive proposals.

Nevertheless, in the cold light of day, analysts discount the hypothesis of a military coup in today’s Brazil. In spite of the recent conflicts of interest  between the different powers, Brazil’s institutions are solid, there is a free (if biased) press, and an absence of widespread social and political unrest or any organised demand for  military  intervention by the business elite or middle class. The middle classes might have marched against Dilma, because she was PT, but they are not taking to the streets against the corrupt government of Temer.

Also, in contrast to 1964, in 2017 there are no charismatic military leaders with experience of previous uprisings, like the ‘tenentism’ of 1922, the revolution of  1930, and the deposition of Getúlio Vargas in 1945. And since the 1990s the armed forces have been under the command of a civilian minister of Defence.

So although President Temer’s unpopularity knows no bounds, he is not at risk of being overthrown by a military coup, despite the unprecedented gravity of the accusations levelled against him by the Chief Prosecutor – of being leader of a criminal organisation, obstruction of justice and corruption.

A congress of clowns

The only risk comes from Congress which has to vote on whether to accept or bar the Prosecutor’s second attempt to have him tried by the Supreme Court.

Bonifacio de Andrada. Image from Youtube

In a committee hearing packed with pro-Temer deputies, the majority voted for the report drawn up by an 87-year-old representative with the appearance of a retired clown – bald domed head and huge bushy eyebrows. True to his comic vocation, Bonifacio de Andrada’s report relied heavily on fantasy and very little on fact.

After the committee stage, a plenary session of the lower house will decide Temer’s fate on Wednesday 25 October.  The president, pen in hand, is confident he has bought enough support to win easily. His most fervent supporters, previously known as the tropa de choque or shock troops, are now known as the tropa de cheque, or cheque troops.

But the defence of the indefensible is leading the PSDB into its worst crisis since it split from the PMDB in 1987 in protest against the corrupt methods of Orestes Quercia. Many now believe that the time has come to take the party back to its origins, instead of supporting and taking posts in the government of the equally corrupt Temer. This would also mean splitting with the party’s president, Senator Aécio Neves, accused of accepting bribes from the the Batista brothers, the owners of Brazil’s biggest food company. Last week a majority in the Senate, including many PSDB members, voted to lift the restrictions imposed on Neves by the Supreme Court, which is hearing the accusations against him.

For Temer, the PSDB’s internal dispute works to his advantage, throwing the party into disarray, when it should be capitalising on the 50 million votes it won in the 2014 elections to field a strong candidate for 2018.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso and other PSDB leaders could never have imagined that, by supporting Dilma’s impeachment and her substitution by Michel Temer, they would be leading the party to its worst ever crisis, with the risk that it will implode.

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

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