Some reflections on the domination of the Brazilian congress by the BBB

This week’s Carta Capital magazine features an excellent article by Rodrigo Martins on the retrograde legislative agenda currently being pushed through the Brazilian congress (“O elo perdido”, Carta Capital 875, 11 November 2015). Critics of Dilma Rousseff’s administration of what is as much a political as economic crisis would do well to focus their minds on that congress’s composition. Trade union representation has lost significant ground in a lower chamber overwhelmingly dominated by business interests, but as Martins points out,  deputies linked to the defence of human rights have also failed to be re-elected, whilst an alliance of socially conservative, and many would say, reactionary, interests have increased their strength in the lower house.  Two hundred members (40%) are now representatives associated with what has come to be called the “Bancada do Boi, da Bala e da Biblia”.

To preserve the alliteration in English and adopt a UK parliamentary metaphor, I will translate this as the “the Beef, Bullet and Bible benches”.  The first term refers to landowning and agroindustrial interests strongly opposed, for example, to the protection of indigenous people and further land expropriations in favour of indigenous claimants and quilombos, not to mention a range of measures related to environmental conservation and combating climate change. The second refers to a “law and order lobby” that favours measures such as the reduction of the age of criminal responsibility and the transfer of young offenders to regular adult prisons, as well as the maintenance of repressive styles of policing. And the third refers to the growing political influence of socially conservative Evangelical Christians, advocating against abortion and in favour of continuing discrimination against, and in many cases, outright repression, of homosexuals.

Brazil’s legislators are now trying to reverse not simply some of the most important social achievements of the PT federal governments but also some of the rights won by Brazilian workers in the era of Getúlio Vargas. To their credit, anthropologists are playing an important role alongside other intellectuals in providing the evidence needed to undermine the case in favour of some of this reactionary legislation. One of the anthropological contributions mentioned by Rodrigo Martins is that of Debora Diniz, of the University of Brasilia, who describes the new efforts to impose further restrictions on legal abortion as “perverse” in the light of her recent research, which shows, inter alia, that more than a third of the women who seek legal abortion are children or adolescents, very frequently victims of sexual violence within their own families. Those of us who have worked ethnographically on crime and public security issues can offer well-grounded arguments against filling prisons (veritable schools of crime) with yet more, and younger, inmates, even if the transnational capitalist corporations eager to capture this business are generous towards their local lobbyists, and it is equally difficult not to be appalled by current congressional efforts to diminish rather than extend control over private possession and use of firearms.  Brazilian anthropologists have, of course, been especially active in supporting the efforts of indigenous and Afro-descendant Brazilians to secure land rights and defend themselves against mining and energy projects. This makes the profession especially unpopular with the BBB lobby.

Unfortunately, efforts to base public policy decisions on evidence-based independent academic research have some difficulty thriving in the present political climate. One of Dilma Rousseff’s biggest problems has been Eduardo Cunha, leader of the lower house of Congress, and an Evangelical Christian of the most businesslike kind. Cunha belongs to the PMDB, supposedly a government ally at federal level: he has not simply promoted reactionary legislation but impeded the executive’s efforts to govern at every turn. Cunha has been shown to be the beneficiary of large deposits in Swiss bank accounts, but has been maintained in his key position to date by the opposition in the interests of furthering the campaign to force President Dilma out of office, destroy the credibility of her party, and effect an undemocratic transfer of power (to the PMDB Vice-President) that will improve the chances of the losers of the Presidential elections of 2014 doing better next time and fully returning Brazil to the path of capitalist orthodoxy. But for many of the actors, this is perhaps too globally systematic a perspective. It seems that a large part of Brazil’s political class is willing to plunge the country into an ever deeper economic crisis simply in order to achieve a greater share of power and the spoils of office.

However, beyond a purely political level of analysis that reveals some of the unresolved structural problems of Brazil’s democracy, we need to address deeper questions about what the present composition of the congress and its legislative agenda tells us about Brazilian society. It is easy to describe that entire agenda as “reactionary” and so it is, often in the most literal of senses. But it is not possible to say, for example, that all Evangelicals are reactionary, or that there is not a substantial body of citizen support for stronger gun control in Brazil. We need a more precise understanding of what particular segments (or combination of) segments of Brazilian society tend to support particular measures and why. We need to understand why counter-arguments often seem to lack leverage in politics, which is sadly often because professional politicians, even of the centre-left, see no electoral advantage in going against the flow, but not simply because of that given that there are issues of who is now getting elected in the first place. And we need to think about new politically effective ways of promoting alternatives (bearing in mind the role of the mass media in Brazil).

Unfortunately, the forces of reaction in Brazil seem to be doing their best to cover that one too. The current legislative agenda includes anti-terrorism legislation that has not been purged of elements capable of justifying the criminalisation of peaceful forms of social protest (such as protests against forced evictions linked to the creation of neoliberal capitalist urban utopias, or against landowner-sponsored violence against indigenous people and activists, for example). Critics of the PT federal governments on the Left are not likely to find the record of either the Lula or Dilma administrations on these kinds of issues totally satisfying, and I would have to agree with them. But today’s issue is principally how mounting retrograde tendencies that go beyond the often unseemly antics of Brazil’s exceptionally well paid politicians in the congress might be reversed.

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