The coup unfolds

On Wednesday, three supreme court judges publicly scolded President Dilma Rousseff for describing the impeachment vote in the house of deputies as a coup. They were Celso de Mello, Dias Toffoli, and, no surprise, Gilmar Mendes. The judges’ grounds for attacking the “very grave mistake” of the President were that the congress has respected the procedures laid down in the constitution. This is, of course, the defence that is always made of “white coups” that use lawfare rather than force of arms to depose democratically elected national leaders. In this particular case, a focus on procedure helps to obscure the weakness of the actual legal case for impeachment and the possibility that the motives of the politicians who nevertheless voted to improve the impeachment had absolutely nothing to do with defence of the constitution or democracy.

In doing this, the judges, along with the national media that strive to advance the coup minute by minute, twenty-four hours a day, are choosing to downplay the fact that the reaction of quality foreign newspapers such as the Guardian and New York Times to the congressional vote has been extremely negative. Talking about procedural correctness when newspapers in the English-speaking world are describing the congressional majority as a “gang of thieves” hardly dignifies Brazil and its institutions. But criticism of what has happened is actually pretty general outside Brazil. An experienced Brazil analyst on a Portuguese TV station, Miguel Souza Tavares,  described the congressional proceedings in the following terms (as reported in Carta Maior): “It was a general assembly of bandits commanded by a bandit named Eduardo Cunha carrying out the removal of a President without any legal or constitutional basis, but above all, with a lack of dignity that I would call hair-raising”. Like many other commentators, he is referring principally to the spectacle of a long series of congressional deputies who are themselves accused of, and indeed in some cases convicted of, grave acts of corruption, standing up to vote for the impeachment in the name of the need to end corruption. It is ironic but hardly surprising given their demonstrated lack of ethics that some of the most hypocritical and Judas-like figures of all were political personages such as Paulo Maluf with whom Lula had deemed it pragmatically essential to deal in the interests of securing “governability”.

Yet the farce defended for its procedural correctness by the judges also included some even darker moments. Perhaps the worst of all was an expression of homage to an officer who commanded the torture carried out by the intelligence services of the military dictatorship by  a deputy of the Social Christian Party, Jair Bolsonaro. One of those who was tortured by the apparatus directed by Carlos Ustra was Dilma Rousseff. Bolsonaro is an evangelical, well-known for his homophobic and machista views as well as for his enthusiasm for authoritarian rule. Although he is an extreme figure, Bolsonaro plans to stand for President, and his intolerant views are widely shared amongst the Bible, Bullet and Beef lobby that dominates this congress.

There have also been widespread expressions of concern about the implications of this impeachment process for the future of Brazilian democracy within Latin America, from political and diplomatic bodies such as UNASUL, and academic ones such as FLACSO and CLACSO. But once again, the issues transcend procedures and the legal basis for the process. One line of argument, persistently recorded in foreign press commentaries, is that Cunha launched the impeachment process to save himself from conviction for corruption. His securing of impunity is indeed a likely outcome of the impeachment process as things stand, unless the judges of the STF decide to focus their attention on ways in which a highly anomalous situation might be resolved. A broader hypothesis is that efforts to secure “regime change” on the part of the opposition actually reflect the shared interest of the rest of Brazil’s political class in ensuring that the Lava-Jato investigations do not prejudice them. Despite opposition claims that Dilma Rousseff and the PT have tried to interfere in the investigations, it is in fact her enemies who now have most to lose from pursuit of the charges of corruption already made against leading figures of the PMDB and PSDB. Once Dilma is suspended from office and Michel Temer takes over, it will be relatively easy to embark on such a process of covering tracks and thwarting justice, even if it will take many months more to conclude the impeachment process and make the President’s removal definitive. All this can, of course, be done in strict accordance with procedures laid down in the Constitution.

But there is also concern, inside and outside Brazil, about the economic and social agenda that will be pursued by a government headed by Temer, and backed by Cunha and a reactionary congress. Although Dilma is still in office, emissaries of the vice-president have already been dispatched to Washington, and his intention to revert to an extreme neoliberal economic agenda is already a published fact. The congress has already been working hard on enacting laws that reverse much of the social legislation of the PT era that sought to make Brazil a more tolerant and open society.  So it is not simply the Left that has reasons to be apprehensive about what is coming. These kinds of considerations focus attention on the elite interests that are publicly backing the coup, such as the FIESP (the Federation of Industries of São Paulo), which aspires to efface most of Brazilian labour’s historical conquests from the time of Getúlio Vargas onwards and not simply the more recent legacy of the PT. But they also focus attention on new youth movements that recruit principally but not exclusively from the upper classes. These are characterised by right-wing and highly individualistic ideologies, discussed in an interesting article in the current issue of the magazine Caros Amigos by journalist Fania Rodrigues, who argues that the Right not the Left were in fact the principal beneficiaries of the 2013 street protests (“A Nova Direita”, pp. 18-21, Number 229, 5 April 2016). Although some of these new activists are “libertarian” on (some) social and sexual issues, the majority seem closer to the outlook of figures such as Jair Bolsonaro.

The other question that the economic agenda of the PMDB and PSDB raises is the role of the United States in all this. Brazilians critical of the coup have not been slow in making comparisons with Honduras and Paraguay. Those who defend the constitutional correctness of the impeachment process tend to insist that this is all left-wing conspiracy theory and paranoia. They refuse to acknowledge the rather obvious links between leading opposition figures in the Brazilian congress and US oil corporations such as Chevron, mining and financial interests, companies selling educational and medical services, and all the other kinds of lobbyists and “pro-market” think-tanks that have inserted themselves very effectively into the webs of influence trafficking that permeate Brazilian democracy. These networks are fairly visible, and although their links with government and broader US strategies for the re-establishment of hegemony in Latin America may remain deniable, there is a certain amount of history repeating itself from the Vargas era as well the 1964 military coup in the current campaign to remove the PT from power. The United States tried to deny any direct involvement in the 1964 coup. But a still limited release of  classified documents subsequently showed that US taxpayers funded not only “logistical support” for the military “revolutionaries” that included ammunition and petrol, but covert support operations for anti-government street rallies “in support of democracy and against communism”, along with “encouragement” for groups inside and outside the military that favoured the overthrow of the elected government. Plus ça change, probably.