Brazil’s uncertain future

The extended process of impeaching President Dilma Rousseff came to its inevitable end yesterday with her removal from office, by a majority of 61 votes for to 20 against, in the Senate, whose members act as the final jury in impeachment cases in a session presided over by the President of the Supreme Court. Minister Ricardo Lewandowski managed to maintain the overall decorum of the proceedings, despite a number of moments of high emotion (real and feigned) and some trading of insults. The most important aspect of Lewandowski’s role was, however, his decision to support the request by the now ex-President’s  supporters to take the final vote in two parts, the first on the issue of whether Dilma Rousseff was guilty of “crimes of responsibility”, and the second on whether she should be stripped of her political rights for eight years. Dilma is now 68 years old, and the consequence of an affirmative vote on the second motion would have not only been to bar her from seeking elected office, but from performing any function in a public institution, including public universities. The motion to remove her political rights did not secure the necessary two-thirds majority, because a significant number of PMDB senators who had voted for Dilma’s removal as President, including the Senate’s President, Renan Calheiros, voted against this second measure, joining the relatively small number of their party colleagues who had opposed the impeachment itself.

The PMDB, the PT’s former coalition partner in government, is the party of the new president, Michel Temer, who needed the removal of his predecessor to be concluded yesterday in order to travel to China in the evening to represent Brazil in the G20 meeting. The decision not to remove Dilma’s political rights provoked an immediate protest against the conduct of the peemdebistas by the other main parties backing this constitutional coup, the PSDB and the DEMs, although it now appears that they will not pursue the matter further through judicial channels. It was clearly based on a political calculation of the risks of Dilma becoming a focus of opposition to the new government versus the need to try to build some legitimacy for an indirectly elected executive proposing to pursue measures that had clearly been rejected by a majority of voters in the 2014 elections, as the result of an impeachment process that has itself been widely questioned, Anxieties about their own future fate should things go pear-shaped may also have figured in the minds of some PMDB senators. Temer is no more popular than Dilma was, and polls showed a clear majority in favour of an extraordinary general election, the alternative the ex-president had promised to pursue  should she be allowed to continue in office.

It is very likely that Temer will continue to have problems with the PSDB and the DEMs, and as head of an interim administration he has already had a taste of the same problems with the congress that made it impossible for Dilma Rousseff to govern effectively in her second term. His foreign minister, Jose Serra, is a member of the PSDB. Like his rivals Aécio Neves, PSDB president, senator, and former state governor of Minas Gerais, and Geraldo Alckmin, current state governor of São Paulo, Serra is a former presidential candidate defeated by the PT. Although there will no doubt be a lot more in-fighting to come over who will be PSDB candidate in the elections that should take place in 2018, getting back into power is the party’s principal objective, although its leading figures also have an interest in ensuring that the removal from office of Dilma Rousseff draws a line under investigations into political corruption not targeted against the PT. All these key names have figured in corruption accusations of considerable seriousness, in contrast to the impeached President, whose political problems are in part the result of her refusal to support shutting such investigations down. But she did not have the power to prevent the effective blocking of inquiries into her main political opponents. Although both Jose Serra and Michel Temer have been named by plea bargainers in the Lava Jato investigation, their now consolidated governmental roles will guarantee them impunity unless something truly extraordinary happens to the system itself in the next two years.

The basis for convicting Dilma Rousseff of crimes of responsibility has been rejected by most jurists outside Brazil, and by many inside the country, including Marcelo Lavenère, the lawyer responsible for making the case for impeachment against Fernando Collor de Mello, the last Brazilian president to be impeached, and first to be directly elected after the end of the military dictatorship. Collor resigned in 1992 before his impeachment process was completed, but was also found guilty by the Senate. In contrast to Dilma, Collor was accused of acts of corruption rather than inadmissible administrative acts, and did suffer the additional penalty of  having his political rights revoked for eight years. Yet yesterday  Collor, who retains a strong personal political base in his native Alagoas, was one of the senators passing judgement on Dilma Rousseff, arguing vigorously against the characterisation of the process as a coup. Although Collor was later acquitted of the corruption charges brought against him because the Supreme Court ruled that the evidence against him was insufficient, few people were surprised when his name popped up again in the Lava Jato scandal. Those who know Brazil will also have no difficulty in coping with the fact that another of Dilma’s judges in the Senate was Romero Jucá. Jucá, already a figure in the Lava Jato investigation of corruption involving the national oil company Petrobras, “took leave” from the interim administration of his friend Michel Temer after the divulgation of a conversation that was secretly taped by  former senator and president of the Transpetro company, Sérgio Machado. Jucá’s words not only suggested that one of the aims behind the impeachment was to block further progress with Lava Jato, but also provided evidence in favour of the hypothesis that Rousseff’s ouster was the product of a political conspiracy. Although Jucá denies this interpretation, his claims that he was talking about the need to do something about the dire state of the economy and not about Lava Jato were not made more plausible by his scornful remarks about how the Lava Jato investigators’ high-minded pursuit of corruption investigations was designed to result in the rise of a new and “clean” political class, and observation that people were now realising the threat which that posed not only for members of the PMDB like himself but also for the likes of Aécio Neves and José Serra. He also referred to discussions with figures in the military who offered guarantees that protests against the coup would be effectively repressed, and to talks with members of the Supreme Court who had told him that “this shit” would never stop while Rousseff was president.

Romero Jucá’s continuing presence in the Senate might be considered a particularly strong indication that something is broken in the country’s political institutions. But the credibility of the judgement of the ex-President was not enhanced by the fact that more than half of the current senators have been accused of crimes far more serious than those levelled against Dilma. This is not to say that the entire house should be labelled a band of criminals, and Dilma’s defenders included a few members of the PMDB as well as other parties whose national leaderships had backed the impeachment. The proceedings in the Senate were more dignified than the farce that took place in the lower house of congress in the first step of the impeachment process. But this, along with the seamier side of life at this political level, reflects the fact that many senators are members of long-established political clans that have exercised strong hereditary oligarchic control over their regions, whereas the lower house is more heterogenous because it includes representatives of more recently created minor parties and a broader spectrum of ideological positions at the socially conservative end of the spectrum, some of which are very extreme indeed.

Dilma herself came out of the proceedings with considerable dignity. She not only made a powerful speech that combined rebutting the specific charges that she was called upon to answer with a strong restatement of why this “constitutional” process, launched as a squalid act of retaliation by former chamber of deputies leader Eduardo Cunha, was in fact a coup based on a political conspiracy to end 13 years of rule by the PT by means other than the ballot box. Linking her recent sufferings to her experience of torture under the military regime and fight against cancer, she continued to resist efforts to undermine her moral authority successfully in a gruelling 14 hours of questioning by her judges and the lawyers conducting the prosecution. One of the most important points that she sought to address was the persistent efforts by her opponents to slip from the specific charges of fiscal crimes of responsibility of which she was accused into a broader argument about her responsibility for the deep economic crisis in which the country was now immersed. She argued convincingly that the administrative acts on the basis of which she was being impeached could not have had a significant effect on the budget deficit, let alone be considered the real causes of the recession, which Dilma linked to the commodity cycle. It was also somewhat ridiculous that she could be accused of economic mismanagement because she was unable to get a hostile congress to collaborate in her efforts to cut public spending, while her defeated opponent in the 2014 election, Aécio Neves, who had jeered at her for stealing the policies that he himself had advocated, and of which he presumably still approved as being in the public interest, also criticised her for perpetrating a policy U-turn that betrayed the 54 million Brazilians who voted for her.

But although these broader criticisms of her government’s administration of the economy could not easily be linked to the specific charges on which the case for impeachment for crimes of responsibility was based, they clearly were a factor in determining the votes of some senators and fundamental to the ex-President’s dramatic loss of popularity in the country. Dilma Rousseff’s decision to present her defence in person was clearly the right one from the point of view of ensuring that history would make a more positive judgement of her than of the forces that came together to oust her from office. She has been willing to concede that she made some mistakes. Yet had she actually been returned to office, she would clearly have had a very difficult time indeed trying to re-establish her authority, and even the PT itself may benefit in the longer term from having been expelled from power by questionable means.

But the drama is far from over. To date the selectivity manifest in the treatment of the PT relative to other political parties that are equally implicated in corruption has graphically illustrated the truth of the Brazilian adage “For my friends, everything, for my enemies the law”. The entire logic of defending the impeachment process as exemplifying the robust republican virtues of a solid institutional separation of powers conforms to anthropologist Roberto DaMatta’s famous accounts of how the fetishisation of the law in Brazil enables the reproduction of oligarchic and hierarchic social and political structures in a country who constitution is apparently based on liberal principles. The next step in completing the coup may be the imprisonment of ex-President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, following renewal of the investigations into his links with construction companies, with accusations of involvement in the Petrobras scandal possibly also waiting in the wings. Gilmar Mendes, the principal voice of the PSDB in the Supreme Court,  has already put a toe in the water on two other possibilities. One is winding down the Lava Jato investigation by recognising the use of “illicit methods” that were studiously ignored by the Judicial branch when Lava Jata was principally focused on undermining the public image of the PT. The other is cancelling the PT’s right to participate in elections. Even assuming that demands that the PT be totally destroyed are not likely to bear fruit in practice, given that such an outcome would cast serious doubt on Brazil’s claims to be a democracy,  there is no doubt that the party is in trouble. Part of its alleged involvement in corruption is not about the pursuit of personal gain but about financing election campaigns. Already heavily sanctioned by the Higher Electoral Tribunal for past campaign funding misdemeanours, the PT attempted to respond to the Lava Jato revelations by substituting funding from private companies with individual donations from supporters, but this leaves its electoral war chest relatively fragile. Despite Lula’s personal efforts, support for Dilma Rousseff was somewhat half-hearted in some sections of her own party, and even if Lula escapes a criminal conviction that would disbar him from being a presidential candidate in 2018, the PT’s dependence on its charismatic original leader is also a weakness.

Irrespective of what happens to the new government headed by Michel Temer, the PT clearly needs to use the space for reflection provided by its ejection from power to reflect on its own deficiencies. This means rebuilding the links with social movements that were integral to the party’s project at its foundation but frequently neglected when it was in power and the focus was principally on gathering votes. It means revisiting and improving other foundational PT ideas about popular participation, to eliminate the contradiction that participation is so often subordinated to a logic of government that empties it of content, turns it into a meaningless ritual, or simply avoids it, once power is won. It means reflecting on the politics of compromise with dominant class interests and traditional ways of doing politics that coexisted with what were genuine, serious and successful efforts to promote greater social justice.

The economic strategy that underpinned the PT’s political success in the years before the present crisis also requires radical rethinking. Although the PT cannot be blamed for Brazil’s relative de-industrialisation, that strategy was very dependent on commodity exports, high oil prices, and an expansion of consumer credit on a scale that was good for Brazil’s extremely profitable banks but is now proving catastrophic for poor consumers saddled with debts that are difficult to repay with interest rates that are the highest in the world. That the kind of neoliberal adjustment that the coup aims to make could make things very much worse is no reason for not thinking critically about the extent to which the PT governments also went with the flow on socially exclusionary neoliberal models of urban development and the repressive styles of policing poor communities that accompany this type of urban restructuring. Dependence on commodity exports also limited the commitments that PT governments were willing to make to land reform or control of national and transnational mining interests. This is not to say that there was no difference between the PT and other parties of the centre and right. It is simply to say that the difference was not great enough to produce the more radical changes in underlying political and socio-economic power relations that the success of the coup has now shown to be necessary.

This is, of course, the kind of argument that political forces to the left of the PT habitually make, but faced with the present stark reality, it is clearly essential that everyone start thinking about practical ways of working better together to regain some initiative, since it seems unlikely that any new mass movement against the Temer government is going to explode onto the streets spontaneously in the near future. Organisation needs to be rethought, along more democratic and participatory lines, and be linked to a new project. That project will have to attract people from different social classes but it must not follow the path of compromise with capitalism as it is that has produced disillusion with social democratic parties and strengthened populist movements of the right throughout the world. In particular, it must not sacrifice the interests of those Brazilians who desperately need to live in a less unequal and less socially and racially prejudiced society. And it needs to be a project that will convince everyone that the errors of the past will not be repeated, which means that it must involve serious proposals for reforming institutions, especially the political institutions that are now so obviously broken.

As the leader of the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST), João Pedro Stédile remarked in a recent interview, it is ironic that Temer has embraced a strategy of returning to full-blooded neoliberal remedies at a moment in which even the IMF has concluded that this kind of austerity does not work and produces levels of inequality that are non-viable for societies that hope to remain democratic. To date, however, Temer’s need to ensure the success of the coup has obliged him to act in less than a “fiscally responsible” manner in order to buy the votes needed to secure congressional support. As I have repeatedly stressed in comments on this blog, the new government’s program is not simply about “reforming” the pension system, downsizing the state by cutting expenditure on health and education as well as social programs, and stripping workers of rights in ways that will improve Brazil’s performance in the global race to the bottom that squeezes real wages and increases precariousness. It is also about regressive measures on social issues that will placate potentially fractious evangelicals in congress, and about ensuring the support of the rural lobby, in ways that will be bad for the environment and exceptionally bad for indigenous people and those struggling for land reform. It is about selling the future by privatising more national assets and handing them over to foreign capital rather than reserving them for the benefit of Brazilians. The recent experience of Argentina suggests that returning to neoliberal “shock therapy” at the bottom of a global economic cycle is not likely to produce popular results in the short term in terms of employment and cost of living. Advances in access to public higher education institutions and even the continuing existence of a universal public health service are also now under threat in Brazil. Also under threat is one of Lula’s greatest achievements, giving Brazil a respected and independent voice in world affairs.

But there is considerable uncertainty about how much of this agenda can be implemented and at what pace. As I stressed earlier, the congress could prove as big a problem for Michel Temer as it proved for Dilma Rousseff, and the alliance between the PMDB and PSDB is inevitably made fragile by the PSDB’s hopes of finally returning to power. So the immediate road ahead may be rocky. Nevertheless, the United States government has predictably moved quickly to accept Dilma’s removal as “constitutional” (just as it did in the case of the earlier coups of this type in Honduras and Paraguay). Brazil may now be seen as relatively safe for US and other foreign investors (compared, for example, with Argentina, where the Macri government is facing very much stronger opposition). The history of Brazil’s fragile democracy has been repeatedly punctuated by the removal of elected presidents before they completed their terms of office. Comparisons are being made between the role of the congress in providing the false pretext for the removal of João Goulart from office that ushered in twenty-one years of military dictatorship in 1964, and the manoeuvres that led Getúlio Vargas to abandon his presidency through suicide in 1954. The end of the Collor presidency is clearly a different matter, but what these two earlier episodes have in common is that they involved presidents whose policies were seen as a significant threat by the oligarchy (and US interests). In framing her own defence, Dilma Rousseff has clearly been thinking about the model set by Vargas’s famous carta testamento, addressed to the citizens of Brazil.  That letter helped keep democracy alive for ten more years.

It is constructive for academic commentators to reflect on what the PT did wrong, and even more constructive for members of the PT themselves to think deeply about their party’s mistakes and sins of omission. But there seems to be little doubt that what is to come will prove far worse, to a point that may even lead those Brazilians who took to the streets to demand Dilma Rousseff’s ouster driven by feelings of class resentment and prejudice to regret their contribution to legitimating this “constitutional” coup d’état.