Canalha! Canalha! Canalha!

Canalha is a Portuguese word that means “scoundrel” when applied to an individual and “rabble” or “riffraff” when applied to a group. Senator Tancredo Neves, the grandfather of Aécio Neves, shouted it thee times in the direction of Senator Auro Moura Andrade, after Andrade falsely claimed in the plenary session of April 2, 1964, that President João Goulart had fled the country, opening the way for the coup that installed twenty years of military dictatorship.

In the course of the impeachment hearing against Dilma Rousseff, Roberto Requião, a PMDB senator for Paraná, who refused to allow his party’s line and denounced the proceedings as a coup in the most forthright terms possible, reminded his colleagues of this inauspicious moment in the history of the house by repeating Tancredo’s famous phrase. Aécio Neves soon leapt to his feet to protest against what he insisted was a scandalous abuse of his grandfather’s legacy. Although he was elected indirectly rather than on the basis of a popular vote. Tancredo Neves was indeed deeply respected as a democrat and would have been the first president of post-dictatorship Brazil had he not been taken ill and died before he could take up his office. But political virtue is not, it seems, a genetically determined predisposition. Dilma’s supporters repeated the insult. Their opponents now seem determined to prove that they deserve it.

Michel Temer and his foreign minister Jose Serra have made big efforts during the G20 meeting in China to criminalise acts of protest against their regime. Temer, rather stupidly, dismissed the earlier protests in São Paulo as insignificant acts by “no more than between 40 and 100 people”. If that claim were true, which it wasn’t in strictly numeric terms, then at the very least one would have to conclude that the violence exercised by the police against these tiny protests was disproportionate, even if the police were provoked. It would also make it hard to understand why the PSBD government of São Paulo state (which controls the military police) had initially tried to prevent a protest taking place yesterday along the Avenida Paulista, before the city government, headed by the PT’s Fernando Haddad, helped to negotiate official permission.

When the march took place yesterday, reliable press reports from sources such as El País and the BBC confirm that it was massive (the organisers claim 100,000) and peaceful, until the military police launched a violent assault with teargas and rubber bullets when the demonstrators were leaving to go home after the march concluded. The official version was that there was a tumult and acts of vandalism at the Faria Lima metro station. This was, as always, faithfully reported by the Globo news network as a fact. But journalists from El Páis who accompanied the march in person saw no evidence that the police were provoked. People who had not been participating in the march have been insisting in social networks that it was entirely peaceful and denied the alleged vandalism and confrontation at the station. BBC journalist Felipe Souza reported that, when the march began, members of the Homeless Movement (MTST) obliged the members of “black bloc” groups who turned up to remove their masks, or leave the march, precisely to avoid the possibility of any vandalistic acts of provocation occurring. Once the police attack began, it seems that some young people may have tried to fight back, and the BBC reporter decided to observe the events from a position behind the police. When police officers advanced on him ordering him to leave, he held up his hands and showed them his press pass. Despite this, he was subjected to a beating during which one of the officers responsible shouted “get out of here, trash”.

El País‘s reporting team interviewed people who reported that the police had simply started lobbing teargas indiscriminately towards the crowd of dispersing demonstrators inside and outside the station.  People who had simply sat down to eat in a nearby bar after the march ended were taken completely by surprise, and the victims included pensioners. For this was not the kind of protest by young anarchist radicals that Temer and Serra claimed was all that was happening in Brazil. The El País report, based on careful direct observation, makes it clear that the marchers included many older people, and people from many walks of life, and that they were marching because they believed that democracy in Brazil had been violated by a coup and that the new government was illegitimate. As in earlier pro-democracy protests with a similar social composition that I observed myself in Salvador at the start of the move to remove Dilma from office, parents brought children with them because they wanted their children to know that they had a legitimate constitutionally guaranteed right to engage in peaceful public protest, a right confirmed by the justice system when attempts were made to prevent people holding up “Fora Temer” placards in the Olympic Stadium. But the São Paulo military police do not appear concerned about children when they make indiscriminate and unjustified use of teargas and carelessly fire rubber bullets into crowds.  As one of the victims angrily explained to El País reporter Carla Jiménez, using that word again, but about the police: “Paramos para comer em um bar e a polícia covarde e canalha, sem motivo algum, jogou uma bomba de gas dentro do estabelecimento”. (We stopped to eat in a bar and the cowardly and scoundrel police, without any reason, threw a gas bomb inside the establishment).

It remains to be seen if large-scale peaceful protests against the new regime and in support of the new elections that Dilma offered as a way forward can be sustained. There will no doubt be a lot more repression in post-coup Brazil, and much of it will be more murderous but less directly visible to the eyes of the responsible sectors of the press and electronic media, which do not, sadly, include the mainstream news organisations that are Brazilian-owned. Repression of social movements is a popular strategy amongst all elements of the coalition of political and capitalist forces participating in the coup. But yesterday’s shameful and unnecessary acts were the direct responsibility of the PSDB authorities in São Paulo, although these tactics may have received the backstage endorsement of the Federal Justice Minister, Alexandre de Moraes, who has his own personal history of sponsoring repression, including repression of school and university students, as Public Security Secretary of São Paulo. Governor Alckmin has a miserable track record of bringing military police guilty of extra-judicial killings in the urban periphery to book, so no doubt blinding students, gassing pensioners, and deliberately beating up BBC journalists will also enjoy impunity. But this senseless act of repression may nevertheless prove a political mistake. It draws unnecessary attention to the size of the demonstration and the heterogeneity of opposition to the government, thereby undermining the Temer-Serra strategy of simultaneously criminalising protest against their regime and minimising its scale.  And it certainly helps to confirm that the word canalha fits the PSDB, to which Serra also belongs, like a glove.

One protest that didn’t make headlines, since it really did (inevitably) only involve a handful of people, took place outside the Paris residence of the PSDB’s last successful presidential candidate, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. One protestor asked a very simple question. How could a former Brazilian president who had previously been an academic afford to buy a luxurious apartment like this in the most exclusive part of one of Europe’s greatest capital cities? FHC, who was the architect of Brazil’s first, and many would say, disastrous, “neoliberal reforms”, is always protesting his innocence of any involvement in acts of political or personal corruption. For an example, click here and scroll down to read his irritated response to a brilliant in-depth analysis of the roots of Brazil’s political crisis that Perry Anderson originally wrote in English for the London Review of Books, although it has subsequently been published in Portuguese, and in Spanish (in a fine collection of essays published open-access by CLACSO) as well. FHC regards the coup as a splendid demonstration of the strength of Brazilian democracy. Canalha! Canalha! Canalha!