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Republic of Lies

Tom Hennigan

From its historic perch on the fringe of world affairs Brazil played its part in the staging of the great 2016 festival of political dishonesty. Admittedly in the year of Trump and Brexit its constitutional convulsions were low down on a somewhat packed bill. Events taking place elsewhere will have far greater global significance than Brazil’s impeachment of a second president from just five elected since the return of full democracy in 1989. But the sorry nature of this year’s shabby melodrama in Brasília, a play with an interminable number of scenes and almost exclusively peopled by villains of varying degrees of moral turpitude, saw all indulge in a carnival of untruths.

The guiltiest party here is made up of those on the losing side of the argument ‑ Dilma Rousseff, her political mentor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and their Workers Party, dumped out of power after thirteen years following her suspension from the presidency in May and final impeachment in August. They have played the race card, the gender card, the class card and the transnational conspiracy card among others to explain a simple, if for them painful, truth ‑ Rousseff was fired because she had lost the ability to govern, an intolerable situation in Brazil’s political system, crowned as it is with a strong executive.

Most of all her supporters claim that her removal amounts to a golpe – a coup d’état ‑ in the most egregious break with the constitutional order built after two decades of military rule. This claim carries a particular charge that calls for proper scrutiny in a region once plagued by coups, many orchestrated or backed by Washington. Dilma, as Rousseff is called by friend and foe alike, herself opposed the military dictatorship that came to power in the “Revolution” of 1964 (political mendacity having existed before 2016). For her efforts she was tortured and all last year lost no opportunity to compare and contrast her experience under the generals with that at the hands of the country’s congress and courts. That she led an ostensibly left-wing government that was replaced by a gang of corrupt, rich, white men only adds for many a certain Colbertian “truthiness” to her coup thesis.

And yet this is a case of much smoke but no fire. Impeachment by its very nature is an admission that something has gone very wrong in a democratic system. It is a process that typically polarises a country’s polity. But that does not negate the fact that impeachment is a constitutionally recognised mechanism in many countries and while activating it usually provokes a political rupture this does not necessarily amount to a constitutional one.

And in Brazil there was no constitutional rupture, no coup, parliamentary or otherwise, last year. The claim by the Workers Party (or PT after its Portuguese initials) that there was amounts to little more than Brazil’s sorriest contribution to the poisonous, post-factual demagoguery that blighted 2016. Dilma’s impeachment followed the constitution and associated laws. The one major deviation from these was undertaken to benefit her. Notwithstanding the vitriol the process provoked, a majority of leading jurists declared it constitutionally sound.

Her enemies ‑ that is to say her former allies ‑ did undoubtedly conspire to remove her from office. But their conspiracy scrupulously followed the law, as interpreted by a supreme court dominated by PT appointees. Dilma herself provided her enemies with their opportunity after her administration’s fiddling of the public finances in order to hide its own fiscal irresponsibility was exposed by the financial press and then confirmed by state auditors. To her own base and sympathetic observers domestic and foreign, this charge hovered between insignificant and trumped up. But breaking Brazil’s fiscal responsibility law, a keystone of the nation’s defences against a return to the ruinous hyperinflation of the 1990s, while highly technical and so for many non-economists tedious to grasp, was nevertheless hugely important. The revelation of her so-called fiscal pedaladas ‑ step-overs in football ‑ spooked markets, undermining confidence in the public finances, and started the country down the path of downgrades until it was stripped of its hard-earned investment grade credit rating. The pretext for impeaching Fernando Collor in 1992 was a dodgy Fiat Elba. The pretext for removing Dilma from office was far stronger than the one that did for him, in a process that was vocally backed by the PT.

But if the fiscal responsibility law and a Fiat Elba provided the legal basis for these impeachments, the successful removal of first Collor and now Dilma were due to far deeper economic, political and ethical failings that combined meant their positions had become unsustainable and the political system, in a bid to keep the apparatus of state functioning, decided they must go. It is probably true that Dilma would have survived breaking Brazil’s fiscal responsibility law had she any political talents. Sadly she had none that mattered. Predecessors had seen off worse accusations than she faced thanks to their political agility. Unfortunately for her, her party and the country, she was no politician but a technocrat promoted into a role for which she had little preparation.

The presidency was her first ever elected position. Her inability to operate Brazil’s complex political system was increasingly exposed over her five and a half years in office. She disdained congress, refused to meet its leaders, broke promises made in order to pass legislation. She treated her own coalition allies with a haughty disdain. At first this was refreshing, considering the corruption and incompetence of those Lula stuffed into her cabinet as his price for selecting an utter unknown to replace him. But the members of Brazil’s congress suffered the multiple humiliations Dilma rained down on them, all the while waiting for their chance to return the favour. This came in early 2015 when the lower house elected as its head Eduardo Cunha, formally an ally through his membership of the Democratic Movement of Brazil Party (PMDB), in truth a rival. Cunha, a political gangster, had his own dark reasons for his heave against the president, but in the face of Dilma’s undeniable failings he was pushing against an increasingly open door. By December 2015 he was confident enough to table an impeachment motion that formally marked the beginning of the end of the Dilma presidency.

Cunha could be confident that his effort to topple her would succeed because Dilma was dangerously exposed. Her disappointing first term had left her re-election chances in doubt. So she waged an underhand campaign with no quarter given during 2014’s presidential election campaign. Her message was dishonest but ruthlessly effective ‑ only she stood between poor Brazilians and the harsh austerity she said her opponents were planning for them. Having won, she then almost immediately admitted what she had spent months on the campaign trail angrily denying ‑ that the economy and public finances were in trouble and cuts would have to be made. Having built her whole campaign around her opposition to austerity she suddenly embraced it, in a volte-face breathtaking in its cynicism. Lula has since identified this moment as when she lost her presidency. The policy switch inflamed talk among her enemies that she had stolen the election. But even more damaging, her support collapsed among those who did vote for her, giving confidence to those set on her removal that the push-back against their effort would be weak. This proved the case. Protests in defence of her mandate looked underwhelming compared with the monster demonstrations in favour of impeachment. The PT lost the battle for the Brazilian street it once dominated.

It also lost its hard-earned (too hard-earned for many of its militants) relationship with Brazil’s financial markets, which matured with the party’s increasingly mellow approach to business and wealth as it entered middle age. Lula had worked well with Brazil’s banker elite and biggest business groups. But Dilma soured this relationship by inheriting his booming economy and micromanaging it into its worst recession in decades. Her so-called New Economic Matrix ‑ a mess of refried dirigisme ‑ saw a supposedly left-wing administration shovel billions in cheap state credit into the pockets of Brazil’s plutocrats in a doomed bid to build national champions that would help accelerate growth. Instead there were spectacular bankruptcies and a deterioration of the public accounts to the point where even those nervous about removing a democratically elected president reluctantly climbed on board Cunha’s impeachment train least she turn Brazil ‑ sinking ever deeper into recession and its deficits and debts ballooning alarmingly ‑ into another Argentina.

So Dilma, by her own ill-judged actions, provided the legal pretext for impeachment and the political and economic context that allowed it succeed. Yet she only needed one-third of the votes in either the lower house of congress or senate to side with her to survive it. She could not even clear this low bar despite the lavish patronage machine at the executive’s disposal. In large measure this was because of the body-blows she and the rest of the political class suffered at the hands of the sprawling scandal at Petrobras, the state oil giant that is Brazil’s biggest company and once a source of great national pride.

As the investigation by federal police and prosecutors into wrongdoing at the company (see my essay http://www.drb.ie/essays/slaying-the-octopus for an examination of its initial stages) deepened, it became increasingly political and therefore lethal for Dilma, so bereft of political instincts as she is. Public fury at what was being uncovered fuelled the mass protests of 2015, which helped drag the idea of impeachment from the fringes to the centre of political debate and weighed so heavily in the decision to strip Dilma of her mandate. We know now that billions had been looted from Brazil’s corporate flagship and its ultimate owners, the citizens of Brazil. Petrobras had been turned into an ATM for the country’s politicians. They used control over the firm to exchange contracts for bribes. The contractors, some of Brazil’s biggest companies, in return were allowed to massively overcharge for work done. They paid out hundreds of millions of euros in bribes and illegal campaign financing. But in a spectacular return on this investment were allowed to bilk the company for tens of billions by overcharging.

In the impeachment drama, as well as stimulating protests, the Petrobras probe also played a vital backroom role. Amazingly, despite having had responsibility for Petrobras for over a decade, first as energy minister, then chair of its board and finally president, Dilma reportedly thought the investigation was of no concern to her when it started. She then refused to move to quash it before it became a juggernaut careering its way through the political class. Since then she has sought to portray her attitude as a demonstration of her strict ethical standards. Perhaps, though the flood of evidence that almost three years on still pours out of the investigation is increasingly putting her claim under strain. Either way, the inquiry was politically ruinous, for her party, her coalition partners and ultimately her own presidency.

As well as giving prosecutors the opportunity to throw more red meat to an inflamed population, Dilma’s refusal to rein in their inquiry also meant that the conspiracy to remove her reached the heart of her coalition. Sectors of the PT were bewildered that her well-respected justice minister, Eduardo Cardozo, did nothing to impede the work of federal police under his command. But they were never going to move against a president from their own party. But the PMDB, her largest coalition partner, a systematically corrupt agglomeration of regional barons who all seem to be in politics because of the opportunities it provides for personal enrichment, could plot to remove the uncooperative Dilma, knowing that their own leader, vice-president Michel Temer, would take over. Leaked secret recordings from the probe show Temer’s closest collaborators discussing the removal of Dilma as necessary to “staunch the bloodletting” the Petrobras probe was provoking among the political class.

If Dilma would not protect her allies then she had to go, they reasoned. The PMDB betrayed her, but only after they decided she was willing to leave them at the mercy of prosecutors who stunned and thrilled a country with their zeal for taking down Brazil’s political untouchables. Once the PMDB turned on her, Dilma’s position crumbled, fatally weakened by the Petrobras probe. The PT’s own efforts to defend her, already undermined by her embrace of austerity, were further hampered by the constant need to respond to the latest developments in the investigation, which saw leading party figures, including party founder José Dirceu, various party treasurers, Dilma’s former leader in the senate and a roll-call of the party’s biggest business donors locked up.

The PT first insisted it was the victim of a partial investigation and as its panic increased cried judicial persecution and witch-hunt. The evidence accumulated by investigators undermines their claims. Only the most sectarian of the party’s supporters and its sometime allies, sometime rivals further to the left were now willing to defend it as the scale of the corruption it oversaw while in power was gradually unveiled.

Worst of all, the politician to whom Dilma most owed her position is at the heart of the affair. Lula tried to employ his personal popularity, which had been crucial to Dilma’s elections in 2010 and 2014, to save her from impeachment. But his political star has dimmed as his family’s murky financial affairs and dubious living arrangements have been dragged into the prosecutorial light. Lula publicly defended Dilma, promoted the coup thesis and waved off accusations that he had materially benefited from corruption with rambling stories about how he had never stolen an apple as a child because he did not want to disappoint his mother, the particulars of the charges laid against him pointedly ignored. But to no avail. When leaving office on January 1st, 2011 having imposed his unlikely successor on a sceptical country Lula appeared a political colossus, his popularity lost in the stratosphere at home and abroad. Less than five and a half years later he was reduced to tears beside his protégée as she was evicted from the presidential palace last May.

For the PT, impeachment has been traumatic. Disorientated, its rhetoric has too often been hysterical. Rather than coldly examine the missteps that led to Dilma’s removal there has been a lapse into the soothing comforts of the coup thesis, which is an attempt to wrap the party in a victimhood that carries echoes of earlier generations’ resistance against illegitimate regimes. This has tapped into a broader left analysis of events in Latin America that ascribes the failings of left-populist administrations to the machinations of cabals formed by reactionary elites, domestic capital, the IMF, World Bank, Wall Street and Washington DC ‑ rather than their own internal contradictions. Hence the PT press office promoting claims from what might be termed the usual anti-yanqui suspects that Dilma’s removal was a Washington-inspired plot to secure the fresh water resources of the giant Guarani Aquifer. It is not just Trump and his supporters who are happy to push crazy falsehoods.

Brazilian voters, however, have shown they are not interested. The PT sought to turn mid-term elections in October into a referendum on impeachment, only to suffer its most catastrophic defeat in decades. At local level the party was all but wiped out as a governing force in major cities and nationally saw its share of the vote implode, pushing it from the ranks of Brazil’s major parties down into the crowded second division of middling agglomerations and leaving its very survival as a national force in doubt. There is a double tragedy here. The first is that the PT has been reduced to this sorry state not because it tried to implement a left-wing agenda, as some of its supporters claim, but despite the fact it did not. During thirteen years in charge of the federal government it removed Brazil from the UN’s map of world hunger, massively expanded social programmes to protect the most vulnerable from destitution and expanded educational opportunities for the underprivileged.

But all this was done around the margins of both Brazil’s internal social settlement and the broader demands of neo-liberalism that Brazil signed up to in the 1990s and Lula accepted in 2002 as a condition for his election as president after three failed bids. Such advances as were made were managed without threatening privilege. No deeper structural changes were attempted that would advance the cause of Brazil’s poor. And so inequality is roughly where it was when the PT came to power, that is to say Brazil’s gap between rich and poor remains among the widest in the world.

In the future one imagines a whole literature will be produced examining how the PT attempted to bring social justice to Brazil while maintaining the structures that are designed to prevent it being realised. One example is the ProUni educational programme. Rather than tackle the gross injustices of the country’s education system the PT’s banner education initiative was to tack on a populist plaster over a system that sees public schools at the primary and secondary level starved of funds only for the taps to be relatively speaking thrown open for public university students, most of whom are the well-to-do beneficiaries of private education.

Again, the impact of this initiative should not be underestimated. At times during the last two years of political turmoil it felt like every second person attending an anti-impeachment rally was a beneficiary of the ProUni programme. The social, cultural and personal impact of providing a third level education to young people from poor backgrounds, most being the first generation of their family to go university, is enormous. It is striking how many young social activists in Brazil’s poor urban periphery and favelas are the first of their families to go on to third level. The programme, however, saw the government giving grants for the education of poor Brazilians in private institutions of inferior quality to their relatively spoilt public cousins. Their owners, finding themselves showered with public money, quickly became some of the PT’s biggest financiers.

Even worse, now that Dilma has left the federal coffers bare, the programme is in trouble and as its ability to draw some of the sting from inequality in education diminishes the system’s cruel superstructure once again stands in the way of greater social justice. That reflects a broader pattern which shows social advances made under the PT being given up due to the recession, reinforcing the arguments of those who claimed what progress was made in key social indicators owed more to the economic benefits reaped from the partial restructuring of the economy in the 1990s and the recent China-driven commodities boom than to social programmes.

The flagship Bolsa Família programme alone has been unable to halt the social slide provoked by unemployment that now affects twelve million workers. But how could it when the monthly stipend which benefits over forty million Brazilians receives just a fraction of the funds devoted to servicing the public debt, a big chunk of which is held by about 20,000 of the richest Brazilian families. By one count what is paid over to these families and other bondholders in one year in interest would fund the Bolsa for fifteen. Though its social and cultural impact should never be underestimated, the Bolsa was another PT plaster, paid for from the loose change left after the needs of those socially less deserving were attended to by a state that always bows first to privilege. Wealthy Brazilians never did so well or had their demands so promptly met as under the PT. Dilma was not impeached because she was a leftist or threatened to transform Brazil.

So among last year’s many political untruths told by enemies of the PT is the one about the president wanting to complete the task she failed to accomplish as a guerrilla and to turn Brazil into a giant Cuba. As Brazil’s ultra-rich can testify, that is nonsense. Too much has been made of Dilma’s past as a Marxist guerrilla. Her mug shot, taken in 1970, aged just twenty-two and showing her staring defiantly into the camera of her torturers, was given the Jim Fitzpatrick treatment and widely used by her re-election campaign in 2014. As the PT’s project visibly began to list on her watch this was an effort to pull cultural levers to shore up support among Brazil’s progressives, for whom the coup of 1964 remains a political litmus test. The dour, aloof middle-aged technocrat, Brazilians were reminded, was once a youthful radical who boldly opposed the generals and their basement torturers even as a majority shrugged, or worse, cheered them on.

Emphasising this past as a guerrilla worked to obscure more relevant political realities. Brave though her decision to confront the generals may have been ‑ most militants took up arms knowing either death or imprisonment and torture were nigh on inevitable ‑ it was also lunacy considering the balance of forces in play. The guerrillas’ historical determinism was no match for the might of the dictatorship and their doomed campaign set the cause of the wider left back at least a decade. But if Dilma’s aloof authoritarianism and arrogance ‑ constant features in the observations of many of her interlocutors ‑ have been traced back to the voluntarism that allowed a bunch of university students kid themselves into thinking they were the vanguard ready to usher in the dictatorship of the proletariat, her later economic thinking owes little to Marx. When, in 1979, the generals relaxed their control and allowed political parties to re-emerge Dilma joined the Democratic Labour Party led by the populist firebrand Leonel Brizola. He got his start in politics under Getúlio Vargas, the fascistic dictator of the 1930s who recast himself as a nationalist populist in the 1950s. Brizola’s legacy is a dubious one. His controversial expropriation without compensation of foreign-owned companies when governor of Rio Grande do Sul did so much to create the ground for the 1964 coup. And after the return of democracy it was his decision when governor of Rio de Janeiro to stop police entering the city’s favelas in order to prevent confrontations with residents, that effectively turned these poor communities over to the control of heavily armed drug traffickers for several decades. This was the movement where Dilma made her political home, rather than the more orthodoxly left-wing PT. When she did so Brizola seemed more likely to reach the presidency than Lula, whom he dismissed as “a bearded toad”. Around the time that it became clear that in fact it was the toad who was on course for the presidency Dilma switched to his party, joining in 2000. But she brought baggage with her. The dirigisme of her New Economic Matrix that would eventually prove so catastrophic for her new party owes more to Brizola than Marx.

If one lie her enemies tell is that Dilma is a radical leftist, another untruth ‑ or partial untruth ‑ is that she was removed as part of the struggle against corruption. There was always too much anger in the media and on the street at Worker Party corruption compared with that practised by its opponents for this to be fully true. One leading national newspaper could rage against PT corruption even as it published a regular column by Aécio Neves, the opposition leader Dilma defeated in 2014, and who is himself up to his neck in accusations of wrongdoing. Temer stuffed his new administration with those also cited in the Petrobras affair and its senior members are so ethically challenged that within seven months the new president lost seven ministers, largely as the result of scandals involving some form of wrongdoing. As the taped conversation of one of the fallen Temer ministers makes clear, if anything the new government was installed to shut down the Petrobras investigation. The idea that the Temer government will somehow lead Brazil to sunny ethical uplands is farcical, even though for now the probe continues despite PMDB machinations against it. Recently it arrested Dilma’s nemesis, Cunha. Even successfully impeaching a president could not save him from his gangster’s fate.

Another lie in the making saw Temer finish the year promising that his government would push for desperately needed political reform, seen as key to tackling endemic corruption. It is the equivalent of the chief turkey promising that next year for sure his gang will all finally vote for Christmas. And so the lies accumulate. Temer had promised that his administration would not cut social programmes but passed a crude twenty-year spending cap that ensures the poor will once again bear the brunt of Brazil’s efforts to clean up after another firestorm in the public accounts. Most affected will be public health and education spending ‑ along with the Bolsa Família the most important social programmes of all.

How long this “reformist” presidency will have to deliver is unclear. Temer was only marginally less loathed than Dilma on taking office and confidence in his administration is just a nudge above her historically calamitous ratings. Whether his administration can even last 2017 is now openly debated, perhaps the best evidence that the crisis that tipped the PT out of power is just one chapter in a broader political crisis that risks undermining the democratic arrangements put in place in the 1980s. Temer’s grip on power faces challenges on multiple fronts as a result of the Petrobras inquiry. Along with Dilma and Lula, he must tremble at what the owners of construction conglomerate Odebrecht will reveal as part of their plea-bargain deal with Brazilian prosecutors to settle what the US Department of Justice described as an “unparalleled bribery and bid-rigging scheme” when imposing a record fine on the company. Leaks indicate the evidence provided by seventy-seven Odebrecht executives could be devastating for the three.

But it could also be devastating for the entire political class, left and right, government and opposition, federal, state and municipal, given that much of this political universe seems to have been in receipt of Odebrecht bribes and illicit campaign financing. So damaging could the testimony be that among those who once cheered on the Petrobras probe there are now voices warning that zealous prosecutors cannot be allowed to pull down the entire country in their bid to cleanse it: this in itself of course being an implicit admission that the whole structure is rotten and the Petrobras affair, a monster of a corruption scandal, is nevertheless just the tip of the iceberg.

Thus despite its present predicament the PT could see the political space it has been squeezed into by impeachment and the October calamity at the polls expand once again if for no other reason that its main rivals could be placed under greater pressure by the Odebrecht testimony. After all, Brazil still desperately needs social justice, the party’s historic lodestar. Before the mass pro-impeachment rallies the biggest recent manifestation of public anger in Brazil occurred in 2013 when protests in hundreds of cities and towns spontaneously erupted to demand better public transport, schools and hospitals. After ten years of PT rule the message from the streets seemed to be one of impatience at efforts to effect greater social justice within the existing parameters of Brazilian society, of which the PT was so respectful. Despite the current political swing to the right there is evidence to believe there is still ample space for a major progressive political force in Brazil. Polls show that despite its multiple failings a majority of Brazilians still favour a big state ‑ just one that works ‑ depressing news for the advocates of privatisations that currently have the government’s ear.

Because of the political commitment of its militants, as well as its position as the only genuinely national mass movement in Brazil, the PT is still best-placed to occupy this progressive space. But first it will need to end the ranting about parliamentary coups and judicial persecutions and carry out a profound self-criticism to work out what went wrong in office and make corrections. It needs to understand why an ideologically progressive movement with a large radical wing produced corrupt and in many particulars reactionary governments. Too many leading PT figures have been cited, arrested or sentenced for their corruption while in office for the party to rehoist a progressive banner without the population shouting hypocrite.

Many in the party are already calling for such a debate. Some historic leaders are threatening to leave if one does not take place. Unfortunately they might have to go. Rather than self-criticism the party is doubling down on its rhetoric. It is preparing to launch Lula on his sixth presidential election campaign even as he and his legal team seek to undermine the country’s institutions with their claims that he is the victim of a political and judicial witch-hunt. In part this is short-termism. No other PT leader stands a chance of becoming president. Even with record disapproval ratings Lula remains competitive, a reflection on the calibre of his opposition as much as his own star power, which always outshone the party’s. But it is also a cynical ploy to try and protect Lula from prison in the face of the mounting number of charges he faces.

And so the second tragedy is that the PT now risks being transformed into little more than a vehicle designed to protect Lula from the consequences of his many dubious alliances and friendships. October’s election results hint that voters will not stand for it. What then? Too many Brazilian political parties have, compared with their Western equivalents, short shelf lives. The PT was built up at huge effort out of the struggles against the dictatorship to become one of the most exciting left-wing movements of the late twentieth century in a society where such a force was desperately needed. Now a slide into irrelevance or even oblivion is all too easy to imagine if rather than set a new course the party seeks to vindicate the indefensible as part of a campaign to save its supreme leader from jail time.

If the PT does not reform, a new progressive force might emerge to take its place but it will start from a much weaker base than even the badly bruised PT now finds itself in. The darker fear is that in a naturally conservative society, where the poor are increasingly faithful to conservative evangelical churches, no such national force will be able to take up the PT’s old banners of social justice and that Brazil’s underprivileged, who have waited centuries to join a just society, will once again find themselves told to wait for several decades more.

1/1/2017          

Tom Hennigan is the South America correspondent for The Irish Times and is based in São Paulo, Brazil.

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