Brazilian Blues: Operation Carwash, The Oligarchs Strike Back

This week in North Philly Notes, Philip Evanson, co-author of Living in the Crossfire files another report from Brazil. 

The political crisis in Brazil has reached a climacteric. The oligarchs of the Brazilian congress came out from behind the scenes for all the world to see. The chiefs or caciques can no longer tolerate the “Carwash” investigations as they are being conducted. They see these investigations of venal politicians, with no one too prominent to be excluded, leading remorselessly to criminal charges, arrests, trials, and loss of political rights. One leader after another has been investigated and exposed to public scrutiny. Deeply wounded, they decided to have a go at trying to stop them. In fact, this was the plan from the beginning of the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in which Vice President Michel Temer was a central player as he saw friends and colleagues of many years being investigated and showing signs of crumbling under the pressure.

Layout 1First, Dilma had to be removed. She refused to use executive branch power to interfere in the investigations. Temer supported the impeachment, then as acting president he joined the effort to stop further investigations as least as currently practiced. When two ministers in his newly formed government were caught in phone taps plotting to obstruct justice, there was an enormous public outcry. Temer reluctantly bowed to it. He accepted their resignations, though his preference was to maintain them in their posts.

Then on Monday, June 6, Henrique Alves, Minister of Tourism was accused of corruption by Rodrigo Janot,  Prosecutor-General of the Republic (Procurador-Geral da Republica). This time Temer balked. He decided to keep Alves on the grounds that the accusations were old, that nothing new had been presented. The next day, Tuesday, June 7, Janot asked the Federal Supreme Court to order the arrest of former President José Sarney, Senate President Renan Calheiros, suspended Chamber of Deputies President Eduardo Cunha and Senator Romero Jucá for obstruction of justice in the Carwash investigations. The Federal Supreme Court has to decide whether to order the arrests since under the 1988 Constitution members of Congress, Ministers of State, the Pres and VP are all judged in the first instance by the Federal Supreme Court, a disposition which incidentally puts an intolerable burden on the Court.

Senate President Renan Calheiros quickly spoke up for the accused: “We ought not to worry ourselves about excesses committed against us.” What do the oligarchs want?   First, a different approach to plea bargains. The bargains are now made with individuals under arrest and sitting in jail. If they agree to a plea bargain, they get released. If not, they stay in jail. The change would require that bargains not be made with imprisoned persons. Such bargains have the quality of being coerced, and can be seen as examples of (light) torture. Second, that a new policy of leniency be extended to individuals who have been charged allowing them perhaps to plead guilty, cooperate, pay fines. Will they serve jail terms? If so, under what conditions and for how long? Will they lose their political rights, that is to hold elective office?  If so, and for how long?  These changes would complement the process already underway of making accords with representatives of big construction firms who paid bribes or “tips” (propinas) to politicians or political operatives, then recovered the money in overpriced government contracts. Under the accords, a firm would pay a fine for breaking the law, perhaps also their executives. The firm would then be allowed to resume signing government contracts in order to get on with the immense tasks of building Brazil’s infrastructure up to the level of a developed country.

More important than the fate of a politicians accused of various corrupt practices is the risk posed by impeachment to Brazil’s democratic institutions still undergoing the process of consolidation, and to social advances under the PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores or Workers Party) governments of Presidents Lula, and Dilma Rousseff since 2003. In a June 4th interview published online in the Mexican daily La Jornada,  writer and activist Leonardo Boff, member of the Franciscan order from 1959 to 1992 and a leading producer of liberation theology, remembered that 36 million Brazilians had risen out of poverty into the middle class during the Lula and Dilma presidencies. He pointed out that Brazil was also the country with the greatest number of popular organizations, and that they could stop the country from one day to the next. Earlier in March at the outset of the impeachment process, Boff had called on former president Lula in effect to return to active duty and assume leadership in saving Dilma’s mandate in order to preserve the social advances. In the June 4th interview, he alluded to the possibility of violence if members of popular organizations were provoked or humiliated. Acting President Temer has repeatedly said he plans no assault on social programs.

The fear of popular violence needs to be set beside the fact that mass political protests in all the large Brazilian cities in 2015 and 2016 have been peaceful, not violent. No one has been killed, and property has been almost always respected. The same can be said, with certain exceptions, of the mass protests of 2013. It is true that the MST (Landless Workers Movement) and its urban affiliate MTST (Homeless Workers Movement) are large militant popular organizations. Lula has referred to the MST as the army of its leader João Pedro Stedile. However, Stedile is a greatly respected leader and intellectual of the social democratic Left, and he does not preach or threaten to use violence. The MST and its causes continue to be supported by the Catholic Church. Also, the MST has always kept its independence. It was never an annex of the PT. Lula himself largely abandoned the popular organizations as President. He preferred to work through the political system with governors and mayors, getting resources to them, even when they were his political opponents. Experts called this the politics of “governability.” Lula’s explanation was somewhat different. He said he did not care about his opponents, but he did care about the people they governed who needed money from the federal government. Under Lula, Rio de Janeiro for example received more money from the federal government than ever before even though Cesar Maia, the mayor of Rio was a political opponent, and used his blog to criticize Lula regularly.

The Brazilian elite is viewed by its critics as unable to accept the new and higher status attained by blacks, mulattos, and the poor, and also that a former auto worker (Lula) and woman (Dilma) have twice each been elected president. The presumed inability to accept these new developments is sometimes referred to as an example of upper class hatred for their social inferiors, and various expressions of disdain and worse aimed at the PT, its government, Lula and Dilma can be treated as class conflict. At the same time, the programs to reduce poverty were put in place without any noticeable political opposition expressed in debate or Congressional votes. The Law of Social Quotas of 2013 was affirmative action that reserved half the seats in public universities for public school graduates, blacks and native indigenous Brazilians. It passed the Senate with only one vote against out of 81. Earlier in 2004, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of racial quotas. Such actions suggest a politics not of hatred, but of ethical consensus to end poverty, and confront social class and race discrimination. In Brazil where the study of law is a serious, much practiced endeavor, these laws have been milestones in advances toward citizen equality before the law.

At present, Michel Temer himself and his government have little credibility. There is a chance that Dilma will not be found guilty as charged by the Senate and restored as President. But Temer is in power as acting president, and has come with a neo-liberal agenda to replace the social democratic  agenda of Lula, Dilma and the PT. Neo-liberalism was prominent in the two terms of Lula’s predecessor President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002). A neo-liberal agenda means less government involvement in advancing a social agenda that favors low wage earners. It also means greater internationalization or openness of the economy, and reducing the state’s entrepreneurial role. The process of trying to implement this agenda began quickly. On assuming his task, Ricardo Barros the new Minister of Health announced  that “some universal rights guaranteed by the Constitution will have to be rethought.” He identified one as the universal right to health care under SUS or the United Health System. Not everyone enrolled could receive medical attention. Barros pleaded insufficient resources, arguing that Brazil had fallen into a situation comparable to bankrupt Greece. This seems a curiously inapt comparison considering the relative sizes of the respective Brazilian and Greek economies and populations, also the higher standard of living prevailing in Greece, and the far greater need to extend, not retract health care in Brazil. The public has been demanding greater access to better health care, a demand emphatically expressed in the mass protests of 2013. In labor law, the Boff interview referred to certain changes favored by the Temer government such as negotiations between unions and employers to change some work place rules and benefits in the name of increasing productivity. Executives of foreign firm executives are said to have expressed exasperation with what they regard as excessively bureaucratic rules for the workplace. The new government is anxious to appease them and attract foreign capital. However, Dilma Rousseff’s government  was considering similar changes, but set them aside as too ambitious at a time of  economic (the great Brazilian recession now in its third year) and political (the crisis of impeachment) turmoil. Temer is also said to want to restore the right of foreigners to buy land in Brazil which Dilma prohibited in 2010 fearing a large scale Chinese entry into commercial agriculture and stock raising. Also announced are further privatizations of state owned enterprises. Privatization has always been a key policy of neo-liberal economics, much favored by former president Cardoso, but resisted by Lula, Dilma and the PT. Finally, foreign policy is being reoriented in favor of more commercial agreements with Europe, and less integration with South American countries, such integration now labeled the partisan policy of a political party (the PT).

Unlike the l990’s, a neo-liberal program in 2016 seems suddenly antiquated, having fallen out of favor even perhaps at the International Monetary Fund which had presided over its creation. Christine Legarde, IMF General Director since 2010, noted the great boom in commodities of the first decade of the 21st century, having come to an end, would not return soon, perhaps never. Today’s IMF economists now admit that the benefits of neo-liberalism may have been oversold. The governments of Lula and Dilma never bought the neo-liberal package of policies, and neo-liberalism is now strongly questioned even in the United States as illustrated in the 2016 presidential primary elections. There may have been a neo-liberal heyday, but trying to resuscitate it in 2016 undermines even more the credibility of the Temer government. However, Leonardo Boff may be allowed the last word. He expects the solution to Brazil’s political crisis “will come from the street.” On June 10, there were anti-government protests in 24 cities. As of this writing, acting President Temer is under siege and cancelling public appearances.

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