Brazil’s Political Upheaval: Too many greased palms makes for one sticky situation

Leo House

Black and white, good and evil. Corrupt president Dilma Rousseff and her crooked communist cronies at the Workers' Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT) cling to power in the face of mass protests calling for her impeachment. Mainstream coverage of the Brazilian political crisis has been overly simplistic, and some even argue that this is purposeful misinformation, not naïveté.

Brazil is undergoing its worst financial downturn in decades, but it’s important to understand that crises of all sorts are piling up.

In March the World Health Organisation revealed that in Brazil a suspected 6,480 babies had been affected by the Zika epidemic.

Meanwhile fraudulent state oil giant Petrobras is beginning to crumble under the weight of its own Wolf of Wall Street-esque scandal. The company’s officials have pegged the overall total bribes given at nearly $3 billion. The anti-corruption investigation, named ‘Operation Car-Wash’, has revealed that bricks of cash were delivered with extravagant gifts of ‘Rolex watches, $3,000 bottles of wine, yachts, helicopters and prostitutes’. Petrobras has lost more than half its value over the last year. It was one of Brazil’s largest financial products, sold worldwide in emerging-market bonds, and its downfall has caused a huge international loss of faith in Brazilian market stability. Operation Car-Wash has also revealed that $200 million of those bribes were pocketed by members of the ruling PT. Thus the economic crisis feeds the flames of political scandal, just months before the global spotlight is turned to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics in August.

If we take a second look, it becomes clear that the loudest cries for impeachment come not from the masses, but the élite and upper middle class. Brazil’s strongest business lobby, the São Paulo Federation of Industries (FIESP), currently has its headquarters flashing the national anti-Dilma colours yellow and green, and the message ‘Resign now!’ Polls showed that the people who have gathered beneath to protest are significantly older, whiter and richer than the wider population; 40% were over 51 years old, 77% had higher education and 37% earned over £2,200 per month.

It should also be noted that FIESP’s vast sphere of influence covers media conglomerate Globo Group, and the two biggest newspapers in São Paulo. Dilma and the PT are now feeling their full smearing power. People are even avoiding wearing red, afraid being attacked as pro-government socialists.

It could be argued that historical processes are at work here; South America has recently seen a string of political upheavals that ousted long-standing left-wing leaders and brought the centre-right into power. In Venezuela Hugo Chavez’ successor Nicolas Maduro and his United Socialist Party lost control of the National Assembly for the first time in 17 years, to a landslide centre-right opposition victory. Last year in Argentina, president-elect Mauricio Macri pledged that, after the first change in power in 12 years, he would erase Cristina Fernández’s centre-left legacy. In Bolivia, Evo Morales and the Movement for Socialism party lost a referendum to amend the constitution and extend presidential terms. After 13 years of PT supremacy, this generational shift seems to be catching up with Brazil.

The key difference, however, is that in Venezuela and Argentina these transitions occurred via elections. In Brazil this change threatens to happen undemocratically, as Dilma’s opponents are agitating for the dramatic and extralegal means of impeachment. FIESP has a history of anti-left sentiment and political intervention. Adriano Diogo, chairman of the Sao Paulo Truth Commission, explains that: 

“The same way that back in 1964, FIESP financed coup-mongers to organise and throw down elected president Joao Goulart, with arms, buying union leaders and organising free trips for Armed Forces officers, now FIESP is allied with the speaker of the Lower House Cunha in his attempt to throw down Dilma Rousseff”

In 1964 FIESP’s media and business tycoons helped usher in a 21-year military dictatorship, under which Dilma Rousseff was captured and tortured for revolutionary guerrilla activity. 52 years later Brazil’s moneyed right-wing interests are once again wading into the political scene, to challenge a political opponent that has always come out on top in elections. This time they have armed themselves not with soldiers, but with newspapers and Twitter accounts - this change in political weaponry reveals much about how Brazilian democracy has matured.

The crux of the matter is that Dilma seems to be the lesser of innumerable evils; nearly all alternative leaders are embroiled in the same, or an even greater, level of corruption scandal. There is currently no solid evidence of her direct involvement in the Petrobras kickback scheme. If she were impeached, however, her Vice President Michel Temer could not serve as a replacement – he too is allegedly involved in the Petrobras bribery. The leader of the opposition and the impeachment movement, the evangelical and anti-abortion Eduardo Cunha, is even more unfit to govern by these standards. He is subject to multiple active criminal investigations, and has been found to have multiple secret Swiss bank accounts holding alleged bribe money. 

The hypocrisy is laughable: five members of Cunha’s impeachment commission are being criminally investigated themselves, most notably Paulo Maluf. He has been unable to leave Brazil due to an Interpol arrest warrant and a sentence to 3 years in French prison for money laundering.

So, predictably, things are not as black and white as they first seem. Corruption seems to have infected every organ of the Brazilian state, to the point that one is barely fit to judge another. One thing is for sure: Dilma’s impeachment would be a serious subversion of Brazilian democracy, orchestrated chiefly by the ruling classes.