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.

Doubts over the upcoming Rio Olympics

Hubert Cruz

The International Olympic Committee met on Wednesday (2 March) to discuss a series of concerns over the Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil that are scheduled to take place this August. The ongoing Zika virus outbreak featured on the agenda. It is estimated that up to 1.5 million people in Brazil have contracted the mosquito-borne virus, which is widely believed to cause brain abnormalities in babies, and health experts fear the surge of tourists during the Olympics would propel the spread.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention of the US has already taken an unprecedented step to advise pregnant women not to attend the Rio Olympics. This has led to worries that anxieties over the virus would worsen the Games’ dormant ticket sales. Only 47% of the 7.5 million tickets have been sold so far, but the organising committee is confident that there would be a late surge in ticket sales, especially in the domestic market across cities of Brazil.

However, as Brazil faces its worst recession since the 1930s, the organising committee has made substantial reductions to the Games budget in order to save $500 million. There have also been delays in construction projects, including a subway line that connects the Olympic Park with other parts of the city. Faced with a multitude of concerns, the President of the organising committee, Carlos Nuzman, dismissed the impact of budget cuts and delays, and promised that the Games would be “absolutely fantastic”.

Are you concerned by the problems surrounding the Rio Olympics? Do you think these problems would be resolved in time for the start of the Games? Whatever your view, send it in - via Twitter, Facebook or our website. Check out the articles below to find out more about the issue:

Boston Globe – Less than half the tickets for Rio Olympics have been sold

The New York Times – As Olympics Near and Zika Spreads, No Talk of a Plan B

The Guardian – Rio 2016 president plays down Olympic Games fears



Brazil: Winning back WhatsApp

Brazilian backlash against temporary shutdown of social media app highlights the importance of open access to the internet  

William Carter

Over 90% of Brazilian internet users are on WhatsApp, using the free internet phone and messaging service to communicate within Brazil and abroad. Free apps like WhatsApp are vital for communication in a country like Brazil, not only because of its size but also because of the cost of its telephone plans, comparable to those of the UK despite the average Brazilian income being about two thirds lower than the UK equivalent. Crucially, Brazilians frequently use WhatsApp for work purposes, meaning the shutdown, though eventually shortened, would have caused economic damage at both an individual and national level. 

The decision to suspend the service for 48 hours within Brazil was taken by a Sao Paulo court in response to the app’s American headquarters’ refusal to place wiretaps on certain accounts. These wiretaps were to assist an ongoing drug related crime investigation in Brazil. 

Brazilians did not take kindly to this news. They responded to the crackdown on their social media freedoms through, unsurprisingly, social media - taking to Twitter in great numbers to protest the decision. Most managed to retain their sense of humour, with the hashtag '#Inthese48hoursIwill' trending and leading to comical suggestions of how Brazilians would spend their WhatsApp-free two days.   

The service was restored after 12 hours, with judge Xavier de Souza claiming that it was ‘unfair that millions of users would be effected by the inertia of the company’. However, the implications of the episode are worrying and form part of a wider debate on internet access. Threats to curtail internet use, on grounds of economics or security, have been recently emerging. In January 2015 David Cameron restated his belief that the revised ‘Snoopers’ Charter’, officially known as the Communications Data Bill, should grant the government access, in the interests of national security, to content sent over apps such as Snapchat and WhatsApp, and that such information be held for 12 months. Cameron proposed that, in the case of WhatsApp or Snapchat’s refusal, the apps be banned in the UK. Whether it is likely or even possible that these apps would surrender their encrypted data remains to be seen, but events in Brazil set a precedent for kneejerk blanket bans of apps and internet access in emergencies. 

More recently, Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump suggested that in the fight against ISIS he would ‘certainly be open to closing areas where we are at war with somebody’. He too is suspicious of encryption and has suggested ‘shutting down’ internet access in ISIS-controlled Iraq and Syria in order to curb ISIS recruitment in America and disrupt their propaganda output in general. In fact, shutting down local internet access is actually something ISIS is currently doing in parts of their territory, in efforts to slow the spread of activist journalism, such as the Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently movement. Trump’s plans, though potentially feasible, seem crude, and may harm the efforts of those fighting against ISIS, such as the Kurds, more than they harm ISIS itself.   

Access to social media, such as Twitter and Facebook is vital, especially in developing and undemocratic countries, for its ability (admittedly sometimes misused) to inform, connect and rally. The use of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube in the Arab Spring is an oft-cited example of the ability of social media to provide frameworks of organisation and resistance in difficult situations, where traditional means of communication are either too slow or may be blocked. was often disrupted, Social media during conflicts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, for example, gave activists and regular citizens a platform of communication more free from government influence than state controlled TV and radio.

In Brazil itself, the internet has played revolutionary roles in the recent liberalisation of the country following the end of João Figueiredo’s military regime in 1985. Brazil’s ground-breaking 2014 internet usage law, Marco Civil, guarantees data protection and is a step towards net neutrality and enabling the anonymity of free speech, in a country in which anonymous free speech is constitutionally prohibited.  The legislation was drafted collaboratively online, while Facebook was crucial for organising the protests in advance of the 2014 World Cup.  The internet has provided Brazilians a platform to criticise politicians and political corruption, such as the recent Petrobras oil scandal, openly and to a much wider audience. As such, Brazil’s conservative congress is trying to amass support for a crackdown on social media, and to make it easier for the government to obtain privately shared content. 

Whilst Brazil has protected the internet freedoms of its citizens this time, it seems internet access is going to remain an ongoing political and economic issue.