I was recently asked by a Brazilian friend about my thoughts on her country’s current anti-government protests. Though I have spent a considerable amount of time working and travelling around the country since the mid 1990s, I obviously do not have the same perspectives or experience as a Brazilian or someone who currently lives there. But this was precisely what interested my friend: An outsider’s view.
Though I’ve paid attention to this year’s protests, read a variety of opinion columns and participated in discussions with individuals both in support and against the marches, how informed I am on a country with such a complicated political landscape is debatable. Nonetheless, I believe it is simple enough to get some basic insight if you have a) an understanding of politics, economics, social issues and their representation in the media in general and b) a basic grasp of Brazil’s particular history and politics.
I believe that what we are seeing in these protests, couched in legitimate grievances mostly in connection to the Petrobras corruption scandal, are deep seeded ideological differences and class cleavages, including entrenched ideas on race and the north-south divide.
Legitimate grievances against the government of Dilma Rousseff
- Corruption — Though there is no evidence connecting Rousseff directly to corruption (she is not even under investigation), she presided over Petrobras during a portion of its fraudulent practices, including an inflated deal involving the purchase of a refinery in Texas for some 28 times what was paid by the previous owner.
- Economic downturn/stagnation — After a prolonged period of sustained growth (2012) Rousseff’s administration has overseen a subsequent stagnation and contraction.
- Recent growing inequality — Income inequality decreased in Brazil from 2000 to 2012, including the final two years in the administration of Fernando Henrique Cardoso. However, since the economic downturn beginning in 2012, income inequality has also made an about face. Many blame Rousseff’s fiscal policies, though the president cites the fight against the lingering effects of the 2008 global financial crisis.
- Waves of protests — Since 2013 protests have grown in the country, starting with opposition to public transport fare hikes in major cities, followed by anti-World Cup actions in 2014 and now anti-corruption/pro-impeachment marches. There were several instances of violence against protestors by both military and local state police forces. The initial wave of protests resulted in dialogue and significant policy changes. Nevertheless, the amount of people marching against the president, whose approval rating is now said to be in the single digits, is proof of her unpopularity.
Hypocrisy, ‘reds’ under the bed and reactionary nostalgia
The vocal anti-Left sentiment of many anti-Dilma protesters dredges up the disturbing history of Operation Condor, the brutal campaign of state terror carried out by right-wing governments in Latin America during the Cold War with the help of the United States government via the CIA.
The claim that PT (Workers Party) is a hard left or communist party which has policies to similar the Right’s favorite boogeymen, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, is spurious. In recent decades PT has in fact developed into a pro-business, center-left social democratic party more along the lines of other centrist Latin American members of the so-called “pink tide,” including Uruguay’s Socialist Party and Argentina’s Justicialist Party.
Furthermore, the opposition is aligned with far-right supporters of a return to Brazil’s military dictatorship that controlled the country from 1964 – 1985. While most protesters hopefully don’t want a military coup, they should be harshly critical of these “allies” and reject them outright.
And then there is the question of corruption…
Corruption under PSDB
The major opposition to PT, the PSDB, (Brazilian Social Democracy Party), may be historically more corrupt than PT, if we are to trust data from the Brazilian NGO “Movement to Combat Electoral Corruption” and the country’s highest electoral court. From 2000 – 2007 some 58 PSDB politicians were impeached on corruption charges, compared to 10 from PT.
Additionally, extensive journalistic investigation on practices of PSDB politicians during the administration of President Cardoso (1995 through 2002) exposed significant corruption including alleged kickbacks from businesses related to the administration’s privatization scheme as well as large-scale tax avoidance and money laundering carried out by former PSDB candidate José Serra, along with his family.
My view: It’s classic conservativism
Are the protests really about corruption or are they about the long-established, mostly southern, mostly white upper classes’ anger at being forced to share power and wealth? Until now, PT has been seen more as party that legitimately represents Brazil’s poor and of those on the cusp of entering the middle classes. Most wealthy and relatively wealthy see their favored positions threatened.
Extreme poverty has been reduced by 75 percent since the PT came to power, and overall poverty gone down 65 percent, largely by means of direct cash transfers now received by 44 million Brazilians, or nearly one in four. The inflation-adjusted minimum wage has doubled in the last 12 years, and domestic workers have won expanded rights, including paid vacation.
(source: Al Jazeera)
As is often the case, when you start to redistribute wealth that has for years remained unfairly in the hands of a minority of powerful and privileged people, those people will revolt with fierce indignation. This is because they believe in their own innate superiority and right to exploit those who they consider to be inferior.
So how do you sell that kind of politics to the masses? By representing the government unfavorably through the country’s extensive, privately owned media — a useful tool of the old Brazilian establishment.
I think this quote from economist Mark Weisbrot, who specializes in Latin American issues, is informative when it comes to understanding the power of the media in Brazil; who controls it and how it can even be used to influence the country’s disadvantaged masses to vote against their own interests.
I think the media has a big influence in Brazil which is unusual for a democratic country. It’s unusually biased against the government. It’s very unusual that there is not a single media outlet that supports the government after being more than 10 years in power. There was a nice quote from a Brazilian sociologist. He said that Brazilian society was based on slavery for over 300 years and even now it’s still run by the same social strata. Parts of the upper class have learned to live with other (sectors) of society, but the media still reflects the old-school values.
(source: Buenos Aires Herald)
Conservatism means maintaining social ecology. The wealthy right-wing elite of Brazil do not like wealth distribution programs of PT, nor its race- and class-based affirmative action programs at national universities, long the dominion of the country’s privileged whites. They do not want to give credit to Rousseff nor her predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for economic growth, lower unemployment and an increase in quality of life, especially the Bolsa Familia program largely credited for lifting millions out of poverty — the largest program in the world of its kind.
In summary, while PT has a lot to answer for in terms of corruption, the environment, growing inequality and even state violence, these problems are not unique to the administrations of Lula or Dilma. They are rather endemic to Brazil and — I believe — have been worse under previous governments. I also believe they would worsen under the opposition and surely — God forbid — under another military dictatorship.
It should also be said that Rousseff’s administration has not attempted to block or hinder the state’s investigations into malpractice by Petrobras, in contrast to previous administrations when faced by similar scandals or investigations. Yet it is this administration which is being called “corrupt” by the orchestrators of the protests.
The inaccurately-named PSDB, similar to Portugal’s center-right Social Democratic Party or the UK’s New Labour, has become more neo-liberal and neo-conservative than social democratic. It is doubtful the party’s policies would help disadvantaged Brazilians because that is not what they are designed to do. After all, despite exceptions, the poor is not PSDB’s voter base.
And with its history, how can PSDB convince people that they will be less corrupt than PT?
Perhaps they don’t need to. They have the media on their side. Maybe all they need to do is help the indignation of Brazil’s white affluent elite spread enough among PT’s strongest support — poor, black and mixed race voters. So far it seems to be working.
Think my argument is uninformed or simplistic? (It surely is due to the caveats I listed at the start of the article). Feel free to enlighten me in the comments section!