Explaining current Brazilian politics to known-Brazilians and why I believe this is time for optimism

It seems that many observers believe that Brazil’s current political situation is one of instability and uncertainty. Since the mid-1990s the national political scene has been dominated by two parties: the Worker’s Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT, in Portuguese) and PSDB. Now, with the main leader of the PT imprisoned – former president Lula da Silva – the PSDB also seems to have lost its rationale. It is clear that this party never had faithful voters, only an anti-PT mass who saw in it the only viable alternative. Given these factors, it is true that a political cycle that began in the 1990s is coming to an end, but far from being a moment of uncertainty and pessimism, this may be the most fruitful moment in the country’s history, as it seems that finally classical liberalism is being vindicated in Brazil.

Brazil began its political history as a semi-parliamentary monarchy. As one observer of the time put it, the country had a “backward parliamentarism”: instead of parliament controlling the monarch, it was the emperor who controlled parliament. Moreover, the Brazilian economy was extremely based on slavery. In theory, Brazil was politically and economically a liberal country. In practice, it was politically and economically a country controlled by oligarchies.

With the proclamation of the republic in 1889, little changed. The country continued to be theoretically a liberal country, with a constitution strongly influenced by the North American one and a tendency to industrialization. In practice, however, Brazil continued to be politically and economically dominated by oligarchic interests.

The republic instituted in 1889 was overthrown in 1930 by Getúlio Vargas. Vargas was president from 1930 to 1945, and his political circle continued to dominate the country until 1964. Once again, political language was often liberal, but in practice the country was dominated by sectorial interests.

Vargas committed suicide in 1954, and his political successors failed to account for the instability the country went through after World War II. The Soviet Union had been trying to infiltrate Brazil since the 1920s, and this was intensified with the Cold War. The communist influence, coupled with the megalomaniacal administrative inability of Vargas and his successors, led the country to such an instability that the population in weight clamored for the military to seize power in 1964.

The military that governed Brazil between 1964 and 1985 were influenced mainly by positivism. In simple terms, they were convinced they could run the country like a barracks. For them, the motto “order and progress” written on the Brazilian flag was taken very literally. One great irony in this is that Auguste Comte’s positivism and Karl Marx’s communism are almost twin brothers, products of the same anti-liberal mentality of the mid-19th century. The result was that Brazilian economic policy for much of the military period was not so different from that of the Soviet Union at many points in its history: based on central planning, this policy produced spectacular immediate results (the period of the “Brazilian miracle” in the early 1970s), but also resulted in the economic catastrophe of the 1980s.

However, the worst consequence of the military governments was not in the economy but in the political culture. The military fought against communism in a superficial way, overpowering only the guerrillas and terrorist groups that engaged in armed struggle. But in the meantime, many communists turned to cultural warfare, joining schools, universities, newsrooms, and even churches. The result is that Brazilian intellectual life was taken over by communism.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso, elected president in 1994, is an important Brazilian intellectual. Although not an orthodox Marxist, his lineup is clearly left-wing. The difference between FHC (as he is called) and a good part of the Brazilian left (represented mainly by the PT) is that he, like Tony Blair in England and Bill Clinton in the US, opted for a third way between economic liberalism and more explicit socialism. In other words, FHC understood, along with leading PSDB leaders, that the Washington Consensus is called a consensus for good reason: there is a set of economic truths (pejoratively called neo-liberals) that are no longer the subject of debate. FHC followed these ideas, but he was heavily opposed by the PT for this.

Since the founding of the PT, in the late 1970s, Lula’s speech was quite radical, explicitly wishing to transform Brazil into a large Cuba. But Lula himself surrendered to the Washington Consensus in the early 2000s, and only then was he able to be elected president. Once in office, however, Lula commanded one of the greatest corruption scandals in world history. In addition, his historical links to the left were never erased. Although in his first term economic policy was largely liberal, this trend changed in his second term and in the presidency of his successor, Dilma Rousseff.

Today Brazil is still living in an economically difficult period, but an ironic result of more than a decade of left-wing government (especially the PT) is the strengthening of conservative and libertarian groups in Brazil. In the elections from 2002 to 2014 it was virtually impossible to identify candidates clearly along these lines. In this year’s election, we expected several candidates to explicitly identify themselves as right-wing. Jair Bolsonaro, the favorite in contention, is not historically a friend of the free market, but his more recent statements demonstrate that more and more he leans in this direction.

It is possible that in 2018 Brazil will not yet elect an explicitly libertarian president. But even so, the economic transformations initiated by FHC seem now to be vindicated. Only with the strengthening of the Internet did Brazilians have real access to conservative and libertarian ideas. With that, one of the most important political phenomena in Brazil in the last decade is the discovery of these ideas mainly by young people, and it is these young people who now cry for a candidate who defends their ideas. Bolsonaro seems to be the closest to this, although there are others willing to defend similar economic policy. After more than a decade of governments on the left, it seems that Brazil is finally going through a well-deserved right turn.

Brazilian Senator Aécio Neves close to jail

Brazilian Senator Aécio Neves is close to the jail. He is charged with corruption and obstruction of justice.

Aécio Neves is one of the main leaders of PSDB, the party that, especially since 1994, has been the main electoral opposition to the Worker’s Party (PT) of Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, president from 1995 to 2002, is also in the PSDB. Neves was presidential candidate in the last elections, in 2014, and was really close to defeating Dilma Rousseff, the candidate of PT that was later impeached.

The Aécio Neves trial is extremely symptomatic in Brazilian politics. There are no popular manifestations in his favor. No political analyst is claiming that he is innocent and being unjustly accused. In other words, the contrast between Aécio Neves and Lula, recently sent to jail under a lot of noise, couldn’t be greater.

A popular phrase in Brazil is very telling. The translation to English loses the rhyme, but here it goes: when Lula was facing trial, some militants of PT carried signs saying “Lula is my friend, you mess with him, you mess with me.” Former Aécio voters later carried signs saying “Aécio is not my friend, if you mess with him I couldn’t care less.” As usual, the right is right.

Brazil top court delays decision on blocking prison for ex-president Lula

Brazil’s Supreme Court decided that leftist former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva cannot be sent to prison for a corruption conviction until he exhausts all possible appeals. About that:

“It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood: if they be repealed or revised before they are promulg[at]ed, or undergo such incessant changes, that no man who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be tomorrow.” – James Madison (16 March 1751 – 28 June 1836), fourth President of the United States (1809–1817), co-author, with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, of the Federalist Papers, and traditionally regarded as the Father of the United States Constitution.

“Brazil is not for beginners.” – Antônio Carlos Jobim (January 25, 1927 – December 8, 1994), also known as Tom Jobim, Brazilian composer, pianist, songwriter, arranger, and singer. Widely considered as one of the great exponents of Brazilian music.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Holy shit! (great news)
  2. Hayek’s rapid rise to stardom | misunderstanding Hayek
  3. great write-up on Catalonia | a philosophical case for secession
  4. if colonialism was the apocalypse, what comes next? | should UNM replace its seal?
  5. do trees fall in cyberspace? | how to use Facebook better
  6. a pretty shallow deep throat | vulvæ in pornography and culture

What is going on in Brazil

I’ve been thinking about writing a short essay about some of the things going on in Brazil right now, especially concerning politics and economics, for my English speaking friends. I guess one can get really lost in the middle of so much news, and to the best of my knowledge, some left-leaning journalists are saying quite some nonsense already. So here we go!

President Dilma Rousseff was impeached over a year ago. Her party, the Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT in Portuguese) is officially a social democrat party, close to the European social democracy tradition, i.e., socialists who want to attain power through a non violent, non revolutionary path. In the end, as it happens with so many big parties, PT has many internal tendencies and in-fighting, but I believe the party can be summarized especially in two tendencies.

On one hand you have cultural Marxists, in the Frankfurt School but even more in the Antonio Gramsci tradition. Many people in PT and other Brazilian socialist parties understood long ago that they had to win a cultural war before they won the political war. And so, these factions are much more interested in feminism, gay rights, and minority rights in general than in anything else. To the best of my knowledge, this is a strategy that backfires somewhat: cultural Leftism is a self defeating philosophy, and so, cultural Marxists are more and more into a witch hunt that damages even themselves. They make a lot of noise, to be sure, but they can’t run a country.

On the other hand, many Brazilian socialists are almost entirely pragmatic. It seems that they forgot about Marxism long ago, and are somehow even convinced of the Washington Consensus. They know basic economics, such as money doesn’t grow on trees and there’s no such thing as free lunch. But they also don’t want to lose face, and most importantly, don’t want to lose position. So, they surely won’t take measures that really shrink the size of the state to a healthy degree.

Dilma’s supporters still say she was the victim of a coup. Of course, she wasn’t. She was impeached with overwhelming evidence of her wrongdoings according to Brazilian law. Other than that, it is hard to believe in a coup where all branches of government agree and the military are not involved in any way. Eventually her supporters sophisticated the argument by saying she was the victim of a “parliamentary coup.” It is nonsense, but if we take it with a grain of salt we can be reminded of something important in Brazilian politics – or politics in general. Dilma was not impeached because of her wrongdoings. Many politicians in Brazil have done similar or worse things than her. She was impeached because she lost support, mostly in the legislative branch. For the wrong reasons (opposition to Dilma), the representatives did the right thing.

One of the problems that Brazil faces today is that the same congress that impeached Dilma for the wrong reasons expects from her successor, Michel Temer, the political favors they used to get from Dilma’s predecessor, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. But these favors are not cheap. Other than that, even if he is a crook, Temer seems to realize that Brazil can’t suffer any more socialism. In the end Brazil is facing some (sort of) free market reforms, but without really shaking the basis of a state too big to function properly.

A short note on Brazil’s present political predicament

This Wednesday, O Globo, one of the newspapers of greater audience in Brazil, leaked information obtained by the Federal Policy implicating president Michel Temer and Senator Aécio Neves in a corruption scandal. Temer was recorded supporting a bribe for former congressman Eduardo Cunha, now under arrest, so that Cunha would not give further information for the police. Aécio, president of PSDB (one of the main political parties in Brazil), was recorded asking for a bribe from a businessman from JBS, a company in the food industry. The recordings were authorized by the judiciary and are part of the Operation Lava Jato.

In the last few years Oparation Lava Jato, commanded by Judge Sérgio Moro and inspired by the Italian Oparation Clean Hands, brought to justice some of the most important politicians in Brazil, including formed president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. However, supporters of president Lula, president Dilma and their political party (PT) complained that Moro and his team were politically biased, going after politicians from the left, especially PT, and never form the right – especially PSDB. PSDB is not actually a right-wing party, if we consider right wing only conservatives and libertarians. PSDB, as it name implies, is a social democratic party, i.e., a left wing one. However, since the late 1980s and especially mid-1990s, PSDB is the main political adversary for PT, creating a complicated scenario that PT usually explores politically in its own benefit. In any way, it is clear now (although hardcore Lula supporters will not see this) that Operation Lava Jato is simply going after corrupt politicians, regardless if their political parties or ideologies.

With president Michel Temer directly implicated in trying to stop Operation Lava Jato, his government, that already lacked general public support, is held by a string. Maybe Temer will resign. Other possibility is that the Congress will start an impeachment process, such as happened with Dilma Rousseff just a year ago. In one way or another, the Congress will have to call for a new presidential election, albeit an indirect one: the Congress itself will elect a new president and virtually anyone with political rights in Brazil can be candidate. This new president would govern only until next year, completing the term started by Dilma Rousseff in 2014. There is also another possibility in the horizon: the presidential ticket that brought both Dilma Rousseff and Michel Temer to Brasília is under investigation and it is possible that next June Temer will be declared out of office by the electoral justice.

Politicians from the left, especially REDE and PSOL, want a new presidential election with popular vote. In case Temer simply resigns or is impeached, this would require an amendment to the already tremendously amended Brazilian constitution. This new election might benefit Marina Silva, virtual candidate for REDE and forerunner in the 2010 and 2014 presidential elections. Without a solid candidate, it is possible that PSOL will support Marina, or at least try a ticket with her. A new presidential election with popular vote could also benefit Lula, still free, but under investigation by Moro and his team. Few people doubt that Lula will be in jail very soon, unless he escapes to the presidential palace where he would have special forum.

Temer already came to public saying that he will not resign. Although a corrupt, as it is clear now, Temer was supporting somewhat pro-market reforms in Brazil. In his current political predicament it is unlikely that he will be able to conduct any reform. The best for Brazil is that Temer resigns as soon as possible and that the Congress elects equally fast a new president, someone with little political connections but able to run the government smoothly until next year. Unfortunately, any free market reform would have to wait, but it would also give time for libertarian, classical liberal and conservative groups to grow support for free market ideas among the voters until the election. A new presidential election with popular vote would harm everyone: it would be the burial of democratic institutions in Brazil. Brazil needs to show the World that it has institutions that are respected, and to which people can hold in times of trouble, when the politicians behave as politicians do.

The Wicked Witch

Ordinary, rational Americans are watching with nervous disbelief the unfolding of the Clinton tragedy and low comedy combined. We all think the same thing: “Can’t last. Something is going to stop them. The Democratic Party will come to its senses eventually.” The columnist Peggy Noonan, who often comes up with original and credible analyses, said in last weekend’s issue of the Wall Street Journal that the Clintons are protected by their well-established corruption: Everyone already knows they are corrupt; there is nothing they do that will add measurably to this knowledge. This is an explanation that makes a sort of perverse sense. I dare not subscribe to it completely because it feels self-indulgent; this is a viewpoint few hard-line Republican partisans would dare publicize. It’s too good to be true! It’s too bad to be true!

Hillary Clinton, so far the only Democratic candidate to replace President Obama, is moving on slowly and apparently unperturbed. It matters not that she is a phony, so phony that she can’t even make her hand gestures match her words. She has told numerous lies, some of them transparent. She has lied on matters that could easily be verified, such as landing on a foreign airport under sniper fire. This kind of lie usually indicates mental imbalance; it’s fundamentally different from the ordinary CYA lie. Hillary Clinton failed to come through to protect her own subordinates and their CIA protectors in Libya. Then, she lied, covered up, and minimized the importance of their deaths. She gave constitutional Congressional authority the finger by destroying her email records. Reminder: This is something that never happens to anyone else that you or I know, right? Even the mid-level Obama IRS executive in charge of persecuting Obamanemies, she who took the Fifth Amendment, had the common decency to state that her emails were lost by mistake.

Hillary Clinton has teamed up with her husband in their family foundation to extract money from the most unlikely sources. The foundation pays out about 10% of what takes in. Its main outlays go to reward Clinton friends and facilitators and enablers, and also to help support the couple’s lavish life style. (This, although they don’t get paid a salary by the foundation; they use it it as an expense account.). The latest reports make it sound like the Clintons used Hillary’s term as Secretary of State to bring the US down to the level of your regular banana republic, where lavish gifts buy you influence for anything. “Lavish gifts ” go to the Clinton Foundation but they also include $500,000 speaking fees for Mr Clinton, for example, all in one single motion. I ask, how he can say anything worth half a million dollars when he is not even able to include the adultery and sexual abuses segments of his past?

When I mention”unlikely sources,” I mean, for example, the likes of the Algerian government, an oil and natural gas-ed state plutocracy. You would think that government would have plenty of worthy causes right at home in Algeria where the unemployment rate is “down to” about 10%. There are even better opportunities to spend Algerian oil money right south of the country, in the miserable Sahel countries. Why would it donate munificently to an ex-president’s foundation unless it were also because it was a current Sec. of State’s foundation? When his attention was drawn recently to such unseemly gifts, Mr Clinton’s only response was that there were no proofs, “no evidence.” How low can you get?

I worked out two scenarios about the future of the Clinton candidacy. Both are nightmare scenarios.

First, the upper reaches of the Democratic Party may be allowing things to take their course with Hillary in a sort of passive bait-and-switch. They let her gather attention on their party in the context of the 2016 presidential election and will persuade her to step down in time for a surprise candidate. That candidate is likely to be Elizabeth Warren. After all, she is a woman too; she is a Senator; she does not carry much baggage. The only significant piece of luggage is her identifying herself as American Indian, 1/16th or was it 1/32th? Democrat voters will easily forgive this whether it’s true or not because that was said to help her obtain an academic job she deserved anyway and that she might have been denied otherwise because she is a woman. Still with me? Besides, self-serving lies that are hard to contradict do not indicate mental imbalance, like an untruth about landing under sniper fire does, for example. Moreover, Ms Warren, unlike Ms Clinton, is a genuine leftist, not a pure opportunist. Besides, some centrist voters might be so relieved to be spared the walking Clinton debacle that they might become blind to Ms Warren’s small pimples. Nothing to lose there.

The second scenario implies that Democrat strategists know something ordinary, politically conscious people like me don’t know. It may just be that they are making the bet that nothing disgusting anyone will bring up or discuss will do any harm to Ms Clinton’s candidacy for president. Just take for granted a union vote of 80% for any Democratic presidential candidate, of 90% for African-Americans (98% for black union members), 65% for Latinos promised a quick path to citizenship for illegals (whom they think – wrongly – are mostly theirs). (All figures made up but entirely realistic.) Then, think of the millions of female voters, and potential female voters who rarely or never vote, who take no interest in politics, who don’t know anything except that the candidate is a woman. How unlikely is it that such people can be made to vote this one time? With the frame of mind I am imagining, it’s even probable that any attack on Ms Clinton, no matter how justified, even direct, open sale of favors will be viewed as bullying, as ganging up on the girl.

Many women, even literate women, actually think that it’s the turn of a woman to be president. The affirmative action fallacy that gave us the Obama presidency may just be about to be repeated.

It may be too late for rational people to do much of anything against the broader fallacy of phony identity politics. It seems to me that they can gnaw at its edge – this time – by tirelessly contradicting the now common false premise that Ms Clinton is well qualified for the job of president. Even ignoring her many failures, she did not achieve anything either as Senator or as Secretary of State, no legislation, no international agreement, no treaty, nothing. Unlike the current president, she was not even good at being elected. She got her Senate seat from the Democratic machine from a safe district where she ran essentially unopposed. Her appointment as Secretary of State was such an obvious debt repayment between Democrat factions that anyone but a Clinton would have been embarrassed.

The pessimist in me nourishes a further nightmare: There will be a time soon when I miss the Obama presidency.