Brazil’s Military Coup, 55 years later

Fifty-five years ago, in 1964, Brazilian president João Goulart was overthrown and substituted by Castelo Branco, a military president. Until 1985 the country was governed by military presidents. To this day people are still debating the coup (some even denying that there was a coup), much because the victims and perpetrators are still commanding the debate. In light of that, I’d like to offer some thoughts about 1964 here.

In 1789, only thirteen years after the American Revolution, a small group of Brazilian discontents planned an independent attempt in the region of Minas Gerais. The movement failed miserably, leaving one infamous victim, Tiradentes, who would much later be considered the patron of Brazilian independence. In the following years Brazil saw many other revolts and independence attempts, but in 1808 a significant change of events took over the country: instead of fighting in Europe a war against Napoleon he believed he could not win, Dom João VI, the Portuguese prince-regent, decided to move his capital from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro. However, some years later Dom João had to choose between staying in Brazil or losing his crown. He decided to go back to Portugal. His son, Dom Pedro I, remained in Brazil as a new prince-regent. Legend has it that, when embarking back to Europe, João turned to Pedro and said, “make the independence of this country before someone else does.”

And he did: on September 7, 1822, Dom Pedro I proclaimed Brazil’s independence and became the country’s first emperor. His son, Dom Pedro II, would succeed him in 1840 and rule until 1889 when the monarchy was overthrown, and the republic established. Now, just imagine if the king or prince of England or Spain proclaimed himself emperor of America. Well, that’s what happened in Brazil. It seems to me that people forget how absurd this scenario really was.

Fast-forward: Dom Pedro I followed his father’s steps in 1831. He had to choose between staying in Brazil or jeopardizing his family’s position in Europe. He went back to Portugal but left his son to become emperor in Brazil. Because Dom Pedro II was still only four years old, that wouldn’t happen until almost a decade later. And so, the 1830s were a very turmoiled time in Brazilian history. The country was ruled by several regents and was about to be torn apart. This favored speeding up Dom Pedro II’s coronation. Although he was only 14 years old, his rise to power helped to heal several wounds and bring a union to Brazil. The country’s subsequent history, at least until the proclamation of the republic in 1889, was lived under the shadow of the 1830s. To a high degree the Brazilian elites were afraid that without a strong central power, represented by the emperor, the country would fall apart, much like Hispanic America. On top of that, Brazilian economy was majorly dependent on African slaves, and the same elites were afraid that the Haitian Revolution of 1803 would be emulated in their country in the absence of a strong centralized government.

These are in my view the basics of Brazilian history in the 19th century. To prevent regional fragmentation (as in Hispanic America) or a slave revolution (as in Haiti) a very strong and centralized government was established. Liberal on the surface, but very far from that in reality. I don’t question that in the absence of this choice Brazilian history might have been quite different. However, I think that it is important to notice that Brazilian political history didn’t have a very democratic beginning.

As I already mentioned, the monarchy in Brazil ended in 1889. Dom Pedro II suffered a textbook coup d’état: some economic elites colluded with the military (mostly the army) and took over the power. The first forty years of Brazilian republic were notoriously oligarchic, ruled mostly by the coffee elites of the states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais. These elites, however, tasted their own medicine when, in 1930, Getúlio Vargas took over power by force. He would be the country’s dictator until 1945.

Vargas deserves special attention, both because of his long time in power and his enduring influence. On many occasions, he has been classified as a fascist, or something close to that. Populist is also a label that has been associated with him. I prefer to label him as “getulist”. To be sure, Vargas had some resemblance to fascists in Europe and populists in Latin America, but I understand that this is mainly so because all these governments share in their anti-liberalism, centralization of power and tendency to extreme violence.

Vargas peacefully stepped down from power in 1945, only to come back (democratically elected!) in 1951. He committed suicide in 1954. The whole period of 1945-1964 was lived under his shadow. Many tried to be his successor. Juscelino Kubitsheck, president from 1956 to 1961, began his political career as Vargas’ protégé and remained faithful to the mentor until Getúlio’s death. Leonel Brizola, governor of Rio Grande do Sul (1959-1963) – Vargas’ home state – also tried to continue Getúlio’s legacy. Even more so did Brizola’s brother in law, João Goulart, president from 1961 until the 1964 coup.

Even more than Juscelino Kubitsheck, João Goulart began his political career as a protégé of Getúlio Vargas, but never achieved the political brilliance of his mentor. Jango, as he was called, was not a communist by any means. Very much like Vargas, his ideology was a confused mix of positivism, laborism, populism and any other -isms. Very pragmatic. However, above all, Jango was a fool. He was unable to understand that the World had changed. What was successful for Vargas in the 1930s could not be reproduced in the 1960s. Because of that, amid the Cold War scenario he was mistaken for a communist by some. Others, more pointedly, realized that he was too oblivion to the communist threat Brazil was facing.

Communists had been trying to come to power in Brazil (rarely democratically) since the 1920s. The Cold War only intensified this threat. After the Cuban Revolution of 1959 many feared that Brazil would be the next domino to fall.

And this is in short, the scenario in which the military came to power in Brazil in 1964. As late Brazilian economist Roberto Campos very lucidly pointed, democracy was sadly not an option for Brazil in 1964. The country had to choose between a right-wing or a left-wing dictatorship. I believe they chose correctly. The communists took power in Cuba in 1959. They are still there. The military seized control in Brazil in 1964. They pacifically laid over power 21 years after and never tried to come back. I am not saying that a right-wing dictatorship is a good solution against leftism. Anyone who reads this here is reading his prejudices solely. What I am saying is that Brazil sadly has little democratic tradition and had even less 55 years ago. Therefore, we should not be surprised that the military took over power in 1964. Surprisingly would be if things happened in any other way. I don’t celebrate the military government of 1964-1985. Just the opposite: as with so many things in Brazilian history (or in life!) it is not something to celebrate. Just to accept and live with it.

Nightcap

  1. The intellectual distrust of democracy Jacob Levy, Niskanen
  2. Leave John Locke in the dustbin of history John Quiggin, Jacobin
  3. In defense of neoliberalism William Easterly, Boston Review
  4. The predated mind (our animal origins) Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex

Brazil’s sole openly gay congressman leaves the country after death threats?

According to The Guardian and other online sources in English, Jean Wyllys, “Brazil’s first and only openly gay congressman” left the country after death threats. But is that so? Running a great risk (or certainty) of being called homophobic, fascist, racist, taxidermist, guitarist, etc., I’m gonna give some information that The Guardian and other sources neglect.

First of all, Mr. Wyllys is not “Brazil’s first and only openly gay congressman.” He was preceded by at least one other “openly gay congressman,” Clodovil Hernandes (1937-2009). Mr. Hernandes was elected for Congress in 2006 and before that was for several decades a respected (although sometimes controversial) fashion designer and television presenter. Mr. Hernandes was always open about his sexuality and while in Congress had good relations with Jair Bolsonaro, frequently accused of homophobia by Brazilian and international media – including The Guardian.

But coming back to Mr. Wyllys, he rose to fame after winning the Brazilian version of the of the Big Brother reality franchised television show in 2005. Following that, he ran for Congress in 2010 representing the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL. Socialism and freedom – a contradiction in the very party’s name) but received only an average of 13,000 votes. His election was only possible, considering the number of votes he had, through the votes of another highly voted candidate of the same party. In 2014 he ran for reelection and this time, justice be done, received a great number of votes: almost 145,000 – more than enough to be elected by his own rights, although still way behind Jair Bolsonaro himself, who received 464,572 votes in the same election. However, in the last elections, Mr. Wyllys went back to electoral mediocrity, with meager 24,295 votes. Once again, as in 2010, he was benefited by his electoral law and party votes and got elected, despite being behind candidates who received way more.

After Bolsonaro was elected president in last October, many leftists in Brazil declared they were part of “The Resistance.” One of the mottos of this informal group was “nobody lets go of nobody’s hand.” There were many rumors on the internet saying that Mr. Wyllys would leave Brazil with Bolsonaro’s election. Answering these rumors he said, “the slogan of my campaign was resistance. For all those who spread fake news saying that I would leave Brazil, I am here and here I will stay.” However, Mr. Wyllys’ resistance didn’t last for a month. Just a few days before the swearing-in he released a note from overseas stating that he will not assume his position as a congressman in February and that he will also not return to Brazil due to alleged death threats. Mr. Wyllys didn’t present any proofs of the death threats he affirms is receiving.

Mr. Wyllys despicable 24,295 votes – and the downfall from his previous almost 145,000 – show that he is actually a minor figure in Brazilian politics. However, considering the cover given him by The Guardian and other media, one might think he is something else. One might think that his alleged death threats are a major threat to Brazilian democracy. But let’s consider some things that The Guardian and other media ignore:

Last September, during the presidential campaign, Jair Bolsonaro suffered a knife attack in Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais. Bolsonaro’s stabber, Adélio Bispo de Oliveira, was affiliated to PSOL – Mr. Wyllys’ political party – between 2007 and 2014. According to official records of Brazil’s House of Representatives, on the same day of the attack, Mr. Oliveira was in the House, in Brasília. Brasília and Juiz de Fora are almost 700 miles apart. Did somebody register his presence to create an alibi? Immediately after the attack, Mr. Oliveira was assisted by extremely expensive lawyers. The identity of who pays these lawyers is secret. If all these things don’t raise eyebrows, I don’t know what to do.

In 2016, during the voting for the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, Mr. Wyllys spit on Jair Bolsonaro. Mr. Wyllys spit was followed by a wave of leftists spitting on opponents as a sign of political resistance.

The case is still under investigation, but there is a lot of evidence that Fernando Holiday, a black and gay city councilor for São Paulo, suffered a murder attempt last December. Evidence also suggests that this was a political crime, for Holiday defends a controversial social security reform. But I don’t see The Guardian celebrating that São Paulo, Brazil’s greatest city, has a young, black, and gay councilor or that worried that his life might be under threat. Maybe because Holiday defends free-market and conservative policies?

Joice Hasselmann, elected for Congress in 2018 elections, also claims she received death threats. The difference between Ms. Hasselmann and Mr. Wyllys is that she presented proofs: in late November a pig’s head with a death note was left on her residence’s door. The case is under investigation. A woman, elected for Congress of one of the world’s largest democracies is apparently receiving death threats, but the coverage by international media is minimum. Maybe because Ms. Hasselmann is conservative?

In sum, Brazil’s democracy is fragile indeed. A presidential candidate was stabbed. A counselor in the country’s largest city was the victim of a murder attempt. A congresswoman by the country’s most populous state receives death threats on her home. If Mr. Wyllys is indeed receiving death threats, he shouldn’t leave the country. He should honor his voters, despite how few they are, and most of all, he should cooperate with the police.

Venezuela: a nightmare coming to an end?

Yesterday, January 23, Juan Guaidó, the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, declared himself acting president of the country. Mr. Guaidó claims that the election that brought Nicolas Maduro to a second six-year term was not fair and that therefore Mr. Maduro is a “usurper” and the presidency is vacant. Donald Trump immediately recognized Guaidó as president and so did Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and the entire Lima Group (Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Guyana and Saint Lucia).

Venezuela does not have a very democratic history, but things began to deteriorate in 1999 when Hugo Chávez came to power as president. He ruled the country until his death in 2013 and was succeeded by his vice-president Nicolas Maduro. Initially, Chávez didn’t look so bad, but he became increasingly more dictatorial through his government.

Hugo Chávez was the first president linked to Foro de São Paulo to come to power. He was succeeded by Lula da Silva in Brazil, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and many others. Foro de São Paulo (or São Paulo Forum) is a conference of leftist political parties and other organizations from Latin America and the Caribbean launched by the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT) in 1990 in the city of São Paulo. The aim of the Foro was to build mutual support between these organizations, especially considering the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It can be said that Foro de São was exceedingly successful for a while. At one point in the 2000s, a great part of Latin America was ruled by politicians connected to it. However, the problem with socialism, as Margaret Thatcher once said, is that “eventually you run out of other people’s money.” PT’s rule in Brazil began to fall in 2013 when a great number of Brazilians started protesting against Dilma Rousseff’s government. Dilma was impeached in 2016, and her predecessor and mentor Lula da Silva was jailed in 2018 by Operation Carwash. Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s new president, is a fierce anti-communist. His election also marks a turn of events not only in Brazil but in the whole in Latin America. Maduro can no longer count on the support he received from Brazil, the continent’s greatest economy.

With money running out and corruption escalating, the decline of socialism in Latin America is just a matter of time, just as it was in Europe. Wind of Change.

The Yellow Vests: Update

In the ninth weekend of demonstrations, the politics of envy seem to dominate. (Soak the rich again!) The Government must give us more money. Lower some taxes but impose or re-impose others especially the former tax on wealth.

Far behind: Introduce a degree of popular initiative in the political process: allow groups of citizens to initiate legislation, to implement it, and to abrogate it.

I can’t tell if those who want more money are the same as those who demand popular initiative in legislation. It’s a problem with grass root movements. They make attribution difficult.

Pres. Macron’s response is all over the place. It sounds like the work of an old man although the pres. is only 41. I think I know why this is: Nearly all the past thirty presidents and prime ministers are graduates from the one same school. Maybe they just crib the class notes of their predecessors.

Notably, Mr Macron’s response – contained in an open letter – to the nation includes more “save the Planet” proposals as if he had forgotten that an environmentalist tax set the barrels of powder on fire to begin with. Little chance he will be heard by the Yellow Vests although his open letter may serve to rally the main part of the population around him as the lesser of several evils.

Notably, the president, on his own, mentioned the possibility of limiting immigration although that’s not high in any of the Yellow Vests demands. Curious.

The president’s proposed themes are supposed to be debated widely and on a national scale. They are expected to give rise to suggestions on how to govern France. The suggestions will be collected at the municipal level (a good idea; the French like their mayors) in complaint books called “cahiers de doléances.” The latter sounds to me like a very bad idea. The last time those words were used on a large scale, was around 1788-89. The ruling circles lost their heads soon afterwards. (I mean literally.)

Keep things in perspective: If you add all the demonstrators nationally in every town any Saturday, you arrive at a very small number although it’s made up of persistent people . They are persistent because they represent a large minority facing serious, possibly unsolvable problems. Many ordinary French people have grown weary of the disruptions the Yellow Vests have caused. There is also huge revulsion against the acts of violence that accompany Yellow Vests demonstrations (not necessarily their own acts).

Cool heads counsel the president to dissolve the National Assembly and to call for new elections. Supposedly, this would bring up elected representatives more in tune with the people’s mood. My own guess is that new elections would result in the isolation of the Yellow Vests and bring an end to their movements. Just guessing.

Did I forget anything?

Eroding norms and political transformation: A new chance for liberty?

The Hammelsprung

Usually, the debates in Germany’s highest political body – The Bundestag – right before Christmas are not that exciting for the public. Parliamentarians are exhausted from long nights and intense discussions from the past weeks. But on Friday the 14th December, the last scheduled plenary session this year, something remarkable happened in the Bundestag, symbolically standing for the erosion of political norms, which democracies experience for a few years. The topics this day were not too fascinating – they discussed how to make the country more appealing to top-level researchers and if fixed book prices should be abolished. Not trifling, but nothing too crucial either.

But around noon the right-wing party AfD decided to initiate a Hammelsprung. The Hammelsprung is a control mechanism to ensure two crucial things.

First, it can be used to achieve absolute clearness of a voting result. Since the counting of votes mostly takes place via counting hands, a Hammelsprung can help to bring about a final decision in close polls. The process is relatively old-fashioned and quite funny in my opinion: The parliamentarians have to get out of the plenary hall first and then reenter through doors labeled “Yes,” “No,” and “Abstention” while an official counts these votes loudly.

Second, it is a tool to assure that crucial decisions of the parliament are made by a majority of the parliamentarians. If a parliamentary group has doubts that more than half of the parliament’s members are present to an assembly, it can propose a Hammelsprung to determine the exact amount of parliamentarians present. If there are less than half of the parliamentarians present, the parliament does not have a quorum and thus the parliamentary session gets canceled.

How the parliament works

At this point, it is important to mention that the German parliament is a working parliament rather than a debating one (such as the British house of commons). Hence, most of the parliamentary work takes place in exclusive committees. These committees consist of members from each party and are all dedicated to certain political topics such as defense policy, health policy and so on and so forth. Parties look for alliances to back up their policy proposals within these committees. Thus, the majority ratios regarding political proposals are played out not in the big parliamentary debates, but in rather small expert working groups. So one can expect that what gets resolved within a committee, gets resolved in the parliament as well.

These committees meet simultaneously to the parliamentary debates. On top, a parliamentarian has to inform himself, manage his team, be present in his election district and many more things. So it is impossible for him to be present in every parliamentary session. So over the years the norm established, that not every member of parliament need to be physically present during the parliamentary session, but only the experts in the certain relevant subject. During their election campaign, the AfD aggressively attacked this particular norm by labeling parliamentarians of established parties as “lazy” and “self-indulgent”, referring to the many empty seats during parliamentary debates.

A battle against norms and the establishment

The AfD used the Hammelsprung on Friday the 14th December in the second meaning mentioned above: To enforce a cancellation of the parliamentary session regarding the acquisition of top-level researchers. This was not a topic related move to ensure the necessary quota, it was rather yet another milestone in the ongoing battle against existing norms. We can say this for certain because AfD didn’t even re-enter the hall: they purposely stayed outside in order to enforce a cancellation of the session. Alexander Gauland, the party whip of the AfD, explained that they wanted to show that the AfD wants to give the government a “hard time” and added: “He that will not hear must feel.” This can be seen as an act of revenge against the parliament because the AfD’s candidate for the vice presidency of the Bundestag failed to get elected a second time in a row. Contrary to their expectations, enough parliamentarians somehow made their way quickly enough into the parliament to reach the quota necessary to proceed with the debate.

How norms foster social cohesion

But the danger remains: There are several tools populist parties (right or left wing) can use to impede effective governing within a perfectly legal framework. This development is not at all a specifically German one. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt provide an in-depth description of the erosion of norms in the American political system in their book How Democracies Die. According to their theory, functioning democracies do not only rely on a thought-out constitution and functioning political organs but also on shared norms. The most important norms for Ziblatt & Levitsky are mutual tolerance and forbearance.

Mutual tolerance describes the recognition of the political enemy as an opposed actor instead as an existential threat to the country. Contrary, forbearance means to restrain the urge of using every legal means to achieve a political end.

It is certainly not too difficult to quantify the erosion of these two norms in America, specifically when one pays closer attention to the skyrocketing amount of “filibustering” in the Congress or, as seen recently, to the increasing times of governmental shutdowns caused by a lack of agreement between Republicans and Democrats over the federal budget. We can see the effects of this abandonment of norms on a daily basis: The more hostile political environment, the lack of respect for other political opinions, the increasing difficulties for finding a compromise between parties. The political opposition is on the verge of drifting away from constructive criticism towards impeding the government in every possible way.

A liberal response?

In my opinion, there are two ways to react to this threat.

First, we could change the rules of the game and narrow the legal framework for processes which can be used to impede effective governing such as filibustering and the Hammelsprung. I do not think that this is the right way to counteract populist parties (or tendencies more generally). These processes exist for a good reason. But they hinge on the observance of forbearance. There was no extensive problem of filibustering in the Roosevelt, Truman, or Wilson administrations, although their policies were also quite controversial. The problem is not the rules themselves, but the lack of shared norms for a solid foundation to put them to good use. Furthermore, changing the rules would only foster the thought that a perfect constitution is somehow reachable. And here I see the danger, that we might jeopardize the status of the law as a neutral guardrail for society and it instead becomes an arbitrary mean to achieve political ends, as Frederic Bastiat describes in his work The Law.

The second option is to adjust our own behavior to the changing circumstances brought by the new populist players one the pitch. Therefore the established political actors need to carefully reevaluate the importance of certain norms and if necessary transform them. Of course, this is not as easy as said: It presupposes a willingness to cooperate among established actors (which is nothing to take for granted in today’s times) as well as a vigilant public, which backs up those norms. Additionally, norms do not emerge from scratch. They are rather the result of a slow change in the mutual understanding of social human interaction.

What the future will bring

The AfD already has announced that they want to continue to use every legal (and in some cases illegal) way to make it harder to govern the country, which is their way to battle the establishment. Whereas the established parties tried various strategies to cope with this right-wing populist party ranging from ignoring to direct confrontation. Still, nobody knows exactly how to deal with these new political circumstances. But what is for certain is the political landscape is further going to change; and thus also politicians and parties will need new strategies, structures, and norms.

Although this development is mostly seen as the road to a gloomy and authoritarian future, I believe (or at least I hope) that democratic parties will find new ways to counter right and left wing populist proposals. Instead of trying to engineer our legal framework to preclude populist from polls, politicians should focus on giving scope for spontaneous order and new alliances. This process is incredibly exciting to me. As Steve Davies describes it, we are currently witnessing a “great realignment” of party structures in Europe. And where old structures break up, there is room for new ones. European liberal party leaders (carried by the Axis of Linder – Rutte – Macron) are still looking for their place in this new power vacuum. Nobody can predict where this development will lead us. That is why we must proceed to fight for our liberty: inside and outside of political party structures.

The real threat to democracy in Brazil

Earlier this week, Ricardo Lewandowski, a judge in Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court, was in a commercial flight. The passenger sitting next to him turned to the judge and said: “I am ashamed of Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court”. Lewandowski’s reaction was to threaten the passenger with jail. He turned to him and said, “tell me, do you want to go to jail?”  The passenger was indeed stopped by the police at the destination, but released right after. The video of the exchange is easily found on Youtube.

Lewandowski came to the Supreme Court appointed by former president Lula da Silva, today serving time in jail for corruption and still indicted for several crimes. He has been criticized several times for favoring Lula and his party.

I wonder if the press, that complains so much about Jair Bolsonaro being a threat to democracy in Brazil, will have the same treatment for Lewandowski. When you cannot criticize in public a public server or a public institution without being stopped by the police, democracy is no longer in place.

Since the 19th-century Brazilian judges and magistrates believe they are above the law. It is just a sad fact in Brazilian history. The challenge for Brazil is to show people like Lewandowski that they are just humans, open to criticism, like everybody else.