Edge of Democracy in Brazil?

The past few days Brazilian internet was packed with commentaries about The Edge of Democracy (Portuguese: Democracia em Vertigem), a 2019 Brazilian documentary film directed by Petra Costa that was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 92nd Academy Awards (and lost). To be honest, I didn’t watch this movie and I’m not planning to. My life is already quite busy as it is. However, judging by the trailer and by what people were saying, “The film follows the political past of the filmmaker in a personal and intimate way, in context with the first term of President Lula until the events leading to the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, analyzing the rise and fall of both presidents and the consequent sociopolitical crisis that swept the country. The arrest of Lula paved the way for the rise of Jair Bolsonaro and his eventual presidency” (from Wikipedia). Vox says this: “Filmmaker Petra Costa grew up in a politically involved family in Brazil, and that’s her starting point for The Edge of Democracy, in which she traces recent developments in Brazilian politics and shows how the country moved so quickly from a fledgling democracy toward far-right authoritarianism”. So, it seems to me that the movie is about how Brazil was becoming a vibrant democracy under the rule of the Workers’ Party and now it’s becoming a far-right autocracy. Judging by that, these are some thoughts on how I see democracy in recent and past Brazilian history.

Brazil was a Portuguese colony, but this was different from America being an English colony. There were not thirteen colonies in Brazil. Portugal’s oversight of Brazil was stronger than England’s over America. There was basically no space for local rule in Brazil. Therefore, Brazil came from its colonial days with basically no self-government experience.

Brazil became independent from Portugal in 1822. But again, this was different from America’s independence. In 1808 the Portuguese royal family came to Brazil, running away from Napoleon. Brazil became a United Kingdom with Portugal in 1815. Dom João VI, the Portuguese king, gave in to the court’s pressure and went back to Portugal in the early 1820s. However, he left his son Dom Pedro I as prince regent in Brazil. And at this Pedro declared Brazil’s independence in 1822.

Dom Pedro I was crowned as Emperor of Brazil and ruled until 1831. Suffering multiple pressures, he went back to Portugal like his father before him. From 1831 to 1840 Brazil was ruled by several regents. In 1840 Dom Pedro I’s son, Dom Pedro II, became emperor. He ruled until 1889, when he was deposed by a military coup.

Brazil has been a republic ever since, but not like America. We didn’t simply have presidential elections every four years. The first two Brazilian presidents were virtually military dictators. Civilians came to power in 1894 and ruled until 1930, but these were not exactly democratic times. Mostly the country was ruled by coffee oligarchs.

The last of these coffee planter presidents ruled until 1930. Then Getúlio Vargas came to power in a coup. He ruled until 1945. Vargas was deposed but continued to be a major political player. So much so, that he came to the presidency in the 1950s. He committed suicide in 1954, while still in office. Basically, the country was still under Vargas’ shadow from 1945 to 1964. And that’s when the military came to power.

Brazil was under military governments from 1964 to 1985. This is the historical period that people tend to remember and refer to the most. The military came to power because the population asked them to. There was a great fear of communism, and the army would theoretically defend Brazil against this. I am not saying that this fear was justified or that military governments was the right solution, but this is how most people thought at that time.

The last military president surrendered power in 1985. Since then, Brazil has been ruled by civilians. The Workers’ Party (or Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT, in Portuguese) became one of the most competitive political forces in Brazil in this period. Officially founded in 1980, it always had Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as one of its main leaders. The Workers’ Party always presented itself as broadly leftist, without further specification. Among its founders were sympathizers of Roman Catholic Liberation Theology, radical socialists who defended armed opposition to the dictatorship, and union workers (Lula among them).

Lula was presidential candidate in 1989, 1994 and 1998, always coming in second place with about 30% of the votes. During those years Lula and the Workers’ Party were radically opposed to the economic reforms Brazil was going through. Like in other countries, Brazil was suffering from the crumbling of years of populism. The Washington Consensus was the order of the day, but the Workers’ Party was against everything it called “neoliberalism”. “Out with FHC (Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Brazil’s president from 1995 to 2002) and the IMF” was their usual chant. The party even defended not paying Brazil’s staggering international debts. Lula still hung out with socialist leaders, mostly Fidel Castro. However, in 2002 he presented a different platform. Advised by advertising professional and political strategist Duda Mendonça, he announced that, if elected president, he wouldn’t undo FHC’s economic reforms. Plagued by several international economic crises (Mexico, Asia, Russia, Argentina), Brazil was having a hard time entering the free-market world. The once highly popular FHC came out from office with low popularity. The combination of these factors (FHC’s low popularity at the time and Lula’s promise to pursue a less radical path) opened the way for the Workers’ Party to come to Brazil’s presidency.

In the first years of his government Lula was true to his promise. He not only maintained but deepened FHC’s economic reforms. After the initial shocks, Brazil slowly reacted to the free-market medicine and the economy started to grow. This guaranteed Lula’s reelection in 2006, although by then major corruption scandals already surrounded his presidency, centrally the Mensalão scandal. This scandal broke in 2005 when it was discovered that the Workers’ Party gave monthly payments to several deputies from other parties to vote for legislation that was favored by the ruling party. Although the investigations implicated some of Lula’s closest allies, the president himself managed to get off scot-free.

Lula’s second term in office marked a change from the first and even from his party’s historical stand up until then. The Workers’ Party since its inception always posed as a firm adversary to corruption. Political corruption is hardly something new in Brazil. Going back to the beginning of this text, one of Brazil’s historical problems has always been the difficulty of separating public and private. This was ironically famously observed by Raymundo Faoro, one of the Workers’ Party initial supporters. In Donos do Poder (Owners of the Power) Faoro observed that Brazil has always been led by ruling elites who saw public property as their property. In this scenario the very idea of corruption becomes fuzzy since ruling elites believe they are not stealing – they are simply using what is rightly theirs! It is against this scenario that Faoro and others proposed a technocrat professional bureaucracy. After the Mensalão scandal, however, the Workers’ Party became cynical towards corruption. Their usual response to it became to say that previous governments also did it, that they didn’t invent corruption or simply to say that Lula was an innocent man being politically persecuted by the elites. In sum, Workers’ Party officials and supporters were divided between those who, while not denying the veracity of the corruption scandals, tried to minimize it, and those who completely denied it.

Lula left his second term in office still high on popularity. So much so that he was able to elect his successor, Dilma Rousseff. Dilma, however, would face several difficulties in her presidency. Number one, although somewhat forgotten by the general public, the corruption scandals were still a reality that would surface every now and then. Second, Brazil was suffering the effects of the 2008 world economic crisis. Finally, Dilma was herself a shamefully inept leader.

As I mentioned before, Lula came to power in 2003 mainly because he and others in the Workers’ Party were able to (partially) come to terms with the fact that the Washington Consensus is called a consensus for a reason: as much as some things in political economy are debatable, some are not – centrally, you can’t spend money that you don’t have forever. Dilma would have none of that. Although she is famously very confused in the way she speaks, all things point to the fact that Dilma is trapped in a painfully outdated Keynesian mentality. Trapped in this mentality, she overspent – against Brazilian law. For this reason, she was impeached.

Dilma’s impeachment was followed by a short government of her vice-president, Michel Temer, and now the country is governed by Jair Messias Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro was for many years an obscure politician from Rio de Janeiro, elected mostly to corporately defend the military as workmen. Almost an unofficial union leader for soldiers. Bolsonaro, however, is also an admirer of the Brazilian army in general. He graduated from Academia Militar das Agulhas Negras, something akin to West Point. As a reformed army captain, he fiercely believes that the military did save Brazil from communism in the 1960s. As I mentioned before, that’s exactly what people in the 1960s believed. I’m not saying that they were right.

Ironically, leftists greatly benefited from the military governments of the 1960s-1980s. The guerrilla in Brazil’s countryside was crushed by the armed forces and the urban armed resistance was mostly weak and disorganized. Some important leaders in the Workers’ Party came precisely from these two. But Brazilian armed forces were shamefully unprepared to fight a cultural war. While some sectors of the left were still following Mao Zedong or Che Guevara, trying to reach power by force, others were reading Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, following a more cultural path to power.

In any case, the left was very good at posing as victims. In the years that followed the military governments, there was a tendency to romanticize the resistance. Some people, artists and politicians, made whole careers on that. To be “persecuted by the dictatorship” became a major asset.

But the truth is that Brazilian left never fought for democracy. This isn’t meant to depreciate them. It’s just a statement of fact. Actually, what I meant in the first paragraphs was to show that Brazil has a very weak democratic tradition. Beginning very early in the 20th century, shortly after the Russian Revolution, communists tried to take power in Brazil by force. Again, this is just a statement of fact. This continued up to the early 1960s when, fueled by Cold War fear (some might say paranoia, I don’t really mind), people begged the armed forces to take power. Has it not lasted for so long, the military governments would probably have been long forgotten or taken as something positive. But because they lasted for so long, the left was able to play its cards and pose as democratic victims of an authoritarian regime.

And this is, I believe, how we come to 2020. Bolsonaro has, I believe, a wrong idea about the military governments. Even if they were truly necessary to avoid a communist coup, they shouldn’t have lasted for so long. Besides that, the military presidents had their ups and downs in how they governed the country. Bolsonaro mostly can’t see that. The left, on the other hand, romanticizes the dictatorship. Some of them seem to actually believe in the lie that they were fighting for democracy. They were not. Had they won the war against the military forces, Brazil would have become something akin to Castro’s Cuba or Mao’s China. Had the military not won against the guerrillas, Brazil would have something akin to Colombia’s FARCs.

In sum, Brazil is still trapped in things that happened in the 1960s. Socialists, of course, wanted a big state. That’s basically their ideology. Ironically, in order to fight that, the military built an equally gigantic state. Petra Costa’s family got rich, fabulously rich, during the military governments. Today her family has contracts with the Workers’ Party. Some things change, but others remain the same: some people don’t care if governments are red or blue. All they care about is the green of the dollars. And a smaller state would be bad business for this kind of people.