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.

Brazil six months after Dilma Rousseff

Six months after President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, Brazil remains plunged into one of the biggest crises in its history. Economically the outlook is worrisome, with little chance that the country will grow again anytime soon. Politically the government of President Michel Temer has little credibility. Although brought to power by a process whose legitimacy cannot be questioned (even if groups linked to the former president still insist on the narrative of the coup – although without the same energy as before), Temer has no expressive popular support and is attached to oligarchic interests difficult to circumvent. In other areas, the crisis is also present: urban violence is increasing, unemployment, especially among the young, remains high, and education is among the worst in the world, among other examples. It is surprising that Brazil, considering its GDP, is one of the largest economies on the planet.

As I predicted in a previous article, Dilma Rousseff’s departure from power, however just and necessary, would not be the solution to all Brazil’s problems. Rousseff, although president of the country, was far from having a leading role in the Brazilian reality. As local press often put it, she was just a pole put in place by former President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva hoping to one day return to power (which he never completely left). Today, however, Lula is the target of several corruption investigations and is expected to go to jail before he can contest new elections. Meanwhile, the government of Michel Temer offers little news compared to the previous.

Michel Temer is a lifelong member of PMDB. PMDB was formed during the Military Government that lasted from the early 1960s to the early 1980s. It was the consented opposition to the military, and eventually added a wide variety of political leadership. Leaving the military leadership period, some tried to keep the PMDB united as a great democratic front, but this was neither doable nor desirable. Keeping the PMDB together was not feasible because what united its main leaders was only opposition to the military government. In addition, the party added an irreconcilable variety of political ideas and projects, and it was not desirable to keep them together because it would be important for Brazilian political leaders to show their true colors at a moment when internationally the decline of socialism was being discussed. After a stampede of many of its most active leadership to other parties (mainly to the PSDB), the PMDB became a pragmatic, often oligarchic, legend and without clear ideological orientation, very similar to the Mexican PRI.

Being a party of national expression, the PMDB had oscillating relations with all Brazilian governments since the 1980s, but with one certainty: the PMDB is a party that does not play to lose. Eventually a part of the party leadership understood that the arrival of the PT to the presidency of the country was inevitable and proposed an alliance. This explains the presence of Temer as Rousseff’s vice president. But it would be wrong to say that the PMDB simply joined the winning team: the PT was immeasurably benefited by the alliance, and probably would not have reached or remained in power without the new ally. The alliance with the PT also showed that, despite the ideological discourse, the PT had little novelty to offer to Brazilian politics.

Although he has waved with reforms in favor of economic freedom, Temer has done little that can considered new so far. The freezing of government spending, well received by many right-wing groups, does not really touch the foundations of Brazilian statism: the government remains almost omnipresent, only without the same money to play its part. The proposed pension reform, similarly, does not alter the fundamentals of the state’s relationship with society. Finally, Temer put the economic policy in the hands of Henrique Meirelles, who had already been President of the Central Bank of Lula. Meirelles is one of the main responsible for the crisis that the country faces today, and its revenue to get around the problems remains the same: stimulus spending. In other words, do more of what brought us to the current situation in the first place.

A positive aspect of the current Brazilian crisis is the emergence or strengthening of right-wing political groups. Although the Brazilian right still is quite authoritarian, there are inclinations in favor of the free market being strengthened. Of course, strengthening a pro-market right annoys the left, and this is perhaps the best sign that this is a political trend gaining real space. While it is still difficult to see a light at the end of the tunnel, the 2018 presidential election may be the most relevant to the country since 1989.