In Brazil, right-wing parties and politicians are following constitutional procedures to oust the country’s democratically elected president, Dilma Rousseff. They claim that she made improper use of budgetary procedures to bolster her 2014 reelection campaign.
The left calls it an illegitimate coup. They believe the ultimate goal is gutting the welfare, housing and affirmative action policies that Rousseff’s Workers Party put in place to address the needs of Brazil’s poor majority. They argue that the president herself has not been accused of illicit personal gain and that the budgetary irregularities are not sufficient grounds for removal from office.
Both sides are right.
As an interdisciplinary scholar studying Brazilian democracy from the ground up, I have interviewed scores of activists in social movements and seen firsthand the many ways in which, since the 1980s, the people of Brazil have come on the scene. The spectacle of one corrupt congressman after another demanding the ouster of a female president who has implemented successful antipoverty and affirmative action programs has riveted Brazilians and gained global attention. The twists and turns of Supreme Court rulings and annulments and reinstatements of the impeachment vote obscure what is truly at stake – the arc of democracy that has empowered Brazil’s citizens and improved their lives.
The Brazilian people coming on the scene
Brazil has the sixth largest economy, the fifth largest population, the fourth largest democracy and the second largest black population in the world. Over the past three decades – in contrast to much of the world – Brazil has been largely free of political terrorism, ethnic violence and religious fundamentalism.
If there are countries in the global south where sustainable and inclusive democracy may take root and flourish, Brazil is foremost among them.
Over the past three decades, virtually all the country’s citizens – middle class, poor people, indigenous people, blacks, women, residents of mega-cities and landless peasants – have been voting in free and fair elections. They’ve been working, protesting, forming community associations and nongovernmental organizations, and fighting for decent jobs, housing, education and health care. Brazilians have struggled to gain rights and articulate what those rights should be.
The deepening of Brazil’s current democracy has been a rich and robust process. It began with the end of a military dictatorship in 1985 and the writing of a new constitution in 1988. This constitution, with its provisions for civil society’s participation in governing, reflects the strength of grassroots mobilization and protest that has marked modern Brazil.
While the resulting democracy has been shot through with violence from gangs, traffickers and police – and with corruption and injustice on all sides, not least from politicians – it has delivered.
Brazilian politics since the 1990s has provided first steps toward meaningful citizenship, rising living standards and daily lives without hunger for all Brazilians. This inclusion has fostered a rough-and-tumble public sphere with meaningful guarantees of free speech, where political ideas about what society should look like have been debated and voted upon.
Decades of democratic progress hang in the balance
This is not the first time ordinary people have played an active role in politics in Brazil. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Brazilians elected leaders who addressed issues such as housing, wages and education for ordinary people. The democratic move to the left was cut short by a brutal military coup in 1964.
Brazilian economic elites and military officers, with the support of the U.S. government, quashed progressive policymaking and tortured and imprisoned activists. Among them was Dilma Rousseff. The generals then governed Brazil from 1964 to 1985.
The same thing happened across Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. Leftist candidates secured electoral victories when ordinary people made claims for economic and political rights. This brought military coups and dirty wars of torture and disappearance across the continent.
The second coming of the people on the scene in Latin America, from the 1980s to the present, mirrors the first in many ways. Several decades of fair elections have brought progressive policies, movements, and new political voices across the continent. These range from worker-run factories in Argentina to indigenous governments in Bolivia, from Brazil’s redistributive bolsa familia to nationwide support for victims of violence and disappearance in Mexico.
The process of economic inclusion under democratic governments was bolstered over the past decade by the dynamism of China’s economy, which paid high prices for Latin America’s mineral and agricultural exports. China’s current economic slump has pressed Brazil into recession.
Rollback going forward
Now that President Rousseff has been impeached, Brazilians face uncertainty at a tense moment, with the economy in free-fall and the Olympics just months away. The country’s democratic progress and the future of the people who have come on the scene are once again at stake.
Will the presence of newly empowered citizens claiming, voting for, and implementing inclusive policies continue through this tempestuous time? Or, will right-wing politicians and business people again succeed in turning back these achievements, at great cost to poor majorities and a democratic government?
The key issue right now is less who is governing than how they are governing. The prospects are not encouraging.
As the unfolding “Car Wash” scandal has demonstrated, Brazil’s democracy is intertwined with corruption across the political spectrum. Congressmen who amassed fortunes through bribery and graft have used the impeachment to denounce the policies and programs of the country’s leftist government. Hoping to avoid prosecution themselves, they are calling for a turn to the right.
Upon assuming the presidency, Rousseff’s vice president, Michel Temer, appointed an all white, all male cabinet. He has vowed to turn the economy around by slashing social programs and favoring business – positions that were rejected in presidential elections in 2014. In office less than a week, Temer announced plans to privatize public enterprises and roads, cancel increases in minimum benefits for retirees and revoke legislation that mandates minimum government investments in education and health care.
The current crisis has multiple causes. If Worker’s Party representatives in Congress had not stolen money, then President Rousseff would have been less vulnerable to impeachment. If the right in Brazil had fiercely critiqued Rousseff’s policies, and prepared strong positions and constituencies to oppose them in future elections – rather than impeach her on questionable grounds – that would have advanced the democratic process. It would also have been a step forward for democracy if Brazilian politicians were railing against corruption across the political spectrum and demanding that all the criminals in Congress resign.
Instead, we are faced with the smoke and mirrors of impeachment. And the rhetoric, political appointments and policy proposals of President Temer display every sign of rollback for the people on the scene.