Photo: Silvia Izquierdo/AP
The global spotlight on Brazil is focused on celebrating the Rio Olympics as a success, and not on the removal of its president and ongoing political turmoil. In a dramatic departure from Brazil’s history of stable democracy, President Dilma Rousseff was impeached on August 31st. Vice President Michel Temer has now assumed office in what can only be described as a coup. The process has laid bare forces that have been eroding Brazil’s democracy for years: the degradation of democratic norms, widening inequality, and increasing control of the democratic process by wealthy elites. These trends are not unique to Brazil. Rather, they reflect recent political developments in the United States. The US would do well to look past the spectacle of the Olympics and learn how quickly a seemingly stable democracy can erode.
The details of the crisis aren’t widely known. Temer, the new interim president, is actually barred from running for office because of corrupt electioneering, so he can’t stay where he is. Eduardo Cunha, a main figure behind Rousseff’s impeachment, lost his seat because he lied about his secret Swiss bank accounts. A long-running partnership between business elites and the formerly anti-corruption Worker’s Party has degraded into an aggressive and politically dangerous face-off. The coalition which kept the Worker’s Party and Rousseff in government has collapsed completely. All this is unfolding in the context of ballooning public debt, stagnant economic growth and a series of public corruption scandals. The now-legendary Petrobras Scandal led to a series of investigations which revealed the corruption endemic in virtually the entire political class. This, in turn, has launched the general public into a state of anti-establishment agitation.
Despite the popular movement against Rousseff due to her perceived corrupt nature, the new coalition led by the center-right Brazilian Democratic Movement Party and the Brazilian Social Democracy Party holds some of the highest rates of corruption in the Brazilian political system. On top of that, the new government is already deconstructing years of progressive lawmaking; installing an all-white, all-male cabinet, removing protections for workers, endangering the environment, rolling back education funding, and removing protections for indigenous lands. Temer’s new direction involves the privatization of airports and public contracts for infrastructure development, which is a concerning direction as these politicians are already implicated in corrupt kickbacks. Finally, federal prosecutors have begun to rewrite the Brazilian historical narrative by requesting permission to charge the well-liked ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) with corruption. Rousseff’s impeachment is leaving deep scars in Brazil’s political landscape by destroying established political norms.
Despite the dramatic political crisis, increased international media attention somehow managed to skirt all political commentary. The coverage leading up to the Olympic Games in Rio this summer was equal parts pessimistic and frenzied, but focused on issues completely secondary to the political and social context of the Games. Led by a hysterical wail from many North American outlets, comparatively petty threats were peddled to athletes and the North American populace: deadly diseases, dangerous favelas, and environmental risks were discussed with great concern. As a result, several prominent athletes made publicized decisions to stay out of the games due to Brazil’s apparently high risk of Zika infection and dengue. The reality is that the risk for mosquito-borne diseases were overwrought. August is one of the coolest and driest months, preventing mosquito reproduction, and worst-case dengue projections capped at less than six per 100,000 individuals. The alarm bells were truly misguided.
Partly to blame is the American preoccupation with exotic places and their problems. Brazil has long been stereotyped as a land of supermodels and tropical beaches, while its real problems are often slipped under the rug in favour of the known tropes. When Gisele Bundschen struts across the runway in the Maracanã to the tune of ‘Girl from Ipanema’, the imminent coup d’etat slides out of international view. This spectacle is intentional. The Brazilian government has done a good job of keeping its politics out of view for those who were didn’t know what to look for.
Olympics are always a time for positive messaging, strong nationalist sentiment, and cultural showcasing. Especially after incredible levels of corruption were exposed during the 2014 FIFA world cup and protests rose up around the country, the Brazilian elite was very much aware of the need for an image of cohesion. The Games are no time for divisiveness; protests are swiftly silenced by security forces and reporting is avoided by prominent media outlets. Thus, the enormous protests staged by the Brazilian public against nearly every party involved in the scandals were muffled under the celebratory trumpeting of Olympic excitement. As a result, massive protests have been virtually ignored. In a time when Brazilians should have been celebrating themselves, their country, and their achievements, the country was falling into a political disaster left underexamined by the international community.
Even if North Americans were to see the inequality, protest suppression, and democratic crisis through the celebratory haze, Brazilian problems are Brazilian problems – right? Not quite. One of the main problems in Brazil is the overwhelming power of the super-wealthy political elite. As the wealthy push their power and privileges further and further, the Brazilian system strains against the pressure of the disenfranchised and swollen lower class. There’s substantial evidence which suggests that, in a manner similar to American campaign-focused media manipulation, the Brazilian coup was engineered by media outlets controlled by the 1%. The themes of institutionalized economic inequality, money-driven political manipulation, and elite-driven democratic degradation are also mirrored in the election in the US.
As in Brazil, the American right wing is now leading a crusade against corruption in the left. Donald Trump’s web site lists ten ‘inconvenient truths’ implicating the Clinton Foundation in corruption, while supporters of the Clinton candidacy have responded in turn by claiming the Trump campaign is completely corrupt. Globo, a Brazilian elite-owned media outlet, has led the campaign in shaming Rousseff as responsible for the Petrobras Scandal. Claims that Rousseff’s corruption surpasses all others are misleading; as previously noted, the new conservative coalition’s corruption ratings are the highest in the Brazilian system. In both Brazil and the US, new levels of democratic destruction by the wealthy elite accompanied by accusations of greater corruption are coming from both sides. Political polarization continues to increase, driven by elite-owned media and politicians struggling for power.
The political establishment can hardly afford to ignore the schisms opening up between its historically stable parties, their economic allies among the elite, and the voices of the people. Brazil’s coup shows us what happens when they do.