The Brazilian Circus

By Leonardo Brito

A version of this article was originally published in the Katehon magazine.

President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment process comes as a much-expected grand finale to a spectacular surrealist theatre piece: accused of an obscure budget wrongdoing, Rouseff was tried by a Congress absolutely immersed in infinitely darker scandals, ranging from forgerybribery and embezzlement to drug trafficking, slavery, rape, pedophilia and murder.

While Dilma herself has never been accused of any kind of corruption, Eduardo Cunha, her nemesis and head of the lower house of Congress, is under trial for forgery, bribery and multi-million dollar embezzlement. Yet, he has harnessed enough support such that the impeachment request was accepted in a session that will be remembered by generations of Brazilians for the appalling, (literally) confetti-blasting speeches made by several hundred congressmen.

The Overture

The very thought of such a circus would be inconceivable even a year ago, yet now it seems as the only logical (and even possible) solution that would seal the end of the great Brazilian depression (which some commentators are calling “the worst in our history“). This scenario is only possible due to a few important factors (listed in no particular order):

  1. End of the commodities supercycle – oil, ores and soybeans are Brazil’s top exports – and China’s economic slowdown;
  2. Escalation of the Car Wash (Lava-jato) operation and its encroaching on Dilma, Lula and other PT (Worker’s Party)high officials;
  3. A tight victory in the 2014 ballot resulting in severe political compromises;
  4. Consolidation of an “economic terrorism” strategy applied by Dilma’s well-organized political opponents.

All these factors intermingle at some point: the slowdown of the economy was deeply worsened by the neoliberal cabinet Dilma appointed after a tight win, and the lack of support from both houses of Congress resulted in a complete government lockdown.

Senators and congressmen tenaciously and continuously passed “bomb bills” (pautas-bomba), bills that were never meant to see the light of day but have instead the explicit purpose of forcefully blocking the federal government and worsening the economic recession. The well-organized opposition parties dedicated every breathing hour of 2015 towards a unified strategy and common goal: worsening the economic recession in order to bleed Dilma’s social and political support. In March 2015, Alberto Goldman, vice-president of the PSDB (PT’s main political adversary), wrote in an article to the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo:

Impeachment is the only path left, and it will only happen if the political and economic situations continue to deteriorate to the point where both society and political parties mobilize towards that goal [i.e., the impeachment].

Aided by a “Chicago boy” Minister of finance, the strategy was very effective: in 2015, Brazil mourned a 3.8% GDP decrease.

Operation Car Wash (Lava-jato) and its judge/popstar Sérgio Moro will likely be the subject of many theses, dissertations and books in the future; we will mention them only briefly. The operation unveiled a multi-billion dollar bribery and embezzlement scheme nested in the highest ranks of Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned oil giant. The bribes flowed between politicians, Petrobras oficials and construction companies such as Oderbrecht, OAS and Queiroz Galvão. Politicians from many major political parties, including the PT, PSDB and PMDB are involved.

morotatu

Judge/popstar Sérgio Moro.

As an “unintended” side-effect of the Carwash operation, many of these construction companies were either liquidated or are under investigation. Another “unfortunate coincidence” is that most of Brazil’s major infrastructure projects – all of which are state-sponsored – were executed by the companies implicated in the Carwash operation. As corrupt businessmen went to jail and their companies sank, hundreds of thousands of construction workers found themselves out of a job and projects of extreme strategic, economic and social importance were either halted or altogether abandoned.

The crowning jewel of the Carwash operation, however, is perhaps the re-emergence and re-qualification of the hitherto widely unpopular “privatization mythology” to be captained by PSDB, who in the 1990s dismantled many major state companies with little accountability. Petrobras is the obvious first target. More on the subject later on this article.

Putting the pieces together

The fundamental adhesive that glues together all these factors, however, is the solidification of a very strong anti-PT mythology.

Without the “PT scapegoat”, all other factors we mentioned would likely be much less relevant than they currently are. After 3 consecutive terms, anti-PT sentiment grew steadily. In the fourth PT term (Dilma’s second), it exploded. “PT is to blame” has truly become a mantra to some – specifically to the almost 50% voters who cast their ballot on the runner-up Aécio Neves (PSDB). If there’s a drought, PT is to blame. If the sky is blue, it is PT’s fault. If the puppy died, it is surely due to PT’s disastrous government.

esplanada-muro-drone

Brasília split by a wall: to the left, pro-Dilma supporters. To the right, pro-Impeachment supporters.

We call this a “mythology” because facts and hard data are either ignored or dismissed as “PT propaganda”. Virtually all vital statistics were vastly improved in the 3 PT terms compared to their predecessor’s: GDP, GDP per capita, average income, income distribution, poverty, education, public health, public debt, international risk ratings and so on. The anti-PT mythology cleverly avoids these “details” with the following thought mechanism: if data suggests that the PT improved something, then the data is cast away as “manipulated by the PT”. If on the other hand data shows that there was a worsening of something during the PT terms, then it is a irrefutable proof of the PT’s catastrophic government. This self-contained thought process avoids actually considering reality, instead judging facts based on whether they prove or not that the PT is evil.

The “anti-PT mythology” taps into a vein that runs deep in the Brazilian middle and upper classes: fanatical, paranoid anti-communism. While the economy plundered in 2015, private banks celebrated an outstanding 40% growth in net profit – nevertheless, anti-PT protesters often “denounced” that Brazil was actually turning into a communist dictatorship. A vast network of blogs and social media outlets consistently hammered the exotic idea that Brazil was actually on its way towards a soviet-style communist dictatorship (a Google search for the terms “Brasil ditadura comunista” returns over 400,000 results), and if “the PT isn’t stopped” the country will become a mix of Cuba, the Soviet Union and Venezuela. While such notions may amuse the reader, they were and are taken seriously by a significant portion of the population, so much so that the Federal Government had to issue an official note stating that “Brazil is not turning into a communist dictatorship.”

What was hitherto only rhetoric is now mutating into more physical forms: several cases were witnessed recently where people were spat on or assaulted “because they looked like PT supporters”. Mixed with poor education, the anti-PT trance generated many hilariously surreal situations: in the northeastern city of Fortaleza, a man was harassed by 3 anti-PT fanatics because his baseball cap “looked like the PT logo”.

In the southern city of Curitiba, a couple was beaten by anti-PT “protesters” because they were wearing red T-shirts. On one of the most ridiculous occasions, anti-PT protesters shouted one of their battle cries – “move to Cuba” – at an apartment window where they thought they saw a Cuban flag. However, the innocent flag was actually Catalonia‘s. Earlier this year, a medical doctor in the southern city of Porto Alegre refused to treat a baby “because her mother was affiliated with the PT”. Far from reprimanding the doctor, the medic’s union enthusiastically applauded her action.

The bottom line is that anti-PT violence has become commonplace and is in the process of being normalized as a valid and accepted practice.

Nationwide protests, both supportive and anti-government, have become common in Brazil since early 2015. After “shocking reports” of pro-government, union-backed protest organizers distributing bread-and-baloney sandwiches to protesters, “scandalized” anti-government protesters quickly nicknamed any anti-Impeachment supporter as a “baloney”, seriously arguing that anti-impeachment rallies only attract people because of the “free baloney sandwiches”.

The much-maligned “baloney” is a good metaphor that helps understand the political thinking of anti-PT partisans: one of their main qualms against PT offices is the “excessive social spending”, specifically in the Bolsa Família program (ironically, a liberal assistance program based on Milton Friedman’s “negative income tax” concept). Their hatred to “baloney distribution” is thus very fitting.

The actors

Janaína Paschoal is one of the 3 authors of the impeachment request. She defines herself as an adept of Spiritism, Catholicism, Evangelicism and the African Yoruba deity Iemanjá. In a colorful “lecture”, Janaína swings the Brazilian flag furiously while shouting “we will not serve the snake”, “we are not a republic of the snake”, “we will not let them (…) dominate the souls of our young”, “they wish that we remain as captives”, “we want to liberate our country from the captivity of souls and minds”, etc. A short metaphor about “snakes with wings” and “God sending down legions” is also made. The body language and gestures are also almost a charicature of Evangelical pentecostal leaders. Paschoal had to make a public statement later declaring that she “was not possessed” on the occasion. On another occasion, this time in a Senate hearing about the impeachment process, Paschoal waved the Brazilian Constitution while shouting “this is a sacred book!”. In Brazil, there are few things less sacred than the Constitution – in the XXth century alone there were six of them, while the current constitution dates from 1988. Such a notion of a “sacred constitution” is entirely alien to the Brazilian people.

Paschoal prides herself of “never defending bad guys”; curiously, though, one of her clients is Douglas Iwanowski Kirchner. Kirchner was a member of an Evangelical pentecostal sect lead by Pastor Hadar Eunice Batista Pitaluga; together with pastor Hadar, Kirchner is accused of imprisoning, torturing and starving his newlywed wife. Hadar’s sect is also accused of using child labor to sell snacks on the streets and perform janitorial duties. To defend her client from the battering and torture charges, Paschoal argued that Kirchner shouldn’t be prosecuted as a woman-beater, but instead should be seen as a victim of religious brainwashing. The Federal Prosecutor’s office Council, responsible for Douglas’ case, decided not to remove him from office, citing his “feeble psychiatric stability”.

But here is where things get interesting: Kirchner is also a prosecutor in charge of investigating former president Lula’s supposed influence peddling towards construction conglomerate Oderbrecht. Selected details of the investigation were continuously leaked to a popular magazine in Brazil, Época; at the same time, formal requests by Lula’s lawyers to access case documents were denied by Kirchner.

We should take note that Paschoal is not a fringe figure in Brazil – she is considered a serious and respectable lawyer. However, she is far from the most bizarre figure in current Brazilian politics. Among the most vocal and respected anti-PT, one can find gay porn stars (Alexandre Frota), former neo-nazi Femen “activists” (Sara Winter), terrorists (congressman Jair Bolsonaro, who planned the bombing of a water pipe that supplies Rio de Janeiro), famous astrologers (Olavo de Carvalho) and Youtube teenage subcelebrities (Kim Kataguri). Again, these are not fringe or freakish figures: they are all considered very respectable and have a vast audience.

Congressman Jovair Arantes, a politician and football tycoon linked to the infamous gambling kingpin Carlinhos Cachoeira, was the head of the congressional committee responsible for accepting the inquiry so that it could later be voted by the lower house. In 2011, he was accused by the Prosecutor’s office of Goiás state of defrauding the public pension fund, INSS. The case was closed (without conviction) by federal justice Gilmar Mendes. In 2012, Jovair was cited in the Brazilian federal police’s (PF) operation Monte Carlo as a “business relation” of Cachoeira.

Senator Antônio Anastasia, former lieutenant-governor of the Minas Gerais state (on Aécio Neves’ slate), is the head of the Senate impeachment committee. He is accused of having committed over a thousand of the same budgetary misdemeanors Dilma is accused of (with a slight difference: while Dilma took money from public banks to cover social spending, Aécio-Anastasia siphoned money from public healthcare, spending R$ 14,2 billion less than they were obliged to by law and covering up the difference with fake data).

Eduardo Cunha, president of the lower house of congress, lead the session that would accept Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, ultimately sealing her and Brazil’s fate. When casting his vote, Cunha said: “may God have mercy of this Nation”. Cunha is an notorious evangelical political leader from Rio de Janeiro state. He is currently accused of several charges of bribery and embezzlement – the latest of which surpasses US$ 52 million. He certainly likes to think of himself as close to God – his Porsches and BMWs are registered under the name of  His divine Son (more specifically, Jesus.com, one of Cunha’s companies).

Throughout his career, Cunha has been charged with forgery and various forms of embezzlement and tax evasion. The charges started in 1999; he has managed to evade any serious conviction since then. Since 2015, Cunha has been seriously implicated in the billion-dollar “Petrolão” scheme – a complex bribery system operated by Cunha’s PMDB and PT, where money flowed from Petrobras to politicians and businessmen through construction giants such as Oderbrecht, Queiroz Galvão and OAS. Cunha has been caught lying under oath to the Ethics Council when affirming he had no foreign bank accounts – several accounts in Switzerland were found later on with over US$ 5 million. Now somewhat of a pariah to both sides, Cunha enjoyed huge popularity among the anti-PT public not long ago.

Then there is Michel Temer, Dilma’s VP gone rogue. Temer will be appointed president should the impeachment process be accepted by Senate. He is expected to appoint a heavily neoliberal cabinet and has already signaled that “we will privatize everything we possibly can”. With no charisma and no public support, with 83% of Brazilians not supporting him as president even before he has sat on the presidential chair, Temer is likely to be a placeholder president. Thought to be a much less skillful politician than his main ally, Eduardo Cunha, it is highly questionable to which degree a Temer office will actually be controlled by Temer.

The stage

Some may think that the deep recession currently affecting Brazil would prove a challenge to the Cunha-Temer office, but it could prove quite the contrary. With public opinion in a state of absolute anti-PT and anti-Dilma hysteria, Brazil’s depression may serve as a carte blanche for the new, non-elected oficials: they now have the unique opportunity of pushing anything through both houses of Congress with little to no opposition, and still enjoy public support towards the measure, despite how unpopular it could or should be in normal times. Timing could not have been better: Brazil is currently afflicted by the worst drought in half a century, devastating new tropical diseases have spread through the country halting industries and commerce, and entire sectors of the economy have been wiped out as collateral damage of the Carwash operation.

Backed by all major media outlets and taking advantage of the anti-PT public sentiment, Cunha-Temer also enjoy a condescending Judiciary and Supreme Court. To illustrate the selectivity of the Brazilian judiciary, we can cite the case of former president Lula. Major newspapers circulated the following “breakthroughs” on ongoing investigations about Lula: a couple of swan paddle boats and a thousand-dollar tin fishing raft. Among the more serious allegations, there were suspicions of influence peddling by Lula in exchange for some renovations made on a seaside apartment linked to Lula. Lula was asked to talk to the Federal Police about the investigations, to which he agreed; nevertheless, he was illegally detained and transferred to a Federal Police HQ in a spectacular operation, televised in real-time by major TV networks. Judge Sérgio Moro authorized the “coercive transfer”.

Cunha-Temer thus muddle the distinction of the 3 State powers plus the “fourth power” of the press. Any unpopular bill will be swallowed enthusiastically by the press as a “necessary remedy to fight the disastrous PT administration”. Much like Argentina, where citizens are applauding 4-digit high tax bumps, escalating inflation and increases in poverty, everything will be labeled as “valid medicine” necessary to “rebuild” the country after the PT “destroyed” it. Any positive pre-Temer statistic will be discredited as “PT propaganda”. A second dismantlement of what’s left of the Brazilian State will follow, applauded by all 4 powers and a major part of the public opinion.

Twice-defeated presidential candidate José Serra is also expected to assume a ministry in the Temer administration. In a 2010 cable exposed in 2011 by Wikileaks, José Serra “negotiates” directly with Chevron’s director in Brazil. He makes the following remark regarding the laws that assured Petrobras lifelong ownership of the newly discovered pre-salt oil fields and a mandatory share of 30% of the fields: “Let them [the PT office] do as they want. When we assume, we will revert to the old model [where the companies have full ownership of the field]”.

Serra lost the presidential race next year to president Dilma Rousseff and was unable to fulfill his promises to Chevron. However, Serra is tenacious and patient. Five years later, amidst the political, social, economic and health crisis of 2015, Serra, now a senator, successfully passed a bill that is almost a transliteration of his chat with Chevron five years earlier. The bill states:

“Therefore, it is indispensible that we revoke Petrobras’ lifelong ownership of all pre-salt oil fields (…) as well as the obligation of the 30% share destined exclusively to Petrobras exploration.”

This is a perfect example of the extreme convenience of the economic depression and overall chaos in Brazil: while major press bombarded the Brazilian society with daily two-minute hates against Dilma and the PT, Serra’s bill passed largely unnoticed by the general public.

The Aftermath

After all is said and done and the results of all the “medicine” blissfully pushed through Congress by the Temer-Cunha administration don’t seem to bring the advertised cure to our patient, the office will say that the cure did not occur because the patient was too ill: “the PT left the country in a state of absolute chaos, it will take decades to put the pieces together, we did our best”.

Press will applaud their valiant effort, followed closely by middle-class fanatical anti-PT partisans. History will record Temer-Cunha as the saviors that rescued Brazil from the Behemoth of the PT and, despite plunging the country into an even deeper recession, they are not to blame. It is highly likely that the PT will remain for a long time as a generic scapegoat to all evils: if something is wrong, it is likely PT’s fault in some way, however unrelated or improbable it may seem.

There are countless other important factors which deserve close attention but were left out of our analysis. Enough has happened in the past few months to supply a couple dozen books, as we are yet to see the unfolding of this unprecedented political crisis.

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