Götterdämmerung to the Tune of a Bossa Nova

Demonstration demanding Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, March 2016. Photo credit: Miguel Schincariol/AFP. Source: noticias.uol.com.br

Dilma Rousseff got kicked out of office and will be impeached. Her best efforts at denouncing the move as “a coup” against her were all for naught. Her party cries foul and says it is all a right-wing conspiracy. International progressivism screams to the top of its lungs that a head of state elected by 54 million citizens has been forced out and that it is all part of Washington’s plan to undermine Latin American unity and the conquests of its people. (Yeah, sure.)

Conspiracies are not very likely to pass muster with Occam’s razor, so I will pass on talking about claims of a right-wing cabal. On the other hand, it is curious to listen to the accusations that the US is behind Rousseff’s ouster, even if she has not said anything like that in public. It may be even more funny to listen in, because the accusations fly in the face of prior skepticism toward reformist policies. In a chapter written for a book about the new Latin American left (and in the same breath as a vindication of chavismo), Greg Wilpert argues that the policies of Latin American social-democratic governments like those of Rousseff and her mentor “Lula” da Silva, notwithstanding that they benefit millions of people, are not sufficiently transformative because they do not aim at abolishing the abusive neoliberal status quo. In his view, Latin American social-democrats belong to the izquierda permitida, the “good left” – a term denoting suspicion, if not all-out scorn, from more involved progressives and always uttered in opposition to what they believe to be the most optimal option: radical democracy. In addition, a commentary written in 2015 by James Petras for Latin American Perspectives (a progressive and peer-reviewed Latin American studies journal) concluded that Rousseff did a 180 toward neoliberalism the moment the Brazilian economy started to take on water. Now, as if by magic, Rousseff is a leader of the cause of the proverbial wretched of the earth, placed in the same pedestal as the equally beleaguered Hugo Chávez. In other words, Rousseff is a victim of neoliberalism, which casually happens to be the same system left mostly intact by Latin American social-democracy during the famous “pink tide” of the late 1990s and beyond. It was also the political wave surfed on by “Lula”, the same guy who made a very public promise to not rock the neoliberal boat when he was first elected in 2002; now, his reputation is being tarnished by them neoliberal bastards, who have unleashed a meritless and politically-motivated anti-corruption investigation against him with the purpose of impeding his (possible) second re-election bid in 2018. So these social-democrats are not wash-outs or sell-outs anymore. What changed?

I am of the opinion that misrepresenting fiscal data to hide a budget deficit, as Rousseff is accused of doing, deserves a legislative censure at best. Maybe a vote of no confidence at the most extreme. To me, impeachment is a punishment that just does not seem appropriate to the crime. It is better suited to more egregious felonies, like covering up a burglary (as Richard Nixon did) or lying under oath (as Bill Clinton did). But the fact is that there is a law in Brazil against misrepresenting fiscal information, and it appears that it does merit an impeachment. If the accusation holds water, it would prove that the Workers Party deviated from his leftist origins and got “intoxicated with power,” as the New York Times says. (The offense in question was supposedly made for electioneering purposes.) As far as that goes, the Workers’ Party is no different from any other Brazilian political party full of wily people, and not exactly in a Downsian fashion (that is, a party that competes for power simply to enjoy the status, perks, and rent that come with public office and not for the sake of ideology or carrying out a political agenda). The Workers’ Party tasted political power after spending years out of it, and it was so delicious it looks like it could not get enough of it. Was it gluttony?

Meanwhile, a whole slew of the opposition pols who clamored for impeachment have been accused of corruption – a sad fact. Rousseff, to her credit, has not been targeted by any anti-corruption investigation. Not even by “Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato)”, which uncovered a kickbacks scheme that went on for years at the state-owned oil company, Petrobras (much of which occurring while Rousseff was part of its board of directors, though). Still, she has no right to cast the first stone. There was the mensalão bribery scandal of the early 2000s, for which a number of Workers’ Party notables (as well as pols from other parties) were indicted and found guilty, including Rousseff’s predecessor as the chief of staff of the “Lula” administration, José Dirceu. To be sure, Rousseff had nothing to do with that scandal, but unfortunately she is guilty by association because it was instigated within her party. Dirceu himself, as well as the Workers’ Party treasurer, were also identified as having a role in the kickbacks scheme uncovered by Lava Jato, adding to the embarrassment. Progressives, to my knowledge, did not react to those two scandals with the same indignation they have shown in the case of Rousseff’s ouster. Instead, they have made statements – all reminiscent of the claim that human rights are an ideological weapon being used to destroy the Cuban Revolution – casting dispersions at anti-corruption probes. In short, if they target “Lula” or Rousseff, they are baseless and necessarily have to be politically motivated. If they target Eduardo Cunha (the Speaker of the House of Deputies, separated from the post by the Brazilian Supreme Court on corruption charges) or acting president Michel Temer, their heads must roll immediately. (As if the Brazilian judiciary did not have enough issues of its own.)

Speaking of Temer, he will have to hope he does not fall too quickly from the rodeo horse and get pummeled by its hoofs. Lee Alston, of Indiana University, has this take: Temer should aim to set Brazil back to the type of disciplined fiscal policy that will provide a strong foundation for policies of socioeconomic inclusion like Bolsa Família and the like – the same type of macroeconomic policy implemented by Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the predecessor of “Lula”. The devil, says Alston, is in the detail of whether Temer is imaginative, adaptive, and resourceful enough to do that. At least, he retained the head of the central bank, a popular figure from the Rousseff administration, and appointed him finance minister. But Rousseff’s supporters in and out of Brazil will not give him the benefit of the doubt because he is a coup-monger who was an informant to the US embassy (according to Wikileaks) and will sell out Brazil on a free trade agreement with the US. Already, two of Brazil’s largest labor unions have announced that they will not cooperate with him, a few South American heads of state stated their refusal to recognize him as president, and feminists excoriated his decision to appoint only white males for ministerial posts (he has since appointed a woman as the head of Brazil’s development bank). But curiously, Temer has also drawn fire from the same people he is supposedly in cahoots with, because business leaders are not happy with the finance minister’s idea of imposing new taxes. And then there are the anti-corruption probes: if he orders to stop them, Brazilians of all stripes will give him an even harder time. It is obviously too early at this point to make a sound value judgment on Temer, but he could end up being an ineffectual and hapless head of state rather than the hired gun for neoliberalism his detractors portray him as. He arouses neither my contempt nor my support, but my pity.

None of this means that Rousseff is guilty as charged. What it does mean is that all this ideological chest-beating from her side is similar to the tantrums of a teenage drama queen. Where were Cindy Sheehan, Tom Hayden and all the other people who signed an online petition demanding Rousseff’s reinstatement (see the full list here and here) when her fellow partisan Dirceu was engaging in bribery and graft? How is it that a social-democrat who never aimed at abolishing Brazilian neoliberalism is now a martyr of the global movement against it? And assuming that Rousseff did violate the law and there is hard evidence of it, why should she not be held accountable?

In the end, anyway, Brazil is in serious trouble. First it was the Olympics of Superfluousness, then Zika, and now this, on top of the issues it already has. Rather than being the Country of Tomorrow, Brazil is merely the Country of Always Been, or maybe of Never Will Be.

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