Liberals of the world – Brazil’s conservative opposition movement is not what you think

Why do a lot of reasonable people wholeheartedly support the rise of a right-wing opposition movement against Brazil’s leftist government? Because they have come to realize that while idealistic politics are great when applied to the US or Europe, in the drastically different political context of Brazil, more conservative pragmatism is the way to go. 

If you haven’t heard, Brazil is experiencing a crisis of epic proportions right now. The economy is facing the worst recession since the Great Depression. The Zika and Dengue epidemics have caused a public health emergency. Organizers are far behind and scrambling to prepare the city of Rio de Janeiro for the upcoming Olympics. As if all that weren’t bad enough, one of the worst political corruption scandals in the country’s history has basically ground the government to a halt and divided the nation.

In this context, many in Brazil are supporting the right wing opposition movement against the embattled Workers’ Party (PT) politicians that have been ruling Brazil for the past 13 years. They came to power by vowing to represent the rights of the workers and the poor but have betrayed them by abandoning all of their principles in exchange for ill-gotten gains.

The political scandals engulfing Brazil right now are about corruption on an unprecedented scale. It is estimated that $2 billion have been funneled from state-owned oil company Petrobras since the PT came into power in 2002. A two-year investigation into the Petrobras corruption scheme, or “Petrolão,” as it has been dubbed, came to a head last week when it finally reached Brazil’s former president and PT founder, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Formerly revered as a defender of the poor in a deeply unequal society, he is now officially under investigation and facing arrest for enriching himself illicitly.

Lula has managed to stay untouched for years despite the allegations of wrong-doing surrounding him and his party. These started way before the so-called “Car Wash” investigation into Petrobras. In 2005, just two years into his first presidential term, a huge congressional vote-buying scheme was discovered, masterminded by Lula’s then chief of staff and presumed successor José Dirceu. Dirceu was eventually convicted and imprisoned, along with dozens of other prominent politicians and business leaders.

Anywhere else, a president whose chief of staff had committed such a serious crime would have resigned in disgrace. But in Brazil, which has a long history of institutionalized corruption, voters are used to making political calculations in which corruption is tolerated as long as things are going well for the country. At the time, the worldwide boom in commodities allowed the Brazilian economy to experience unprecedented growth. So when Lula publicly claimed not to have known anything about the “Mensalão,” or big monthly payment to members of congress, that was the end of the story. He was reelected and sustained high approval ratings for the remainder of his presidency.

After his second term ended, however, things started to go south. Slowing demand for commodities hit the Brazilian economy hard. In addition, the disastrous economic policies of Lula’s successor, President Dilma Rousseff, have turned what should have been a manageable slowdown into a grave economic crisis. In just a few years, presidential approval ratings have plummeted from record highs in the 80% range under Lula to single-digits under Dilma.

Meanwhile, and somewhat miraculously given Brazil’s history of impunity, widespread corruption investigations have reached the highest levels of government. Multiple former presidents, the current vice president, the leader of the senate and the speaker of the house are all under investigation. The president is facing impeachment and a separate investigation into the potentially illegal funding of her reelection campaign.

The depth of the corruption allegations has changed the political calculations that Brazilians have to make. After Dilma cynically tried to appoint Lula to a government ministry, where he would enjoy additional legal protections, the population concluded that the country’s leaders have taken things too far. Millions of Brazilians took to the streets last Sunday to protest corruption and demand Dilma’s resignation.

Unsurprisingly, despite all the evidence of egregious wrong-doing and the broadly peaceful nature of the protests, the PT’s propaganda machine has been quick to criticize the opposition. They say that this movement represents a reactionary or even fascist coup that threatens Brazil’s democracy. What is astonishing is that many of these claims are being repeated by serious players in the international media.

It should go without saying, but impeachment is a constitutional process and it is ridiculous to call it a coup. Peaceful protests demanding the resignation of corrupt politicians are about as democratic as things can get. Although the aggressiveness of the Car Wash investigation has generated some controversy of late, potential prosecutorial overreach by a few individuals does not equate to a fascist plot to overthrow the government.

The thing that seems to frighten international observers the most is the conservative bent of the opposition movement. It is certainly understandable that the rise of scary right-wing politicians like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen has people on edge. But let’s get one thing straight: Brazil’s right wing politicians are not like the populist demagogues on the rise in the US or Europe. If anything, the PT are the populist demagogues here and their transparent attempts to manipulate the public, interfere with investigations, and obstruct justice are the real threat to democracy. So, for the same reasons that liberals oppose the extreme right in the developed world, they should oppose the extreme left in Latin America.

The media would be loathe to criticize movements against political figures such as Nicolas Maduro or Evo Morales. They forget that the PT and the other leftist movements in Latin America are all cut from the same cloth. Indeed, the same political advisor to both Lula and Dilma’s electoral campaigns has also worked for Hugo Chavez, Nicolas Maduro, and Ollanta Humala, among others. He was arrested earlier this month after he was discovered to have millions in offshore accounts.

The PT certainly did not invent corruption in Brazilian politics, but they have taken it to a whole new level. The graft that has occurred on their watch is unprecedented in its scale and audacity and cannot go unpunished.

More importantly, they have stolen billions from what is still essentially a poor country. Although the PT vowed to help the poor and did implement more robust social and welfare programs, it did little to address the structural causes of poverty in Brazil. In the PT’s Brazil, lower-income populations can now afford to buy items like cars and cell phones but continue to lack access to decent education, healthcare, and infrastructure. Disproportionally affected by increasing unemployment and inflation, they have to sit by and listen to politicians who have enriched themselves illicitly talk about raising taxes to plug the deficit created by their irresponsible policies.

For all of these reasons, the PT does not deserve your support. The opposition movement may not be perfect, but it represents a better alternative than the criminals who have been looting the country’s coffers for over a decade.