The Brazilian left, led by the beleaguered Workers’ Party, has furiously and justifiably condemned recent praise for Brazil’s past right-wing dictatorship. However, given their history of supporting dictators in other countries, the selective nature of the left’s outrage is intellectually dishonest. Likewise, Workers’ Party claims of persecution by the corrupt political establishment belie the party’s own history of malfeasance.
Last Sunday, the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies held a rowdy televised session to vote on whether to impeach President Dilma Rousseff. Maintaining absolutely no sense of decorum, the deputies engaged in a shameful spectacle of demagoguery, false righteousness, insults and selfies. Journalist Andrew Downie may have put it best when he described the scene as “a symposium for clinical narcissists held in a mental asylum and organized by psychopaths.”
The deputies, many of whom are facing corruption allegations, made all manner of pious and sometimes bizarre exhortations to justify their votes; these mostly had nothing to do with the actual charges against the president. The grotesque spectacle has led to widespread criticism that the president, who has not been personally implicated in the massive investigation into corruption known as “Operation Car Wash,” was being judged by a hypocritical, self-serving “gang of thieves.”
Surely the lowest point of the evening was when deputy Jair Bolsonaro dedicated his vote to Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, a notorious torturer and murderer from the era of Brazil’s military dictatorship. It was a horrible moment, and an especially low blow given that President Rousseff, a former Marxist guerilla fighter, was herself imprisoned and tortured for three years during the dictatorship. Clearly, then, the ensuing outrage at Bolsonaro and the rest of the rogues gallery that makes up Brazil’s political establishment is more than justified.
Nevertheless, the president and her sympathizers have capitalized on the response to this incident to further the narrative that the impeachment process against her is illegitimate and amounts to a coup by the country’s reactionary elites. This is simply untrue: there is ample evidence that the president broke the law by using illegal loans from public financial institutions to conceal a budget deficit during an election year. These financial moves, known as “pedaladas,” are classified as a “crime of responsibility” by the Brazilian constitution and thereby represent an impeachable offense. This fact notwithstanding, the international media, no doubt influenced by its own distaste for the right-wing demagogues on the rise in the US and Europe, has jumped to vilify the Brazilian opposition movement, lending momentum and an air of legitimacy to the narrative that the Brazilian president is an innocent victim of tyranny.
Within this context of one-sided outrage and somewhat unbalanced coverage, it is important to maintain a sense of perspective. The fact remains that over the past 13 years, the two successive Workers’ Party (PT) presidents, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Roussef, have forged and maintained relationships with a menagerie of third world dictators and fostered an environment permissive of spectacular levels of corruption. An assessment of Lula’s and Dilma’s records illustrates these points well.
With friends like these…
In 2009, at the end of his two successive terms as president, rumors began circulating that Lula was being considered for the presidency of the World Bank. In evaluating Lula’s possible candidacy, the blog “Post-Western World,” written by scholar Oliver Stuenkel, provided the following assessment:
The truth is that Brazil’s foreign policy under Lula has been opportunistic, short-term, and void of principles. While condemning “white, blue-eyed” bankers for the global financial crisis, Lula has failed to criticize human rights abuses in Cuba and an increasingly authoritarian Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. During a recent visit to Kazakhstan, another authoritarian regime, Lula affirmed that there was “no fraud in the Iranian election,” congratulating President Ahmadinejad on his victory. Rather than helping Colombia’s democratically elected President Uribe in his fight against a leftist insurgency, Lula remained neutral and even temporarily allowed the FARC guerillas to enter Brazilian territory to evade Colombia’s army. And in 2005, Brazilian diplomats visited Khartoum and promised not to condemn Sudan for its genocide as long as Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir supported Brazil in its bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
Always quick to find fault with “evil Western institutions” and “imperialists”, Lula gets along with third world dictators so well that one may ask whether he would have the courage to openly criticize them as World Bank President. His decision to open a Brazilian embassy in North Korea shortly after Kim Jong Il’s missile testing has raised further doubts about Lula’s aptitude.
As mentioned above, a particularly troubling example of Lula’s unholy alliances is his strengthening of Brazil’s ties with Iran and his endorsement of hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, who was accused of stealing his electoral victory. A Washington Post editorial published in 2009, when Ahmadinejad traveled to Brazil, said this (emphasis mine):
On Monday Mr. Lula literally gave a bear hug to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who thereby recorded a major advance in his effort to prop up his shaky domestic and international standing. Heading an extremist regime that is rejected by the majority of Iranians -- and that has just spurned a compromise on its outlaw nuclear program -- the Iranian president headed abroad in search of friends. He found few: Gambia and Senegal in Africa; and Hugo Chávez's Venezuela, along with two of its satellites, Bolivia and Nicaragua.
Mr. Ahmadinejad's world tour would have looked pathetic and served to underline the growing isolation of his hard-line clique, if not for the warm welcome from Mr. Lula. When even Russia is publicly discussing new sanctions against Tehran, the Brazilian government signed 13 cooperation agreements with the regime, prompting Mr. Ahmadinejad to predict that bilateral trade would grow fifteenfold.
Mr. Lula had nothing to say about the bloody suppression of Iran's pro-democracy reform movement, or Mr. Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust and Israel's right to exist. Instead he declared that Iran has a right to its nuclear program. Mr. Ahmadinejad, in turn, endorsed Brazil's bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.
Lula also cultivated a closer relationship with Russia, greatly expanding political, economic and social ties. Trade between the two countries skyrocketed between 2001 and 2011, from 1 billion to 6.5 billion dollars annually. Since 2008, Russia has been increasingly supplying military-technical equipment to Brazil and there has also been talk of a Brazil-Russia partnership in the construction of nuclear power plants. In a 2012 letter congratulating Vladimir Putin on his reelection, Lula referred to him as a “dear friend.” More recently, Brazil has taken a conciliatory position regarding Russia’s invasion of Crimea, abstaining to vote on a United Nations resolution to condemn it.
Other examples abound: sending his foreign minister to meet with Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad, referring to Muammar Qaddafi as “my friend and brother,” holding quarterly presidential meetings with Hugo Chavez.
Indeed, alliances with dictators closer to home, especially the controversial left-wing leaders of the Latin America Bolivarian movement, have been a mainstay of the PT’s foreign policy. In addition, Lula made many official trips to Cuba, referring to Fidel Castro as an “old friend” and once saying to him, “Thank you Fidel Castro. Thank you for existing.”
He also strengthened economic ties with Cuba, financing, among others, a controversial project to renovate the port of El Mariel. This massive project cost the Brazilian Development Bank almost a billion dollars in subsidized loans. The work was done by Brazilian construction company Odebrecht, which has been among the most severely implicated companies charged with corruption in the Car Wash investigation. The company’s CEO, Marcelo Odebrecht, was recently sentenced to 19 years in prison. Although Odebrecht has operated in Brazil for decades and rumors of bribes and kickbacks around its projects have circulated throughout its history, it is important to note that the company saw its gross revenues steadily increase under PT rule, from about USD$ 6 billion in 2003 to almost USD$ 40 billion in 2011.
Dilma has followed Lula’s example and has continued to maintain relations with dictators abroad, making official visits to places like Cuba and Angola, where Odebrecht and other Brazilian construction companies also do billions of dollars in business. Said to be “emotionally devastated” by the death of Hugo Chavez, she and Lula attended his wake in Venezuela, although, conscious of the optics, they declined to attend his funeral.
Clearly, based on these pragmatic dealings with authoritarian regimes around the world, which have eroded their credibility in denouncing dictatorships, Lula, Dilma and their supporters have no moral high ground here. As noted above, it seems that foreign policy under the PT has been nothing more than a short-sighted, unprincipled, pragmatic pursuit of patronage.
A history of corruption
The association of presidents Lula and Dilma with shady characters extends beyond the international realm. Indeed, many of their closest friends and allies at home have been embroiled in corruption scandals.
For example, before being eclipsed by the Car Wash investigation into corruption at state-owned oil company Petrobras, Brazil had another epic corruption scandal that, at the time, was the biggest the country had ever seen. Known as the “Mensalão,” it revolved around a massive scheme to buy congressional votes. The scheme, which was orchestrated by Lula’s chief of staff, José Dirceu, paid members of congress monthly stipends worth some USD$ 10,000 in exchange for their support of the president’s agenda. It was discovered in 2005, just two years into Lula’s first term. In the ensuing Supreme Court trial, which took a mind boggling seven years to get off the ground, over twenty officials and business leaders went to jail, including Dirceu.
Anywhere else in the world, Lula would likely have had to resign in disgrace and that would have been the end of that. Not in Brazil, though. Lula claimed not to have known about the scheme and called it a betrayal. Since the economy was doing well at the time, Brazilians let it go and reelected Lula, who continued to enjoy high approval ratings for the remainder of his time in office. He is still one of Brazil’s most popular politicians, though his brand has been tarnished of late.
More recently, Lula has been implicated by Car Wash and was briefly taken into custody for questioning last month over his alleged ownership of some luxurious properties linked to corrupt construction companies. Lula has remained defiant, declaring himself “the most honest soul in Brazil.” He notably faced similar allegations of real-estate-related improprieties in the 1990s.
The fallacy of the “Dilma is personally innocent” defense
Dilma’s outrage at the Brazilian impeachment proceedings is based not just on the rightward slant of the opposition and the fringe right’s nostalgia for the dictatorship era. She has often repeated the defense that she, a politician who is not accused of corruption, is being unfairly persecuted by a political class filled with shady characters accused of all sorts of malfeasance. Indeed, a recent New York Times article reports:
Altogether, 60 percent of the 594 members of Brazil’s Congress face serious charges like bribery, electoral fraud, illegal deforestation, kidnapping and homicide.
Next to these people, the logic goes, Dilma looks like a saint. However, although it is true that she herself has not been accused of corruption, it is misleading to say that Car Wash has not touched her. She was, after all, the Energy Minister and Chair of Petrobras when the corruption was allegedly taking place. Whether she merely turned a blind eye or was just too incompetent to realize that the company was being defrauded of billions of dollars, it remains a fair argument that the ultimate responsibility is hers, since it happened on her watch.
Then there are her actions in defense of her predecessor and mentor, Lula, after he was briefly taken into custody. Fearing that Lula was going to be arrested preemptively, Dilma attempted to appoint him to a government ministry, a move that would shield him from further prosecution. This is because if he were to become a minister, Lula could only be tried by the Supreme Court. As previously mentioned, there are hundreds of other sitting politicians facing charges, all of whom share the same legal privileges. This has resulted in an epic backlog at the Supreme Court, a notoriously slow body anyway, as indicated by the glacial pace of the Mensalão trial. A ministerial position would effectively grant Lula immunity.
It was a step too far. The appointment was ultimately blocked by the Supreme Court and a final decision is still pending. However, the damage it has done to Dilma’s image cannot be understated. It was a tone-deaf move widely perceived as a transparent attempt to interfere with the investigation; it has indeed led to the filing of another impeachment request for obstruction of justice, among other charges.
And then there is the investigation into the potentially illegal funding of Dilma’s reelection campaign, which is currently sitting under Brazil’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal. The allegation is that dirty money from Petrobras, fruit of the same the bribe and kick-back scheme uncovered by Car Wash, was used to illegally fund Dilma’s 2014 campaign. If these accusations are found to be true, the electoral victory of Dilma’s ticket with Vice President Michel Temer would be annulled and new elections would be called. However, this is an unlikely outcome as the investigation is likely to take years.
Finally, Dilma’s campaign strategist, João Santana, who also oversaw Lula’s reelection campaign and has worked for foreign leaders such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Angola’s José Eduardo dos Santos, among others, has been arrested along with his wife for allegedly maintaining millions in dirty money from Petrobras in undeclared offshore accounts. In her testimony, Santana’s wife, Monica Moura, has alleged that Guido Mantega, a former finance minister and president of the Brazilian Development Bank, served as an intermediary in the negotiations for illegal campaign donations with large construction firms during Dilma’s reelection campaign.
The Car Wash investigation notwithstanding, there is still, of course, the issue of the “pedaladas,” the actual basis for Dilma’s impeachment. Often dismissed as a flimsy excuse and a mere technicality, these are in fact very serious charges. Dilma is responsible for an unprecedented failure to repay public financial institutions that resulted in the effective financing of her government to the tune of tens of billions of reais. These “loans,” aside from being clearly illegal, have deepened the budget deficit, which is now, at 10% of GDP, the highest in the world.
What makes all of this even graver, and especially highlights the intellectual dishonesty of the argument that she is a defender of democracy against a coup, is that the “pedaladas” largely took place in the run-up to her reelection. She used the illegally borrowed funds to increase public spending and cover up the resulting budget deficit, thereby misleading the electorate about the financial conditions of the government during an especially close election. An election that she, arguably with the help of these maneuvers, barely managed to win. In this case, it would be fair to question whether, aside from the fiscal irregularities, Dilma is also guilty of undermining the democratic process that she is now so vehemently defending.
A divisive and confrontational political culture
A lot has been made of the ugliness with which the opposition is conducting its attack. However, they are merely taking advantage of an ever-deteriorating political climate. Even when overlooking the “pedaladas” and the too-close-for-comfort association with the Car Wash investigation, it is important to remember that Dilma, through her undeniably ugly 2014 reelection campaign, in many ways set the tone for Brazil’s currently toxic political environment.
It is important to note that the seeds of this divisive and confrontational political culture were sown long before Dilma’s campaign and are a product of the populist approach embraced by Lula and many of the leaders of the Latin American leftist movement known as the “pink tide.” Using the example of Kirchnerism in Argentina, a recent article in the New Republic characterized this style of Latin American populism as follows:
“As an ideal type, the populist politician is one who divides the citizenry rhetorically, into ‘a people’ and a group that falls outside, usually an elite that is held responsible for the nation’s problems, often in collaboration with foreigners or internal enemies,” [historian Patrick] Iber explains. This phenomenon can resemble the political left or right—“it all depends on how the people and its enemies are defined.” Kirchner did exactly that, packing public plazas with her bandas, constructing political and social life as a Manichean struggle, pitting friend against enemy, right against wrong, “the people” against the “anti-people.”
The PT followed a similar approach, whose cornerstones were divisive rhetoric and the mobilization of union and social movement militants against Brazil’s wealthy elites. This has helped create the polarized political climate that has swept the country, dividing the population into rival protesting blocs sporting yellow and red shirts, and catalyzing heated and ugly political conflicts. In Brazil’s highly fractured political system, where dozens of political parties share power in Congress, it became very difficult to reconcile this approach with the practical reality of governing, which requires the building of coalitions and alliances among a wide range of disparate groups.
To make things worse, instead of doing the hard political work of reaching compromises and building alliances in this fractured context, the PT appears to have simply used corruption to buy support, as exemplified by the Mensalão and Petrobras scandals. As noted in an Estado de São Paulo editorial, it seems they never had any true allies, only accomplices. Loyalty captured in this way was bound to be illusory, any resulting relationships fickle.
Lula was widely regarded as a savvy and charismatic politician capable of fostering personal relationships that extended beyond the web of patronage. Dilma, on the other hand, has taken an unapologetically confrontational approach, shedding any artifice of diplomacy and creating a decidedly antagonistic relationship between the presidency and the congress, especially with the opposition but even with her supposed allies as well.
This is why the Chamber of Deputies elected Eduardo Cunha, a widely despised firebrand accused of money laundering, to be their speaker: he was their most outspoken and audacious member, the only one strong enough to take on the president. His ascendancy elevated the cycle of antagonism between the Congress and the presidency further, culminating in Cunha’s formal acceptance of the impeachment process and leading to that nightmarish vote.
The fact that this is all occurring in the midst of the worst economic crisis in memory has only heightened the hysteria.
When considering this context, it becomes easy to understand why such a large number of so-called allies abandoned Dilma without any qualms, using the spectacle of the impeachment as an excuse to ride the wave of her unpopularity straight into their 15 minutes of fame. Again, one can make the case that Dilma holds some responsibility here. She made a series of miscalculations and mistakes, not only in administrative and economic matters, but also by antagonizing her slippery allies and underestimating their cunning.
There is no honor among thieves; instead of de-escalating the situation by adopting a more conciliatory approach, she kicked the hornets’ nest time and time again. She stubbornly refused to course-correct, even after it became clear that everything was headed in the wrong direction. This hideous crisis is, to a large extent, of her own creation. She could have prevented a lot of the ugliness and spared the country some trauma by simply resigning; her ongoing refusal to admit defeat just keeps making things worse.
The farce of perpetual victimhood
Lula and Dilma have made a habit out of professing their innocence is the face of victimization. Although some of their claims are absolutely legitimate, by largely classifying any and all criticisms against them under the umbrella of tyranny, they have irreparably damaged their credibility. Like the boy and the wolf in the children’s tale, they are the politicians who cried “coup.”
This intransigence, the constant assignations of blame and the refusal to take even the slightest bit of responsibility, may be what is ultimately perceived by the Brazilian people as unforgivable. Although Brazilians, like many people across Latin America, have clearly grown impatient with the left’s antics, Brazil has a long history of political resurrection. Lula was reelected after the Mensalão, and even disgraced former president Fernando Collor, who resigned after being impeached for corruption in the 1990s, is now a Senator. But the PT’s insistence on playing the victim instead of owning up to their share of responsibility may be the final miscalculation that undercuts their continued political ambitions. Lula wants to run for president in 2018 – will Brazilians be able to set aside everything that has happened without a mea culpa?
The Brazilian left, it seems, is suffering from a shocking lack of self-awareness. Perhaps the most telling recent event is this: while Bolsonaro was rightfully condemned for his disgraceful impeachment vote justification, relatively little has been said about another deputy, leftist Glauber Braga. He also dedicated his vote to a dictatorship-era lunatic, Carlos Marighella, a terrorist known as “the father of urban guerilla warfare.” His book, the Minimanual of the Urban Guerilla, espouses the use of violence and psychological warfare in urban settings and inspired many of the left-wing terrorist organizations that arose during the 1960s and 70s in both Latin America and Europe.
The selective outrage of Brazil’s left is intellectually dishonest and hypocritical. The Brazilian far right should absolutely be criticized for its reactionary views. But the left should not get a free pass and deserves just as much scrutiny, especially given that its support of authoritarian leaders with dismal human rights records has been much more mainstream than the fringe right’s dictatorship nostalgia. The same goes for the topic of corruption: politics in Brazil has always been corrupt and the right is certainly complicit in much of it, but the fact that the PT government has overseen an unprecedented increase in the scale and audacity of graft cannot be overlooked.
As we all try to make sense of the huge mess that Brazil has become, we must remember two fundamental truths. First, there are no victims here. Second, to take a side is merely to make a judgment about which alternative is less bad.