Brazil’s New Government Shows Its Colors: All White, All Male, Ultra-Conservative

Brazil’s New Government Shows Its Colors: All White, All Male, Ultra-Conservative

Brazil’s New Government Shows Its Colors: All White, All Male, Ultra-Conservative

Months of furious pot-banging against Dilma Rousseff have now given way to anti-coup protests by Brazilian youth.


Rio de Janeiro—The two 16-floor condominium blocks called American Flat Service staged repeated panelaços during the weeks before Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment. Residents walked out onto their balconies beating pots with spoons here in Rio’s well-heeled South Zone as darker-skinned cleaners looked on in their frilly uniforms. “Fora Dilma!” (Dilma Out!) shouted the man opposite, at the top of his voice.

The most raucous session was staged hours after Dilma appointed Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—the former president and fellow member of Brazil’s Workers’ Party—to the government in a desperate attempt to shield him from anti-corruption prosecutors. “Vergonha! Vergonha!” (shame) was the cry that night, drowning out even the March showers, the aguas de março in Tom Jobim’s bossa nova, which crashed onto the swimming pool below.

The residents at American Flat Service are not the playboy millionaires of Gavea, the much-reviled pale-skinned Brazilian elite who trailed black nannies behind them on anti-Dilma rallies in Copacabana in recent months. But this was impeachment territory nonetheless: predominantly white, middle-class, and avid consumers of O Globo, the media group that has been ringleader of the campaign to oust the president. Stress levels are high. The neighbors here fear economic meltdown, hyperinflation, or the imminent bankruptcy of Brazil. They worry that the gym and reasonably priced self-service restaurant on the ground floor might close. The most paranoid were terrified that the Workers’ Party (PT) government might head down the Bolivarian path and bring the favela-dwellers down from the mountains.

The Kafkaesque quality of Rousseff’s trial—a woman untouched by a sprawling corruption investigation that has now reached two of every three members of Congress—made little impression on the neighbors of American Flat Service, even those versed in the disturbing novels of Kafka’s Brazilian counterpart, Clarice Lispector. Most judge Rousseff guilty by association in the vast scandal that has engulfed the state oil company, Petrobras, which she once presided over. The real crime, perhaps, is a recession that has wiped nearly 8 percent from GDP in two years, along with a 10 percent inflation rate that has torn into real wages. Even the army of auxiliary workers—cleaners, security guards, cooks, dishwashers, and pool attendants—who commute every day from Rio’s periphery for three or four hours on crowded buses or descend from the favelas repeated “Todos ladroes” (They’re all thieves) when asked about Dilma before her impeachment.

For that reason, I expected raucous celebrations on the balconies when the old white men in the Senate delivered the coup de grâce to Rousseff. However, that did not happen last Thursday morning. Silence reigned in the apartments, until a woman strode out onto her balcony and started to wave her hands in the air, shouting, “Golpistas! Golpistas! I know Temer. I worked with him. You’ll soon see!”

They soon would. Within 12 hours, Temer had named an all-white, all-male government whose average age is 58, drawn from the most conservative segments of the Brazilian elite. His appointees included seven of those under investigation in the corruption scandal. That makes eight, including Temer himself. Within 24 hours, a privatization program was unveiled, including the fire sale of stakes held by BNDES, the public development bank, in Petrobras, electric utility Eletrobras, the postal service, and three other public banks. All are to be sold off, probably to foreign multinationals, maybe to Wall Street private-equity funds at bargain-basement prices, thanks to the recession and the collapse of Brazil’s currency, the real, over the past two years. Labor-market deregulation and a minimum-wage freeze will likely follow, as decreed by Temer’s recovery plan, announced before the impeachment. The new finance minister, Henrique Meirelles, former COO of BankBoston and more recently governor of Brazil’s Central Bank, announced plans to cut public spending and did not discount tax hikes, despite pressures from the São Paulo Industrial Federation (FIESP), the all-powerful business lobby that had paid for the huge inflatable yellow duck visible at all the pro-impeachment rallies in São Paulo (a reference to a common Brazilian refrain: Everyone’s eating, but who’ll pay for the duck?).

The demographics of Temer’s government (and of Congress itself, where only 10 percent of representatives are women) have caused some embarrassment in this Olympic city, even in America Flat Service. The new government seemed more attuned with Beijing 2008 than Rio 2016. The discomfort here was already evident when the less-than-subtle right-wing rag Veja published a profile of Temer’s 33-year-old wife (he is 75), a former beauty queen, calling her “beautiful, nice and home loving.”

O Globo, which had successfully combined rallying the campaign against Dilma and Lula with stories on favela funk, photographer Sebastião Salgado in the Amazon, and family life in Rio’s gay community, saw its triangulation unravel further as the new minsters’ CVs were scrutinized. Blairo Maggi, the new minister for agriculture, is known as the King of Soya for his vast plantations in Mato Grosso state and as a lobbyist against the PT’s measures to counter slave labor. Marcos Pereira, an evangelical pastor, was placed in charge of trade. At environment, José Sarney is scion of the hidebound Sarney dynasty, which ran the impoverished and drought-stricken northeast and was hated by all but their political clients until Lula broke their system of patronage. Charged with heading the ministry of national integration was another member of the patrimonial landowning elite of the northeast, Hélder Barbalho. Even O Globo had to admit grudgingly that “the majority of the ministers chosen by Temer are heirs of the old lineages of the political caciques in the north and northeast.”

This was no surprise to Taiana Matias, a 22-year-old law student who attended the anti-Temer demonstration along with some 10,000 mainly young protesters in Cinelandia Square outside city hall on Sunday. “This is a government of the white elite, and as a black woman I see the rural aristocracy of 1890 or before,” she explained between mass chants of “Temer golpista!” Lula’s university quota system to counter racism has spawned a new generation of working-class black students, and many were present in Cinelandia. One banner, in a reference to O Globo’s TV network, read “Unplug the Rede Globo.” A masked supporter of the hacktivist network Anonymous standing on the city hall steps held up a placard that read “This Is the Eve of the Battle,” perhaps a warning of hacker attacks against this summer’s Rio Olympics, a source of concern among security forces, according to the Institute Igape, whch advises the police on Olympic security.

Nelson Cavaquinho’s apocalyptic samba, “Juizo Final” (Final Judgment), boomed out from the loudspeakers, another warning to the new government: “It’s the final judgment, evil will be burnt at its seed, love will once again be eternal.” Speech after speech from the homeless worker movement and other groups preparing to organize the counterattack were no less dramatic in their pledges to fight for justice against an illegitimate government. People here seemed to inhabit another planet from the monochromatic Congress in Brasília, an isolated capital whose creation in 1960 facilitated the military coup four years later. “This illegitimate government has no women, no blacks, no young people; but rest assured, we have them here in abundance and we will not give them a day’s rest,” promised Marcelo Freixo, new star of the left and possible candidate in the elections for mayor of Rio this year from the Socialism and Liberty Party.

Things would get worse for O Globo and the marketers of the new government. When Temer’s first TV interview was broadcast on Rede Globo on Sunday, people stepped onto their balconies in Copacabana, Santa Tereza, and other districts banging pots. The same occurred in other parts of Brazil, making for headlines that said “The Panelaço Changes Hands.” Globo’s Facebook site was bombarded with thousands of green vomit icons in protest against a puff-piece interview that Temer had not even had to demand.

That same night, hundreds of protesters took to the streets in Juiz de Fora, in Minas Gerais state, to protest the coup as the Olympic torch passed by on its way to Rio. On Monday, anti-coup demonstrators occupied the ministry of culture in Rio to protest the decision to downsize it, saying they planned to stay. If this is the prologue of an anti-Temer movement, this summer could be the Olympics of discontent, which may explain why Temer appointed the menacing figure of Alexandre de Moraes as head of the justice ministry. Former head of security in São Paulo, Moraes deployed Israeli-manufactured armored vehicles to suppress protests by homeless workers and evicted students who had occupied their schools in protest against Rousseff’s education cuts (the occupations have now shifted to Rio, where over 70 schools are now run by 16- and 17-year-olds, and will no doubt multiply as the Temer cuts set in).

“The only certainty in Brazil is the uncertainty,” mused an economist at a Washington think tank during an interview last month, before adding that impeachment was certainly necessary. One thing does seem clear: Temer’s government has so little legitimacy that it has chosen to move fast on its pro-market changes. Temer even replaced the presidents of the public development bank and Petrobras only five days after taking power in what was supposed to be a provisional role until the Senate holds a second vote on Rousseff’s impeachment. This is likely to pave the way for downsizing the public banks and easing access of foreign oil multinationals in the exploitation of potentially profitable offshore “pre-salt” reserves in the Atlantic. Temer’s new foreign minister, José Serra, is known to support opening up the oil business since WikiLeaks publicized comments that he’d made to that effect in a conversation with Chevron’s CEO in Brazil in 2009.

If the economy is seen to have hit bottom before the next presidential elections, in 2018, Temer may be able to maintain the support of the first set of pot-bangers, the older middle classes, and the right could extend and deepen its power. But even the IMF does not forecast a significant recovery in Brazil before the election year. The country is divided on the legitimacy of the Temer government, maybe less by class than by age. There is a widening generation gap in attitudes toward the government, and the absence of older Brazilians is clearly a problem for the anti-coup movement. “I can’t understand it. My parents are 50 and 60 years old and they fought the military regime; they even had friends who were imprisoned. But they support this coup,” said Daniel Araujo, another young law student at the protest in Cinelandia. He was wearing a T-shirt that read in English “It’s Not OK.” Who could doubt it? But can he persuade his mum and dad?

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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