Millennials Are Taking to the Streets to Defend Democracy in Brazil

Millennials Are Taking to the Streets to Defend Democracy in Brazil

Millennials Are Taking to the Streets to Defend Democracy in Brazil

You wouldn’t know it from reading the media, but huge numbers have turned out to preserve the rule of law and the gains of social democracy.


There is one small bit of good news coming out of an otherwise dismal situation in Brazil, where the governing Workers’ Party (or PT, in Portuguese) is in retreat, crippled by self-inflicted corruption and a right-wing assault on its redistributionist policies (see Dave Zirin’s excellent recent report): Millennials are turning out to defend social democracy.

Earlier this month, Brazil witnessed two enormous street protests, each drawing an estimated million people. The first, on March 13, demanded the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and received widespread coverage in the US press. The second, in support of Dilma and the Workers’ Party, took place five days later on March 18. It was mostly hardly noticed in English-language news sources.

According to one statistical comparison, significantly more 12-to-35-year-olds attended the second protest than did the first. The PT has governed Brazil for 13 years, under two presidents: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003–11) and Dilma Rousseff. That means a majority of those taking to the street in defense of the PT have little experience with political life prior to PT governance. Yet they still think that the left values that the party stands for—economic democracy, democratic participation, racial inclusion, and social solidarity—are worth defending. The future, at least, seems to belong to the left, even if the present not so much.

The second point of polarization is wealth: 43 percent of those who took to the streets on March 13 demanding Dilma’s ouster made 10 times (or greater) Brazil’s minimum salary. And, as many have noted, the anti-government protest on March 13 tended to be significantly paler, since wealth in Brazil is correlated to lighter skin color.

This photograph, as Stephanie Nolan writing in The Globe and Mail notes, has become an “emblem” of the anti-PT protest, going viral on social media. It shows a “white couple who live on a leafy street in Ipanema. They brought with them their little white dog, on a colour co-ordinated leash, and their two toddler daughters, who rode in a stroller pushed by a black maid wearing the all-white uniform that some wealthy Brazilians prefer their domestic employees to wear”—which, in a country that “was the largest and most continuous of all the slave societies in the Atlantic world,” and where race-based chattel slavery wasn’t abolished until the 1880s, reminded some observers of “slave-maid’s clothes.”

The PT has been fending off corruption charges since Lula’s first term in office, with Brazil’s congress carrying out, in different forms, a nearly continuous investigation of illegal political dealings since 2005. As in the United States, bribery, pay-offs, kickbacks, and under-the-table favors are routine, and, in Brazil, involve every party, big and small. But it wasn’t until Dilma’s very close reelection in 2014, as the Brazilian economy began to worsen, that the investigations took on a hyper-partisan cast, driven forward by an increasingly conservative and oppositional Congress and cheer-leaded by an oligarchic media bent on driving the PT from power. Glenn Greenwald, David Miranda, and Andrew Fishman at The Intercept have a great breakdown of the crisis, and the class and racial dynamics and political machinations behind it.

Over the last year, the target of this campaign hasn’t so much been Dilma—though she now faces the very real threat of impeachment—but rather Lula, who is seen by many as the PT’s main chance. Limited to two consecutive terms during his first presidency, he could stand for reelection in 2018, which many on the Brazilian left see not just as an opportunity for the PT to retain power but for (as Gianpaolo Baiocchi discusses below) a renewal of the party’s social-movement principles.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, recent coups and coup-attempts have entailed the apprehension by security forces of a sitting president—in Venezuela, Hugo Chávez in 2002; Haiti, Jean Bertrand Aristide in 2004; and Honduras, Manuel Zelaya in 2009. It’s something of a ritual, the capture serving as public humiliation. In 1954, Guatemala’s deposed president, the democratically elected Jacobo Arbenz, was forced to strip down to his underwear and photographed before being allowed to leave the country. In Honduras in 2009, Zelaya was arrested in the middle of the night, in his pajamas.

Think of what is happening in Brazil as an anticipatory coup: the coordinated effort to damage Lula before 2018. Earlier this month, the police took the former president into custody, questioning him for three hours and searching his home. More recently, a judge released an intercept of a phone conversation he had with Rousseff, in which they discussed his appointment as her chief of staff. And then a court blocked that appointment. Now a prosecutor is requesting that the former president be placed under “preventative arrest.” Lula bears significant responsibility for the current crisis, not just for any corruption that the PT is involved in but for his role in transforming the PT from a social movement into a more traditional party, severed from its mobilized base. This severance worked reasonably well when the economy was booming but turned catastrophic when it contracted. Divorced from its original source of social power, the PT government, during Dilma’s second term, turned to austerity.

Still, however self-inflicted the crisis, there is no doubt that the anti-corruption campaign is a veil for a coordinated project to restore the class power of Brazil’s white political and economic elites. Up until recent events, Lula, despite his own role in the transformation of the PT, had been positioning himself as the standard bearer of efforts to return the party to its rank-and-file roots. That effort has been dealt a major set-back, and it is unclear if Lula, 70 years old, will recover from falling poll numbers and emboldened prosecutors. If he does, it will only be by mobilizing the millennials who came out on the streets on March 18, who are calling the “anti-corruption” campaign for what it is: a coup.

It would be hard to overstate the current crisis, both for Brazilian society (again, see both The Intercept’s and Zirin’s reports for details, along with the interview below with Gianpaolo Baiocchi) and for the broader Latin American left. Less than a decade ago, Lula was a key leader of an ascendant oppositional bloc of countries, including Argentina and Venezuela, that effectively pushed back on Washington’s militarism and “free trade” orthodoxy. As the region’s biggest, most diverse economy, Brazil served as a counterweight to Washington, with the idea that a new regional political economy would coalesce around its gravitational pull. Now Brazil (and Venezuela) is in political chaos and Argentina has been handed back to the bond traders.

I asked Gianpaolo Baiocchi, a sociologist and colleague at NYU—where he is the director of the Urban Democracy Lab—who has written widely on Brazilian politics (including a number of path-breaking books on Brazil’s radical experiments in participatory budgeting and governance, including Bootstrapping Democracy and Militants and Citizens), his thoughts on the crisis. There’s a number of important takeaways from his comments below, but one especially important point to keep in mind is that elite backlash is motived not by the failure of the PT—despite current dismal economic conditions—but its remarkable success in reducing poverty and democratizing society.

Greg Grandin: Events are fluid in Brazil, could you give an overview of situation, what, in your opinion, has led to the current standoff?

Gianpaolo Baiocchi: At the time of this writing, we have had a week of street protests against and for the government in the last few weeks. Brazilian elites and many political figures on the Right and Center-Right are betting on some kind of institutional rupture—either a resignation, or outright removal of Dilma Rousseff, the sitting, second-term president of the Workers’ Party. Notably, this last week, the judiciary seemed to give up any pretense of impartiality, escalating attacks on Rousseff and former president Lula, and publicly releasing hours of wire-taps on former president Lula.

Dilma has been facing impeachment proceedings in Congress since last year. The legal claim for the impeachment is actually a technicality concerning the national budget: releasing funds from one year’s budget to the next, a questionable, but widely practiced fiscal maneuver in Brazil at all levels of government. At the same time there has been a wide-ranging corruption investigation—so called “Operation Car Wash” that has unearthed a number of payment schemes involving the state oil company, many politicians from across the political spectrum, and developers. Until very recently, the impeachment process seemed unlikely to be successful—its legal basis was weak, Rousseff and the Workers’ Party had enough allies in Congress to prevent it, and a significant portion of the public seemed to have no appetite for what seemed like a thinly veiled power grab against an unpopular, but democratically elected, president. Rousseff has, of course, been in a tenuous position for some time, caught between elite rage, and isolation from the party’s bases of support for carrying out austerity measures, and a sluggish economy.

But if up to now, there had been a reasonable chance for a resolution and that she would have finished her term, the country has now been plunged into a very complex crisis. Former president Lula was accused of improper ownership of a small apartment, and was temporarily arrested and questioned in early March. Rousseff then appointed him last week to a ministry position—a move that would move his legal proceedings to the Supreme Court and bolster her flagging popularity. His appointment has been challenged in courts and it is unclear he will able to assume the post. But in what has been an absolutely unprecedented—and legally questionable—move clearly designed to fan flames of popular discontentment, the judge running the corruption investigation released to the public the audio files of a wiretap he had ordered on Lula and Rousseff. While the audio files actually do not reveal much of anything, the symbolic act of the wiretap, the audacity of releasing of the audio, the humiliation of his “forcible conduction” and questioning at a police station, signaled for many Brazilians that the judiciary was no longer a neutral party.

The situation in Brazil is today fast moving and quite complex, with an overlapping set of crises—economic, political, legal-institutional—and set against a procedural vacuum for which there are literally no established procedures. For many Brazilians there is a sense that there are no rules, that political conflicts will be settled in street mobilization, or under a logic of vale-tudo, or “anything goes.” The precedents these developments are setting for Brazilian democracy are very dangerous ones from the point of view of an institutionally stable democracy.

Readers of English-language news reports (with the exception of a few venues, such as The Intercept) have received a very biased account of the corruption scandal, shoehorned into a narrative that focuses mostly on the governing PT and Dilma’s falling poll numbers. What is missing from this account?

Much of the international media has been simply repeating the reporting and editorial biases of Brazil’s mainstream media, which has, for the most part, been essentially openly agitating for impeachment for many months. That reporting has been completely partial, often misleading, and there has been not even been pretense of presenting different perspectives. As a result, the international media has been missing several important pieces of the story.

First, readers of The New York Times would be surprised to know that there is a lot of opposition to impeachment. Last Friday’s march in support of the government drew, according to independent media estimates, more than a million Brazilians to the streets. While social movements have had a critical stance towards Rousseff’s recent policies, it is clear they will mobilize and come to the streets to defend democratic institutions and the social gains under the PT administrations. The protests in defense of the government have also drawn a much broader and more diverse population than the pro-impeachment rallies. People of color, the poor, and openly gay activists are more visibly present in pro-government protests in a way that is simply not the case in pro-impeachment mobilizations (although surveys have shown that the very poor are essentially absent). A very large number of Brazilian intellectuals have been similarly opposed to impeachment, including prominent scholars, jurists, and public figures across the political spectrum. Prominent figures like Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and former minister Pereira-Bresser have been very vocal on the issue, and curiously, their statements never appear in the international media.

Second, there is little discussion of the conservative revanchism of the recent past in Brazil. The anti-government protests and impeachment needs to be understood as part of a growing backlash in Brazil against the last dozen years of PT-directed economic redistribution. There is something much more at stake for impeachment advocates than just corruption. For one thing, Rousseff herself is not implicated in the corruption investigations. And the corruption investigations have implicated politicians of most parties, with the vast majority of implicated politicians belonging to the Right-Wing Popular Party. Yet, protests have always been aimed at Rousseff and the PT. So they are not just about corruption, but rather about a resentment of the left. In the last few years there has been open elite and middle-class hostility toward minorities, the poor, and the PT (seen as their political patrons) in a way that has simply not been seen before. There is today an expression of right-wing sentiments in politics that has tapped into this elite discontentment. Congress today, is for example, more conservative than at any other time in recent memory. Some of the most popular politicians in congress today openly defend policies such as torture and the extermination of indigenous people. Congress now includes a sizeable “bullet caucus,” which supports militaristic responses to crime, as well as a substantial Christian-fundamentalist caucus opposed to gay rights, and a very large rural caucus, one that opposes land reform and indigenous rights.

Can you speak about the racial dimension of the crisis? There is the sense that the PT’s mild redistributionist policies provoked in the wealthy and white a racial hysteria, and now, with the economy on the ropes, they are moving to regain upper hand and restore “proper” race hierarchy.

I very much think so. This is, as you know, a difficult topic to openly discuss in Brazil. The composition of the social groups mobilized against Rousseff is completely different from the constituencies that support her. There isn’t that much actual data about participants in these latest protests, but the data that we do have shows at least a clear class profile—pro-impeachment participants are better off, and all the reports clearly show that people of color and the poor have been more present in defense of the government. And we know that political sentiments about the Workers’ Party and its platforms have become polarized.

If we consider what has happened in Brazil in the last dozen years or so under the PT, it is that there has been a huge social ascent. Extreme poverty has been reduced by 75 percent, and overall poverty by 65 percent, largely by means of the direct cash transfers now received by 44 million Brazilians, or nearly one in four. The inflation-adjusted minimum wage has doubled. These are universalist policies, but given the sharp racial hierarchies in Brazil, the main beneficiaries have been people of color. And one of the most upsetting issues for elite Brazilians—the one that really brings out their worst sentiments and prejudices—has been affirmative action (“quotas”) in universities. A traditional bastion of elite privilege, most elite universities now set aside nearly half of their slots for affirmative-action candidates. While Brazil is very far from becoming an actual racial democracy, and there are still terrible issues surrounding police killings of black men, the racial order has been upset.

Can we hope for any good news? Is there any way this crisis might lead to a revitalization of the PT? The standard story of the PT is that, after Lula’s first three unsuccessful bids for the presidency, the party, in order to finally win in 2002, had move way from its social-movement roots and become a traditional electoral vehicle, engaging in demobilizing pacts with traditional parties, relying on consultants, building a firewall between its leadership and its rank and file. Is there any chance that mobilization in defense of Dilma and now Lula could force it to reclaim its oppositional energy? And if that does happen, what does mean for the 2018 presidential elections?

Some people are hopeful about Lula’s role in the Dilma administration, should he be able to serve. He has been critical of the austerity policies and has been mobilizing unions and social movements around anti-austerity policies. We could expect a lowering of interest rates, more spending on social policies and infrastructure if he assumed the post. There is talk of his attempting to articulate a new social pact around this developmentalist platform. He really has tremendous charisma and is a very able politician, and many people hope he would be able to mobilize a national alliance around this progressive project. I think what terrifies elites in Brazil is the possibility of a Lula presidential candidacy in 2018, which is why there is such an effort to discredit him now.

But I think that whether or not he is able to serve, this has been an important time of reflection for the left in Brazil and for the PT in particular. There are a number of figures engaged in a process of rethinking what the next iteration of what an electoral-left strategy might be. People like former Porto Alegre Mayor, Tarso Genro, have been raising this question, as have people in associated parties that splintered from the PT, like the PSOL and the PSTU. The PT’s novelty was that it was a party “where movements could speak.” And one thing that became starkly clear in the 2013 protests was that the party—after all this time in government—had become quite distanced from some of the new movements emerging in Brazilian society. There are a number of questions that need to be addressed—for one thing, no one quite expected this amount of elite backlash; another question is the need for a media strategy able to compete with Brazil’s mainstream media; and of course, there are many questions about internal democracy in the party, and how to deal with corruption. Some have even suggested a re-foundation of the party, while others have now been questioning the choice to privilege the ballot box in the first place. There are a lot of lessons to build on, a lot of very important accomplishments as well as setbacks to learn from in these last three decades of PT. I actually think there is a way for progressive forces to come out of this crisis that could be re-energizing for the 2018 contests and beyond.

This, of course, assumes that there will still be functioning political institutions in Brazil by the time this crisis is over, which is why most progressive activists in Brazil are making the defense of social democracy their first priority.

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