There is a fevered media narrative about Brazil currently swamping the airwaves: a narrative with two stories existing in the same space, yet being told as parallel dramas. One is about the state-oil corruption fracas, known as the Petrobras/Operation Car Wash Scandal. This investigation, alongside an inquiry into illegal budget manipulation, threatens to bring down President Dilma Rousseff and the Workers’ Party (PT) government that has ruled South America’s largest nation for the last 12 years. Even though there is evidence of hundreds of millions in bribes, touching every corner of the political establishment, the media and investigative focus has been lasered in on the PT.
The other narrative involves hand-wringing over how in the world Rio de Janeiro is going to host the Olympics, given this level of turmoil, not to mention how the city will possibly handle the unbuilt Olympic construction projects, fetid water, and fears over the Zika virus.
Yet the story we may be missing could be how these narratives might connect to build support for what Rio-based journalist Glenn Greenwald has called “a judicial coup”—organized by a thoroughly corrupt ruling class—that would depose the Workers’ Party and install a new, right-wing government into power. The real story could be about how the investigation has focused intensely on the car-wash/bribery scandals and not the Olympics, even though both are linked to the same venal construction monopolies. This could be because any investigation into Olympic corruption would be centered upon a different political party, now waiting in the wings to take power. That party would be the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) of Rio’s Mayor Eduardo Paes and Governor Luiz Fernando Pezão. They run Rio. As Theresa Williamson, director of the NGO Catalytic Communities, said to me, “The Olympics has been organized by a local/state coalition that barely includes the PT.”
To understand why this is happening now, why the right wing feels so confident, and how the Workers’ Party opened the door to its enemies, start with the eight-year presidency of a once-penniless youth and factory worker, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. In 2011, Lula left office after two terms, in the words of President Obama, as “the most popular politician on earth.” His approval ratings were driven by a Brazilian economy that was experiencing 10 percent annual growth, due to massive investment of international capital in the Brazilian stock market, Lula’s seizing of peasant and native lands for development, and the expansion of oil drilling. This neoliberal model carried by a left-wing folk hero inspired economists to call Lula “the IMF’s favorite president.” The Financial Times was so besotted with him that it suggested he be named to head up the World Bank. This was difficult for many of his supporters to swallow, particularly the thousands who were expelled from the Workers’ Party for agitating against this agenda. Yet Lula maintained a powerful base of support by investing the nation’s stock-market windfalls into antipoverty programs and increases in the minimum wage, which made real dents in Brazil’s staggering levels of destitution and economic inequality. Lula also leveraged his status to pass laws empowering the judiciary to root out endemic and long-standing corruption in Brazil’s political and ruling class—laws that are used today against the Workers’ Party.