Anti-government protests are growing in Brazil. Why should you care? Because Brazil has the biggest economy in South America, the second largest in the Western hemisphere, and has the seventh largest economy (by GDP) in the world. What happens there can send out wider shockwaves.
In recent days, there has been massive turnout by people in nearly every Brazilian state to demand the resignation, or impeachment, of the country’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been gathering in protest, and this seems likely to continue. Protests have taken place in 22 Brazilian states, with more to happen in the weeks ahead. How did this come about? How did things get to this point? We will provide some answers here.
A history of failure
Let’s provide some background first. In 2011, after winning a close election, Ms. Rousseff became the first female president. Hailed by the international media as a rags-to-riches story of female empowerment, she sailed into office on the coattails of her predecessor, the now conspicuously-invisible Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva.
She continued the policies of Mr. Da Silva, which primarily revolved around giving economic handouts to poor people and—in rhetoric at least—improving the economy. The economy grew at extremely fast rates under Da Silva, and it looked like it would last for a long time.
Things began to unravel soon after Rousseff took office. Inflation began to grow, and rates of economic growth did as well. On a leadership level, there was a perception that the usual rules of South American cronyism were still in effect, but with a female face, rather than the gold braid of an army general.
Brazilians have lived with corruption for decades, if not centuries, so that can hardly be called new news. What triggered the explosion of anger is a very specific scandal that Rousseff is unavoidably at the center of.
The scandal that may bring down a country’s ruling elite
The scandal involves the government and the nation’s major oil company, Petrobras. The company is one of the largest and most respected in the world. Before taking office in 2011, Rousseff had been the chairman of the board for Petrobras. During her tenure as chairman of Petrobras, bribes were paid to Brazilian politicians and to Petrobras officers as a way of securing cooperation or contracts. This is already in the record.
We should point out here that Brazil has a very bureaucratic and “top-down” corporate culture. A few big companies control everything, and nothing happens unless a boss signs off on it. Anyone who has ever tried to navigate the maze of Brazilian bureaucracy knows this.
At the beginning of this month, the courts permitted an investigation into roughly fifty politicians from Rousseff’s far left-wing Workers’ Party, among them the speakers of the Brazilian House and Senate. So, this is not your ordinary investigation. The allegations go all the way to the top. Although Rousseff has not (yet) been formally accused, most intelligent Brazilians find it incredible that all of this admitted corruption could swirl around her without her knowing about it.
Nevertheless, the president for now is keeping her lips sealed. Her acolytes have pointed out that most of the protests have been organized by her right-wing opponents. They have claimed that most of the people marching in the protests have been people who didn’t vote for her. But bad things continue to happen.
A country in turmoil
Inflation is currently at 7.5%, the economy has stalled, and Rousseff’s ability to govern seems to be heading toward paralysis. Rousseff points to the fact that her own attorney general has “exonerated” her of any wrongdoing. Her strategy at this point seems to be to try to placate the demonstrators. Her Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo said the government considered the demonstrations an “expression of democracy.”
Cardozo and his colleague Miguel Rossetto have promised the usual “package of measures” to address concerns about corruption, hoping to buy time for a breathing space. The problem is that no one’s buying it. Inflation is growing, jobs are hard to come by, and there is a perception that Rousseff is not up to the job. Not only that, but Brazilians have heard it all before. There was a huge wave of anti-government protests in 2013, and Rousseff just managed to survive that tidal wave by promising a “package of reforms.”
And then it was back to business as usual. Part of the problem is that Rousseff lacks the wily charisma of her strangely-silent predecessor, Lula. Where is Lula? Hiding somewhere, no doubt. He was able to coast during his tenure in office, but now that things have gone south, he’s nowhere to be found. This is the sentiment I get when I talk to many Brazilian friends of mine.
Her finance minister, Joaquim Levy, has proposed an “austerity plan” which may have to cut back some of the handouts that were made to the lower classes under Lula’s presidency. But the biggest problem for her may prove to be the continuing investigation. No politician likes ongoing investigations. They have a way of becoming festering wounds, or tornadoes unable to be controlled. Meanwhile, the economy continues to stall, inflation grows, water shortages in the southern states continue, and a general feeling of aimlessness persists.
A return to dictatorship?
This writer happens to have a close friend, now retired, in Brazil who was a career employee of Petrobras. This friend, whom I will call Paulo, has often openly mused that things were actually better in the 1970s and 80s when the military dictatorship ran the show.
Of course, they persecuted communists and leftists, but on balance they were far less corrupt than the oligarchs who are now running the show. I found this opinion to be more common than you might imagine.
Also conspicuously absent from the media are the feminist commentators who were gushing in ecstasy at the election of two women as presidents in Brazil and in Argentina. We were told that this was some sort of new age in gender equality, where women would show everyone how to run a large country. That little fantasy evaporated rather quickly.
Argentina’s president, Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, has a consuming political scandal of her own. One of her prosecutors, Alberto Nisman, was found dead, after having accused her of conspiring to conceal details of an investigation into a terrorist bombing. Ms. Kirchner denies any involvement in the prosecutor’s death.
Are the feminist websites in the US covering these stories as dutifully as they should be? Why are we not hearing talk from the social justice warrior multiverse? Could it be that women are just as—if not more—corrupt than men in office? Readers will have to decide for themselves.
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