The “Car Wash” Coup


“We fought and participated in a dream to build a better Brazil, we learned a lot. We did a lot of nonsense, but that is not what characterizes us. What characterizes us is to have dared to want a better country.”
-Dilma Rousseff

This should have been a year of celebration in Brazil. Following up the 2014 Fifa World Cup with the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this year was meant to be a glorious demonstration of the country’s ascension to world power status. Instead, the globe’s 6th biggest economy, a country of more than 200 million people, is in turmoil. The problems are being felt in every sector of society, with the economy at its weakest in many years and the country’s politics practically halted by an ongoing crisis of legitimacy.

Brazil’s democratically elected President, Dilma Rousseff of the Workers Party (PT), the first woman to ever hold the office, was suspended on May 12th “for up to 180 days following a vote by the country’s senate to start an impeachment trial against her.” A former Marxist, sometimes called Brazil’s “ subversive Joan of Arc” for her fight against the 1964-1985 military dictatorship that imprisoned and tortured her, Rousseff has transformed herself into a soft left pragmatist along the lines of her former boss, President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva.

The accusations against President Rousseff were said in a Financial Times story to stem from her tenure as Chairman of the semi-national oil company Petrobras between 2003 and 2010. Although, she hasn’t been accused of any crime, corruption within Petrobras uncovered by an investigation called “Operation Car Wash” (“Lava Jato”) occurred when she led the company (and has continued to the present day). It was during this same period of time that then President Lula da Silva, following privatization efforts made in the 1990s, was slowly re-nationalizing Petrobras in the wake of a massive offshore oil discovery.

Another of the main charges against Rousseff, presented in the majority of English language news reports on her suspension, is that she used her power to engage in some creative accounting to cover budget shortfalls. As Maria Luisa Mendonca, a university professor and director of Brazil’s Network for Social Justice and Human Rights, explained in the Progressive, “The basis for the impeachment is her use of a common financial mechanism of borrowing funds from public banks to cover social program expenses in the federal budget. Other national and local administrations have used the same tactic. If the same criteria were used against Brazil’s state governors, 16 of them would be facing impeachment today.”

There are several other things about this process of removing Dilma Rousseff that simply don’t pass the smell test. One of the main issues noted by several commentators is the role that Brazil’s big media, especially the private, billionaire owned television network Globo, have played in the run up to the President’s suspension. Perhaps taking a page from Fox News’ playbook when they helped to create the Tea Party “movement” in the United States, Globo’s news people routinely called for their viewers to protest against the government and then covered the resulting unrest, however small, on a loop.

Corruption as a Way of Life

The claims of corruption surrounding Dilma Rousseff are pretty rich considering who’s doing the accusing, including her own Vice President Michel Temer, a member of the PMDB party that formed part of her governing coalition. This man, temporarily acting as the country’s Chief Executive, is also facing possible impeachment for almost the exact same transgression as the suspended President, “signing decrees allowing extra credit without the authorization of Congress.”

Besides this, there are the “internal documents” published by Wikileaks showing that Temer has been a regular visitor to the US Embassy where he “assured the U.S. that the PMDB would soon coalesce with Brazil’s right wing parties, therefore greatly minimizing the Worker’s Party platform .” The fact that there are early calls from the new government to kick Venezuela out of the South American trade group Mercosur may point to hidden motivations on the part of some of those who have cheered on Rousseff’s removal.

Another high level figure, also in the PMDB, Planning Minister Romero Juca, recently resigned his post after a recording surfaced where a man believed to be the Minister says that the scandal created by the “Car Wash” investigations must end when the Senate permanently removes Rousseff from office. This is odd, if the many other allegations brought forward by the investigation implicating politicians from every major party and business elites in actual crimes are true. Referring to the investigations, the man believed to be Juca said, “We have to stop this shit. We have to change the government to stop this bleeding.”

In yet another twist as we go to press, the new Cabinet‘s “Minister of Transparency”, Fabiano Silveira, tasked with rooting out corruption, resigned as the result of another secret recording that “seemed to show that he tried to stymie the sweeping corruption investigation revolving around Petrobras”.

With Rousseff and her Workers Party mostly out of the picture, Temer has already begun implementing austerity policies. What kinds of programs are likely to be cut or scaled down under the new government? Let’s take a look at one of them, the “Bolsa Familia”, that has lifted millions of Brazilians out of extreme poverty in just a little over a decade..

Pushing Back Against Progress

This program, introduced by  former President da Silva and derided as a handout on the right, has proven very successful at improving the lives of Brazil’s poorest citizens while helping to ensure that the next generation will have better chances in life. As a local council head in the Northeastern municipality of Belagua told The Guardian in 2013, “This is a very poor area. About 80% of the people here rely on bolsa familia. Some people still get by on farinha and salt, but things are better than before thanks to bolsa familia.”

The same article also revealed that, between 2002 and 2012, the number of people in the country living in “extreme poverty” (less than $20 US a month by Brazil’s own definition) has “declined from 8.8% to 3.6%”. In addition, every Brazilian Real spent through the program results in almost two back in terms of economic gains, demolishing the cynical argument that such programs don’t help the economy and are wasted on the poor.

What the Bolsa Familia, which works out to about $50 US dollars a month does, is offer this stipend to poor families provided their children are in school and are receiving proper medical care and check ups, including vaccinations. The program gives mothers, who are generally given head of household status under the program, the ability to provide for their families, regardless of their or their partner’s employment status.

Two Brazils

When we hear about poverty in Brazil in North America it is generally through the lens of the favelas, sprawling urban slums in the country’s major cities but it’s important to remember that these only exist because of long term rural migration. For the most part, rural Brazil is even poorer and opportunities for work are few and far between. Although there is a deep tradition of “mesticagem”, pride in being of mixed African, Indigenous and European descent among citizens of all classes, it’s still true that the majority of people who live in the favelas and in rural poverty have darker skin than elites.

Nothing shows the preponderance of lighter skin in the powerful, including in Rousseff’s own Workers Party, more than the fact that almost all of the country’s legislators share this trait. Far from trying to reverse this trend,  “At his hasty inauguration, Vice President Michel Temer, who is of Lebanese descent surrounded himself with his 22 newly named cabinet ministers. All are male and light skinned.”

Places like Brazil, or Honduras, the victim of a 2009 coup in all but name, where progressive factions of the elite have taken the reins of power and felt the regional pull to the left from countries with leaders drawn from the people like Bolivia and Ecuador, have been the most effectively targeted for “regime change”. While it is easy to simply blame the US and other western governments for this reactionary march back to neo-liberalism in Latin America, this attitude absolves local elites of responsibility for always putting their own interests ahead of their own countries.

Even though the IMF has publicly walked back some of their extremist positions on austerity and the free movement of capital, saying recently that they had increased inequality throughout the world; these ideas continue the march to the global bottom in terms of protections for ordinary citizens. The laboratory for these policies was always Latin America where this kind of economic orthodoxy was first applied in Chile almost 50 years ago. It’s a shame that Brazilians are once again going to be made made to swallow this bitter medicine.


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