BRASILIA, Brazil — Harsh austerity. A 20-year public spending freeze. A non-elected government. A coup backed by the United States and corporate world.
This is the new reality that Brazil has faced following the impeachment and ouster of the democratically-elected Dilma Rousseff in August of 2016 on charges of corruption and her replacement by vice-president Michel Temer, a favorite of Washington.
This is also a new reality that has been met by widespread disapproval, occasional large-scale protests, and a new economic uncertainty for a country which, just a few years ago, was seen as an up-and-coming economic powerhouse, along with the rest of the BRICS, the bloc composed of emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. This optimism has been quickly supplanted by an increasingly volatile social situation in Brazil and great pessimism for the future.
Much has been made in the media about the progressive credentials of the Rousseff government and that of her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, both of whom represented the Workers’ Party (PT) of Brazil. Much has also been made of the mass protests which led to Rousseff’s outster, which bore similarities to protests seen in countries such as Venezuela against the Maduro regime, and the relative lack of protest that the Temer government has faced since ascending to power.
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What is actually happening, though? As is often the case in such situations, reality is far more multifaceted and complex than frequently presented, while parallels can be drawn with other austerity-ravaged countries such as Greece.
A radical break or austerity lite?: The Rousseff and da Silva governments
The governments of da Silva and Rousseff were often compared to those of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina, in representing a break with the doctrines of neoliberalism, economic austerity, and privatization that much of Latin America experienced during the 1980s and 1990s.
This claim is borne out by some policies and certain economic indicators. In a 2014 article, well-known commentator Pepe Escobar, who frequently focuses on the BRICS nations in his writing, pointed out the tripling of the minimum wage between 2002 and 2014, a decline in unemployment, increased GDP per capita, the repayment of Brazil’s debts to the International Monetary Fund, higher purchasing power, plus social programs which benefited almost 50 million Brazilians.
Similarly, in a 2014 interview with me for Dialogos Radio, investigative journalist Greg Palast cited da Silva’s refusal to privatize state banks and the national oil company, while creating the “Bolsa Familia,” or a minimum income offered to many Brazilians, in an effort to lift them out of poverty. According to Palast, these policies — the opposite of the privatizations and austerity dictated by the International Monetary Fund — fueled Brazil’s phenomenal growth during this time, reaching 7 to 9 percent annually at its peak.
But did da Silva and Rousseff go far enough? Numerous commentators have expressed doubts.
For instance, the Rousseff government appointed Joaquim Levy, known as a pro-austerity “fiscal hawk,” as finance minister (this, it should be noted, was when Temer was Rousseff’s vice president). Scholar and author James Petras, an expert on Latin America, pointed out in November that da Silva implemented IMF-mandated austerity programs soon after being elected, and he appointed neoliberal economists to his cabinet whilst supporting the interests of agribusiness and major oil and mining concerns — all while overseeing policies which left numerous peasant families landless.
The Brazilian “economic miracle,” according to Petras, was a mirage fueled by high export commodity prices which the Brazilian economy temporarily benefited from, enabling programs such as the “Bolsa Familia.”
This was echoed by Palast, who in a 2016 follow-up interview with Dialogos Radio cited the sharp decline of oil prices and collapse of its commodities trade with China, as factors in the Brazilian economic slowdown — and increased unrest in the country prior to Rousseff’s ouster. In turn, Escobar also cited Rousseff’s concessions to big banking and agribusiness interests and a swing to the center as mistakes which also led to the emerging middle class increasingly flirting with the right once economic difficulties began.
In an interview with MintPress, Kat Moreno, a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science and visiting scholar for Global Workers’ Rights at the Penn State University, argued that the Rousseff government was quite austere, and that despite a militant, leftist background, the material conditions she faced pressured her to enact austerity policies during her reign.
A recent analysis published by TeleSUR further argues that austerity measures were implemented by the Rousseff government as a defense mechanism of sorts, in an effort to fend off Rousseff’s impeachment by appeasing the right.
In his 2014 interview, Palast cited Rousseff’s return to IMF-sponsored austerity policies and the reduction of pensions as factors which were disastrous for the Brazilian economy, calling the IMF “a society of poisoners,” while in his 2016 interview, he cited Rousseff’s political inexperience and her inability to effectively communicate with the public as factors which made her impeachment possible.
An uprising from below or from above?
2013 could be seen as a hallmark year for Brazil, one in which the tide began to turn against the ruling PT. The “Brazilian Spring” — following in the footsteps of the protests seen in Turkey that year, the Arab Spring, protests of the “indignants” in Spain and Greece, and the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 — emerged out of protests against public transportation fare increases and perceived government corruption. These protests could be seen as having served as a “dress rehearsal” of sorts for those which followed in 2015 and 2016, when fed-up Brazilians took to the streets en masse, including an estimated 7 million citizens during a March 2016 protest, to rally against worsening economic conditions and continued government corruption.
Or did they?
It has been pointed out that the protests of 2015-2016, leading up to the impeachment of Rousseff were not led by the impoverished or the working class, but by such groups as the Free Brazil Movement (MBL) and Students of Liberty (EPL).
Who are these groups?
Largely consisting of well-to-do, white academic circles, it has been revealed that they were financed by the decidedly right-wing Atlas Economic Research Foundation, itself funded by the notorious Koch brothers. Pepe Escobar has described the events of 2015-2016 as a “white coup,” fueled by the country’s major media outlets, who were “salivating” for regime change.
This scenario closely mirrors the protests seen recently in Venezuela against the increasingly embattled Maduro regime. Venezuela, like Brazil, has been battered by falling commodities prices — especially the sharp decline in the price of oil. This has brought to the forefront protests, led by right-wing elements seeking regime change and sensing an opportunity to make it happen.
Such protests are also not confined to Latin America. Greece, itself embattled by years of economic depression and austerity, has begun to see occasional (but, for the time being, relatively small-scale) protests led by supporters of the center-right parties such as New Democracy.
Prior to the country’s July 2015 referendum on approving or rejecting an austerity package demanded by Greece’s European “partners,” these elements organized fairly large protests in favor of “yes” (accepting austerity in order to “remain in the European Union”). In turn, smaller protests in 2016, organized with such social media hashtags as ftanei pia (“enough already”) ironically protested the austerity measures imposed by the purportedly left-wing Syriza-led government whilst supporting closer EU ties and the New Democracy party.
Similar to Brazil, Greece’s major media groups — all owned by oligarchic interests with a huge stake in the country’s major economic sectors — have vehemently supported austerity and supported the “yes” vote in the 2015 referendum.
Speaking to MintPress, Guilherme Giuliano, at Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of São Paulo and member of the “Catso” social workers’ autonomous collective, described the 2016 protests as not having been solely against Rousseff or her government. Nevertheless, the protests were co-opted by certain parties and movements and used as a catalyst for the coup against Rousseff.
Kat Moreno described the MBL as one of the movements which freely took to the streets, while other protest movements not organized by formal actors and representing poorer strata of society were met with police repression.
Petras classifies the capitulation and eventual fall of the PT governments, led by da Silva and Rousseff, as another in a long string of failures of the left. These “failures” have also been evident in countries such as Greece, where Syriza was, in January 2015, elected on promises to “tear up” Greece’s memorandum agreements with its lenders and to put an end to austerity but has instead faithfully continued enforcing such policies and signed further austerity agreements with the country’s lenders, implementing further cuts and reneging on all of its pre-election pledges.
The ‘shock doctrine’ returns to Latin America
In her 2007 book “The Shock Doctrine,” Naomi Klein highlights how the global capitalist class uses crises and disaster situations — both real and invented — as an opportunity to pounce upon suffering countries when they are at their weakest, imposing harsh austerity christened as “free market” policies and imposed, when necessary, by force, including police violence and brutality.
This has been characteristic of Brazil following Rousseff’s impeachment and Temer’s takeover.
It has also been characteristic of the crisis-hit countries of the European South, where protesters in Greece have been dispersed and stunned into submission by tear gas and police violence which invariably goes unpunished, while riot police enforcing home foreclosures is a common sight in Spain.
Klein traces the origins of the “shock doctrine” to the neoliberal doctrine first espoused by economists such as Milton Friedman, the father of the “Chicago School” of economics, which Latin American countries such as Chile became intimately familiar with under autocratic regimes such as that of Augusto Pinochet.
It is ironic, therefore, that Klein openly and vocally supported the Syriza government prior to the January 2015 elections in Greece which first brought it to power. But she has remained conspicuously silent since then, while Syriza has continued the policies of its predecessors. Nevertheless, the “shock doctrine” serves as a useful guide to explain what is happening in such countries today, including Brazil.
In another one of his analyses on the Brazil situation, Escobar classified Brazil as a victim of a “hybrid war” launched by the world’s neoliberal elite one which is also targeting other BRICS nations such as Russia.
How has the “shock doctrine” unfolded in Brazil?
With a lot of shock, and a lot of awe, to say the least.
A 20-year federal freeze on public spending was almost immediately imposed by the Temer regime, placing caps on spending for health care, education, and social expenditures and shrinking a welfare state which, according to Moreno, was already much more limited than its European counterparts. This was followed up by the announcement of job cuts in the public sector (despite rising unemployment which has more than doubled since the country’s recent economic peak), and a special “Christmas gift” for Brazilian workers: the expansion of the workday from 8 to 12 hours, complete with a reduction in the lunch hour.
This closely resembles the sharp reduction in pay, dismantling of collective bargaining rights, and massive layoffs which have been seen in countries like Greece. (There, pensioners were treated to a “Christmas gift” of their own by the Syriza-led government: a paltry “Christmas bonus” used by the government as a ludicrous PR stunt after it had already slashed most pensions by approximately 50 percent in 2016 and announced further tax increases for 2017.) In Brazil, environmental regulations have also been scrapped or relaxed, posing a particular threat to the country’s indigenous peoples.
In a rare moment of frankness, Temer told an audience of business and foreign policy elite assembled in New York in September that Rousseff — who was no radical while in office — did not go “far enough” in implementing the harsh economic reforms demanded by Temer’s party.
The new Temer government does not feel itself constrained in any way in terms of going “far enough.” Corruption charges are now being faced by da Silva, who currently leads overwhelmingly in opinion polls for Brazil’s next presidential elections, and members of his family.
Not even bothering to keep up appearances, Temer’s appointed cabinet consists exclusively of wealthy white men, while his government attempted to legislate self-amnesty for itself in September — a privilege already enjoyed by members of the Greek parliament and Greek government ministers, who are immune from prosecution for any crimes committed while in office and who regularly “write off” internal parliamentary investigations into previous governments’ wrongdoings.
This comes as the Temer government, which led the ouster of Rousseff on corruption charges, is itself facing corruption scandals.
In such a climate, it is inevitable that corruption will “trickle down” to other sectors of society. Brazil is currently said to be experiencing a far-right resurgence, shattering the common image of the country as one of racial inclusiveness and harmony.
Tourists to Brazil now have the unique opportunity to visit a real-life plantation and be served by black “slaves.” Police violence, already a major problem under the Rousseff administration, continued to grow in 2016 and 2017. There’s also the increasing prison riot crisis, which has been encouraged by elements within Temer’s government who view it as an effective means of culling the population in the country’s overcrowded prisons.
How have Brazilians responded?
The spotlight of the international media was thrust upon Brazil in 2013 and again prior to Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016, when protests sprung up in the streets—which may have been fueled, at least in part, by Koch-funded and wealthy elements in Brazilian society.
With a regime in place which may not be supported by the majority of Brazil’s population but is very much supported by the global banking and business elite and by Washington, protests against Temer’s government have not been afforded the same level of coverage, perhaps giving the impression that the Brazilian populace has resigned itself to a tacit acceptance of the new regime. Reality, however, seems to be a bit more nuanced.
There have been both strikes and protests on a fairly wide scale in Brazil since Temer’s takeover, including protests which erupted following the enactment of the 20-year public spending freeze, further significant protests against the Temer government on Brazil’s Independence Day, and a strike of workers at oil refineries all across the country at the end of the year.
These movements are accompanied by abysmal approval ratings for the new government in multiple public opinion surveys, even if approval ratings and poll numbers are often meaningless or inaccurate. Just look at the low approval ratings and exceptionally high re-election ratings for members of the U.S. Congress, for instance, or the multiple polls which all but assured a Hillary Clinton victory in the U.S. presidential elections, or the public opinion polls in Greece which have repeatedly been not just grossly inaccurate but always in a pro-austerity direction. For instance, Greek polling firms predicted a neck-and-neck referendum result in July 2015, when in fact, the “no” vote rejecting the European Union’s proposed austerity package received an overwhelming 62 percent of the vote.
Despite the protests that have taken place ever since Temer took over in Brazil, Kat Moreno points out the factors that have prevented them from being more widespread or long-lived.
According to Moreno, some strata of society do not feel safe in taking to the streets, and Moreno cites fear as a “strong variable” to consider when examining responses to the political situation in the country, as a result of the high degree of police repression and brutality, which has been especially evident during protests of left-wing groups and protesters who are not affiliated with any major organization or party.
Such a situation could also be said to foster “protest fatigue,” which is often seen as a factor in the lack of wide-scale protest in Greece and other crisis-stricken countries of the European South in recent years. Following large-scale protests seen in the 2010-2012 period, which peaked with the movement of the “Indignants” in Spain and Greece in the spring and summer of 2011 and which were eventually met by a violent and heavy-handed police response, protests have largely disappeared or been confined to ephemeral and single-issue efforts without longevity.
In Greece, a common response to questions as to why Greeks no longer take to the streets is that protesters will simply get tear gassed again and sent back home. The “shock doctrine” described by Naomi Klein may also serve as another psychological factor: When protests turn out to be fruitless and unpopular policies are rammed through despite opposition, feelings of discouragement and despair become more prevalent and serve as obstacles to further action.
To some extent, Brazilian society may be experiencing some of these symptoms.
Escobar refers to the “toolbox” of tactics employed in Brazil leading up to Rousseff’s ouster. This set of strategies included the creation of manufactured consent amongst the populace, for the impeachment and the new regime.
This bears a great similarity to the cases of countries such as Greece, where public opinion polls conducted by polling firms which are not independent of the state and which are commissioned by pro-austerity media outlets have repeatedly shown vast majorities purportedly in favor of EU and eurozone membership at all costs, while the very few independent surveys conducted in Greece, such as those by Gallup International, have actually found such majorities to be slim or nonexistent.
Manufactured consent is used to legitimize the austerity policies which then follow, and to characterize any dissent as belonging to a small, marginal minority.
Indeed, similarities between the case of Brazil and the case of countries of the European South such as Greece abound. Just as the Temer government has not been elected and overthrew a government which apparently did not go “far enough” in its austerity regime, the EU imposed a non-elected technocrat prime minister, Lucas Papademos, a former banker, on Greece in late 2011 to ensure that a new package of austerity measures and “reforms” would be railroaded through parliament.
At around the same time, a non-elected prime minister, Mario Monti, was also installed in Italy, with the blessings of the EU — technocrats from which described this unelected government as “the best thing that ever happened to Italy” during a visit of mine to the EU in 2013 as part of a week-long academic program. Italy is now being governed by no less than its third consecutive non-elected prime minister.
The Greek referendum overwhelmingly rejecting EU-proposed austerity was shot down in short order, replaced by an austerity package even harsher than that which had originally been proposed, and even more onerous than the two prior memorandum agreements signed by Syriza’s predecessors, the New Democracy and PASOK (“socialist”) political parties.
The manufactured consent and “shock doctrine” which imposed the “bitter medicine” of austerity on Greece could be viewed as a pre-emptive strike against any thoughts of “Grexit,” a Greek exodus from the Eurozone or even the EU, much like the “hybrid war” against countries like Brazil and Russia described earlier by Escobar.
Kat Moreno identifies certain parallels between the Global South, of which Brazil is part, and the European South, which has in recent years experienced much of the same IMF-supported austerity which Latin America is all too familiar with. She highlights the “clear relationship” between being a part of the Global South and being dependent on and the hostage of the international financial system.
And in looking to the future, it is difficult to say who can lead these countries, whether it is Brazil or Greece or Spain or Italy, out of their current death spiral unscathed. Guilherme Giuliano points out that what has been happening in Brazil, as in Greece, Argentina (where the Kirchner government was replaced by one much friendlier to Washington and to global capital), or even the United States, are symptoms of a global crisis — a crisis which, according to Giuliano, “nobody has a progressive way out.”
Indeed, many progressives and much of the global left seem to be focused more strongly on identity politics and a notion of a world without nations or states. In doing so, they have supported such undemocratic, austerity-driven institutions as the EU, while demonizing phenomena such as the “Brexit” as the exclusive realm of racists and xenophobes, widening their chasm with vast sections of the poor and working classes in the process.
Meanwhile, a blind eye has been turned to the actions of former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who in conjunction with Wall Street, supported right-wing coups and electoral takeovers all across Latin America, from Brazil to Venezuela to the Honduras. In this vein, James Petras chastises “left politicians who speak to the workers and work for the bankers.”
As for Brazil, Moreno describes the country as finding itself at a crossroads.
“People are seeking autonomy over their destinies, but where it is going we are not sure,” she said. “It can lead to neo-fascism, or it could go towards leftist positions.”