Political Crisis in Brazil: What is at Stake for Public Policies?

By Carlos R. S. Milani

In 2014, the Workers Party won their fourth consecutive presidential election. Since then, Brazil’s economic crisis has deepened, gradually developing into political turmoil and threatening its 30 year-old democracy. At the origin of this crisis is the belief that corruption is the country’s worst problem (rather than inequality!), and that the Workers’ Party (the PT) is the main responsible agent (if not the only one!) for the dissemination of corruption practices in Brazilian contemporary politics and business. Fighting against it could include a series of “innovative” instruments and “exceptional and selective” measures within the police, the judiciary, the media, and the lower house. Cleaning Brazil could mean criminalizing the PT and socially condemning all individuals (even Brazilian composer and writer Chico Buarque), social actors and other political parties connected with any sort of progressive banners.


A protest in São Paolo against corruption and President Dilma Rousseff’s administration (Photo by Editorial J.)

The crisis can be analyzed as a classical case of social polarization and elite division, which is not new in Brazil’s history (Vargas in 1954, Goulart in 1964). It opposes economic orthodoxy demands from “the market” that impinge upon and frequently override social priorities, including modest welfare and rights-based social development programs directed towards historically marginalized people. Within this context, strategic elite members have not been able to reach a consensus on how to solve the economic and political crisis. All these factors associated with the end of the global “commodity boom,” a fiscal crisis, a violent social atmosphere, and Dilma Rousseff’s series of political mistakes since her elections yielded in 2015-16 Brazil’s most serious institutional crisis in the aftermath of the 1988 Constitution. Part and parcel of this crisis, the Senate voted for Dilma Rousseff’s ousting in August 2016, even though there was no empirical evidence of a crime of responsibility (which, according to the 1950 Law of Impeachment, is mandatory).

What are the main political actors in this process? First, corporate funding of electoral campaigns has supported the election of 594 congressmen and women (both in lower house and senate). Among them, 318 have been under investigation for wrongdoing, but they have played a key role in the impeachment procedure, particularly Eduardo Cunha (former president of the Lower House, now in prison). Second, political control institutions (public ministry, general attorney’s office, federal police) have gained autonomy and capacity, and increased their funding (and their salaries) in recent years. However relevant their investigations and judicial operations may be, they have been very selective in terms of their fight against corruption. They have also been closely linked to the media through leaks of judicial operations in order to gain public support, condemning politicians before due process of law. Between 1995 and 2002, the federal police implemented 48 operations, whereas from 2003 to today, that number is 2,226. Third, the judiciary has adopted different criteria and timing to analyze judicial processes, being very slow in some cases (against center-right and rightwing politicians), and extremely quick in others (against PT political leaders). That may be a coincidence, but this time gap has drawn the attention of the citizenry. It took the Supreme Court more than four months to decide on Eduardo Cunha’s ousting from the presidency of the lower house, but less that 24 hours to prevent Lula from being nominated minister. Fourth, the vice president who was elected with Dilma Rousseff behaved like a political traitor. His party, the PMDB, has been an ally of the PT for 13 years, and has partial responsibility for the good and bad results of their policies. It is true that in politics alliances may change — the question is how and why. After Rousseff’s ousting from power, Michel Temer built an alliance with PSDB and other smaller parties, and has since implemented a series of measures with seriously negative effects on social policies and strategic national development (such as energy, naval and regional aircraft industries). Fifth, the media is not a neutral agent in this process, and on behalf of an apparent freedom of expression, newspapers, magazines and TV channels (mainly Globo, Folha de Sao Paulo and Estado de Sao Paulo) have ended up “manufacturing dissent.”

Sixth, there is also an international dimension that must not be neglected. Indeed, several international organizations and leaders, as well as foreign media, have expressed their concern about the undemocratic political process against President Rousseff. These include the Organization of the American States, the Inter-American Human Rights Court, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC/CEPAL), and several United Nations agencies (UN Women and UNHCR for instance), just to cite a few. The global media has also criticised the conservative and putschist Brazilian media for its coverage of the political facts since the crisis began. The political crisis in Brazil has been covered not only by leftist media such as the Mexican newspaper La Jornada and the Argentine Page 12, also by mainstream newspapers and weekly magazines such as the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Independent, The Guardian, Die Zeit, Le Nouvel Observateur, Süddeutsche Zeitung, El País, and O Público.


President Dilma Rousseff. (Photo by Antonio Cruz/Agência Brasil)


The crisis is more than domestic politics — it also has an international and geopolitical agenda. In 2003, Brazil’s foreign policy moved away from its previous trajectory aligned with Western world (especially the United States). Although Lula and Dilma have differences, their approaches to foreign policy are based on a shared interpretation of the world order (less hegemonic, and more multipolar) and defending Brazil’s self-esteem, political autonomy and development. Since 2003, Lula-Dilma’s foreign policy has pushed an idea of a rising power whose major priorities are regional integration (Mercosur, Unasur, Celac), diversified South-South relations (IBSA, ASPA and ASA summits), new coalitions of power through the BRICS grouping, and demand for the reform of global governance institutions. In foreign policy, Brazil has proposed mediation (together with Turkey) for the Iran nuclear problem, built the G-20 trade group with the WTO, and has refused to sign the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. China has become one of Brazil’s major trade and investment partners, including in the exploitation of oil from the pre-salt layer resources. Currently, these foreign policy principles and decisions are being set aside.

It goes without saying that such a deep-rooted political crisis has major effects on public policies, both domestically and internationally. And this will be the subject of my talk on Thursday, February 9th, at the Center for Latin American Studies (2334 Bowditch Street).


CARLOS R. S. MILANI is a visiting scholar at the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley and an Associate Professor at the Rio de Janeiro State University’s Institute for Social and Political Studies (IESP-UERJ). He is also a Senior Research Fellow with Brazil’s National Research Council (CNPq) and the Rio de Janeiro State Research Foundation (FAPERJ), and the Associate Editor of the Brazilian Political Science Review. His research agenda focuses on Brazilian foreign policy, international development politics, and comparative foreign policy.  While at Berkeley, he will be writing a book, provisionally titled, South-South Cooperation and Foreign Policy Agendas: Comparing the Cases of Brazil, China, India, Mexico, South Africa and Turkey.  More information on his research, teaching and publications can be found at www.carlosmilani.com.br.


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