Dilma Rousseff (President of Brazil, 2011-16) gave a talk at UC Berkeley on April 16, 2018 titled “Challenges for Democracy in Brazil”. The event was organized by the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) and cosponsored by the Department of Sociology and the Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science. In this series, various scholars from diverse disciplines respond to the talk.
During her talk on Challenges for Democracy in Brazil, Dilma Rousseff gave a detailed explanation of the economic, political, and institutional dilemmas that Brazil has confronted with since her re-election in November 2014, emphasizing the different steps between her ousting in April 2016 and Lula’s imprisonment two years later. She meticulously reminded the audience of several moments of this long-standing crisis undermining Brazil’s democratic development, and three of them have particularly captured my attention.
First, she recalled the crucial role of the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT), and the coalition in power between 2003 and 2016, in fighting against poverty, promoting more inclusive social policies, and upholding an autonomous foreign policy both in hemispheric and international settings.
As a party in government, the PT was able to lead a center-left coalition that executed a series of important public policies attempting to deal with deep-rooted inequalities related both to redistribution and recognition in the country. Nevertheless, as a party in society, after some years in power PT was not able to play the critical role of monitoring governmental policies and their results from the non-governmental perspective. Neither was it able to maintain a continuous political dialogue with grassroots organizations. If we consider the state as both an object and instrument, we could say that PT was able to use the state as an instrument to provide better welfare policies to traditionally neglected segments of Brazil’s society and to guarantee impartial and free elections. In a nutshell, for a long time PT was able to govern according to progressive banners, even if governability meant building broad -perhaps too broad- coalitions that also implied some sacrifice in cultural, communication, land-reform and fiscal policies. However, PT lacked the political intelligence to use the state as an object, and in the long-run it was not able to balance the way political power and access to office were distributed based on criteria of social and environmental justice.
Second, Dilma Rousseff notably reaffirmed that the crisis that started immediately after her re-election must be understood as a series of different steps. What was at the beginning an economic crisis, according to her, evolved to a political crisis, then to an institutional crisis. Congress, the justice system, media outlets, and segments of the middle class (among other actors) played a significant role in this escalation, and contributed to legitimate, on behalf of a national and international crusade against corruption, the current upsurge of violent extreme-right movements and leaders in Brazil. Her attempt to fight against high-level interest rates, her reaction to the June 2013 demonstrations (focused in the health sector), the symbolically violent electoral campaign in 2014, the reaction of the main opposition party to her re-election, the coup of her impeachment, the military intervention in Rio de Janeiro, Marielle Franco’s execution in March 2018 and Lula’s incarceration the following month are all part of the same process aiming to denationalize the economy, increase gains for the financial sector in detriment of social policies, reduce access to rights, and change the country’s foreign policy and development model.
Finally, Dilma Rousseff presented a clear picture of macro and structural interests and domestic factors restraining Brazil’s capabilities in continuing its recent relatively successful trajectory in promoting inclusion and development. However, she avoided developing her analysis and presenting her perceptions on decision-making, and her key role as president, in promoting an open political dialogue on unavoidable and somehow contradictory policy issues such as social communication rights, economic development and socioenvironmental protection in the Amazonia, fiscal exemption policies to businesses, her support of austerity in 2015 as well as her previous selection and the appointment of key ministers. As a progressive scholar committed to democratic values and social justice I would have liked to hear Dilma Rousseff on those issues, too.
CARLOS R. S. MILANI was a visiting scholar at the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley and is 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. More information on his research, teaching and publications can be found at www.carlosmilani.com.br.