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.
Dilma Rousseff is an honorable woman. The alleged motives for removing her from office in 2016 are at the least controversial and fragile. She has been impeached not due to a fiscal misdemeanor but for political reasons after losing popular support and majority in Congress. Nevertheless, her lecture at UC Berkeley last Monday does not help us to understand the challenges for democratic progressive politics in Brazil.
We are living nowadays nothing less than a political tragedy: The government of conservative right wing political forces. There is a rule of thumb saying that when the left fails the right takes the lead. And in Brazil the left has conspicuously failed, in spite of all the incredibly good things it has achieved, most notably with the progressive social transformation under Lula’s administration and leadership.
Let me point out some plain facts. First, Michel Temer and the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB) did not fall from the sky or come out of the deep layers of hell. Temer was Dilma’s Vice President and his party was the most important among those of Dilma’s governmental coalition. Have they betrayed her? Absolutely, but only after she lost popular support and failed to coordinate her parliamentary support.
Second, Operação Lava Jato is not a conspiracy of the powerful and the media against the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT), Lula’s leadership, and Dilma’s presidency. It all began as an operation against illegal money dealers (doleiros) that ended up uncovering the hidden spurious relations between the PT leadership and the most powerful Brazilian contractors. In three years and seven months, Judge Moro has convicted 110 people, only 14 of which are politicians from the PT and other allied parties. On the other hand, owners and CEOs of the hugest contractor firms went to jail with almost 50 illegal money dealers. In 2005, The Mensalão scandal had sent a warning that attitudes of society and some groups in the judicial system regarding corruption were changing. Most unfortunately, the PT and Lula did not hear it. The inconvenient truth is that the PT leaders and Lula were not indicted — and most of them convicted — for fighting poverty and reducing inequalities, for being assertive in the international arena and for promoting affirmative action and all the good, progressive things they have done, but for receiving bribes and favoring huge contractors against the best interests of Petrobras and the Brazilian people.
I do not think that Lula should have been sent to jail. The Supreme Court decision was based on a controversial interpretation of the constitution clause regarding the rights of convicted individuals (in Portuguese the “trânsito em julgado” clause). Nevertheless, this is the interpretation that has been guiding the Supreme Court decisions since 2011. It has not been put in place to send Lula to prison but to make it easier to send the powerful and the beautiful to jail who had enough resources to legally procrastinate incarceration.
Third, the present economic crisis is not due to Temer but to the end of the commodities boom and to the PT policies since 2010 to cope with increasing difficulties. Temer’s policy initiatives are very perverse and regressive, but are not responsible for one of the worst economic crisis in recent times. The economic collapse predated Dilma’s removal from office and seems to have made it easier. Actually, the anti-crisis policies proposed in early 2015 by Dilma’s finance minister, Joaquim Levy, were quite similar to those implemented by Temer’s finance minister, Henrique Meirelles, who, by the way, was Lula’s favorite to join Dilma’s cabinet.
I did not expect Dilma to acknowledge all this. Hers is a political discourse, but an infelicitous political discourse, one of complete denial of the responsibilities of PT leadership and of her administration. For this reason, it is harmful to the future of the Brazilian leftist and progressive forces. And more than ever, Brazil needs a strong left capable of learning from its own mistakes.
MARIA HERMÍNIA TAVARES DE ALMEIDA is a senior researcher at Centro Brasileiro de Análise e Planejamento (CEBRAP), a Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of São Paulo (retired), and President of Latin American Studies Association (LASA) from 2010-2012. She holds a B.A. in Social Sciences (1969) and a Ph.D. in Political Science (1979) from the University of São Paulo and completed post-doctoral studies at the University of California, Berkeley (1984).