Tag Archives: The Americas

In Defense of Democracy: Implications of the Recent Political Turmoil for Brazil’s Workers’ Party

By Samantha Gowing

Samantha Gowing’17 is a guest writer double majoring in Community Studies and English

Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, is currently undergoing impeachment proceedings surrounding her alleged budgetary deceit back in her 2014 election campaign. Rousseff, the leader of Brazil’s socialist-leaning Workers’ Party, borrowed billions of dollars from state budgets for social reform programs—the debt of which she hid from public eye during the campaign in order to still win the election. Most experts, whether for or against Rousseff, tend to agree that these claims are valid. If this was only case working against her, then we might ask: is it enough to warrant her removal?

Of course, that isn’t the only case currently being used against her. Since her election, Brazil’s economy has continued to plummet, while political corruption—highlighted by the recent Petrobras oil scandal—has reached all-new heights. Although Rousseff herself has not been directly implicated in the scandal, many politicians in her party have, including her mentor and predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. No side in this battle, however, has gotten off scot-free. Over one hundred politicians from all parties were indicted with pocketing money from the scandal and several have been jailed. In more recent news, the Supreme Court suspended Eduardo Cunha, the man leading the impeachment drive against Rousseff, from his position as Speaker of the Lower House for his own involvement in the scandal. The scale of this corruption far surpasses what the world witnessed when Brazil hosted the FIFA World Cup last year, and it doesn’t even end with Petrobras. An estimated 60% of Brazil’s Congress members are involved in all sorts of scandals, ranging anywhere from money laundering to (in an extreme case from the 90s) homicide.

Corruption is neither new nor uncommon, and Rousseff’s case is nowhere close to the worst the country has seen from a leading politician. In fact, New York Times writer Simon Romero even calls Rousseff “something of a rarity” in the current political climate because “she has not been accused of stealing for herself.” Although her budget deceit during the election may have been manipulative, the only valid claim being used against her is that she tried too hard to put money into social welfare programs benefitting the country’s poor. Rouseff and her party, however, have been at the center of the country’s frustrations—frustrations which have led to massive outbreaks, protests, and enough political pressure placed on the congress to lead to her impeachment proceedings.

A few months ago, I studied for several weeks in São Paulo, Brazil while staying with a family who lived just around the corner from Paulista Avenue, the city’s financial center in the downtown area. During my last weekend in the city, my host-family invited me to go to a protest with them on Paulista. The street was completely crowded with people wearing their country’s colors, shouting Fora Dilma!, and blowing into vuvuzelas every time a media-coverage helicopter flew overhead. We passed stages set up every few blocks with people talking passionately into microphones or bands playing upbeat music, and there were a plethora of food vendors and people to pass out balloons and flyers. Later, I found out that there were millions of people out on Paulista Avenue with me that afternoon.

The protest was fun—it was practically a party. The music was upbeat, and the police maintained safety in the streets by keeping a watchful eye on the events. And bear in mind, the people who came to that protest were the same people who can afford to live in the economically-flourishing downtown area of the city—that is, mostly white, upper-class residents who oppose the Workers’ Party agenda and believe that both Rousseff and Lula are to blame for the economic recession.

In the meantime, a different protest was stirring just beneath the surface. Earlier that week, we’d spoken with an eviction lawyer who worked with poor, displaced people in the city, and it was he who gave us a flyer about a protest occurring in support of Rousseff. I had planned to go, but countless warnings about the violence that would likely ensue held me back. Even before the actual protest began, police were already manning the area and waiting to disperse any crowds that might gather for the pro-Rousseff protest. The distinction was striking: Sunday’s protest, in all its magnitude and excitement, could only happen because it was state-sanctioned.

It is no coincidence that most people I met in support of Rousseff are the people I met working for human rights organizations or occupying abandoned buildings downtown to protest affordable housing shortages. When I spoke with them about the politics going on in their country, I learned that they were not even necessarily pro-Rousseff—but they still took her side because they felt strongly against the impeachment. The impeachment, backed primarily by state-sanctioned events of the wealthy elite classes, would undermine the previous election in which supporters of the Workers’ Party rightfully voted in Dilma Rousseff. Albeit, the vote passed with a 51% majority—but they were able to garner enough votes for Rousseff to enter office. The poor people of Brazil do not have the massive, state-sanctioned protests of the elite classes; they aren’t granted political platforms strong enough to catch their congress’s attention. If the impeachment proceedings continue, they might undermine even the most basic right to citizenship that under-resourced communities have in a democracy: the right to vote.

Around the time of the protest on Paulista Avenue, I noticed a particular narrative weaving its way through the US media’s coverage of events—a narrative that praised the demonstration of democracy that the anti-Rousseff protests seemingly represented. The impeachment proceedings have been lauded as a way to “defend democracy” and to empower the people; The Wall Street Journal described it as a “Middle-Class Revolt” in which “the effort to impeach President Dilma Rousseff is a sign of a maturing democracy.” The political action shown by the elite classes may seem impressive, but keep in mind: the state-sanctioning of the anti-Rousseff protest demonstrates the ability and access of the wealthy, elite class to use state institutions to influence Brazilian politics in their favor, while the lack of any meaningful voice from the poorer classes, who are repeatedly silenced by the same governmental institutions that benefit those in the upper-classes, continually puts them on the losing end of many of the political decisions made by those at the top.

In a country with a strong history of military dictatorships, with the most recent ending in 1988, the threat of a political coup is not far-fetched. Rousseff herself has begun to use the language of a coup in her fight against the impeachment, but continues to be written off as hyperbolic or over-passionate. Even if this is not the beginning of a coup, the implications of this impeachment could prove tremendously harmful for the country’s poor and politically-powerless populations.

The final vote for Rousseff’s impeachment has been projected for late August. On May 12th, 55 senators voted in favor of Rousseff’s impeachment—54 votes will be required in August to remove Rouseff from office. In the meantime, the interim president Michel Temer continues to hold office with a staff consisting entirely of white men; this cabinet is the first since the 1970s in which no women hold a position. Political leaders across Latin America have expressed their disapproval of this new shift in power. Temer has already begun pushing pension and labor reform policies as members of his cabinet recover from facing their own charges related to the Petrobras oil scandal.

Featured image from The New York Times

Argentina’s Choice

By Colin Vaida

Argentina often heralded for its once in a generation soccer stars, is also South America’s second largest economy. Argentina ranks in the top fifty for human development, is considered a high-income economy by the World Bank, and maintains one of the lowest GINI coefficients in South America. However, since its 1983 return to democracy Argentina has been an economic headache, wracked with instability, high debt, and a fledgling currency. The country’s economic foibles have made Argentina a pariah in international relations, economics, and finance. Argentina’s ongoing elections for president have reignited a continual debate regarding the country’s future and a path to stability.

For the last twelve years, Argentina has been governed by the political duo of Cristina Fernández de Krichner and her late husband Néstor. The duo’s political tenure has been defined by the concentration of political power, far-reaching welfare programs, curbing of the press, and Argentine nationalism. Together, the husband-wife powerhouse has seen their political strategy and tactics labeled “Kirchnerismo,” a la the 1950s era politics of Peronismo. With an end in sight to the Kirchner regime, at least in name, many are looking for what’s next in Argentine politics. Argentina’s rising inflation, debt defaults, currency controls, massive export taxes, and stagnant growth, all point toward electing business-minded Mauricio Macri. He has been an outspoken critic of the Kirchners and has demanded a refocusing of Argentina’s priorities and polices. As the outgoing mayor of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri has run on a platform for change, but his perceived representation of the wealthy elite and business interests have his campaign worried. Macri’s platform evokes in many the memory of Argentina’s president in the 1990s, Carlos Menem.

Initially, under Menem, Argentina was able to stabilize its out of control inflation of the 1980s. Menem’s neoliberal economic reforms, his push for privatization, and a boom in commodity prices enticed international investment. However, the country failed to address the bloated fiscal policy that continued to balloon the country’s debt. The financial crises of the late 1990s sent the Argentine economy spinning and left the country saddled with massive debt. Argentina, despite adhering to the wave of structural adjustment and the Washington Consensus, was left crippled unable to pay back its debts. The legacy of this debt continues to live on in 2015, as U.S.-based vulture funds continue to sue Argentina. The result has been an imposition on the country’s sovereignty and has left Argentines with a bitter taste in their mouth. Macri’s call to shift away from Kirchnerismo and the political duo that carried Argentina out of this economic mess is wrapped up in a painful history. In light of this history, Macri has pushed more toward the center as the general election approaches in order to appeal to a broad base of anti-Kirchner sentiment.

Opposite Macri is Daniel Scioli, the candidate from Cristina’s party. Scioli despite being an independent and strong candidate has come to represent a vote for the continuation of Kirchnerismo with some modest changes. However, the policies of the Kirchner regime have not been all that successful. For example, export tariffs and currency controls have left Argentina’s commodity driven economy in a tough position. Beef and wheat exporters continue to struggle due to Kirchner’s policies. For consumers, prices on imported goods continue to be outrageously expensive. Inflation is on the rise and economic growth numbers are not promising (0.5% in 2014). Economic statistic reporting, including inflation reporting, continues to be wildly inaccurate, and purposefully so. Though the Kirchner regime has been wildly popular due to its strident responses to debt default, its economic policies are not working. Scioli’s promise of a slight tweak may not be enough for Argentina to regain its ground.

Solutions to Argentina’s economic instability seem difficult to find in the current climate. The combination of political memory with tough economic choices leaves the next President in a political and economic quagmire. There is no easy way out of Argentina’s debt situation, rising inflation, and slow growth. Clearly, the policies of Kirchner in the current economic climate are not working, but the liberalization of the economy is rightfully a nonstarter with the Argentine people. The time to find a tenable solution seems implausible in the current climate. The temptation to keep policies static will be high for the next president, and making change will certainly come with a loss of political capital.

Featured Image Source Reuters