[I feel obliged to repost this piece that I wrote three years ago. Apart from a few inaccurate prognostications, it is still very relevant–perhaps more so–today]
Living as a ‘guest’ in Brazil—although I dispute the use of that metaphor for someone who has been a legal resident of the country for nearly 20 years—I am often cautious of commenting on local politics. Likewise, as both a long-standing sympathizer and detached critic of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (henceforth PT), I find my loyalties severely divided by recent events. Yet, as a social scientist and student of politics in Brazil and around the world, I find myself duty-bound to comment on the recent crisis, which—storm in a teacup though it may be—nevertheless poses a potentially serious threat.
Political developments in Brazil need to be set in three distinct, but often overlapping and clashing, broader contexts. First there is the history of politics and class-conflict in Brazil and, more broadly, in Latin America as a whole, within which Brazil is both a fellow-traveler and a very distinct entity. Second, there is the world-wide historical shift towards a crisis of confidence in traditional politics and ideology, which has engendered apathy and extremism in differing measures in various parts of the globe. And third, there is the global economic context, in which unprecedented and largely unfettered interconnectivity precludes the possibility of local solutions, while glaring inequalities and unsustainability sow the festering seeds of crises and conflicts to come.
Brazil finds itself—not for the first time—caught in the middle of a global clash of opinions, and local politicians—yet again—are only too eager take advantage of this.
Latin America has always been at a huge geographical disadvantage compared to the rest of the world. Forbidding geographical barriers divide it from other continents and even from itself, making coast-to-coast economic or political unity a virtual impossibility and globalization a costly enterprise. This disadvantage was exacerbated by the history of European intervention and interference, beginning at a time when the continent’s own aboriginal civilizations were starting tentatively to develop their own kind of economic take-off. The European conquest devastated the continent through a combination of greed for gain, racism and slavery, and the unwitting or deliberate dissemination of infectious disease.
Easily dominated, Latin America proved much less easy to control or overrun. The gold, silver and sugar that the conquistadores and bandeirantes stole from temples and had slaves dig from the ground only served to fuel inflation in the motherlands and entrench a brutal feudal racist and increasingly fratricidal system in the far-flung colonies themselves.
Different from Europe, where feudal disputes between nobles, kings and popes gave rise to the emergence of a relatively prosperous, and hence vocal, middle- and later working-class, the Latin American haciendas and export-oriented coastal cities remained deeply divided by perverse notions of birthright, authority and race—as to a great extent they still are.
Post-independence, the new Latin American republics, for all their Jacobin-inspired and later positivistic fervor, collapsed under the weight of contradictions between their own classes in the context of an unpropitious international environment.
The nascent US treated Mexico and other nations to the same kind of gunboat diplomacy that the British Royal Navy had used so effectively around the globe. This was especially effective in Latin America, where everything depends upon a favorable balance of trade to a much greater extent than in any other part of the world.
Keen to turn round this dependency on exports and imports and consequent vulnerability to the vicissitudes of international markets—especially in the wake of the depressions of the 1890s and 1930s—Latin American governments in the 20th century embarked on a policy of import-substitution industrialization (ISI). This understandable, but ultimately misguided, strategy aimed to ‘catch up with’ the industrialized nations of Europe and North America by developing local manufacturing industries for a local market.
Import-substitution would prove to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it did provide a kick-start for modernization, albeit it one of a peculiarly skewed and inequitable kind. On the other, it created new class fissures, without resolving old ones, and led to urban overpopulation, rural depopulation, impoverishment and degradation, and ultimately hyperinflation, since domestic technological advances could not keep pace with foreign competitors without cancelling out its potential profits and accruing massive debts through the need to import the secondary technologies necessary for the industrial upgrade.
Brazilian governments, like those of other countries in Latin America, are always stuck between a rock and a hard place in this regard. They have to keep up appearances internationally, while driving down costs at home, All too often, this results in cruelty, poverty, inequality and disenfranchisement among the most vulnerable sectors of society and the perennial pursuit of a perverse and ultimately unsustainable mirage of a trickle-down developmental path that precariously benefits none but a tiny few.
Internally, Brazilian governments, of whatever ideological persuasion, have had to negotiate a patchwork of entrenched, often violently conflicting, interests. Local coronéis (with a range of quaintly outdated ideologies) vie for favor with landless peasants and powerful trade-unions that represent not the poorest of the poor, but the already highly privileged public workers of a bloated, out-dated, at once servile and militant, civil service. No government can succeed unless it somehow juggles all these demands.
The untranslatable jeitinho of corruption is often the only way to get any good done and things usually end first in apparent amity, compromise, amnesty and impunity (em pizza, as they say in Brazil), then badly, as cycles of relative success grind inevitably to a halt. The clunky wheels of state are stalled by the accumulation of dirt left by the very oils and unction intended to lubricate them.
The apparently miraculous break with this depressingly repetitious pattern in recent years in Brazil is now being seen by many as yet another, albeit somewhat more long-standing, cyclical economic mirage.
Brazil and its PT government enjoyed exceptional good luck and misfortune in equal measure in the early years of the 21st century. When the PT first came to power nationally in 2003, it was—Messianic acclamations from the likes of Anthony Giddens apart—a progressive left-wing government practically alone in a world in which almost everybody else was hurtling headlong towards the now universally vindicated and supposedly post-ideological and post-geopolitical (globalized) tenets of the neoliberal right.
Ironically this global scenario provided the fledgling leftist administration in Brazil with the very springboard it needed. Global growth—especially in China—enabled Brazil to return (and much more lucratively) to the export-based economy that had been the 19th century stock in trade, exporting, as luck would have it, huge quantities of food, biofuel, steel and (later) oil to the emerging Chinese juggernaut.
This windfall enabled Brazil to pay off its burdensome debts, invest to some extent in its own technology sector, and introduce some modest much needed social reforms and wealth distribution, although the latter were only achieved by way of creative and arguably corrupt negotiations with an overwhelmingly hostile national congress—a necessary, yet morally dubious, pact with the devil that haunts the PT to this day.
Back in 2003, I was reading a lot about the origins of parliamentary democracy in 17th century England. Faced with an intractably corrupt, hostile, and backward-looking royalist parliament, Oliver Cromwell marched his roundheads down to London and closed the whole thing down. The Lula government achieved consent for social reform merely with a few well-placed bribes. Something regrettable, but far from unusual in the politics of Brazil or any other country. Though this may reflect how venal and cynical democratically-elected representatives have become, I know which I prefer… A little bit of corruption to oil the wheels and do good; not a military coup.
In the years following 2003, Lady Luck continued to smile on the PT and sun Brazil with her largesse. The Great Recession of 2007-2009 left Brazil virtually unscathed and new oil-extraction technologies, combined with rocketing prices for this and other commodities and a growing social-reform-driven internal consumer market appeared, by the time Lula left office, in 2010, to have brought Brazil within reach of its age-old aspiration and seeming titled right to join the ranks of the first world.
Many serious issues, however, remained unresolved. And luck, as it tends to, is fast running out. Social reform and wealth redistribution in Brazil, despite significant achievements, remained modest and piecemeal. While shopping and credit and real-estate speculation have thrived, buoyed by a sturdy export market for soya and steel, services in sectors such as health, transport and education—although much improved in recent years—have still fallen far short of the high standards that have become the perhaps illusory norm in supposedly more developed parts of the world.
Such shortcomings clashed sharply with the pomp of pricey white-elephant building projects connected with upcoming international sporting events and sparked widespread protests and demonstrations across the country in June 2013. This wave of dissent was led principally by the young, the wired and the far left, and was largely confined to the middle class. It was met with a painfully familiar combination of government indifference and police brutality, which came down especially harshly on the few working-class and student protesters, who were campaigning primarily for nothing more than more affordable public transport. All of this was orchestrated by a new president who had herself once been tortured and raped by a military regime.
By the time of the presidential and congressional elections of October 2014, this popular opposition movement had been fully co-opted by the right and the media barons that are its faithful thralls, resulting in an unusually bitter election campaign. Friendships were broken by the constant to and fro of increasingly polarized posts on social media.
The PT and its fair-weather coalition partners won the 2014 election by a whisker. But, unusually for modern Brazil, the opposition rejected this outcome and roused the discontent of the June days of 2013 to call for impeachment and raise, fifty years after Brazil descended into the moral quagmire of a dictatorial regime, the specter of a military coup.
The ground was muddied by a legacy of unwholesome alliances, which Dilma found herself unable to manage with the likeable panache that was Lula’s forte, and by the increasingly obfuscating glare of social media.
The outlook is not rosy. The fall in oil prices, the slowdown in China, and the inevitable levelling off of economic growth, not just in the south, but in all parts of Brazil, do not augur well for short-term prosperity or long-term stability in Brazil.
Had the legitimate concerns raised by all sectors of society in June 2013 been heeded and swiftly and robustly addressed by the central government, this situation, whereby popular protest has given way to right-wing slogans, personal attacks and the veiled threat of outright sedition, might have been averted.
The reason it was not surely has to do with the fact that, even after 12 years of government, the PT was still beholden to pseudo-centrist, backward-looking, essentially extremely right-wing coalition partners, whom its politicians were increasingly coming to resemble in all but name.
It is precisely these self-interested, right-wing, fair-weather backers of democracy that threaten to bring it down, drawing opportunistically on a justifiably indignant and fearful popular imagination.
And, given the dirty deals the PT has done in the past decade to spur, stagger, or stall social development, these reactionary forces are in an ideal position to smugly and self-righteously blackmail, smear, and bludgeon their one-time partners into submission.
The Brazilian PT—once the great hope of the world—has nurtured a nest of vipers in its bosom. Let us hope that the venom is not as potent as opponents pretend and that stings will backfire. And that the PT will wake up finally to its duty and one-time promise to provide genuine political and socio-economic reform for this proud and great, yet perennially self-destructive, nation that is Brazil.