Greasing the Path to Dilma’s Downfall

Amid a massive oil scandal and a stagnant economy, Brazil’s
right has found the opening it’s been waiting for to break 12
years of Workers’ Party rule.

BY TAYLOR BARNES-MARCH 16, 2015
RiO DE JANEIRO — Brazil’s right has taken to the streets in a way unlike
anything the country has seen since the return to democracy nearly three
decades ago. On Sunday, hundreds of thousands took part in marches and
rallies around the country to voice their discontent with President Dilma
Rousseff, her center-left Workers’ Party (PT), a stagnant economy, and a
high-profile, wide-ranging corruption scandal at the state-run oil company,
Petrobras.
Lively crowds wearing green and yellow marched on the lawn in front of the

Brasília Congress and as many as 200,000 paraded down São Paulo’s
central avenue under the banner “Impeach Dilma.” In Rio’s iconic
beachside neighborhood of Copacabana, residents unfurled Brazilian flags
from their windows and waved them at the thousands of demonstrators
below who wore national soccer team jerseys and red clown noses. Similar
marches were reported in more than 100 cities.

The demonstrations were organized largely through social media by
conservative and anti-corruption groups like the libertarian “Free Brazil
Movement” and the more moderate “Come to the Street” activist group,
which did not explicitly support impeaching Rousseff and says it protests for
ethics in politics and an efficient state. While a handful of demonstrators
called for a military coup — an echo of the 1964 coup that still lives in many
Brazilians’ memories — many protesters said they thought that impeaching
Rousseff, realistically, would lead to chaos.

Still, it appeared to be a watershed moment after 12 uninterrupted years of
PT rule. The center-left party’s opponents are winning converts and showing
the strength of Brazil’s conservative base. And if protesters keep their
promises to stay in the streets, they will be a force to reckon with as the
young democracy navigates its ongoing political and economic crises.

Rousseff’s supporters have tried to paint the protesters as coming from a
small segment of wealthy Brazilians resentful of the PT’s redistributive

economic policies. But the size of Sunday’s demonstrations, and the fact
that her center-right opponent won 48 percent of the vote in last year’s
runoff, show that the conservative force may not be easy to write off.
Protesters chanted against Rousseff and the PT’s left-wing policies, raising
comparisons with Venezuela, Argentina, and Cuba. In Rio they held signs
that read, “Against the Bolivarian dictatorship,” referring to the colonial-era
revolutionary figure held dear by Latin America’s left, and waved placards
calling for “Less Marx, more Mises,” citing the late Austrian economist
Ludwig von Mises, whose work is influential in libertarian circles.

“When we voted for the PT, we believed in something that was supposed to
be immaculate. They sold us a proposal that was supposed to be a party for
the workers,” Joselice Calmon, 61, a retired employee of Brazil’s federal
pension agency, said as a crowd of thousands around her chanted, “Down
with the PT!”

Calmon said she voted for Rousseff’s predecessor, the charismatic union
leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, when he first won the presidency in 2002,
but she soon became disenchanted with him and his party. “We don’t
belong to this class of people whom Dilma co-opts by giving them the [antipoverty monthly stipend] Bolsa Família, free bus passes, and I-don’t-evenknow-what other welfare programs.”
But it’s not just a feeling that spending is out of control or that the party

caters to the poor to the exclusion of the rest of the country that brought
Brazilians to the streets. Many expressed more moderate positions that are
broadly shared, like the need to improve public health and education and
ongoing resentment over rising bus fares, inflation, and high taxes.

Day-to-day challenges have helped stoke the fire, too. A water crisis is
leaving many residents of São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, with dry taps on a
daily basis. A January blackout in 11 states alarmed Brazilians and raised
fears of rationing. And Rousseff’s administration has hinted at
upcoming hikes in energy prices. The Brazilian currency, the real, has
tumbled since Rousseff’s October re-election, reaching its lowest value
against the dollar in more than a decade. The president’s popularity is the
lowest of any Brazilian president’s in 15 years.
But it’s the graft investigation, which includes more than 50 current and
former politicians, mostly allied with the PT, that has most exasperated
Brazilians. Over the past year, the investigation — dubbed by police the
“Car Wash Operation” — has uncovered allegations of a vast bribery
scheme from contractors of the state oil company that led to the coffers of
the PT and Petrobras in exchange for tens of billions of dollars in contracts.
Rousseff was Petrobras’s chairwoman from 2003 to 2010, the period when
much of the graft is alleged to have taken place.

Publicly, her administration has not resisted the investigations and she has

even expressed support for the right of protesters to take to the streets.
Rousseff wrote last week on her Facebook account, “I’m from a time when it
wasn’t possible to protest, no. People who protested went straight to jail or
were called subversive.”
For Brazil’s right, Rousseff’s owning up to the investigations isn’t cutting it.
The president hasn’t been placed under investigation yet, and analysts
have said that she could not plausibly have been a part of the scheme. But
that may change. A former Petrobras executive testified last week that he
had funneled $300 million in illicit funds to Rousseff’s 2010 campaign.

However, impeaching Rousseff, who was re-elected to a second term just
five months ago, seems unrealistic. But the force of the demonstrations
may play into her opposition’s hands, as Rousseff looks less like a former
Marxist guerrilla than the face of unpopular austerity measures, a tanking
economy, and a once high-performing state oil company now brought to its
knees by a graft scandal.

A right-wing member of Congress from Rousseff’s coalition submitted a
petition for her impeachment on Friday, though, in a twist, it’s his party that
has the most members cited in the ongoing graft investigations.

Rousseff and the PT’s current headaches make the success story that
Brazilian leaders had told the world and their voters just a few years ago
seem like a distant memory. From the 2008 global financial crisis onward,

Brazil’s leadership said their country had avoided the worst of the crisis.
Brazil’s economy continued to post growth rates averaging 3 percent and
kept unemployment at 8 percent or below. The governmentannounced in
2007 the discovery of massive offshore oil that gave it hopes of becoming a
major oil exporter. It boasted that millions of Brazilians had been lifted from
poverty and entered the middle class through social welfare policies like the
Bolsa Família, and that improved workers’ rights and increased wages have
allowed a new class of Brazilians to become consumers. And Brazil won bids
to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, seen as
coming-of-age markers for a country stepping up to its place on the global
stage.

But at the same time, Brazilians’ discontent has grown. The government
was taken aback by a spate of nationwide street demonstrations in mid2013, stoked by a rise in the bus fare and broadening into diverse causes.
Those protests began with diffuse demands from across the political
spectrum, but eventually coalesced on positions from the left, like free
public transit and protesting removals of low-income favelas for
construction projects related to international sporting events. While
demonstrators on the far left remained in the streets through the World Cup
the following year, the escalation of conflicts between the police and
protesters and the narrowing of demands represented led many to leave
the streets.

For many in the alternative media groups and activist collectives on Brazil’s
far left who saw their agendas amplified over the past two years of street
demonstrations, Sunday’s movement represented an alarming move away
from the goals they had helped bring to the public consciousness. Many
panned the Sunday protests as golpista, or coup-supporting — a dark
comparison with the 1964 coup, which brought a military dictatorship to
power for 21 years.
But many of Sunday’s demonstrators said they were present in 2013, too,
with anti-corruption banners. This time around, though, it’s conservative
forces that have the most to gain. “For conservatives to protest and present
themselves openly this way is new,” said João Roberto Lopes Pinto, a
professor at UniRio and the coordinator of the More Democracy Institute,
which studies the relationship between Brazil’s largest businesses and the
government.

The potential for Sunday’s protest became evident a week beforehand,
when Rousseff addressed austerity measures and the Brazilian economy on
national TV. She blamed the country’s economic ails on the continuing
effects of the global financial crisis.

Protesters went to their windows during the speech and banged cooking
pans in a protest that was nicknamed the panelaço, “the big pans.” A joke
about panelaço that spread on social media said that pot-bangers had to

first ask their maids where the pot was.
But analysts caution that writing off the current demonstrations as just an
expression from the elite ignores how deep a conservative strain runs
through Brazilian society. “You have to realize that the population in general
is not far left by any means. We are talking a population that is very
traditional, a center-right electorate,” said Bruno Borges, a political scientist
at Rio de Janeiro’s state university. That translates to a Brazilian who often
will hold conservative social views on issues like the war on drugs and
abortion and complain about high taxes and a bloated state. The same
person may still strive to get coveted jobs in the public sector and does not
question whether the country should have public health care but instead
protests its inefficiency.

Sunday’s outpouring is just one of several ways Brazil’s right is raising its
head. A new libertarian party, which simply calls itself Novo, or “New,”
plans to field candidates in next year’s local elections. Last year Brazilians
elected their most conservative Congress since the return to democracy,
seeing a rise in evangelical legislators, politicians linked to agro-business,
and the so-called “bullet caucus,” or hard-liners on public security who
often have a background in law enforcement.

The Free Brazil Movement describes its political orientation as libertarianism
“without Bolivarianism or militarism.” Renan Henrique Ferreira Santos, a

national coordinator for the Free Brazil Movement, beat back against the
perception that Sunday’s protesters came only from resentful members of
the country’s upper echelons.
“The PT is the elite,” he said in an interview. “The PT controls a machine
that puts 50 percent of the GDP in their hands.”

NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images
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