The massive social protests taking place in Brazil on the eve of the 2016 Summer Olympics should serve as a warning to Russia’s political elite, which faced similar protests in 2011-2012.
Demonstrators dressed as Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, left, and former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, gesture to the crowd during a protest demanding her impeachment. Photo: AP
An unprecedented protest movement is taking place in Brazil against the current President Dilma Rousseff. In March, about 1.4 million people have taken to the streets of the city of São Paulo, demanding the resignation of Rousseff, and about a million have protested in Rio de Janeiro. In total, protests against the president’s policies have been held in 17 states of Brazil.
Brazilian media reported that these protests were the largest since those in March of last year. In 2015, coming out to protest against the policies of the president and ruling Workers’ Party were about one million people, and about 600,000 in April.
Why are these protests taking place?
In December of last year, the Brazilian National Congress initiated an impeachment process against Dilma Rousseff. She is accused of improper use of funds during the last presidential campaign – essentially, the creation of some kind of “black cashbox,” which she used for her own purposes.
She is also accused of falsifying official statistical data, which were designed to show the results of her previous work as being better than they actually were.
This is being compounded by a huge scandal involving corruption in the state oil company Petrobras, in which, as an investigation revealed, the company’s leadership received at least $3.8 billion in the form of all sorts of bribes, kickbacks and money laundering operations.
Rousseff herself is not being accused of corruption, but it is believed that in the period from 2003 to 2010, when she was the chairman of the board of Petrobras, she would have known about these fraudulent activities.
Currently, Rousseff’s approval rating ranges from 8 to 10 percent, which is even lower than that of the incompetent and unpopular leader of neighboring Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro.
The reason for this dramatic decline of public confidence is the sharply deteriorating economic situation in Brazil. The country is experiencing the longest economic crisis since the 1930s. It is expected that this year, the country’s GDP will fall by 3.6 percent (in the period from 2003 to 2010, economic growth in Brazil averaged 4.1 percent).
According to The Economist, “At the end of 2016, the Brazilian economy (the biggest in Latin America and the seventh in the world) will be 8 percent smaller than it was in the first quarter of 2014, its GDP will lose 20 percent of its peak volume achieved in 2010.”
The current situation of the ruling Workers’ Party is complicated by the fact that Rousseff’s mentor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, former president of Brazil, has also been indicted on corruption charges, and on the eve of the current wave of protests, he was arrested. For several hours, he was even interrogated.
Brazil’s fall from grace
Not that long ago, the international community admired Lula. In 2010, Time magazine put him on the top of the list of the most influential politicians in the world. Here is what the magazine wrote about him at that time:
“And here’s a lesson for the rest of us: the great irony of Lula’s presidency – he was elected to a second term in 2006 and will serve through this year – is that even as he tries to propel Brazil into the First World with government social programs like Fome Zero (Zero Starvation), designed to end hunger, and with plans to improve the education available to members of Brazil’s working class, the U.S. looks more like the old Third World every day.”
It is hard not to agree with that - the world was learning important lessons from Brazil back then. Moreover, it continues learning these today, but now they are very different lessons.
It became clear that, despite popular social and economic reforms, a country could slide back if the virus of corruption infects it.
Moreover, we cannot say that people ignore the corruption activities of politicians in this largest Latin American country, such as they do in neighboring Venezuela. Brazilians care about their international image.
In the fall of 2012, finding themselves in court as the accused were 38 senior government officials, bankers and businessmen, charged with large-scale corruption.All of them were top figures in the Workers’ Party, which has been ruling the country for the past 10 years – all former close associates of Brazil’s favorite ex-president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Most of them were sentenced to long – up to 15 years – prison terms. Brazilians believe that these severe sentences have changed the “political culture” of the country.
Remembering Boris Yeltsin
Brazil, with the events that have transpired in the recent years, provides harsh lessons for Russia as well. The process of early removal from power directed against Dilma Rousseff is very similar in its form to the impeachment attempt against the first Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1993. Back then, the initiator of this process was the speaker of the Supreme Council, Ruslan Khasbulatov.
In Brazil, the beginning of an impeachment process was also announced Rousseff’s chief opponent, the speaker of the lower house of Brazil’s National Congress, Eduardo Cunha.
However, charges of corruption have been leveled against him as well. For example, according to preliminary data of an investigation, he received $5 million in kickbacks from Petrobras and withheld information about his accounts in Swiss banks.
In the midst of a constitutional crisis in Russia in October 1993, Khasbulatov was charged with organizing mass riots and spent more than four months in a detention center in Moscow.
However, the ways that the crises will be resolved in Russia and Brazil, related to conflicts occurring between the heads of the executive and the legislative branches, will probably be quite different. On Yeltsin’s orders, Russian tanks shelled the parliament building, and politicians that were inside at the time were arrested.
It is unlikely that anyone can assume that, in response to the impeachment process launched against Dilma Rousseff, someone would dare to send troops to attack the building of the National Congress in Brasilia, a masterpiece of the architectural genius Oscar Niemeyer.
The crisis in Brazil will obviously be resolved peacefully. The process of removal from power of the president is described in detail in the legislation, and it is unlikely that any political forces will be able to intervene in it.
Purely technical means available to Rousseff’s opponents to end the presidential term are not that easy. To achieve this, 342 representatives must vote in favor, which is two-thirds of the composition of the lower house of Brazil’s National Congress.
If they succeed, then the case is referred to the Senate, and an investigation will begin there, which will be led by the Chairman of the Supreme Court of Brazil, Ricardo Lewandowski.
During the investigation in the Senate, Rousseff will be dismissed from her post for a period of 180 days, and the Vice President, Michel Temer, will perform her functions. Then a vote will be held in the Senate, and if two-thirds of its members (54 out of 81 senators) support Rousseff’s removal from office, she will have to leave the presidential palace.
According to the Brazilian political strategist Murillo de Aragao, the probability of Rousseff being dismissed from office is about 50 percent. Approximately the same odds of dismissal are found in the social networks in Brazil. They are evenly divided between those who insist on her impeachment and those who oppose it.
Russian experts, by the way, are very skeptical about the possibility of Rousseff’s early retirement. “An impeachment event is not beneficial to anyone, especially in the run-up to the Olympic Games,” said Boris Martynov, deputy director of the Latin American Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
“The Olympic Games serve as a kind of guarantee against anarchy breaking out in the country. Those who favor impeachment simply want to build up their political muscles on the eve of parliamentary and presidential elections that will be held in 2017. In the absence of rigid party discipline in Brazil, where in Parliament anyone can move from one party to another, and everyone can do as he or she wants, we cannot count on the fact that any binding decisions will be taken.”
Martynov also considers the fact that these corruption scandals in the country began under the previous government led by the Social Democrats, and if the current scandal investigation keeps developing, not only the representatives of the ruling party, but also virtually all the opposition leaders as well will be stained.
The opposition: Brazil vs. Russia
But let’s return to the thesis of the changing “political culture” of Brazil. In recent years, this culture has become very different from the political culture in Russia.
“The political awareness of Brazilians should be envied,” according to commentary posted on the popular Russian Internet portal Slon. “Even the young and illiterate citizens can quite audibly assert their political positions, quickly gather for rallies, and organize demonstrations.”
“As opposed to Russia, in Brazil no one would think of accusing the opposition of igniting hatred and divisions in society. The expression of aggression during meetings, and especially in the political opposition, is considered bad form. The respect that Brazilians show towards opposite political positions is overwhelming. The desire to understand the opposite point of view, to reach a common denominator, to explain their position without imposing their own principles, or attacking their interlocutor is a tropical phenomenon, characteristic of the Brazilian mentality, which is difficult to understand for Russians.”
Demonstration of “angry citizens”
The current phenomenon of the Brazilian political culture is probably due to the fact that the current ruling party, first with Lula at its head and then Rousseff, significantly raised the bar for national expectations. As the Spanish newspaper El Pais wrote:
“Lula and Dilma remind one of parents who are proud that their child is climbing the social ladder, already knows how to tie a tie, is on track to attend university, and in his pocket, has a cell phone and keys to a motorcycle, or even a car. However, the child grew up, and now he has a rebellious spirit, and wants more than a cell phone and keys to a motorcycle. It turns out that the cell phone is too old and the motorcycle emits smoke.”
The Workers’ Party is proud that during the last fifteen years, it has pulled 30 million Brazilians out of poverty, many of which have now joined its middle class. However, it is this very middle class that is now demonstrating against the current president.
These are – if we continue the comparison with Russia – the typical “angry citizens,” which held demonstrations in Moscow and other large Russian cities in the fall of 2011, dissatisfied with the fact that the same people were still in power. True, in Brazil there are ten times more of these “angry citizens,” and they are better motivated and more charged with energy.
Moreover, it would be a mistake not to learn lessons from the massive social protests in distant Brazil.
History shows that an extremely popular leader could turn into a persona non grata if the situation in the country starts deteriorating rapidly, the authorities do not listen to the increasing demands of their country’s citizens, the top political echelon becomes a “class of untouchables” and the opposition starts being labeled as the “fifth column” and “national traitors.”