June 05, 2016

A Right-Wing Coup in Brazil

Prabhat Patnaik

NOAM Chomsky has called it a “soft coup”, presumably because no guns or tanks have been involved as yet; but the forced resignation of Dilma Rousseff, the democratically elected  president of Brazil belonging to the Left-wing Workers’ Party, and her replacement by a Right-wing politician Michel Temer, who has lost no time in constituting an all white and all male conservative cabinet, is nothing short of a coup.

Dilma Rousseff is to be impeached on charges of “corruption”, but this “corruption”, contrary to the impression conveyed both at home and abroad by a powerful segment of the Brazilian media, does not refer to any illicit amassing of personal fortune on her part. Indeed even The New York Times has written that Dilma Rousseff  is the one leading politician of the region who has not stolen in order to benefit herself. The charge against her refers to “budgetary manipulations”, ie, shifting expenditure from one head to another within the budget which is pretty standard practice; even if it constitutes “misdemeanor” it certainly does not justify impeachment. And if her opponents were still so worked up about the issue, they could easily have waited till the elections and taken it to the people. Instead they have chosen to act in an obscene hurry, and without waiting for the people’s verdict which they obviously were not sure would go in their favour.

A possible reason for this hurry has surfaced recently in the form of the transcript of a conversation between two powerful figures of the Brazilian establishment that occurred in March, before the parliamentary vote on impeachment. One of the two figures is Romero Juca who was a senator at the time the conversation occurred and became the planning minister in the new cabinet formed by Rousseff’s successor Michel Temer. (After the surfacing of the transcript Juca has had to resign his ministership). The other is Sergio Machado, an oil executive. Both men have been the focus of investigation over money-laundering  and corruption at the State-owned oil firm Petrobras, and in the transcript they agree that the only way to stop the investigation is to oust Dilma Rousseff. Juca says in the transcript: “We have to change the government, so the bleeding is stopped” to which Machado replies: “The easiest solution is to put Michel in”.




Michel Temer himself, who belongs to a Right-wing Party but was vice-president under Dilma, is facing serious corruption charges; and so are seven of the new ministers he has appointed to his cabinet after Dilma’s exit. Hence the suspicion that Dilma’s ouster, far from being motivated by a desire to fight corruption, was actually motivated by a desire to scuttle the corruption probe, has ample justification. This is not to exonerate the Workers’ Party which after coming to power has reportedly emulated the traditional Brazilian establishment in helping itself to public money; but Chomsky is undoubtedly right in saying that Dilma Rousseff is being “impeached by a gang of thieves”. And the conspiracy theory gets support from the fact that Temer, after becoming president, sacked the head of public broadcasting and appointed in his place an executive of TV Globo, the very channel which had been in the forefront of the media campaign against Dilma and whose political position is close to that of the abominable Fox News of the United States.

Even conspiracies however are rooted in class realities. And underlying the conspiracy to oust Dilma Rousseff is a neo-liberal assault on Brazil’s pursuit of a set of policies under the long rule of the Workers’ Party that redistributed incomes towards the poor. Michel Temer has introduced a set of austerity measures and also a constitutional amendment that restricts the growth of government spending to the equivalent of the previous year’s rate of inflation. The attempt in other words is to “freeze” the absolute magnitude of government spending in real terms. This is more than just “fiscal responsibility”, in the sense of keeping the ratio of the fiscal deficit to the GDP restricted to a certain ceiling; for, if that was all, then government expenditure could still go up relative to GDP through mobilising larger tax revenue. The idea behind Temer’s constitutional amendment is to keep government expenditure in real terms fixed at the prevailing absolute level.

Not surprisingly, within such a fixed limit, it is the social sector expenditures that typically face the axe. After the fall of the military dictatorship (against which Dilma Rousseff had been a courageous fighter), Brazil had introduced a constitutional provision whereby a minimum percentage of the budget at the federal, state and local levels had to be spent on education. Michel Temer is now proposing legislation that would remove such restrictions on expenditure cuts on education. It is also a pointer to the shape of things to come that within hours of taking office Temer abolished the ministries of women; of agricultural development; of human rights and racial equality; of culture; and of communications.

Significantly, the above-mentioned Romero Juca, a key conspirator behind Dilma Rousseff’s ouster and a powerful member of Temer’s political Party, the PMDB, had been the head of FUNAI in the 1980s which is a foundation for the indigenous people of Brazil; and in that capacity he had allowed mining companies to enter the habitat of the Yanomami community of the Amazon, which had led to the deaths of hundreds of indigenous people through conflicts and disease; and this was the person who had become the planning minister under Temer (until he had to resign because of the exposure of the transcripts).

Pension “reforms” too have been mooted by Temer, though the trade unions have so far refused to talk to the government on this or any other issue. The elevation of Michel Temer in short is meant to push once more the neo-liberal agenda which had to an extent been relegated to a back seat under the two successive Workers’ Party presidents, Lula and Rousseff.

The Obama administration which had initially kept a distance from the proceedings in Brazil has now given its support to the coup in Brazil. Though Lula had never been forthright in his opposition to the US, he had also refused to toe the US line. He had been a strong supporter of Chavez (Venezuela was the first country he had visited after his re-election in 2006 where he had supported Chavez’s own re-election bid); he had opposed the US-backed military coup in Honduras against the progressive government of Mel Zelaya; he had struck a deal with Iran; and he had tried to build a Latin American economic grouping independent of the US. The new foreign minister under Temer, Jose Serra, by contrast, has long been a supporter of the US, an opponent of  Evo Morales of Bolivia as well as of the Chavezista government of Venezuela and a defender of the post-coup Honduras regime. Likewise, Aloysio Nunez, a Brazilian senator and a leading campaigner against Dilma Rousseff, who had a meeting with an official from the US on April 20, just three days after the Brazilian lower house voted to impeach Dilma Rousseff (thereby giving a signal to the world that the US was on board with the coup against Rousseff), has recently taken the lead in demanding that Venezuela should be expelled from Mercosur, the South American trade bloc. For the US which had, perhaps for the first time in decades lost its stranglehold over the affairs of South America, with the countries of the region, under progressive governments, standing together to solve their own problems, the events in Brazil provide an opportunity to reassert its dominance.




To be sure, the roots of the problem of the Workers’ party government, as indeed of progressive governments in the entire region, lie in the world capitalist crisis which has brought down commodity prices drastically. The basic strategy pursued by Latin American Left governments till recently had been to use the revenues obtained from the commodity price boom that prevailed earlier for improving the conditions of the poor. It was essentially a redistributive strategy, but a redistribution not so much of actual incomes from the rich to the poor, as of potential incomes (that would otherwise have accrued to the rich from the commodity price boom). This strategy has run out of steam with the collapse of the commodity price boom.

The discontent this has caused among certain segments of the population is being exploited by the Right: it provides the condition for the type of coup that we see in Brazil. While the Right has nothing to offer to the people except an intensification of hardships, it nonetheless cashes in on the loss of popularity of the progressive governments.

At the same time however the support that the Latin American Left still enjoys must not be underestimated. The opposition to Dilma Rousseff was much exaggerated by the Brazilian media, and even in the Indian media; but the coup has aroused massive protests from workers, intellectuals, cultural activists and wide sections of the poor. This opposition has the potential to undo the current attempt to attenuate Brazilian democracy.