I have lived most of my life in a lower middle class neighborhood of São Paulo called Ipiranga. Technically, it is where Brazil was born in 1822, when a Portuguese prince declared our independence from Portugal (yes, I know that is pathetic). Ipiranga is a region that always votes conservative, but it was far from being a place of bigotry. In recent years it experienced a real estate bubble that brought foreigners and wealthy paulistas for the first time since the 1930ies, when industries first set here. Some of those new neighbors aren’t rich, though. They are desperate miserable Haitians.
About 20 of them crashed into an empty building 100 meters from where I live. The place belongs to São Paulo’s archdioceses and it was unused for decades. Still, the Haitians got no empathy from their new neighbors. At our local supermarket, I heard elderly clients say these people are here to form a mercenary army to keep our self-evident communist dictatorship. I heard neighbors make the same comment twice. Preemptively, I mentioned the stupidity of all this to my mother. I feared she’d be dragged into that nonsense. I never felt I had to do such a thing, but Brazil 2015 became a very, very stupid place.
Protesters in Porto Alegre use anticommunist rants… against a Catalonian independence flag
Chants like “Go to Cuba” have become trendy in protests, whenever someone that looks slightly leftist is around — a red shirt can do that trick. Lunatics mistakenly scream that Brazil’s Constitution would allow a military intervention since the current administration has links to the Petrobras scandal — although none of them are connecting to the commander-in-chief of those troops. Even neonazis have come out. Truth be said, those peculiar groups aren’t the majority in the protests, but they are often welcomed and rarely criticized openly enough for others to draw a line between demonstrators and wackos.
Part of the communist delirium started with Glenn Beck like columnists and bloggers years ago. They were responding to a growing online community of government sponsored columnists and bloggers who, with a bit less tenacity, attacked mainstream media and the opposition. Since 2011, the meanness is mostly on the right, feeding itself from smears of the 2010 presidential campaign and social media. Some truth and a great deal of lies now become Facebook threads, Whatsapp messages and anonymous emails. The hoaxes are multiple: here are pictures of people President Dilma Rousseff killed during the dictatorship, take a look the scandal of a maid that wants her to pay alimony after they lived together, see how she faked her cancer…
Former President Lula and his disgraced chief of staff José Dirceu, who was condemned for corruption, were also targets of that stupidity. The first was accused of owning shares of the world’s largest meat processing plant in the world. Another hoax claimed he was making money out of a change in Brazil’s outlets (!!!). Old accusations came back and got a lot of attention, including one stating he lost one of his fingers on purpose in a sweat shop so he could get a pension. The latter was involved in so many accusations — some true, many untrue — that he personifies now the hatred towards his party.
Of course not all the idiocy belongs to right-wingers. A few days ago I heard a leftist say that protesters that recently took to the streets against President Dilma Rousseff should be punched down “like Trotskyists did to the fascists downtown São Paulo in 1934.” It is as if Brazil had not changed at all in 80 years. Others that are obsessed with the Worker’s Party (PT) say that corruption at Petrobras means nothing because you have to do what it takes to finance campaigns, keep alliances and remain in office. They often claim that corruption accusations are a plot of the opposition and mainstream media to overthrow Rousseff.
These are just a few of the hundreds of bizarre comments that are around. It is clear that the rise of social media made all this possible and it is evident that corruption at the federal government played a key role in the antagonism towards leftists (even though the Worker’s Party is as leftist as the Democrats are in the United States). But the level of stupidity has to do with something deeper: Brazilians are okay with lying to make a political point. We used to go along with the tide. Now that there are two sides, people of low education, no matter how wealthy they are, find it hard to engage in honest dialogues. That goes for lower, middle and upper class.
That has made Brazil’s society as divided as the American, with less filters to tell truth from nonsense and more risks to democratic values. All those mean spirited comments from left and right became part of normal political conversations, as if those bizarre topics came from facts, and not from spin doctors and crazy militants of the opposition or of the ruling coalition. The filters in the media matter less and less, people seem to want more opinions than facts. Our journalists, including myself, could do a better job if we were equipped to deal with our complex political landscape and try, at least, to end hoaxes. We can’t even do that at this moment.
Some will say that kind of stupidity existed in Brazil prior to the 1964 coup d’État. But this is 2015. Brazil is a much better country that has absolutely no links to communism. Our finance minister went to the Mecca of neoliberal economic policies, we have an investment grade economy, a housing bubble is on the rise… Add those anticommunist wackos to those that believe Brazil should become a military dictatorship to get rid of communist influence. The result is intellectually catastrophic. Although there are many idiots on the left, those on the Brazilian right are now the vast majority. Brazil’s current level of idiocy has a lot to do with them.
Brazil is stupid like never before. And it won’t get better anytime soon. To those that want to report on Brazil or understand what the country is going through politically, I say listen to what I say: don’t listen to anyone. Not for now.
There is a lot of 1999 and 2006 in Brazil’s current political crisis. Some would call it perfect storm because there is so much involved: a quagmire in Congress, a big corruption scandal, the economy in dire straits, the risk of energy shortage and widespread popular discontent taking middle class to the streets. But we have been there before. The two main differences between now those days lie in President Dilma Rousseff herself; she is not as astute as a political conciliator and her tightly won reelection sparked more hard feelings in the establishment since it was won in a much more aggressive campaign. Still, a lot of the challenges now are similar to those that Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva faced at the Palácio do Planalto years ago.
In March 1999, about 100,000 took to the streets against President Cardoso, who had a vast majority in Congress and very little opposition there. Most of those in the demonstration were union workers led by Lula, no doubt, but that was the biggest demonstration Brazil had seen in a while. Reasons were many: the peg to the dollar disappeared and that made inflation rise steeply, unemployment was getting higher and the risks of energy shortage were visible (later that year there were national blackouts). A corruption scandal linked the Cardoso himself to buying political support so he could make an amend to the Constitution and run for reelection. There were no investigations, despite a lot of evidence, but people still had that on their minds on Paulista Avenue.
In March 2006, President Lula was wondering whether he should run for reelection or not. The kickbacks for votes in Congress scandal, known as mensalão, linked his 2002 campaign directly to bribes — and that included major picks, including his Vice President José Alencar. His party chairman, a former speaker, his Chief of Staff, his Finance Minister and many key deputies and senators had to resign or keep quiet so he wouldn’t be engulfed by the crisis. The general attorney’s office was prosecuting many of those cases, and every Friday there was tension everywhere before weekly magazines were out. The incumbent blamed the press and the opposition for creating a divisive atmosphere that was actually fostered by Lula too. The economy wasn’t in its best days.
The current crisis shows that Rousseff is a worse politician than both Cardoso and Lula. Period. She doesn’t listen even to allies. But it is also a good sample of how much Brazilian institutions have improved. Even those on the streets now don’t actually mean it when they carry signs calling her corrupt. She has been long known for not tolerating that and it is one of the reasons why she doesn’t get along with many of the folks in Congress. Having a president that is less flexible with scandals is a positive, no matter how unskilled she is in tricking the corrupted into going along with her platform. She did try just that during my stay in Brasilia in 2011 and 2012, but the effort was short-lived enough to assure that few crooks actually lost their big jobs forever.
Another improvement in comparison with those days is that Justice and the general-attorney are doing their job. In 1999, they did nothing. And they had key Congressmen and a governor saying that Cardoso himself offered them bribes, as a couple of media outlets revealed. In 2006 under Lula, these institutions did little, despite paving the way for the first ever convictions of top tier politicians in Brazil’s recent history. It could have been much, much more. Now there is a sentiment that no one is being spared, at least by Justice — off the record, Federal Police are afraid the whole thing might fall apart if investigations don’t go deeper with more phone records and bank statements. Still, institutions now work more responsibly and effectively. Better than 1999 and 2006.
Both in 1999 and 2006, there were calls for these presidents to resign or to be impeached. In 2006 they were milder, since there was an election just in a few months, but they existed. Against Cardoso, though, Lula endorsed a move to get him out. Deputy Aecio Neves, who is now a defeated presidential candidate, said that was an attempt for a coup. The theater today is the same after about one million people went to the streets in anti-Rousseff protests. About half of those protesting wanted more effective anti-corruption measures, according to Datafolha polls. But about a quarter preferred to see her out. The media frenzy is surely bigger now, you can read the word impeachment everywhere. But now more people recognize, even in the opposition, that she must complete her term.
So what will happen in a few years? Another perfect storm? It is hard to say. Lula never dipped as much in popularity, but Rousseff’s 13% job approval, according to Datafolha, is the same of Cardoso’s in his worst moment. After all the turmoil in 1999 and a more serious energy crisis in 2000, he became a lame duck that wasn’t even mentioned by people in his party in the 2002 presidential campaign. It was one of the reasons why Lula won. Now, Rousseff is at serious risk of becoming an early lame duck, with Lula running political alliances instead of her. It could be a move if he seriously plans on running again in 2018. Unlike 12 years ago, he could be the one carrying the weight of an unpopular president — not to mention he is not safe from investigations himself.
But all the political landscape will depend on how Brazil and Rousseff deal with the Petrobras scandal. The economy issues will be dealt with one way or the other, but there must be an end to the presidential coalition system that fostered corruption under Rousseff, Lula, Cardoso and all the others. If more effective anti-corruption measures come out, all the economy matters will look like déjà vu. One of the reasons why so many people took to the streets is that they see the same characters involved in scandals for ages. One example is the president of the Senate, Renan Calheiros, who was a Justice Minister for Cardoso and a key leader for Lula.
If Rousseff’s successor, whoever that is, puts him in a big role in a few years time, be sure that Brazil has failed now.