Brazil’s Winter of Discontent, and Bright Summers Ahead
As Rio de Janeiro hosts the first Olympics on the South American continent this month, Brazil’s political turmoil has taken a sideline in the headlines. Yet, these past three weeks have been as intensive as the previous months, and illustrates that while cariocas show the world how to throw a party, Brazilian politics continues to unravel, and will continue to do so after the Olympics.
Viewers of the opening ceremonies would have noticed a small change in protocol: unlike previous openings, the Brazilian president was not introduced at the start of the ceremony. Similarly, when Acting President Michel Temer formally opened the games, he was booed by the crowd. Protesters also took to the streets before and during the games, with some even expelled from the events. While the Olympics provide entertainment and amazement for the rest of the world, it will only provide a small distraction, however, from Brazil’s political crisis for locals. Temer has received criticism and accusations regarding his cabinet (which has already lost three ministers due to corruption allegations), as well as accusations that he and his foreign minister received millions in bribes. Temer was also so focused on building a workable alliance in Congress that easily avoidable errors, such as having an all white and male cabinet, became PR nightmares for his new administration.
On a more positive note for Temer, the Brazilian House of Deputies elected Rodrigo Maia, a member of the Democrats Party (DEM), as Speaker of the Chamber on July 14. The election came as Eduardo Cunha, the former Speaker who started the impeachment procedures against President Dilma Rousseff, resigned in early July. Cunha, who belongs to Temer’s Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), was accused of taking bribes and hiding it in his personal Swiss bank accounts. Although Cunha propelled Temer to the presidency, he was highly distrusted by Brazilians and had become a liability for Temer’s economic reforms. With the unpopular Cunha out of the picture and with Maia now in power, Temer’s economic reforms are more likely to pass through the lower house as the Democrats Party is more ideologically aligned with Temer’s PMDB than with the left wing parties (Brazil’s political parties form coalitions in the House of Deputies).
President Dilma Rousseff (suspended and awaiting impeachment trial) is in trouble as the Brazilian Senate voted to proceed with impeachment trials on August 9, after losing a non-binding decision by the Brazilian Senate on August 3. The impeachment trial will take place on August 25, a week after the Olympics in Rio end. Rousseff’s political capital has evaporated and is unlikely to survive because even her Workers Party (PT), which strongly opposes the impeachment (calling it a coup d’etat), does not believe Rousseff’s political career will survive the process. In fact, the embattled president and her party seem to be distancing themselves from each other, with Rousseff blaming the party for taking in bribes for her elections and causing distrust amongst voters for the PT.
Moreover, it is not just Rousseff’s career that is in jeopardy – Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva, Rousseff’s predecessor and the one responsible for winning the Olympic bid for Rio in 2009, is also facing equally concerning allegations. On July 29, news broke that Lula will stand trial for obstruction of justice, following allegations that the former president tried to stop a Petrobras executive from collaborating with the federal police. This would not only be another significant blow to the PT, but also affect Lula’s hopes of running again for the presidency in 2018.
Unfortunately, political scandal affecting Brazilian leadership is not the country’s only concern. A deep economic recession is taking place, which already makes major reforms unpopular. This is further complicated by the upcoming municipal elections in October, which means that, by the end of August, Brazil’s legislative agenda will come to a halt. These amalgams of problems will likely lead to more polarizing protests against and for Rousseff, Temer’s reforms, and against corruption in general. Protestors, in turn, are likely to face crackdowns by security forces.
If there is one country that can turn itself around, however, it is Brazil. Although the current crisis is deep and the country is suffering its worst recession in decades, it is not the first time Brazil finds itself in this type of situation: Brazil was affected by hyperinflation in the 1990s following re-democratization and the end of a brutal dictatorship, a far more devastating crisis than the country’s current woes.
Despite these setbacks, it is worth noting that the Brazilian political system has constantly come out stronger from these struggles, and will likely become more transparent as the current corruption scandal is demonstrating to the old Brazilian elites that they can also be prosecuted and that the judicial system is more independent and willing to take charge than it has in previous years. The sentencing of the former CEO of the largest regional construction company, Odebrecht, to 19 years of prison, and Lula’s former chief of staff to 23 years, are just two examples of how the effects of the Petrobras’ corruption scandal have changed Brazil. This is only the beginning, as each of those imprisoned and accused of taking part in the scandal are likely to collaborate with prosecutors, bringing about the downfall of even more corrupt politicians. Nevertheless, these kind of cultural and institutional changes take time, and until then, Brazilians should brace for a difficult winter.
Luis Ferreira Alvarez is an Analyst specializing in Latin America energy policy, with research and analytical experience on trade, as well as social and security policies in the Western Hemisphere. Luis worked for the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent, non-partisan policy think tank. He also worked for the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy think tank that focuses on US-Latin American relations. Luis holds a MPA from Cornell University, and a BA in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley. His Twitter is @