In 2016, when former President of Brazil Dilma Rousseff was removed from office, I asked my dad- a New Yorker who religiously reads the morning paper- what he thought about the political situation in Brazil. He had read a New York Times article about the alleged corruption scandal, about the mismanagement of money and how the greedy Workers’ Party had been stealing money from the Brazilian people. Sitting here in the US, this is the image of current Brazilian politics: greed, corruption, mismanagement, and embezzlement of funds. You hear of a leftist administration incapable of governing its people, of the poverty-stricken masses in need of salvation. That is, if you hear anything at all. According to this narrative, the new administration (the Brazilian Democratic Movement or MDB) took over to save the day and save the Brazilian people from government corruption. When Dilma was impeached on August 31, 2016, Temer- then Vice President- took over the Presidency.
Less than two years later, however, Michel Temer of the MDB holds the presidency with just a 5% approval rating. This makes Temer the least popular president in Brazilian history. Since his appointment, Temer has also been accused of corruption scandals, the alleged reason for which former president Rousseff was impeached, and the very reason that he assumed office. Every measure of social wellbeing has plummeted as Temer’s administration has passed sweeping austerity measures and cut funding the social programs implemented by the Workers’ Party that are credited with making Brazil a main power on the global stage, increasing social inclusion in higher education, growing the middle class, and decreasing hunger and homelessness (more on this later). Despite his abysmal approval rating, mass protests, public criticism, and a tanking economy, Temer is still in office. And now, the main leftist candidate, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (also known as Lula), who has consistently led in the polls by wide margins, is in prison serving a 12-year sentence for a legal proceeding that has yet to be concluded.
When we think of coups, most of us imagine an image of the past or, at the very least, a clear and undeniable use of force. Large guns. Military intervention. Blood. The brutal overthrow of an elected government. (Think: Chile in 1973, Honduras in 2009, Argentina in 1976). What has been deemed a ‘soft coup’ in Brazil in 2016 stems from the same motive—the protection of corporate, foreign, and imperialist interests over the interests of the poor and working people and their right to self-determination—but comes wrapped in more palatable packaging that makes it easier to deny the violation of democracy. As Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research discusses in their recent dossier “Lula: The Battle for Democracy in Brazil,” the foreign and national elite used a series of legally sanctioned measures to remove the Workers’ Party from office under the guise of corruption. Though the legal case against former president and current Presidential candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and former President Dilma Rousseff is full of holes (a lack of evidence, unreliable and changing quid-pro-quo testimonies given in exchange for lighter sentences, illegal wiretapping, etc), it allowed the bourgeoise- operating through the Brazilian courts- a means to sentence Lula to prison and remove Dilma from power. Quoting law professor Carlos Lodi, Tricontinental defines lawfare as the ‘process of using the law to produce political results. Opponents are removed by use of the legal system rather than the constitutionally valid electoral process’. This is a major strategy behind Brazil’s ‘soft coup’ and the assault on Brazilian democracy.
During the ongoing legal battle, media giant Globo consistently and frequently produced news stories that validated the unproven corruption allegations against the Workers’ Party and presented a slanted perspective that set the stage for and legitimized the coup. According to scholar Teun A van Dijk, 45 of the 60 main front page headlines in Globo from March and April 2016- the months leading up to Dilma’s impeachment- were about Lula, Dilma, the PT, impeachment, or Dilma’s government. The slandering of the Workers’ Party, despite their vast social advances and the lack of evidence behind the legal claims, is reminiscent of other notable moments in Latin American history. Leading up to the violent overthrow of socialist Chilean president Salvador Allende in 1973, the CIA and other forces colluded to cause economic destabilization and chip away at Allende’s popularity in order to justify his removal from power and Chile’s realignment with the interests of foreign and domestic capital. Under these conditions, it was easier to oppress the masses and divert the social progress that Allende’s government had made. Forty-three years later in Brazil, the Brazilian and foreign bourgeoise- acting through media and legal channels- have sought to detract from the advances against hunger and poverty made by the Workers’ Party and use the alleged corruption scandals to regain power.
What does the right have to gain in arresting the country’s leading Presidential candidate, arguably one of the most popular historical figured in Brazilian history? What threat do Lula and the Workers’ Party represent to the Brazilian elite? The Workers’ Party dared to reclaim Brazil’s natural resources—mainly the pre-salt oil reserve—and invest it in the public good, rather than for the profit of the elite. During the thirteen years of the Workers’ Party administrations, from Lula’s election in 2002 to the ‘soft coup’ in 2016, the country experienced enormous gains in measures of social well-being. Under Lula, Brazil’s GDP increased by 20%, bringing the country from the 15th largest in 2002 to the 6th largest economy in the world by 2013. This gain was felt by Brazil’s poor and middle class and its most marginalized communities, with the per capita income increasing from $2,500 to $11,000 during the same period. Programs such as Bolsa Familia and Minha Casa, Minha Vida lifted 22 million people out of poverty, provided 2.6 million housing unit to 10 million low-income people, and halved the rate of extreme poverty. Not only did the number of public universities increase during this period (from 45 universities with 148 campuses in 2002 to 65 universities with 327 campuses in 2015), but scholarships and quotas also increased for marginalized black and indigenous communities, resulting in a 286% increase in afro-Brazilians attending institutes of higher education. The list goes on.
In a clear realignment away from a people’s agenda and towards the protection of capital interests and the status quo, since the coup in 2016 Temer’s administration has frozen investment in areas such as health and education for the next 20 years. As a result, unemployment rates, hunger, poverty, and infant mortality have already worsened, with infant mortality rates increasing for the first time in 13 years (for more on the impact of Temer’s austerity measures, read this study). In the words of Frente Brasil Popular in their Declaration to the Brazilian People,“They do not merely want to arrest Lula. They want to arrest the causes that he represents and defends: social inclusion and the promotion of the rights of the people, notably women, children, blacks, indigenous people, the LGBT population, people with special needs; the provision of living wages and the generation of jobs; support for small and medium-sized enterprises, family farming and agrarian reform; the defense of national sovereignty and the construction of a more equal and fairer country.”
Despite Lula’s popularity, his and his party’s undeniable success in improving social conditions in Brazil, and the oversights and legal breaches in the case against him, on April 5, 2018 Judge Sergio Moro denied a habeas corpus petition and demanded that Lula report to jail by 5pm the next day. Lula declared that he would turn himself in to jail to prove his innocence. Before turning himself in, Lula spoke to his supporters: “They don’t understand that there is no point in arresting me, because there are thousands and thousands of Lulas. There is no point in trying to end my ideas, they are already lingering in the air and you can’t arrest them… They have to know that the death of a fighter cannot stop the revolution.”
To the Brazilian and foreign elite, impeaching Dilma and jailing Lula could represent a turn in the country’s investments (as we have seen with Temer’s subsequent austerity measures and labor reforms), an opening of Brazil’s resources to foreign investment and profits, and a realignment with a neoliberal agenda that places profits over people. The country has reacted with widespread protests, with Lula surrendering to Judge Moro’s prison mandate on the shoulders of thousands of Brazilian people. What will happen in the upcoming October election remains to be seen, with Lula still in prison and the people’s movements refusing the legitimize the soft coup, masked by questionable corruption allegations.
Celina Stien-della Croce is the Coordinator of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.