EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

Real Friends of Brazil

The democratic promise of the movement for impeachment

An army revolt against vanishing communist forces brought back Constitutional order, halting the march toward totalitarianism, and was celebrated in Brazilian streets like a football victory. “Brazil,” The New York Times believed in 1964, “is a desperately sick country. The present struggle is simply to see who is going to get possession of the unhappy patient. Whoever the victors, a long period of economic and political convalescence is in order.” The truth, however, was very different.

Brazil was then a rapidly developing country, proud of its economic and cultural achievements, but the Cold War had weakened democratic actors domestically and abroad. A populist government found it difficult to hang on until the next elections, merely 18 months away, in which pro-business Juscelino Kubitschek was the favorite. But the military coup, which was endorsed by the US government, imprisoned thousands of elected officials and civil society leaders in its early hours. Democratic elections were held a quarter century later, after the influence of dictatorial Brazil was painfully felt throughout Latin America.

Democracy was at stake in 1964, and it was defeated.

Democracy is not at stake in 2015, and those who affirm so are misinforming their readers exactly the way they did half a century ago.

All actors in the present Brazilian crisis respect the Constitution and expect others to do the same. The political crisis is serious, but the game is played within the democratic framework. Anti-coup rhetoric from government supporters is as irrelevant as the pro-military-intervention signs found at demonstrations. The idea that calls for impeachment are illegitimate and that the impeachment itself will “undermine democratic institutions,” as The New York Times stated this week, is disrespectful to the people who fought for democracy in Brazil during all these decades, sometimes against the wishes of the American government and sometimes hand-in-hand with it.

There are plenty of reasons to initiate a process to remove President Dilma Rousseff from office according to the Brazilian Constitution, including corruption in her party, in both of her elections, in her government, and in State companies, as is being revealed by ongoing federal investigations. Moreover, the president is simply not fulfilling her duties as head of government and of State, failing to speak publicly to the people, to negotiate with Congress, and to give any direction to an administration facing the severest budget cut remembered. She has, however, instructed her ministers to engage in shady conversations with overseeing independent agencies, party donors under investigation, and even high court judges, all brought to light by an alert press.

The healthy hesitation that opposition leaders displayed until the present moment is due to the fact that removing an elected president from office is a political act and not the mechanical consequence of party and government criminal activity. The country has to be united not only against the permanence of the present official but also around a new government, convinced that all other venues were tried and that a coalition has to be patriotically achieved.

The three massive street demonstrations so far this year — and the absence of significant counter-demonstrations — indicated that the public is willing to support change. Most importantly, it shows its support for the investigations, signaling to political actors that any threat to the independence of prosecutors or judges will backfire. Strangely, the demonstrations have been mocked and belittled by global media. According to the Christian Science Monitor, calls for impeachment are just part of a new Latin American fashion. Guardian readers might have the impression that Brazilian streets are filled with white nationalists calling for a coup. And The New York Times created an Escherian path with the participation figures, in which they decrease with every protest but still come out equaling the first one.

The economic situation is dire and its social consequences are of everyone’s concern, but the analyst is forced to recognize the beauty of this historical moment, where the democratic choreography is danced with precision by all. This is a moment of harmony and not of turmoil. Of hope and not of despair. Of patriotism and not inconsequence. Brazilians are betting on the Constitution, on decent judges and moderate parties, and on Congress, with all its shortcomings, which will ultimately decide if Dilma Rousseff completes her term or not. Brazilians are, last but not least, betting on the free press — investigative reporters are treated as celebrities and those found to be in the pockets of the Petrolão, as the corruption scheme was nicknamed, are mocked.

How is it that this tremendous bet on democracy appears in foreign papers as a dangerous move? Brazilian corruption, I found out in my last trip to the US, does not raise an eyebrow. The sheer figures of discovered illegal transactions, which anger and depress Brazilian citizens every week, are received in the US as some sort of natural event. If Japan or Chile fear tsunamis, Brazilians fear periodic corruptions. Why, therefore, all that fuss about the incumbent? Don’t these people realize impeachment is going to disturb the markets for the next couple of weeks or so? Shuffling presidents is as annoying a thing as that old craving for democracy.

If you, the reader, could empathize with the average Brazilian and imagine the federal government extracting all your riches and flattening your dreams in order to buy votes in elections and in Congress and perpetuate itself in power, what would you do? Would you tell us just to hang on and rein in our impeachment-happy attitude? Or would you confess that you don’t understand the particulars of the case, but that it’s easy to see that corruption is a global problem that we have to face together, creating a better world for both developed and developing countries? International collaboration in the investigations is already taking place, but it can be deepened.

Real friends of Brazil today are supporting transparency and anti-corruption laws at the national and global levels. They understand criminal organizations have to be asphyxiated by international legislation against fiscal and banking paradises — Petrolão wouldn’t have reached astronomical dimensions without European banks and Central American shell companies. These friends are asking what can be done to support and improve legislation against international bribing schemes and, as investors, they are carefully scrutinizing their stocks to see if their chosen companies comply with labor, environmental, and transparency best practices, especially if they decide to invest in State companies.

They are also sharing technology that can help bridge the gap between governors and taxpayers and between voters and representatives, because this scandal shows something did go wrong with our official and unofficial oversight mechanisms, which can be improved not only legally and politically but also with the aid of technology and communication. Actually, if institutional shortcomings lead to massive corruption in our blessed tropical land, it might be that case that elsewhere its byproduct will be more dreadful, causing mayhem and destruction. Learn from us.

Real friends of Brazil know we might have our own political challenges and cultural meshugas, for sure, but constitutionally removing a president involved up to her neck in the worst corruption scandal of the planet is completely rational. The real question is: what are we going to do to prevent Petrolão from ever happening again — in Brazil or elsewhere? That is something we should answer together.

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