Brazilian democracy has been attacked

"Brazilian elites never showed any interest in democracy. We will have to make a superhuman effort to revalue democracy," said Jucá Ferreira, Brazil's former Minister of Culture. Español Português

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Juca Ferreira Francesc Badia i Dalmases
19 October 2016
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Jucá Ferreira. Thibault Camus AP Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Francesc Badia i Dalmases: The Brazilian political atmosphere is currently tense, spurred by debate over whether or not what took place there was a coup. The picture we see is of artificial polarisation and attempted manipulation of popular movements. How do you see the current situation in Brazil?

Jucá Ferreira: First, I would like to make clear that, in my opinion, it was a coup. Coups in Latin America today are not carried out by the military, but are executed by way of a siege: through the media, the justice system, law enforcement and the parliament, where all that is good is dismantled, where popular governments, leftist parties and political leaders are criminalised. This is how it played out in Brazil's instance, where, with the support of the judiciary and the federal police, the coup finally was consummated in Parliament. I characterise it as a coup because, although impeachment is enshrined in the Constitution, some basic requirements are required in order to arrive at a situation of impeachment. Among others, a crime of responsibility has to have been committed by the President of the Republic, which, in this case, simply was not the case. The coup leaders recognised this on several occasions, especially considering that despite removing President Dilma from office, her political rights were maintained. If the president had committed the offense of liability, the normal implication would be for her to lose those rights.

Coups in Latin America today are not carried out by the military, but are executed by way of a siege: through the media, the justice system.

It was a coup that moved in over time, that mounted its siege and gradually shut down the government's ability to rule, up until it seized power, and it will now threaten all Brazilian society's social and political accomplishments. During these 13 years there were no attacks on freedom of expression, no one received preferential or privileged treatment. With the new government, however, some artists are already being victimized; public institutions are already being commandeered to criminalise social movements and people who demonstrate against the coup. After the re-election of the President the media siege intensified, mounted by the Brazilian media which, under the almost absolute control of a few economic groups, dismantled the Workers Party (PT) and the main figures of the same, over the course of the entire period of government.

It was a coup that moved in over time, that mounted its siege and gradually shut down the government's ability to rule, up until it seized power.

FB: What one can see in Brazil, and not only in Brazil, is a change of political cycle, a shift to the right. It is essential for democracy that the behaviour of both sides of the political spectrum, left and right, is strictly democratic to ensure an alternation of power, respecting the democratic fair-play that is essential to the health of democracy. It does not seem that this will happen in Brazil; neither that the right is ready to take power without committing abuses, nor that the left is prepared to reconsolidate in opposition. What is your diagnosis?

JF: Brazilian democracy was attacked through a break in the legal rule that sustains it. The project that the coup leaders intend to implement in practice is an authoritarian, anti-people, anti-democratic, regressive project and contrary to Brazilian sovereignty. This project goes against virtually all social gains won in Brazil. The government will try to terminate the social programmes that succeeded in reducing inequalities in the country. It furthermore opposes the labour laws of Getulio Vargas, such as, for instance, the Consolidation of Labour Laws CLT. They are previous social accomplishments of Brazilian workers. The coup was carried out for this purpose, and was supported by the economic, financial, agricultural and industrial elites.

We now have a purebred government that is not a product of the democratic process. One feature of the democratic process is the need to compromise. All social classes and political forces express themselves through political debate and parliamentary life, processes in which nobody is entirely victorious nor anybody entirely defeated. The seizure of power meant an imbalance when then implementing a programme that was defeated in the last four elections. It was clear to all, as research indicates, as well, that as this break was not in line with experience and democratic standards, after the next presidential election in 2018, Lula da Silva will possibly be the next president of Brazil.

We are not experiencing a time of democratic normality, but a situation in which one must question this break in democracy, as democracy is fragile in Latin America, particularly in Brazil. Democracy still has to be defended because it is not consolidated in Brazil. Since the republic was proclaimed the late nineteenth century, Brazil had more moments of instability, of insecurity, of coups and attempted coups than stable democratic processes. We experienced the longest democratic period in Brazil's history and this disruption is severe, because it endangers the whole process of constructing rules for coexistence and democratic standards, undermining the institutions and derailing the construction of a democratic culture in the country. I believe that we are experiencing the end of a political cycle, and that one of the mistakes we made, that the left made, and that the government made, was not having understood that a political cycle was coming to an end, which began with the election of Lula in 2003. We should have carried out a programmatic review of alliances and political processes in general. There was an erosion of leftist forces and government motivated by the economic crisis and the mistakes made during those years. Failure to duly assess the economic situation created favourable conditions for the crisis we are now experiencing, and ended up creating the political conditions for the coup, and for social mobilisation by way of a manipulation of public opinion through the media.

We are not experiencing a time of democratic normality, but a situation in which one must question this break in democracy, as democracy is fragile in Latin America, particularly in Brazil.

The almost total concentration of ownership of the media allowed for a manipulation of society and public opinion, and the mobilisation of the middle class to support a disruption of democracy. Now, after the removal of President Dilma, we are experiencing a difficult time, where normal conditions for democracy are altered, where democratic rules were violated. Reestablishing them requires, firstly, a resistance to the coup, and secondly, the mobilisation of society. Every day there are more sectors that oppose the coup and call for a direct election, so as not to consolidate and legitimise this government. Things will continue to get much worse before they get better. Temer's government intended to set on track all components of a programme that was rejected several times by the Brazilian electorate: a reduction of the state and of the minimum wage, an easing of trade laws, worsening repression and criminalisation of social movements; censorship, which is already taking place in a veiled manner, is becoming more explicit. We are experiencing moments of great difficulty. The best thing to do, in my view, would be to look to the 2018 elections so as to allow the reestablishment of normality and the pattern of democracy.

FB: You have been Minister of Culture of Brazil twice. You were also a key figure for policies that prized democratisation and empowerment of the regions and different cultural actors. Do you think this process you initiated is strong enough to be part of this resistance that you mentioned and does it have the capacity to contribute to the regeneration of democratic culture and political culture in Brazil?

JF: This policy of the democratisation of culture, a redefinition of the traditional relationship between the state and the entire symbolic dimension of the country, began a day after the first election of President Lula, when Gilberto Gil was appointed Minister of Culture. I was Executive Secretary, and helped build democratic politics, continuing with it subsequently.  What we built is very strong. For the first time in Brazil, the State proposed maintaining a democratic relationship with the world of culture, a relationship of absolute freedom of expression. We opened all doors for the participation of artists and cultural producers in general, of all segments of society, in the constitution of political culture. We were successful, expanding the concept of culture and also giving due importance to the symbolic dimension of the country, which goes far beyond the arts. We created programmes and projects as creative and efficient as, for example, Puntos de Cultura, but not only that. We set out to accomplish three major tasks: firstly, to democratise access to culture, both in accessing it and enjoying it, and in its forms, for this the numbers are not good in Brazil. Secondly, to strengthen the entire symbolic dimension: to support and encourage artistic and cultural creation. Thirdly, to develop a cultural economy. For example, the production capacity of feature films. When Lula took office in 2003, we produced 10 films per year in Brazil. Today, we produce 150, many of which were awarded at international festivals. We have conquered part of the public and the film industry at the moment is in surplus. Our work was recognised by many artists and cultural producers, from indigenous people to the traditional sectors, including the most sophisticated productions and which require industrial processing. So, it is clear that the danger of disruption is a great motivation for resistance and artists who produce culture in Brazil.

FB: You mentioned the value of stability and now you mention the value of Brazil's leadership in the region, and the recovery and revitalisation of Brazilian culture and identity, which has a significant weight in Latin America. Does the current situation and the weakness of regional multilateral institutions in recent years mean that instability in Brazil may also contaminate or affect neighboring countries, such as Colombia - experiencing a positive, but delicate situation - or Venezuela? Meanwhile, Argentina is torn between economic resilience and resistance to certain very negative policies from the point of view of its previous accomplishments. How do you view the stabilisation of Brazil in the coming months? Do you think that a snap election would stabilise the situation or, on the contrary, exacerbate divisions and polarisation?

JF: I think the government's lack of legitimacy creates the conditions for instability. A direct election would legitimise the government to come out as the winner in a clean and equal democratic process. Therefore, as long as a part of society and political forces opt for a coup and threaten political cohesion, I would not speak of stability. What took place is the basis for a destabilisation of democracy! What sustains democracy in countries where it is permanently established is the existence of a basic compromise between all political forces that, regardless of the election result, maintain their fidelity to democratic rule. For example, the Social Democratic Party of Sweden won the election for more than 40 years, and the opposition political forces, including the Conservative Party, the party representing the middle class, the Agrarian Party and other sectors - remained loyal to democracy, and eventually they won the elections. A government that wins at the ballot box is a legitimate government. A government established from a breakdown of democracy does not have that legitimacy, and does not have, in such a case, the possibility of thinking about stability. There is a risk of knock-on effects of this threat because of the importance of Brazil. In many countries a similar process has already started where the legitimacy of the elected governments and electoral processes are called into question and where a permanent siege is used to derail these governments. I do not think this is a coincidence. I think there is a continental consensus to destabilise democratic governments in Latin America and to restore a certain social and political order and restore the hegemony of the United States in the region. The presence of North American organisations in the preparation of the coup in Brazil is becoming clearer. They are not the cause of it, but participated in the breakdown of our democracy, training conservative social organisations for the coup strategy's success, as well as financing them. We are witnessing a process that is not only national, but also includes destabilisation at a regional level, aimed at ending a long period of democracy in Latin America.

 Direct election would legitimise the government to come out as the winner in a clean and equal democratic process.

FB: In relation to the redefinition of political space in Brazil, on the one hand, we have a new right that is emerging forcefully, with money and young people, with charismatic leaders for the middle classes, and on the other hand, a left that is going through a phase of political experimentation, attempts at regeneration, many of them led by smaller parties. What do you think of the emergence of new political actors? Is it a positive thing for a democratic stabilisation?

JF: First, the right that is emerging is not a democratic right. It is a right that does not accept losing elections, that despises the rules that support democracy and that wants to impose a program that was defeated in the last four elections. They want to restore the neoliberal principles of the minimal state: with no liability to the people, without any regulatory intervention in the economy in defense of social rights. They want to submit the Brazilian state definitively to financial, industrial and agricultural capital, and for that, they do not mind breaking democratic rules. For democracy to flourish, it needs certain conditions of equality, freedom of speech, a press open to all opinions and democratic state institutions that work. We live in a time when all of these conditions are compromised. The right that emerges is a right that can be classified as proto-fascist. They defend the reduction of the age of majority to 12 years, and some defend even torture. Jair Bolsonaro, the PSC-RJ, even claimed that "the error of the dictatorship was not having exterminated 30,000 leftists to terminate the left in Brazil once and for all", "starting with Fernando Henrique Cardoso", he said.

For democracy to flourish, it needs certain conditions of equality, freedom of speech, a press open to all opinions and democratic state institutions that work.

They are changing the secondary education curriculum, eliminating history, sociology and anything that would develop critical thinking. In all areas there is a regressive and antidemocratic project. This, obviously, negatively affects the possibility of coexistence and affects all the conditions for the existence of a democracy. It is still early to take stock of the situation, because they have already expressed their intentions but have not yet implemented the programme that they have considered. They have already announced changes to the age limit for retirement - they want to raise it to more than 70 years -, the reduction of almost all social rights, reducing the minimum wage, the easing of standards of worker protection, the weakening of public health programmes; they want to close the doors of universities to the poor and to channel the poor students to technical schools, not to attend universities. It is a complex project, Dantesque, which aims to reshape social relations and all aspects of Brazilian society. I reaffirm that the coup is regressive, reactionary, anti-democratic, and contrary to Brazilian sovereignty. They also amend the rules of PRESAL exploration, one of the largest oil reserves in the world, to open the doors to large private oil companies, and they are changing Brazil's foreign policy of non-alignment and contribution to peace.

It is a project that does not accept the rules of democracy and creates enormous instability. I think that Brazilian elites never showed any interest in democracy, which was built in Brazil from the effort of the people's democratic forces and parties of the left and centre. For me, the Brazilians have to make a superhuman effort to revalue democracy, to defend their norms and standards. Only in this way we can reestablish political and social peace in Brazil.

Translated from Spanish by Katie Oliver, member of Democracia Abierta's Volunteer Program. 

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