Brazil crisis: On heroes and coups

Rejecting the language of an elite coup against a national-popular government is key to understand the Brazilian crisis and strategize what to do from the left. Español Português

Bruno Cava
27 May 2016

With a sign that reads in Portuguese "Temer out," demonstrators march against Brazil's acting President Michel Temer and in support of Brazil's suspended President Dilma Rousseff, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Sunday, May 22, 2016. AP Photo/Andre Penner.

The fall of Dilma seems to demand an obvious reading on the part of the left. Again in the history of Latin America, a national-popular government is overthrown by the neocolonial elites. Again, the geopolitical attempt to build an alternative axis to the imperialism of Washington, this time through the BRICs, ends up crushed by a restoration of the conservatives. The history of coups d'etat again returns to the stage in the subcontinent, and an echo is heard of the coups of 1964 (Brazil), 1973 (Chile) and 1976 (Argentina), and the military uprising against Chavez in Venezuela (2002), or again the so-called "soft coups" against Zelaya in Honduras (2009) and Lugo in Paraguay (2012). This time the victims have been the largest mass party in the Americas, the biggest domino piece that now threatens the entire wave of progressive governments. There are more than enough signs to reinforce that interpretation. Taking to the streets in favour of the Partido de Trabalhadores (PT) are Lula, the MST (Movimiento de los Trabajadores Sin-Tierra, Landless Workers' Movement) and a pantheon of leftist intellectuals, along with stars and red flags, exposing the immediate ramifications of the coup and denouncing it.

The end of the Workers Party's 2003 to 2016 hold on federal government affects the current situation of those who feel themselves to be directly involved in the project. Regardless of what this "project" may mean, to admit its collapse is interpreted as the end of a worldview. As truncated and full of contradictions as it may be, when the curtain falls to end the petista play, the feeling that manifests is a mixture of melancholy and rage. So great was the hope placed in the PT that the present moment feels like the end of an era, and, shipwrecked with it, the left, progressivism, and every possible horizon of struggle. Future, present and past come together at a point where everything appears to gain depth and everything is put in doubt: not only who occupies the governmental seat will be decided, but also the social gains of the past two decades, the institutional legacy of the 1988 Constitution, and the memory of the struggles against dictatorship.

During the impeachment vote in Congress, parliamentarians repeatedly invoked sacred values and patriotic institutions in dramatic speeches. A deputy praised a torturer colonel of the 1964 regime, another proclaimed the end of the "lulopetista dictatorship" grounded in the Bolsa Familia (Family Allowance programme), described by another deputy as "creating paid vagrants". Time constraints also impelled the opposing deputies to invoke the martyrs of the resistance, from Zumbi, the insurgent leader of the slaves, to Olga Benário, the communist deported from the Vargas dictatorship to the Third Reich and subsequently gassed. The dramatised scenes of the Brazilian parliamentary representation's tableau vivant sounded like successive blows of theatre, jumping uncharacteristically from scene to scene.

It should provoke at least curiosity, in those less easily persuaded by histrionics and melodramatic effects, to qualify as a coup the procedure carried out under the country's presidential constitution, foreseen precisely for the removal of an elected president, when the procedure itself is carried out to the letter and under the supervision of a supreme court composed of eleven members, eight of whom proposed by the PT governments. Or, that the person who will take the place of Dilma, if the impeachment is confirmed in October, will be the vice president who was elected along with her in 2014 and 2010. More than two thirds of MPs in both Brazilian legislative chambers voted to open the impeachment process, with an interval of nearly a month between the first and second deliberation, during which time government forces exercised their defence in forums and media and in the appropriate bodies, before which appeal after appeal were filed, in a microscopic dissection of the ritual.

It is alleged that that there is no material foundation for the impeachment, but between considering it an unfair decision based on political expediency and branding it a coup that violates the constitution, there is a considerable distance. Although the case in question is not at the same level as the impeachments of Collor in Brazil (1992) and Fujimori in Peru (2000), it differs greatly in form and content from the recent cases that occurred in Honduras, where the president was put in a helicopter in the dark of night and deported by the armed forces, and in Paraguay, where Lugo underwent a "lightning impeachment" which lasted less than 48 hours.

Advocates of the Government would argue that this does not matter. Soft, parliamentary, legal-media or postmodern coup, what matters is translating the sequence of events and the vertiginous linkages in a simple and direct statement. A statement that can, as Luiz Eduardo Soares wrote, "define the president as a victim" or "forward easily decodable messages to the international audience, compelling the internal operators of the process". In fact, the formation of didactic schemas and obsessive narrative structures around the coup is ongoing, whose closed logic does not allow hesitations. It is not time to play with puzzles or remove the seriousness of the indecency we are experiencing. It is time to resist the coup. Everything else will be treated as a Byzantine disquisition that holds back the progress of plain words against the coup. It is a climate of moral panic ironically reminiscent of the moralistic and conservative advance behind the coup in the first place.

The biggest problem with this attitude is the absolute mismatch between expectations and reality. How is it possible to invoke the moral force of a government in favour of the poorest, when, according to the epic tale, they are not up to the demands of the moment? The popular hip hop musician and intellectual Mano Brown regrets that the favelas keep silent, are deluded by the television and end up turning their backs to Dilma. Two years ago, after the 2013 protests, Dilma's Secretary Gilberto Carvalho even spoke of ingratitude: "we did so much for these people and now they rise against us." From those resistant to the coup, a certain feeling can be distinguished of the situation not having mobilised the people as would be expected. Also on the left there is a gap of political representation, as the audience seem to reject being fitted into national-popular schemas. And when they do emerge in the narratives, they are reduced to a disorganised, pre-political soup at the mercy of media drives.

Another mismatch that is impossible to swallow is the fact that for 13 years the government claimed pragmatism as its rationale. The maximum correlation of forces, as their intellectuals say, served as an alibi for a true "passion for the possible" which placed the Historical Compromise (the PT-PMDB conservative alliance) as the foundation of Lulismo. For more than a decade, even during the extraordinary popular and democratic mobilisation of 2013, government forces counterposed a tough political realism to an innocent and irresponsible idealism. How can the government now update old stories through a Shakespearean construction when they have done politics with the most disillusioned of pragmatisms?

Was it not Gleisi Hopffmann, Dilma's former chief minister, currently one of the protagonists of the saga of resistance to the coup, who said that the "government cannot and will not support minorities in undertaking unrealistic ideological projects"? What legitimacy can the departed president assume now as a heroic figure in the left's mythology, when she herself, when she had power and legitimacy, described the struggles of our time, those of the indigenous people and of the environmentalists faced with the Belo Monte dam, as "fantasies"?

This simplifying and pedagogical obsession, idealised to cultivate a mystical aura, will not pierce the complexity of the facts that make up the Brazilian context. In fact, emotions tend to move in circles, like shouts as loud as they are impotent. It governs with clipboards, governance calculations and developmental reasoning, but once outside government there is a return to charisma as a tactical manoeuvre - to an idolatry of images. We are not going to get very far that way. "Unhappy is the nation that needs heroes", said Brecht. The allure of the coup discourse is limited, at its maximum, to strengthening a community matrix, a sense of belonging, whose salvation depends on a ritual of cohesion and a charismatic leader.

The impeachment may be a conspiracy - perhaps a "palace coup" -, but there are no simple descriptors in this story. The proverb “create crows and they will peck your eyes out” does not work here, because there are no pigeons in this story. They are all crows, as was revealed by Operation Car Wash: an all-encompassing bloc of parties, politicians and cronies against whom a large part of millions of indignados took to the streets and to social media in protest in recent years. Temer was a long-term ally of the PT. His party, the PMDB, was the PT's Siamese twin in the lulista coalition from 2005, until it landed into government in March this year. Henrique Meirelles, the Boston Bank banker appointed by Temer as strongman for the economy, was minister for eight years in the Lula government. And, fiscal adjustment and state reform go back to Dilma's turn to the right, counter to her own election campaign in 2014. We are living an acceleration of existing trends , not a break . If there are discontinuities between Dilma and Temer, it is undeniable that there are also various continuities. The removal of the PT from the government coalition is not explained by its qualities.

In a country that lived through two dictatorships and an era of slavery, in which coupism seems to form part of its essence, with daily lynchings, police violence in the metropolis, mass incarceration of the poor, State racism and extermination of indigenous people, it sounds like atrocious egocentrism, today, after 13 years in power, to place themselves in the centre of the script as heroic victims of a coup. The only troops that we saw in recent years were those that the governments sent to the favelas, in the mega-events, in the big business projects, to ensure law and order, to exercise legitimate violence against the non-pacified, against "criminals", savages, against demonstrators, to make peace reign...

Today's problems cannot be overcome without confronting them.  New data must be taken on, episodes must be reviewed, things must be argued through step by step, relations of force must be mapped out carefully, the impasses, paradoxes and vicissitudes that brought us here. The heat of the moment cannot strip us of the right to carry out necessary and painful reflections.

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