Alex Cuadros, author of Brazillionaires: Wealth, Power, Decadence, and Hope in an American Country, says the PT, under the leadership of Lula and Rousseff, has failed to disrupt corporate influence over politics
SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. As the impeachment trial against temporarily-removed President Dilma Rousseff moves into the final phase, more information is becoming available that the impeachment is not about corruption, but an effort on the part of corrupt lawmakers to remove a democratically-elected president because they themselves are too corrupt, and they want to keep that concealed. Next month, an independent commission that was put in place by the Senate admitted that Rousseff’s committed no illegal acts. However, most of the senators and the interim president themselves are accused of serious involvement in corruption, to the point that the current interim president is barred from running for office by the courts for at least eight years. How did Brazil get into this situation? Someone who offers a possible explanation has recently published a book titled Brazillionaires: Wealth, Power, Decadence, and Hope in an American Country. It looks at how massive wealth, political power are entangled in Brazil. Now joining us from New York is the author of the book, Alex Cuadros. Alex has written for the Washington Post, the New York Times, Bloomberg, Slate, the Nation, and Mother Jones. And after six years of living in Sao Paulo, he recently moved back to New York. Alex, thank you so much for joining us today. ALEX CUADROS: Thanks for having me. PERIES: Alex, let’s begin with the heart of the problem plaguing Brazil, the entanglement of the governing and the upper classes entangled together, and now they are the ruling class. CUADROS: Yeah. Well, look. Brazil is a country with incredible concentration of wealth. It’s one of the most unequal countries in the world. And what I’ve seen studying the billionaires of Brazil over the past several years is that very few families and very few families and very few, very rich and powerful people, have been at the center of power for a long time in Brazil. Now, I think that the Worker’s Party, of which Dilma Rousseff, the suspended president, is a member, kind of pushes a narrative that they are the victim of a conspiracy by elites in Brazil. And I think this narrative is deeply problematic, because it ignores the fact that the Worker’s Party allied itself with the oldest and the most corrupt elements of the political establishment in Brazil on the one hand, and with the oldest, richest, and oftentimes most corrupt families in business. You know, this is an ostensibly left-wing movement, but it’s one that when it came into power, it encountered a system where the fact is that it’s hard to get anything done without playing by the rules of the game. And the rules of the game for a long time have been basically siphoning off public money, funneling it to your allies in Congress to guarantee legislative support. And the Worker’s Party, when it came into power, despite having announced to the public, to its voters, that it would break with the system, that it was different from the politicians who had come before, it worked with the system. And it took the corruption, you know, maybe not to a new scale, but certainly to new absolute numbers, partly just because of the growth of the Brazilian economy. PERIES: Now, part of the reason that that happened is because politics, power, the governing class are all very intertwined and tangled, and why is it that Lula and Dilma Rousseff weren’t able to break away from that? CUADROS: That’s a good question. And what’s unanswered is, were they unable or were they unwilling? It’s hard to know, it’s hard to test that counterfactual, because the fact is that they didn’t really try. You know, the Worker’s Party for a long time had one of its main planks the end of campaign donations by companies. But you know, the Worker’s Party, first of all, never unilaterally decided to stop accepting them, and second of all took donations from companies legally and illegally, the same ones that had been in the center of power. So you know, there’s a kind of contradiction here, because if they think that these donations should be banned it’s because they recognize that it’s impossible to avoid some kind of influence in policy and in priorities when you’re taking money from special interests. But it went on taking this money. You know, I think that it’s easy, maybe, for an American to look at the corruption in a really moralistic way and say that, you know, it was an easy decision. It would have been an easy decision, not to play along. I don’t think it would have been an easy decision, but I do think that it’s right to criticize the Worker’s Party for failing, really, to rock the boat, or to make any kind of fundamental change to that system. PERIES: Now, from what I understand, Dilma Rousseff finally were making moves to try to address the issue of corruption, and that is exactly why she’s in the situation that she is in now. Is there any truth to those motions? CUADROS: Look, I think that Dilma rightly praises, at times, or used to until recently, the Lava Jato investigation, Car Wash, the one that has ensnared so much of the political class in her party and in other parties. She has praised it at times as proof of an institutional advance. Now, this institutional advance is partly the product of decisions that were made during the Worker’s Party years. She and Lula, who came before her, did put more money into the federal police. Investigators gained more independence from political interference as compared to past years. But this is, you know, I think to attribute that solely to the Worker’s Party leaves out the fact that, you know, this is really the progress of the nation as a whole. Brazil has been a democracy for only 30 years. It was ruled by a military dictatorship from 1964-1985. And there were many institutional advances in terms of creating organs of control, you know, government watchdogs, during the ’90s as well, before they came into office. So you know, I think it’s, it’s a bit simplistic to attribute the success of the investigations only to the willingness of the Worker’s Party to allow them to happen. And the fact is that, you know, it’s–the Worker’s Party also apparently tried to work against the investigations in more recent times. Lula was secretly recorded talking about attempting to influence a Supreme Court justice, asking the justice minister to intervene with the finance minister regarding investigations by the tax agency into Lula’s finances. So you know, nothing here is black and white. Everything is really shades of gray. And you know, when you look at the impeachment proceedings, yes, they are bizarre. They are surreal. It is, you know, frankly, really hard for anyone to swallow that more than half of Congress faces either investigations or accusations of one kind or another, or that these are the people deciding whether Dilma Rousseff will be impeached or not. But at the same time, it’s important to realize that this is a systemic problem. The fact is that Congress never really hinged on democratic motives. Up until recently the same congressmen who are now voting to impeach Dilma Rousseff were her allies. And their support for legislative products, or excuse me, projects, was essentially purchased through bribery. PERIES: All right, Alex, let’s continue this discussion in a second segment where we will take up further this entanglement with the ruling class of Brazil. I’m speaking with the author of Brazillionaires: Wealth, Power, Decadence, and Hope in an American Country. We’ll be back.
SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: Welcome back I’m speaking with Alex Cuadros. He’s the author of Brazillionaires: Wealth, Power, Decadence, and Hope in an American Country. Good to have you back Alex. ALEX CUADROS: Thank you. PERIES: Alex in segment one we were just talking about how ineffective PT has been in terms of dealing with the whole issue of corruption and governance and how [Lula] himself, the former President of Brazil is now entangled and recently I guess on Friday he was actually indicted with the charges of corruption himself. Tell us more about those charges and why you think Lula is tangled up in all of this. CUADROS: Well, Lula was indicted on the charge of obstructing justice. A former Worker’s Party senator alleges that Lula was involved in trying to pay off a former official at the state oil company to keep him from testifying as part of a plea bargain and implicating a high ranking Worker’s Party official. It remains to be seen what all of the evidence is. There are other suspicions against Lula that he is not yet formally indicted for. In the final days of his presidency he’s alleged to have received gifts from construction companies in the form of services performed. Remodeling this ranch in the interior of Brazil that while it doesn’t technically belong to Lula appears to have been intended for his use on his vacations and so on. These construction companies are the same ones that are at the heart of a cartel that skimmed money from contracts from the state oil company and funneled them to members of the Worker’s Party and its partners in congress. Now the evidence is pretty good that this happened. The question is whether it constitutes corruption. According to Brazilian corruption all. PERIES: Just back up a little bit Alex. What evidence is there that this actually happened? CUADROS: There are receipts found at Lula’s home and office for materials and services performed as part of this remodel. There are conversations, indications that Lula and his wife, Mariza, were supervising and directing the works. And you know there is no evidence that there was any kind of straight up quid pro quo. But there is some precedent in Brazilian corruption law that no quid quo pro needs to be proved in order to prove that there was corruption and that this happened in the final days of his presidency. If he had waited until stepping down as president, these charges might not have quite the same legal basis. And the fact is also that after he stepped down as president, he kind of became an informal lobbyist for these construction companies. He would travel abroad and they would pay for him to give talks in countries where they had business. And he would do the talk and then he would talk to foreign leaders and try to convince them to award the contracts to these Brazilian construction companies. Now he argues that he was simply promoting the national interests but and I think that in the United States this sort of activity is really common place for ex-presidents like Bill Clinton for example. But Brazilian law is a little bit different and it could be considered influence pedaling, potentially. But he made millions of dollars giving these talks. He could’ve spent that money himself to do the remolds at this ranch and he likewise probably would not be facing the same strong case against him for actual corruption. PERIES: Alex let me turn to the current ruling class and the presidency or interim presidency of Temer himself. Now he has come under some investigation and courts have ruled he cannot stand for election in the next 8 years. So what’s going on with his case and what’s he charged with and what are the merits of those allegations? CUADROS: Well the case that led him to be banned for running for public office for 8 years is not a criminal case. He violated campaign finance laws by giving more money than he was allowed to, to a political campaign. Now he has been mentioned as having a possible role in the corruption scheme at the state oil company. But none of these suspicions have yet led to any kind of formal investigation and frankly it looks unlikely that he would actually face any kind of impeachment charge even if he did have direct involvement in the corruption. Partly because Brazilian law seems to indicate that you can’t be tried for anything you did before your current term as president. This is partly why Dilma Rousseff is being impeached on these kind of very thin charges that she violated budget rules rather than say negligence in her first term for having failed to deal with the corruption of Petrobras or as chairwoman of Petrobras, the state oil company where she served while Lula was president. But Temer has been successful in rallying the political class around him. An impeachment is an essentially political process. So at least for now it looks unlikely that any of this stuff is going to seriously affect the rest of his presidency. And there is the possibility that he could get the ban for running for public office overturned by the time that 2018 rolls around and that he could run for president in 2018. PERIES: Alex now Dilma Rousseff has also announced that if she’s restored as president that she will call for an election that in which it was suggested that Lula himself might run for president again. Does this charge that’s now over him going to prevent him from running for office again? CUADROS: It could, depending on how the trial plays out. He could be considered what they call [fisha suja], dirty file, and not be allowed to run. I think that Dilma’s call for new elections really seems like the best solution for Brazil’s democracy because whatever the sins of both sides of the political contest here between the Worker’s Party and its opposition, the PMDB which is Temer’s party, the only way to give Brazilians a chance to decide on who should be running the country now and what the agenda should be is to hold free elections. Unfortunately, at this point it seems like kind of a moon shot and Dilma herself doesn’t have the political capital to get this thing through. Impeachment still looks like the most likely scenario. So unfortunately it doesn’t really seem to be on the table right now. PERIES: And finally Alex you say that this ruling class on both sides of the isle have become completely removed from the lives of ordinary Brazilians that is not surprising. But how do they live. Tell us a little bit about this billionaire class. How do they live and what kinds of lifestyle and decadence are you talking about? CUADROS: Well a Brazilian billionaire has a lot more in common with a billionaire in another country than he or she does with another average Brazilian. San Paolo, the city where I lived, it’s a city of 20 million people. My cleaning lady, like many other working class Brazilians, took an hour and a half, 2 hours on multiple buses to get from the [Fa Vala] where she lived to my home. A billionaire gets to kind of teleport past the traffic because they’ve got access to helicopters. They really live at a remove from the rest of society. They have staff for every part of their lives. They have security. They have staff to take care of their homes. They have people to take care of their private jets, kidnapping insurance, investment people, and so on. They’re almost like–even apart from the companies they run, they’re like little walking enterprises. Maybe the most potent symbol of this disconnect is–in the space that they reserve in their own homes for the people who serve them, for their maids, I’ve seen amazing luxurious enormous homes where the maids quarters are like a tiny little box with no windows. So even when they do rub shoulders with ordinary Brazilians, it’s on very narrow terms. And there’s something I’d like to ask Brazilian billionaires when I interviewed them which was how does it feel to be so rich in a country that’s poor? And for the most part they didn’t seem too uncomfortable about it. They felt that they were contributing so much to the country that their luxurious were kind of the just rewards. Only one billionaire told me that it made him uncomfortable. But that was really a rare kind of self-awareness. It’s an elite that is really divided from the rest of the country and I think that effects the way that they see their place in society and that they see the effects of the concentration of wealth. PERIES: Alright Alex, there’s so much more to discuss and to be fair to you I would like to have you back where we can discuss the details of your book specifically and I look forward to doing that. Thank you for joining us Alex. CUADROS: Thank you so much. PERIES: And that was Alex Cuadros who’s the author of Brazilionnaires: Wealth, Power, Decadence, and Hope in an American Country, and we’ll definitely have him back again. Thank you so much for joining us on the Real News Network.
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