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Joao Feres, Jr. talks about the protests, corruption, and a possible new direction for a Rousseff-Silva government in Brazil

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GREGORY WILPERT: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert coming to you from Quito Ecuador. Brazil’s former President Lula da Silva accepted the Chief of Staff position in current President Dilma Rousseff’s cabinet today. The reason Lula took this position is as a member of the president’s cabinet, he will enjoy temporary and limited immunity from prosecution. Now that the lead prosecutor in Brazil’s wide ranging of corruption investigation, charged Lula with money laundering and nondisclosure of assets. As if matters could not get worse, the governing PT and its leaders Rousseff and Lula da Silva have been accused by a former senator or head of the congress actually, of being aware of the corruption scandals in the form of oil company and oil company upper brass. This is the first time that someone so close to these two leaders has implicated them quite directly in the corruption scandals. With us today is João Feres Junior, a Political Science professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. He’s also head of the Laboratory for Media and Public Sphere Studies and has published extensively on the media politics and race relations of Brazil and in the U.S. Thanks Joao for joining us again. JOAO FERES JUNIOR: Thank you. It’s a pleasure. WILPERT: So, let’s start with actually the protest that happened last weekend. There were massive demonstrations against President Rousseff. I saw estimates ranging from several hundred thousand protesters to several million in all of Brazil; in several hundred cities in Brazil. Supposedly the largest demonstrations in recent Brazilian history. Also opinion polls say that Dilma Rousseff has become extremely unpopular. So first explain to us, would you say that these images that we get from the international media, is that true? Is she really this unpopular and if so what are the reasons behind it? Is it the economy and corruption or is there more to it? FERES: I think that in the international media from at least what I see, is very much influenced by Brazilian media. The coverage of the Brazilian media that really [is in the dose] of politics in general. The Brazilian media is very much biased against Dilma Rousseff and the Workers’ Party and movement. They function mostly like an opposition party. But besides that, I mean yea, the demonstrations were at least, they were massive in some cities like San Paulo and they have been traditionally massive in San Paolo in the last few years. I mean there were 4 demonstrations against her before, and in Brazil. So other than that, I remember people went to the streets this time was similar to the number of people who went to the streets last year in March 13. So, I think it’s very important to realize that you know, the polls that were made, the surveys that were made during the demonstrations show that there’s a very particular profile of the people who attend the demonstrations. Most I think 70% percent of them are above 36 years old and also, you know, they are dominantly white. I think 80% is white. 77% has high education and they also have an average income which is much higher than the average income of Brazilian population. So we’re talking about here of an upper white middle class that is going to the streets to protest against Dilma and against PT. So it has become polarized along a class; a social class divide. WILPERT: And the reasons that they’re going out to demonstrations are mainly the economic issues and corruption issues or is there something else behind it? FERES: I think it’s not the economy. It’s mostly because of corruption. You know because the media makes a big buzz about this corruption scandal and others too. They cover it like 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They hammer it into their audiences. So people are really overwhelmed by this corruption coverage and I think that many of them revolt against it. But it’s interesting to notice that most people who do revolt against it are middle class. So the people who are touched by the social policies of the Workers Party, they are not as much discontent with government as the middle class is. WILPERT: Former President Lula da Silva is now also going to be receiving a sort of protection or immunity by being a part of the cabinet of Dilma Rousseff and he’s going to take the position of Chief of Staff. How do you think that this will effect Dilma’s presidency? Will he be overshadowing her considering that he enjoys a lot more popularity and also a lot more kind of the legacy she is his protégé. Or will the troubles that Dilma Rousseff is facing rub off on Lula so that it might drag him down further in addition to the elements he’s facing with the prosecution right now? FERES: You know it’s not entirely correct to say that he’s immune to be prosecuted. As a matter of fact, as a minister he can be prosecuted by the Supreme Court. So you know he’s not above the justice system. The only thing that he escapes is the first degree judge that was actually prosecuting or actually threatening to prosecute him. This judge his name is Sergio Moro, has been using all sorts of paralegal and also illegal procedures in order to run those investigations on the corruption scandal. So I think that Lula was wise to escape his grasp and go onto the Supreme Court. He thinks he’s going to be judged by the Supreme Court. If he’s going to be judged by the Supreme Court, at least he’d be getting a more, fair judgment than he would get from Moro. I think that it was really wise of Dilma to actually make him minister because Lula, you know, Dilma’s government was lacking political skill. The political skill to actually negotiate among the parties and to construe and to construct actual a majority in parliament. I think Lula is the right guy to do it. Because Lula is very popular and you know, politicians respect popularity. This is something that they really respect. So I think he has the clout to bring people together and to establish conversations that Dilma hasn’t and wasn’t able to do. Most of her political problems derive, come from, her inability to actually construct around her a political basis that will sustain her government. WILPERT: This whole problem that Rousseff government and now Lula of course are facing reminds me a little bit of the situation in Venezuela back in 2000, 2001 when the opposition was mobilizing a lot of demonstrations against the president. I mean of course you can’t directly compare the situation but in terms of the class differences that you were talking. Still they are facing some pretty serious corruption accusations especially now that the head, the former head of the senate has come out to implicate both Lula and Dilma in, at least in knowing about the corruption scandals in Petrobras. What do you think this means now for Brazilian politics? Can the government function at all or is it being completely delegitimized? Also a similar situation I think happened perhaps, I’m not sure, in Argentina after the economic crash when everybody said you know, we should get rid of the entire political class in Argentina. Is that the kind of situation we are facing or is it kind of divided and class based like you were saying with the protests? FERES: You know I’m not a specialist on Argentina or Venezuela and you know, I know there are similarities but also differences. What I can say about Brazil is that you have to have in mind for example, just going back to this protest and people were very angry at the government. You know, the social movements that are behind this organization, these protests are really right-wing movements here. Many of them are even sponsored by foreign money. Mostly from the U.S. and even from the Koch brothers. So what are we talking about here is a right-wing movement. So it’s not that people in the streets are protesting and the political system is delegitimized. But on the other hand, the only media we have in Brazil right now is the right-wing media. So this opposition party that we have works like a media or a media that we have works like an opposition party. So yea they managed to construct this climate of lack of legitimacy. But I think that is something very thin. Once the political system starts to function again and if Lula is able to do that then I think most of the heat actually goes away. WILPERT: One of the main issues, like I mentioned earlier, is also the economic problem. The fact that Brazil faced a recession in 2015 that looks like it is going to continue in 2016. Do you think that this is something that Lula will be able to turn around given that he is now going to have a larger role in the government and perhaps a different economic approach? I hear that he disagrees perhaps with Dilma’s policies, economic policies so far. FERES: I think that the economic crisis we’re facing now is partially politically induced. You know for example, businessmen stop investing because they really don’t like Dilma’s policies and do not like her. Lula on the other hand was very successful in bringing businessmen to the table and having conversations and projects and plans to, you know, make them invest and make the economy grow. I think that also Dilma had poor choices in terms of economic policy in the past. So that has also contributed to the economic crisis we’re facing now. But I think that, you know, if the political climate improves there is a good chance the economic climate will also be improved. That we will have that fan most of the crisis that we’re facing now. WILPERT: Okay well, unfortunately we’ve run out of time. But I would love to invite you again so that we could continue this conversation, this analysis. Thanks so much João for having joined us. FERES: Sure, sure it was a pleasure. Thank you. WILPERT: And thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.


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Joao Feres Jr. is a political science professor at Instituto de Estudos Sociais e Políticos (IESP), of the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ). Since 2005, Feres Jr. has been the coordinator of Grupo de Estudos Multidisciplinares da Acao Afirmativa (GEMAA), a research group that focuses on the study of affirmative action policies in higher education in Brazil and elsewhere, from a variety of disciplinary viewpoints. He also heads Laboratorio de Estudos da Midia e Esfera Publica (LEMEP), a research group dedicated to the analysis of the news media coverage in the fields of culture and politics. He has published extensively on affirmative action and race relations in Brazil and in the US, media and politics, and is now conducting a comprehensive study about the impact of affirmative action policies in Brazil's higher education public system on social inequalities.