While corruption scandals proliferate, Brazilians take to the streets to oppose new austerity measures imposed by President Temer, says Mike Fox from Brazil
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SHARMINI PERIES: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Protests and corruption scandals continue to rattle Brazil. Just last week, another major scandal was uncovered when it was found that Brazil, the second-largest exporter of meat in the world, had been exporting tainted meat. Apparently this had been happening for a while. Producers figured it was cheaper to bribe meat inspectors, than to pay for more sanitary production facilities. Meanwhile, over a million Brazilians took to the streets last week, to protest against the conservative government of Michel Temer, to voice their opposition to pension law reform, and social safety cuts by way of austerity measures. Some were even occupying the Ministry of Finance building in Brasília. Also, Brazilians continue to wait for the next set of indictments against corrupt politicians, which is due at any moment. Joining us now from Florianopolis, Brazil, to discuss all of this is Mike Fox. Mike is a freelance journalist currently based in Brazil. Thank you for joining us today, Mike. MIKE FOX: Thank you, Sharmini. SHARMINI PERIES: Mike, let’s go through all of these developments one at a time. First, perhaps the most recent development is the meat scandal that people in Brazil, and outside of Brazil is worried about. Tell us about the scandal, what happened; who is responsible, and how deep is this problem. MIKE FOX: The investigation has been going on for some time. Like, you said, Sharmini, bribes were paid to meat inspectors to certify meat that had been tainted –- tainted, was meat that was going bad, and in a lot of cases they use chemicals to make it smell, or look as if it was okay, and other cases… and there are actually jokes happening all around Brazil –- because they have to make jokes of everything -– of using cardboard around the meat in order to beef it up, and make it look that it’s okay. Fascinating… some of the interesting things here, some of the major parties that have been kind of hit with the scandal is, again, it’s the PMDB Party, which is Temer’s own political party. Of course, Temer is the current Brazilian president. He was the vice president under Dilma, and he came to power with the coup that happened last year. So, his party’s been one of the major ones that has been caught up in this for accepting bribes. The other one is the Progressive Party, kind of a smaller party, also conservative, allied with the PMDB. I think one important thing that we need to keep in mind here, and it’s important to understand kind of the larger image of what’s happening and what is corruption in Brazil. The current Minister of Justice, the current Minister of Justice was just placed into his position, like, a week or two ago, and he’s been caught up in this scandal. Because before this, he was a congressional representative in the State of Paraná, which is where the scandal has been based. It’s been around the country, but that’s one of the major points, and apparently he was involved in this bribing scheme with the Minister of Agriculture, in years past. So, it just shows the level of corruption that the PMDB, and this new Minister of Justice, obviously also with the PMDB that is involved here. He came from Paraná. He was involved in helping to push this –- this bribery scheme in order to taint the meat industry –- and now he is the Minister of Justice. He hasn’t said he is going to step down just yet. But that’s kind of the latest to come out of that. SHARMINI PERIES: Mike, as we know, millions of people were protesting in Brazil against austerity measures, various cuts to social security, and pensions, and so on. But are Brazilians just as aware of how deep these corruption scandals are running? You know, from the car wash, to now the meat scandal, and how it all ends up, in terms of the political legislators? MIKE FOX: People are aware. I think one of the big things was last year’s; the whole food process really woke people up to a lot of ways of just the tainted political system in Brazil. Of course, people understand corruption as a way of life here. Right? It’s not just on a political level. The local parallels what’s happening in politics on the national scale. And so, people understand it. It just runs through people’s lives. They see it on television, and they just understand their own neighborhoods. But the level of it, it just keeps coming. There was a new scandal that just broke today actually, from Rio de Janeiro, where Supreme Court justices in Rio de Janeiro have been caught up in something else. So, yeah, it just keeps happening. I think, the propaganda around this — and I think this is something important for your audience to understand about what’s happening in Brazil –- the corruption is particular within Congress. It’s huge. Right? When Dilma was taken out of office last year, two-thirds of the Senate and the Congress that voted for her to be taken out, are themselves under investigations for crimes and corruption, and whatever else. So, this is kind of endemic within the system. But the propaganda that we’ve seen against this has been something else. Temer, like the Temer government –- I think we’ve had six people, or over six people that have stepped down since he came to power, early… last spring some time, because of so many people going out and getting caught up with corruptions that have to do with the Lava Jato scandal, or this or that. And Temer is now paying very large sums of money for one of the biggest propaganda campaigns that he had, in a really long time. So, I think that’s an important thing to understand, that in terms of the political system, the government is really trying to push this. The media is also playing these games. So, it’s always spinning the corruption as if it’s coming from the Worker’s Party, as if it’s coming from Lula, as if it’s coming from the PT and the left. So, although people understand kind of what’s happening, what you see if you turn on Globo, which is kind of the main television station, what you’re see if you’re reading Béja, is that things are looking up, the economy is looking better, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. And really, the people that have been blamed, that are blamed, for this current moment needs to be Lula and the PT -– and it’s the exact opposite is what the reality is. Now, the PT, of course there was corruption happening. There was corruption under the Lula administration, and under Dilma, when the PT was in power, but that was happening within the larger political system. The PMDB and several other parties were even more corrupt at the same time. And so what we’re hearing and what you hear when you watch the news is the PT, PT, PT, and that Lula, Lula is bad. Why is that happening? Because the next elections are in 2018, Temer cannot run again, because of his own corruption scandals against him, so he cannot actually be elected for office, and yet he is the president. SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Michael, yet he’s the frontrunner when it comes to most polls, in terms of who might win the 2018 elections. MIKE FOX: Exactly. He still has a very large approval rating. He’s charismatic. People like Lula. The PT, as you know, last year lost big in the local and regional elections. Bad. But Lula is still, because of who he is and the image that he carries, he still carries a lot of weight and people really have a lot of hope for him next year, and that’s why, the idea of tarnishing Lula, continuing to tarnish the PT, and linking him to whatever corruption as possible. And even if they can’t link him to corruption, trying to make it seem in the minds of people that he is linked to corruption. And that’s what we’re really seeing in the mainstream media, that’s what we’re seeing in the government, is that trying to really take Lula out as a possible frontrunner, as possible candidate next year. We saw this the very first time that he was asked to appear before the Lava Jato, before the Petrobras investigations, they showed up at his house with hundreds and hundreds of investiga… of security guards to take him into the car, as if he was being arrested. He was home within a couple of hours. It was a normal, it was a routine questioning that happened to a lot of people, but they really played that one up as if he was already charged and investigated and responsible. And it is taking its toll. It’s taking an impact. But he’s still the frontrunner and people still really care a lot about him. SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And yet the actual legislators who impeached Dilma Rousseff, apparently half of them are under investigation, or are charged with corruption scandals. And at the moment, I understand, they’ve actually introduced a bill, an amnesty, for the corrupt politicians governing? Where is that at, and what’s the update? MIKE FOX: Obviously, with the amount of people that are under investigation for corruption, and briberies, in the Congress and the Senate themselves, they love the idea of passing an amnesty law in which they’re not going to get caught up in that, right? The big push right now, it started in last November, and although they most likely have the support for it, they pulled things from consideration just because, there was so… the public had such a large outcry against this. You know, how do you give amnesty to corruption and bribery charges? The big push right now, which they’ve started to talk about it again, and I’m sure that deals are being made in back doors right now, is kind of the push for the amnesty, “caixa dois”, or the second box, is a type of bribery where businesses will pay undeclared sums of money under the table to corrupt politicians, or to politicians. Obviously once those politicians are back in office, they get kickbacks, or their companies will get support from those different politicians, or inflated contracts. So, that’s the specific type of bribery, and corruption that they’re talking about trying to get amnesty for. The reason, the excuse that they’re using, is that there’s no legislation that actually oversees caixa dois. There’s no legislation that oversees this type of corruption or bribery, which is true. It falls under legislation in other areas. Now, the more leftist legislators, the PSOL, obviously, and also members of the PT, have said, “Well, yeah, we need legislation that’s going to identify caixa do is, and that’s going to be able to explain what it is, and deal with it. But that doesn’t… we don’t have to do an amnesty for it. That doesn’t mean we legalize just campaign contributions under the table.” And so, that’s kind of the debate that’s happening right now. Obviously, in the public, the Brazilian public isn’t in favor of this at all. The major marches both against Dilma, by the right, and also for Dilma, have always been against corruption, and the left obviously knows that the corruption led to, really the impeachment, against Dilma. Not because she was corrupt –- she was one of the few people that wasn’t corrupt -– but because so many to get on board behind taking her out. But so, that’s kind of the latest place where things stand. SHARMINI PERIES: Mike, finally, let’s talk about the growing social unrest, and the demonstrations. Last week a million people marched against the Temer government, and his cuts to social security, and so on. But, how deep is that social movement, and is it going to be continuing to mobilize over the coming months against corruption, and the Temer government? MIKE FOX: Sharmini, I think that’s the million-dollar question right now. This month, people are really excited. You can see it from social movements. You can see if from, kind of the left, on their blogs, that people are really excited about what happened, particularly like you said, over a million people marched on March 15th. Over a hundred thousand in São Paulo. We’re talking in major cities all around the country. I was in the march this year in Florianopolis, which is the capital of Santa Catarina. And there were members of the social movements, MST, there were labour unions, and it was a really exciting march. You can really feel this kind of mood that’s happening. When I was speaking with members of the social movements last year, right around the time of the coup, they were saying that for the first time in –- this was the most organized, the left had been in roughly 50 years, since, say, the 1964 coup when they were as organized as that. And there was kind of a lull for a little bit, but people really feel like things are back on track, and they feel really excited about the momentum that’s been built from March 15th. There’s another march planned on this Friday. Some people are calling it a general strike. And then there’s another one that unions, just a couple of days ago, nine different central labour unions signed on to support a major strike around the country on April 28th. So, these things are happening and you can kind of feel this movement that’s kind of growing, and this is all against, like you said, the pension, social security reforms. This thing is pretty draconian. They’re talking about increasing the legal retirement age by many years, up to 65, which is used… you know, for people in the United States, you might say, 65? That’s not a big deal. But actually the life expectancy in Brazil is five years lower than it is the States, and Brazil, the social safety net, has always been really, really concrete. People, before women could retire at age 40 or 45 after putting 20 years into service, and men could retire after 25 years at 45 or 50. So, we’re talking about increasing this, by an extensive amount, as well as several other things that are mixed into this bill, and labour is not having. So, that’s one really exciting thing that’s happening. We’ll see what happens about that in the coming days and the weeks to come. I do want to add one really important detail that’s really key at this moment. That happened… this was March 15th, just this last Sunday, just a couple of days ago, the right wing grassroots Tea Party-style movements, tried to turn people out in the streets. They said they were going to have 100,000 people out in the streets in São Paulo. They said in major cities, watch out! Now, these were the movements’ come to the streets, in the Brazil free movement. These were the people that turned out hundreds of thousands against Dilma, and literally this last Sunday, there was no one in the streets. There was, in some cases a couple of thousand, a couple of hundred, but nothing compared to what we saw on March 15th. And I think, that’s really telling in terms of the shifting momentum of kind of, where the movement is on the grassroots and how people are seeing this political system, and how upset they are about it and who they’re willing to support. Because even those people that… you know, kind of the right wing Tea Party folks, aren’t going to come out against the social reforms, and that’s not what they’re protesting. They’re really kind of coming out to protest in favor of the Temer government, what’s not, and people were not having. So, I think that’s really a key point there. SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And, Mike, while the momentum and mobilization has really been incrementally growing in Brazil since, I would say, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, but the repression and suppression of those movements also going on. I mean, this week we saw the assassination of one of the MST members, or previous members of the MST, and we’ve seen continued arrests and suppression of dissent going on, as well. Give us some sense of how deep that runs. MIKE FOX: Yeah, I mean, it’s deep. The repression continues. Security in Brazil is terrible, so when you have a murder like that that happened in the Pará State, against the member of the MST, where literally… he had just had assassination against attempt against him. He was in the hospital and they charged into the hospital and killed him point blank in the hospital. These types of things happen day in and day out, and so few people are actually held responsible for it. And just to tie this back to what we were talking about with the meat scandal, the now-Minister of Justice, is the same person who was responsible for… who was tagged up in this meat scandal. I think he was in power for just a couple of days before the meat scandal happened. The previous Minister of Justice, was this guy who had called the MST literally gorillas. Extremely right wing, he is now a member of the supreme court because he was moved to the supreme court after the one supreme court judge, who was really pushing investigations in the Lava Jato case, and particularly into the right, was killed in a plane crash in January. So these, the maneuvers that are happening, the repression continues, social movements know it, and feel it, it’s ongoing, it’s been ongoing for a long time, but I think we’ve seen it tick up under Temer, so the protests are going to continue, and I think we can expect to see growing and increasing repression around the country. SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Mike. I thank you so much for joining us today, and we look forward to reports from you on a more regular basis. Thanks, Mike. MIKE FOX: Thanks for having me, Sharmini. Thank you. SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network. ————————- END