Brazil’s Corruption Scandals: No Winners, No End in Sight
The political elite has completely lost control of the situation, but the left is unable to take the reins, says blogger Alex Hochuli, who produces the Aufhebunga podcast
GREGORY WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert coming to you from Quito, Ecuador.
In the latest installment of the ongoing corruption scandal in Brazil, the country’s lead prosecutor Rodrigo Janot filed criminal corruption charges against former presidents Lula da Silva, Dilma Rousseff, and also against six lawmakers from the president’s governing party, PMDB party, and is charging them with having formed a criminal organization. All are being accused, actually, of having taken up to several hundred million dollars in bribes, for the most part from the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht.
Lawyers for the former Workers’ Party president Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff are countering that the prosecution’s failed to provide any concrete evidence against them. Last June, though, Lula himself was convicted of having taken smaller bribes. He is now appealing the conviction while he’s also running for president again for elections that will be held late next year.
Joining us to make sense of the latest developments in Brazil is Alex Hochuli. Alex is a researcher and communications consultant based in São Paulo. He blogs at alexhochuli.xyz, and he’s a producer of Aufhebunga podcast and recently wrote an article on Brazil for Jacobin magazine. Thanks for being here, Alex.
ALEX HOCHULI: Thanks for having me.
GREGORY WILPERT: Once again, it looks like Brazil’s entire political class is being accused of corruption, including the very top now with two former presidents and the current one facing prosecution. Let’s look at the individual charges against the main players, Lula, Dilma, and Michel Temer. How credible would you say are the charges that are being filed against each one of them so far?
ALEX HOCHULI: Look, it’s really very hard to say precisely because this is the thing, the pace of the investigation is not something that’s driven by the natural course of justice, but these things are intimately political. So it’s very hard to ascertain whose agenda is being pursued with each of these charges being filed. What you’ve got is four separate cases right now that have really come to light in the past week.
You have the ongoing carwash investigation into a number of politicians, but specifically Lula in this case, which she’s already been condemned in the first instance back in April and now is being investigated further for links to the Odebrecht construction company. You’ve also got a separate accusation of the PT, the Workers’ Party, operating as a criminal gang in Congress. You’ve got a third one, which is a similar accusation against the PMDB, Michel Temer’s party, operating as a criminal gang. And then you’ve got the ongoing complications around the plea bargain filed by JBS, which is the world’s largest meat packer, who the head of that recorded Michel Temer in compromising situations, and that plea bargain has now been brought into question precisely because of withholding of evidence.
Does that sound like a lot already?
GREGORY WILPERT: It sure does. But Lula and Dilma no longer enjoy protection from prosecution because they’re out of office, but Temer, the president, does enjoy protection as long as he has support from the legislature. What’s the situation for him? How solid is that support? And will he be able to maintain it despite his incredibly low popularity rating, which last time I looked I think was between six and ten percent?
ALEX HOCHULI: Yeah. In fact, even lower by some indices. This will all come to a crunch by the end of this week because the attorney general, who’s on his way out, he’s being replaced by someone who’s even closer to Michel Temer unfortunately, he needs to file the charges and send them to Congress to vote on by the end of this week. Temer was already able to survive an initial vote a month ago and now looks likely to survive the second vote precisely because the plea bargain that was entered by the head of JBS has been put into question because someone in the attorney general’s office seemed to be colluding with JBS and enticing him to enter into a plea bargain. And this is something that the opposition to Temer’s impeachment, that is to say Temer’s own party and allies, will seek to use to defeat any impeachment of Michel Temer.
It’s also important to note that the sums of money spent to defend Temer, the sort of pork spending that Temer dished out to protect himself, to save himself in the vote in Congress are absolutely gigantic, and that looks to remain the case in this upcoming vote.
GREGORY WILPERT: What about the state of the PT in all of this? On the one hand, Lula remains the most popular politician in Brazil, but now he might be taken down by the prosecution and by the judiciary. If he is, what would that mean for the PT and for the left more generally?
ALEX HOCHULI: Look, we have a fairly unprecedented situation in that the Brazilian political elite is completely at sea and has really lost control of the situation, with several intersecting elements of the political class at each other’s throats. But at the same time, you don’t have a left-wing force which would be able to overturn the situation or take hold of the situation precisely because the PT is pretty much banking on voting Lula into power in 2018 in the 2018 elections.
It doesn’t really have a very much of a backup plan. Its presidential candidates who would run for the PT, were Lula to be charged and arrested, are underwhelming and don’t have nationwide support in the way that Lula does. So it looks pretty grim for them, and it also looks pretty grim for the non-Workers’-Party left who lack the social base that the Workers’ Party has and also lack a clear and coherent program. So it seems to be a sort of downfall on all sides with no real exit either from the traditional political elite or from alternative or left-wing forces.
GREGORY WILPERT: That leads, of course, to the far right, which as we’ve reported in the past, there’s a far right wing candidate, the so-called ‘Donald Trump of Brazil,’ Bolsonaro who’s running for president and seems to be gaining popularity. How do you see his chances in the current context? And will he enjoy the support of the country’s elite if he were to be elected?
ALEX HOCHULI: I think we should be first of all clear that he’s far to the right of someone like Donald Trump. He is far more ideologically wedded to an authoritarian militarist nationalism and to a hygienist agenda. I’m questioning how much support he actually has. To give an example, the investor class, the business class actually only support him by something like 3% in a recent poll amongst main large investors. So he’s not going to get support from the traditional elite of Brazil.
What might change that situation and might make him a more viable candidate would be a breakdown in social order, and that is a really big concern. Already the rate of violence in the city of Rio de Janeiro has massively increased, and a further breakdown in social order might make a very authoritarian, quasi-fascist candidate like Jair Bolsonaro seem a more appetizing option to the elite than it currently is.
GREGORY WILPERT: Tell us more about this breakdown of social order. Where is it coming from? What’s behind it?
ALEX HOCHULI: Even over the course of the Workers’ Party governments and powers over the past decade and a half, you’ve had an increase in violence largely driven by criminal cartels and drug gangs in the northeast, in state capitals, which were previously more pacific than they currently are. And this outbreak in violence and across the whole north of the country in the Amazonian region, as well as in various other cities, is quite severe. In Rio de Janeiro, you have a state which is now practically bankrupt, is unable to pay police officers and so on. So the security situation has seriously degraded, and that is something which remains to be seen whether it will tip over into something far worse, which would lead to more drastic political solutions.
GREGORY WILPERT: Is the corruption investigation contributing to this would you say?
ALEX HOCHULI: I think the important thing to note is that the elite has completely lost control of the situation, and this is really unprecedented. And the only reason it’s able to hang on is because, I think there’s two things. One, economically, despite the deep, deep recession, which Brazil may be starting to come out of, the stock market reached an all-time high, and foreign investment continues pretty stable, and the upper middle class or the upper quintile of earners saw a 10% increase in income in 2017. So you have evidence of, for example, the luxury good market’s picking up and high-end car sales. So that all conspires to leave the elite, despite severely weakened by the anti-corruption investigations, able to sort of hold on because it doesn’t have the push from, say, the business class to say, “You guys have to get out. We need someone else to come in because this situation in untenable.”
That said, they’re unable to really push through any sort of progressive reforms, and they don’t even want to. The only agenda that this government has until it gets chucked out at the time of the 2018 elections is to pass some of the most [inaudible 00:09:47] neo-liberal reforms seen anywhere, effectively making the poor pay for the crisis. And that is the only political agenda that’s there. The security situation is not on the agenda. A developmentalist agenda is not being pursued. So this is the situation which the elite is effectively pursuing a slash and burn reform agenda before it gets chucked out and before perhaps they all get arrested as well.
GREGORY WILPERT: Finally, how is the general public taking up this corruption investigation, especially now that the entire political elite is becoming more and more involved in charges against them? Does the investigation continue to have some popular support, and how is it more generally being perceived? Or is it being perceived as something biased and partial?
ALEX HOCHULI: There is a huge amount of fatigue nowadays I think with this. You had the peak of the anti-corruption movement in 2016, which was … Although there were sections of it which were honestly anti-corruption, it was primarily an anti-Workers’ Party campaign. And since the Workers’ Party has been impeached and chucked out of office in what some call a parliamentary coup, the fervor for anti-corruption politics has somewhat decreased. For example, some of the more right wing social movements, which were leading the anti-corruption investigations, have really pulled their punches with Michel Temer thinking he’s probably the better of a bad bunch. So the sort of fervor that there was behind the anti-corruption investigations, the popular fervor, has significantly decrease partially because there doesn’t seem to be any exit to Brazil’s perpetual political and economic crisis, so there’s very little to inspire people.
That said, certainly from the perspective of the left, there was a massive general strike back in April followed by a much smaller one in June. But we’ve seen very little popular response to the crisis since then, and I think the sad news might be that Brazilians have, after three, four years of tumult, become a bit accustomed to it and are just focusing on their own private lives and a bit tired of this ongoing political situation, which seems to have no resolution and no hope.
GREGORY WILPERT: We’ll certainly continue to follow the situation, and I hope to have you back on. I was speaking to Alex Hochuli. He’s a researcher and communications consultant based in São Paulo and blogs at alexhochuli.xyz and is also the producer of the Aufhebunga podcast. Thanks again, Alex, for having joined us.
ALEX HOCHULI: Thank you.
GREGORY WILPERT: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.