Greasing the Path to Dilma’s Downfall

Amid a massive oil scandal and a stagnant economy, Brazil’s right has found the opening it’s been waiting for to break 12 years of Workers’ Party rule.

Demonstrators rally to protest against the government of president Dilma Rousseff in Paulista Avenue in Sao Paulo Brazil on 15 March 2015. Thousands of demonstrators clad in the yellow-green national colours protested Sunday in several cities of Brazil against president Dilma Rousseff who is facing a complex economic panorama and a political corruption scandal. AFP PHOTO / NELSON ALMEIDA (Photo credit should read NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images)

RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil’s right has taken to the streets in a way unlike anything the country has seen since the return to democracy nearly three decades ago. On Sunday, hundreds of thousands took part in marches and rallies around the country to voice their discontent with President Dilma Rousseff, her center-left Workers’ Party (PT), a stagnant economy, and a high-profile, wide-ranging corruption scandal at the state-run oil company, Petrobras.

Lively crowds wearing green and yellow marched on the lawn in front of the Brasília Congress and as many as 200,000 paraded down São Paulo’s central avenue under the banner “Impeach Dilma.” In Rio’s iconic beachside neighborhood of Copacabana, residents unfurled Brazilian flags from their windows and waved them at the thousands of demonstrators below who wore national soccer team jerseys and red clown noses. Similar marches were reported in more than 100 cities.

The demonstrations were organized largely through social media by conservative and anti-corruption groups like the libertarian “Free Brazil Movement” and the more moderate “Come to the Street” activist group, which did not explicitly support impeaching Rousseff and says it protests for ethics in politics and an efficient state. While a handful of demonstrators called for a military coup — an echo of the 1964 coup that still lives in many Brazilians’ memories — many protesters said they thought that impeaching Rousseff, realistically, would lead to chaos.

Still, it appeared to be a watershed moment after 12 uninterrupted years of PT rule. The center-left party’s opponents are winning converts and showing the strength of Brazil’s conservative base. And if protesters keep their promises to stay in the streets, they will be a force to reckon with as the young democracy navigates its ongoing political and economic crises.

Rousseff’s supporters have tried to paint the protesters as coming from a small segment of wealthy Brazilians resentful of the PT’s redistributive economic policies. But the size of Sunday’s demonstrations, and the fact that her center-right opponent won 48 percent of the vote in last year’s runoff, show that the conservative force may not be easy to write off.

Protesters chanted against Rousseff and the PT’s left-wing policies, raising comparisons with Venezuela, Argentina, and Cuba. In Rio they held signs that read, “Against the Bolivarian dictatorship,” referring to the colonial-era revolutionary figure held dear by Latin America’s left, and waved placards calling for “Less Marx, more Mises,” citing the late Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, whose work is influential in libertarian circles.

“When we voted for the PT, we believed in something that was supposed to be immaculate. They sold us a proposal that was supposed to be a party for the workers,” Joselice Calmon, 61, a retired employee of Brazil’s federal pension agency, said as a crowd of thousands around her chanted, “Down with the PT!”

Calmon said she voted for Rousseff’s predecessor, the charismatic union leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, when he first won the presidency in 2002, but she soon became disenchanted with him and his party. “We don’t belong to this class of people whom Dilma co-opts by giving them the [anti-poverty monthly stipend] Bolsa Família, free bus passes, and I-don’t-even-know-what other welfare programs.”

But it’s not just a feeling that spending is out of control or that the party caters to the poor to the exclusion of the rest of the country that brought Brazilians to the streets. Many expressed more moderate positions that are broadly shared, like the need to improve public health and education and ongoing resentment over rising bus fares, inflation, and high taxes.

Day-to-day challenges have helped stoke the fire, too. A water crisis is leaving many residents of São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, with dry taps on a daily basis. A January blackout in 11 states alarmed Brazilians and raised fears of rationing. And Rousseff’s administration has hinted at upcoming hikes in energy prices. The Brazilian currency, the real, has tumbled since Rousseff’s October re-election, reaching its lowest value against the dollar in more than a decade. The president’s popularity is the lowest of any Brazilian president’s in 15 years.

But it’s the graft investigation, which includes more than 50 current and former politicians, mostly allied with the PT, that has most exasperated Brazilians. Over the past year, the investigation — dubbed by police the “Car Wash Operation” — has uncovered allegations of a vast bribery scheme from contractors of the state oil company that led to the coffers of the PT and Petrobras in exchange for tens of billions of dollars in contracts. Rousseff was Petrobras’s chairwoman from 2003 to 2010, the period when much of the graft is alleged to have taken place.

Publicly, her administration has not resisted the investigations and she has even expressed support for the right of protesters to take to the streets. Rousseff wrote last week on her Facebook account, “I’m from a time when it wasn’t possible to protest, no. People who protested went straight to jail or were called subversive.”

For Brazil’s right, Rousseff’s owning up to the investigations isn’t cutting it. The president hasn’t been placed under investigation yet, and analysts have said that she could not plausibly have been a part of the scheme. But that may change. A former Petrobras executive testified last week that he had funneled $300 million in illicit funds to Rousseff’s 2010 campaign.

However, impeaching Rousseff, who was re-elected to a second term just five months ago, seems unrealistic. But the force of the demonstrations may play into her opposition’s hands, as Rousseff looks less like a former Marxist guerrilla than the face of unpopular austerity measures, a tanking economy, and a once high-performing state oil company now brought to its knees by a graft scandal.

A right-wing member of Congress from Rousseff’s coalition submitted a petition for her impeachment on Friday, though, in a twist, it’s his party that has the most members cited in the ongoing graft investigations.

Rousseff and the PT’s current headaches make the success story that Brazilian leaders had told the world and their voters just a few years ago seem like a distant memory. From the 2008 global financial crisis onward, Brazil’s leadership said their country had avoided the worst of the crisis. Brazil’s economy continued to post growth rates averaging 3 percent and kept unemployment at 8 percent or below. The government announced in 2007 the discovery of massive offshore oil that gave it hopes of becoming a major oil exporter. It boasted that millions of Brazilians had been lifted from poverty and entered the middle class through social welfare policies like the Bolsa Família, and that improved workers’ rights and increased wages have allowed a new class of Brazilians to become consumers. And Brazil won bids to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, seen as coming-of-age markers for a country stepping up to its place on the global stage.

But at the same time, Brazilians’ discontent has grown. The government was taken aback by a spate of nationwide street demonstrations in mid-2013, stoked by a rise in the bus fare and broadening into diverse causes. Those protests began with diffuse demands from across the political spectrum, but eventually coalesced on positions from the left, like free public transit and protesting removals of low-income favelas for construction projects related to international sporting events. While demonstrators on the far left remained in the streets through the World Cup the following year, the escalation of conflicts between the police and protesters and the narrowing of demands represented led many to leave the streets.

For many in the alternative media groups and activist collectives on Brazil’s far left who saw their agendas amplified over the past two years of street demonstrations, Sunday’s movement represented an alarming move away from the goals they had helped bring to the public consciousness. Many panned the Sunday protests as golpista, or coup-supporting — a dark comparison with the 1964 coup, which brought a military dictatorship to power for 21 years.

But many of Sunday’s demonstrators said they were present in 2013, too, with anti-corruption banners. This time around, though, it’s conservative forces that have the most to gain. “For conservatives to protest and present themselves openly this way is new,” said João Roberto Lopes Pinto, a professor at UniRio and the coordinator of the More Democracy Institute, which studies the relationship between Brazil’s largest businesses and the government.

The potential for Sunday’s protest became evident a week beforehand, when Rousseff addressed austerity measures and the Brazilian economy on national TV. She blamed the country’s economic ails on the continuing effects of the global financial crisis.

Protesters went to their windows during the speech and banged cooking pans in a protest that was nicknamed the panelaço, “the big pans.” A joke about panelaço that spread on social media said that pot-bangers had to first ask their maids where the pot was.

But analysts caution that writing off the current demonstrations as just an expression from the elite ignores how deep a conservative strain runs through Brazilian society. “You have to realize that the population in general is not far left by any means. We are talking a population that is very traditional, a center-right electorate,” said Bruno Borges, a political scientist at Rio de Janeiro’s state university. That translates to a Brazilian who often will hold conservative social views on issues like the war on drugs and abortion and complain about high taxes and a bloated state. The same person may still strive to get coveted jobs in the public sector and does not question whether the country should have public health care but instead protests its inefficiency.

Sunday’s outpouring is just one of several ways Brazil’s right is raising its head. A new libertarian party, which simply calls itself Novo, or “New,” plans to field candidates in next year’s local elections. Last year Brazilians elected their most conservative Congress since the return to democracy, seeing a rise in evangelical legislators, politicians linked to agro-business, and the so-called “bullet caucus,” or hard-liners on public security who often have a background in law enforcement.

The Free Brazil Movement describes its political orientation as libertarianism “without Bolivarianism or militarism.” Renan Henrique Ferreira Santos, a national coordinator for the Free Brazil Movement, beat back against the perception that Sunday’s protesters came only from resentful members of the country’s upper echelons.

“The PT is the elite,” he said in an interview. “The PT controls a machine that puts 50 percent of the GDP in their hands.”


Taylor Barnes is this year's Inter American Press Association scholar based in Rio de Janeiro. She reports for the Christian Science Monitor and the Miami Herald, among other publications.