Brazilians don't want history to repeat itself, but no one's coming to the rescue to turn things around.
Two dead bodies lay on the beach in Rio de Janeiro, as beachgoers play soccer and walk by, unfazed. It’s hard to shock a Carioca. The two men had died when a nearly four-month-old bike path — built by a company under scrutiny for shoddy engineering and possible corruption — collapsed after getting hit by a strong wave, sending the two Cariocas into the sea and to their deaths.
This, in a state that's now so broke that it's stopped paying pensioners and has delayed salaries for half a million public-sector workers, leading dozens of categories of professionals to go on strike, from police to doctors. That also includes teachers, meaning around 50,000 students in the state are out of class — while at the same time, a movement is spreading with students occupying 65 schools to protest the abominable state of public education.
This, in a state where in the favelas, even in the so-called "pacified" ones, gun violence rages on, and sometimes spills over into the city's wealthy neighborhoods. Muggings are still a part of life. The picturesque Baía de Guanabara is still filled with sewage and garbage, as disgusting as ever after authorities failed on their promises, for the umpteenth time, to clean it up.
This, in the Olympic City less than 100 days away from the games. Is this the Rio of the 1990s, or 2016?
Rio's broken promises and local crises are a microcosm of what’s happening throughout the country, as an economic and political crisis makes Brazil’s current situation seem in some ways like a blast from the past. Another impeachment, another bust after the boom.
And that’s what’s helping drive the partisan divide, an underlying current in the impeachment debate. Many Brazilians are terrified to go back to the way things were. (That excludes some in the elite and a minority who support military rule who wouldn't mind going back to how things used to be.)
In the political realm, both members of the government and opposition are now using the word “coup” to describe scenarios that would hurt them: impeachment and new elections, respectively.
The word “golpe” is a loaded term in Brazil and evokes the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964–1985. It brings to mind torture, disappearances, and censorship. It also evokes media manipulation that helped support the dictatorship, and with today’s media bias, some argue not much has changed in that particular area.
Impeachment isn’t a new concept in Brazil’s relatively young democracy — there was a presidential impeachment in the 1990s — but by framing the debate in this manner, it fires people up, especially on the left.
On the other hand, many Brazilians don’t want to go back to a time when corruption flourished with impunity, when there was no accountability, when politicians could literally get away with murder. Arguably, corruption is still a major problem, but between the mensalão trial, the Car Wash investigation, and new transparency and corruption-fighting measures, there’s hope things are improving, if slowly.
Another fear is that of poverty and economic decline. Candidates and political flacks fed the fear of regression during the last election, which have persisted during the impeachment process. The government stoked fears that the opposition would eliminate social programs and hurt the poor. (Ironically, the economic crisis forced that same government to cut or reduce some of those programs.) Bolsa Familia, the most important program, is still intact, but the government claims the opposition will do away with it if Dilma is impeached.
Meanwhile, riding the wave of anti-corruption excitement, some in the opposition marketed themselves as the “patriotic choice” during the last election. So did those lawmakers who support impeachment — they framed a yes vote as the patriotic thing to do, alleging a route for change, for moving ahead.
So with the slow-motion implosion of the country’s institutions and economy, there’s a fear that Brazil is cursed to repeat its past. And that’s not an unreasonable fear.
While poverty decreased in the last decade, bringing millions into the new middle class, the crisis is sending millions back into poverty. There’s already talk of another so-called “lost decade,” with the recession predicted to continue.
2013-2023 vai ser a década perdida da minha geração (tempo que, com sorte, PIBpc vai levar para voltar ao pico) pic.twitter.com/wKnySH2HE9— Drunkeynesian (@drunkeynesian) April 28, 2016
Zika is getting all the headlines, but Brazil is also battling a dengue epidemic and a swine flu outbreak; both disease are more likely to kill those infected. Several states are broke, not just Rio, and more could follow. The pre-salt oil bonanza hasn't quite come to fruition, especially given low oil prices and the scandal rocking Petrobras.
While the country’s distracted by the impeachment process, Congress is pushing controversial legislation, from trying to roll back the country’s landmark net neutrality law to literally attempting to abolish environmental compliance for public works.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. This time, it was supposed to be different.
There’s a tired trope that Brazil is the country of the future. But in the early 2000s, after Lula was elected to office and the country stood poised to ride the commodities boom, there was a sense that change was here to stay: economic growth, institutional stability, millions leaving poverty, and Brazil as a global player. It seemed like maybe, just maybe, this time Brazil would finally break the cycle. Now, maybe Brazil would be a so-called “serious country.”**
On the surface, like a fresh coat of paint, it looked like positive change was there to stay. But underneath, in the foundation, some things stayed the same. Especially politics.
As Brazil’s late rock star Cazuza once sang: “Eu vejo o futuro repetir o passado/Eu vejo um museu de grandes novidades/O tempo não para.” [“I see the future repeating the past. I see a museum of great novelties. Time doesn’t stop.”]*
So who can stop history from repeating itself?
That's the problem with the political crisis, and Brazilian politics in general. There is no truly new leadership waiting in the wings, and like zombies, even the most reviled politicians often come back.
Surveys show that a majority of Brazilians support impeachment, but a majority also support getting rid of Vice President Michel Temer, who will take over if the president is removed from office. Eduardo Cunha, the man third in line of succession, is under investigation on multiple corruption charges, and is widely hated by the Brazilian public, yet is still holding on as president of the lower house of Congress. The fourth in line, Renan Calheiros, has come under fire for corruption multiple times, yet is still somehow president of the Senate.
Given these realities, a survey found that more than 60 percent of Brazilians support new elections as a solution to the crisis.
The desire for new elections is also understandable after the embarrassing display in Congress broadcast live last month, when representatives from the Chamber of Deputies cast their votes for impeachment with singing, spitting, confetti cannons, and a long list of reasons that had nothing to do with the charges against the president. Plus, around 60 percent of members of Congress face charges of their own, ranging from corruption to even homicide.
But with no new political class, who could not only rescue the country from the abyss, but also really bring about change? And this doesn’t just include the presidency, but Congress, too. And without political reform, how can the system really change?
The answer is that new elections would likely bring many of the usual suspects. After all, some of the country’s most corrupt or disgraced politicians still grace the houses of Congress — including the president impeached in the 1990s and a politician wanted by Interpol, among others.
In the latest polls for a potential 2018 presidential race, the top names in contention are Lula (who already served two terms and whose reputation took a hit during the current crisis), Marina Silva (who lost in the last presidential election), Congressman Jair Bolsonaro (a far right-wing politician with a neo-Nazi flair), Aécio Neves (who narrowly lost the last presidential election and stands accused of several corruption charges), and Geraldo Alckmin (governor of São Paulo whose approval rating is around 30 percent).
So this month we’re likely to see Temer, a typical, old-school politician — sometimes described as the butler from a horror movie — take over during the trial phase of impeachment. That means one of the country’s most reviled politicians will become VP, unless the Supreme Court intervenes. Meanwhile, Congress continues to chip away at progress, one bill at a time.
They say you get the government you deserve. But as Brazilians say, ninguém merece. Nobody deserves this.
*Maybe he had a vision of the Museum of Tomorrow?
**O Brasil não é um país sério, or Brazil isn’t a serious country, is a phrase Brazilians throw around when they get down on their country. It's often wrongly attributed to French President Charles de Gaulle, but it originally came from a Brazilian: Carlos Alves de Souza Filho, Brazil’s ambassador to France from 1956 to 1964. The diplomat uttered the phrase during an informal, off-the-record discussion with de Gaulle in Paris, and a Brazilian journalist in the room wrote down the now infamous saying. It’s also symbolic of the so-called “mutt complex” in which Brazilians are super critical of their homeland, but are also sensitive to foreigners who voice those same critiques.