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Janio Is Coming: The Return of the Old, Unstable Brazil

Reading Time: 5 minutesTossing out President Dilma Rousseff with no evidence against her could reverberate for decades to come, writes AQ’s editor-in-chief
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Photo Courtesy Silvio Medeiros, October 17, 2014

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Over the last two decades, it seemed like a new Brazil had taken root. A stable, democratic Brazil, one where presidents finished their terms, a vibrant economy lifted all boats, and money more or less retained its value.

But now – meu Deus. With every cry for impeachment, with every revelation of the rot at Petrobras and elsewhere, with every poll showing the president’s approval rating (8%) sinking below the inflation rate (10%), the golden era Brazil experienced since the Real Plan of 1994 looks more like an exception. An interregnum made possible by two exceptional presidents and a one-off rise in commodities prices, a pax ironore-ica that is now lurching to its end.   

Certainly, you can argue these are just growing pains. Maybe this is a necessary cleansing, a sign of independent judicial institutions and a new intolerance for corruption. Maybe Brazil will emerge stronger.

It’s possible. But I also fear Brazil may simply be reverting to historic form.

In 193 years of independence, Brazil has experienced just 44 years of full, representative democracy, from 1946 to 1964 and from 1989 to the present. During those years, one elected president shot himself through the heart; another abruptly resigned after seven months in office, got drunk and boarded a boat to Europe; another was impeached for corruption; still another was deposed by the military. All told, only once in the last 50 years has an elected Brazilian president handed power to another elected president from a different political party.

The stakes these days are different, partly because the world is different. Despite a few fascist die-hards at marches in Sao Paulo and elsewhere, there is scant popular support for a coup. The soldiers will stay in their barracks. But that old Brazilian impulse – to throw out an unpopular president in times of economic trouble – has clearly returned, with a vengeance.

Barely ten months ago, President Dilma Rousseff was re-elected with 52 percent of the vote. Today, 66 percent of Brazilians want to impeach her.

What changed? Well, less than you might think.

Brazilians have known since at least 2005, when the mensalão scandal first erupted, that many within Rousseff’s Workers Party are profoundly corrupt. More recently, the broad contours of the Petrobras scandal were evident prior to Rousseff’s reelection to anyone paying attention. And yet, there is no evidence suggesting Rousseff was personally involved in any of the corruption schemes. The chief prosecutor in the Petrobras probe reaffirmed this just last week.

Indeed, the main thing that has changed since October is the economy. A recession, largely of Rousseff’s own making, worsened immediately after she won reelection. Economists currently expect the slump to clip 1.8 percent from GDP in 2015; the currency has shed a quarter of its value; Brazil could lose its “investment grade” credit rating. This, while bad, is not exactly the stuff nightmares are made of, either. Unemployment is up, but only to about 7 percent. Most of the vast social gains of the past two decades remain intact. No one speaks of default. As such, this crisis pales compared to many in Brazil’s past – or those in Europe today.

Nevertheless, a majority of Brazilians have been calling for Rousseff’s head since April – only three months into her four-year term. This fits a clear historic pattern. The crisis that culminated in Getulio Vargas’ 1954 suicide was preceded by record inflation and falling real incomes; so was the 1964 coup against Jango Goulart. The last time Brazil’s economy shrank more than 2 percent in a year was also, revealingly, under Fernando Collor’s watch in 1990 – not long before he was impeached. To this day, anyone over 50 in Brasilia will tell you Collor lost his job not because of corruption per se, but because he lost control of the economy.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way in Brazil anymore. The hard-won stabilization of the government’s finances in the mid-1990s, the rise of 40 million people into the middle class since then, and its hosting of the World Cup and Olympics this decade supposedly drew a line under its chaotic past and announced the arrival of a stable world power. Some Brazilians, and more than a few foreign investors, are now asking if that was all a mirage. Well, it wasn’t – it was real, the product of good policy and some good luck. And it was no accident that Brazil’s longest era of democratic continuity also saw its strongest-ever period of inclusive economic growth.

The corruption of recent years is reprehensible; those behind it should go to jail, as many already have. But if Rousseff is ousted now, without a shred of evidence against her, it would all but guarantee a return to the chronic instability of Brazil’s past. It would put an end to the idea that the country had changed, and a new respect for electoral outcomes had taken hold. It would make impeachment, and all its variations, a viable option for every Brazilian president facing duress for the next 30 years. It would also bring the downfall of not just the Workers’ Party, but much of the current political (and economic) establishment as well. Because that fits the historic pattern, too.

Brazil’s current elite knows this, and it’s the main reason Rousseff is still in power. It explains why Vice President Michel Temer, 74, made a dramatic televised plea last week for “national unity.” It explains why senior figures within the opposition have spent months swatting down pro-impeachment members of their own party, insisting the legal case against Rousseff is insufficient. It is the subtext of current negotiations to forge a new deal among parties to guarantee “governability” – a term that is, itself, a blast from the past. The goal, sources tell AQ, is to keep Rousseff in the presidency, albeit in a diminished role, while allowing prosecutions in the Petrobras case to proceed apace. Virtually everything else is up for grabs.

Yet the elders are losing the battle at the moment, and they know it. More than half of Brazilians were born after the last dictatorship ended, with no memory of those tumultuous years; not coincidentally, voters under 30 are about 10 percentage points more likely to favor impeachment. Meanwhile, the most foreboding news of the past week was a poll showing working-class Brazilians are even more likely than the wealthy to want impeachment. In other words, Rousseff’s erstwhile base now detests her even more than her “enemies” do.

All these groups, and others, are set to take to the streets in more than 100 cities in demonstrations on August 16. Turnout will almost certainly be even bigger than in 2013 and earlier this year. After that, eyes will turn to Brasilia. If Temer and others start using phrases like “the will of the people” – this, too, is classic – it’s game over.

Should Rousseff fall, what comes next will be a crapshoot. Maybe the next government will be an improvement; indeed, that’s what happened following the last impeachment, in 1992. But the electorate also seems primed to embrace another archetype from Brazil’s not-so-distant past: The young, charismatic, populist outsider who promises a “war on corruption” and a total break with the existing political class. This was how Collor – memorably branded by Veja magazine as “the hunter of the corrupt” – first came to power. It was also how Janio Quadros won the popular vote (amid, yes, a spurt in inflation) in 1960, brandishing a giant broom on the campaign trail and promising to “sweep away” all of Brazil’s thieving politicians, under the vague slogan: “Janio is coming.”

Seven months later, Janio was leaving – on that boat to Europe. Old habits die hard.

Winter is the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and the author of four books about South America.


Reading Time: 5 minutes

Winter is the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and a seasoned analyst of Latin American politics, with more than 20 years following the region’s ups and downs.

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Tags: Brazil, corruption
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