The Protests in Brazil: Dialogue as a Necessary Alternative

by Leonardo Petronilha

photo by Marcelo Bonatto

March 15, 2015 was marked as a Sunday of protests all across Brazil against Dilma Rousseff’s—from the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party)—government. One of the most vaunted demands was for impeachment proceedings to be opened against the President of the Republic.

First, it’s important to call attention to the fact that we live in a “Democratic State of Law” in accord with the preamble of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Brazil, enacted on October 5, 1988. “Democracy,” in quotation marks, because our social and political culture is characterized—for example—by slavery, patrimonialism, and innumerable historical examples of authoritarianism, such as: repression, manipulation, and extermination of indigenous populations by our country’s explorers; blacks brought here as commodities and treated like animals; the Bahia and Minas Gerais conspiracies; the Sabinada revolt; the Balaida revolt; the Praieira revolt; Guerra dos Farrapos (The Ragamuffin War); the Canudos War; Revolta da Vacina (The Vaccine Revolt); Chibata (the Revolt of the Lash); and military dictatorship, amongst others. There are important traces of this history present in our social and political culture today. This is why it is important that we defend democracy, without quotation marks, and not “democracy,” in quotation marks, that still tortures, persecutes, promotes inequality, silences, controls, selects, represses, etc. To defend democracy is to try and remove the quotation marks.

I view the protests of mid-2013 and this past March 15, 2015 as a positive effect of society’s search for, and preoccupation with, the strengthening of our political institutions, which remain very fragile. We have a long process ahead of us. On the other hand, there also exists a negative and dangerous element, that of radicalization. The big challenge for all Brazilians is to overcome this “ethics of corruption,” rooted in our daily decisions—public and private—, which favors corruption as the most efficient recourse. I say that obviously our decisions, including those of the political class, delegated by society, should make the best decisions, governed by public, and not private, interests. Would that be asking too much? The main demand of Brazilians in the protests is that the public interest be valued over the private. Brazil loses billions drained through the grates of corruption. To fight against corruption is to act in favor of the public good. And to begin the conversation, drastic changes to our political model are needed.

With regards to the demand for President Dilma’s impeachment, I don’t see support for this.  It isn’t the path. The PT would leave and the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) would enter. And we would even be able to witness an alliance between PMDB and PSDB, proving that in politics, anything goes. Dilma won the elections, but still lost. The future PT government collapsed with the results of the 2014 election. The president would need a lot of skill to recover lost ground, but her inability to negotiate with important sectors of society has been evident since her first mandate. And this defeat ended by even giving voice to groups that were outside of the situation altogether, like those asking to bring the military back into power.

Street protests are legitimate and important, but the government is also legitimately elected. These are the rules in a representative democracy.

Brazil, in its political history, already went through an impeachment process, which culminated in the Senate vote disqualifying Fernardo Collor de Mello, on December 30, 1992. The scandal at the time was aggravated by a disastrous economic plan. The historical and political situation surrounding Collor’s impeachment, compared with that of today, was different. The processes are distant, historically, and the social actors involved are different. The comparison is irrelevant, because President Dilma has not been impeached, much less the PT, and the political parties that support the government have been involved with one major corruption scandal after the other.

As for the economic variable, there are many other important and determinant variables in any analysis of the situation. It’s clear that any economic crisis produces discontentment and difficulties for the government.

In Brazil today, the impact of an impeachment would be terrible, even if we assume that the possibility of this happening would be remote, for the simple fact of not having evidence against the president, and of her having been legitimately elected through a democratic process. The important thing would be for society and the three branches of government, principally the Legislative, to create an agenda of political reforms with ample dialogue. The problem is not that there isn’t an existing dialogue, or that political interest devoted to this discussion does not already exist.

Many ruling parties say that the protests are an “coup attempt” orchestrated by the media. The ruling parties say this because the president was elected in a legitimate form and nothing concrete has surfaced against her yet. During all this political agitation, the blame always get placed on the other side and there is never any self-criticism, or the possibility of working together for the public good, creating a dialogue that sets aside individual interests. This can be seen in the relationship between the Executive and Legislative Branches, as much as in the different forms of street protests.

The Executive Branch doesn’t communicate well internally, nor does it communicate with the Legislative Branch. The Legislative Branch doesn’t communicate well internally, nor does it communicate with the Executive Branch. Society as a whole does not communicate. Sometimes it seems to me, broadly, that there also exists a battle between the 2013 protesters and the 2015 protesters. The 2013 protesters, who use the bus, because the initial protest demand was in response to a R$0.20 bus fare increase; and the 2015 protesters, who use cars and planes (for international travel), because the current economic crisis has increased prices of goods and services and depreciated the Brazilian currency – the Real – against the U.S. dollar. The demands evidenced in both protests have a clear relationship with each other, which is to say, they both ask for a better country, one with strong institutions free of corruption.

The necessary path forward is dialogue between the branches; between those that use the bus and those that use cars and planes (for international travel); between those that wear red and those that dress in green and yellow, and those that don’t even have anything to wear; between those that have luxurious balconies and those that don’t have anything to eat. We live in a time where it is necessary to seek out dialogue between convergent interests for the country’s sake. The problem is that dialogue requires tolerance, and in this, we are lacking.

Leonardo Petronilha holds a PhD in Political Science and currently is a Visiting Scholar/Visiting Scientist at the Institute of Latin American Studies & Center for Brazilian Studies—Columbia University.