Transcribed from the 3 September 2016 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:
Brazil does not have a parliamentary system. The parliament cannot throw out a president because she’s unpopular. The voters are the ones who decide who is and who isn’t president. So when the senate decides to remove someone from office who hasn’t committed an impeachable crime, that’s a coup.
Alexander Jerri: Our next guest was calling what happened in Brazil this week a coup eighteen months ago. Brian Mier is an editor at Brazil Wire and a freelance writer and producer. He has lived in Brazil since 1999 and has worked as a geographer and policy analyst. Good morning, Brian.
Brian Mier: How’s it going?
AJ: Great! I want to lay out a timeline for what has happened in Brazil in the past eighteen months since you first started calling what was happening a coup.
This week you posted on Facebook: “All these foreign journalist hacks always seem to wet themselves with glee whenever they refer to Dilma Rousseff as a ‘former Marxist guerilla,’ but I haven’t seen any of them describe interim president Michel Temer as ‘former commander of torture and death squad operations as São Paulo state security minister during the final years of the neo-fascist military dictatorship.’ I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that the capitalist newspapers take it easy on fascists.”
Can you give us a timeline of Rousseff’s and Temer’s careers, to sketch out the fate of Brazil’s left and right during and after the dictatorship?
BM: They both have pretty long careers. Michel Temer is the son of Lebanese immigrants. He’s one of the eight million Brazilians who descend from Syrian or Lebanese immigrants (who are very well integrated into the population), from a middle class family. He got a doctorate in law in the early seventies, and he was a state prosecutor for the military dictatorship for over a decade, culminating with his appointment to head the state security secretariat apparatus in São Paulo, which is the most populous state in Brazil. This position meant that he was in charge of the military police and the civil police during the last two years of the military dictatorship.
There was no punishment of anyone who was involved in the dictatorship in Brazil; there was amnesty for everyone, unlike other countries like Argentina, for example, where someone like Michel Temer could have ended up in jail. Everyone got off scot free, and most of the senators and congressmen who had been elected in kangaroo elections during the dictatorship kept their offices. There had been two legal parties; both those parties were allowed to continue, and maintain control of the congress and senate to this day. The party that Michel Temer belongs to was an official party during the military dictatorship.
After the dictatorship ended, he became a congressman, and had a long career in the PMDB [Brazilian Democratic Movement] party—he’s a “conservative”—culminating with him being appointed president in a kangaroo court led by the senate. They condemned Dilma Rousseff not just for a crime that she didn’t commit (this is according to the UN, the internal senate investigation, and the Brazilian public prosecutor’s investigation), but that minor crime itself, fiscal peddling, was just legalized yesterday by the senate, because if they hadn’t legalized it they would have had to impeach sixteen governors. This minor shuffling of numbers in the accounting department, without stealing money, is common in both state governments and at the national level.
Dilma Rousseff grew up in a middle class family. During the 1960s she belonged to an armed urban guerilla-style revolutionary group called VAR-Palmares, which among other things broke into the Swiss ambassador’s house, stole his safe, and used the money to buy weapons. They also stole some private money that politicians had gotten through bribes and redistributed it. Dilma was basically the bookkeeper for VAR-Palmares, so even in those days as a radical Marxist, she was really a technocrat. And she was arrested. She was tortured every day for months at one point. They broke her uterus. They broke her jaw. When she testified about her torture, the military police said she was lying, because no woman could survive the amount of torture that she had received. So she’s a tough woman.
But that was a very long time ago, and she became much more moderate. She got into politics in the late seventies and early eighties. She affiliated with the center-left PDT [Democratic Labor] party and was basically a technocrat for decades. She ran the ministry of energy in Rio Grande do Sul state, she was appointed by Lula as minister of mines and energy as well.
She’s not someone who has a political reputation of being radical at all. When Lula suggested her for president, it disappointed a lot of people who supported the PT party because she was considered farther right than most traditional PT party insiders. But she was elected, mainly on Lula’s popularity, and she became president.
During her first mandate, she did a lot of pretty good things. She passed a national law requiring fifty percent of all public university slots be reserved for kids from public grade schools and high schools, which in Brazil basically means poor kids, mostly black, so this was a kind of affirmative action. When Lula was elected president, only two percent of all people in public universities had come out of the public school system, and only about three percent were black. She made big advancements in affirmative action, and in women’s rights. She brought in 17,000 doctors from Cuba to work in poor areas in the countryside and in São Paulo where regular Brazilian doctors didn’t want to work. She got a lot of criticism calling her a communist for that.
But after she was reelected, she swung to the right—they were trying to get rid of her; she was losing her coalition with the PMDB party, which she needed to govern. She got rid of Guido Mantega as finance minister, who was a developmentalist (the Latin American version of a Keynesian, to oversimplify it), and she replaced him with Joaquim Levy out of the University of Chicago economics department. So in the first year of her second mandate she alienated most of the Brazilian left. She weakened unemployment compensation, which, coming from someone representing the Workers Party, felt like a slap in the face to a lot of people. Her popularity dropped down below ten percent, because the left abandoned her and the right were never on her side in the first place.
Finally, she was impeached last Wednesday for a crime that was not even considered an impeachable offense by Brazilian law. In the constitution, you cannot legally impeach someone for fiscal peddling. This is why a lot of people are calling it a coup. The Economist said it’s not a coup, that she was really impeached because of her handling of the economy. The Economist obviously does not understand how things work in Brazil. Brazil does not have a parliamentary system like Britain does. The parliament cannot throw out a president because she’s unpopular. The voters are the ones who decide who is and who isn’t president. So when the senate decides to remove someone from office who hasn’t committed an impeachable crime, that’s a coup.
AJ: In your reports over the last two years on This is Hell!, one consistent feature has been Rousseff’s tenuous grasp on power, and like you just got into, her steepening appeasement of the right, with cuts to social programs and hiring of neoliberal ministers. Those compromises couldn’t save her presidency. Can you explain her political vulnerability from the beginning? She was elected with 51% of the vote, and actually had Michel Temer as her running mate. Why was she politically vulnerable?
BM: There are a lot of misnomers about the PT presidencies circulating in the American left media. To get something straight, she increased social spending for four consecutive years, and only in her last year, after she was re-elected, did she begin cutting social spending. So she didn’t spend five years cutting social spending, not even vaguely. She created a new national scholarship system for poor university students and increased funding to the health and education systems.
What a lot of people assume in the United States is that the president has the same kind of control in Brazil that they would have in the United States. But Brazil has a multiparty system. The PT party never had more than 22% of elected officials in congress or the senate, so in order to govern they had to do it through coalition, otherwise they would never have been able to pass anything. And the only way to maintain a working coalition was to invite one of the former dictatorship parties on board. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the president before Lula, had a coalition with both dictatorship parties.
In Lula’s case, he weakened the most conservative dictatorship party—which is currently called Democratas, but it used to be called ARENA [National Renewal Alliance] during the dictatorship era—but he still had to govern by coalition. So even at the very beginning, when Lula was elected, they had to give ministries out to conservative parties in order to maintain a majority voting block in the house and senate. It was always a series of compromises. PT governments were always much farther right and more conservative than the PT party itself and the PT party objectives. Always.
Lula pushed through a ninety percent minimum salary increase, and he was the first president in Brazilian history who made significant minimum wage increases without being overthrown in a coup. The other two were Getúlio Vargas and João Goulart, both thrown out.
Then we had these major protests here in 2013 (which started over public transportation price hikes but were mistakenly reported as anti-World Cup protests in a lot of publications around the world), and Dilma’s popularity shrunk. She was at about seventy percent popularity before those protests, and after the protests ended she ended up winning her reelection with about 51% of the vote. So her hold on things was tenuous.
There is a large percentage of the population, mostly upper-middle class whites—whites make up almost fifty percent of the Brazilian population—who hate her, calling her a communist. So the PMDB party, which is always very pragmatic, sensed her weakness and they moved in for the kill, basically. They left PT’s governing coalition and aligned themselves with the PSDB [Brazilian Social Democracy] party and Democratas and these other parties, and, after five or six consecutive attempts at pushing through impeachment processes, they ended up impeaching her.
AJ: You also reported on a series of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations that received worldwide media coverage, starting with the transit strikes. You’ve often noted that, like you just mentioned, the two sides often fell along racial and class lines, with Dilma’s opponents being largely white and middle class.
How polarized is Brazilian society and Brazilian politics? And does that polarization of politics occur along racial and class lines?
BM: Yeah, it does occur along racial and class lines. There are some poor people who, like many poor whites in the United States, are alienated and dip into fascist populism. But if we look at the demographic breakdowns of who voted for Dilma Rousseff versus Aécio Neves in the last elections, it is broadly drawn along racial and class lines. Most of the working class voted for Dilma; most of the elite and middle class voted for Aécio Neves in the last elections. It’s very polarized.
Facebook has been a major factor in the polarization of Brazilian society; Brazilians use a lot of internet, use a lot of Facebook, and there are these meme-generating pages, funded by libertarians in the US, crapping all over the internet in Brazil. They were also funding some of the anti-government protests last year. Students for Liberty is down here. So there’s some American influence, and they’re using Fox News/Koch brothers techniques that are further polarizing the internet. Now even a lot of poor people are falling for this immigrant-bashing fascist economic populism.
It’s kind of a depressing time right now, to be frank. There are a lot of people going out on the streets and protesting against the coup, and the repression is bloodier than it was even after the 1964 coup.
AJ: Who were the members of the judiciary that decided Dilma’s impeachment case? And can you talk a little bit about the makeup of the senate? Losing 61 out of 81 senators is a crushing defeat, isn’t it?
BM: Yeah. Basically it was just PT and PSDB and the so-called ‘inner core’ of the PT coalition (the left parties) that supported her. This shows who the real faithful members of the PT coalition were. The PT never had more than about twenty-three percent of the vote in the senate. It went according to party lines.
Thirty percent of the current Brazilian senate served in the neo-fascist military dictatorship. And of those thirty percent, one hundred percent of them voted in favor of impeachment. Sixty percent of the current Brazilian senate is on trial or under investigation for criminal activity, and almost all of those senators voted in favor of impeachment. These crimes include bribes of millions of dollars connected to the petroleum company scandal.
As for the supreme court that pushed it through—it’s disappointing, because many of them were appointed by president Lula. But there were leaked phone conversations released to the Brazilian media a couple months ago in which the supreme court justices were calling up PMDB political party insiders like Renan Calheiros, Temer, and others, and saying, “Look, you guys are gonna raise our salaries if we push through the impeachment, right? Let’s work on this together.” Dilma had vetoed a seventeen percent pay hike for the supreme court.
The minute Temer was put in as interim president, he gave the supreme court justices a thirteen percent pay hike as they were deliberating whether Dilma’s impeachment would go through or not. That seems like criminal conflict of interest to me, but in Brazil I guess that’s just how it goes.
AJ: You first used the word “coup” on air here in March of 2015. That’s eighteen months ago, roughly, and far earlier than we heard that anywhere else in the American news media. What did you see on the ground in Brazil that early that made you suspect there was a coup underway?
BM: First there was the NSA spying scandal in which they were spying on Petrobras petroleum company’s activities—this is a public-private partnership petroleum company (it’s about 51% publicly owned), and they were spying on it. And they were listening to Dilma’s phone conversations and reading her emails. She got angry, and when she partially privatized a portion of the offshore oil, she didn’t allow American companies to compete for it. Shortly afterwards, the Brazilian government bought a bunch of fighter jets, and the two bidding companies were Boeing and a Swedish company. The Swedish company offered technology transfer along with the jets, so the Brazilian state airplane company, Embraer, could start building them themselves. Boeing refused to transfer any technology. So Dilma chose the Swedish jets over the American jets. These two things, I believe, sent up red flags in the State Department, and at this point, I believe, the State Department got involved.
Marcuse’s definition of the expanded state includes the government, the political parties, the media, the universities, etcetera, so I view bourgeois American media companies like the New York Times and the Washington Post as an extension of the United States State Department on issues related to Latin America. We see it over and over again, when there are coups all over Latin America, that these papers that are known for being liberal in the United States actually support a change in the master narrative on these countries in the lead-up to these coups.
Around 2013, the international media began to change the master narrative about Brazil from that of a winner nation to that of a failed state. We could see it in the way that the 2013 protests were reported. We could see it in the way that they started talking about the Brazilian economy. For example, the New York Times had this huge article by Simon Romero, with all these very depressing-looking black and white photos, called “Big Dreams Fail in Brazil.” So we could see the media narrative changing.
And we—Dan Hunt from Brazil Wire and I—could see that American money was coming in to fund far-rightwing protests and protest groups. One of these organizations was Students for Liberty, which now has a group in Brazil. There was some Koch brothers money coming in. And at this point Brazilian conservatives started releasing policy statements that appeared to be drafted up in Washington—some of them were so poorly translated into Portuguese it looked like they were translated from English with Google translate.
There were a lot of factors at this point that made me think a coup was in the works. That’s why I started talking about it.
Democracy has ended in Brazil. We’ve entered a new state of exception through an illegal impeachment process, and I don’t have very much hope that anything’s going to change by 2018. The only left candidate who has a chance of winning is Lula, and they’re going to try to arrest him or kill him before 2018.
AJ: The impeachment period lasted for six months—Rousseff was just removed from office, but in the meantime Michel Temer had been acting as president. Can you explain what has changed in Brazil so far in those six months?
BM: The first thing he did was destroy three ministries that were created by president Lula: the ministry of racial equality, the ministry of women’s rights, and the ministry of human rights. These three ministries were destroyed and subordinated under the justice department. At the justice department, he appointed as minister of justice a former cocaine mafia defense lawyer who had been minister of justice in São Paulo and had legalized the use of rubber bullets by the police. Now this guy is in charge of women’s rights. He appointed as the secretary of youth affairs a guy who has been arrested for domestic violence. His minister of transparency was forced to resign for corruption after ten days. He appointed a one hundred percent white male cabinet for the first time since the military dictatorship. There are no women ministers.
He raised the retirement age to seventy. He’s talking about making big spending cuts to the welfare system that president Lula set up. He’s talking about eliminating free public university, charging for university. He’s talking about eliminating the thirteenth paycheck (a really nice benefit in Brazil, a thirteenth check every year. One of the reasons I like living in Brazil). And he’s disconnected the federal pension (like the Brazilian version of Social Security) from the minimum wage.
Lula’s connecting pension payments to the minimum wage was considered by the IPEA institute (which did the biggest study on reduction of poverty in Brazil) to be the second-most important factor in forty million people moving above the poverty line during the Lula and Dilma administrations. The first was the huge minimum wage increases that he pushed through. Lula pushed through a ninety percent—in real terms—minimum salary increase, and he was the first president in Brazilian history who made significant minimum wage increases without being overthrown in a coup. The other two were Getúlio Vargas and João Goulart, both thrown out.
That’s just a few examples of what he’s done so far. But the other thing is the violent clampdown on protesting, now worse than ever. They’re shooting rubber bullets at journalists and things like that. You can’t blame the president for what the police do at protests, because the police forces are controlled by the state governments, but Michel Temer has authorized the use of the military to repress protests this Sunday in São Paulo. That’s a decision made by the president himself to further increase the violent repression of nonviolent protesters.
AJ: Let’s get into that repression. Previously you had reported on a coalition of cattle exporters, evangelical Christians, and private military forces that were shaping Brazilian politics. Can you explain the influence of that confluence of interests?
BM: Yeah. Brazil is a country that has existed for five hundred years through raw commodity production: ranching and farming has been the basis of Brazil’s economy for five hundred years. Big plantation owners and ranchers are elite families that go back hundreds of years in Brazil. Most of the land they farm and ranch on is stolen. There’s a process in which they come into the countryside: they buy ten acres of land and then build a fence around a thousand acres and kick everyone who’s living there off at gunpoint. It’s very well documented. And they have a huge caucus within congress and the senate that spans all of the political parties. They are a very powerful force.
Another force is this political party-spanning caucus made up of evangelical Christians. The man who led the impeachment process, Eduardo Cunha (who was thrown out for corruption shortly afterwards for taking five million reals in bribes in the Petrobras petroleum scandal and depositing it in Swiss bank accounts) was an evangelical minister.
The other caucus is called the “bullet caucus,” and it’s made up of former military guys. Private security companies and weapons companies support them financially. We could really call these people fascists. They have heavy anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-minority policies, and they’re attempting to re-legalize torture and criminalize homosexuality (together with the evangelicals, of course).
Those three caucuses worked together to push through the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff.
AJ: How does the mainstream press fit into the overall rightwing narrative as this impeachment impeachment has unfolded?
BM: The most powerful media company in Brazil is called Globo Corporation. Globo is a private company owned by Brazil’s richest family. Around forty percent of their local affiliates around Brazil are owned by politicians. Most of these politicians are part of what they call the “ruralist” caucus or the evangelical caucus or the bullet caucus. They are part of these conservative caucuses, and they control the content in all the local news shows, pushing their agenda the entire time.
Globo television network is the second-biggest television network in the world; every night about sixty million Brazilians tune into its nightly news program, Jornal Nacional, and it’s basically a product of the military dictatorship. In 1965, the military dictators wanted to establish a national TV network to help increase social control over the Brazilian population. So they invited Time/Life company down to Brazil to set up all these transmission towers around the country, and set up a working TV station, and then the government bought the majority stock back from Time/Life and gave it to the Marinho family, who are the owners of Globo. They’ve been very close to the dictatorship the entire time. They only apologized for their role in the dictatorship in 2013 after the protests blew out of control, because people were attacking Globo.
I’ll give you an example. This protest that Daniel and I made a film about last week had about thirty thousand people in it. There was a pro-impeachment protest nearby, led by the São Paulo Industrial Federation, which is a very rightwing almost Birch Society-type organization. They were giving out free champagne. That protest had about fifty people in it. The Brazilian media, Globo and the newspapers, reported on the two protests as if they were of equal size. They took very close up photos of the pro-impeachment protest, and they took photos of the much larger anti-impeachment protests at the very beginning or the very end to make them look much smaller than they were.
AJ: The next presidential election in Brazil is in 2018. What do you expect to see from Brazil’s left over the next two years?
BM: That’s a good question. This has been a pretty big defeat. A lot of people on the left are fed up with the PT party because they’ve been in coalition with farther rightwing parties the entire time. Still, all polls say that if ex-president Lula ran again, he would win. But the right is trying to get him arrested for anything they can before that happens. For the last two years there have been daily reports in the media attacking Lula for fraud based on lies. For one, they spent almost every day in Globo newspapers saying he had a three-floor luxury apartment that he got sneakily down by the beach. It turns out that it’s not only a complete fabrication, but the military used the same strategy to destroy the reputation of ex-president Juscelino Kubitschek back in the early sixties. It’s an old technique.
There’s a farther-left party called PSOL [Socialism and Liberty], which hasn’t been able to get the unions and social movements on board with them, really. They’re basically left intellectuals from the middle class, and a lot of their criticisms about PT are printed verbatim in Jacobin and other places like that on the American left. They have a good analysis of a lot of PT’s errors, but they exaggerate, too. They say things like PT doesn’t deal with class issues, which is ridiculous. And they say PT controls the social movements, which is an insult to anyone who’s in a social movement.
My take on it, unfortunately, is that democracy has ended in Brazil. We’ve entered a new state of exception through an illegal impeachment process, and I don’t have very much hope that anything’s going to change by 2018. The only left candidate who has a chance of winning is Lula, and they’re going to try to arrest him or kill him before 2018.
AJ: Well, so much for ending on a high note for this interview. Brian, thank you so much for coming on the air today. I’m proud to work on the show with you and broadcast your reports from Brazil. I’m not hearing or reading anything like it in the US media and I think you do a really wonderful job. Thank you so much for talking with us this morning.
BM: Thanks a lot, man.
Featured image source: Mídia NINJA