Right wages ‘lawfare’ in Brazil

Voices of the Brazilian Left: Dispatches from a Coup in Progress
Edited by Brian Mier
2018, Sumaré Editions/Brasilwire.com
216 pages, paperback

ONE of the most perplexing aspects of the turbulence in Brazil of the last two years has been the insistent narrative in international commentary about how the assault being waged against the left reflects functioning, robust institutions and so, by definition, is legitimate.

In Brazil, this argument provides western and conservative cover for the de facto coup against former president Dilma Rousseff and the prosecution of her predecessor Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, thereby eliminating his ability to stand again for office. It has become the mantra of the US media and is duly being trotted out by British observers in deference to their transatlantic masters. You will also find similar positions being taken among a flurry of opportunistic commentators and consultancies on social media.

It is a position that is intended to gain plausibility from the disinterested, functional nature of political science – advocates of this position often claim either to be, or to follow, “political scientists”. Its very shaky basis is that any institution that can act successfully against powerful (or once powerful) individuals is, by definition, strong and doing its job properly.

In Brazil, however, the very same institutions that are said to be charting a newly empowered course against “corruption” on the left seem to be failing the Brazilian people badly when it comes to corruption on the right.

The congress that impeached Rousseff was both conservative and corrupt: by no conceivable standards was this a fair or unpoliticised process, and to suggest that this represents the legitimate behaviour of a robust institution is wilfully mendacious. Meanwhile, the current president Michel Temer has, like an eel, slid through the fingers of institutional justice repeatedly since engineering the seizure of Rousseff’s position in 2016. His party, the PMDB, has never won a presidential election, relying in the past like a crack addict on impeachment or the death of incumbents in order to get a quick fix of power.

If the consolidation of democracy in a country such as Brazil is determined both by the rules and attitudes that make it the “only game in town”, then the principal institutions of the country – congress, the established political parties, the judiciary, the media – are nowhere near achieving this.

Reading the euphoric undercurrents published by a string of rightwing and even liberal international publications and commentators in praise of Brazilian institutions for bringing down Lula – and how this is ultimately good for Brazil’s democracy – one is also left with the overpowering sense that judicial institutions are even farther from the norms required for democratic governance to truly mean something.

This politicised use of the legal process has even been given a name: “lawfare”. Don’t just take my word for it: a considerable number of august commentators have expressed serious reservations about the quality of “justice” that has been served upon Lula by judicial conservatives with an obvious axe to grind. Geoffrey Roberston QC, the eminent British lawyer, has taken the case to the UN Human Rights Commission, and has spoken out about shortcomings in the Lula case and within Brazil’s judicial system. In the Guardian, a number of heavyweight figures from Brazil signed an open letter that stated:

“The speed with which his appeal came to court suggests that the Brazilian judiciary may have their eyes on candidate registration deadlines rather than law. Investigations in the original trial were unable to find evidence of any connections between fraudulent contracts signed by the state oil company, Petrobras, and Lula’s action. Yet he was convicted. There were several flaws in Lula’s trial such as lack of impartiality, being convicted on charges different from those presented by prosecutors and, more importantly, no evidence. His rights are being violated, which is why Geoffrey Robertson QC is taking his case to the UN. That is also why we believe he is a victim of lawfare. The Brazilian judicial system is being used for political purposes. The Brazilian people should be the ones to decide whether Lula should be president of Brazil, not unelected members of the judiciary.”

Of course, the politicised use of quasi-constitutional mechanisms is nothing new in Brazil. Cast your minds back to 1964 and the premeditated overthrow of President João Goulart by the armed forces with open US support. Almost the very first thing to happen was the declaration by the national congress of support for the coup. After lobbying intensively for that congressional support, the president of the Brazilian senate, Auro Moura Andrade, then convinced the president of the supreme federal tribunal (the highest court) to swear in the speaker of the house, Pascoal Ranieri Mazzilli, as a caretaker president until General Humberto de Alencar Castello Branco was elected by a mere 295 congressmen.

The legalistic cover that has been developed for contemporary forms of anti-democratic politics practised by the new right in Brazil (and elsewhere in Latin America) is at the heart of Voices of the Brazilian Left, which is essential reading for those who want to understand the mechanisms behind these events, and the resistance to them.

While the book concentrates on the impeachment of Rousseff, the insights it provides – through solid empirical work in the form of interviews with activists and members of the Brazilian left – remain applicable to the Lula case. These contributors and protagonists represent the vast majority of Brazilian people that support the left, despite the impression given by the international media. And to a man/woman, they describe what happened to Rousseff as a coup. They provide valuable insights into how Brazilian institutions that should exist to safeguard democracy have been captured by enemies of democracy.

But the real inspiration for this book lies in the unprofessional distortions about the Brazilian left that have become standard fare in the northern media by writers who evoke the authority of the office of “journalist” while soliciting themselves like prostitutes to those who peddle neoliberal narratives.

In his Preface, for example, Daniel Hunt writes: “A failed state narrative here, a questioned mandate there, we saw protest misrepresented, blame misapportioned, events weaponized, with over half the voting population infantilized, and shuddered to imagine how the coming election would look through this distorted northern lens. And we were not wrong: ‘How to back Brazilian regime change’ enthused the UK Times, ‘Dilma should just let the opposition take this one’ suggested one US journalist.”

The book goes on to explore the ways in which international capital, their vassals among Brazilian conservatives, and their cheerleaders in the foreign press, have employed every artifice to depict the decapitation strategy against the left as the assertion of robust, democratically empowered institutions.

They are getting away with this for a simple reason: they have been given the green light by Washington, which is clearly no friend of democracy in Latin America. Editor Brian Mier writes:

“There is no doubt that the so-called ‘Pink Tide’ of radical and center-left governments that spread throughout the region under the George W Bush administration is being pushed back, supported by international capital and the US government. The rise of ultra-neoliberal governments is a continent-wide phenomenon that is not limited to Brazil and not primarily a result of the ‘people’s frustration with corruption’, which seems to be the new US tactic for slandering democratically elected governments with the collapse of moral authority on human rights issues and torture.”

Voices of the Brazilian Left was clearly published before Lula’s prospects of standing again were destroyed by a captive judicial process, and makes the point that at that time he remained the overhelming choice as candidate on the left. With chilling prescience, it notes that ensuring elections take place and that Lula is elected has since been the left’s top priorities. Fortunately, the book also offers potential alternatives to him, as it is now looking almost certain that he will be unable to stand.

But a positive product of the initiative that led to the publication of Voices of the Brazilian Left has been the creation of Brasil Wire, edited by Hunt, that is doing such a good job in trying to correct the distorted lens of the international media.

In his conclusion, Mier writes that manipulation of the Brazilian media was a critical factor in laying the foundation for the coup, and it is their messages that then filter out to an international audience through lazy, uncritical foreign correspondents who take the content of Brazil’s conservative media at face value. He asks what we in the developed world can do to help counter this dangerous complacency:

“One step in the right direction would be to question journalists when they don’t provide a right of response to people from the organized left in their reporting on Brazil. Another step would be to try to listen to what members of the organized left have to say and prioritize solidarity over criticism.”

It’s a good start.