Brazil is currently experiencing three crises and is in danger of igniting a fourth, a crisis of civic polarization. Much astute writing about these crises has already been penned or spoken by the likes of my friends Matt Taylor, Octavio Amorim Neto, Carlos Pereira, and Globe and Mail correspondent Stephanie Nollen, among others.
The first crisis is the mysterious Zika epidemic upon which copious amounts of ink have been spilled and I plead layman’s ignorance. This tragedy has affected us personally, as we are delaying a second child.
The second i is the economic crisis. Much desultory, concrete information is available here too: a situation of stagflation, with inflation rates of 11%, interest rates hovering around 15%, GDP contracting (by close to 3.8% in 2015), and mounting unemployment. Let’s just say that with the currency in free-fall over the past year, my salary has regressed to 1999 levels in Canada (just out of my B.A.).
An Economic Crisis or Political Opportunity?
The third crisis is, of course, about politics. The political crisis has obviously contributed to the economic crisis, mainly because politicians have viewed the economic crisis as a political opportunity. None have unified or rallied around solution-bearing political entrepreneurs. To the contrary, both opposition parties and centrist coalition partners calculate the benefits of President Dilma Rousseff’s solitary bleeding as greater than the potential costs of doing something productive – hence the lack of solution-bearing political entrepreneurs. Hey, the president might be impeached, so you want to keep your options open… when you’re in a Congress of thirty-odd parties, you’re not doing programmatic politics, you’re doing business.
And with more than 70 State-Owned-Enterprises in statist Brazil, there is plenty of business to be done. Petrobras, that cashless cow, spawned the Lava Jato scandal that is currently threatening just about every powerful politician in Brazil. The latest targets are the current and former presidents, Rousseff and Lula da Silva, which is where the fourth potential crisis begins.
The fourth crisis – civic polarization among those who support Lula and the PT, on the one hand, and those that do not, on the other – is still incipient, and may remain so. It depends on two principal factors: the behavior of the criminal justice system and mobilization of advocates on the right and the left.
The Criminal Justice System Unchained
As respected foreign media outlets have noted, the criminal justice system engaged in grandstanding in how it recently took Lula into custody, and it remains to be seen whether the actors within this system can remain independent, yet disciplined and impartial in their tasks. This is particularly so because there is much resentment in the Federal Police – in addition to a worrisome vacuum – left in the wake of Justice Minister José Eduardo Cardozo’s untimely departure, less than a week ago. It is also so because the media is hardly discreet or nonpartisan in its coverage of corruption allegations. The nightly Jornal Nacional extended itself into the night to cover the Lula siege, which is something a de facto national newscast should not do.
2013 v. 2016 Protests
As for civic polarization, the Lula arrest confirmed suspicions among leftists that not only is the media and the right out for Worker Party (PT) blood, but the criminal justice system is as well. With their backs to the wall, Lula supporters may be ready for a fight. They may also get their chance on March 13th, when pro-impeachment forces take to the streets in Brazil-wide protests. As I wrote in 2013 with Chris Gaffney, the energizing quality of protests then was that they were archetypally about high taxes and poor government – antisystem. By contrast, 2016 protests are anti-PT. They have lost their nonpartisan charm, even for the moderate center-right. By mobilizing real anti-PTistas in a climate of increasing tension, they forebode the possibility of a real conflagration. Let’s hope that Brazilians’ reputation for peacefulness and cordiality holds true March 13th and beyond.