When last we looked at Brazil, it had emerged from a stormy and dramatic election to reelect its president, Dilma Rousseff — battered and ill-tempered, maybe, but with a clear majority endorsing Dilma’s Worker’s Party’s platform and legacy. Events have moved on. The corruption scandal at Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned oil company, has only worsened, and Dilma’s personal popularity is in the gutter. The streets of Brazil’s major cities are packed with angry citizens calling for her removal.
Petrobras (Petróleo Brasileiro) is one of the icons of Brazil’s economy. It was created in 1953 by Getúlio Vargas, Brazil’s great (if somewhat controversial and definitely complicated) midcentury dictator, as part of a program to protect Brazil’s nascent industries from foreign domination by bringing them under state control. It lost its monopoly over the petroleum industry under the more conservative administration of President Fernando Cardoso in the ’90s, but it’s still a titan in that sector, controlling oil platforms, refineries, equipment and ships and buying these things from private companies under Worker’s Party auspices.
During Brazil’s boom in the ’00s, Petrobras created thousands of jobs, nurtured other industries, and made new offshore oil discoveries, but it also ran up an unsustainable debt — it is now considered the world’s most indebted company. Thanks to the recent slump in global oil prices, Petrobras is no longer the beacon of prosperity it once was.
Petrobras is now badly tarnished by an epic corruption scandal. It has conspired with construction companies to funnel money — a LOT of money — to politicians and back to itself. Some of it was used to fund the 2010 election, when Dilma was first elected; some of it has gone to pay bribes; some of it has gone to line the pockets of the fatcats at the top. While the corruption scandal was an issue in the election, its scale has recently come to light: a whopping $22 billion lost from Petrobras’s coffers between 2003 and 2010.
“Operation Lava Jato” (Car Wash) has netted several high-ranking politicos so far: the head of the Senate (Renan Calheiros), the head of the Chamber of Deputies, the legislature’s other chamber (Eduardo Cunha), a former energy minister (Edison Lobao) and a former president (Fernando Collor de Mello). One high-ranking politician that hasn’t been caught yet is Dilma herself. In a televised speech on March 8 to mark International Women’s Day, she stressed that, even though she was on the Petrobras board during the same time the corruption took place, she wasn’t involved at all, and promised to take care of the problem.
Many Brazilians couldn’t hear her; they were too busy banging pots. Banging pots (panelaço) is a Latino protest tradition, and thousands of people outraged at their politicians’ venality drowned out Dilma’s predictable words. The noise was augmented on March 15, the 30th anniversary of Brazil’s return to democracy, by massive marches in cities all over the country, including Brasilia, Belo Horizonte, and Copacabana Beach in Rio. The big one, of course, was on Avenida Paulista in São Paulo, Brazil’s megalopolis. The government had braced for an angry reaction due to calls for a protest on social media, but the scale surprised it anyway: at least a million in São Paulo alone!
For the most part, the protests were just about pot-banging and marching; they were peaceful. Some marchers dressed up in costume; the main uniform was the green-and-yellow jersey of Brazil’s soccer team. Sometimes protesters sang songs from Brazil’s democracy movement, which is sort of ironic considering that Dilma was a storied fighter in that movement. But it’s clear that she is now considered part of the Establishment, feasting off of the glory of her beloved predecessor and misusing public money. Many protesters called for her impeachment, which is still a distant prospect. Some even clamored for a military intervention, which didn’t go over very well on the anniversary of the end of a military dictatorship.
Although the protests were aimed at Dilma and the Petrobras scandal, corruption is a familiar part of Brazilian life, and many Brazilians are used to corruption scandals and shady deals among their politicians (although this one dwarfs the previous ones in scope). Brazil’s dreary economy forms the backdrop to the discontent and fuels it. Since the election, Brazil has tipped over into a full-blown recession, with total economic growth of a mere .1%. The real is falling; inflation is the highest it’s been in 10 years. Strikes, water shortages, energy rationing, high taxes and bus fares (the last one being the cause of the last wave of protests in 2013) are blighting the country. Commodity prices are slumping. To pay off the debt, Brazil is set to put through dreaded austerity programs that could slice off 6.75% of its GDP. It’s in danger of getting an international credit rating downgrade.
Many of the protesters didn’t vote for Dilma last year anyway. Her opponent last year, Aécio Neves, won 48.4% of the vote. (Look at the map in my other Brazil blog post: São Paulo was in his camp.) They are also mostly white and middle-class, which made them easy to dismiss as the outcry of a privileged elite sore over losing election after election for years. (There’s a joke going around that the protesters first had to ask their maids where the pots were.) Dilma’s staunchest supporters, the poor, black, and northeasterners, were less sympathetic to the protests, and generally stood by a regime that gave them more money and social benefits than they’d ever enjoyed before. There were also earlier pro-Dilma protests, but they made a much smaller impact and only drew about 1,000 supporters.
Still, the scale and geographic spread of the protests shows how far Dilma’s star has faded since last year. Her approval rating is now a miserable 13% and her credibility is tattered. And there were several working-class and poor protesters as well. It’s clearer than ever that, like her leftist counterpart Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, she can’t capture the charisma that propelled her predecessor, Lula da Silva, to nearly universal popularity. Even her coalition partners are beginning to turn against her, although the opposition’s calls for impeachment seem pretty unlikely.
If there’s a bright spot to all this, it’s the protests themselves. 30 years ago, Brazil’s rulers would stamp out any sign of dissent, much less allow a protest. With a former Marxist revolutionary in Brasilia, the government stood by and let the people vent. Dilma even explicitly endorsed their right to protest. Whatever the problems in Brazil’s businesses and government, at least its democratic culture is flourishing like never before. The Lava Jato investigation is also a sign of the success of Brazil’s freedom of information laws and a general desire to do something about transparency and corruption — this wouldn’t even have come to light in other corrupt countries. Whether or not real change will come to Brazil’s political (or even everyday) culture, however, is harder to say.