Brazil doesn’t do things by halves.
Three years ago, visiting the country you could still sense the optimism about the future, but now the country is in the grip of a downward spiral driven by pessimism fuelled by relentlessly negative media coverage.
In 2013, the economy, which weathered the global economic crisis of 2008 pretty well, was still growing at just under 3% a year and the government of President Dilma Rousseff was still regarded positively by a majority.
Fast-forward to today, the economy is in a deep recession that’s yet to bottom out.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, President Rousseff’s popularity is in the doldrums and there have been renewed protests this weekend calling for her to resign or be impeached.
The international media has focussed on these headlines and of course the huge corruption scandal known as “Lava Jato”, which began as an investigation into money laundering, but has exposed the misappropriation of huge sums from the national oil company, Petrobras, to use for funding campaign finance and pay bribes to facilitate the scheme.
The scandal has seen journalists reach for comparisons with Brazil’s famous telenovelas produced by media giant Globo.
It’s almost irresistible for them given the intricacy of the scandal’s plot, its constant revelations and the names of those implicated or investigated, which now include former President Lula himself.
But this is not a telenovela, it is really happening.
The losses Petrobras has incurred from the scandal have badly damaged the company, which has also been hit by the collapse in global oil prices.
Other large Brazilian companies, like the construction firm Odebrecht, which a few years ago were expanding successfully abroad, have been implicated in the scandal and their operations undermined too – CEO, Marcelo Odebrecht, was recently given 19 years for paying bribes to Petrobras executives.
But the scandal is not just damaging the economy; it’s also threatening to reverse the social gains Brazil has made under the leadership of Lula and his successor President Rousseff of the Workers’ Party, PT.
Less than twenty years ago, Brazil was one of the most unequal countries in the world. But under the PT presidencies, 30 million Brazilians (out of population of 200 million) have been lifted out of poverty by federal government action.
The Bolsa Familia scheme, where the poor get cash supplements if they vaccinate their children and send them to school, along with extending employment rights to workers who’d previously worked on a casual basis have been very effective. There have also been attempts at affirmative action to give poorer Brazilians more opportunities in education.
But not everyone in the country has welcomed this. Many of the wealthy and the middle classes, who have been prominent in the anti-Rousseff protests organised by right-wing activists, resent these changes passionately.
They don’t like that their maids now have better employment protection. They complain their children can’t get into their first choice university because the government is reserving places for poorer people. I have even heard well educated, seemingly sensible people say the PT is trying to turn Brazil into Cuba.
Such an idea would be risible if the stakes weren’t so serious.
There is no doubt Rousseff has made mistakes on the economy and has failed to tackle much needed reform of the federal and state government finances.
But ironically, she has done more to try to fight corruption than any of her predecessors. During her first term, ministers accused of corruption had to resign – something pretty much unheard of before – and she has not tried to interfere in the “Lava Jato” investigations, despite the growing evidence they are being used to undermine her and her party.
But then Brazil’s main media outlets’ coverage of the corruption scandal is a bit like a magicians trick.
With one hand they reveal the spectacle of the latest developments in the scandal and the economic crisis, while the other hand obscures some inconvenient truths.
That the media-fuelled hysteria around “Lava Jato” is actually deepening the economic crisis.
That Brazil has always had political corruption and – while that doesn’t justify what members of PT may have done – all parties, significantly the main opposition PSDB included, are implicated.
That the Congress, which is the most right-wing in recent Brazilian history, is quietly trying to reverse progressive legislation, such as moving to water down the country’s internationally-praised anti-slave labour code and reducing the age of criminal responsibility.
Media giants, like Globo and Abril, publishers of the news magazine Veja – dominated by wealthy families – are underplaying these developments, while trying to delegitimise PT by focussing almost exclusively on allegations against its members with little presumption of innocence.
The objective seems to be to get PT out of power, perhaps permanently, so the social programmes the party has championed can be reversed.
One of the positives that some drew from the “Lava Jato” investigation was that it seemed to show democratic institutions and the separation of executive and judicial powers are well entrenched in Brazil, despite it being only 30 years since the end of military rule.
But that may have been over optimistic.
The prosecutors may not be as independent and high-minded as it first appeared, given it now appears from the way Lula was detained earlier this month that they are helping the media campaign against PT.
When the former President was detained for questioning, it was clear Globo had been tipped off so their cameras could be there when the unnecessarily large police contingent turned up to take the former President away.
The timing was also suspicious coming as it did only hours after the Supreme Court ruled the Speaker of Congress, Eduardo Cunha, who, despite being a member of the PMDB party which is officially in coalition with PT, has been leading the charge in Congress to impeach Rousseff (yes, the politics is complicated as well as corrupt), could stand trial.
So, on Globo’s nightly news most Brazilians watch there was little mention of Cunha, instead there was extended coverage of Lula’s detention with constant references to him as “O Petista” (the PT member) to hammer home the message that the whole party is corrupt and uniquely to blame for “Lava Jato”.
The international media, concentrated as it is in Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, has also largely failed to dig deeper and challenge this narrative.
So maybe the pessimists are right.
Not just because the economy is in a deepening hole – though that will rebound eventually.
But because the progress that has seen the federal government make a difference – often for the first time – to the lives of millions of poorer Brazilians all over the country is at grave risk of being reversed by the reactionary movement hiding behind the anti-corruption drive.
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