As a Brazilian working on political reform in the United States, most of my interactions with coworkers and friends lately have largely consisted of me trying to answer variations of the question, “What is going on in Brazil right now?” While I can answer some parts of this question—the short version is that the country is embroiled in a political and economic corruption crisis. But that's the answer to what's happening "right now." The answer to the question of "what's going on in Brazil" lies deeper, somewhere between what's happened in the country's political past and what will become of its future.
To go there, I've spoken with a few Brazilians and tried to gain not only a more nuanced understanding of the situation, but also a grasp on what the current chaos is doing to the psyche of the country and its citizens, as well as what that might mean for future generations of Brazilians. (This comes with the caveat that this is not a representative sample, since those I spoke to are mostly middle-class people from São Paulo who are observing the situation closely.)
Here is what’s going on:
Today’s protests are very different from those of 2013
The 2013 protests had a much more populist feel to them. Back then, the demonstrators demanding lower bus fares, and better education and health care had a real sense that they, the people, were driving the conversation. The demands seemed to be shared by all Brazilians, regardless of party affiliation, all of whom could—and, to some extent, did—join forces in making their arguments. In addition, the 2013 protests were more focused on regional interests and social spending priorities. (It should also be noted that despite all of this, the 2013 requests went mostly unanswered.)
Today’s protests carry a very different narrative: They are more nationally (as opposed to regionally) oriented, and demands seem to be focused on fiscal policies. Moreover, there is an understanding that those who go to the streets ought to take a side. You are either for or against Rousseff’s government, and that matters. A lot.
On the anti-government side, many have been motivated to protest by anger over the many corruption scandals. For some, the Petrobras scandal was the tipping point that took them from social media into the streets. Facebook posts alone would not lead to change.
For those who see the impeachment process as a coup, their reluctance to support Rousseff’s removal from office has stemmed from a sense that the judicial process “created a narrative where only a few individuals were targeted as guilty.” More specifically, they don’t buy the version of the story where only PT (Rousseff’s Workers’ Party) was responsible for the corruption of Brazilian democracy; and the lack of concrete evidence that Rousseff was directly involved in the corrupt dealings reinforced the sense of unfairness and one-sidedness of the process. It creates, according to an interviewee who works at a public institution in Brazil and is against the impeachment, a “discomfort, because they feel that their choice (the democratic election of Rousseff as president) is not being respected.”
Another interviewee, who’s a lawyer and supporter of the impeachment process, said: “This second wave of protests is not a continuation of those of two years ago,” and making that distinction is crucial in understanding who chooses to participate in them, why they do so, and where the leadership for those protests stands. And this seems to be something that outside observers have failed to understand.
There is an overwhelming sense of broken trust amongst Brazilians, who are incredibly aware of the consequences of the current crisis
Trust, in general, has never been Brazilians’ forte. Brazil has always walked a fine line between trust and lack thereof in their government (perhaps this tense relationship with those in positions of power is due to the country’s colonial past). This tension has manifested itself not only in Brazilians’ trust of institutions, but also in how the country has been perceived by the international community.
The one thing that all Brazilians seem to agree on is this: They have been betrayed, and they are tired of it. It has become increasingly common to hear Brazilians justify their taking to the streets as their way of taking ownership of the current state Brazilian politics is in, and finding a way to have a say in what decisions are made at higher levels.
This has been both a blessing and a curse. There has been a remarkable uptick in Brazilians’ political engagement, curiosity, and sense of ownership of the process. And it is across generations. One of the interviewees who is a teacher, said that the level of interest in his teenage students in what is going on (particularly in the realm of social issues, such as LGBTQ and abortion rights) is astounding, and something that he had not himself experienced five or ten years ago. Another interviewee, an unemployed recent college graduate, said that he has noticed an increased number of people in his social circles wanting to have conversations about what is going on in Brazil. “Now,” he said, “a lot of people who hardly ever talked about politics, are now showing interest.”
But so, too, are there those who fear that the current moment will turn Brazilians—in particular young Brazilians—off of and away from the political process. There are large concerns about unemployment and underemployment for many young Brazilians, who have recently graduated from college and have entered the workforce, and for whom the prospects for an exciting and promising career are dim. For these Brazilians, the current situation might lead to a deep disenfranchisement, and a disregard for tolerance and compromise.
Nobody really knows who’s to blame for what is going on, or what happens next
While Brazilians can and do agree on how messed up things are (very messed up), and that many actors are to blame, they are having a hard time pinpointing who those are. This seems to be adding to the sense of frustration that Brazilians are experiencing—we're stuck in a cycle of crisis without fully understanding who or what got us there. As an interviewee, who’s a professor of political science, mentioned, unlike the impeachment of 1992 (where there was no doubt that then-President Fernando Collor de Mello, the first popularly elected Latin American president to be impeached for corruption, had committed crimes that warranted his removal from office), today’s scenario is more complex. The web of involved actors is so intricate that even the experts can’t name the actors responsible for the current economic and political crises.
There might be a reason why that is the case. Corruption is a symptom. The disease, according to some Brazilians, is the way the political system in Brazil has been set up: a presidential coalition, a large number of political parties, and a federal government that is so large that it is impossible to say that one single actor or party is responsible for any and all malaise that the country is experiencing. The accusations that Rousseff and her party are facing are a consequence of a system that has fostered backhand and permissive dealings. A system that has allowed for a lack of accountability and transparency, and that has fractured Brazil itself.
Greater than the question of who is to blame, however, is what happens next. Will Brazil get out of this crisis as a renewed, stronger democracy? For those who see Rousseff’s government as the main culprit, the answer is yes. Others however, frustrated at the heightened political tone of the impeachment, which for them has undermined judicial legitimacy, believe that this is simply a swap of corrupt elites, and that nothing will change. Still others believe that Rousseff’s removal will not be the silver bullet that many hope for, but that it will nevertheless bring some sense of stability to the country, and that perhaps Michel Temer, Rousseff’s likely successor, will do a better job than she did.
What is important in the long term, however, and what seems to be lost in these conversations is that “fixing Brazil” entails much more than removing a president from office, even if that president was indeed to blame for the current crisis, as some believe her to be. Fixing Brazil means being cognizant of deep, structural issues that the country has and that have hampered its ability to thrive economically, or to provide its citizens the services that they deserve.
That means not presenting a favorable international market as national growth and progress. That means understanding and being able to deal with the consequences that come with big government (and deciding to keep it, if that is what the people want). That requires improvements in the tax code, pensions, overall infrastructure, and much more.
Complex situations yield complex explanations and narratives. As a consequence, predicting what is going to happen in Brazil in the next months and years is, at least for now, nearly impossible. But some of the things to be watching for will be whether or not Temer will deliver the economic reforms that those who demanded Rousseff’s removal want (probably not); if the Olympics will be either a great success that takes some of the heat off, or a disaster that really shows structural problems in the government (likely the latter); and to what extent the impeachment process will restore or even more greatly tarnish Brazilians’ trust in their democracy (this one is a real toss-up).
Finding the answers to these questions might take years, but it is where I’ll be looking at, and you should be, too.
Because that’s what’s going on in Brazil right now.