Until recently, Brazil’s former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had been lucky. He hadn’t been involved with the scandal and rumors floating around his successor, Dilma Rousseff, a member of his same political party.
Protests against the government have sprung up around the country, and an impeachment process is underway for Rousseff. On Friday, a large pro-government protest took place in the city of Sao Paulo. The competing racial and social dynamics of the protests show the true nature of inequality in Brazil.
While corruption in the government is always a big deal, Lula and Rousseff are part of a systematic problem in Brazilian politics.
Lula and Rousseff are both members of the leftist Worker’s Party, whose policies attempt to curb the massive inequalities Brazilians face. The richest 20 percent of the Brazilian population maintains 33 times the income share of the poorest 20 percent. This isn’t something that can go away overnight. The economic growth that occurred in Brazil prior to the current crash showed great promise toward raising the standard of living since the percent of the population in poverty dropped from 25.2 to just 7.4. But when the economy crashed, the burden fell primarily on the poor, working class and racial minorities in Brazil.
Why, then, was the overwhelming majority of those protesting against the government at the largest Rousseff protest in Sao Paulo, 77 percent, white when nationally that percentage is only 48 percent?
It is not because there are not minorities and poor people unhappy with the corruption in Brazilian politics, but the anti-government protests have generally been exclusionary toward lower class and racial minorities, who are also the main benefactors of Worker’s Party policies. One such policy is the social program Bolsa Familia, which has helped to lower the poverty rate.
A nanny named Maria Angélica Lima was exposed to public attention when she was photographed with her two white employers on the way to the protests.
“Unfortunately nothing’s going to change. If [Rousseff] leaves, the one who comes in will continue to steal,” Lima said. “Unfortunately, that’s the way Brazil is. And the ones who suffer are us — poor people, the lower class. The people who’ve got their money, the politicians who have it so good, they’re going to be fine. And the ones who are always going to have it the worst are the poor.”
Since the Worker’s Party has been able to garner support from the overwhelming majority of poor and working class voters, the compulsory voting in Brazil has given them a boost. Other political parties have been unable to electorally defeat the Worker’s Party in the last four election cycles. Many Rousseff supporters have suggested the corruption scandal has been publicized as a politically motivated smear campaign more than a statement on corruption in the Brazilian political system.
“Five of the members of the impeachment commission are themselves being criminally investigated as part of the corruption scandal,” said an article by The Intercept. “That includes Paulo Maluf, who faces an Interpol warrant for his arrest and has not been able to leave the country for years; he has been sentenced in France to three years in prison for money laundering. Of the 65 members of the House impeachment committee, 36 currently face pending legal proceedings.”
The people involved with this corruption are not all members of the Worker’s Party, and as The Intercept suggests, corruption is extensive in Brazilian politics.
Lula was also recently given a position on Rousseff’s cabinet as chief of staff, which protects him politically and judicially because only the Supreme Court can prosecute members of the cabinet. One judge who ruled to block Lula’s appointment released tapes that suggested the appointment was to save Lula from further investigation. It has been rumored that Lula planned to run again for president in 2018, but his arrest in this scandal could stop that from happening.
For whatever reason Lula’s appointment was orchestrated, it is clear that inequality has become the gasoline poured on the already burning fire of corruption in Brazilian politics. The problem isn’t in assigning guilt because there is already enough blame to go around.
Mass protests are leading to major political unrest while the world is paying attention in preparation for the upcoming Summer Olympics in Sao Paulo. Two conflicting images of Brazil arise from these protests for and against the government as the social and economic stratification in Brazil plays out in these political movements. With pressure mounting, the political and social struggle are becoming more intense and deciding the democratic future of the country.
Juniors Annie Chester and Alena Klimas also contribute to this featured blog, “Critical International Media Perspectives.”