External Affairs

No ‘Jugaad’ Politics: Brazil Rises Against Austerity and Its Rich Elite

Growing unemployment caused by the neoliberal onslaught by a government that lacks legitimacy has prompted ordinary Brazilians to take to the streets.

Hundreds of thousands of unions members, activists and ordinary Brazilians march for their rights in the heart Sao Paulo, the country’s biggest city and financial capital. Credit: Ricardo Stuckert

Sao Paulo: Us Brazilians have a word in our language that has almost the same meaning as the Indian term ‘jugaad’. In Portuguese, it’s called ‘jeitinho‘ and it has a slightly negative connotation. But it perfectly captures the Brazilian way of doing things either by innovation or by “bending the rules” to win a game. Like India, it’s visible on the Brazilian street – and football pitch – every day. Like Indians, us Brazilians are also seen by some outsiders as having a “chalta hai” (everything goes) attitude because of our easy-going way of life. They also say that that the only thing that brings our country to a complete halt is football – either by massive euphoria over a win or collective grief over a loss.

Though stereotypical, there is an element of truth in these depictions of Brazil. But we Brazilians also have a tendency for surprising the world – and ourselves – by behaving in a completely different manner than expected of us. Like footballers of our golden past, we can rise to the occasion.

Right now, we are in the middle of one such moment.

Starting last Friday, Brazil came to a grinding halt as millions struck work, took to the streets, shouted angry slogans and faced rubber bullets and pepper spray from an aggressive police force. This explosion of public anger didn’t happen over a game of football. The largest South American country was brought to a standstill as more than 35 million people joined the biggest general strike in more than two decades against neoliberal reforms and austerity measures being imposed on the majority of its 210 million people by the government of President Michel Temer whose approval rating stands at a pathetic 4%, according to a latest survey.

On Friday, public transport was crippled in big cities like Rio and Sao Paulo, factories were shut in large parts of the country, schools and colleges were closed, and union activists, teachers, nurses, workers and ordinary citizens from all walks of life walked the streets across the country. On May 1, Labour Day, they came out again in big numbers despite threats of police repression. And more such strikes have been planned in coming months. In just three to four days, Brazil’s masses have paralysed the country and sent a clear message to the government and its elite backers: they will not keep quiet as the government burdens them with more austerity; and they will not accept a jugaad government put in place by bending and breaking all the rules of a functioning democracy.

Buses burn during clashes between demonstrators and riot police in a protest against President Michel Temer’s proposed reform of Brazil’s social security system, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, April 28, 2017. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Lack of legitimacy

At the heart of the current crisis – and the main target of public anger – is Temer who is president of the biggest South American economy not because he was elected to office but because he masterminded a “parliamentary coup” against former President Dilma Rousseff with the help of a clutch of corrupt parliamentarians, old money bags and the oligarchic-controlled media, which were all hell-bent on removing from office the country’s first female president who, ironically, did not have a single corruption charge against her. Rousseff’s impeachment, in 2016, was a big blow to a nascent democracy like Brazil’s. The majority of more than 54 million people who voted for Rousseff in the 2014 elections saw it as nothing short of a coup, engineered by Temer to protect the corrupt and implement the agenda of the elite, which had grown impatient with social welfare policies during 13 years of Workers Party rule.

Temer has now been running Brazil for a year – with disastrous consequences. An uncharismatic figure who made a career out of backroom deals, Temer was put in office for a reason: to thrust the bitter pill of austerity down the throat of unsuspecting people. Knowing fully well that he had no chance to get elected to the highest office ever, Temer was more than willing to do the bidding of the rich elite. In September 2016, soon after Rousseff’s impeachment, when former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso was asked about Temer’s “fragile government”, he said that this was the only option “we have.”

Cardoso, who played an active role in Rousseff’s impeachment, was rather candid in his admission that Temer was a “bad option” but he was the only one who could deliver the impeachment and reforms that would follow. This was the worst case of political jugaad concocted by the country’s elite, with the intention of protecting their privileges at the cost of everyone else.

Since assuming power, Temer has been working overtime to get approved by parliament some of the most unpopular measures ever, mainly labour and pension reforms. Using the economic recession as an excuse, the government has been trying to push extreme austerity while robbing the workers of their constitutionally-guaranteed rights, without any dialogue with the unions or civil society groups. With Brazilian democracy almost broken and the government turning the country into a neoliberal laboratory, people have been forced to take to the streets – against austerity, the so-called reforms and Temer’s lack of legitimacy.

Forever a political operator, Temer has earned several monikers for his cryptic facial expression and political machinations. In Brasilia, both friends and foes refer to him as the ‘Butler of Horror Movies’. On social media, he is mocked as a “vampire”. And in just one year in office, Temer has transformed himself into one of the most despicable public figures in Brazilian history. His latest nickname is “Mr. 4%”, referring to the percentage of Brazilians that still support him.

In such a grim scenario, Temer has no legitimacy to carry out measures that will have a huge impact on the lives of ordinary Brazilians (some foreign publications still call him Brazil’s “interim president”). He is being accused of negotiating a $40 million bribe in 2010 for his party, PMDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party), the most corrupt political entity in the country. To make it worse, nine of Temer’s ministers are being investigated for corruption. And with his austerity drive, Temer has caused more unemployment, deepened the recession and caused more damage to the already fragile economy.

Members of Brazil’s Movimento dos Sem-Teto (Roofless Movement) shout slogans as they try open the front door of a vacant building in Sao Paulo. Credit: Reuters/Nacho Doce

A shameful self-goal

In 2013, a year before the country hosted the Fifa World Cup, Brazil looked like a country of promise. At the end of 2013, when Rousseff was serving her first term, the unemployment rate had fallen to a record low of 4.3%. (That was the lowest it has been since the current version of the Brazilian unemployment rate was first reported in 2002). At that time, the country was growing at a decent rate and was politically stable. Today, Brazil is a different country. The jobless rate has shot to 13.7%. Today, more than 13.5 million Brazilians are out of work, which is 3.4 million more than in the same period a year earlier. The much-promised economic recovery is nowhere in sight.

Temer’s promise of putting the economy back on track has simply failed. His austerity measures have been like a self-goal, putting us on the path to defeat. The welfare cuts have inflicted more misery on people already reeling under the economic crisis. But for Temer, who has over-committed himself to foreign investors and local elite, the solution to the failure of austerity is more austerity. That’s what he has been threatening to do.

But with his pension reforms, which will force many ordinary Brazilians to work for more years to be eligible for smaller pensions, Temer has crossed the red line with his people. Two massive protests in three days show that it won’t be easy for Temer to do the job the market hired him for. The ordinary Brazilian, tired of falling living standards, is in no mood to swallow the bitter pill prescribed by a corrupt elite. Such is the mood in the country that even the head of the Brazilian Catholic church and some Evangelical churches too have given their support to the general strike. The protests on Friday were violently repressed in some states by the military police, but people again hit the streets on Monday – with more slogans against austerity and Temer.

While he remains unpopular at home, Temer has been trying to garner support abroad by wooing the global financial elite. Ironically, Temer’s austerity measures have been inspired by Spain, where it wreaked havoc by creating weak jobs with smaller wages. Under pressure from the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and the Big Money lobby, Spain has almost ruined its economy, caused major unemployment and sparked massive protests.

Brazil is now repeating the same story. And, despite evidence to the contrary, Temer is being praised for his “bold” initiatives in the western media. In 2016, soon after he took over the government, The Economist noted that Temer’s “talk of privatisation, deregulation and fiscal discipline has cheered investors.” The British magazine also praised his plans for “a 20-year freeze on public spending in real terms and a reform of the pension system”. In a recent article for Time magazine, Ian Bremmer, who works for the Eurasia Group, heavily praised Temer’s austerity drive, which includes a 20-year constitutionally enforced freeze on investment in public education and health. While the public boils with anger at home, the global financial elite continues to have faith in Temer, primarily because of his commitment to their neoliberal agenda. Last year, in a speech to business and foreign policy leaders in New York, Temer blurted out that Rousseff was “impeached because of her position on economic policy, rather than any alleged wrongdoing on her part”. That unscripted remark was almost an acceptance of what the impeachment opponents have always called it: a coup.

But you don’t hear that word in the mainstream media.

A demonstrator takes part in a protest against President Michel Temer’s proposed reform of Brazil’s social security system in Sao Paulo, Brazil, April 28, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Nacho Doce

Big money, big media

On Friday, when the biggest South American economy stood paralysed because of a general strike, social media was buzzing with photos and videos of the strike. But the news was moving really slow in the mainstream media – national and international. Craig Murray, a former British diplomat known for his proximity to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and for his frank views, tweeted: “Most important news today is the general strike in Brazil against the ultra-corrupt CIA coup regime. Media will not tell you this”.

Murray was totally right. The Brazilian mainstream media, controlled by a few rich families, is the most self-censored and compromised media in the world. Most Brazilian TV channels and newspapers tried their best to black out and underplay the general strike and covered it only in a negative manner by focusing on violence and traffic problems. Luis Costa Pinto, an analyst from the website Poder360 – one of the new, independent digital media initiatives – commented that the mainstream media is like an iceberg, very far away from reality. “The iceberg observes from a distance the continent’s melting and they prefer to believe in a Sea of Roses that only the mainstream media can see,” Costa Pinto wrote in an article on Friday.

But the media, rich elite and the corrupt regime in this country have a symbiotic relationship, with each benefitting from the actions of the others. The Temer government, backed by the elite, has tried to sell the unpopular austerity measures as a good thing to the people with the help of the media, which is completely uncritical of the Temer government.

Their calculations, however, are going wrong. Anger is growing against the government and the elite. The Temer government is adding fuel to the fire by imposing more unpopular policies. Recently, the lower house of parliament approved a new labour law that would allow Brazilian companies to fire their permanent employees and contract them again as outsourced workers. This reform was lobbied for by some 208 members of parliament who are supported by big companies. To add insult to injury, just two days before the general strike, the Supreme Court decided that the top public servants could receive a salary of more than $140,000 a year. Some 50% of Brazilians survive on the minimum wage of $4,000, which is now also under threat.

During their 13 years in power, the Workers Party did commit some grave mistakes. Some of its top leaders indulged in corruption. But both Lula and Rousseff worked hard to create more economic equality and guaranteed labour rights for working-class Brazilians. As all that is being taken away by a president who is neither elected nor enjoys any legitimacy, the country is rising in revolt. According to a latest survey, seven out of ten Brazilians oppose the pension reform. The rejection among civil servants reaches 83%. The anti-reform sentiment is high in all socio-demographic groups, according to the survey.

Brazil is crying out for a change. According to another survey, the majority of Brazilians (85%) want direct presidential elections now. People don’t want to wait till 2018 to choose a new president. Even as a massive 96% reject the current president of Brazil, the popularity of Lula is growing and he is leading all the opinion polls for 2018. After the general strike paralysed Brazil and shook the Temer government, Lula said: “I want to be president again”.

There’s a long time to go until October 2018, when the elections are due. A lot can happen in between. Lula may or may not run, and may or may not win the next election. But the Brazilian people are in no mood to accept the bending of rules that favour a few and make the majority suffer. The Brazilian street has a message for its elite: No more jugaad politics.

Florencia Costa is a Brazilian journalist based in Sao Paulo. She is the author of Os Indianos (The Indians)