February 15, 2018
Volatile Times for Brazil’s Human Rights
By Eyal Weinberg
Eyal Weinberg is a PhD candidate in the History Department at The University of Texas at Austin, and he is a member of the 2017-2018 Working Paper Series Editorial Committee. His area of focus is twentieth-century Brazil.
The decision of Porto Alegre’s appeals court to uphold the corruption conviction of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva three weeks ago (1/24/2018) threw Brazil into turmoil. The former Brazilian president (2003-2010) is the last to be targeted in the grandiose “Car Wash” investigation, a major probe into the rampant corruption in Brazil’s political and economic systems. The ruling was not the first to remove a powerful figure from Brazil’s political landscape; since 2014, special prosecution task forces have secured the imprisonment of various influential politicians and business moguls. But Lula’s conviction overshadows all previous spectacular moments of the Car Wash investigation. A study by the Getulio Vargas Foundation has already concluded that the ruling was the leading political event on social media in Brazil in the past two years, counting 1.2 million online references in less than 24 hours.
The implications of the ruling exceed the realms of social media, of course. Last July, the court found Lula guilty of receiving a beachside apartment from a construction company in exchange for lucrative contracts in state projects. Now, the appellate court not only unanimously declined Lula’s appeal, but also voted to increase his sentence from nine to twelve years in prison. More than sending one of the most popular presidents in Brazilian history to jail, the sentence makes Lula ineligible to run for the coming October presidential elections (under Brazil’s Clean Slate law). The former union leader-turned president still has a few more routes of appeal left—he has denied any wrongdoing and already reaffirmed his presidential nomination—but the prospects are far from rosy.
Public opinion is very much divided over the recent court’s decision. Opponents of Lula celebrated the ruling and the ousting of whom they consider the “head of a crime organization.” The Brazilian stock exchange closed on a record high (up 3.72 percent) on the day of the verdict, indicating how badly investors wanted Lula out. Demonstrating the judiciary’s mistrust in the former president, a federal judge ordered the seizure of Lula’s passport the following day. Lula’s supporters, however, are confident in his innocence and maintain that the Car Wash investigation has deteriorated into a political witch-hunt against him and the Workers’ Party. They point to irregularities in the tribunal’s proceedings and see its ruling as a direct continuation of the 2016 impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff (Lula’s successor in the Workers’ Party). Even some conservative commentators criticized the judicial process. Indeed, the hastiness of the appellate court in considering Lula’s appeal—typical cases wait in line for over a year before getting a hearing—and the fact that his charges were far less severe than those of other politicians who stole millions but were never indicted cast the court’s decision in a suspicious light, at best.
For now, however, Lula leads the polls, earning over 36 percent of the potential votes in the coming October election. What is the reason for his enduring strong appeal? Lula’s magnetic charisma, and the Workers Party’s sophisticated political mechanism that cultivates support across Brazil’s poor northeast are key factors. It is also true that none of the other presidential hopefuls have yet been able to offer a compelling platform, and voters tend to stick with what they remember to have worked. But this is only half the story. Perhaps it is worthwhile to revisit some of the advancements Lula and his successor Rousseff have implemented during their terms, particularly in regards to human rights.
The biggest success of Lula’s government was the transformative and internationally-celebrated bolsa família program, which lifted 20 million Brazilians above poverty level. The plan, part of Lula’s Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) policy, was accompanied by various other programs that expanded access to postsecondary education (ProUni), increased rural credit to poor farmers (PRONAF), and reduced food insecurity (PAA). The administration also raised the minimum wage and advanced policy change in regards to housing, health, and land rights for various populations (among them quilombo communities). Many of these programs were further expanded under Dilma Rousseff’s Brasil Sem Miseria (Brazil Without Extreme Poverty) policy. Lula’s government also promoted racial equality and encouraged affirmative action mechanisms in the education system (through REUNI and SINAPIR). Rousseff later enacted the latter, passing the pioneering Quotas Law that requires federal universities to reserve up to 50% of their admission spots to students of low-income families and African or indigenous descent. Of course, Rousseff’s centerpiece of human rights policy was the formation of Brazil’s National Truth Commission (2012-2014), which examined human right violations taking place under the country’s military dictatorship (1964-1985).
This concise list indicates the level of commitment to social and human rights policy under the Workers’ Party rule. This is in addition to a momentous reform in environmental policy, which among other things drove deforestation of the Amazon down by over 80% (through the PPCDAm plan). Notwithstanding various criticisms levelled against some of the above programs, Lula and Rousseff’s agenda had a dramatic, typically positive effect on the lives of Brazilians, particularly low-income citizens. It is perhaps no surprise that Lula still captures the hearts of millions of voters. President Michel Temer, who took office after Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016, had already scaled down many of Lula’s initiated programs. The long-time supporter of the soy and cattle rancher oligarchy had also promoted concessions to mining in national protected areas, launched a massive privatization plan, curbed public spending, and is set to pass more austerity measures—among them a substantial cut in pension benefits. Just last month President of the Lower House Rodrigo Maia had publicly said that the Bolsa Família program “enslaves people.”
To be sure, the current alternatives for the presidency pale in comparison to the now convicted-former president Lula. Temer is perhaps the least favorite president since the end of military rule. His approval ratings are in the single digit range, and in recent poll, 90% of Brazilians said they would not vote for any candidate aligned with the current government’s platform. More alarming is the fact that the leadership vacuum invites reactionary, threatening waves. Currently second in the polls for the 2018 Presidential election is federal congressman Jair Bolsonaro, a former military officer who aspires to be Brazil’s next Trump—or perhaps Rodrigo Duterte. Promising to uproot corruption for good, Bolsonaro has already expressed his support of torture and extrajudicial killing of criminals. Various times he spoke about the military dictatorship with nostalgia, reminiscing of the regime’s “law and order.” And he suggested that beating your children can prevent them from becoming gay.
Bolsonaro’s controversial homophobic, racist, and hateful statements find sympathetic ears with those despaired of the ongoing economic recession, political stagnation, and peaking crime rate. Many of them have lost faith in the democratic institutions, and are slowly moving towards acceptance of authoritarianism. A recent survey concluded that 43% of the population would support a “temporary military intervention,” and another poll showed that 23% of Brazilians would back either a military regime or a “strong leader.” As the notion of a military coup is no longer taboo in public debate, and with Lula’s political future uncertain, Brazilians—and especially human rights advocates—should brace themselves for an intense, explosive year.