The Queen of Hearts

A lament on Brazil’s election of Bolsonaro, with tips on what to do.

Brazil has just elected a charismatic far-right loon, Jair Messias (sic) Bolsonaro, as its next President. Political junkies can study his campaign website and programme (pdf download), but these documents are more than usually irrelevant. His extraordinary rise from the backbenches in Brasilia has not been based on policy – zero-based budgeting, anybody? – but on tricolour smoke and mirrors, spread by WhatsApp.

A press summary of the programme indicates that there is very little of substance in it. Economy: austerity, privatizations. Taxes: cut (though most Brazilians will find any cuts are taken back by the ideological shift to a capitalized pension scheme). Corruption: lock ‘em up (PT politicians that is). Crime: a free hand to the police to shoot suspects; easier access to guns (I am not making this up). Environment: open up the Amazon to agribusiness. Foreign policy: follow Trump. Education: back to basics, national anthem. Rights of indigenous peoples, LGBTQ, lefties: what rights? Inequality, poverty: fear for the worst.

Bolsonaro has had two careers, both in the public sector. The first was in the army, which he entered aged 16 as an officer cadet. He left in 1988 (after 17 years) as a captain – an ignominious exit rank for a career officer. Brazil was a military dictatorship until 1985. For the first part of his career he was regularly being passed over for promotion by the men responsible for running this dictatorship: presumably not on grounds of ideological deviation. His superiors’ assessments of his capabilities did not change under democracy. He entered politics and sat for 30 years as a isolated backbencher, only known for incendiary remarks in favour of torture and dictatorship. He does not appear to have any serious interest in public policy; the core programme could have been assembled over a weekend in any bar frequented by right-wing blowhards.

The character in fiction that Bolsonaro best matches is neither Brecht’s Arturo Ui  nor Chaplin’s Adenoid Hynkel but Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts:

The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, screamed ‘Off with her head! Off—’

Now he is leader of a country of 210 million. How come? Continue reading “The Queen of Hearts”

Donald Trump, MS13 operative

Donald Trump talks about MS-13 more than any other NGO (no, I haven’t got actual numbers to support this), and it’s not surprising. He loves American exports, and MS13 was made in USA prisons and delivered to El Salvador; its cruelty and misogyny is surely a level of aspiration for him. So it’s not surprising that he and his catspaw Sessions have signed on as actual MS13 operatives, now delivering escaping victims back to them (and all the other Central American gangs)  for rape, enslavement, and murder. Even when they’re in court trying to get asylum.

I wonder if he has a deal for docile immigrant employees in his hotels…

Impeaching Dilma

The impeachment will turn out badly.

The lower house of the Brazilian Congress has voted to impeach President Dilma Rousseff. The middle-class anti-Dilma crowds in the streets of big cities are ecstatic. At last the PT will be brought to account for its corruption! The smaller pro-Dilma working-class crowds are despondent. The right-wing plot to reverse the results of the 2014 reelection by a rigged quasi-judicial process is succeeding.

Not so fast. “Fewer than ten” of the 511 deputies voting, by a wearisome roll-call with mini-speeches, bothered to mention the actual impeachment charges, preferring to emote about their families, the flag, and so on. (Colin Snider, h/t Erik Loomis at LGM; I watched a part of the vote on TV). They are here, in Jovair Arantes’ report to the committee that tabled them for the vote.

What the anti-corruption crowds want to see is Dilma answering for her well-paid work as a government-appointed director of Petrobras while the parastatal oil major was shovelling $2.8 billion in bribes, slush funds and kickbacks to PT and other politicians. They are not going to get this. The charges are budgetary irregularities. That’s what the trial in the Senate will be about – unless it turns into a kangaroo court, bringing in corruption allegations with no semblance of due process.

The alleged offences are mind-bogglingly technical stuff I’m not competent to assess. More’s the point, the fiddles have it seems been common practice in previous administrations and state governments, and were only recently made illegal. The Congress has other, political means of remedying the ills, like refusing to adopt a budget until the objectionable spending is legitimised or unwound. The impeachment trial will fizzle as spectacle, and once the public realizes what is going on, a conviction will not obviously be in the political interest of the senators.

The other view, represented by Glenn Greenwald’s piece here, is that it’s a nefarious right-wing plot. The one claim of his I can assess from direct observation is media bias, and I don’t see nearly enough of it to explain what is going on. The powerful Globo network is conservative, sure. But it’s the Telegraph or BSkyB more than Fox or the Daily Mail. Where does it give platforms to hard right agitators, the way Fox News does in the USA, or headline stories of immigrant welfare scroungers? The key media mechanisms of the protests have been Twitter and Facebook, which are chaotic and can’t readily be controlled. Where is the Brazilian equivalent of tweetmeister Donald Trump?

The timeline doesn’t work either. When Dilma was first elected, the Brazilian rich had some reason to be alarmed. Perhaps she would revert to her youthful radicalism and follow Chavez into left-wing populism. She is now five years in, and there is no sign of this. Her administration has SFIK taken no major new initiatives on anything. It’s been content to safeguard Lula’s legacy. The rich can sleep safe. She is deeply unpopular with all classes, from her failure to prevent the commodities-driven recession, and a conservative victory in the next election is very likely. Why take very risky steps to overthrow her now?

A rival theory. The recession and the corruption revelations have made not only the PT but the entire political class deeply unpopular. 59% of the Brazilian Congress, left and right, are under investigation for “serious charges including bribery, electoral fraud and homicide”. The key driver of the impeachment process is Eduardo Cunha, the Speaker, himself under investigation for receiving bribes from Petrobras and holding undeclared Swiss bank accounts. Attacking Dilma makes sense as a path to political survival: if Dilma falls, he will become the conservative hero of the hour. A good many of those who voted for impeachment face the same incentives. The whole thing, on this analysis, is basically just opportunism.

It won’t turn out out well. The charade risks discrediting not only the existing parties but democracy itself. So far there is no Strong Man visible in the wings, but one could emerge any time. Reforming an entire political and administrative culture without revolution of left or right is extraordinarily difficult. As merely an irregular visitor I have no suggestions as to how to do it. But this impeachment will not help.

PS The Al Capone argument
They got Al Capone for tax evasion, not murder and bootlegging. Wasn’t that OK in the circumstances?
1. Al Capone was definitely guilty of tax evasion, it wasn’t a made-up or grey-area offence.
2. The reason he didn’t declare his income was that it came from crime. There was a direct link between the lesser offence, for which there was evidence that could stand up in court, and the criminal activity for which there wasn’t.
3. The claimed purpose of the impeachment is to restore integrity to Brazilian politics. You can’t do that by a fundamentally dishonest prosecution.

Brazilian Music 2: Early sambistas

We might as well start a tour of the most famous and distinctive music of Brazil with the wonderful recipe and hagiology in Samba da Bénção (“Blessings Samba”) by Vinicius de Moraes.   Vinicius was a remarkable figure: poet, diplomat, and songwriter who partnered with Jobim and (as in this song) the guitarist Baden Powell.   I think de Moraes has it right in emphasizing that samba, even without lyrics, is not just party dance music, but weaves together (in various proportions), sadness, joy, and resignation. There’s a good English translation here.  He also gives us a sort of hall of fame, thanking a constellation of great sambistas from early days to the present. You could skip this whole post and just hop across tracks by the masters called out in this song, and you should anyway, because I will not hit more than a third of them. Continue reading “Brazilian Music 2: Early sambistas”