In the late-1990s, when I decided to leave Brazil, I remember the main reason for my discontent was my inability to imagine a long-term project in a land that seemed destined to destructive cycles. Protected against the risks of major natural disasters, in Brazil the seeds of tragedy historically have been man-made and primarily national in their origins. While it is common to hear those on the Left attribute the main reasons for political, social and economic shame to external forces, the current crisis shows that we are quite competent in producing our own forms of destruction. This is not to deny the power of the economy to demarcate political life, yet a comparative look at the history of other late-capitalist societies shows us that unlike many of its neighbours Brazil has preserved more autonomy, and therefore more margin for choice.
Immediately after the Senate’s approval of the impeachment process against President Dilma Rousseff (12 May 2016), I found it impossible to write. Last year I left Australia and returned to Brazil, with awareness that after a decade away I would need strength and resilience to reintegrate. Sadly, my shock comes from seeing how the deep structures of my country remain so familiar.
We advanced significantly on the social policy front, mainly during the years the Workers’ Party was in power. Poverty has decreased. I now see young Black students buying books in elite bookshops in São Paulo, a phenomenon that simply did not occur at my time as a university student in the early 1990s. Advertisements and fashion also reflect our mixture of races, rather than the fake Whiteness of the 1980s. We have elected and re-elected the first female president in our country. In the last two presidential runs, candidate Marina Silva, known for her environmental activism, and a colleague of Chico Mendes, achieved third position, despite the desperation of the boys’ club that currently controls the Executive.
But the trajectory of the pragmatic Left that came to power in Brazil with the Workers’ Party elite, with its incapacity to resist the traditional poisons of political power, contaminated almost every corner of the project for hope, for change. Playing the old games with the old players of Brazil, the command of the Workers’ Party entered a dangerous game. A couple of alternatives come to mind when attempting to explain this. It seems the party was so seduced by power that it came to imagine the Brazilian elite had suddenly become democratic enough to embrace them as equal, despite the long history of its defence and justification of inequality. Perhaps the seduction of power was even more contaminating, leading the Workers’ Party to blind corruption and authoritarian tendencies. And if I prefer to reflect critically on and with the Left, rather than wasting words analysing the conservative forces that now control Brazil, it is because of the simple fact that the conservative forces hardly change, and they are quite coherent in the defence of their interests.
Again, as in our history, we are talking about the illusion of economic salvation through a government of questionable legitimacy: the same government that has chosen ‘order and progress’ as its slogan. The same one whose 100 per cent White male Cabinet is composed of familiar conservative figures, many under investigation for corruption, and whose initial measures in government are indeed in line with what they represent. What are some of these measures? Under a discourse of budget rationality and efficiency, some ministries have been extinguished, with their attributions incorporated into other areas. These include the Ministry of Culture (reinstalled a couple of days later after intense protests), the Ministry for Women, Racial Equality and Human Rights, and the Ministry of Rural Development, among others.
So now, through a sophisticated political and juridical architecture that puts Brazil’s democratic status into question, we are called to rethink and rebuild. The power of economic discourse in Brazil is so strong at the moment that it is impossible not to think of Marx. But I see other, deeper layers—a parallel with ‘Mexico profundo’ (deep Mexico)—at work underneath. For many civil society groups the blow of the impeachment is an alarming reminder that the fight for human rights, justice and democracy is never over. The content of the measures already announced, and the individuals who have announced them, form the picture of coronelismo dressed up for the 21st century. Ironically, we have now on our dominant TV channel, TV Globo, a soap opera featuring many of the same themes that we have seen in the past and that are likely to continue: struggles for land rights; environmental sustainability; and basic respect for fundamental rights.
So far the unorganised mass of people, those who claimed to really represent love for the nation and, wrapped in the national flag, protested on the streets against corruption, have been strangely passive in the face of the announced changes. Suddenly they seem to have ‘faith’ in the capacity of this new yet old Executive to lead us away from shame. Were they really opposing corruption, or it was mainly an explosive way to direct repressed anger against the rise of those they do not recognise as their equal fellow Brazilians? As our popular political saying teaches us, ‘in Brazil even the past is uncertain’.
Fiction and reality, magical realism, political pain and social hope. I have no doubts that I have returned home.
– Zuleika Arashiro
Zuleika was lecturer in Latin American Studies and International Relations at the ANU until 2015. She currently lives in her home town, São Paulo.