Commentary No. 425, May 15, 2016
The President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, has been suspended from her office while she goes on trial by the Senate. If convicted, she would be removed from office, which is what is meant in Brazil by “impeachment.” Anyone, even Brazilians, who have been trying to follow the last several months of political maneuvering may be excused if they are somewhat confused by the many turns this process has taken.
What is really at issue here? Is this a constitutional coup as Pres. Rousseff has called it repeatedly? Or is this a legitimate act of holding the president responsible for grave misdeeds by her and members of her cabinet and advisors, as the “opposition” claims? If the latter, why is this occurring only now and not, say, in Rousseff’s first term as president before she was easily re-elected in 2015 by a significant margin?
Rousseff is a member of the Partido dos Trabalhores (PT) that has been long led by her predecessor in office, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula). One way to view these events is to see it as part of the story of the PT – its coming to power and now, quite probably, its ouster from power.
What is the PT, and what has it represented in Brazilian politics? The PT was founded in 1980 as a party opposed to the military dictatorship that had ruled Brazil since the coup of 1964. It was a socialist, anti-imperialist party, bringing together Marxist groups, large civil associations like the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT), the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (Landless Workers Movement or MST), and Catholic movements of the liberation theology persuasion.
From the point of view both of the military and of the traditional Establishment parties in Brazil, the PT was a dangerous revolutionary party, which threatened the conservative economic and social structures of the country. The United States viewed its “anti-imperialism” as directed primarily at the U.S. dominant role in Latin American politics, which indeed it was.
The PT however did not seek power through guerrilla insurrection but rather through parliamentary elections, sustained and supported by extra-parliamentary demonstrations. It took four presidential elections to bring finally a PT candidate, Lula, to office in 2003. The Brazilian Establishment never expected this would actually happen and never accepted that it could possibly continue. They have devoted their energies ever since to bringing the PT down. They may have gotten their way in 2016. Historians in the future may look upon the period 2003-2016 as the fifteen-year PT interlude.
What in fact has happened in this interlude? The PT in office was something far less radical than the opponents of the PT feared, but still radical enough to have made them relentless in their desire to destroy the PT, not merely as the holders of the presidential office but as a movement with a legitimate place in Brazilian politics.
If the PT was able to come to electoral power in 2003, it was because of the combination of the growing attractiveness of its program and its rhetoric and the declining geopolitical strength of the United States. And what did the PT do with its time in office? On the one hand it sought to succor the poorest strata of Brazil through a redistributive program known as the Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) program that included the Bolsa familia (Family Allowance), which did indeed improve their income level and reduce the enormous inequalities from which Brazil suffered.
In addition, Brazil’s foreign policy under the PT marked a significant shift away from Brazil’s historic subservience to U.S. geopolitical imperatives. Brazil took the lead in creating autonomous Latin American structures that included Cuba and excluded the United States and Canada.
On the other hand, Brazil’s macroeconomic policies remained quite orthodox from the point of view of neoliberal emphases on market orientations of governmental policies. And the PT’s multiple promises to prevent environmental destruction were never seriously implemented. Nor did the PT ever carry out its promises of agrarian reform.
In short, its performance as a left movement was a mixed bag. As a result, groups within the party and in its larger political alliances were constantly defecting. This resulted in the weakened position that made it possible in 2015 for the enemies of the PT to implement a plan to destroy it.
The scenario was simple. It centered on charges of corruption. Corruption has been massive and endemic in Brazilian politics, and important figures of the PT itself were by no means exempt from the practice. The one person not subject to such charges was Dilma Rousseff. What then to do? The person who took the lead in the impeachment process, President of the Chamber of Deputies Eduardo Cunha (and an Evangelical Christian) was himself removed from office because he is being indicted for corruption. No matter! The process proceeded on the basis that Dilma Rousseff failed in her responsibility to contain the corruption. This led Boaventura dos Santos Sousa to summarize the situation as one in which the one honest politician was being ousted by the most corrupt.
Rousseff has been suspended from office and her Vice-President Michel Temer has assumed office as Interim President, immediately appointing a far-right cabinet. It seems almost certain that Rousseff will be impeached and removed permanently from office. She is not the real target. The real target is Lula. Under Brazilian law, no president can have more than two successive terms. It has been everyone’s expectation that Lula would be the PT candidate again in 2019.
Lula has been Brazil’s most popular politician for a long time now. And while his popularity has been somewhat tarnished by the corruption scandal, he seems to remain sufficiently popular that he would win the election. So the right forces will try now to have him actually charged with corruption and therefore ineligible to run.
What will happen then? No one is sure. The rightwing politicians will fight among themselves for the presidency. The army may decide once again to take power. What seems sure is that the PT is finished. The PT sought to exercise its power as a centrist government, balancing its program. But the serious budget deficit and the decline of world prices for oil and other Brazilian exports has disillusioned a large swatch of its voters. As in many other countries today, massive discontent leads to a rejection of normal centrist politics.
What a successor movement of the PT might do would be to return to its roots as a consistently left anti-imperialist movement. This will be no more easy than it was for the PT in 1980. The difference between 1980 and now is the degree to which the modern world-system is in structural crisis. The struggle is worldwide and the Brazilian left can either play a major role in it or slip into global irrelevance and national misery.
Commentary No. 424, May 1, 2016
King Philip VI of Spain has announced that in the four months since the last elections, the elected members of parliament, and especially those representing the four main parties, were unable to make an agreement that would produce a viable government. He therefore announced new elections for June 26, 2016.
Spain, like governments in west European parliamentary systems, has long had two main parties: the conservative Partido Popular (PP) and the social-democratic PSOE. They have been alternating in parliamentary majorities since the end of the Franco regime and sometimes they formed a coalition government. As in most such systems, other parties were essentially insignificant by-standers that could get at most a few concessions for their political objectives.
The last elections in Spain changed everything. A new party, Podemos (We Can), which had grown out of the oppositional street movement, the Indignados, emerged with a substantial number of elected deputies on an anti-austerity platform. This program was primarily aimed at the PP, the party in power, and its leader, Mariano Rajoy, which had been an unrelenting supporter of the neoliberal program imposed by outside lenders on the government.
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Commentary No. 423, April 15, 2016
Peru is one of the countries with a two-round presidential election. Unless one candidate obtains 50%+ on the first round, there is a second round with only the two candidates who had the most votes in the first round. And, as has been increasingly the case worldwide, when there are three candidates with significant support, there is a ferocious battle for second place on the first round of elections.
In Peru on April 10, 2016, the leading candidate was Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of the notorious former president Alberto Fujimori, presently imprisoned for human rights abuses. Definitive figures are not yet issued, but it seems she has about 40% of the votes. Second place was won by Pedro Pablo Kuczynski with probably 21%. Third place was occupied by Veronika Mendoza with about 19%.
Commentary No. 422, April 1, 2016
I have been as appalled as anyone at the style and content of Donald Trump’s search for the U.S. presidency. I have at no point been tempted in any way to support him. I do not intend to vote for him.
But there is something happening that needs to be explained. It is not Trumpism, but Anti-Trumpism. The explanations of Trumpism are virtually endless. No one could have missed them. I do not wish to discuss what accounts for Trumpism – both the level of his support and the fact that he seems to be a Teflon candidate. Every time he does something outrageous and receives criticism for it, the outcome seems to be that his poll numbers rise further just because of the criticism.
What is not discussed very much is the phenomenon of what I shall call Anti-Trumpism. It is of course normal that there are those who oppose the choice of a particular candidate. What is unusual and needs a closer look is why the opposition seems to take on an almost hysterical tone, in which there is a suggestion that the election of Trump would transform the world (or at least the United States) fundamentally and permanently.
Commentary No. 421, March 15, 2016
One of the many games pundits and politicians are playing these days is to spell out why and how the European Union (EU) is going to collapse, is already collapsing. Anyone who follows the news worldwide knows all the standard explanations: Grexit and Brexit will only lead to other exits; nobody wants more migrants (refugees) in their country; Germany has too much power, or not enough; ultra-rightwing forces/parties are rising almost everywhere; the Schengen Agreement providing visa-less movement is being suspended in most countries that had adopted it; unemployment is unstoppably growing.
There is an underlying theme in this litany of pessimism (or is it optimism?). Europeans – both the sophisticated and the “ignorant” – have become impervious to rational arguments. They are almost all acting irrationally, responding to their emotions and not to reflective analyses. But is this so, Charlie Brown? It makes for a good comic strip, but does that mean the EU will actually cease to exist?
I am not here giving my views about whether the EU is good or bad, should or should not be supported or undermined. Rather, I wish to analyze what I think will actually happen. Will the institutions that now make up the European Union continue to exist ten or twenty years from now? I suspect they will. To see why I think so, let us review together what may make Europeans – both the sophisticated and the “ignorant” – hesitate about taking the fatal step of dismantling what they have been working so hard to create for the last seventy years or so. There are some reasons that one might call economic, others that are geopolitical, and finally still others that might be called cultural.
Commentary No. 420, March 1, 2016
Neoliberal ideology has dominated world discourse for the first fifteen years of the twenty-first century. The mantra has been that the only viable policy for governments and social movements was to give priority to something called the market. Resistance to this belief became minimal, as even parties and movements that called themselves left or at least left-of-center abandoned their traditional emphasis on welfare-state measures and accepted the validity of this market-oriented position. They argued that at most one could soften its impact by retaining some small part of the historic safety nets that states had built over more than 150 years.
The resulting policy was one that reduced the level of taxation radically on the wealthiest sectors of the population and thereby increased the income gap between this wealthiest sector and the rest of the population. Firms, especially large firms, were able to increase their profit levels by reducing and/or outsourcing jobs.
The justification offered by its proponents was that this policy would in time recreate the jobs that had been lost and that there would be some trickle-down effect of the increased value that would be created by allowing the “market” to prevail. Of course, allowing the market to prevail in fact necessitated political action at the level of the states. The so-called market was never a force independent of politics. But this elementary truth was sedulously unnoticed or, if ever discussed, ferociously denied.
Commentary No. 419, Feb. 15, 2016
The term “nation” has had many different meanings across the centuries. But these days, and ever since the French Revolution more or less, the term has been linked to the state, as in “nation-state.” In this usage, “nation” refers to those who are members by right of the community that is located within a state.
Whether those who form a nation give rise to the creation of a state or a state creates the category of a nation and thereby rights within the state is a long-standing debate. Myself, I believe that states create nations and not the reverse.
The issue however is why states create nations, and what should be the attitude of the “left” to the concept of the nation. For some on the left, the concept of the nation is the great equalizer. It is an assertion that everyone (or almost everyone) has the right to full and equal participation in the decision-making of the state, as opposed to the rights of only a minority (for example, the aristocracy) to full participation. Today, we often call this a Jacobin view of the nation.
Commentary No. 418, February 1, 2016
When Bernie Sanders announced that he would seek the presidential nomination of the U.S. Democratic Party, few people took him very seriously. Hillary Clinton seemed to have so much support that her nomination seemed assured without difficulty.
Sanders however persisted in his seemingly utopian quest. To the surprise of most observers, the size of his audiences at meetings throughout the country began to grow steadily. His essential tactic was to attack the large corporations. He said that they used their money to control political decisions and to quash debate about the growing gap between the very top earners and the vast majority of the American people who were losing real income and jobs. To emphasize his position, Sanders refused to take money from large donors at the top and raised his money only from individuals donating small amounts.
In doing this, Sanders touched a deep vein of popular discontent, not only among those at the very bottom of the income ladder but from the so-called middle class who feared they were being thrust down into the bottom stratum. Today, polls show that Sanders has gained sufficient support that he seems to represent a serious opponent to Clinton.
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