Right-wing coup scenario off the mark: Rio information is wrong

Not this Nation

Ah, Dave Zirin, this blogger has to argue with you.

Right-wing and left-wing aren’t useful terms when it comes to Brazil. Politics here revolve not around ideology, but people. The alliances are fluid, constantly reevaluated and remade. Politicians switch parties the way dieters switch menus. Plus, there is what the public sees and then, what we don’t see (as we learned, so painfully, from last week’s wiretaps.

Rio mayor Eduardo Paes, now with the PMDB (having cast off two other parties) is certainly good at samba, as Piauí magazine described in a recent profile. But the things he said in the tapped phone conversation with ex-president Lula? Who knows if his career will ever recover. His disdain for the poor was evident as never before. His words also revealed a problematic relationship with PMDB governor Luis Fernando “Pezão”, himself seriously ill in the hospital, named, yet so far not prosecuted, in the Lava Jato investigation. So it’s not like the two of them are smoothly running Rio, Dave.

You write “Paes and Pezão of the PMDB oversaw a process where Olympic facilities were bid upon by “consortiums” of real estate firms, like the Rio Mais (More Rio) syndicate, which included Odebrecht as well as the companies Andrade Gutierrez and Carvalho Hosken.”

The process was completely up to the city, not the state of Rio. This is why, by the way, Guanabara Bay never got cleaned up, as officials had promised the Olympic Committee. The state was in charge of that.

There was only one consortium. Not of real estate firms, but construction companies. And they didn’t wait until the last minute to complete the work. There are problems, but they are pretty much on schedule.

I don’t know if there was or is Olympic hanky-panky but if you look at the documents involved you can see that the three construction companies had a good deal, on the up and up: Rio GAVE them the land, (probably under-)valued at R$ 1.2 billion, to build the Olympic Park on, which they get to develop after the Games, with a change in zoning rules such that they can go as high as 18 floors, instead of twelve. The city also pays them R$ 462 million for the work done, and forgave a tax debt of R$ 7.6 million, owed by Carvalho Hosken.

Would you overbid or delay construction with a deal like that– struck based on a study done by the companies themselves, with no governance to speak of (more on this here)? I do think the Olympics serve, first and foremost, the construction companies involved in Lava Jato. But the absence of Olympic contracts in the scandal, so far, may not mean the PMDB is being protected so it can take over Brazil.

Meanwhile, in his battle to stay out of jail, Eduardo Cunha, the Rio congressman and speaker of the house in Brasília, has far from solid support among other PMDB party members. Despised by Brazilians across the board, he’s been accused of tax evasion, illegal payoffs and using congressional investigations to pressure businesses to pay up. If, as Dave imagines, the Brazilian right and business interests have their way– with the PMDB taking the reins as president Dilma leaves office — there are likely to be many problems as politicians and business sort out their interests and those outside such circles pressure for their own needs and wishes. The process would never end.


Which brings up another weakness in the right-wing coup argument: it’s not like Brazil is about to return to the year 2002. Under Lula, Brazil changed fundamentally. Yes, many of the thirty or forty million who left poverty thanks to his policies are now falling back into it. But in my experience reporting on Rio over the last five years and in my daily life as well, I have seen many Brazilians move out of invisibility and into visibility. It’s hard for foreigners (and many upper class Brazilians) to appreciate this, because they can’t imagine what it’s like for a person to live life as a second-class citizen.

This is key and the internet has been a huge factor. Just last night I attended the launch of the new app “Nós por Nós” (Us by Us), which allows the user to document human rights abuses, streaming video and/or audio to a safe destination in case his or her cell phone is destroyed or taken away. It was developed by the Forum de Juventudes, or Youth Forum, which is connected to groups of favela residents from all over metropolitan Rio.

Presente, the group cried out, fists in the air, remembering young men and a mom killed by Rio police.

If we get an oppressive right-wing government, it won’t be easy to take any of this away- particularly young people’s sense that they have the right to defend themselves from the police, to use social media, to create support networks, to dream and realize those dreams.

It’s easy to characterize social classes and institutions in broad strokes. Reality can defy description. But there are all sorts of people among the millions who left poverty and there are all sorts among the traditional middle and upper classes, too. Not everyone who receives the Bolsa Família income transfer sits at home watching television and eating potato chips, feeling grateful and beholden to Lula. It’s part of human nature, particularly for young people, to want to learn and to feel useful. Many Brazilians took the money and went places with it. They work hard, they value hard work and they think people who steal should go to jail. They aren’t going to want to put up with a PMDB government that feeds off everyone else.

Brazilians are wary of all politicians now. Depending on how many of them go to jail, those left to run for office will be under special scrutiny. Thank God that so far, there’s no local version of Donald Trump, telling people not to worry, he’ll take care of things. More than ever before, Brazilians are debating the current crisis, paying attention, learning about what the Supreme Court, the Federal Police, Congress and the Attorney General do. You can hear newfound words popping out of conversations on the street and in the bus.

Catherine Osborn’s piece did get into some interesting virgin territory. It tells us that the Students for Liberty’s Brazil chapter has more than a thousand members. But that’s not many, compared to the electorate, (142 million) or even the total number of those who marched in yellow and green March 13 (around three million). Where, by the way, a minority was calling for military intervention. If Brazil becomes more conservative, the Koch brothers won’t be behind the change; studies show this often happens as people climb the socioeconomic ladder. Even so, in Brazil ideology has yet to fully replace personalist politics based on the exchange of favors.

Globo isn’t monolithic, either. Yes, it tends towards maintaining the status quo. But, like Brazil’s politicians (particularly the PMDB), its bonds with society are flexible and self-serving. And the “Fox News-on-steroids media giant”, as you call it, is a shrinking source of news for Brazilians, as independent and social media eat away at it. The moment isn’t one of brainwashing, but one where we are all struggling to survive the recession and make sense of a plethora of sources of information.

This is a tall order for most people, particularly given Globo’s longtime virtual monopoly, and the 1964-1985 military government. Brazilians have good reason to believe in conspiracy theories, but they are just that, theories. Let’s take a deep breath and see what’s yet to happen with Lava Jato — and so much else.

About Rio real

American journalist, writer, editor who's lived in Rio de Janeiro for 20 years.
This entry was posted in Brazil, Transformation of Rio de Janeiro / Transformação do Rio de Janeiro and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to Right-wing coup scenario off the mark: Rio information is wrong

  1. gshowell says:

    All good as usual insightful analysis. Just one thing: I think Dudu’s comments to Lula were in jest and are not to be taken in earnest. In fact, the banter about “coisa de pobre” I only ever heard suburban friends joking to eachother about, there is a whole film about this sort of joke – the Suburbano Sortudo currently in the cinema in Rio. The comment was in the context of a campaign to vilify Lula as having a secret mansion. However his mansion is not in one of the coastal billionaire enclaves, accessible by yacht or helicopter only, but in a lower/middle class town. Not exactly luxurious. That was the point, funny too I thought, but not demonstrating a hatred of the poor, a friendly teasing of Lula more like.

    His other comments were very interesting, that the investigators and Feds think they are on a mission from God, (they are devout Christians), and Lula and the Mayor’s comments about how difficult it is to get public works done when the company with 500 projects on course in Brazil has them all declared illegal. The joke about Dilma and Pezao’s sense of humour was great too.

    • Rio real says:

      George, the jest had many layers. Joking among suburbanos is one thing; it’s another when an up-and-coming politician, raised in Jardim Botânico, summered in Angra dos Reis, makes fun of the country home of the man who most rose in social standing, ever, in Brazil. I think he was also subtly saying his own future is brighter than Lula’s. Also, his comment about Maricá also, utlimately, targeted the poor.

      • gshowell says:

        Interesting, I really did not interpret it that way. Come on, Marica or Ararauma are not ghettos, they are just a bit suburban, cheaper than Angra or Buzios, the beach is ok, but not great. People who have summer houses in Marica are not poor.

        Eduardo Paes’ base of support is with the poor of Madureira and the suburbs, where real positive change has occurred during his administration.He is always in one suburban samba school or another, drnking beer, eating feijoada, together, with the people. Lula is one of the highest paid public speakers in the world, he could afford to have a summer house anywhere he wanted – but he chooses to have one in a kind of middle of the road, inconspicuous place (unlike FHC’s Paris flat). Lula is a man of the people, he does not perhaps have the necessities of the Brazilian helicopter enclave elite. The humour was black, suited the situation.

        The phone call shows Paes is on Lula’s side, contrary to his party line. He is very supportive of Lula, and that he felt comfortable enough to tease Lula is good. Following reading the transcript I felt him to be less of a playboy elitist than I had before.

  2. Michael Royster says:

    Julia, very well done piece, and right on about just about everything, particularly the non-ideological nature of Brazilian politics. The usual word is “physiological” meaning you scratch my back I scratch yours. All of Brazilian society is based upon two things: (a) family comes first; (b) if you do me a favor, I owe you–and vice versa.
    But I have to disagree most vehemently with one sentence:”Thank God that so far, there’s no local version of Donald Trump, telling people not to worry, he’ll take care of things.” Although he doesn’t (yet) own as much real estate as The Donald, The Squid has indeed been trumpeting to the PT faithful that he’s back, and “not to worry, he’ll take care of things.” Sadly, there are still people who believe he can do that.

    • Rio real says:

      True, but the numbers are shrinking. Trump’s on his way up; Lula on his way down.

      • Michael Royster says:

        Don’t count Lula out yet. He invented the mensalão when he needed votes; when that failed he invented the Petrolão; now that’s failed he’ll surely try something else. Unlless, of course, he goes to jail, which to me is very unlikely. Everybody knows he knew everything, but so far there’s no ironclad proof of that.

  3. Julia, great piece. Of course, you failed to mention my pet peeve of Sao Paolo. When I see that I pretty much stop reading.
    I think gshowell is right about the joking but then the elite (Paes e Lula) know how to joke seriously. Think about Lula’s comment on women and their more intimate parts.
    Curmudgeon above correctly points to Lula’s populist, albeit fading, appeal, while Trump is still rising.
    In all, we are slowly improving but repeating long established patterns of shifting alliances and the accommodation of new social forces. It is boring and exciting and easy to get lost in the details. In the meantime, the calendar moves on, we have to get up and go to work, school etc. Institutions are improving in the long run and we really need to muddle through to 2018. Hopefully, this will happen as the alternatives are much worse.

  4. Rio real says:

    Had to tie my hand to the chair not to mention “São Paolo”. Also his idea that foreign investment in the stock exchange drove the boom…

  5. JoaoLeite says:

    great article! i have been surprised recently in seeing a few (albeit small number) of acquaintances and friends posting conspiracy theory articles left and right that portray this whole thing as some big coup by the ruling class who want to bring back the military dictatorship. i think this kind o spreading of paranoia can be a bit dangerous and irresponsible especially when the facts are way off and more in line with PR propaganda than actual reality. this article does a great job at demystifying some of that and shedding some light on at least a few of the many layers of complexity that make up the brazilian political and social reality. thanks.

  6. Rio real says:

    Thanks very much, João. Let’s hope I am right!

  7. Sergio Rodriguez says:

    It is an interesting input indeed, giving most people’s tendency to talk from one ideological trench or other! However, I do not share your optimism when you say “there’s no local version of Donald Trump…”. I personally think there’s at least a few in the making and, more worryingly, these are very favorable times for the rise of such type of politicians feeding off people’s disgruntlement, namely Bolsonaro and his “bancada da bala”, don’t you think?

    • Rio real says:

      Well so far, Bolsonaro is quite unknown, nationally. Even Eduardo Paes is, despite the Olympics. It takes what? — maybe a nationally aired reality show (or other media exposure, a la Berlusconi) to score voters like Trump does? Sílvio Santos is too old. Pedro Bial has never evidenced an interest in politics…

  8. Tucker Landesman says:

    I think you are right to note the political complexities be critical of over simplified meta narratives pushed by foreign journalists who haven’t done the leg-work to offer nuanced analysis. I don’t subscribe to conspiracy theories, but I also don’t believe a conspiracy necessary in order for the interests of the Brazilian elite to align against PT now that the commodities boom is over and the promise of BRICS is waning. I think you are right to insist this isn’t a “right-wing” conspiracy as much as political/industrialist opportunists repositioning their support. I interpret the anti-coup rhetoric as a strategic political narrative meant to fend off multiple attacks against a popularly elected government. And it’s not just PTistas, right? It’s more or less a united front on the Left who are terrified about a PMDB-led government w/ PSDB waiting in the wings. I think you’re spot-on about the povo’s revulsion at corruption and the political class in general; but I also think that the anti-corruption narrative pushed by most journalists (not just Globo) is lazy and lacks context. I bet very few people on the streets could accurately describe the legal justification of impeachment. They call Dilma a crook when she very well may be one of the “cleanest” politicians in federal government. Simply knowing about corruption or protecting one’s own in Brazilian politics is relatively tame. Lastly, and I don’t mean to be rude, but I find the above comments comparing Trump with Lula absurd if not borderline delusional (I recognize you did not play into the comparison); and perhaps show that just about everyone has adopted an extreme position based on fantasy and propaganda rather than facts.

    • curmudgeon says:

      As one who compares Trump to Lula and vice versa, I submit that they are the borderline delusionals, because they are both absolutely convinced that they are the only people who, by the righteousness of their rhetoric, can lead their respective countries out of the morass into which they have sunk.

      • Rio real says:

        Whether or not they’re delusional is less relevant than whether or not they can convince people to believe in them. Right now, Trump’s doing a much better job of this than Lula. But it’s not really comparable, as Trump has never actually done anything as an elected official.

    • Rio real says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Tucker. Ultimately we all succumb to lazy, out-of-context narratives, to binary thinking, at least once in a while. I try to remind myself — and others– that we must all try to prick holes in our assumptions, all the time.

  9. shotw2arrows says:

    My internet provider has been down so I’ve only now read the Zirin article. The relationships it touches on are complex and I need time to digest the material. I will give my thoughts soon. For now, I urge that everyone interested in the momentous events taking place – if you care about Rio and Brazil – read and think about the Zirin article. It may be true or it may be false; but if it is true, or largely true, 200,000,000+ Brazilians could be headed toward a most unhappy end game: business as usual – corruption remains the basis of political life.

    • Rio real says:

      I find it hard to believe that this is possible, at least in the short term. Nice list, on Odebrecht’s spreadsheet, no?

    • Michael Royster says:

      “Headed toward” a most unhappy end game? We’re in that end game now. Lula and PT came into power and stayed in power through the mensalão and the petrolão, which are precisely what you fear, i.e. business as usual and corruption the basis of political life.
      Brazil’s Executive and Legislative branches have been largely compromised, but the Judicial branch and the Ministério Público (a separate and independent branch of government under the 1988 Constitution) have largely remained immune from the blandishments of money and power. Lula and Dilma still harbor hopes that their appointees to the STF will protect them, and are working diligently to bring about a whitewash, referring to a “judicial coup d’état” and “violation of national security” when their misdeeds are made public.
      I for one am hoping that the end of this end game will be a societal recognition that “rouba mas faz” is no way to run a country, no matter which political parties are doing the robberies.

  10. p. ray says:

    I enjoyed reading this. Good job at expressing the mailable nature of the political beast here. There is such a push to create cookie cutter images we can all digest when speaking about the Brazilian crisis “divided country” “white elite” “leftist bums” etc etc … but though they make up part of the equation, they are far from the entire picture.

  11. shotw2arrows says:

    I haven’t finished the response I promised above, but here are three links too important to delay. The first, from the investment journal Forbes, warns that impeachment might lead to a new power elite that would have every reason to stifle the corruption investigation, exactly what I fear:


    If Dilma is impeached, Vice-President Temer will become President.

    But Temer, along with his fellow members of PMDB, Renan and Cunha, have been implicated in the Lava Jato scandal. The following link notes one of the threads of evidence of their involvement in misconduct. It describes the plea bargain of Delcídio Amaral. (Sorry this link is in Portuguese):


    If you were President Temer, would you go all out to have yourself investigated?

    The last link (also in Portuguese) is from the Globo media giant. Millions of Brazilians have signed a petition of support for ten measures to combat corruption:


    The idea is great. But it arose among public prosecutors in the Federal Justice Ministry. It evidently is not the result of a true grassroots movement. Brazil needs such a movement.

    Brazil has to find a politician with clean hands to become an advocate for this grass-roots movement, and elect her or him to Congress.

    • Michael Royster says:

      The problem with finding a politician with clean hands is serious; no one I know can name a single person in power today who is 100% squeaky clean. Dilma is as close as anyone can get because, like Richard Nixon, she is not a crook, she’s personally honest. But, like RMN, she knew about all the malfeasances, and did nothing. Perhaps she couldn’t.
      Marina Silva is positioning herself as the clean politician Brazil needs. Sadly, she is hopelessly incompetent at organizing or administering anything–she even failed at the ridiculously simple task of getting her new political party registered. Who’s left? Joaquim Barbosa? Eduardo Suplicy? Tiririca? All outsiders.
      Brazil has had two prior Presidents ride “sweep clean” brooms into power–Janio Quadros and Fernando Collor de Mello. Neither lasted two years in office.

    • Michael Royster says:

      I’ll comment here briefly on the staying power of the Brazilian judiciary, even if Temer and PMDB manage to seize power, with the help of PSDB and others.
      First, Brazil’s Ministério Público (MP), responsible for much of the Lava Jato investigation, is an independent branch of government, not beholden to the Executive, Legislative or even the Judicial branches. The MP prosecutors are known for being hardline and doctrinaire in their pursuit of justice and are truly independent.
      Second, the Federal Police (PF) envy the headline grabbing MP prosecutors, and resent being treated as secondary characters in the investigations. Many if not most PF see their rôles as at least as important as those of the MP, and will resist any attempt to thwart their investigations by the President or Minister of Justice, to whom they (in theory) report.
      Third, atop the tree of judicial branches is the STF, almost all of whose Ministers were appointed by Lula and Dilma, and who do not now have to retire at age 70. The legislative and executive politicians now being investigated are subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the STF. If Dilma “disembarks” from the Presidency, the STF will redouble its efforts to ensure that the corruption investigations do not focus exclusively on her, Lula and PT.
      So, on balance, I’m not worried about Temer taking office, because the Brazilian Constitution has countervailing powers built into its structure, and they are working now.

      • shotw2arrows says:

        Thanks for those notes, Michael. Let us hope the independence of the judiciary and a kind of rivalry among crook-chasers will save the day. I guess things have changed since the Collor impeachment. I have heard people say that the votes to impeach were there only because members of Congress could feel the heat getting close to them. They doused the flames by immolating Collor.

        Still, we are led to think – Temer takes office, then his impeachment process starts. Can the country endure another? If there is no one with clean hands, who can lead Brazil out of its economic doldrums?

      • Michael Royster says:

        My take on Collor is similar to yours. He entered office promising a new broom, to get rid of the generalized corruption re-instituted under José Sarney. He was successful, but his broom also swept some of the moolah under his own hearthrug, so the powers that were had grounds to depose him.
        As to clean hands, it is impossible to govern a country with 30+ political parties and 30+ cabinet positions, UNLESS you get your hands dirty. Auctioning off ministries and lower echelon appointments to the lowest bidder, as Dilma is now doing so as to save herself from impeachment, may not be corruption, but institutionally it amounts to the same thing.

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