We Need to Talk About Brazil

Posted in: Human Rights

Brazil is now entering the 11th day of a national trucker strike. The truckers’ initial impetus was the recent, steep increase in diesel prices. The nearly 50 percent increase from early 2017 prices has followed a year-old policy of allowing Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned oil company, to make nearly daily adjustments to follow international pricing. Petrobras workers also planned an additional 72-hour strike for May 31. This sympathy strike called for the end to market-based diesel pricing, as well as for the resignation of the Petrobras’s CEO. Brazil’s Superior Labor Court ultimately ruled the planned strike unlawful on May 30, but workers violated the order and struck anyway.

These strikes obviously matter a great deal to those in Brazil, and I argue they ought to matter to us as well. In the short term, they significantly affect the daily life of Brazilians. At the height of the strike, truckers blockaded more than 500 roads across “24 of the country’s 27 states.” In the early days of the strike, medicine was not reaching pharmacies, and non-essential medical procedures were cancelled. Airports ran out of fuel and over a billion animals were at risk of being culled for lack of feed. People faced rapidly emptying grocery store shelves and fruit rationing. Many gas stations were closed for days.

President Michel Temer has been roundly criticized with a nearly 95 percent disapproval rating for his crisis management. After early discussions and a tentative agreement with the heads of several trucker unions, many truckers refused to end the strike. After this initial bargaining stage, Temer then threatened to use the military to break the strike. This threat prompted the president of the largest truck driving association to respond, “They will only be able to stop the movement if there comes a great force (from the military or the police) to the truckers, and if it does come, there will be blood on it.” While the military has been recently become active in fighting drug crime in Rio, human rights groups noted that the Brazilian government has not authorized the military to “enforce the law and halt civic disruption at national level since the end of the military regime in 1985.” Brazilian human rights groups lament possible military action as a violation of the rights to expression and peaceful assembly. In addition to threats of military force, President Temer has now offered 2.5 billion dollars’ worth of concessions including tax cuts and subsidies to temporarily reduce domestic diesel prices for 60 days. As the strike continued, he even briefly suggested his willingness to review the market-based pricing policy, though he quickly reversed course and reaffirmed his commitment to Petrobras’s current policy.

In addition to the short-term concerns regarding supplies and trucker demands regarding fuel, many Brazilians are viewing the strikes as a larger referendum on Brazilian governance and corruption. Many of the remaining strikers and sympathizers now have a bigger political agenda calling for a military dictatorship to address bigger issues such as “healthcare, education, roads, increasing violence and political corruption.” Even prior to the strikes, President Temer was deeply unpopular and he has been indicted for corruption. The last two presidents, Dilma Roussef and Lula de Silva were both convicted on corruption charges. The Brazilian people are deeply unhappy with their government and the strikes are becoming internationally visible evidence of their desire for change.

But that change may take a deeply problematic form—that of a return to a military dictatorship. Even prior to the strikes, support for a military regime has been steadily on the rise. A 2017 poll suggested over 40 percent of Brazilians wanted at least a temporary return to military order. Why is there such nostalgia for the military dictatorship and calls for its returns? A lack of economic growth and deepening economic inequality are certainly part of the puzzle. So too is the astoundingly high crime rate.

The further weakening of Brazil’s tentative grasp on democracy is something about which the larger international community should care deeply. While the status quo is deeply flawed and deeply inequitable, the nostalgia for the military dictatorship is misplaced. The military government engaged in serious and widespread human rights violations including torture, disappearances, and extrajudicial killings. Nor did the old regime do particularly well at ferreting out corruption. Nor has the military had much success at addressing the crime rate in the favelas; rather it seems to have exacerbated the problem. In fact, many suspect the military police played a role in the execution of Marielle Franco, a leftist black lesbian activist from the favelas who called for a significant social reform agenda.

Of course, a return to military dictatorship is not inevitable. The execution of Marielle has sparked serious political protest and shone a light on the increasingly repressive tactics used in Brazil. Her death is helping to mobilize a domestic movement in support of an investigation and of her social reform agenda more generally. It is too early to predict which side is likelier to prevail, but those interested in human rights need to start paying closer attention.

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