Over the past two months, Brazil has been convulsed by a series of strikes, protests, and public demonstrations.
On 16 May, thousands of students and teachers took to the streets in opposition to budget cuts imposed on the education system by the new far-right government of president Jair Bolsonaro.
On 14 June, workers across the country went on strike in an effort to stave off an attack on their cherished federal pensions settlement.
And on 24 June, around three million people joined a massive LBGTQ pride parade in Sao Paolo — an event viewed by many observers as a mass cultural response to the deepening climate of hostility and intolerance in Brazilian national life.
Bolsonaro’s Brazil wasn’t meant to be like this.
When the obscure right-wing congressman unexpectedly seized the presidency in October 2018 — beating his main electoral rival, Fernando Haddad of the left-leaning Workers’ Party (PT), by a ten-point margin in the final round of voting — he assured his supporters that order was about to be restored to Latin America’s largest and most diffuse state.
“The people are breaking free from socialism, from the inversion of values, a bloated [public sector], and political correctness,” Bolsonaro announced. “Our flag will never be red. It will only be red if we need to bleed over it to keep it green and yellow.”
Instead, reality has conspired against the new president.
Since his inauguration at the start of the year, Bolsonaro’s popularity has been in free-fall: between January and late March, his approval rating sank from 49 per cent to 34 per cent, the lowest ever recorded by a Brazilian leader within the first hundred days of their tenure.
Moreover, his administration, which is barely six months old, has already suffered a major corruption scandal: in February, Bolsonaro had to fire one of his closest political aides, Gustavo Bebianno, after it was revealed that Bebianno had “misspent” campaign funds during the presidential election.
In truth, none of this should be surprising: Jair Bolsonaro isn’t the cause of Brazil’s national political crisis, he is a symptom of it — albeit a uniquely dangerous and morbid one.
But in order to understand how Brazil got to Bolsonaro, you first have to look at the complicated legacy of Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, the most popular president in Brazilian history, and that of his successor, Dilma Rousseff, the nation’s first and, so far, only female leader.
In 2003, Brazil was on the rise.
Lula, a veteran trade unionist who had played a key role in overthrowing the military junta that ruled the country between 1964 and 1985, had just been sworn into office having won a huge popular mandate: 52 million votes in total, more than 60 per cent of all votes cast, and victory in all but one of Brazil’s 26 federal states.
At the head of the PT, a “democratic socialist” party formed in the early 1980s, Lula enacted a series of ambitious social reforms that expanded access to public services for the poor, bolstered support for low-income families, and worked to eradicate hunger in some of Brazil’s most marginal communities.
At the same time, the new leftist president was keen to avoid alienating the global financial markets and, as a result, stopped short of implementing structural change to the Brazilian economy.
In 2006, Brazil’s state-owned energy company, Petrobras, discovered vast reserves of oil off the coast of Rio de Janeiro.
The “Lula Field”, as it quickly (and ambiguously) became known, was the single largest basin of fossil fuels unearthed anywhere in the Western hemisphere at the time, and its profits helped drive a boom in Brazilian economic growth that transformed Brazil into a global economic powerhouse.
And yet even during this period of intense national optimism problems were beginning to stir beneath the surface.
In 2005, it emerged that some members of the PT had been using public funds to bribe other members of Congress in exchange for their support in passing certain laws.
After distancing himself from the charges by jettisoning a number of close political aides, Lula survived the so-called “mensalão” scandal and went on to win re-election, in emphatic style, the following year.
Lula’s second term was much like his first, generously blending social democratic reforms on one hand with an embrace of market economics on the other.
When he eventually left office in 2011 — in Brazil, presidents are only allowed to serve two consecutive terms at a time — he did so with an approval rating of almost 90 per cent: poverty rates had gone down, real wages had gone up, and living standards had measurably improved, particularly for those urban and working-class Brazilians who accounted for much of the PT’s electoral base.
For the best part of ten years, Lula was — even by Barack Obama’s admission — “the most popular politician on earth.”
The same could not be said of his successor, Dilma Rousseff, a leftwing academic and former guerrilla fighter who had been jailed and tortured by the military dictatorship in the 1970s.
Almost as soon as Rousseff entered the presidential palace in Brasilia, global commodity prices started to fall and the oil-powered economic ‘miracle’ that had been so integral to Lula’s success began to unravel.
By the time she won re-election, by the slimmest of margins, in 2014, the PT’s political capital was all but spent: Brazil was in the depths of recession, the left was haemorrhaging support, and Rousseff’s opponents on the right — anxious to reassert control over the country after more than a decade on the political sidelines — sensed weakness.
She made it easy for them in two vital respects.
First, as part of a misguided attempt to arrest the economic turmoil, she embarked on a round of austerity cuts that simultaneously hit some of the poorest Brazilians the hardest and violated a pledge she had made not to cut spending.
Second, she refused overtures from other political parties to establish a pact that would essentially salvage the entire Brazilian political class from a fresh wave of corruption investigations.
Set up in early 2014 by a ‘crusading’ anti-corruption judge by the name of Sergio Moro, Operation Lava Jato, or ‘Car Wash’, was a ground-breaking inquiry into money laundering at Petrobras and other major Brazilian firms that came, in time, to engulf vast swathes of Brazil’s national political leadership — including Rousseff and Lula.
In August 2016, Rousseff was sensationally impeached by the Senate on the spurious grounds that she had manipulated the country’s budget deficit figures, a practice that is both constitutionally problematic and extremely common among Brazilian legislators.
And in July 2017, under equally extraordinary circumstances, Lula was sentenced to nine years in prison after having been found guilty of accepting a bribe, in the form of a luxury apartment, from Petrobras officials.
Lula denied the accusations, but his appeals were rejected by the Brazilian Supreme Court and, from behind the bars of a federal prison cell, he was unable to run again for political office — something he had intended to do in 2018, after Rousseff’s second term had to come to an end, had she been allowed to complete it.
The fall-out from Lava Jato paved the way for the shock of last year’s election result: the country’s mainstream leaders were disgraced, the economy was stagnant, the conservative middle classes were in uproar, and the one person capable of regaining the political initiative for the left — Lula, who, despite his conviction, remained enormously popular with ordinary Brazilians — was in jail.
Out of all this chaos emerged the extreme nationalist and authoritarian presidency of Bolsonaro, an ex-army captain with a longstanding fetish for military government and a track-record of using racist, sexist, and homophobic rhetoric.
And yet — as the flood of grassroots protests and political controversies that have marked the early stages of his presidency so vividly illustrate — Bolsonaro is struggling to escape the highly contested and, in many ways, absurd set of circumstances that made his candidacy possible in the first place.
In addition to having no answer to Brazil’s deeply-rooted economic woes — Bolsonaro’s staunchly neoliberal platform is guaranteed to make matters worse — the shadow of Lava Jato hangs over his administration.
Earlier this month, The Intercept, an investigative media organization founded by the US journalist Glenn Greenwald, published a huge tranche of material indicating that Sergio Moro — who, astonishingly, now sits as justice minister in the Bolsonaro cabinet — colluded with prosecutors to secure Lula’s imprisonment.
The material includes “private chats, audio recordings, and videos”, all of which reveal or at least point to, the underlying political strategy that guided the Lava Jato investigation.
The research shows “that the Car Wash prosecutors spoke openly of their desire to prevent the PT from winning the  election,” The Intercept claims. “And that Moro collaborated with prosecutors to design the case against Lula, only for him to then pretend to be its neutral adjudicator.”
These revelations are problematic for Bolsonaro not just because they threaten to force Moro, his highest-profile cabinet appointee, from office, but also because they could accelerate Lula’s release from prison.
Lula’s lawyers argue there is concrete evidence that Moro “acted politically” in his efforts to secure the former PT leader’s conviction.
“We had already presented ] evidence that the ex-president did not have an impartial, independent trial,” one of Lula’s legal representatives, Cristiano Zanin Martins, told reporters this week. “He did not commit a single crime and he has the right to be judged by an impartial judge.”
Whether or not Lula ever stands for the presidency again is, of course, an open question: the Supreme Court has delayed making a decision on his latest appeal until August and, at 73, the iconic leftwing figurehead doesn’t exactly have time on his side.
But for Bolsonaro and his supporters on the hard-right, one thing is clear: keeping Lula out of the political running is a matter of necessity.
If the last few months of growing social unrest are anything to go by, Brazil’s democratic future won’t be decided in a court-room or even in the national Congress: it will be decided on the streets.
And maybe, with a bit of luck, at the ballot box.
Read the original story at thenational.scot.