Congress must take attacks on Brazilian democracy seriously
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Not long ago, Brazil was "otop of the world," as one 2010 headline described it.

With a steadily growing economy and expanding social programs that lifted millions out of poverty, the South American nation was seen by many as an emerging global power and a shining example of good governance and inclusivity. Lula da Silva, Brazil's president from 2003 to 2010, was widely credited for his country’s remarkable success; President Obama called him "the most popular politician on Earth."

But over the last few years, Brazil's economic and political panorama has dramatically shifted. Recent news headlines include "Brazil in Free Fall" and "The Darkest Hour."

In early 2014, Brazil's economy began to tank. The causes included the Latin American and global economic slowdown, but also neoliberal economic policies favored by Brazil's powerful financial community, including budget and credit tightening at the wrong time and exorbitantly high interest rates.

Meanwhile, revelations surfaced regarding a vast bribery scheme — commonly known as "Lava Jato" (car wash) — involving state energy company Petrobras and numerous senior figures from Brazil’s major political parties. This perfect storm of economic and political setbacks contributed to a rapid decline in the popularity of da Silva's successor, Dilma Rousseff, and created a golden opportunity for right-wing sectors to unseat Rousseff and her left-leaning Workers' Party.

But rather than attempting to retake the presidency through elections, sectors of the right conspired to remove Rousseff by triggering legally unjustified impeachment proceedings against her.

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Amid massive anti-impeachment protests, Brazil's opposition-dominated Senate voted to permanently remove Rousseff from office on Aug. 31, 2016. Since achieving this "soft coup" — as many Brazilians label it — the Workers' Party's adversaries have set their sights on da Silva, who remains Brazil's most popular political figure.

 

The former president is regularly vilified in Brazil's conservative media, which dominates the nation's airwaves and press. The telegenic federal Judge Sergio Moro, elevated to near-superhero status by much of Brazil’s major media, has been leading a biased and politicized investigation targeting da Silva, and has repeatedly violated the former president's due process rights.

The Obama administration has failed to speak out against these assaults on Brazil's democracy, but U.S. congressional members have taken notice since Rousseff's impeachment trial began in May 2016, and have been forcefully appealing for the respect of rule of law and human rights in Brazil.

In July 2016, 43 Democratic members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to then-Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryLobbying world Kerry: Trump not pursuing 'smart' or 'clever' plan on North Korea Tillerson will not send high-ranking delegation to India with Ivanka Trump: report MORE expressing "strong concern" regarding Rousseff's impeachment and noting that its main promoters faced corruption charges, including Romero Jucá, a key political ally of current President Michel Temer caught on tape plotting Rousseff's removal. The objective, Jucá said, was to prevent corruption investigations from moving forward. 

Temer, Rousseff's replacement, promptly appointed an all-white, all-male Cabinet that embarked on far-reaching reforms, including drastic cuts to social programs.

In early August, Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersSchumer: Franken should resign Franken resignation could upend Minnesota races Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign MORE (I-Vt.) issued a statement arguing that: "The United States cannot sit silently while the democratic institutions of one of our most important allies are undermined."

Kerry ignored these appeals. On Aug. 5, as the impeachment trial was still underway, he held a friendly joint press conference with Temer's foreign minister and made no mention of the unconstitutional efforts to remove Rousseff. The signal to Brazilians was unmistakable: Washington supported what many considered an illegal coup d'etat.

Though Brazil has largely disappeared from the news in the U.S., the dire political and social situation there is still of great concern to a number of members of Congress.

On Jan. 18, 12 members of the House, including four of the five top Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, and leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, sent a letter to Brazil's ambassador in Washington, denouncing the repression of peaceful protests in Brazil and the criminalization of the Landless Workers' Movement and other groups opposed to the Temer government. The letter also denounces the ongoing judicial persecution of da Silva:

"Since the beginning of [2016], Lula has been targeted by a judge — Sergio Moro — whose biased and unwarranted actions have severely jeopardized Lula’s due process rights. For instance, Moro ordered the arbitrary arrest of the former president simply to serve a subpoena, although there was no indication that the former president was unwilling to provide testimony. Media outlets were on site as the arrest occurred, suggesting that the primary purpose of the detention was to create the perception that Lula was implicated in criminal activity despite the lack of charges against him at the time."

The letter describes Moro's open participation "in political events opposing Lula" and his endorsement of a sensational book lionizing him and presenting da Silva as guilty of alleged criminal charges. It notes that Moro leaked phone intercepts to the media, a violation of Brazilian law.

The letter, led by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and endorsed by the AFL-CIO, Friends of the Earth and other organizations, goes on to say:

"Even following testimony against Lula obtained through plea bargains, there is not yet any credible evidence implicating Lula in criminal activity. We are concerned that the true goal behind the proceedings is to severely tarnish Lula’s image and disable him politically by any means, as occurred with former President Rousseff."

Despite these attacks, the Workers' Party announced on Jan. 17 that da Silva would be its candidate for president in Brazil's 2018 elections. Two days later, Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Teori Zavascki died in a plane crash seen by many as suspicious given that Zavascki had been analyzing testimony implicating many powerful Brazilian politicians in corruption.

Zavascki had been widely considered to be the most independent and principled member of the court. He had been identified in the leaked Jucá tape as the one justice "closed off" to making a deal to help remove Rousseff. And he had firmly objected to Moro's leaks of tapped phone recordings of da Silva in early 2016, earning him vicious attacks in the right-wing press and protests in front of his home in São Paulo.

With Zavascki gone, it appears unlikely that any higher judge will step in to counter the excesses of Moro and others who use their judicial or political power to arbitrarily target opponents.

Given this alarming situation, it's more important than ever for members of Congress and others in the international community to shine a bright light on the attempted demolition of democracy and basic rights that is taking place in Brazil.

Alexander Main is senior associate for international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.


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