“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” — Isaac Asimov
Brazilian authorities are investigating reports of a massacre of up to 10 people from an isolated tribe in the Amazon by illegal gold miners.
The killings, alleged to have taken place in Javari Valley, are claimed to have been carried out by men working for gold prospectors who dredge illegally in the region’s rivers.
If proven, the murders would confirm that severe budget cuts to Brazil’s indigenous agency are having deadly effects. The agency was forced to close two bases in the same region earlier this year. Investigators face a 12-day boat trip just to reach the area.
Pablo Beltrand, the prosecutor from the remote Amazon town of Tabatinga – near the Peruvian border and 700 miles from the Amazonas state capital, Manaus – said his team was first informed about the possible murders in the Javari Valley at the beginning of August. A fifth of Brazil’s uncontacted tribes live in this wild region.
“We received a communication from federal government,” he said. “The ongoing investigation is about the possible death of indigenous people.”
Beltrand said he could not give more information about the inquiry but said that two men arrested recently in a police and army operation into illegal gold prospecting in the area were not connected to the case.
UESLEI MARCELINO / REUTERS Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is seen during the inauguration of the new National Directory of the Workers’ Party in Brasilia, July 2017.
The anticorruption juggernaut that has convulsed Brazil’s graft-ridden political system since 2014 rolled on to new heights this week. Federal judge Sergio Moro sentenced former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) to nearly 10 years’ imprisonment for illicit enrichment. At the same time, charges of corruption leveled by General Prosecutor Rodrigo Janot could topple the current president, Michel Temer, whose party engineered the impeachment of then President Dilma Rousseff last year, unleashing the current political crisis.
This is a dramatic moment for democratic rule in Brazil, which boasts a population of 205 million and the world’s eighth-largest economy. The turmoil will probably last until Brazil’s next presidential election, in November 2018. This election will be the test of whether Brazilian civil society has acquired real antibodies to fight political corruption.
OPERATION CAR WASH CONTINUES
Temer narrowly escaped indictment by the federal electoral court last month on the same charges of falsifying budget deficits that led to Rousseff’s impeachment. He was absolved after packing the court with two new justices who voted for his acquittal alongside Gilmar Mendes, the court’s president, who is also a member of the Supreme Court. Now Temer is applying similar tactics in the chamber of deputies the lower house of Brazil’s Congress, substituting friendly deputies for ones who don’t agree to vote for him, to obstruct any prosecution by the Supreme Court. Brazil’s judicial rules provide the sitting president with legal immunity, which requires a two-thirds congressional majority to override.
Six decades ago, long before the Brazilian Senate’s August 2016 vote to impeach President Dilma Rousseff and remove her from office, one of the most beloved leaders in the country’s history was besieged by scandals of his own. President Getúlio Vargas, a stocky, gravelly voiced gaucho from Brazil’s deep south, had granted new rights, including paid vacation, to a generation of workers in the 1930s and 1940s. But after Vargas returned to power in 1951, one of his top aides was charged with murder, and Vargas himself faced allegations that the state-run Bank of Brazil had granted sweetheart loans to a pro-government journalist. “I feel I am standing in a sea of mud,” Vargas lamented. After a late-night cabinet meeting on August 24, 1954, failed to solve the crisis, and with numerous generals demanding his resignation, Vargas withdrew to his bedroom, grabbed a Colt pistol, and shot himself through the heart.
Ever since, corruption scandals have continued to routinely upend Brazilian politics. In 1960, the mercurial Jânio Quadros won the presidency by campaigning with a broom, vowing to sweep away the thieving “rats” in Brasília—only to quit after eight tumultuous months in office. Following a 1964 military coup, widespread disgust at the corruption of civilian politicians helped Brazil’s generals hold on to power for two decades. In 1992, Fernando Collor de Mello—the first president to be elected following the restoration of democracy—was impeached over allegations that he and members of his inner circle had embezzled millions.
Brazil is anything but calm. Shortly after the end of the summer Olympics, the Senate impeached President Dilma Rousseff and removed her from office. This came about after a corruption probe revealed widespread bribery among the political elite. On top of the political turmoil, the country’s economy is predicted to shrink 3.3 percent this year after a 3.8 percent contraction in 2015, already Brazil’s worst recession on record. But the moment the country’s political order actually began to unravel was in 2013, when millions of people across the country took to the streets with a range of demands from affordable public transportation to fixes to the government bureaucracy. The system shock of these “June Journeys” served as a catalyst in pushing the country in opposite directions—left and right.
Two young protestors from Rio de Janeiro, Mayara Donaria and Gustavo Mota, were among those who gathered in what were considered Brazil’s largest protests in 20 years. Donaria is a leftist student from the low-income Rio favela of Maré and marched with friends who were involved in social justice campaigns, principally against police violence. Mota, who leans right, runs a graphic design startup in the condo-packed beachside Rio neighborhood of Barra and has called for less government regulation on businesses.
UESLEI MARCELINO / REUTERS Brazilian President Michel Temer, September 2016.
For Brazil’s political elite, the August 31 impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff for corruption was a barely disguised attempt to draw a line between them and the crises that have kept their country in a straitjacket for much of the past two years. With Rousseff’s successor, Michel Temer, now formally in place as president, the new administration can finally take the bold steps needed to revive the Brazilian economy. Corruption investigations will continue, but they will no longer be a soap opera distracting from the day-to-day business of governing the country. More important, according to this view, is that just as former President Fernando Collor de Mello’s impeachment 24 years ago may have set the stage for the reforms that led to Brazil’s impressive growth over the past two decades—Collor’s ouster was followed by a macroeconomic stabilization program, the Real Plan, that ended decades of hyperinflation—Rousseff’s impeachment could set in motion a new cycle in the country’s economic and political life.
Brazil has rarely had it so bad. The country’s economy has collapsed: since 2013, its unemployment rate has nearly doubled, to more than 11 percent, and last year its GDP shrank by 3.8 percent, the largest contraction in a quarter century. Petrobras, Brazil’s semipublic oil giant, has lost around 85 percent of its value since 2008, thanks to declining commodity prices and its role in a massive corruption scandal. The Zika virus has infected thousands of Brazilians, exposing the frailty of the country’s health system. And despite the billions of dollars Brasília poured into the 2014 World Cup and this year’s Olympic Games, those events have done little to improve the national mood or upgrade the country’s urban infrastructure. Meanwhile, many of Brazil’s long-standing problems have proved stubbornly persistent: half of all Brazilians still lack access to basic sanitation, 35 million of them lack access to clean water, and in 2014, the country suffered nearly 60,000 homicides.
But Brazil’s biggest problems today are political. Things first came to a boil in the summer of 2013, when the police clashed with students protesting bus and subway fare hikes in São Paulo. Within days, some 1.5 million people took to the streets of Brazil’s big cities to protest a wider set of problems, including the government’s wasteful spending (to the tune of some $3.6 billion) on the construction and refurbishment of a dozen stadiums for the World Cup. In the months that followed, when Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff appeared on television to soothe the unrest, Brazilians across the country drowned out her voice by rattling pots and pans from their balconies. In October 2014, after promising to increase public spending and bring down unemployment, Rousseff managed to win reelection by a thin margin. But she quickly backtracked on her major pledges, announcing a plan to cut state spending and rein in inflation. The public’s anger mounted.