Boycott the Rio Olympics to Defend Brazilian Democracy

By Thomas Palley

Reposted from Thomas Palley’s blog.

Terrible anti-democratic events are now unfolding in Brazil with the constitutional coup against President Dilma Rousseff, organized through a cooked-up impeachment trial.

The impeachment coup represents a naked attempt by corrupt neoliberal elements to seize power in Brazil. Make no mistake: it is a threat to democracy and social progress in Brazil, Latin America, and even the global community at large.

If Brazilian voices concur, the world should respond by boycotting the Rio Olympics scheduled for this August.

Background: the capture and perversion of Brazil’s war on corruption

The constitutional coup against President Rousseff represents a capture and perversion of Brazil’s war on political corruption. As is widely known, Brazil has been rocked by revelations of massive corruption centered on its national oil company, Petrobras, but extending far beyond.

Political corruption is endemic in Brazil and is a curse upon the country. As a consequence, governing without recourse to corruption is almost impossible as bribery and kickbacks have historically been the only way of passing legislation in Brazil’s fractured Congress.

To their shame, some members of the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) government under President Lula succumbed to this curse. However, the PT’s involvement is a small fraction of the overall scandal, which infects the entirety of right-wing and business opposition parties far more extensively.

The opposition parties saw both threat and opportunity in the corruption scandal. The threat was exposure of their own pervasive corruption. The opportunity was the possibility of using the economic recession and the PT’s tainting to overthrow President Rousseff, thereby capturing government, blocking their own prosecution for corruption, and putting a stop to the social progress and reversal of income inequality the PT has achieved.

Zero evidence of Rousseff’s corruption

But try as they might, the opposition has found no evidence of corruption on the part of President Rousseff, something that may be unique in the presidential history of Brazil. A cynic might even say that is the real root of Rousseff’s political failure, as her honesty has likely turned the system against her.

Lacking evidence of corruption, the opposition has turned to impeaching Rousseff on grounds of violating technical budget laws in her prior term (2011-14), when she used temporary budget financing from the national development bank. This practice is known as “pedaling” and has been used before by governments, including that of President Fernando Cardoso. They were never sanctioned, yet Cardoso and his party now support impeachment.

The practice of budget pedaling was declared illegal by the Federal Court of Accounts in April 2015 and the Rousseff administration immediately moved to pay off its pedaling debts.

But rather than seeing that judgment as definitively clarifying permissible budget practice, the right-wing and business opposition that controls Brazil’s Congress has contrived to impeach President Rousseff for past budget technicality violations.

As evidenced by their own past budget practices and thievery, the impeachment is not aimed at correcting and preventing fiscal misappropriation. Instead, the goal is to exploit the decision to gain power that they could not secure at the ballot box.

Coup of the corrupt and vicious

The most egregious aspect of the process is that the impeachment has been led by persons already convicted of corruption or facing imminent conviction, along with vicious authoritarians and retrograde neoliberals.

Congressman Eduardo Cunha, the Speaker of the Brazil’s lower house, has just been ordered to step down for taking $40 million in bribes.

Senator Renan Calheiros, President of Brazil’s upper house, has a history of being disciplined for ethical violations and is currently under investigation for taking numerous major kickback payments.

Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, who was an outspoken lower house supporter of impeachment, dedicated his vote to Brazil’s past military dictatorship and the colonel who tortured Rousseff in the 1970s when she fought back against the dictatorship.

Interim president, Michel Temer, has already been disciplined for campaign finance violations that render him ineligible to run for office. He is also under investigation as part of the Petrobras scandal.

Temer, who is not a member of the PT, has appointed a viciously neoliberal cabinet. That means Brazil, which elected President Rousseff of the Workers’ Party in 2014, now has a neoliberal government.

The agriculture minister is Blairo Maggi, an agribusiness billionaire known as the “soy king”, who is said to have destroyed more rain forest than any living person.

The minister of justice, Alexandre de Moraes, has been an open advocate of police repression in the state of Sao Paulo, and he has also now been given charge of the human rights ministry.

The minister of institutional security (which includes Brazil’s CIA) is General Etchegoyen, whose father was identified by Brazil’s Truth Commission as responsible for murder and torture during the dictatorship. Etchegoyen dismissed those charges as “frivolous”.

Lastly, the minister of finance is Henrique Meirelles, former CEO of Bank of Boston and an advocate of the most extreme neoliberal financial policies.

This ugly cast of characters makes crystal clear what is happening in Brazil.

Boycott the Olympics

The impeachment coup represents a grave threat to democracy and social progress in Brazil and Latin America. Democratic civil society in Brazil urgently needs the world’s help. If opponents of the coup call for a boycott of the Rio Olympics, the global community of democracies should immediately sign on.

An Olympic boycott could be a beautiful and powerful action. It can brilliantly spotlight the culpability and corruption of the coup conspirators, while sending a global message in support of democracy.

Everyone knows Olympics and World Cups are both sporting and political events. Governments use these events to gain legitimacy, which means the Rio Olympics now risks conferring tacit approval on the coup against President Rousseff.

History provides evidence of past failures to help, and those failures illustrate the need for present action. The greatest failure was the 1936 Berlin Olympics that gave tacit to approval to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany. In 1978 the global community failed Argentina by participating in the World Cup at a time when Argentina’s dictators were brutally torturing and murdering Argentines by the thousands.

Stop the revival of anti-democratic Latin American politics

The stakes are high. Brazil is being closely watched by anti-democratic reactionary forces throughout Latin America. The global community must act vigorously to stop Brazil’s constitutional coup dead in its tracks.

Failure to do so will condemn Brazilian democracy and send a signal throughout the region legitimizing right-wing anti-democratic politics. That risks reviving the tragic cycle of political violence that has so injured Latin America in the recent past. Boycotting the Rio Olympics might help prevent that outcome.

Our May/June issue is out!

Our May/June issue is out!  Print subscribers should get their copies soon, and electronic subscribers just received their full-color pdfs. And we have posted the cover feature, an interview with economist Jayati Ghosh, The ‘Emerging’ Economies Today.  And here is this issue’s editorial note:

The Age of Misdirection

Name a problem, and someone in a position of power or privilege will have a diversionary explanation for it. One that is consistent with—or even redoubles—their power or privilege.

John Miller takes on one of these diversionary tactics in this issue’s “Up Against The Wall Street Journal.” Economist Lawrence Lindsey, erstwhile economic advisor to George W. Bush, says “progressives” are to blame for rising inequality in the United States. In fact, inequality of market incomes has risen under both Democratic and Republican administrations—thanks to the erosion of unions, weakening of the welfare state, adoption of pro-corporate “free trade” agreements, and the like. Redistributive tax and spending policy do some, but not enough, to reduce inequality.

Nor have government policymakers done what they could to spur economic recovery or restore full employment in the wake of the Great Recession. Gerald Friedman notes—in an ongoing debate with critics of his writings on Bernie Sanders’ economic program—that mainstream economists are telling us to just accept today’s stagnant economy as the new normal. That’s all well and good for large corporations and the very wealthy. The once-again-rising tide has lifted their boats. Not so for the majority, who are struggling to keep their heads above water.

We see more sleight-of-hand politics when it comes to taxes. To dodge taxes, U.S. corporations stash trillions in profits in fictitious overseas accounts. That’s still not enough for some of them, Roger Bybee points out, so they engage in “inversions”— their legal takeover by companies headquartered in lower-tax countries. Confronted with this spectacle, government and corporate leaders say: We need to cut “punishing” corporate taxes! We need a “tax holiday” for corporations to repatriate profits “trapped” abroad! The mainstream press has responded to the “Panama Papers” scandal—which revealed details about tens of thousands of offshore bank accounts, likely used to dodge taxes—in much the same vein. The Wall Street Journal, Bill Black points out in his “Comment,” argues that the rampant concealment of private wealth is nothing more than a “distraction” (and that we should focus instead on government corruption).

Privilege may be concentrated at the very top (in the United States today, increasingly so). But, as Jeannette Wicks-Lim argues in “It Pays to Be White,” the story is much more complex than just “the 1%” against everyone else. In particular, the U.S. racial caste system stacks the deck, in a multitude of ways, in favor of whites and against African Americans. The attachment to white privilege is deeply ingrained, buttressed by the belief that “White people tend to get more because they deserve more, while Black people get less because they deserve less.” That creates a deep divide within the ranks of the “99%.” And it gives today’s racist demagogues, in the ultimate misdirection, scapegoats on whom to blame society’s ills.

One way to read all this, with some justification, is that the powerful and privileged will stop at nothing to hold on to their positions. Another, however, is that they are desperately improvising as their hold on society becomes more tenuous. Elites try to shift the blame for income inequality, economic stagnation, corporate tax dodging, and so on because they understand that more and more people see these as blameworthy. It’s not just in the United States where those in power are facing challenges to their authority and legitimacy. Jayati Ghosh points out that three sectors of the capitalist world—rich “core” capitalist countries, “emerging” economies that export manufactured goods to the core, and suppliers of raw-material and intermediate inputs for emerging-economy manufacturing—are tied together by trade and finance. Stagnation in the core has undermined export-oriented manufacturing and, with it, the raw-material commodities boom. The elites in these countries will have to move towards more inclusive, demand-driven growth, or face rising protest.

Here in the United States, we may not see mass protests right now, but we do see profound mass disillusionment with private and government elites. Even when those in power have steered society into a crisis, the existing order is likely to persist so long as people believe that those who created the mess will … somehow, some way … be able to fix it. When that belief no longer holds, change can occur quite dramatically.

But change in what direction? That is not preordained.