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Review: Economic Crisis and Democracy in Brazil – A Talk by Dilma Rousseff

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Former president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff standing at a podium
Review: Economic Crisis and Democracy in Brazil – A Talk by Dilma Rousseff

Brazil is a nation of great political turmoil. From the dark years of the military dictatorship to continuous corruption and failed economic policies, Brazil is as famous for its political struggles as it is for caipirinhas. On Wednesday, April 12th, impeached President Dilma Rousseff gave a talk at The New School about economic crisis and democracy in Brazil.

Dilma Rousseff was the first female president of Brazil from 2011 until her impeachment in 2016. An economist, politician, and member of the Worker’s Party (PT), she won the democratic election with 54 million votes. But as any president of a nation, Dilma’s politics are highly contested and divide millions across Brazil. While she is popular for programs like Luz Para Todos (Light For All), which made electricity widely available, she is highly criticized for corruption, such as her involvement in the Petrobras scandal. Her alleged hiding of budgetary deficits to win re-election in 2014 and poor economic policies that contributed to severe recession led to her impeachment in 2016, putting “dracula” Michel Temer, as one person in the Audience called him, in the Presidential seat.

In a room buzzing with excitement, Dilma began her talk this Wednesday with a somber, “I have experienced the brutality of evil in my life.” This evil, she articulated, manifested itself in the form of two coups in her life: the first during the military dictatorship, and the second when “54 million votes were buried” during her impeachment. This impeachment is what she calls the anti-democratic use of law as a weapon, and can be traced to two primary reasons: misogyny and criminalization of her fiscal policy.

It is interesting, but perhaps not coincidental for a political talk in New York, that she drew immediately on her gender. Brazil has a culture of misogyny and sexism, said Dilma, and it was this attitude that fueled her coup. “In Brazil, it is women who are subject to economic crisis. Men are stable and level-headed.” Satisfying a furiously-nodding New Yorker crowd of feminists, she then discussed a recorded conversation between two important senators who stated, “it is necessary that Dilma is impeached to ‘stop the bleeding,’ to stop the investigations from coming to us.”
Dilma attributed any economic crisis to an “integrated strategy for the economic and geo-political framing of Brazil in a neoliberal world.” Quoting economist Milton Friedman, she delivered the theory that in order to implement neoliberalism, “first a crisis need be implemented, and then there must be a plan for the aftermath.” Her impeachment was the necessary crisis in order to create the right conditions to achieve neoliberalism. She discussed Brazil’s economy by constantly accusing the ‘illegitimate’ government of being the root of any problems, and, of course, adamantly praising Lula and herself for any signs of progress.

In self-praise, she discussed funds for health and education, tax raises, her concerns for “hardworking women” who don’t have the same opportunities as men, and other successful policies. She asserts that  “Brazil has a problem.” This problem has serious spiraling effects coming out of an accelerated process of attaining neoliberalism: a return to a state of inequality, ignorance of the populace’s needs, irrelevant policies, power vacuums, patriarchal saviours and thus the creation of monsters who perpetuate the cycle. She lamented the remains of a fragmented democratic center amidst hegemonic conservatism. “We have a meeting scheduled with democracy in October,” she reminded the crowd, “we must think, reflect and engage in dialogue–elections allow us to wash and dry our souls.”
Furious applause erupted from a crowd of heavily left-leaning intellectuals, some holding signs with “Fora Temer” (translated to “Out With Temer”) and “We Love Dilma” sharpied on them. Dilma’s passionate cries about the injustice served to her and her country roused the audience into a standing ovation while she beamed down at the crowd.

In true politician fashion, Dilma diverted many of the post-talk discussion questions: when asked about corruption, she made the bold statement that she was unaware of any corruption that occurred in her government. When asked about foreign policy, Dilma defiantly claimed it was not her place to talk about any other Presidencies except her own. Still, the crowd offered a range of views, from one woman declaring pure reverence to Dilma’s policies which she claimed had uplifted the lives of millions of poor Brazilians, to a sunglasses-and-fur-hat-clad man who approached the stage to flip the bird and yell repeatedly, “You thief!” (he was promptly escorted out).

Despite an enthusiastic, mostly supportive crowd, there seemed to be many people thinking more critically about this talk. Dilma conveniently paints herself as a victim of a macho, sexist culture of politics that impeached her for its own neoliberal aspirations. Gender and name-blaming other politicians for selfish neoliberal aspirations divert the audience’s attention from demanding she address the corruption as a factor of the impeachment. Her discussion of policy with respect to gender imbalance gives her the appearance of representing the underrepresented– the messiah savior for those who don’t have a voice. Dilma’s explanation of tax policy with respect to discrepancies in wealth distribution allow her to don the hat of equality and equity struggles. She seemingly embodies the perfect, left-wing representative of the people. Such an image is, however, the most dangerous: it is a powerful protective shield from the cognitive dissonance that comes with representing the poor and still embezzling millions.

Though Dilma is a controversial figure, attending her talk was a matter of necessity; Dilma was introduced by Urban Democracy Lab’s Gianpaolo Baiocchi as part of a generation of Brazilians who believed in Brazilian democracy and fought for it. There is, quite literally, no better time than now to consider what it means to fight for democracy. What kind of democracy Dilma represents, though, is revealed in her stick-to-the-script talk and leaves us with much food for thought.