What Italy’s Tangentopoli in 1992 political trauma can teach Brazil in 2016

Interim president Michel Temer was booed at the opening ceremony for the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. (Facebook)
Interim president Michel Temer was booed at the opening ceremony for the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. (Facebook)

Given ancient Rome’s delight in all things Hellenistic, it’s perhaps surprising that it took until 1960 for the Italian capital to win its turn hosting the Summer Olympic Games.brazilItaly Flag Icon

Those 1960 Games, however, showcased a Rome that, in barely more than a decade, rose from the ashes of World War II’s devastation. Under the guidance of U.S. and western allies and under the aegis of the Catholic, conservative Democrazia Cristiana (Christian Democrats), the 1960 Games forecast a competent and determined Italy that would, for the next three decades, leap forward economically in surprising and creative ways.

Though Italy today seems often trapped in sclerotic and tradition-bound ways, it wasn’t outlandish to say that Italy in 1960 was still a country of the future.  

That evergreen label, too, is affixed to Brazil. It’s the country of the future, the old chestnut goes… and it always will be.

When Rio de Janeiro was awarded the Olympic Games in 2009, it looked like that future, always just beyond the horizon, was finally within reach. In 2010, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva marked the last of eight years in power. With GDP growth of 7.5%, the frothiest Brazilian economy in a quarter-century, and with extreme poverty nearly eliminated across Brazil through a series of social welfare, transfer and educational programs, it was a victory lap for a figure who had become the most mythic colossus of the Latin American left. Though Brazil’s 2010 boom was part of a short-lived emerging economies bubble, things were still looking up for Brazil as recently as 2014, when Lula da Silva’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, narrowly won reelection – the fourth consecutive term for the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party), defeating both Marina Silva, a charismatic third-way economic leftist and evangelical Christian who would have been Brazil’s first leader of African descent, and conservative Aécio Neves, a telegenic and well-regarded senator and successful former governor of Minas Gerais.

Even then, it was still possible to regard the historic 2016 Games, the first to be held in South America, as notice that at long last, Brazil would be a country of the present. Instead, the country today is in political and economic crisis. Far from announcing Brazil as a major economic power, the Rio Games themselves have become a symbol of economic inequality and government misrule. At best, they have been an opportunity (as much for Brazilians as for Trump-weary and Clinton-fatigued Americans) to forget politics for two weeks.  

The Olympics of national corruption

There's a slim chance that the Brazilian Senate will not oust president Dilma Rousseff. (Facebook)
There’s a slim chance that the Brazilian Senate will not oust president Dilma Rousseff. (Facebook)

When the parties come to an end, the only marathon left will not take place in Rio de Janeiro, but rather in Brasília.

Just four days after the closing Olympic ceremony, Brazil’s impeached president will face trial in Brazil’s senate. By most measures, the Brazilian senate is likely to remove Rousseff from office by the end of the month, if not sooner. Senators voted last week by a margin of 59 to 21 to proceed to a full trial. If the same margins hold at the trial’s conclusion, Rousseff will join Fernando Collor de Mello as one of two presidents since the end of military rule in 1985 to leave office early after impeachment proceedings. To win, Rousseff will have to convince at least five senators to reconsider. It’s a particularly humiliating process for Rousseff, whose “crime,” tepid by Brazilian standards, amounts to fudging budget numbers to make the country’s economic conditions look slightly better when Brazilians went to the ballot in 2014. Her real crime is presiding over a painful recession exacerbated, in part, by widespread political corruption and by her government’s increasingly interventionist policies.

Though Brazil learned in 1992 that it could survive the impeachment of a sitting president and, indeed, show that not even the executive is above the law, the country finds itself in a political crisis today far more ominous. Rousseff and Lula da Silva command the support of a significant portion of the Brazilian electorate who view Rousseff’s impeachment as nothing short of a parliamentary coup, not unlike a similar effort in Paraguay four years ago to oust its first-ever leftist president, Fernando Lugo. Rousseff’s removal is only the beginning.

Interim president Michel Temer, who dutifully ran for vice president on Rousseff’s ticket both in 2010 and 2014, came to power after his own party, the Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party) abandoned Rousseff earlier this year. The PMDB, founded as a noble vehicle to restore democracy to Brazil in the 1960s, has become the ultimately weathervane in Brazilian politics, a “big tent” party that has found its way into every government coalition since 1990, aligning with neoliberal Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 1994 just as easily as with Lula da Silva in 2002 and Rousseff until earlier this spring. Neither left nor right, the only thing that pemedebismo seems to stand for in Brazil is perpetuating its own power.

Temer, a 75-year-old greybeard with little political charisma, is under scrutiny for his own misdeeds, including election law violations from the 2014 election. In a case before the Supreme Electoral Court, the election of both Rousseff and Temer in 2014 could be annulled, sending the country to fresh elections now, rather than in 2018.

All things considered, that may not be the worst option.

The entire political class is under siege in a widespread corruption investigation, Operação Lava Jato (“Operation Car Wash”) or, more informally, the “petrolão,” the “Big Oily”) that has destroyed politicians from across the political spectrum. The investigation, headed by prosecutor Sérgio Moro for more than two years, has uncovered widespread kickbacks to politicians from the state oil company Petrobras.

Lula da Silva himself was indicted at the end of July on obstruction of justice charges that could land the beloved former president in prison. José Dirceu, his former chief of staff, was sentenced to 23 years in prison earlier this year on corruption charges. Though Rousseff herself hasn’t been politically implicated in the scandal, the kickbacks took place during her time as energy minister, when she was responsible for Petrobras’s oversight. But her clumsy attempt to shield her mentor from prosecution by making him a cabinet member in March backfired when a conversation between the two was released, suggesting the appointment was made to evade the law.

But the scandal has ensnared many more, and as of earlier this year, a majority of Brazil’s senate and chamber of deputies were under investigation for serious crimes. Ironically, even Collor, who made a comeback as a lulista senator, is accused of taking Petrobras kickbacks. (He opposes Rousseff’s removal).

But Temer’s party, the PMDB, is equally complicit. Eduardo Cunha, then the president of Brazil’s chamber of deputies who led the impeachment charge, was suspended in May and is being investigated for bribery (including up to $40 million in Petrobras kickbacks) and obstruction. Temer’s own appointments, too, have backfired.

Upon Rousseff’s suspension, Temer rolled out a new interim government that tried to inspired market confidence with grand schemes to introduce a flurry of economic reforms. It soured within hours. Temer’s all-male, all-white government at first infuriated the Brazilian left for usurping power in such a heavy-handed manner.

But the interim government’s incompetence and ethical failings have sabotaged any lingering goodwill with the rest of the electorate – so much so that Rousseff might even be reinstated. André Moura, Temer’s choice to lead the government in the chamber of deputies, is under investigation for attempted murder. Three members of his cabinet have now resigned in scandal, including interim tourism minister Henrique Alves and anti-corruption minister Fabiano Silveira, the latter having been recorded bragging that Rousseff’s impeachment is a tactic to suffocate Operation Car Wash. Even though Temer’s role at the Olympic opening ceremony was reduced to a short ten-second appearance, he was still booed by many of the well-heeled Brazilians lucky and wealthy enough to secure tickets.

In a sense, it doesn’t matter what happens to Rousseff at the end of the month, because Brazil has entered a period where virtually all of its public institutions (and many of its political leaders) are all tagged with the same stench of corruption and crisis.

Eerie similarities to Tangentopoli, Italy’s 1992-93 crisis of confidence

Bettino Craxi, for all his faults, managed to guide Italy to high GDP growth.
Bettino Craxi, for all his faults, managed to guide Italy to high GDP growth.

If that seems familiar across global politics, it’s because something strikingly similar happened to Italy in the early 1990s.

There, too, a young prosecutor (Antonio Di Pietro) launched a judicial inquiry into corruption (the “Mani pulite” or “Clean Hands” case), which cascaded into a national crisis (“Tangentopoli,” or “Bribesville”) that wiped out all of the major political parties that had governed Italy from the 1960s, including the once unstoppable Christian Democrats. A “Socialist” (in name only) prime minister, Bettino Craxi, who led Italy during the heady go-go years of the 1980s when the Italian economy briefly eclipsed the British economy, fled in shame to Tunisia, where he died some years later in exile. Disgusted Italians waved lira notes at the former leader as he boarded his flight in Rome. Gabriele Cagliari, a former president of Eni, Italy’s oil and gas company (a significant portion of which is owned by the Italian government), committed suicide in prison awaiting trial. In sum, Tangentopoli brought an end to what is now known as Italy’s ‘First Republic.’

Yet Italy’s Second Republic was far from perfect. In the power vacuum that followed Tangentopoli, Silvio Berlusconi rose to power, first in 1994 and again in 2001 and in 2008. Initially, Berlusconi tried to use the judiciary to harass Di Pietro and, while those efforts failed, he effectively stymied whatever momentum was left in the Mani pulite investigations. In power, Berlusconi seemed more devoted to passing laws seeking immunity for himself and his media empire as anything else, at least when he wasn’t causing new areas for prosecutorial inquiry (such as cavorting with underage prostitutes).

Since Tangentopoli (which helped plunge Italy into a 0.85% contraction in 1993), Italy’s economy has achieved 2%-plus GDP just four times (in 1994, 1995, 2000 and 2006). Despite some semblance of fiscal discipline in the Berlusconi era, the overhang of Italy’s public debt, mostly accumulated in the 1970s and 1980s, exacerbated by anemic economic growth, continued to hamper the Italian economy. A string of feckless and chaotic center-left governments (Romano Prodi, Giuliano Amato, Massimo D’Alema, Prodi again) only punctuated Berlusconi’s rule, which finally ended with its own debt crisis in 2011 and the introduction of an unpopular technocratic government under former European Commissioner Mario Monti, who managed only tepid labor market and other reforms.

Despite the optimism of Italy’s new leader, the 41-year-old former Florence mayor Matteo Renzi, reforms to Italy’s economic and political systems have come slowly and perhaps inadequately, and he faces a test later this year with a high-stakes referendum on constitutional reforms. Failure could lead to fresh elections and the victory of the Eurosceptic, nativist and anti-austerity Five Star Movement, founded by comedian Beppe Grillo nearly seven years ago. One of its candidates, Virginia Raggi, recently won election as Rome’s mayor, so disgusted had local voters become with the Italian center-right and Renzi’s center-left Partito Democratico (Democratic Party).

How Brazil can avoid Italy’s mistakes

Jair B
Jair Bolsonaro hopes to ride a wave of widespread disgust to a resurgence of Brazilian populism and nostalgia for ‘order and progress.’

There are already ominous overtones that Brazil might emerge on a similarly troubled path.

Already, Jair Bolsonaro, a Brazilian congressman since 1991 from Rio de Janeiro, is emerging as a powerful candidate (if still a longshot) in 2018. A member of the small, populist Christian Social Party, Bolsonaro has often defended the military junta that took power by force in 1964 (praising it – and Rousseff’s one-time torturers – on the night of Rousseff’s impeachment from the floor of the chamber of deputies). Bolsonaro routines derides LGBT rights and same-sex marriage, and he has advocated for the restoration of the death penalty. Polls for the 2018 race typically give Lula da Silva a narrow lead, but that was before his indictment. The most recent Datafolha poll from mid-July gave Lula da Silva 22%, Marina Silva 17% and Neves 14%. But Bolsonaro won 7%, ahead of Temer with 5%.

As those polls evolve in the next two years, it’s not impossible that a demagogue like Bolsonaro, with all of Berlusconi’s malignancy and none of his clownish charm, could take power on a wave of nostalgia for Brazilian military rule. That’s especially true as the world seems to be entering a neo-nationalist era that’s fueled the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, Rodrigo Duterte’s election in the Philippines and Donald Trump’s electoral rise in the United States.

The good news is that Italy’s experience can provide at least three lessons for Brazil in the years ahead.

First, it’s imperative to let the Operation Car Wash investigations and prosecutions run their course, if nothing else to demonstrate that the rule of law is paramount, even when it means the ruin of an entire generation of politicians. Moro shouldn’t be subjected to the same kind of political games and pressures as Di Pietro once was, despite the Temer government’s obvious hopes to bring the Petrobras inquiries to an end.

Secondly, like Italy (in 1992 as well as in 2016), Brazil is in need of serious political and economic reforms, and Temer’s initial instincts weren’t necessary incorrect. But they will require both honest leadership and a president with the popular mandate that can only come from fresh elections. Tough reforms cannot be imposed by a presidential administration deemed by half of Brazilians (or more) as illegitimate.

Most importantly, when those elections come (in 2018 as scheduled or earlier), it is vital that those politicians who have been untouched by accusations of personal impropriety (which include, so far, Marina Silva), can work to showcase a set of potential leaders with the integrity to transcend the scars of the petrolão years and find ways to bring a highly polarized electorate together again. If such leaders emerge and defeat the forces of rank reactionaries and corrupt cronies, Brazil’s next president may be able to put the country back on the path to its long elusive future.

One thought on “What Italy’s Tangentopoli in 1992 political trauma can teach Brazil in 2016”

  1. More ominously, Hillary Clinton seems far more nefariously corrupt than Dilma Rousseff… and she was the chosen nominee despite the fact that virtually everyone knows that she is a crooked liar. This ugly reality reflects on all of us.

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