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Rio de Janeiro — This was a historic week in Brazilian politics. The Brazilian Senate voted suspected President Dilma Rousseff definitively out of office by a substantial margin. The interim President Michel Temer took office, briefly, before going abroad for a G20 meeting in China. And though the streets did not fill with enraged multitudes, as they did many times over the last two years, the Brazilian population is deeply divided on how to interpret – and how to speak about – the events that have unfolded over the last several months.
The debate has centered around one word: “golpe” or coup. In most of the political discourse and press, there are two sides to this rhetorical coin. Dilma and her supporters – including, it seems, many in the international Latin American studies community – denounce her ouster as a “coup.” Dilma repeatedly did so in her impassioned, 12-hour defense in the Senate on Monday. She also repeatedly termed Temer “the usurper.” (Dilma picked Temer as vice-president, one of many odd wrinkles.) For those who were glad to see Dilma and her left-of-center Workers Party (PT) go, the word is “constitutional.” In the words of the newspaper Folha de São Paulo the day after the vote, “The process unfolded in strict obedience to the Constitution.” Constitutional or coup: which was it? As I’ll explain below, I don’t this dichotomy illuminates much; furthermore, I think the widespread use of the term “coup” is both an analytical and a political mistake.
First, a very brief summary for anyone who is interested but has not followed the messy and complicated process over the last several years. As a baseline, Brazilian legislative politics are…special. The system is incredibly fragmented, with nearly 30 parties having some level of representation. Many of these parties are hardly parties at all. They are personal or local projects through which politicians take advantage of the country’s obscure campaign finance laws and low barriers for entry to the political game. Only a few of the parties have much in the way of infrastructure, organization, or even a consistent platform or ideology. Even fewer parties have all three of those. This picture makes governing in the Brazilian Congress tricky. In practice, it also leads to a lot of horse-trading and outright corruption.
Everyone basically knew this. However, over the past several years, a bolder and more independent judiciary has brought the size of this corruption to light. It started in part with exposing a system of monthly payments for legislative cooperation called the mensalão. Another investigation called Lava Jato, or Car Wash, exposed an even bigger web of kickbacks, bribes, and money being siphoned from the government and parastatal banks and enterprises. Many of the biggest names in Brazilian politics and industry were implicated; many began to turn on one another, unleashing a two-year stream of revelations, depositions, and surreptitiously taped phone calls. Meanwhile, Brazilian’s decade of impressive economic growth ground to a halt and then went into reverse. The combination produced a wave of indignation.
One person who wasn’t implicated, however, was Dilma Rousseff. While the corruption investigations helped created the climate for her impeachment, she has not been accused of corruption for personal gain. The investigation may have encouraged some of her opponents to push her out, hoping a successor would press judges to back off – two ministers of the interim government were forced to resign after revelations suggesting that was the case. Instead, Dilma was impeached for something much fuzzier: a “crime of responsibility,” which is given as a reason for impeachment in Brazilian law. I am not an expert on Brazilian law, so I won’t give a definite opinion on the legality of the charges or of Dilma’s guilt or innocence, but it is worth noting that this is a not a clear-cut category and reasonable people disagree about what would constitute such a crime. Dilma’s “crime” was essentially mishandling state accounts in a way that presented a rosier picture before she ran for re-election through a series of misclassified short-term loans. There was certainly a glut of spending before the elections – and I think some very poor macroeconomic and fiscal policy enacted. Previous presidents had played a similar fiscal shell game. Dilma also pulled a bit of a bait and switch, making pre-electoral promises and then changing direction after winning. But that’s closer politics-as-usual than the stuff of impeachment. Regardless of the exact nature of the “crime of responsibility,” few believe that is what led to Dilma’s downfall. Instead, public anger over economic conditions, widespread condemnation of a corrupt political class, and poor management of Brazil’s web of party systems created the climate. For the public, the impeachment was, in many ways, more of a no-confidence vote than a legal case. However, Brazil’s constitution does not provide for no-confidence votes.
There has been a great deal of discussion here about whether the Brazilian Senate had the moral authority to put Dilma on trial. About 60 percent of the body’s members are themselves under investigation for corruption – in many cases much more blatant than Dilma’s wrongdoings. One of the most surreal moments of the past week was watching former president Fernando Collor de Mello, who was impeached for corruption and resigned right before the vote, stand up as a current senator to condemn Dilma and favor impeachment. Many of the machinations that led to the impeachment started shortly after Dilma’s re-election, which Brazil’s center-right party was shocked to lose and never fully accepted. Most of the major media companies in Brazil have been harshly anti-PT over the last few years (some of the post-impeachment editorials have been gleeful). These are the factors that are normally cited in making the argument that the whole messy process is, in fact, a “coup.”
I am not so sure “coup” is the most helpful word, for a few reasons. But before I get into those, it is worth asking why this has been the word of choice. The major reason, I think, is that the term “coup” carries a particular historical resonance in Brazil and elsewhere in the Southern Cone. Until recently, “coup” would have been understood to mean the 1964 military overthrow of democratically elected President João Goulart (side note: U.S. involvement is still hotly debated; for me, the available historic record indicates the effort was Brazilian inspired and led, but that the U.S. anticipated it, welcomed it, signaled that it welcomed it, and made plans to help if called upon). This led to two decades of repressive military government, and it was during this period that today’s PT was formed and former President Lula first came to national attention. Dilma Rousseff herself was a militant against the dictatorship, was captured, and was tortured. So, when Dilma and her supporters call the current process a coup, this is the history they are invoking. In fact, Dilma drew these connections explicitly in her Senate defense. Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay suffered similar military coups and repressive governments (actually, even more violent and repressive than Brazil’s) in the following years, so the word has a similar resonance in South America.
The rhetorical power, then, is strong – at least for a certain audience. However, I think the word “coup” is unhelpful for a few reasons. First, there are definitional and conceptual problems. Second, I think it misuses those historical experiences in ways that risk minimizing how drastic and terrible those periods were. Third, I think the growing use of “coup” in Latin America risks being one-sided in a way that undermines the credibility of the term of those (largely on the left) that are using it. Finally, while the term packs a political-rhetorical punch, I think that is actually obscures issues that are relevant to the Brazilian left now and will be absolutely necessary in its recuperation.
- Definitions and concepts. This point risks sounding pedantic, but I think it is important, especially if the people using the term are scholars or political analysts (see the LASA debates around this subject: pro-“coup” and anti-). The basic, Merriam-Webster definition of a coup d’etat is “a sudden attempt by a small group of people to take over the government usually through violence.” The only part of that definition that really
fits the Brazilian situations is “to take over the government.” The process has hardly been sudden, the group launching it is not small, and it has not been carried out through violence. Many have implicitly recognized this by increasingly saying a “parliamentary coup.” In the political science literature, until recently, work on coups focused heavily on the military’s intervention in politics. There is an element of extra-legality: “At a minimum, therefore, the practice of coup d’etat is the technique of making exceptions from old rules and creating new rules of these exceptions,” one scholar wrote. More concretely, the end result is change of political regime and not only or even necessarily a change of political leader (Fujimori is the salient example). In Brazil, there was an attempt to scrupulously follow the letter of the old rules (if not the spirit) and the political regime remains the same as last week and last year.
- History. The argument for historical equivalence is basically that democratic leftists are being forced from office by political and economic elites from the right. However, I think that equivalence does a disservice to the violence and repression that followed the 1964 coup in Brazil, the 1973 coups in Chile and Uruguay, and the 1976 coup in Argentina. This is linked to the point above, asking just how far we want to stretch important concepts like this one. The political-rhetorical point is exactly meant to emphasize this equivalence. We should first stop to ask just how equivalent the processes really are; otherwise, it can pave the way for those would like to minimize just how bad the repression of those periods was.
- “Coups” in Latin America today. “Coups” and attempted coups seem to be rampant in Latin America today. Political competition, civil society opposition, corruption investigations, and many other political and judicial processes are being labelled coups. There are real reasons for concern about some of these events, but when there is outrage about the Brazilian impeachment but largely silence about Daniel Ortega’s consolidation of one-party rule in Nicaragua, there are reasons to question how the term is being applied. Likewise, the uncomfortable truth is that some of the political leaders decrying coup attempts were silent for far too long about the dramatic erosions of democracy, transparency, judicial independence, and rule of law in Venezuela. When a corruption investigation takes down Otto Pérez Molina in Guatemala, no one is crying “coup” – and with good reason. (Actually, Pérez Molina tried this, and no one bought it.) Many of parties of the center-left came to power promising to clean up corruption. Some of the PT’s early reforms set the stage for the investigations that followed. The seemingly reflexive tendency recently to call corruption investigations into leftist parties “coups” risks undermining the credibility of the broader, more important agenda of expanding political cooperation and pressing for greater redistribution in some of the world’s most unequal societies. For example, FMLN official in El Salvador have tried to derail necessary investigations by labeling them a coup. In the long run, that’s bad news for the left and for Latin American societies.
- Political ramifications. OK, I get that most of the use of the term “coup” in Brazil is political and not analytical (though honestly I worry about academic debate on this subject at both LASA and SLAS). The question for those saying “coup” is not whether the term really holds as compared to prior usage, but about what the political effect is. But even in opposition to impeachment, I think the term is unhelpful. One simple reason is that “coup” may rally supporters, but it persuades no one and halts political dialogue. “Coup” paints a large part of the Brazilian population that said they would vote for impeachment (two-thirds in a recent survey) as part of the cabal and not part of the solution. “Coup” insists on the illegitimacy not just of the process but of the political system – a system in which the PT is now badly needed to serve as the leading political opposition. “Coup” does not help advance crucial political reforms – cubing the stunning levels of official immunity and impunity, changing campaign finance, more narrowly defining “crime of responsibility,” or reducing the plethora of parties, for example. Perhaps most worryingly, “coup” risks discrediting Brazil’s judicial institutions and the larger process of investigations that have uncovered dirty dealings well beyond the PT. For those who suspect that Temer and his supporters want to put the brakes on Lava Jato, crying “coup” at every turn could end up playing into the hands of those who would like to go back to business as usual, but with the PT as a more radical, but less electable minority party.
None of this is to say that what happened this week in Brasilia was a a good thing. I don’t find much to celebrate. Turning impeachment into a no-confidence vote, even if following the letter of the law, has potentially destabilizing consequences. Dilma’s government has been replaced by a government no one seems to want, which seems unconcerned about representing Brazil’s diverse society, and which is dogged by corruption issues as serious as the PT’s. No one gives the Brazilian Senate high marks for moral probity, but ultimately it is as irrelevant as it is unpalatable. The source of the Senate’s authority in the process was constitutional, not moral. An impeachment is essentially a political process more than it is a judicial one. There were almost certainly deals made to ensure votes. The question is less about the individuals who occupy these positions, and more about the institutions are in place (and effectively practiced). Those institutions guided a process that many see as deeply flawed. No coup overturned them this week. Crying coup is unlikely to improve them.
I woke up to a welcome email from my former Dean at American University, letting me know that Latin America Confronts the United States had received a capsule review in Foreign Affairs. It is, fittingly in my opinion, featured alongside Joseph Tulchin’s recent Latin America in International Politics: Challenging U.S. Hegemony. Richard Feinberg notes that, “Both authors demonstrate that in fact, when dealing with the United States, capable Latin American leaders have not only successfully defended their interests but also astutely intervened in U.S. domestic politics to alter the way that Washington defines and pursues its interests in the region.”
You can see the rest of the brief review by Richard Feinberg in Foreign Affairs.
Before I head off to Rio, I have a couple upcoming TV interviews tonight to discuss how this year’s Games are embroiled in Brazil’s own economic and political situations, as well as how Brazil’s neighbors are responding. First, I’ll be live on Canadian TV at 4:40 EDT, or 9:40 p.m. in the UK. Right after that, I’ll hope over to France 24, 5:00 EDT, or 10 p.m.
— Tom Long (@tomlongphd) August 5, 2016
— Tom Long (@tomlongphd) August 5, 2016
Following up on my informal thoughts on Tim Kaine’s nomination, the good folks at the American University Center for Latin American and Latino Studies asked me to write a brief blog post on Kaine’s experience for the region and why the vice presidency might be a helpful perch for improving U.S. relations with the Americas.
“U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s vice-presidential nominee, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, may help her politically in the November election, and his potential influence on U.S. policy toward Latin America could be extremely important over the long haul. Though Kaine’s Latin American experience likely was a secondary consideration in his selection, it is consistent with the role of the office of the vice president that has emerged during the Obama Administration as a center for serious policy initiatives in the Americas.”
The main narratives since Virginia Senator Tim Kaine was announced as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee have been that Kaine was a low-risk, low-reward choice, that he is sure to disappoint former supporters of Bernie Sanders, and that he was chosen as someone who could govern without overshadowing the Clintons.
I don’t want to take apart those arguments, but for me, Kaine’s selection was a bit of welcome news in seemingly endless campaign filled with bitter and divisive language. For me, there is a lot to like about Tim Kaine (and not just that he is a fellow University of Missouri graduate, though that’s certainly worth something). Given my interests, much of this has to do with Kaine’s approach to issues that affect US-Latin American relations.
Here’s why I am happy with this choice.
- Kaine sees people from Mexico and Central America first as foremost as people. Not as threats. Not as some plague to be evicted and excluded. Not as pawns for political rhetoric. But as human beings, many of whom live in difficult circumstances and are forced to make difficult choices. This shouldn’t be controversial, but evidently it is. It is not a policy position, but it at least seems to be something that one should keep in mind when making policy.
- Kaine clearly gets the need for humane immigration reform (see point 1). He seems to understand that immigration is also foreign policy, and that in our relations with Mexico and Central America, is at the top of the agenda from the perspective of foreign leaders. If immigration is treated as a US-only issue, our foreign relations suffer. Giving a floor speech entirely in Spanish might have been a bit of political theater, but it was also an important way to signal to Spanish-speakers in the US and across Latin America that they have a right to participate in a conversation that affects them even if the political decision might be out of their hands.
- Broadly speaking, Kaine cares about Latin America. This is often credited to his experience in Honduras as a young man. This resonates with me, as a Midwesterner whose formative experiences in Honduras created a lifelong interest in Latin America and in US policies that affect the region. The coincidence is part of why I have paid attention to Kaine for the last five or six years. On the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kaine has done a lot of work on issues like Central American corruption, crime, and economic development. These are not big vote-getters or donation-drivers; they are issues a senator only tackles if he cares. Likewise, Kaine seems to have an understanding of the region (and foreign policy more generally) that appreciates that the United States needs to employ a broader set of foreign policy tools than it often does.
- Kaine understands the importance of trade. On the left and right, some people’s main knock on Kaine seems to be his support for various trade deals, and here I part ways with critics. Not all trade deals are created equal, but trade is a net positive. Yes, it creates sectoral economic dislocation, and this is a serious challenge (though for the large US economy not nearly of the the same magnitude as technological advancement). Both of these factors are and should be shaped by policy. But going back to point 3, Kaine seems to grasp the importance of trade for the U.S. role in the hemisphere and the world. NAFTA was no panacea, but it solidified a positive relationship between the US and Mexico that was almost unthinkable two decades before (though evidently not irreversible). Plus, US-Mexico trade is less about low-cost imports than it is about joint production and value chains. It’s not perfect, but we live in a world of imperfect policy options. The system of global trade plays a fundamental role in creating regional and global public goods, maintaining networks of asymmetrical relationships, and sustaining the broader global order that has benefited the US tremendously since 1945.
- Finally, Kaine seems to have a reputation as a good person who treats his colleagues and his staffers with respect. I doubt anyone gets to these heights of US politics completely unsullied, and I am sure there will be many attempts to dig up dirt. But his reputation is for respect and hard work, not for intrigue and scandal. That’s a welcome prospect.
Exciting news happening in Havana, as the Colombian government and the FARC announce a definitive ceasefire that will end a 50-year guerrilla war. Check out this story from Reuters, where I am thrilled to be quoted in the last paragraph, after talking with Havana correspondent Sarah Marsh.
I’ll also be talking live on Deutsche Weill television, which should stream online. I’ll be on sometime around 8:30 p.m. in Germany, which is 7:30 p.m. in the UK, and 2:30 on the East Coast in the U.S. I’ll put up a video of it if I can (for you, Mom).
Update: my head is enormous on German TV (in English):
You can watch the announcement live from Havana via Colombian newsweekly Semana.
I recently returned from the Latin American Studies Association conference. It was a landmark event for LASA — the 50th anniversary of the organization’s founding, the largest and most international conference ever, and a return to New York after decades away. One of the benefits of LASA, particularly now that I am living in the UK, is the opportunity to catch up with many of my past professors and mentors.
One of them, Louis Goodman, former dean of the School of International Service, gave me a copy of a book, Kalman Silvert: Engaging Latin America, Building Democracy, shortly before the conference (published by Lynne Rienner). The volume, to which Goodman contributed, was compiled and edited by Abraham Lowenthal and Martin Weinstein. Before getting the book, I knew Silvert’s name in large part because LASA’s highest prize is named after him. I would have been hard pressed to tell you too much more. As the book itself notes, Silvert’s contributions have somewhat faded from view. His writings are not widely cited. He is well remembered by a senior generation, but largely unknown to my own generation.
Silvert was a founder and the first president of LASA. He was a professor at Tulane, University of Buenos Aires, Dartmouth, and NYU. He also was a senior advisor for the Ford Foundation’s programs in the social science, with a focus on Latin America during a crucial time. He worked to support social scientists living and working in repressive regimes in the 1960s until his death in 1976. Support from Ford helped numerous institutions in Latin America provide a venue for independent social science under trying circumstances. Through his scholarship, teaching, and development of professional networks, Silvert pressed for individual rights, education, democracy, and better relations between the United States and Latin America. He was deeply involved in the creation of many institutions that for my generation have always formed the professional landscape of Latin American studies.
The book offers an excellent introduction to Silvert’s life and work. Chapters offer an overview of his major works, contributions on mentoring, through philanthropic organizations, as a public intellectual, and engagement with U.S. policy–particularly through the Commission on United States – Latin American Relations, often known as “the Linowitz Commission,” which had a major influence on the Carter Administration’s approaches to Latin America.
The book is also a wonderful reminder that so much of what we do goes beyond our writings. Most of the chapters are contributed by Silvert’s former students or by scholars he worked with closely across Latin America, though especially in Argentina and Chile. The chapters weave together many interlocking aspect’s of Silvert’s life and work, and they also serve as a wonderful reminder that the social sciences are social in more ways than one. These personal relationships are, of course, important to how we build knowledge, but they are usually invisible in our published work. This is an excellent corrective.
The 2016 Latin American Studies Association conference is right around the corner, and I am looking forward to participating. This year, I will be giving a paper called “The United States and Latin America Decline of power or decline in interest?” on a panel on Sunday at 2:30. The panel, organized by Laura MacDonald of Carleton, is called “The Role of External Actors in Post-Hegemonic Latin America.” My paper (abstract below) sort of starts with asking, “how ‘post-hegemonic’ is the Western Hemisphere?” I am also discussant on a panel Sunday evening on “Contentious political issues in contemporary inter-American affairs: from (non)insurgency to international security and trade policymaking,” which includes my friend and superb young scholar Mariano Bertucci of Tulane.
Abstract: It is commonly asserted that the United States no longer holds the dominant position it once did in Latin America. This decline is credited to several factors: a global decline in U.S. power, lower levels of U.S. attention to the region, the entrance of new extra-hemispheric challengers, and more “assertive” Latin American leaders. This paper seeks to test these claims of U.S. decline. First, using a variety of metrics, it will ask whether U.S. power in the hemisphere has declined relative to regional and extra-regional actors. It assesses recent, frequently cited U.S. struggles to exert influence Latin America—that is, relational power—in comparison to the more distant past. The paper concludes that U.S. decline has too often been assumed instead of demonstrated, that when evidence has been provided it has often been anecdotal, and that this evidence actually demonstrates significant continuities. U.S. decline, both relative to extra-hemispheric powers and in regards to states within the region has been overstated, in part because of a tendency to exaggerate U.S. power in the past, a focus on changes, and an underestimation of the continued depth of U.S. military, economic, structural, and ideational power in the region. There have been real changes in the geographic concentration and nature of U.S. power, as well as in the economic role of China. However, these changes are often outweighed by the continuities of relationships that are still defined by asymmetry.
I have just learned that the Harry Truman Library Institute has awarded me a travel and research grant to support archival work at the Truman Presidential Library. My work there will focus on the creation of the inter-American system after World War II. I am particularly interested in debates around democracy, sovereignty/intervention, and international organization. The archives there will complement the work that I am doing in Rio de Janeiro this summer (supported by the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust), work I did last fall in Washington, and archival research done previously in Mexico City while a visiting professor at CIDE.
Here are a couple paragraphs from the application that give a sense of the project:
“The creation of the modern inter-American system, particularly the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (Rio Treaty), has usually been explained as an effect of U.S. regional hegemony. On the one hand, this is understandable. The United States, in the closing stages and immediate aftermath of the Second World War, was at the apex of its relative power. In the Western Hemisphere, it had achieved the near-unanimous cooperation of Latin American states with the Allied war effort—with the exception of Argentina. The inter-American system solidified this state of affairs, while also serving to bring the reluctant Argentines into line.
“This project adopts a more multifaceted approach to regionalism. U.S. power and leadership were certainly crucial to the development of the regional system. However, during the creation of the post-war regional institutions, Latin American states—often led by Mexico and Brazil—sought to create a system that provided them an important forum and offered the possibility of greater influence. President Truman recognized those countries’ importance, paying each a visit in 1947, as well as hosting their leaders in Washington.”
The project ties into a couple medium-term article projects, including one with Max Paul Friedman. Eventually, it will all be part of a big book project that looks at Brazilian and Mexican policies toward regionalism and regional organizations over several decades.