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The funk of politics – What the demonstrations in Brazil show us

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Brazilians are no longer satisfied with the current panorama of the country – at least, that is what they have been showcasing in various ways. Ultimately, on March 15th, more than a million citizens took the streets around the country and abroad to protest over issues such as corruption, weak economy and contradictory measures taken by the government of Dilma Roussef, the left-wing President re-elected at the end of 2014.

The political pressure comes at the time in which the country is shaken by the scandal of Petrobras, the Brazilian state-run oil company. It has been revealed under investigation that more than 40 politicians, some of them from the President’s Workers’ Party and the ruling coalition, including the speakers of the House and the Senate, former executives and construction companies were involved in a massive bribery scam and money-laundering case that embezzled billions of dollars. Even though the President was not accused of wrongdoing, it was during her years as Energy Minister and chairwoman of the company that the alleged corruption probe happened. The publicity of it provoked heated discussion among Brazilians – the faithful party’s supporters, the incredulous middle class and the afflicted industrialists. It is hardly shocking that such action applied this particular reaction, if anything we can be relieved that it did. Democracy is still alive and kicking.

A ‘Dilmother’ lode of opinions

The citizens are outraged not only because of the political situation – which they tend to summarize with one word, ‘corruption’, no matter what kind of scandal it is – , but also over Brazilian economy facing tough times, since it is nose-diving in one of the highest inflation rates in the last decade (7,7%) and the currency plunges. All those factors have led the President to take unpopular measures that were previously proposed by the opposition, but promptly condemned by her staff during the campaign- the ’I am in charge now‘ discrepancy, witnessed in every political system all over the world all the time.

All this instability resulted in the political dissatisfaction that gathered people in many capitals across the country. Curiously enough, the events were organised through Facebook and websites by non-partisan groups, thus following the patterns of the manifestations in 2013 and 2014, and reunited a myriad of opinions that longed for changes in the government, despite the differences amongst them.

Once again, we witnessed Brazilians absolutely and passionately divided as in a football match between the ruling parties and the opposition. Many times and regretfully enough, they were not able to understand the similarity of their demands, which is probably due to the way information is ruled and consumed in loco.

In spite of having plenty of information, people tend to absorb it in a passionate, sometimes dangerously non-critical way. In Brazil, an instructive example is that whereas some call President Dilma a ‘mother’, others tend to demonise her and her government, demonstrating that in a country where the number of magazines and newspapers greatly surpasses the number their consumers, press has its share when it offers incomplete and, sometimes, heavily biased analysis on the latest news. On top of that, citizens do not make a habit of going deep into the facts and are prone to adopt a political posture by following closely only one side of the story, deeming those who have different opinions as ‘political illiterates’. At this point, it is clear that willingness to make changes in the way the country is ruled abounds to the degree at which the process of political thinking lacks fruitful, open discussion.  

Before the rally on March 15th, about 40 thousand marched on March 13th in defence of Petrobras and the Workers’ Party. Two days later, those chanting on the street were mostly right-wing oriented, but their claims were not homogeneous and the experts would actually arrange the citizens into democratic, moderate and even ultra-conservative right-wings. Accordingly, several asked for impeachment, others for democratic changes, while some even supported military intervention and secession.

Although the demonstrations were not alike when it comes to the profile of those involved, be that for economical class or political orientation, Datafolha Institute indicates that their reasons, not their views, were convergent. In the contemporary world where 99 % of people live in a different micro cosmos than the remaining 1 %, this is not at all a surprising fact. Moreover, this fusion of views into one voice should be viewed as a positive sign towards a possible future rebellion against the current (political, economic, social and cultural) world order.

The story before March: the 20 cents that woke up the giant and the Cup that tucked him in

It would be ignorant to say this newest manifestation of dissatisfaction is an isolated episode. It has been two years since the first action took place, at that time because of the increase in bus fares, and the authoritative measures taken against the protesters stemmed a series of other protests for bigger and deeper political changes that lasts until today. The Brazilian giant was awake again, craving for changes and, in a cathartic 2013, sure of what he wanted. Today, he still has legit demands, but his voice lowers as the people cannot reach a consensus on what to protest for, which has been making him numb ever since. Hopefully, 2015 will be the wake-up call for every Brazilian to reflect on their political principles and move together towards a common objective.

The initial demonstrations in 2013 can be divided into three distinct acts, all of them organised and sponsored via social media. The first of them counted mostly with students that were outraged about the raise in the fair related to transports. In a non-violent march, those students were brutally supressed by the local police and deprived of their rights. The second phase involved representatives of the society as a whole – old people, children, teachers, workers – that were not only dissatisfied by the way the students had been treated but also demanded broader improvements, better hospitals, well-trained policemen, education for the people and the end of corruption, chanting that the Brazilian giant was finally awake. The third phase was led by a group of black blocks, who acted violently and destroyed several public and private places. This was the first time Dilma’s approval rates amongst electors have fallen significantly since her presidential inauguration.

In 2014, amid the preparation for the World Cup in the country, Brazilians found themselves in a huge scandal for misusing the public funds, corruption and overbilling for the construction of stadiums.

The general tension also mounted with the leaks about the shabbiness in public healthcare and education. As opposed to what was done in the countries that hosted the World Cup before Brazil and also in contrary to what the government announced, most part of the public money was destined for stadiums, whilst the public facilities needed for the event did not receive many investments.

All those reasons incensed the citizens to go to the streets once more in peaceful, yet persistent protests that took place in the first semester of the related year, including during some of the matches.

This time, however, the event was successfully executed and the aftermaths were at the same time confusing and astonishing. Besides having increased the number of tourists and, thus, the money they spent in the country, some of the work was arguably necessary, such as the Stadium in Amazonas, where there is a lack professional soccer teams and the weather is challenging.

It is paramount, therefore, to make it clear that these latest local protests did not occur out of the blue, green and yellow. They happened as a result of sequential factors that led to new political consciousness and habits that include a wider and wider range of citizens, even if this process is still ongoing. By sharing their views through social media, spreading the news in a rapid and effective way and allying themselves with potential supporters who share the same mind-sets, protesters could on the one hand hold a big event and, on the other, increase the power of pressure.

A government that is half of a kind

Now President Dilma has to deal with an ever increasing part of the population that does not feel properly represented by the government, which is especially true for the Brazilian middle class. Researches show that rejection rates achieved 62%, the highest percentage since September, 1992, right before President Fernando Collor de Mello suffered impeachment. Experts disagree on whether impeachment would be a legal or even an acceptable solution, with the population having similarly polarized opinions.

The Worker’s Party, known for its social policies, constantly relates the resistance from the middle class to wealth redistribution – hence, the desired improvement for those in need. Yet, the President now loses adepts in the lower economical layers of society, too, which evidences that her acceptance rates have decreased even among less favoured and illiterate electors.

At this point, it is as important to remember that President Dilma won re-election by a tiny margin as it is worth noting that it happened less than half a year ago. This shows us that even though social media recently played a major role in exposing the government’s weaknesses and pushing it for changes, we should also be reminded that political consciousness should have been taken seriously ages before the chants, and that is on polls.

At that tumultuous Sunday night, the government reacted to this rejection by recognizing the democratic legitimacy of demonstrations, but downplaying their suitability, claiming that the protesters were not able to win during the elections– the demonstrators responded by banging pots and pans and honking car horns.

Now it tries to put the country back on track and desperately hopes to find a magic bullet for the animosities, such as the quick sanction of an anti-corruption law that aims to penalize enterprises involved in corruption scams. Moreover, since the beginning of her new four-year term, the President has changed some of the ministers in her staff, being the newest of them the Education Minister, the philosopher and Ethics professor Renato Janine Ribeiro.

Nevertheless, the next steps in Brazilian politics remain very unclear. Despite making some changes, the government still receives heavy criticism, especially from the organisers responsible for the manifestations, who believe it did not quite understand the needs presented. They claim the government responded insufficiently, by designing fragile policies, and demand more energetic measures towards themes like corruption and the number of ministries. Even they suffer the pressure from the right-wing now, and some of them have recently adjusted the movement’s premises, consequently supporting impeachment.

Some citizens will be rallying against the government again, on April 12th. Until then, we still need to expect few shiny new moves from both sides, the governmental and the protesting part of population. Then, hopefully, the clouds will clear and we will see how much of it is just hot air in our tropical fall.

Luísa Monteiro is a bachelor in Social Communication and is currently taking a Master's degree in Communication and Politics at PUC São Paulo. Her researches are closely linked to the studies of internet as a democratic agora and her latest academic production correlates the (offline) social movements and their exposure on the net.

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Who benefits more from the Biden-Putin summit in Geneva?

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With the Putin-Biden summit in Geneva around the corner, the question is who actually benefits more from the meeting in the small Swiss town.

Mainstream media and right-wing foreign policy thinkers alike have argued that a joint press conference would “elevate” President Putin to the level of the American President.

Ivana Strander, the Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, argued that the upcoming Geneva summit is actually “a gift” to Putin.

In a CNN story, Kaitlan Collins and Kevin Liptak mention that “officials who have been involved in arranging past US meetings with Putin say the Russian side often pushes for a joint press conference, hoping to elevate Putin’s stature by having him appear alongside the American leader”.

Whether as a subconscious bias or an actual reflection of attitudes, prevalent is the idea that coming close to the US President is a privilege that other leaders can only dream about. But who gains more from the upcoming summit?

In fact, it is the American President who is vying for other leaders’ approval and acceptance once again after a humiliating period – not the other way around. American is emerging from Trumpism, which revealed the other, ugly face of America. Trumpism is not gone and the other face of America is still there.

This week, US President Joe Biden is eager to show the world that America is “back”. In meetings with the G7, NATO countries’ top leaders, the NATO Secretary General, the Queen of England, and President Putin in the same week, Biden is asking the world to forget the last four years. And he is not doing this from the position of power or superiority. That’s why assuming that other heads of state, be it Putin or anyone else really, can only gain by coming close to the superiority of the American President is a misplaced and misguided. The US President is asking the international community to take America back – not the other way around.

President Putin doesn’t need the US President’s acceptance – Putin already got that. That happened back in 2018, in Helsinki, when President Trump sided with Putin over the US government’s own intelligence agencies, by rejecting the idea of Russia’s meddling in the US presidential elections. Trump slapped across the face and humiliated the US intelligence community in front of the whole world. Ever since, the US intelligence community has tried to figure out ways to prove Trump wrong and show him otherwise. And they have gone to incredible lengths, only so that they can get their pay pack of a sort, and prove Trump wrong. So, Putin already got what he wanted. He doesn’t need more “elevation”.

What’s also striking is that in Geneva, the UN is absolutely missing from the action. Geneva is the home of numerous UN agencies and international organizations, and not one is actually involved, which speaks volumes to questions of relevance. It is the Swiss government from Bern which is organizing the Summit. The UN is nowhere to be seen which is also indicative of the current Biden priorities.

If Trump was about “America First”, then Biden is about “America is still number one, right?”. But as the United Kingdom learned the hard way recently, it is sometimes best for a declining power to perhaps elegantly realize that the rest of the world no longer wants to dance to its tune, or at least not to its tune only. Discussions about how much Putin gains from coming close to the presence of the US President are misguided. In trying to climb back on the international stage on crotches and covered up in bruises, America is not in a position to look down on other big powers. And as regards who benefits more from the Summit, it seems like one side is there with a clear request asking for something. My understanding is that it is Biden who wants Putin to hand cyber criminals over to him. Putin still hasn’t said what he wants from Biden, in return.

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Trump’s legacy hangs over human rights talk at upcoming Biden-Putin Geneva summit

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biden-syria
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Two days after the NATO Summit in Brussels on Monday, US President Joe Biden will be in Geneva to hold a much anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders are meeting at the shores of Lake Geneva at a villa in Parc la Grange – a place I know very well and actually called home for a long time. The park itself will be closed to the public for 10 days until Friday.

A big chunk of the lakeside part of the city will be closed off, too. Barb wire and beefed up security measures have already been put in place to secure the historic summit. The otherwise small city will be buzzing with media, delegations and curious onlookers.

I will be there too, keeping the readers of Modern Diplomacy updated with what’s taking place on the ground with photos, videos and regular dispatches from the Biden-Putin meeting.

The two Presidents will first and foremost touch on nuclear security. As an interlude to their meeting, the NATO Summit on Monday will tackle, among other things “Russian aggression”, in the words of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Last week, Stoltenberg said that he “told President Biden that Allies welcome the US decision, together with Russia, to extend the New START Treaty, limiting strategic weapons, and long-range nuclear weapons”. To extend the treaty is an important first step for Stoltenberg. This will be the obvious link between the two summits.

But Biden also has to bring up human rights issues, such as the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny and Putin’s support for the jailing of Belarusian activists by Lukashenko. Human rights have to be high on the agenda at the Geneva Summit. And indeed, Biden has confirmed officially that pressing Putin on human rights will be a priority for the American side.

Biden and Putin are not fans of each other, to say the least. Both have made that clear in unusually tough rhetoric in the past. Over the years, Biden has said on numerous occasions that he has told Putin to his face that he doesn’t “have a soul”. Putin’s retort was that the men “understand each other”.

Right at the beginning of his Presidency, earlier this year, Biden also dropped the bomb calling President Putin a “killer” for ordering the assassination of political opponents. The Russian president responded to the “killer” comment on Russian television by saying that “it takes one to know one”. Putin also wished Biden good health, alluding to the US President’s age and mental condition which becomes a subject of criticism from time to time.

Understandably, Putin and Biden are not expected to hold a joint press conference next week. But we weren’t expecting that, anyways.

For me, this Summit has a special meaning. In the context of repression against political opponents and critical media voices, President Biden needs to demonstrate that the US President and the US government are actually different from Putin – if they are any different from Putin.

This week, we were reminded of Trump’s legacy and the damage he left behind. One of Trump’s lasting imprints was revealed: Trump had the Department of Justice put under surveillance Trump’s political opponents. Among them House Democrats, including Congressman Adam Shiff, who was one of the key figures that led Trump’s first impeachment that showed that Trump exerted pressure on Ukrainian authorities to go after Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.

In the context of Trump’s impact, President Biden needs to show that there has to be zero tolerance towards the cover up by the US government of politically motivated attacks against voices critical of the US government. If President Biden wants to demonstrate that the US government is any different from Putin’s Russia, Secretary of State Blinken and FBI director Chris Wray have to go. Biden has to show that he won’t tolerate the cover up of attacks on political critics and the media, and won’t spare those that stand in the way of criminal justice in such instances.

Biden is stuck in the 2000s when it comes to Eastern Europe, as I argued last week but he needs to wake up. President Biden and the US government still haven’t dealt effectively with Trump’s harmful impact on things that the US really likes to toot its horn about, such as human rights and freedom. Whether the upcoming Geneva Summit will shed light on that remains to be seen.

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Will Geneva Be Any Different Than Helsinki?

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Any meeting between the leaders of Russia and the U.S. is inevitably an important international event. At some point in history, such summits decided the fate of the entire world, and the world held its collective breath as it followed Kremlin-White House talks on strategic arms or the two sides seeking agreements on urgent regional problems or any political signals coming from the superpower capitals prior to another round of negotiations.

The bipolar era has long been gone, and the Russia-U.S. relations are no longer the principal axis of international politics, although the suspense over bilateral summits remains. As before, the two countries are engaged in “top-down” interaction. Summits give the initial impetus to Moscow and Washington’s cumbersome bureaucratic machines, then diplomats, military personnel and officials start their assiduous work on specific issues, collaboration between the two countries’ private sectors and civil society perks up, the media gradually soften their rhetoric, bilateral projects in culture, education and science are gradually resumed.

Still, there are annoying exceptions to this general rule. In particular, the latest full-fledged Russia–U.S. summit in Helsinki in July 2018 failed to trigger improvements in bilateral relations. On the contrary, Donald Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Finland’s capital aroused massive resentment among the anti-Russian Washington establishment. Ultimately, on returning home, the U.S. President had to offer awkward apologies to his supporters and opponents alike, and relations between the two countries continued to rapidly deteriorate after the summit.

Surely, nobody is willing to see another Helsinki scenario in June 2021, this time in Geneva. Yet, do we have good reason to hope for a different outcome this time? To answer this question, let us compare Donald Trump and Joseph Biden’s approaches to Russia-U.S. summits and to bilateral relations at large.

First of all, in Helsinki, Trump very much wanted the Russian leader to like him. The Republican President avoided publicly criticizing his Russian counterpart and was quite generous with his compliments to him, which inevitably caused not only annoyance but pure outrage in Washington and in Trump’s own Administration. Joe Biden has known Vladimir Putin for many years; he does not set himself the task of getting the Russian leader to like him. As far as one can tell, the two politicians do not have any special liking for each other, with this more than reserved attitude unlikely to change following their meeting in Geneva.

Additionally, in Helsinki, Trump wanted, as was his wont, to score an impressive foreign policy victory of his own. He believed he was quite capable of doing better than Barack Obama with his “reset” and of somehow “hitting it off” with Putin, thereby transforming Russia if not into a U.S. ally, then at least into its strategic partner. Apparently, Biden has no such plans. The new American President clearly sees that Moscow-Washington relations will remain those of rivalry in the near future and will involve direct confrontation in some instances. The Kremlin and the White House have widely diverging ideas about today’s world: about what is legitimate and what is illegitimate, what is fair and what is unfair, where the world is heading and what the impending world order should be like. So, we are not talking about a transition from strategic confrontation to strategic partnership, we are talking about a possible reduction in the risks and costs of this necessarily costly and lengthy confrontation.

Finally, Trump simply had much more time to prepare for the Helsinki summit than Biden has had to prepare for Geneva. Trump travelled to Finland eighteen months after coming to power. Biden is planning to meet with Putin in less than five months since his inauguration. Preparations for the Geneva summit have to be made in haste, so the expectations concerning the impending summit’s outcome are less.

These differences between Biden and Trump suggest that there is no reason to expect a particularly successful summit. Even so, we should not forget the entire spectrum of other special features of the Biden Administration’s current style of foreign policy. They allow us to be cautiously optimistic about the June summit.

First, Donald Trump never put too much store by arms control, since he arrogantly believed the U.S. capable of winning any race with either Moscow or Beijing. So, his presidential tenure saw nearly total destruction of this crucial dimension of the bilateral relations, with all its attendant negative consequences for other aspects of Russia-U.S. interaction and for global strategic stability.

In contrast, Biden remains a staunch supporter of arms control, as he has already confirmed by his decision to prolong the bilateral New START. There are grounds for hoping that Geneva will see the two leaders to at least start discussing a new agenda in this area, including militarization of outer space, cyberspace, hypersonic weapons, prompt global strike potential, lethal autonomous weapons etc. The dialogue on arms control beyond the New START does not promise any quick solutions, as it will be difficult for both parties. Yet, the sooner it starts, the better it is going to be for both countries and for the international community as a whole.

Second, Trump never liked multilateral formats, believing them to be unproductive. Apparently, he sincerely believed that he could single-handedly resolve any burning international problems, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to North Korea’s nuclear missile programme.

Biden does not seem to harbor such illusions. He has repeatedly emphasized the importance of multilateralism, and he clearly understands that collaboration with Russia is necessary on many regional conflicts and crises. Consequently, Geneva talks may see the two leaders engage in a dialogue on Afghanistan, on the Iranian nuclear deal, on North Korea, or even on Syria. It is not at all obvious that Biden will succeed in reaching agreement with Putin immediately on all or any of these issues, but the very possibility of them discussed at the summit should be welcomed.

Third, Trump was not particularly fond of career diplomats and, apparently, attached little value to the diplomatic dimension of foreign policy. The Russia-U.S. “embassy war” had started before Trump—but not only did Trump fail to stop it, he boosted it to an unprecedented scale and urgency.

Sadly, the “embassy war” continues after Trump, too. Yet President Biden, with his tremendous foreign policy experience, understands diplomatic work better and appreciates it. Practical results of the Geneva summit could include a restoration of the diplomatic missions in Washington and Moscow to their full-fledged status and a rebuilding of the networks of consular offices, which have been completely destroyed in recent years. Amid the problems of big politics, consular services may not seem crucial but, for most ordinary Russians and Americans, regaining the opportunity for recourse to rapid and efficient consular services would outweigh many other potential achievements of the Geneva summit.

From our partner RIAC

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