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Confidence and the Degradation of Brazil

For the first time in more than two decades, since the dictatorship, Brazil has a government that is widely seen as illegitimate. It is seen this way, not only by its citizens, but in much of the world. Its image is sullied, deteriorating by the week, with mounting scandals engulfing the highest levels of government. In June, the third minister of the interim government resigned amid charges of corruption. Inconveniently, it was the minister of tourism, as the country faced calls by international public health experts for moving the Olympics due to the Zika virus.

And then there is the interim president, Michel Temer (the vice president who is serving during President Dilma Rousseff‘s impeachment trial), who had the “unifying” political acumen to appoint a cabinet of all rich white men (in a country where half the population identifies as Afro-Brazilian or mixed race). Fifteen out of 23 of these officials are reportedly under investigation. Last month, he was himself directly implicated in a corruption scandal. He had previously been barred from running for office for eight years because of violations of campaign financing laws. These are the people who are trying to depose the elected president, not for corruption, but for an accounting mechanism that previous governments also used.It’s true that all major political parties have been implicated in corruption. But President Rousseff, for the first time in Brazil’s history, gave prosecutors that authority to go after corrupt officials, letting the chips fall where they may. It has now become clear that her opposition’s main purpose in impeaching her is to impede the investigations and prosecutions of themselves and their allies.

Brazil now also has the ugly distinction of being the country with the most killings of environmental activists. It is unlikely that the new right-wing cabinet, tightly tied to agribusiness interests, will do much to prevent these murders.

Ironically, this government’s announced purpose was to restore “confidence,” primarily to investors and especially those of the international variety. But the opposite has happened: The recession is deepening, the government is much more enmeshed in scandal, and its international reputation is falling off a cliff. The New York Times editorial board, no fan of any Latin American left government, has written two editorials recently, titled “Brazil’s Gold Medal for Corruption” and “Making Brazil’s Political Crisis Worse.”

Brazil was a rising star internationally for most of the Workers’ Party’s government, including for its domestic achievements, when it reduced poverty by more than half and tripled the country’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) growth over a decade, until it went into recession in 2014. It’s true that Dilma made a mistake by accepting the outworn dogma — still widely popular in current reporting on Brazil — that fiscal austerity, cutting public investment and raising interest rates could somehow win the confidence of investors; and that this would more than compensate for austerity’s negative impact on the economy.

But the interim government is doubling down on austerity, and has generated all the investor confidence of a big, fat banana republic. If the Senate follows through by voting to remove the elected president, they could usher in a long period of economic decline, comparable to the lost decades of the 1980s and ’90s.

This column originally appeared in The Hill.

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Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. and president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of  Failed: What the “Experts” Got Wrong About the Global Economy (Oxford University Press, 2015).

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