Through The Brazilian Looking Glass
AS PRESIDENT Dilma Rousseff stepped down last Wednesday for 180 days after the Brazilian Senate voted for an impeachment process to begin, international media exploded and the huge repercussions began. Latin America, in which Brazil is an economic powerhouse and political leader, follows every development very closely and somewhat fearfully as interdependence becomes a potential millstone around the region’s neck. Argentina is one of those countries that, in addition, is witnessing its own judicial maelstrom: that of many former public officials from the previous administration undergoing their own legal battles, including former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. This has led to several comparisons between the two as victims of political persecution. However, the situations are not analogous and such direct comparisons overlook the real aspect that cuts across both cases: the citizens of Brazil and Argentina.
Both former presidents are citing a hostile political opposition that seek to put them behind bars or stage a coup as reasons for the charges against them. Nonetheless, there are various points which render the comparison between Dilma and Cristina useless — despite certain proximities in the political spectrum and in their profiles as leaders. First, the fact that Dilma is being tried during her time as president while Cristina’s charges appeared after stepping down last year. Second, the investigations are different: while Dilma is being accused of manipulating government finances to hide Brazil’s growing deficit, Cristina faces several charges of corruption. However, the real aspect that cuts across both cases is the demand of large portions of society for justice by putting them behind bars while somewhat disregarding the judicial process in between.
Brazil saw huge protests across the country this year both calling for Dilma to stand down and to show support for her (although this group was considerably smaller). Argentina for its part is currently suffering its own political divide known as la grieta or “rift” which separates political parties and media outlets to extremes. The trials of both former leaders have thus been spurred on by certain sectors of each society while others decry a political stunt or conspiracy. In both civil law countries, in which there are no juries in their judicial process, the people declare Dilma or Cristina as inexorably innocent or guilty with virtually no consideration for the judicial process that must take place to prove it. There is also a certain level of selective blindness: over 300 of the Brazilian opposition deputies have been charged with corruption while Dilma hasn’t and the current President Mauricio Macri of Argentina is facing charges with regards to the Panama Papers.
The media circus surrounding the cases in both Brazil and Argentina have turned the investigations, which are serious, into an almost surreal epic saga of apocalyptic calamities which do nothing to aid the sobriety (and relative peace) that the judicial processes should have. Although a lot of the investigations, particularly in Argentina, resemble rabbit holes of the wealthy and powerful, there is no need to blow everything out of proportion or turn everything into a scandal. That way, real advancements are lost amid bottles of “Drink Me” and pointless caucus races (I know that it’s not the same book, but the idea remains relevant).
In Latin America in general, politics is usually a question of personalist governments (“Dilma” or “Cristina” rather than “Merkel”) in which policy revolves mostly around the person in power rather than the institutions at play. Among the plethora of consequences that this has in political daily life: when it comes to the political trials the charges are against “just another person” that can be isolated, not a public official that is in a system that allows them to do whatever illegal activity they’re being charged with. In the end, it is the citizens that voted for Dilma and Cristina that placed them in positions of power and supported a system that permitted their alleged wrongdoing. Placing the blame solely on them as individuals sidesteps an important part of such political trials: the social responsibility or learning process it entails.
If one took the Watergate scandal as a “control” case, there are various points that show stark contrasts to Brazil and Argentina’s plight. First and foremost, Nixon was obviously not the populist leader that Dilma or Cristina were (and are). However, his impeachment did not lead to an all-out war between Democrats and Republicans. The fact that he felt the need to bug the Democratic Convention was understood as a clear sign of a system that encouraged such behaviour, which was endemic in the Nixon administration at the time. It also proved that you can have a political trial that is extensively covered by the media without compromising the judicial process itself. Boring? Possibly. But the main point is that the US learnt (as did the rest of the world) to prevent such situations or at least what to be on the lookout for.
That is the real issue with stepping through the political looking glass. While Argentina seeks to find its reflection in Brazil’s current situation, the real similarities are blurred out amidst the hype surrounding the abundance of political trials and decrying bias in the legal proceedings (Brazil isn’t even looking in the mirror right now). As cynicism sets in, with “another day, another corrupt politician” at the fore, both countries run the danger of losing the chance to truly learn. Instead of getting lost in the fictional chessboard beyond, they should evaluate the reflection before them and move on.