Monday, March 21, 2011

Obama, Brazil, and the Arab World

Between the involvement of European and American air forces in Libya and the ongoing news coming out of Japan this weekend, Obama's trip to Brazil was a distant third in news coverage this weekend. Yet the trip is important for a number of reasons, not least of which is that Brazil seems to be heading in the opposite direction of the U.S. in terms of international political and economic prestige. Additionally, two years into his administration, this is Obama's first trip to Brazil, and it comes on the heels of the January inauguration of Dilma Rousseff, whose election may give Lula's Workers Party (PT) the legs to remain powerful in a post-Lula context.

Although the world events made Obama's trip tertiary in the news cycle this weekend, the president wasn't in a tropical bubble in Rio de Janeiro. In a speech yesterday, he used the recent unrest in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, and elsewhere to suggest that Brazil is a model for democracy to the Middle East and the rest of the world. In the speech (transcript here), he praised Brazil's successful transition from a military dictatorship in the 1960s-80s to a thriving democracy today. In tying Brazil to the events in the Middle East, he specifically highlighted the role protestors and street movements had played in bringing down the Brazilian dictatorship. And he was right - to a degree. As Obama himself commented:
Decades ago, it was directly outside of this theater, in Cinelandia Square, where the call for change was heard in Brazil. Students and artists and political leaders of all stripes would gather with banners that said, “Down with the dictatorship. The people in power.” Their democratic aspirations would not be fulfilled until years later, but one of the young Brazilians in that generation’s movement would go on to forever change the history of this country.
It's understandable what Obama is doing here. With the wave of popular protests against autocratic and dictatorial governments in the Arab world and Iran, Obama used the trip to Brazil to highlight how important popular movements can be in effecting political change, and in the case of Brazil, he's generally right.
When he refers to students and artists and political leaders gathering in Cinelandia square, he's referring to one of two moments: 1968, or 1984. I believe it's the first, when over 100,000 people in Rio marched against the dictatorship. The student movement was at the forefront of the rally, but artists like Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil joined students, parents, white-collar professionals, and others to protest the increasing brutality of the military government of the 1960s. Rio's "March of 100,000" was but one of many rallies throughout the country that year, yet it did not mark the beginning of a new era of democracy. The other reason I suspect he's referring to 1968 over 1984 is the fact that he then comments that the return to democracy was "not fulfilled until years later." Brazil's military officially stepped down in 1985. More importantly, the 1984 rallies (which reached one million people in both Rio and Sao Paulo) focused on direct elections for president in 1985, rather than an end to the dictatorship itself.
But, as cheerful and encouraging a model as Brazil may be for the Middle East, it may not be the right model. The reason is simple: there is a lot going on in that "not fulfilled until years later." While the marches in Rio and elsewhere in 1968 were unprecedented in Brazilian history (until the marches of 1984, at least), by the end of 1968, the military regime ushered in its most repressive phase, witnessing increased use of torture, political assassinations, and "disappearances." Though nowhere on the level of Chile or Argentina in terms of murders, hundreds died at the hands of the state, and the military tortured thousands more. Many of the student leaders and those who opposed the regime went into underground guerrilla movements; many more went into exile. Throughout the 1970s, students had to find new ways to challenge military politics in the face of increasing repression and the military governments' efforts to deny students any political voice or activity. While students (and, by the late 1970s and early 1980s, workers, white-collar professionals, and opposition politicians) increasingly mobilized against the military dictatorship, the military played no small role in its own departure. After the "hard-liner" rule of presidents Artur Costa e Silva (1967-1969) and Emiliio Garrastazu Medici (1969-1974), "moderate" Ernesto Geisel began the process of "reopening." He was determined that the military would step out of power, but it would do so on its own schedule and through its own processes. In this way, the top-down control of the return to democracy was important in ways that do not apply to the Arab World. Hosni Mubarak had not determined that he would leave once he thought ideological differences had been overcome; Gaddafi isn't planning on staying in power until Libya's economy is corrected; Bahrain's King al Khalifa isn't going to step down when he decides that politics is ruining the military institutions. This is not to say popular voices in Brazil were not important to the transition to democracy; they were vital. But the role they played in 1984 was much different than the moment Obama referred to in 1968. By 1984, millions gathered to make clear they wanted direct elections for president, rather than an electoral college that did not answer to popular vote. Ultimately, the movement was both a failure and a success. While Brazilians did not vote directly in the 1985 election (direct elections for president were only held in 1989). Yet their support in these rallies for opposition candidate Tancredo Neves made clear to Brazilian senators who were popularly elected that they had better select Neves in the electoral college instead of pro-dictatorship party candidate Paulo Maluf, a civilian who represented the economic and social policies of the military regime. But in the case of Brazil, military leaders, particularly Geisel and Figueiredo, played a not-insignificant role in the transition to democracy.
It's not that Obama got his history wrong; indeed, the entire speech shows a familiarity with history and culture of another country that is remarkable, and even if it was a crash course, Obama displayed a breadth of familiarity with another country's past and present rarely seen in recent presidents. The people of Brazil did play a major role in the transition to democracy throughout the military regime, and clearly, democracy after 1985 could not have flourished without popular participation and involvement. It's simply that that "years later" part carries a lot of lessons that do not necessarily apply to the Middle East. Brazil's success has been remarkable, especially in the last 10 years, and that's due in no small part to the way democracy has functioned in Brazil. But I think that's where there are lessons to be learned from Brazil. Brazil isn't necessarily a model because of its transition to democracy itself, which does not resemble conditions in the Arab world. Rather, I think Brazil could be a model (and a very general one at that) of how societies can function and succeed in a post-dictatorial democratic system where people have a greater role in determining their country's path.