Jean Wyllys was angry when he took the microphone to address the Brazilian Parliament.
He had grown incensed as, for hours, senator after senator gave their support to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. A few hundred privileged politicians were about to depose the woman elected by 54 million Brazilians.
“First, I want to say that I am disgusted to participate in this farce!” Wyllys announced to jeers, as the country’s political elite jostled like bad-tempered drunks at a cockfight. “This indirect election is driven by a thief, plotted by a conspiring traitor, and supported by torturers, cowards, and corrupt, illiterate politicians! It is a sexist farce!”
“In the name of the rights of the LGBT population, the Black community exterminated in its neighborhoods, cultural workers, the homeless, the landless: I vote no to this coup! Sleep on that, you swine!”
Wyllys’ anger was well-founded. Brazil’s festeringly corrupt political class was using corruption allegations to remove an elected head of state. The irony was that, in comparison to her grubby nemesis, Dilma was relatively spotless. The charge that she had engaged in pedaladas—technically illegal budget maneuvres which are nevertheless common in practice—was later found to be ungrounded.
Not that that mattered.
While several of those who voted for impeachment are under investigation for crimes ranging from receiving kickbacks to subverting the course of justice, it was the country’s first woman leader who fell. Rousseff’s cause was not helped by a collapsing economy and hostile media coverage, whose combined effects contributed to popularity ratings of less than 10 percent.
Her unelected "interim" successor Michel Temer soon began rolling back the social reforms implemented by Rousseff’s Workers’ Party, PT, government. Temer’s all-white, all-male Cabinet abjectly failed to represent one of the world’s most diverse societies. Even now, he remains subject to corruption investigations over illegal campaign funds and bribes which outweigh anything slung at Rousseff. Such is the mess, and the loss of credibility, that Brazilian politics now endures.
Two months after Dilma’s removal, Wyllys is in London to speak at King’s College University on the current political and human rights situation in Brazil.
“The Latin American right is by its essence corrupt and cruel,” he tells me. “The new political hegemony in Brazil is conservative, reactionary, and anti-intellectual. It is linked to evangelical Christian fundamentalism. We are reversing previous advances in drug policy and the sexual and reproductive rights of women. This couldn’t have a worse impact, either in Brazil or Latin America.”
Jean Wyllys is not someone you might consider a conventional politician. His flamboyant personality and commitment to social justice have brought him celebrity in Brazil and elsewhere. As an MP for the left-wing Socialism and Freedom Party, PSOL, he has campaigned for the LGBTI community, African-descendant Brazilians and low-pay workers. He is also a former winner of "Big Brother."
“This had great political relevance,” he told The Guardian in 2012. “I said I was homosexual and I still won the program in a country that is homophobic.”
Our conversation immediately focuses on the impeachment process. “There was a rupture in Brazilian democracy, with an elected president victim to a democratic coup,” says Wyllys. He compares current events to the 1964 overthrow of left-wing President Joao Goulart, whose removal preceded the establishment of a military dictatorship.
“A ‘hot coup’ is when the military takes power,” he says. “This was a ‘white coup,’ which is conducted in parliament and through social media and the means of communication.”
While the repression and disappearances that characterised Latin America’s coups of the mid-to-late 20th century are hard to replicate today, the objective remains the same. Like any good lefty, Wyllys turns to Marx.
“History repeats itself as farce. Latin America is being subjected to a new type of coup. As in the cases of Paraguay [which experienced a parliamentary coup against President Fernando Lugo in 2012] and Honduras [where reformist president Manuel Zelaya was ousted in 2009], this represents a triumph of the neoliberal model as it seeks to reassert itself,” he adds.
Wyllys believes the financial crisis of 2008 boosted a resurgent right.
“Right-wing conservative sectors use these crises to destabilise governments,” he says. “The economic crisis affected the entire world. But countries like Brazil were caught by surprise. People are fearful of insecurities, and governments cannot fulfil promises like increasing public resources or the transfer of wealth.”
Rousseff’s decision to implement an austerity program also backfired. “In these environments, governments must make fiscal adjustments which affect the middle class more than the wealthy,” says Wyllys. “As the government becomes unpopular, the local plutocracy gains power and takes advantage. This is what happened in Brazil.”
Rousseff was also undone by opponents within the Senate. Foremost among them was Eduardo Cunha, president of the Chamber of Deputies and, according to Wyllys, “a personal enemy of Dilma and the driving force behind the coup.” Cunha has since been indicted over millions of dollars in bribes received in the Lava Jato (Car Wash) scandal linked to state-run oil behemoth Petrobras. That he orchestrated a presidential removal says much about the wafer-thin durability of Brazilian institutionalism.
“The majority of the Congress who voted in favour of impeachment are either affiliated to Eduardo Cunha or paid by him,” says Wyllys. “Now they are implementing the government program that the Brazilian people have voted against in the last four elections (all won by the PT). It affects the legal rights of workers. It destroys state companies, which they want to sell cheaply. It affects the rights of minorities as it removes social policies developed by the PT.”
Among these antipoverty programs is the Bolsa Familia, which provided benefits conditioned on children attaining educational and health targets. Under the PT, poverty fell from 24.7 percent of the population to 8.9 percent between 2001 and 2013. The policy offered both short- and long-term incentives by fixing financial support with educational development. This angered the conservative right, which opposed the transfer of wealth to the poor. Under Temer—“a deplorable person” says Wyllys—the program faces cuts. It is just one example of the restructuring of Brazil’s economy to the neoliberal "trickle-up" model.
This, according to Wyllys, has serious cultural repercussions.
“Radical neoliberalism, with its reactionary and conservative elements, produces a negative impact because it increases prejudice,” he says. “Historical inequality in Brazil is so entrenched that even left-wing governments could not solve the problem. We couldn’t bridge poverty, we didn’t go through any agricultural reform. Agriculture is not only about agriculture itself, but about land ownership among Indigenous groups or Quilombolas (descendants of runaway slaves).”
Latin American history teaches us that government overthrow is often linked to external intervention. Does Wyllys think the U.S. sponsored the coup against Dilma? “The real interests of the corrupt interim government is to privatize Petrobras and to open oil exploration for American companies,” he says. “As the Dilma government had no intention of opening those fields to American companies, they had an interest in ousting her.”
The Petrobras scandal was manipulated toward these ends, he believes. “The moralization against Petrobras over Lava Jato was to say it could not cope with the exploration process. The media was saying there was too much corruption and incompetence inside the company, which it connected with the PT party. This led the middle classes to the street to fight against Dilma.”
Wyllys is particularly critical of the main judge in the Lava Jato case, Sergio Moro. “He is very opposed to the PT, not just because of corruption, but because of the social policies it implements. Although he’s a federal judge, and therefore a public servant, he defends the meritocracy. He believes that Black, poor, Indigenous, LGBTI people and women don’t have rights because they don’t want them. Privilege doesn’t exist.”
With the impeachment of Dilma, the election of Mauricio Macri in Argentina, and the ongoing destabilization of Venezuela’s socialist government, the Latin American left is on the ropes.
How does it respond?
“We’re going through a humanitarian crisis and the rise of fascism in various parts of the world,” says Wyllys. “The left has a responsibility to the destiny of humanity. We must confront social inequality, wealth concentration in the hands of a few people, and climate change. This comes from neoliberal capitalist ideology. We have to secure another way of living, to secure not just human life but all the species on earth. We have to secure cultural diversity threatened by fundamentalism.”
Yet Wyllys has not escaped criticism from the left. In January this year, he visited Israel to attend a conference at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which has been linked to human rights abuses against Palestinians. The trip infuriated progressive Brazilians, including those within his own PSOL party. At the time Brazil and Israel were at loggerheads over the Rousseff government’s rejection of proposed Israeli ambassador Dani Dayan due to his role in illegal settlement of the West Bank. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, of the investigative commission into human rights abuses committed under Brazil’s military dictatorship, called the visit “lamentable and deplorable” and said Wyllys had shown “a crass ignorance of and total misinformation about Israel’s current human rights policies.”
“I was invited to Israel to participate in a meeting of left-wing leaders from Israel and Palestine and to engage in constructing an agreement between those countries,” says Wyllys. “I visited Palestinian territories occupied by Israel. I spoke to bedouins suffering from Israeli colonialism. I also talked about violence against Israelis. I criticized the colonialist-fascist policies of the Netanyahu government and the military imbalance between Israel and Palestine.”
He says he would do the trip again if invited.
“My conviction is we cannot mix up government and population. It would be the same as blaming the Brazilian population for the violent and corrupt government we have now," says Wyllys. "I condemn the politics of Netanyahu, but also the left-wing tendency to blame all Jews for the crimes of Netanyahu.”
The battle of political ideologies in Latin America and elsewhere is as intense as ever. Clearly unafraid to speak his mind, Jean Wyllys will have much to say in the coming months.
This interview was organised with the help of the Brazil Institute at King's College London.