The Free Brazil Movement was one of the groups in charge of convening the massive demonstrations to impeach Dilma Rousseff. The institutional coup they promoted encouraged the movement, made up primarily of youth between 17 and 30 years old, to launch bids for power in the Oct. 2 municipal elections, where they eight of their members were elected to city councils.
The group was founded in the heat of the Brazilian political crisis. It advocates an “extreme liberalism” (“less Marx, more Mises”). The Free Brazil Movement (MBL, by its Portuguese initials) calls itself a “supra-partisan structure”—its candidates in the last elections ran under the banner of 15 different parties. Who are they? What do they dream of? What interests do they represent? What do they fight against?
The MBL adopted its proposals in Nov. 2015, when they held their first (and so far only) congress in San Pablo. Nearly 200 national leaders and specialists met to discuss public safety, education and urban mobility. The platform developed out of that meeting called for ending the social function of property because, as they agreed, “private property cannot be relativized.” They also proposed legalizing homeschooling, reducing taxes on private schools, ending the Cultural Incentive Law (passed in 1991 by Fernando Coller de Mellon), simplifying the tax system and, in the long-term, privatizing all the banks. They also back “full integration” of the Brazilian economy in the world and seek commercial agreements with the “relevant economic areas, the United States, the European Union and Asia”.
To trace the origins of MBL, you have to go back to November 2014 when they convened their first protest against the anti-corruption scandal known as “Lava jato,” or “Car Wash” –a scandal that began in mid-2013 and uncovered a thread of dirty money that unites large construction companies, Petrobras, the state oil company and almost the entire political spectrum. The case caught the attention of the public regarding economic hardship and a deep crises of representation. The media constantly spoke of corruption and pointed against the Workers Party (PT). The Brazilians responded by going to the streets. The calls became more widespread every day and, in the midst of this scenario, the MBL became the organizer of discontent.
The great paradox is that, by the beginning of 2013, Brazil seemed to be on the crest of the wave. The country had been chosen to host the World Cup and the Olympic Games. According to the Institute of Brazilian Geography Statistics, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew from the first year of management of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva: 5.8 in 2004, 3.2 in 2005, 4 in 2006, 6.1 in 2007, 5.1 in 2008. Barring a low in 2009 –resulting from the international crisis, the country didn’t stop growing. Inequality decreased according to the Gini index: it went from 0.58 in 2002 to 0.51 in 2014. Thirty-six million Brazilians were raised out of poverty and the British magazine “The Economist” put the Brazil miracle on the cover with the title “Brazil takes off” and an illustration of Christ the Redeemer taking flight like a rocket.
But in 2013 and 2014 growth slowed (3.0 and 1.0 respectively) and demonstrations broke out periodically. The “Free Pass Movement” called the first demonstrations, during the Confederations Cup, to protest an increase of 10 cents in transportation cost. Protests proliferated and over the next months, the composition of who attended changed as often as the slogan. The first demonstrations were on the left and called for more state, free transportation and to stop infrastructure projects from being be built over the top of the favelas, but those that came later shifted to the right. “Military intervention now”, “My hope is in God and in the true military right”, “I fight for the end of democracy”, “We’ve had enough of Paulo Freire”, “Privatize more,” said some of the posters.
With a latent state of mobilization and unsatisfied demands, on Oct. 26, 2014 Rousseff was reelected in a close ballot (she obtained 51.6 against the 48.3 of the Aecio Neves of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party PSDB). After its fourth consecutive defeat in presidential elections, the opposition decided to bet everything on the new popular phenomenon: the indignant people in the streets whose demands were channeled by online movements.
That’s the story of Revoltados Online, Vem Pra Rua and MBL itself. The marches became increasingly frequent and broad-based: Nov. 14 and Dec. 6 in 2014; March 15, April 12, Aug. 16 in 2015 and the historic mobilization of March 13, 2016, with more than 6 million protesters across the country, according to organizers, the largest demonstration in the history of Brazil.
The New Leaders
To join the MBL one must meet at least two requirements. The first was to support the process of impeachment against Rousseff and have an “incisive positioning” against PT. That’s how Kim Kataguiri one of the most visible faces of the movement, defined it. The second is to assume a hard-line liberal ideology that almost does not exist in the world anymore, which means regularly citing Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, founders of the Austrian economic school of the ’70s.
“Liberalism is a political philosophy that advocates individual freedom, private initiative and limited state intervention and public authorities in social, economic and cultural life”, as defined by Wikipedia. Fernando Holiday, newly elected council member for San Pablo, inseparable colleague to Kataguiri, explains: “The State, by being so large, harms the poorest. They suffer the bureaucracy and taxes on wages. If all that money ceased to go through the state, it would be much better”, said the 19 year old. He was born in Caracuíba, a municipality on the outskirts of the city. His mother is a cleaning lady and his father, a waiter. He is black and became famous after uploading a video to YouTube criticizing Brazil’s racial quota for admission to colleges. “I felt uncomfortable gaining some benefit by being black,” he says. The clip had more than 140 thousand visitors, but some say it had help from the MBL to go viral since they were already grooming Holiday.
–Why do poor blacks receive more benefits than poor whites?
–Ah! I get it! The government is trying to say that a black person is stupider than a white person…
That’s how Holiday asks the question and answers himself in the idea of less than three minutes. He has a broad smile and exceptional charisma. He knows it and he uses it. He has caught fire on YouTube. On stage, he enthralls audiences, he moves them, he mesmerizes like a pastor. It is not uncommon in a country that has a powerful evangelical bloc in almost all the parties. Kataguiri is more reserved. He has Asian features and a steady gaze. He studied economy, makes high grades, writes in the daily newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo and is one of the thirty most influential youth of the world according to the Times. It seems like behind his pupil he has a scientific calculator, a measuring stick, and a magnifying glass to gage each question. His answers are not automatic or impulsive or effusive. The twenty year-old stretches, crosses his legs on the couch, looks to the horizon, strokes a pear and -always- takes a few seconds before speaking.
‘Are you rightwing?
-Here In Brazil to say “right” is complicated. If the term means to defend economic and social liberalism, yes. But the hegemonic discourse of the government was the same for many years: if one does not support the government, they are right, and if you’re right, you support the military government. But the military were developmentalists- the same as Lula and Dilma.
The political crisis
The MBL aims to reshape the political system. Or at least build on its ashes. Its innovative proposal is liberalism, something which, according to them, never existed in the country—not during the dictatorship, or later governments nor in the oppositions since the return to democracy. Lula himself said during his administration that he was satisfied that all the parties, at least from their acronyms, were center-left: the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), the Social Christian Party (PSC), the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), Workers Party (PT), Progressive Party (PP), among others the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB). But for the MBL, not even the coup that lasted 21 years was liberal.
The Brazilian dictatorship was long compared to Argentina, Uruguay and Chile and much more protectionist in economic matters. Politically, there were only two parties allowed: Arena, loyal to the military and the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB), representing the opposition, was tolerated. With the return of democracy, the MDB became the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) and although the party never won a direct presidential election it always governed. It is Michel Temer Brazil’s current interim president, belongs to the PMDB.
Temer became president after twice having been Rousseff’s vice president. His party corralled the PT with its large territorial power and its conquest of key positions in the executive and legislative branches. Eduardo Cunha, pastor and the core of the PMDB, coordinated the impeachment as president of the Chamber.
Under investigation for various charges of corruption (undeclared accounts in Switzerland and the Panama Papers, among others), Cunha laid the groundwork for impeachment, accusing the president of violating the Law of Fiscal Responsibility and Budget for signing three decrees that advanced budget money to the Federal Police, the Labor Justice and the Ministry of Education, in addition to using public bank funds to subsidize agricultural plan ( “Zafra 2015”).
The fiscal maneuver is common in Brazilian democracy. According to the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo, municipalities use the same mechanism to meet fiscal targets. That is what they did, for example, in Goias, Rio de Janeiro, Rio Grande and San Pablo. The fact that the practice was common and accepted is the basis for the argument that Rousseff’s removal was an institutional coup.
Meanwhile and although the media coverage focuses on the PT, allegations of corruption have stained the entire political spectrum, including every one of the men who follow Temer in the succession chain. Data from the NGO Transparency Brazil are overwhelming: 55% of Senators and 53% of the Congressman were subpoenaed at least once in their lives. The MBL depletion emerges from this model of representation and aims to be the solution.
The political crisis in Brazil is larger than the PT crisis. What’s up against the ropes is the “coalition presidentialism”–the political system that arose after the dictatorship. It promotes a pulverized Congress: The country has 35 parties and 28 have parliamentary representation. In a hyper-fragmented system, majorities are hard to come by. Only 190 of the 513 congressmen belong to the three largest parties, just over a third. The trigger of the corruption scandals like the Mensalão of 2005 or operation Lava Jato today- are usually related to the quest to build majorities. It is dark money for “politics”; they are unmentionable funds to get votes and laws. The situation is so dramatic that even the prince Don João de Orleans e Braganca -Tataranieto the last Emperor Pedro II (1825-1891) – suggested that Brazil should stop being a democracy to give rise to a constitutional monarchy like in Britain or Sweden.
One wall of the former office of MBL in San Pablo has a chalkboard. At the top it reads “final blow” and on the side there is a date: April 17, 2016. That was the day the Brazilian deputies voted for impeachment. The session was a show that aired on all channels. It was like a sporting event and legislators, stars for a day, sent greetings to their families, evoked God and the military.
Almost no one spoke of the fiscal maneuvers. That was the big battle because it was assumed that gaining simple majority in the Senate would be easy, which actually happened on May 12. The next day in a 55-22 vote, the president took leave of the Alvorada Palace in Brasilia. That day the MBL, other organizations, and independent citizens celebrated on the stage mounted by the Industrial Federation of Sao Paulo (FIESP) on the luxurious Paulista Avenue.
The MBL doubles the bet
“The parties are legends, they don’t have a program. They are nothing more than a bureaucratic structure,” says Kataguiri. But far from running away from the political system that he critiques, the MBL has raised the stakes. On Oct. 2 Brazilians went to the polls . There were 475,000 candidates from 35 parties vying for mayor, deputy mayor and city council positions.
The MBL, affiliated with fifteen parties—the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), the Social Christian Party (PSC), Democrats (DEM), among others– presented 45 candidates for councilors across the country (Foz do Iguacu, Florianopolis, Porto Alegre, Sao Paulo, Niteroi, among others). As a “suprapartisan” organization, like evangelism, they campaigned only for their candidates and with their own style and speech. The negotiation with the parties was not easy, they acknowledge, but ultimately it’s a win-win equation. They made their debut in formal politics with party support and their partners get a breath of fresh air in the middle of a serious crisis of representation.
The move was possible because the political system is organized so that one votes for individuals, not parties. To explain the absurdities this mechanism lead to, think of Romario and Bebeto (former football stars elected to the Senate and Chamber, respectively), and the perfect example: the clown Tiririca. When in 2010 the famous Brazilian comedian ran for deputy, he looked like a joke. “Vote Tiririca, pior do que esta, nao fica ” (Vote Tiririca, he can’t be worse), said one of his many crazy spots. It worked. With more than one million votes in Sao Paulo, he was the most voted candidate.
Bernardo Sampaio is a member of MBL and was candidate for alderman in Niteroi, with the PSDB. According to the 2010 census, it is the richest municipality in the country. Per capita income is 2,031 reales ($ 615), while in the poorest (BELAGUA) is 146 reales ($ 44). He came to the interview on his motorcycle—he works at his father’s dealership. He is an economist, around 40 years old and in 2014 he campaigned for Neves. He knows the owner of the elegant restaurant where we spoke and he talks while gazing out at the turquoise shore. It’s been nearly two weeks since the Brazilian parliament removed the President. “The more things you want to control, the less success you’ll have. So in the private sector, there is outsourcing,” he says. He goes on to criticize taxes, says the iPhone in Brazil is the most expensive in the world, says there is no such thing as the domestic market because it is always international, proposes financial education in primary schools and does not know who the Carlos Menem, the king of neoliberalism and former Argentine President is.
On abortion he is more cautious: “It’s a big responsibility. Today the Brazilian cannot take care of himself. In 100 or 120 years he could be given that responsibility. ”
Liberalism in its social dimension is a thorny issue for the MBL. In a country with an important religious bloc, topics such as abortion, decriminalization of drugs or marriage equality are electorally sensitive. Kataguiri, among the youngest of the movement, has a more open position and claims to defend the “political, economic and social” liberalism.
Although as a whole the MBL is a young movement, age also marks an internal crack according to their experience. Like Sampaio, Renan Santos, the founder of the organization, crosses the border into his 30s . He is linked to the PSDB–he even has as his marital status on Facebook “in a serious relationship with Fernando Henrique Cardoso”, twice president, lucid sociologist and perhaps the best picture of the Brazilian right. Santos is fleeting and elusive, perhaps because the number of complaints against him: according to UOL, one of the most visited online sites in Brazil, he has 16 civil and 45 labor suits against him (some in his name, others in names of companies he presides over). This, along with doubts about how they are funded, is one of the weaknesses of the MBL in the court of public opinion.
It would be a mistake to believe everything they say: that they only receive money from member donations, crowdfunding, agreements with merchants and entrepreneurs, selling T-shirts, books and mugs with the logo; or that they don’t accept money from political parties, public officials or companies with public service concessions. But it would also be a mistake to sink into a hyper paranoid and conspiratorial mode that they are merely a puppet mounted by the United States.
Before MBL existed, several of the movement’s leaders (Kataguiri, among them) belonged to Estudiantes Pela Liberdade, the local version of Students for Liberty, a global organization working for “freedom of academia and society” and which is partly funded and trained by Atlas network, the mega global network of think tanks. The director of Atlas, Alejandro Chafuen, acknowledged in an interview with journalist Marina Amaral of Public Agenda that they give Estudiantes Pela Libartade training and financial support. He also said that his organization receives 0, as a percentage of their income from the hands of the brothers Charles and David Koch. According to the New Yorker estimate, the oil tycoons are the third richest in the United States and between 1998 and 2008 contributed $196 million for the development of liberal policies in the world. The Tea Party was one of the big winners.
Young liberals decided to leave the label “Students for Freedom” and use the ‘brand’ MBL (until then it was only a Facebook page) just to peel off from the label. Although Kataguiri states that they currently do not have anything to do with them, they come together in the lectures organized by the Liberal Institutes, Millenium, Ludwig von Mises Brazil or São Paulo Liberal. Moreover, in a note on the Atlas site itself, the organization publicly smacks the role played by the “Students for Liberty” during the demonstrations against Dilma. And used as a photo illustration of Kataguiri.
By measuring the correlation of forces
In the October 2 elections, Brazil’s elections reflected the new correlation of forces. The elections dealt a blow to the already wounded PT, only a 14 percent approval rating according to the polls. Lula’s party lost two-thirds of mayor positions where it previously ruled and lost San Pablo to a millionaire who explicitly promises to privatize everything.
Temer with his cabinet of white man—literally—insisted that he will not run for president in 2018. In exchange, from different corners of the new opposition alliance they offer governance and rule out an eventual early elections, which would be necessary for a constitutional amendment and majorities in congress.
Early elections is the strategy of one section within the PT. In a recent public letter, Rousseff denounced what she considers a coup and asked to call a plebiscite supported by the fact that polls indicate that 53 percent of the population would agree to vote again.
On Aug. 29, during her defense in the final stretch of impeachment, Rousseff spoke before the Senate that was judging her, accompanied by singer Chico Buarque and former President Luis Inacio Lula Da Silva. “I have no accounts abroad, I did not get rich off of public money (…) I do not fight for my mandate due to vanity or power. I fight for democracy” she said. The next day they deposed her definitely.
In this thorny political scenario and with a GDP that will contract by 3.5 % in 2016, MBL made its electoral debut. As Kataguiri argues, they are the opposition. They were born opponents of the PT and never played for Temer or for the PMDB. They are, they say, the main instigators of the process that mobilized millions across the country, like never before in history.
They see the political parties as a seal without much use and their march on March 15, 2015 “the founding myth of liberalism in Brazil”. The left sees the MBL as artificial: “They have no social base or organized constituency,” says Wyllys. They didn’t get the people out in the streets, it was the media,” maintains Joaquín Pinheiro, of the national board of the Movement of Landless Rural Workers, MST. He accuses the MBL of being funded by the CIA: “It is part of an apparatus that has been mounted in several countries and that mobilize using social networks, those who have access is the middle class. ”
For the region, Brazil’s turn of events was drastic. The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Organization of American States (OAS) kept quiet. The presidents of Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Nicaragua denounced it as a coup, but that was not enough to shake the fledgling regime. Mauricio Macri, president of Argentina, silently hailed the process but avoided any comment that could erode the relationship with the new government, a necessary ally for the approach to the Pacific Alliance and the long-awaited Free Trade Agreement between Mercosur and the European Union.
Some speak of a “historic turning point” in South America and of the start of the “conservative restoration” that began in Argentina, continues in Brazil and looks forward to Venezuela.
Diego Gonzalez (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a journalist in Buenos Aires. His blog is www.diegofgonzalez.blogspot.com. TW: @diegon2001. He is an analyst for the Americas Program http://www.americas.org/es/. Julia Muriel Dominzain is a journalist based in Buenos Aires.