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Dilma Rousseff

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Amazon Fires

The Amazon is not on fire. There are fires in the Amazon rainforest, as there are every year in July-September, because this is the dry season. There may be more fires than usual this year, and it may even be the fault of Jair Bonsonaro, the Trump mini-me who became the president of Brazil last January, but that is not clear.

Yet there now is a great outcry, with French president Emmanuel Macron saying that Bolsonaro lied to him about his stance on climate change. Macron is even threatening to withhold French ratification of the recently signed free trade agreement between the European Union and Mercosur (of which Brazil is the biggest member).

British prime minister Bori Johnson declares that it is “an international crisis”, and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel calls the fires “an acute emergency…for the whole world.” The Finnish foreign minister even suggests that the European Union should boycott Brazilian beef. Concerted international action at last!

Well, no. They might have done it at the G7 summit of the world’s richest countries last weekend in Biarritz, but they all knew it would just prompt another Donald Trump walk-out like last year’s. And some of their advisers may be warning them by now that they are not on very safe ground when they paint Bolsonaro as the sole culprit of the piece.

Bolsonaro is not a good person. He is an obtuse and obnoxious bully who doesn’t give a fig about the climate and advocates ‘developing’ the Amazon in ways that would ultimately destroy the rainforest.

When environmental activists claimed that farmers encouraged by Bolsonaro’s incendiary rhetoric were setting fires to clear Amazonian land for ranching, he blamed the activists themselves, saying that they were setting the fires to discredit him. He had no evidence, he admitted, but he had a “feeling” about it.

Of course Brazilian farmers and the agribusiness interests behind them are setting fires to destroy bits of the forest, but this is not new with Bolsonaro. The amount of forest they destroyed annually went into steady decline after the Workers’ Party (PT) took power in 2003, but the damage has been trending back up again since the last PT president, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached by Congress (on spurious charges) in 2015.

Bolsonaro is definitely the icing on the cake, but it’s questionable how much impact he has had after less than eight months in power. The number of fines handed out for illegal burning has dropped by a third this year, but the great majority of illegal burns always went unpunished anyway.

When Brazil’s National Space Research Institute reported an 88% increase in deforestation in June compared with the same month a year ago, nobody except Bolsonaro questioned the data. But that was before this year’s burning season (Queimada) began, and presumably referred to losses of forest due to illegal logging and land-clearing for mining operations, not to fires.

When the same Brazilian space institute claimed more recently that satellite data showed an 83% increase this year in forest fires, mainly in the Amazon region, Bolsonaro promptly fired its director, claiming that he was manipulating the data for political reasons.

Bolsonaro’s relationship with the truth is as distant as Trump’s, but it must be pointed out that NASA’s Earth Observatory, also relying on satellite data, reported on 22 August that “total fire activity across the Amazon basin this year has been close to the average in comparison to the past 15 years.”

There is, to be sure, a pall of smoke hanging over Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, at the moment. It’s as bad as Singapore six years ago or Vancouver last summer, and there’s no doubt that it comes from forest fires. They are, however, fires in the Bolivian part of the Amazon, not Brazil’s.

What the hell, you may say. Bolsonaro may not be guilty this time, but he’s guilty of lots of other things, so let’s hang him anyway. This is not a wise way of proceeding, even if you are doing it with the best of intentions.

The data about the climate crisis are always complicated and open to dispute, because the planet is a very complex system. Those who claim to understand enough about it to offer policy advice must be above suspicion, and to go along with the assertion that ‘the Amazon is on fire’ and that it’s all Bolsonaro’s fault is neither prudent or provable.

Although I must admit that it’s very tempting.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 6. (“When…it”)

Bye-Bye Lula

On Sunday, Brazil’s top electoral court ruled that ‘Lula’, former president Luiz Inácio da Silva, cannot run in the presidential election this October.

He served two terms as president (2003-2011), he dutifully waited out the following two terms, and his Workers’ Party (PT) has nominated him for the presidency again. Opinion polls give him 39 percent support, more than twice as much as any other candidate. However, Lula is in jail in the southern city of Curitiba, serving a twelve-year sentence for corruption, and he is not getting out any time soon.

The bad news is that he is probably guilty – perhaps not of the specific offence he has already been convicted for, but of four other charges of money laundering, influence peddling and obstruction of justice that are still pending.

Lula’s current conviction rests on little more than the word of an executive of a giant construction company who claims he gave Lula a penthouse apartment in a seaside resort town in return for a lucrative contract with the state-owned oil company Petrobras. The executive was facing corruption charges himself, and made the accusation as part of a plea bargain.

There are no documents linking Lula or his late wife to the house, nor is there any evidence that they ever spent any time there. This case went to trial first only because it suggested that Lula had sold out for personal advantage. He probably didn’t.

But there is plenty of evidence that Lula engaged in other kinds of dodgy fund-raising, not to benefit himself, but to buy the cooperation of other parties in Brazil’s Congress, where there was a plethora of small parties and his PT never had a majority. This was illegal, but it was perfectly normal political practice when he became president in 2003.

So Lula appointed PT members to senior executive roles in Petrobras and other state-owned companies. They demanded kickbacks from companies that sought contracts with Petrobras and the others, and handed the money over to the PT – which handed much of it on to smaller parties in Congress in return for their votes.

That’s how Lula pushed through radical measures like the ‘bolsa familial’, a regular payment to poor Brazilians (provided that their children had an 85 percent attendance record at school and had received all their vaccinations) that lifted 35 million people out of poverty. Brazil’s economy boomed, and when he left office in 2011 with an 83% approval rating, Brazilians were both richer and more equal than ever before.

His chosen successor Dilma Rousseff won the election, but then world commodity prices collapsed, the Brazilian economy tanked, and unemployment soared. She squeaked back into office in the 2015 election, but was impeached in 2016 for misrepresenting the scale of the deficit. It was a trivial offence, but she was so unpopular by then that nobody much missed her.

Her vice-president, Michel Temer, a deeply corrupt politician from another political party, has served out the rest of her term, but he will surely be arrested too if he loses the protection of holding a high political office. In fact, half the current members of Congress would be arrested if they lost their seats. The reason for that is a political cleansing operation called Lava Jato (Car Wash).

The past eight years have been miserable for Brazilians both economically and politically, but Operation Car Wash has offered real hope for the future. It’s a huge police and judicial operation, run out of the city of Curitiba, (called the ‘London of Brazil’ because it is seen as incorruptible), which targets both corrupt politicians and the businessmen who buy them up.

The irony, for Lula, is that Car Wash owes its success to two key reforms of Dilma Rousseff’s government. One was to make evidence obtained through plea bargaining acceptable in the courts. The other was to appoint a truly independent attorney-general and independent judges and prosecutors – who duly sent Lula to jail even though they may share his politics.

“She always underestimated Car Wash,” said Delcidio do Amaral, the PT’s former leader in the Federal Senate, now under house arrest and plea-bargaining hard, “because she thought it would reach everyone but her. She thought it would make her stronger.” Instead, it has destroyed Lula.

So what happens now? The PT has ten days to substitute Fernando Haddad, Lula’s choice and a former mayor of Sao Paulo, as the Workers’ Party candidate for the presidency in the election on 7 October, but it’s unlikely that he can win all the votes that would have gone to Lula.

Which may leave the road open for a dark-horse candidate like Jair Bolsonaro, a born-again would-be Trump who disparages women, blacks and gays. The road to Hell (or at least somewhere quite unpleasant) is often paved with good intentions.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 10. “There…didn’t”; and “Her vice-…Wash)