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Luis Inacio Lula

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Dilma Rousseff and the Peter Principle

Protesters thronged Brazil’s cities on Sunday demanding the impeachment of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, narrowly elected to a second term just last October, but not one of them made any reference to the Peter Principle. But if Rousseff were a senior manager in any bureaucracy, public or private, it would surely have been noticed by now that she has been promoted to her “level of incompetence.”

We owe the insight that “managers rise to the level of their incompetence” to Dr Laurence J Peter, who pointed out half a century ago that people are promoted on the basis of their success in their last job, not their aptitude for the next one. Eventually, inevitably, they are promoted into a job they are not equipped to do well. Even if they are not your conventional kind of manager.

Dilma Rousseff was a success as a left-wing guerilla fighting Brazil’s military regime in the 1980s: captured and tortured for three days, she never said a word. She was a success as the chief of staff to Brazil’s first working-class president, Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva, in 2003-2010. She was a political success in getting elected as Lulu’s successor in 2010, and was re-elected in a tight race last year. But being a president herself is not part of her skills set.

Two years ago Rousseff had an approval rating of 66 percent. According to the most recent Datafolha poll, only 8 percent of the population now gives her a positive assessment, while 71 percent disapprove of her performance. Indeed, two-thirds of those polled believe that Congress should impeach her and remove her from power.

Part of the problem is the economy. Since it peaked in 2010 at 7 percent, Brazil’s economic growth rate has plunged. This year the economy is predicted to shrink by 2 percent. It’s not all Rousseff’s fault: the worldwide collapse in commodity prices has hit Brazil particularly hard. But in practice, the government in power at the time gets the blame.

Moreover, the austerity measures that she has imposed to deal with the fall in government revenue have hurt her own electoral base among poor Brazilians. So far she has not touched the ground-breaking “Bolsa Familia”, a modest cash handout that has lifted 36 million people out of extreme poverty, and she promises to go on raising the minimum wage, but pensions and unemployment benefts have already been cut.

An even bigger bigger problem for Rousseff is the legal investigation codenamed Lava Jato (Car Wash). The biggest corruption scandal in Brazil’s rather impressive history of such things, it involves an estimated $22 billion in “suspicious contracts” going back for almost two decades involving Petrobras, Latin America’s largest oil company.

Some of it involved graft for personal enrichment, but most of it appears to be money skimmed off government contracts to pay for election campaigns and other party political activities. Since the governing parties for most of this period have been Rousseff’s Workers’ Party and its parliamentary coalition partner, the Brazilian Democratic Movement, several dozen senior politicians from both parties have been arrested.

Worst of all, Dilma Rousseff was the chairwoman of Petrobras from 2003 to 2010. It was not her primary job, and she denies knowledge of any of the corrupt transactions. The investigating officers also say there is no evidence linking her to corruption. But people are looking for somebody to blame, and support for her impeachment is strongest in the poorest areas of the country.

On the other hand, there is no charge against Rousseff that could justify an impeachment. Even in the absence of such a charge, a two-thirds majority in Congress could theoretically impeach her, but no such majority can be achieved in the current Congress.

So Rousseff can just tough it out, and so far she has done just that. Sunday’s big demos were mostly attended by white, middle-class people who probably never voted for her anyway. Her own constituency of poorer Brazilians, although angry about her austerity measures and rising inflation, have not yet come out in the streets against her.

That could change if the economic situation gets even worse. A major slowdown in China, Brazil’s biggest export market, could spell big trouble for Rousseff. So long as no evidence emerges that clearly links her to the corruption at Petrobras, however, she can probably stay in office until her term ends in 2018. What she cannot do is restore popular confidence in her leadership.

She doesn’t lack the intelligence or the experience to be an effective president, and most of the time she gets her economic and social priorities right. There is no reason to believe that Lula, the man who finally brought change for the better in the eyes of poor Brazilians, would have coped any better with the economic headwinds that Rousseff has been struggling with. But he would still be popular, and she is definitely not.

She tries hard, but it just doesn’t work. She has been promoted to her level of (political) incompetence, and it is going to be a long three years for her and for Brazil.
To sorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“Moreover…cut”; and “Worst…country”)


17 February 2005

Lula: Losing Track

By Gwynne Dyer

Brazil is a rough place even for ordinary citizens; it is hell on wheels for social and political reformers. Even when the reformers win power there, they can’t protect their own. That is why Sister Dorothy Stang was murdered on 12 February.

In the late 70s and early 80s I got to know two groups of especially interesting and admirable people: the generation of dissidents who would go on to free Eastern Europe from Communist rule, and some of the radicals who were committed to protecting the poor, the Indians and the environment (especially the Amazon) from the depredations of the Brazilian military regime and its cronies.

Well, the Communists are now gone, and the Eastern European revolutionaries who helped to overthrow them are national heroes. Some are retired, a couple are ex-presidents who now make their living on the talk circuit, and some are still active in politics or business. But I can’t think of one who has died violently

The Brazilian generals are long gone, too, replaced by democratically elected governments — but a lot of the dedicated reformers I first met in Brazil in those years have been killed, mostly by hired guns working for local landowners or large, often multinational agribusiness, logging or mining interests. Brazilian governments seemed incapable of protecting them, and Lula’s government has not been an exception.

Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva became Brazil’s first left-wing president in January 2003. There was the usual foreign investor panic at the prospect of a “socialist” president in Brazil (though Lula never actually uttered that fatal word in his election campaign), so he has had to be ultra-orthodox financially to keep them on board. It worked: Brazil’s budget deficit, foreign trade balance and even its currency are now all in better shape than those of the United States.

The price, however, was neglect of Lula’s domestic agenda, and the problem wasn’t just the austerity measures that have cut real wages in Brazil by 6.1 percent since he took office two years ago. On key issues like land use, peasant rights and environmental protection, he has often lost track of the policies he was elected to support, and the political damage has been growing fast. Take the question of logging permits in the state of Para, in the eastern Amazon.

The initial idea, sensibly enough, was to end the system that had long allowed logging companies, ranchers and others to take illegal possession of publicly owned forest, exploit it ruthlessly, and even buy and sell leases for these illegally held lands among themselves. So last year Brasilia declared all these informal claims and leases for large tracts of public land invalid. After 31 January, only claimants who could produce a proper legal title could go on using the land freely; everybody else would have to apply for fixed-period government leases that would only allow logging, ranching or mining under strict rules for environmental impact and working conditions.

Great — except that the bill to govern these new leases was only going to go to Congress this month, and the logging season starts in June, so there was no time to set all this up and create legal forest jobs this year. Many of Para’s forest workers therefore joined in protests against the new rules even though their working conditions often come close to slave labour. The poor always need money today, not in some ideal future.

Protests organised by the logging companiers blocked roads and river transport, and the leader of the loggers’ association warned that “blood will flow” if the group’s demands were not met. On 11 February Lula’s government backed down, reinstating all the existing logging licenses as a “transitional measure.” It was getting to be a pattern (last year he gave in to similar protests against creating an Indian reservation in the northern Amazon), but this time his enemies overplayed their hand.

On the same day that Lula caved in to the logging companies, Sister Dorothy Stang, a 74-year-old American nun who had been fighting for workers’ rights and environmental protection in the Amazon since the 1970s, was gunned down in Para by hired killers. The Pastoral Land Commission of the Roman Catholic Church had no doubt about who had ordered her death: “The hatred of ranchers and loggers respects nothing,” it said.

Lula finally had to react: allowing American nuns to be murdered with impunity is never good politics. He has now proclaimed a forest reserve of 12,650 sq. mi. (34,150 sq. km.) and a national park of 1,750 sq. mi. (4,725 sq. km.) in Para state, and sent 2,000 troops in to enforce the law.

What happened to Lula is not unusual. He had to impose austerity measures to keep nervous foreign investors and the International Monetary Fund happy, and then, in order to keep his supporters distracted while their living standards took a beating, he engaged in a lot of symbolic foreign activity. He visited foreign leaders who have defied American power (Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Libya’s Muammar Gadafy), he helped found the South American Union last December, he mediated an end to the military confrontation between Colombia and Venezuela last month — and he put Brazil’s own problems a distant second.

It took Sister Dorothy Stang’s murder to force Lula’s attention back to his domestic priorities. Halfway through his four-year term, he would be well advised to keep it there.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 12. (“Great…future”; and”What…second”)