Glenn Greenwald’s response to Christiane Amanpour’s question on CNN went viral but, believe me, he missed the point. Most foreign journalists covering the Brazilian political situation are being swept away by the romantic story being fed to them by the Labor Party (PT) spin doctors: it reads like a Hollywood script, telling how a humble factory worker became a union leader fighting against evil capitalists, then was elected President and raised 30 million people out of poverty.

Such a great movie naturally generated a sequel and in “Lula 2: The Successor,” we see that our hero manages to elect as successor the first woman President in Brazil; just as that happens, he is diagnosed with throat cancer and needs to distance himself a bit from politics as he battles the disease. He wins the fight for his health and returns to the political scene just in time to campaign again for his protégé Dilma and get her re-elected. Another “box-office hit.”

In “Lula 3: The Empire Strikes Back,” the evil capitalists file a motion to impeach President Dilma, and they accuse our hero of corruption, threatening to put him in jail. The press, manipulated by the evil rich, turns against him and his fellow PT freedom fighters. In the best Hollywood tradition, the story reaches its climax in… a trial scene! Dilma will be tried at the Senate, in a session presided by Donald Sutherland.

Actually, reality is more like a French movie. Basically, because French movies are more like reality. The Brazil story is full of nuances that go far beyond “bad guys wear black hats, good guys wear white hats.” I’m sure Greenwald knows that, but he chose not to show it on TV.

First, the prequel

When PT was born, and Glenn Greenwald was 13 years old, it came from the broad political movement of democrats who opposed the existing military government (1964-1985). As the military began the slow (and successful) transition towards democracy, they tolerated left-wing political parties to be formed and previously illegal ones (like the Communist Party) to become legal again. Eight years after the birth of PT, PSDB (Brazilian Social Democratic Party) was formed, founded by some center-left politicians and intellectuals who felt that ideology was more important than simply “criticizing the Government, whoever is in Government.” When you look at the political programs of both PT and PSDB, they were extremely similar. To this day, they remain very much alike.

There is a photo that has gone viral showing Lula and Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC) together in the 70’s, distributing pamphlets on the streets of São Paulo. These guys were colleagues, they respect each other. Yet, what sets them apart is also behind what is really going on in Brazilian politics 40 years later.

PT was formed as a labor union party. It was joined by many artists and a few intellectuals, who were all left-wing thinkers and gathered around the only left-wing existing political party at the time. The challenge the party had to face was to get better qualified people to join their ranks. They had great ideals but no political experience and no public administration experience. Their Achilles’ heel was lack of management competence.

When PSDB was formed, that dealt a blow to PT’s aspirations. These guys formed their own separate party, instead of joining their former colleagues. What is worse: PSDB was formed by actual politicians with experience, joined by some intellectuals and businessmen.

What PT lacked, PSDB had in spades: qualified people with leftist ideals, but who could easily interact with politicians from all sides of the spectrum and who had connections with business leaders that sympathized with their cause. PSDB leaders spoke of equality and power to the people, but they wore suits and ties. PT leaders did not own ties. PSDB leaders were articulate, they published books, they spoke like academics, using fancy language. PT leaders had dropped out of high school and could barely write a single paragraph without spelling and grammar mistakes.

The divisive issues

That is the underlying theme separating PT and PSDB: education. There is a mutual contempt that runs deep in Brazilian culture, rooted in childhood. PSDB is proud of the fact that they are well-educated, elegant, and accepted in elite social circles. PT resents that intensely, so they turn it around and declare that they are actually proud of not having “an education”, not speaking fancy words and never knowing how to use cutlery in a proper way.

PSDB was (and still is) a comparatively small political party, in numbers. In a country where 92% of the population “are not able to express themselves correctly in their native language”, most of the party’s leaders came from the 8% who can read and write almost perfectly. PSDB’s Achilles’ heel was its small size. They would never even aspire to win an election on their own. So, they played the “middle of the road” game: they courted the Right and they courted the Left. In terms of ideology, they were closer to the left; but their personal attire and habits brought them closer to the right-leaning elite (the “plutocrats”, according to Greenwald).

Lula and FHC personally tried to bring their parties to form an alliance, but the people at their respective grass roots level would not have it. There was too much mutual resentment and those feelings were growing. When FHC became a Minister of the Treasury, the resentment increased. Now these fancy-pants were part of Government (something that was never a possibility for PT members, as they distanced themselves from other politicians and moved further to the left). FHC called on his technically competent finance friends to join him; they hatched the “Real Plan” that ended inflation, and that catapulted him into the political landscape as a candidate to become President. Turning insult into injury, FHC won the election by a landslide. PT took the role of disgruntled ex-spouse and led the opposition. During their 12 years as an opposition party, PT filed a total of fifty (count them!) impeachment claims against the President (whoever it was at the time). That means more than one every quarter. Is that “trifling with Democracy?”

Flash forward to the present

The lack of qualification in PT’s ranks finally caught up with them. They did invest a lot in trying to educate their own members, and they should be commended for that. However, the gaps were too large and their efforts insufficient. Since Brazil is a culture that values relationships and loyalty, PT adopted in Government a strategy designed to keep them in power permanently: they increased public administration jobs by 40% (not including the jobs in state-owned companies) and created 18 new ministries (from 21 under FHC to 39 under Dilma), using the thousands of jobs that came along with this as currency to buy political support.

Corruption has always existed in Brazil. Also, we have a long tradition of nepotism. Under PT, all this was taken to unprecedented levels, reaching a point when it all went overboard.

In the political campaign of 2014, to re-elect Dilma, PT engaged political marketing strategists who apparently copied the worst side of American politics. They decided to imitate Nixon’s “culture wars” approach and spoke of a “social classes war” between the rich and the poor. PT, of course, was portrayed as being “the only ones who are defending the poor”; everybody else was described as being “supported by the evil rich.” On top of that, they started a smear campaign in the best American tradition. PSDB, instead of avoiding the trap, fell into it head on: they responded with an equally aggressive approach. Soon, all both sides were doing was bad-mouthing their opponents. Nobody was talking about their plans for the Country; they were just telling voters what scumbags their opponents really were.

Dilma won by a narrow margin, too close for comfort. The voting, on both sides, was not so much about supporting Dilma or Aécio Neves (the opposition candidate); it was more about who do you hate the most: if you hate Aécio and what he represents, vote for Dilma; and if you hate Dilma and PT and what they represent, vote for Aécio. It was a close call favoring Dilma.

Because of the aggravation built up during the campaign, PT were bad winners and PSDB were sore losers. It became difficult (if not impossible) for Dilma to rise above it all and propose a “non-partisan administration for all the people.”

Beaten in the ballots, and still smarting, the opposition decided to go to court, once again imitating the wrong side of the American model (if you lose an argument, sue the other guy). At first, PT leaders used the defense strategy of bluffing it: “they don’t have a case against us, they cannot prove any of their accusations.” The problem is: since they filled thousands of jobs with loyal but incompetent partisans, after 12 years the lack of quality started to show. Having to cope with the decrease in demand from China and with a stagnated global economy, government officials were not up to the task. The economy tanked and went into the deepest recession in the past fifty years, just when Government was under attack.

A perfect storm

The increase in politically appointed jobs carried with it wide-spread corruption. People knew that they were not competent enough to keep their jobs once a different politician took office; so they decided to make the most of it while they could. They indulged in “binge bribe-taking”, in the same way the British reacted when Government imposed shorter opening hours for pubs: they simply drank more in less time and got wasted faster. This became common behavior in public administration (the bribes, not the drinking), not only for PT and their supporters, but for all political parties that were occupying the numerous additional jobs created in the past 12 years. People stopped being discrete about it and began demanding bribes somewhat openly.

All this gave the opposition a lot of ammunition, and suddenly they did have proof to support their accusations. The accused threatened to “go down shooting” and “taking my accusers with me”. For every accusation, there were plea bargains implicating other people, including some prosecution witnesses. A senior businessman declared, when accused of bribing politicians (which he alleges he was forced to do): “they will have to build a bigger jail, including cells for myself, Dilma and Lula.”

In Brazil it’s safe to assume that 15% of voters are on the Left and 15% are on the Right, with the “silent majority” of 70% trying to stay away from politics; they just want to get on with their lives. They do criticize corrupt politicians and blame them for all their woes. So when polls show that 70% of voters want Dilma out, that is basically because the economy is going bad and they want all corrupt politicians to be punished. It’s not because they are supporting the Right; they are supporting “the right thing” and there is a big difference. Surely even Amanpour and Greenwald should be able to see that.

Does Dilma deserve to be impeached? Strictly speaking, yes. She deserves it more than Nixon did, if you want to compare the two. She did deeds that go against specific Brazilian legislation in terms of balancing the national budget. However, she is not accused of taking bribes or of corruption. On the other hand, can you believe that she did not know what was going on, when everybody else knew? And can you really accept the argument that “if everybody else is doing it, then it’s not a crime?”

Relatively speaking, it’s a different story. When Dilma was a young Communist in a subversive cell, she was in charge of the money. She was given that role because she was honest and reliable. She played a similar role throughout her whole political career: she has always been charged with roles that require honesty above average. It certainly seems unfair that she might be punished for shoplifting when everybody else in her gang is charged with armed robbery and extortion, including some of her accusers. A benevolent judge might look at the whole situation and dismiss the accusations brought against her. However, under the cold letter of the law, shoplifting is still a crime; and she cannot say that she did not know about the robberies committed by her companions.

Lost in Translation

The majority of the population are against corrupt politicians, even if they are also guilty themselves of petty transgressions almost on a daily basis. The Right, of course, is capitalizing on that. When the people shout “out with Dilma!” the extreme right adds: “and bring back the military!” In fact, less than 15% want the military to come back into power. Even the military don’t want to come back into power. They are not that stupid.

The extreme Right and Left are more vocal, and they are spinning their versions to the press. Most people are simply supporting the prosecution of corrupt politicians, regardless of political parties.

Looking at the situation from a foreign culture perspective, it’s easy to get the wrong idea. For instance, there is this notion that “democracy is under threat.” Well, what democracy are you talking about? Basically, when journalists talk about Democracy, they have their own countries in mind. They are thinking that it’s about having two big parties in perpetual battle and alternating in power (US and UK), or having clear ideological stances (France). They also think that elected officials should be left alone to carry out their mandate until a new election comes up.

In the Brazilian culture, conflicts are avoided on a daily basis because, when they happen, they get out of hand. People get offended and lose respect for each other. They don’t want to wait another four years. Besides, democracy is not just about elections; it’s about constant debates, referendums and voting bills representing government policies. To calm down the opposition and counter the calls for her impeachment, Dilma should have negotiated a broad pact with political and business leaders. The problem is that negotiation is not her forte. Eventually she became isolated, even within her own party.

When foreigners watch Dilma and Lula on TV or when they read about them in the press, they miss an important aspect: they are reading and listening to translated versions of what both of them have said. This actually makes a big difference, because Dilma is a bit dyslexic and she communicates in a very confusing way. She often goes on a tangent mid-sentence, her mind getting ahead of her words. This is very annoying to the Portuguese speaker. Imagine George W. Bush, only more confusing.

Lula, unfortunately, is even worse. His native language skills are appalling; he has terrible diction, speaks with a lisp, his grammar is obscene and he swears every three sentences. Imagine Sarah Palin speaking like a pornographic rapper, but with the social skills of Kanye West. None of that appears in translation, so foreign ears only get the sanitized version.

Still, using fowl language is not a reason for getting impeached or going to jail; but it does add to the negative image that is currently depicting these two formerly popular figures.

You could also argue that Dilma has been caught in the crossfire; the real targets were Lula and PT. Anyway, the impeachment process, as it stands, is hardly “a threat to democracy.” In fact, the whole process is strengthening Brazilian political institutions. Due process is being observed every step of the way. The actual trial, if there ever is one, has not even started. If you want to talk about a “coup d’etat” in disguise, talk about what happened in Paraguay, with the open support of the US Government: an impeachment claim was filed and approved in 24 hours, literally ousting the incumbent overnight. It happened so fast that Christiane Amanpour missed it during her coffee break.