The documentary film “ The edge of democracy”, which is streamed in Netflix, is the Brazilian story of the end of military dictatorship in 1985, the climax of democratic maturity with the election of a lathe worker Lula as President, the fall of democracy with the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff through legislative coup in 2016 and the imprisonment of Lula to prevent his contesting in the elections by a judicial coup in 2018. It is a poignant and powerful narrative which starts with the people’s celebration of rebirth of democracy in 1985 and ends with Bolsonaro celebrating dictatorship in 2018.
For those of us who followed with admiration Brazil’s rise in the first decade of this century and saddened with the quick fall in the second decade, the film is just a visual summary of the facts. The fall of admirable Lula and the rise of despicable Bolsonaro is a horror story. The film highlights the fact that this would not have happened but for the political incompetence of President Dilma Rouseff, who did not know how to handle the Congress and the crooked leaders like Eduardo Cunha and Michel Temer. Cunha was against impeachment in the beginning, as seen from his statement. But when Dilma refused to rescue him after he was caught red handed with swiss bank accounts, he took up impeachment as a revenge. No Brazilian president can get bills passed in the fractious Congress of over twenty political parties without appeasing the congressional leaders overtly or covertly. That’s why President Lula had to set up Mensalao scheme in which monthly payments were made to members of the Congress to consider and pass bills. But Dilma was politically aloof and indifferent. The film shows a Congressman complaining that she would not even do the traditional Brazilian hugging of colleagues. She became opinionated and arrogant while at the same time being naïve and let herself be played by the veterans of the political games.
Dilma should have, of course, resigned on her own admitting moral responsibility for the massive and systematic corruption in Petrobras which went on even when she was minister of energy. The Workers Party and Lula also got carried away by hubris and deserved an electoral defeat but not a overthrow by constitutional coup.
Sergio Moro, the inquisitorial judge and prosecutor had gone out of his way in witch hunt against Lula by using even illegal and unethical methods to frame Lula. He abused his judicial authority by sentencing Lula to disproportionately long imprisonment even when there was no solid evidence. He used every trick in the book to prevent Lula from contesting the elections and to damage the image of the leftist Workers Party. Lula would have won the elections against Bolsonaro undoubtedly. But Moro had created a vacuum by keeping Lula out of the elections and had helped in the election of Bolsonaro, who has rewarded him with ministership. The illegal methods used by Moro has come out in the recently leaked phone conversations between him and others.
Brazil was emerging as a regional and global power around 2010 under Lula’s visionary leadership. His Inclusive policies emancipated millions from poverty and injustice. Lula’s pragmatic and balanced mix of pro-poor and business-friendly policies became the role model for Latin America and as an alternative to the Washington Consensus, which had ruined the region in the eighties.
The only missing part in the film is the role of US which targeted Lula and Brazil to contain the rise of the Left in the region. The US is believed to have played a role with its espionage including inside Petrobras and the office of President Dilma Rouseff . There is speculation about possible link between the US agencies and the US-trained Sergio Moro who had imported the US system of plea bargaining to implicate Lula. The Petrobras corruption was an institutional one shared by all the political parties and leaders. But Moro and company focused only on Lula. When the others including Temer were implicated with solid evidence, the Congress and judiciary moved to save him and stop further investigations. When Cunha threatened to spill the beans against Temer, he too was jailed to silence him.
The director of the film Petra Costa has given a personal touch by weaving the story of her own family with that of the country. She has narrated the story with her own melancholic voice in first person. Her grandfather was a founder of the construction firm Andrade Gutierrez, which was one of the contractors involved in the building of Brasilia city and flourished during military dictatorship as well as during the Workers Party rule. It was also one of those firms disgraced for corruption in the 'car wash scandals'. But Petra’s parents went the other way and became leftist revolutionaries fighting for democracy and justice. Her parents suffered imprisonment and exile. Her mother was put in the same jail where Dilma Rouseff was also kept. Petra was born in 1983 at the time of transition from dictatorship to democracy. One of her earliest memories was sitting on the shoulders of her mother watching a sea of people protesting for end of military dictatorship. She grew up in a vibrant democracy which matured and flourished. Costa recalls her mother’s first impression of Lula as “the embodiment of all she had longed for: workers becoming political actors, opening the way towards a democratic path.”She thought a New Brazil was born with her. But her hope turns to disillusionment by the derailment of democracy in 2016 by the corrupt congress leaders and crooked judiciary. She becomes cynical saying, " our country is a republic of families; some controlling land, others controlling media, some others banks, sand, rock and mines. These families sometimes get tired of democracy".
So one should see the “Edge of Democracy’ just as a short film about the Big Brazil in its passing phase of a promising future. Even more mature and established democracies such as the US have suffered damage with Trump, a much worse monster than Bolsonaro. One should see the larger picture of the long term potential of Brazil, beyond Bolsonaro. Petra Costa says in her narrative,” Our democracy was built on forgetting”. Bolsonaro will be yet another forgettable phase of Brazil’s history.
What next for Brazil? The film has not given any clues. But my take is that Brazil had come out of bigger crisis in the past. President Janio Quadros banned " Bikini" in 1961. This was the most fundamental and civilisational challenge to Brazil. Quadros resigned in eight months but Bikinis continue..keeping the Girls from Ipanema tanned and adorable..
An edited version of the blog was published in The Wire
An edited version of the blog was published in The Wire