It’s been a rough couple of years for Brazil’s leftist Workers’ Party. First President Dilma Rousseff was impeached and removed from office. Then a spreading scandal over corruption that had toppled other senior officials seized even the party’s founder, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who was imprisoned this month despite leading polls ahead of October elections.
Now Rousseff is heading abroad to make her case to global audiences that her party’s troubles are signs that authoritarian forces are gaining a dangerous hold on Latin America’s largest nation — and in hopes that greater international prestige may even bring the party more followers back home.
Rousseff is currently in Buenos Aires. On Tuesday, she rallied an audience at the International Book Fair in support of jailed Lula, alongside Nobel Prize Laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo president Estela de Carlotto. In the afternoon, she will speak at the CGT union headquarters to celebrate International Workers Day.
“At a moment when Brazil is as polarised as it is, it can be hard to convince local audiences”, said Matthew Taylor, an associate professor at the School of International Service at American University in Washington. “Going abroad and speaking in kind of prominent locations sends a message that your message is being heard and understood, and to a certain degree legitimated”.
Before he was jailed on April 7, da Silva held rallies in towns big and small across Brazil to denounce his conviction as politically motivated and make the case for returning himself and the Workers’ Party to power. Such tours are where da Silva, universally known as Lula in Brazil, thrives: He is an informal, captivating speaker who weaves vivid metaphors and tells stinging jokes to make his case and discredit his rivals.
These tours rallied the party faithful, but have also drew protests — his caravan was even shot at — and exposed the depth of divisions in Brazil, which seems increasingly divided into two camps: the only-Lulas and the never-Lulas.
Rousseff’s own reputation at home appears to have recovered somewhat since her impeachment, which even some on the right now concede was a mistake, said Mauricio Santoro, a professor of international relations at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. That's largely because of frustration with her even more unpopular successor, President Michel Temer.
This past week, she was in Madrid and Barcelona ahead of visits to the University of California, Berkeley, on Monday, to Stanford University on Tuesday and San Diego State University on Wednesday.
“Democracy in Brazil is at risk”, she told an audience in Madrid. “We need international solidarity. We need to get this out to the world”.
Olimpio Cruz, a Rousseff aide, said speaking abroad was especially important because he said the left can’t get a fair shake in the mainstream domestic news media. “The Brazilian media bans the truth and is attached by the umbilical cord to the 2016 coup”, as the left refers to her impeachment. The Workers’ Party says charges that Rousseff illegally manipulated the budget were an invented pretext to kick the left out of power.
Rousseff has made earlier image-promotion trips, and other Brazilian politicians are now starting to do the same, seeking out allies abroad to raise their stature back home.
It’s a relatively new practice for a country with a history of looking inward. But the economic crash that followed a tremendous boom has many seeking validation abroad.
Still, Santoro said such trips also betray a weakness.
“Why go outside of your county for a domestic dispute?” he asked. “In general, the people who do this are on the weaker side”.