Nothing happening here in a summer holiday week can compare to the crude drama of Brazil’s chaotic upheavals last weekend – Argentina’s big brother except that the sloppy police work in Brasilia was the complete opposite of the totalitarian surveillance envisaged by George Orwell and nor does the libertarian extremism degenerating into anarchistic violence bear much relation to the ridiculously successful television reality show Gran Hermano.
Coming two years and two days after the mob overrunning Capitol Hill, the most obvious comparisons lie there although this column will stick to its brief of seeking Argentine equivalents. Both Washington and Brasilia are exceptions to the usual norm of the seat of government lying in the country’s largest city and perhaps the specialisation of this artificial creation increases their exposure. Both eruptions were tantrums by bad losers – minorities within minorities. One difference is that Capitol Hill preceded the inauguration of Joe Biden while the invasion of Brasilia occurred the Sunday after Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office (which also means that he cannot entirely escape the responsibility for the security breakdown by shifting it onto the state authorities) – another difference was that only Congress was the target of the Donald Trump fanatics denying Biden’s victory whereas all three branches of government were ravaged in Brasilia. Trump was in town that day whereas Jair Bolsonaro has been over 6,000 kilometres away in Florida since the last days of 2022 – both men gave their rival’s inauguration a miss.
The latter detail recalls Cristina Fernández de Kirchner shunning Mauricio Macri’s inauguration in 2015 but that is not the comparison with local politics which most strikes this columnist. Even if last weekend was much closer to Christmas, the image evoked by the loutish challenge to elected authority is the Easter of 1987 when the general public rallied behind Radical President Raúl Alfonsín against the carapintada Army mutiny – “Happy Easter, the house is in order.” But it was not. The subsequent amnesty legislation for dirty warriors cost Alfonsín heavily in terms of moral credibility while the wheels started coming off the 1985 Austral Plan (the removal of index-linking from the economy via a wage-price freeze). The contrast between the midterms later that year and those in the 1985 of the film which has just won a Golden Globe was stark – while the year of the juntas trial and the Austral Plan saw Alfonsín’s Radicals outvoting the Peronists in 20 of the country’s 24 districts, 1987 prompted that joke: “What does UCR stand for? Unicamente Córdoba y Ríonegro (the only provinces won by the Radicals).”
That comparison does not augur well for Brazil today. Lula might have rallied a hostile Congress, the Supreme Court and most people behind him in outrage against last Sunday’s barbarous assault but nobody wins. The new president was forcefully reminded that barely half the country voted for him last October while Bolsonaro has seen his own opinion poll support halved virtually overnight. If 1987 here is any precedent, the rest of this year could see Lula going south (which is not a reference to his scheduled appearance at the CELAC Community of Latin American and Caribbean States summit here later this month, if indeed he comes after the mess in his capital).
While this comparison falls outside my newsroom memories at the Buenos Aires Herald between 1983 and 2017, this third term of Lula evokes the third term of Juan Domingo Perón in more than one regard. Not much difference in age – Perón returned to the presidency just four days after turning 78 in 1973, while Lula will be 78 this October. Both returned on the back of lengthy and mostly successful presidencies (nine years in the case of Perón, eight for Lula). Violence accompanied both comebacks although mercifully nobody seems to have died last Sunday (unlike the five deaths accompanying the storming of Capitol Hill) while the Ezeiza massacre triggered by Perón’s return from an 18-year exile in mid-1973 carried an official toll of 13 deaths with many more widely claimed and hundreds of wounded.
What cannot be said here is either how Lula’s third term will end up or how Perón’s presidency would have ended if he had not died within nine months. Perhaps a year or two more of life would have merely delayed events. History knows various cases of not necessarily grand old men – the Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph (died 1916), Spain’s Generalisimo Francisco Franco (1975) and Yugoslavia’s Marshal Josip Broz Tito (1980) – when everybody was basically waiting for them to die before change began with time frozen and perhaps Perón would have fallen into that tradition.
All speculation and ditto for Lula but his first two terms are looking like a hard act to follow. There is something of a commodity price boom thanks to Vladimir Putin’s war but it does not seem to have the legs of the sustained boom of his previous presidencies. When first taking office 20 Januaries ago, he inherited the prudent stewardship of his predecessor Fernando Henrique Cardoso but Bolsonaro has left him a massive deficit which he stands to compound if he and his 37-strong Cabinet insist on raising public spending caps. Winning by the narrowest of margins, he at least has a pro-market vice-president as a bridge to the other half but unpicking pension or labour reforms could undermine any confidence. Lula should never be underestimated but one thing is certain – any downturn in Brazil will be felt here.