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Letters

Vol. 41 No. 5 · 7 March 2019

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Bolsonaro’s Brazil

Perry Anderson’s lament for the passing of the age of Lula seems to be directed towards the past of Brazil rather than to its chaotic present or its depressingly predictable future (LRB, 7 February). Family corruption scandals and the failure to suppress a staged armed uprising in Ceará state immediately after Bolsonaro’s inauguration sound the happy music of ‘business as usual’ to the commercial elites and their political marionettes. But there is an important new factor which Anderson does not fully address.

He repeatedly invokes the mani pulite phenomenon which brought down the highly corrupt but stable Italian political system in the 1980s, reasonably comparing it with Brazil’s Car Wash prosecutions. He notes that the mani pulite ended up ushering in the age of Berlusconi; but it is worth considering exactly how this happened. The Italian system had evolved a particular compromise when it came to the crucial issue of the political control of television. There were three RAI state TV channels, and everyone accepted that the Christian Democrats, the Socialists and the Communists had one each, in descending order of audience share and of anti-intellectualism. It suited everyone, but broke down when the party system collapsed, and after a period of chaos the national TV landscape was remade not from Rome but from Milan, with Berlusconi’s flagship, Colpo Grosso, the infamous stripping housewives game show, leading the fleet of small private TV channels that turned into an unstoppable cultural and political force. People had worried for years about Italian TV and how terrible it was, but Berlusconi had the stroke of genius: the answer was to make it worse.

Brazil has an unusual television system, in that the free-market arrangement is dominated by one large network, Globo, which has been there from the beginning and is in effect a national institution in private hands: as if the BBC were a family business. Globo, purveyor of Brazil’s chief cultural export, the soap opera, has been able to make and break governments. But when Bolsonaro was inaugurated, he gave an exclusive interview not to Globo, but to Record, the number two network, owned and operated by a home-grown tycoon, Edir Macedo, whom Anderson does mention in passing. Macedo is not to be underestimated. If Record can acquire the advertising contracts from federal and state governments that Globo has traditionally enjoyed, on the basis of providing a Fox News service of adulation for Bolsonaro, the soul of Brazil will be in Macedo’s hands. And souls are his business.

Macedo is the richest preacher in the world, according to Forbes magazine, and if his former number two is to be believed, he got there with the assistance of the Cali cocaine cartel. But he is riding a sea change in Brazilian society which is more fundamental than a change of political parties or presidents. Dilma Rousseff’s narrow election victory in 2010 was handed to her by the evangelicals, without whom she would have lost. The term, in its Brazilian usage, includes more traditional Protestants but refers mainly to the Pentecostalist and Neo-Pentecostalist Churches, like Macedo’s Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus, which promise instant wealth, offer competing live prophecies and other supernatural theatre, and exorcise demons in public. The leading Brazilian polling organisation, Datafolha, estimated them at 30 per cent of the voting population this time around, and they have electoral discipline. While the party system is in disarray, the Evangelical Bench, a cross-party group of evangelical deputies, is not. Cross-referencing census data and electoral districts demonstrates incontrovertibly that the level of support for Bolsonaro matches the percentage of evangelical voters across the country.

The Catholic Church is still in theory the largest denomination, but it is dividing into two parts. The bien pensant, liberal, intellectual wing, supporters of the pope, is also a wing of Globo, the PT, and indeed the whole traditional intellectual establishment. But under the influence of the evangelicals, another type of Catholicism has arisen, which is fundamentalist and charismatic: meaning that it ever more closely resembles the evangelical churches. So Bolsonaro’s foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo, is a far-right Catholic who quotes the Bible in Greek; and his minister for women, family and human rights is Damares Alves, an evangelical preacher interested in resisting feminism. Both are happy to explain their roles and that of Bolsonaro himself in religious terms.

When Bolsonaro was stabbed during his election campaign, he was attended in hospital by Senator Magno Malta, a popular evangelical preacher and singer, who gave regular bulletins to the masses in terms of a divine mission. Bolsonaro has accepted the mantle: he often repeats that he was saved by a miracle and humbly lets it be understood that he has been chosen by God. There is a whole evangelical media system that operates on this basis: newspapers that barely mention political parties but which discuss miraculous prophecies with great energy and quote biblical verses ad nauseam. Record is a national commercial vehicle for this mental universe, and Bolsonaro seems happy to play along. At Davos when he knew that the Brazilian press corps was going to ask him nasty questions about his son’s business connections, he cancelled his press conference and opted for a soft interview with Record instead.

The evangelists are everywhere. In the prisons, in the favelas, among the black poor, but increasingly also appealing to the financially insecure middle classes. Over the last decade, defections from the Catholic population are estimated at 1 per cent per year, but this is arguably accelerating. Bolsonaro may not achieve much else, but he may well prove to be the first president of post-Catholic Brazil, with a new moral order perpetuated by a new television regime. The rest of Latin America is not far behind.

Christopher Lord
Jours en Vaux, France

Brexit Blues

‘No one will be quoting from her best Brexit speeches fifty years from now,’ David Runciman says about Theresa May, but she has in fact made one compelling speech about Brexit (LRB, 21 February). A transcript of the speech was published on 25 April 2016. It remains one of the best-reasoned arguments for staying in the EU that anyone has managed. Her concluding summary begins: ‘So this is my analysis of the rights and wrongs, the opportunities and risks, of our membership of the EU – and the reasons I believe it is clearly in our national interest to remain a member of the EU.’ Presumably, everything she has said since has come like ash through her teeth.

Angus Doulton
Bere Ferrers, Devon

William Davies writes that David Cameron in 2013 promised ‘a major unilateral renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership, which Brussels was never going to accept’ (LRB, 7 February). Yet Brussels did accept such a major renegotiation, the result being the ‘New Settlement for the United Kingdom within the European Union’ (adopted by the European Council on 18-19 February 2016). Described by the UK’s former permanent representative, Ivan Rogers, as ‘the last attempt to amplify and entrench British exceptionalism within the EU legal order’, the settlement was also an example of how far the EU was prepared to go to accommodate the UK and respond to its concerns on such issues as Eurozone governance, competitiveness, sovereignty, social benefits and free movement. The settlement, whose provisions were barely mentioned, let alone defended, during the referendum campaign, fell on 23 June 2016. It remains a remarkable document whose content may yet be revisited in one way or another.

Martin Westlake
Brussels

William Davies recalls A.O. Hirschman’s framework for assessing political, economic and social processes, involving the three options of exit, voice and loyalty. In doing so, he writes: ‘This isn’t to say that the European Commission has ever been very open to “voice", least of all a popular one.’ While Hirschman’s ‘voice’ is a useful touchstone, care is needed in its application. Particularly when receptiveness to ‘voice’ is queried in a highly complex setting in regard to a body such as the European Commission (which is the administrative arm of the EU, not its primary legislative-political one), we might reasonably ask who is doing the talking, on behalf of whom, to whom, about what, and using what procedure?

The European Commission like any public body is open to various criticisms. However, in assessing the claim that it isn’t receptive to ‘voice’, one should at least refer to the thousands of consultative bodies and procedures which form the backbone of the EU administration under the Commission’s aegis. These involve co-operative interaction and communication among administrative representatives of member states, NGOs, countless qualified experts, business groups, social partners and (sometimes) non-EU states. Even binding policy decisions occur within the so-called comitology committees co-ordinated by the Commission but on which it does not have a vote. If such institutional arrangements (supported by vast multilingual translation services) do not reflect the capacity of the EU executive to hear and be influenced by ‘voice’, what would?

Such arrangements might be regarded as more technocratic than classically democratic. Perhaps that is Davies’s point when he adverts to the ‘popular’ voice. Here, though, we should remind ourselves that the difference between a democrat and a demagogue may be just a single syllable: look no further than the US or the UK at present for any number of democratically elected figures who hear no voice other than a popular echo of their own. In that light, one could find reassurance in knowing that many important decisions at the European level are taken, or at least influenced, by technocrats who listen, often intently, both to one another and to external actors. This does not mean that all outcomes are welcome, or always wholly legitimate, but it does hint that ‘loyalty’ (and its concomitant co-operative participation) is a better option than ‘exit’.

Gerard Rowe
Luxembourg

The Vice President’s Men

I held a national security position in the US government at the time of the events described by Seymour Hersh in ‘The Vice President’s Men’ (LRB, 24 January). Hersh’s principal thesis, that much of President Reagan’s foreign policy, including the Iran-Contra debacle, was controlled by the office of Vice President George H.W. Bush, is highly plausible. Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel directing the Iran-Contra investigation, found substantial evidence leading to the vice president’s office, and Bush, by then president in his own right, pardoned virtually every conspirator while misleadingly denouncing Walsh’s indictment of felonious activities as merely ‘the criminalisation of policy differences’.

But Hersh makes at least three sensational claims that beg for evidence. First, that the Washington bureaucracy was riddled with Soviet sleeper agents who, when detected, were not prosecuted but allowed to ‘wither on the vine’. Second, that ‘Star Wars’ (otherwise referred to as ‘SDI’ or ‘missile defence’) was known to be unachievable or impractical: ‘Nobody on the Joint Chiefs of Staff ever believed we were going to build Star Wars.’ Third, that the Iran-Contra affair was made public by an article in a Lebanese magazine, Ash-Shiraa – an article based on a leak provided by the very US government that was conducting the operation, in order to shut down an out of control caper.

With respect to Star Wars, more than $200 billion dollars has been spent since Reagan initiated the programme, and it continues today under a different name. According to Hersh, it was intended as a ruse to tempt the Soviet sleeper agents to expose themselves in their efforts to discover technical details about the programme. If SDI were merely a false flag, why wasn’t it terminated after the collapse of the Soviet Union? Independently confirmable evidence is as yet nowhere in sight.

Second, what about those sleeper agents? Exposing and prosecuting them would supposedly also expose SDI’s role as a ruse, a contention which is credible only if we believe the entire programme was designed with deliberate errors intended to mislead the Soviets (again, the programme continues in 2019). An anonymous source’s contention that ‘we’ (meaning the Reagan administration) ‘could not … take the chance of another McCarthy period’ is risible on its face. My entire career’s association with Republican politicians suggests to me that they would have bounded like spring lambs at the chance to tar their political opponents, or opponents of SDI, as communist sympathisers.

Who were all those sleeper agents? How far up in the bureaucracy did they go? Any names? When I asked Hersh these questions at a recent public event in Washington, he said he didn’t know anything about them.

Finally, the leaked information about the arms for hostages deal that appeared on 3 November 1986 in Ash-Shiraa magazine in Beirut. Hersh’s contention that a cell within the US government blew its own secret operation out of the water, an action with unforeseeable and uncontrollable criminal consequences leading to potential presidential impeachment, is surely a blockbuster. The leak was allegedly orchestrated by former members of a ‘secret team’ assembled by Vice Admiral Arthur Moreau, an operative apparently more formidable in his capacity for mischief than Ernst Stavro Blofeld. But an alternative explanation exists. On 5 October 1986, a month before the Ash-Shiraa leak, the C-123 cargo aircraft piloted by the CIA-connected Eugene Hasenfuss crashed in Nicaragua, blowing open the Central American end of the Iran-Contra affair. The story was already unravelling, and the Ash-Shiraa story was just one more dangling thread, whatever its source.

Mike Lofgren
Alexandria, Virginia

Crisis in Venezuela

In his piece ‘What’s at stake in Venezuela?’ on the LRB website, Greg Grandin flinches from the task of apologising for chavismo in its current version (lrb.co.uk, 8 February). He doesn’t defend Maduro, but does attack the record of US intervention in Latin America. Given the depth of the crisis in Venezuela, that is hardly an adequate response, and his conclusion that Washington has ‘a larger strategy to transform the hemisphere’, is implausible.

Tony Wood has recourse to another diversion: if you cannot defend Maduro, then attack the opposition (LRB, 21 February). The crisis has, he says, ‘wiped out the real gains made by most of the population between the mid-2000s and the time roughly when Maduro succeeded Hugo Chávez as president’. The deterioration was clearly apparent before the succession. And it hasn’t merely wiped out those gains (leaving aside the question whether they went to the majority), but has reduced the population to a far worse state than it was in when Chávez came to power in 1999. US and other sanctions are not responsible for this disaster.

He disqualifies the opposition for being ‘middle class’. It now embraces all classes, and if it was previously predominantly middle-class, so what? Venezuela has a large middle class, much of which emerged in the now denigrated decades of ‘la democracia’, which saw great advances in education. Any middle class has a perfect right to oppose creeping authoritarianism, now dictatorship, military rule, vast corruption and incompetence.

Wood has a further tactic: if you cannot defend Maduro, attack the governments of his critics and opponents in the region, the Lima group. They all have their defects, but none of them has reduced its citizens or its economy to the state achieved by the government of Venezuela. Their democratic credentials are not all ‘pitiful’. Venezuela’s crisis poses a most serious problem for the country’s neighbours and for the region as a whole.

What happens next? Any military intervention would be a disastrous mistake, but Maduro has lost all legitimacy, and all capacity to govern in any meaningful sense of the term. Whatever the crisis is about, pace Tony Wood, it certainly is about restoring democracy and prosperity to Venezuela, and it is absurd and perverse to attempt to disguise that.

Malcolm Deas
St Antony’s College, Oxford

How to Put Out a Fire

McKenzie Funk, reviewing Edward Struzik’s book Firestorm, about the coming age of megafires, records his experience in the seasonally smoke-ridden city of Ashland, Oregon (LRB, 7 February). He does not discuss attempts to find new methods to combat wildfires that would reduce the time taken to extinguish them. By pouring large quantities of carbon dioxide into the upper atmosphere, wildfires contribute to global warming, which in turn leads to the production of more, and more extensive, wildfires – an increasingly deadly positive feedback loop. We should seek to put out wildfires as quickly as possible.

I proposed a new way of doing this in an essay published nearly ten years ago in the San Diego Union Tribune. Comparing wildfires to the enemy in a military engagement, I noted that the current method of fighting them makes use of airdrops, which might be likened to the air force, and firefighters on the ground, who can be likened to the infantry. But there is nothing that could be likened to the use of artillery. I proposed using catapults to hurl containers of water that would be exploded over the fires. I estimate that this would reduce the time taken to extinguish wildfires by between 20 and 40 per cent. Regrettably, despite my best efforts, I haven’t been able to get the appropriate authorities to build prototypes to test my idea.

Frank Tangherlini
San Diego, California

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