The first I heard of the Netflix documentary The Edge of Democracy (Democracia em Vertigem in Portuguese, trailer here) was when several of my left-leaning Brazilian friends enthusiastically recommended it on social media. As I am always interested in how Brazil is portrayed in the US, my interest was immediately piqued. After watching it, I feel there is a real need for counterpoint to the narrative the film promotes.
A Short Summary
Filmmaker Petra Costa has put together a truly compelling account of Brazilian politics from the end of the military dictatorship to the present, with a focus on the rise and fall of socialist leaders Luís Inácio “Lula” da Silva and Dilma Rousseff. Her account is personal and intimate, including conversations with both Lula and Dilma at key moments in their careers. Aesthetically, The Edge of Democracy is a masterpiece. If you have not seen it, I would recommend you watch it. It is time well spent.
This recommendation, however, comes with some rather large caveats.
In Costa’s version of events, Brazil languished under a military dictatorship for over twenty years, until Lula and his leftist Workers Party arrived to shine the light of democracy. Once elected president, Lula and his leftist Workers Party (the PT) ushered in a veritable golden age of peace and prosperity which lasted until an unholy alliance of bad-faith allies, corrupt politicians, evil corporations and right-wing fanatics conspired to bring them down. Now, with Dilma (his chosen successor) impeached and Lula in jail, Brazil is careening back towards its “authoritarian past” and democracy itself is on the ropes.
So well-done is this film, with sympathy-evoking closeups of the grandfather-like Lula as he is being mercilessly carted off to jail, that Americans watching at home could very well find themselves swayed to believing that this narrative is the only narrative.
Not even close.
Here’s a little context.
Democracy in Brazil
One of the most face-palm inducing claims made, not only by this filmmaker but by just about every leftist in Brazil, is that with the election of Jair Bolsonaro we are seeing the end of democracy in Brazil.
This is ridiculous.
The PT (Workers Party) won four presidential elections in a row. They had over twelve years to show the people that they could govern well. They got a lot of things right in the first few years. Then they screwed up. Big time. So the people showed them the door. And – pay close attention here, leftists – this is the very definition of democracy.
This, by the way, illustrates one of the big problems of leftism: nothing can ever be their fault. If they lose, it’s the evil businessmen, the corrupt system, racism, or the gringos.
Which brings me to my second point…
Brazil’s Left Still Hasn’t Figured Out Why It Lost
Surprisingly, this documentary does include a little introspection…precious little. It mostly amounts to laments that Lula “compromised” with big business. In truth, that was the least of Lula’s (and by extension, the PT’s) problems.
To be sure, the factors that led to the downfall of the leftist coalition in Brazilian government were manifold, beginning with the inherent problems of Marxism itself, and comprising a list too long to cover in this post. There are two, looming, overshadowing issues, however, which made all the difference. One was dealt with in the documentary, albeit in a rather one-sided way, while the other is all but ignored. Those two issues are corruption and violence.
Lula came to power in part by lambasting the corruption that then permeated the government. And it’s true, there was corruption back then. A lot of it. Brazil’s first democratically-elected president, Fernando Collor, was impeached for corruption (a seismic event given only passing mention in the documentary – and there’s a reason for that). However, those guys were Boy Scouts compared to the level of corruption revealed by the Car Wash investigation.
How bad was it? Well, this video from Al Jazeera and this one from Vox shed some light on to the extent of the corruption. Spoiler alert: it was corruption on steroids. Weapons grade corruption. Teenage Mutant Ninja corruption. And just so you catch the irony: Al Jazeera and Vox give more context to Brazil’s current political situation than The Edge of Democracy.
Brazil’s leftists will tell you that Dilma was impeached by politicians more corrupt than she was, and that Lula was locked up based on slim and illegally obtained evidence. Here’s the thing: that is all probably true. But the fact remains: no Lava Jato means no impeachment for Dilma, and Lula would probably be president today. And when you watch the videos I linked above, you understand that the idea that neither Lula nor Dilma knew what their party members were up to simply stretches rational thought to it’s breaking point.
Not surprisingly, Brazil’s epidemic of violent crime got only passing mention in the documentary. And that, I believe, is symptomatic of how the PT and their leftist coalition treat the subject. They are very concerned about the people who died during the military dictatorship (400, give or take a few, over 20 years), but seem remarkably blasé about the people who are being mowed down in Brazil’s streets right now (over 56,000 in 2017 alone). There are very few Brazilians who have not been personally affected by the violence in one way or another. In the last election, the left’s mantra was “fewer guns, more education.” Jair Bolsonaro said, in effect, “I’m going to let you fight back against the people who are killing you.” To a population sick of seeing the police arrive in time to clean up the blood of murdered loved ones, it was Bolsonaro’s idea that carried the day.
The omission of crime and the downplaying of corruption are my main points of contention with the documentary. Here are some further, more random, observations.
It’s true, judges have way too much power in this country. I’ve been saying this since back in the days when a judge summarily ordered all American citizens to be fingerprinted at international airports, and when they were arbitrarily ordering WhatsApp to be shut down. Nice to have leftists on board now…they were pretty silent back then.
Much is made of Dilma’s struggle against the dictatorship, no details are given as to what she did. There’s probably a reason for that. Money quote (emphasis mine):
The daughter of a well-to-do Bulgarian immigrant, she was radicalised while at university shortly after the generals seized power in 1964, joining a network of urban resistance groups whose activities included robbing banks, setting off bombs, and kidnapping and occasionally killing political figures. Her ex-husband and fellow dissident, Carlos Araujo, claims Rousseff (codenamed ‘Stella’) was a co-ordinator, and never directly involved in the violence.
These were not peaceful resisters of the MLK variety.
Petra Costa and I are probably in agreement as to the idiocy of the Evangelical caucus in the Brazilian congress. Seldom have Christians been so poorly represented.
Thanks to this documentary, I have now seen the original that gave birth to this parody. The parody is better.
Much more could be said. Suffice it to say, while Petra Costa has produced a documentary masterpiece, the history of Brazil and her democracy over the last few years is much more two-sided than The Edge of Democracy would have us to believe.
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