Their Government in Chaos, Brazilians Fear the Joke Is on Them
RIO DE JANEIRO — Cartoonish depictions of Brazil’s president are so popular that his office is trying to restrict access to his pictures — so they don’t get turned into lampoons on social media.
Some Brazilians joke that a bold outsider — like Tite, the coach turning around the fortunes of Brazil’s national soccer team — should run the country instead. Maybe his star player, Neymar, could become finance minister, they say.
Then there’s the growing chorus of Brazilians who contend that the presidency should be abolished altogether, replaced by citizens making decisions via the instant-messaging service WhatsApp.
Once again, Brazil has found itself in upheaval, with President Michel Temer engulfed in a graft scandal that is threatening his presidency. Now, amid all the hand-wringing, anger and exasperation, the crisis is bolstering Brazil’s tradition of gallows humor, fueling a mix of satire and existential resignation.
Only a year ago, Mr. Temer emerged as president after the bare-knuckle power struggle that ousted his predecessor, Dilma Rousseff. But this month, the country listened in amazement to a secret recording in which Mr. Temer seemed to endorse bribes to a jailed politician. Brazilians of all political stripes quickly howled for the president’s resignation.
But, the country wonders, who should replace him? The lawmakers in line to take over in case Mr. Temer falls are overshadowed by corruption investigations of their own, leaving many Brazilians stunned at the state of their turmoil-prone nation.
“The time has come for a clown to be at the helm of Brazil,” said Everton de Souza, 36, a janitor in Rio de Janeiro, promptly naming the man for the job: Tiririca, an actual clown whose name translates to Grumpy in Portuguese.
Conveniently, the clown in question is already a member of Congress. His real name is Francisco Everardo Oliveira Silva, age 52. And unlike many of his cohorts in Congress, Tiririca has earned a reputation for being a hard worker since winning his seat in a landslide in 2010.
“At least he’ll govern with a smile on his face,” Mr. de Souza said. “Things are so grim in Brazil that you have to laugh to keep from crying,” he added, using a resilient saying popular in the country.
At the core of the humor is a sobering nationwide trend: a declining faith in the nation’s democracy.
Even before the latest scandal exploded this month, support for democracy in Brazil plunged in 2016 to 32 percent from 54 percent the year earlier, according to Latinobarómetro, a Chilean company that surveys political views around Latin America. Only Guatemala, where President Otto Pérez Molina was forced to resign because of a fraud scandal, ranked lower, with only 30 percent there supporting democracy.
Mr. Temer, 76, vows to hang onto power, assailing his accusers while finding himself increasingly isolated in the capital, Brasília. If Mr. Temer is forced to resign, the Constitution would allow the conservative speaker of Brazil’s lower house to temporarily occupy the presidency.
But with the speaker, Rodrigo Maia, under investigation for graft, the courts might block that plan. The same goes for the next in line of succession, Eunício Oliveira, the Senate chief also facing investigation for pocketing bribes.
Others mentioned as contenders come with their own complications, such as Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles, who was the chairman of the holding company controlling JBS, the beef giant at the heart of the scandal overwhelming Mr. Temer.
Some of Brazil’s most prominent politicians, tarred by scandals of their own, argue that Brazil needs an election instead. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, 71, a leftist former president, says he’s in the running despite facing multiple graft inquiries and new testimony by JBS executives describing tens of millions of dollars in payments to offshore accounts for his benefit. Mr. da Silva insists that he is innocent.
Brazil’s sluggish economy, which has not responded as vigorously to Mr. Temer’s proposed austerity measures as his supporters had hoped, accounts for much of the sour mood, some have argued. But the slipping faith in democracy is also a product of a deep-seated culture of corruption that has eroded the legitimacy of the political system.
What the country really needs now is a king, some Brazilians say in jest. Others say it in all seriousness, clamoring for the restoration of the monarchy toppled in a coup in 1889.
To the dismay of leaders who fought to construct Brazil’s young democracy, some Brazilians are also expressing nostalgia for the military dictatorship that controlled the country from 1964 to 1985, a period marked by human rights abuses.
“I feel pity for the historians who have to deal with our time in the future,” said Marcelle Alves, 36, a lawyer in Rio de Janeiro who specializes in labor issues. “My parents talk about the dictatorship era when life was more tranquil. I’m a lawyer but I’m incapable of defending bandits. At least the military instilled order, unlike the madness of today.”
Calls for the military to step in seem to remain on the margins of Brazilian politics. But ghosts from that era still haunt Brasília. Citing the potential for the military to gain greater power, Mr. Temer’s critics cried foul this week when the president deployed troops to re-establish order after protests besieged the capital. In the face of criticism, he pulled the soldiers back the next day.
Moreover, when the crisis exploded around Mr. Temer this month, he met with the chiefs of the three branches of Brazil’s armed forces. The commander of the army, Gen. Eduardo Dias da Costa Villas Boas, then wrote on Twitter that the armed forces remained committed to hewing to the constitution, essentially swatting down speculation about a potential coup.
But memes of the president — impish, often captioned photo illustrations — are spreading rapidly on social media. An entire subgenre of Brazilian memes involves depictions of Mr. Temer as a modern-day Bela Lugosi — because the president is known for his formal demeanor, his penchant for dark suits and is sometimes likened by his political adversaries to a “butler in a horror movie.”
Reacting to the explosion in memes, Mr. Temer’s government moved this week to stop Brazilians from using official photos of the president — which are found on government websites — for such purposes.
The presidential palace sent an email to humor sites coldly informing them: “All photos are available for journalistic use and publicity about government actions. For other purposes, authorization of the presidential press office is required.”
The warning quickly fueled accusations of censorship. One recipient, Sandro Sanfelice, 28, an analyst at a telecommunications company who founded a Facebook page that makes visual jokes about Mr. Temer and other subjects, promptly vowed to carry on the mockery, one meme at a time.
“People make a comparison with the violinists of the Titanic,” said Mr. Sanfelice. “As the ship was sinking, they were playing. This is what we’re doing. As the country is sinking, we’re making jokes.”
As the crisis drags on, and Brazilians mix mockery with proposals to torpedo the nation’s institutions, some observers fret about extremist figures filling the vacuum.
Mauro Paulino, the director of Datafolha, one of Brazil’s top polling companies, noted the fastest-rising candidate in opinion surveys this year is Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing nationalist who expresses abhorrence for homosexuality and excoriates immigrants.
In what may have been a stab at a joke, Antonio Delfim Netto, 89, a former finance minister and one of Brazil’s most prominent economists, said, “God has given up on Brazil,” upending the sunny proverb — “God is Brazilian” — that remained in wide use here until recently.