Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff makes a play for the true believers ahead of World Cup.

Brazil's Rousseff Goes Offside

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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Bubble lights flashing, the federal police SUVs, army vehicles and motorcycle cops swept past Botafogo Bay. It wasn't an invasion, just the escort for England's World Cup squad, which happens to be training in my neighborhood. Nothing untoward befell the English in Rio de Janeiro that day. No carjackers or protesters on a rampage. No need to activate the air defense missile systems said to be on rooftops near Maracana stadium.

But with the clock ticking to Thursday's kickoff, and 3 billion spectators expected to tune in to the games worldwide, Brasilia's handlers have more than futebol on their minds. So the government decided to do what it does best under pressure: Hand down a decree.

QuickTake Brazil's Highs and Lows

OK, so it's a stretch to link World Cup security protocols to President Dilma Rousseff's executive order 8243, which calls for "popular participation" in public policy. But here's the connection: Rousseff is up for re-election in October, three months after the World Cup, and she's struggling. What matters for her is not how Brazil fares on the field, though a home team victory might help, but how Rousseff plays the street.

And the streets are restless. Police, bus drivers, teachers and doctors walked off the job in recent weeks. On Monday, subway workers in Sao Paulo agreed to suspend a strike that had all but brought the Brazilian megacity to a halt.

The current rage is more calculated than mass protests last year, when angry millions poured into the street to decry spending on the soccer extravaganza. Organized labor knows this is the time to draw blood. Federal police won a 15.8 percent raise. Homeless workers, who had threatened to invade the Itaquerao stadium, the venue for the World Cup opener, stood down Monday only on the promise they would be eligible for subsidized housing.

Enter decree 8243. Signed on May 23, the executive order went almost unnoticed in the fuss over the World Cup, but it bears close watching. On paper, it sounds grand. Who could object to letting the people vet policies in a land where only 14 percent of the public approves of its lawmakers? Pundits and lawyers are still parsing the high-minded rhetoric, which Brazilian political scientist Fernando Schuler, with apologies to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, called "pure magical realism." But you don't need a diploma to see that the decree is driven by a deep distrust in the rules of electoral democracy.

The nine-page National Policy for Popular Participation edict is intended to "strengthen and articulate the mechanisms and levels of democratic dialogue" and promote "joint action" between the federal administration and "civil society." Just how is unclear, as the definition for civil society is so spongiform -- including "citizens, collectives, social movements, institutionalized or not, and their networks and organizations" -- that it borders on meaningless.

There is nothing vague about its purpose, however, which is essentially to subvert Brazilian public administration. The decree empowers a daisy chain of civic groups, from the grass-roots "public policy councils" to "policy committees" on up to the lofty-sounding "national conference." Higher still is the "ombudsman," a sort of citizens' wailing wall. And never mind the National Congress, the courts and all the other impedimenta of constitutional democracy. Under 8243, social clashes, labor disputes and conflicting land claims are to be thrashed out at a "Dialogue Roundtable," a fetching sounding institution that sociologist Oliveiros Ferreira calls a "parallel justice system."

Latin America has seen this before. Rousseff is borrowing a page from Hugo Chavez's "Bolivarian revolution" playbook, whereby Venezuela's late Comandante deputized Cuban-style social "missions" to deliver literacy, health, security and justice to the poor. They got shortchanged, but Chavez got command and control. The secret was wielding the vocabulary of democracy to gut it.

Pulling this off in Brazil, with its quarrelsome press, fractious legislature and independent-minded judges, is harder. Tellingly, the government congressional whip has yet to put the edict on the docket. But at the heart of the ruling Workers Party, or PT, beats an authoritarian pulse, one that Rousseff must monitor. Although PT "militantes" do not represent many votes, they are the engine of her re-election campaign.

Decree 8243 was drafted with them in mind. With inflation eating into wages, the economy flat and her ratings sliding, Rousseff needs the true believers on board to pull off a civilized World Cup and drum up votes for October. The popular participation decree may languish in Congress. But it resonates in the streets, where Brazil's real game is being played.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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Mac Margolis at

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