SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 219 June 2018

Brazil: a new era of polarisation and struggle

Systemic corruption and economic downturn run alongside the parliamentary coup by right-wing political forces. Evermore authoritarian rule belies ruling class indecision ahead of October’s presidential election – amid promising initiatives on the left. TONY SAUNOIS, recently returned from the congress of Liberdade Socialismo e Revolução (CWI in Brazil), assesses Brazil in turmoil.

Brazil has entered a time of political, social and economic convulsions. The brutal assassination of Marielle Franco, a PSOL (Partido Socialismo e Liberdade) councillor in Rio de Janeiro, reflected this convulsive era and the extreme polarisation which has opened up in Brazilian society. Marielle’s execution, probably by right-wing militias linked to the military police in Rio, followed her struggles to expose the violence of the police against mainly black youth in the city’s favelas. As a black, lesbian woman originally from the favelas she embodied the struggle.

Her execution symbolises the war that has been launched on the working class by the ruling class. The right wing has moved onto the offensive in a series of repressive steps not seen at this level since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985. The arrest and imprisonment of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s former president and leader of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), is another indication of this offensive by neoliberal sections of the ruling class. This poses new challenges for the new generation of fighters who are struggling to build a left socialist alternative.

In the early years of the 21st century, Brazil – like many Latin American countries – experienced an economic growth based almost entirely on the rise in commodity prices and which lasted from 2003-11. During this time, while the economy grew, the industrial productive sectors were increasingly hollowed out. CWI supporters in Brazil warned that this would mean that the economy would enter any new recession in an even weaker position.

In the growth years the capitalist commentators and politicians got carried away. Expectations were raised as people were promised that Brazil was on the threshold of joining the ‘first world’. The ruling class was happy to allow the PT and Lula to govern on the basis of class ‘conciliation’. It could tolerate some concessions being given to the most downtrodden and oppressed. Over 29 million people were taken out of poverty and drawn into the ‘middle class’ – although largely on the basis of a credit boom. The ‘bolsa família’ (family allowance) provided benefits for the lowest paid, and low-cost apartments were available at favourable rates. Lula rode high in the polls.

It was not all one-sided, however. Lula and the PT had swung to the right and embraced capitalism. Along with the reforms, attacks were also unleashed on public-sector workers, especially pensions – and the expulsion of some PT deputies who opposed these measures. This paved the way for the formation of PSOL in 2004.

World record corruption

The hopes were shattered by the consequences of the global economic crash 2007/08. Although its impact was delayed, by 2014 Brazil had plunged into its worst economic downturn for more than 100 years. GDP crashed by 8.6% from 2014-16. The reforms came to a spluttering halt and were reversed as unemployment rocketed and millions were thrown back into poverty and destitution. The dramatic rise in homelessness was seen in the shocking increase in street sleepers in central São Paulo.

Lula was barred by the constitution from seeking re-election and his PT successor, Dilma Rousseff, lacked the authority and standing he had built up. Moreover, the PT was riddled with corruption, like all of Brazil’s capitalist political parties. The ruling class, despite deep divisions, concluded that it could no long rely on a PT-led government to enact the brutal neoliberal agenda it was demanding in the face of the economic collapse ravaging the country.

Operation Lava Jato (Car Wash) uncovered an unprecedented web of corruption that had spread like a cancer throughout the entire political apparatus and big- and medium-sized businesses. It exposed the totally rotten character of modern day capitalism. The media initially described it as the biggest corruption scandal in Brazilian history. As its tentacles were spread internationally, they dubbed it the biggest in the world! It centred on Petrobras, the Brazilian oil company, which was overpaying multiple contractors: from office construction, drilling rigs, refineries and exploration vessels. Money was lavished on politicians of all parties to secure government contracts and pay-outs.

The scandal involved companies like Odebrecht, Latin America’s largest construction company. Odebrecht even established a special department to run its corruption schemes – the Division of Structured Operations – buying off politicians in Brazil and Latin America. This department shelled out US$800 million in illicit pay-offs for over 100 contracts in more than 15 countries. Rolls Royce is one of the companies under investigation for bribes allegedly paid to secure contracts with Petrobras.

US$2 billion was siphoned off by Petrobras in bribes and secret payments. Odebrecht paid out US$3.3 billion in bribes. More than 1,000 politicians were on the take from the meat-packing firm JBS. Sixteen companies were implicated and 50 congressmen were accused of corruption. Four former presidents are under investigation.

The PT was supposed to be different. Yet it too became embroiled in the corruption. After winning the election in 2002, Lula was in a minority in the congress. His chief-of-staff arranged monthly payments to politicians and parties in the congress and senate to secure a majority. When this scandal was exposed the payments stopped and Lula reached out to the capitalist PMDB (Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro). The PMDB is a right-wing mishmash of different factions of rural landlords, urban politicians and evangelical church leaders. In 2015, the PT’s treasurer was arrested on charges of taking money from Petrobras executives.

The PMDB has been involved in every corruption scandal in Brazil. Michel Temer, PMDB leader, eventually became vice president under Rousseff. His party was given control of the international division of Petrobras and all the funds accruing from it. As the PT and Lula have now discovered, if you sup with the devil expect to pay a heavy price.

The corruption revelations enraged the mass of the population. The dominant sections of the Brazilian ruling class initially accepted Lava Jato as a means of trying to clean up the system. However, they fear it has got out of control and now want to close it down. The entire political and judicial system has been discredited. Together with the economic crisis, Brazil plunged into its worst political and social crisis since the 1930s.

Parliamentary coup

It is against this background that the representatives of the ruling class eventually, after some hesitation, moved to carry out a parliamentary coup against Rousseff, impeaching her in August 2016. They hypocritically accused her of corruption, on extremely flimsy grounds. The coup was carried through because the Brazilian capitalist class had concluded that her government could not be relied on to carry out the neoliberal policies they demanded. They wanted a hard hand at the helm.

It was also driven by the self-interest of some of the most corrupt capitalist politicians. Rousseff was not willing to shut down Lava Jato. The move to oust her was initiated in November 2015 by one of Brazil’s most corrupt politicians, Eduardo Cunha, a Temer ally. Cunha was one of the targets of Lava Jato – he had stashed away US$5 million in secret Swiss bank accounts. When the PT refused to protect Cunha against the charges he hit back. As chairman of Brazil’s lower house of congress, he granted impeachment requests against Rousseff.

One senator, Romero Juca, who supported deposing Dilma Rousseff, was caught on tape outlining the planned coup. Referring to Lavo Jata he said: "We’ve got to stop that shit… putting Michel Temer in is the easiest way…" He continued: "I am talking to the generals, the military commanders. They are fine with this, they will guarantee it"! This provoked outrage – clear evidence that the military was involved in plotting the parliamentary coup – in a country where military rule was only ended in 1985.

The increasing involvement of the military has been a tendency since Rousseff was deposed and replaced by Temer, although not in the form of outright military action. No evidence has emerged that Rousseff gained personally from corruption, although the PT had bought its way to secure a majority in the congress and senate. Temer is also under investigation for corruption.

The left’s response

How to respond to this coup has provoked a big debate on the Brazilian left. While opposing the policies of the Rousseff government, comrades from LSR (Liberdade Socialismo e Revolução – Brazilian section of the CWI) argued that it was a mistake to support an attempted parliamentary coup by the neoliberals. It would bring to power an even more corrupt right-wing regime with an agenda of unleashing further attacks against the working class. It was necessary to oppose the impeachment and, at the same time, fight against Rousseff’s anti-working class policies and build a real socialist alternative through PSOL, the trade unions and social movements.

This was broadly the position agreed by the majority of PSOL. However, some on the left, like the PSTU (Partido Socialista dos Trabalhadores Unficado), adopted a very sectarian position. It argued, in essence, that it made no difference if there was a government led by Rousseff or by Temer. This isolated groupings like the PSTU and cut them off from big layers of workers who had voted for the PT and wanted to fight Temer’s PMDB.

Within weeks of Temer coming to power the reality of the new government became clear. It announced a viciously anti-working class programme of privatisation, cuts, attacks on pension rights, and new labour laws. It even proposed amending the constitution to include a clause enshrining austerity packages for the next 20 years to prevent government deficits. In states such as Rio de Janeiro, public-sector workers and teachers have suffered pay cuts, attacks on pensions and, in some cases, have not been paid for months as state administrations have run out of money!

This provoked furious opposition throughout the country. In April 2017 the largest general strike ever in Brazil, 40 million workers, took place. It showed the burning anger and willingness to struggle. However, the trade union leadership failed to build on it by calling an immediate 48-hour general strike in preparation for a mass movement to bring down the Temer government – as demanded by the LSR. The failure to follow this general strike with further mass mobilisations gave the right wing the opportunity to prepare a new offensive.

Increasingly authoritarian rule

The social and economic collapse has resulted in an upturn in urban violence. In Rio de Janeiro there are more than 6,700 killings a year, according to official figures. Organised gangs – the most notorious being Comando Vermelho (Red Command) – are organised like military units. Often working in collusion with militias drawn from the military police – renowned for brutality and killings, especially of poor young black Brazilians in the favelas – effectively, they control areas of the city.

Playing on the fears of many workers the government launched a campaign on this issue. As part of its more authoritarian rule, it implemented the ‘national security plan’ for Rio de Janeiro, deploying 8,500 troops to the city under the pretext of fighting violent crime. The troops were sent into the poorest favelas where they carried out indiscriminate repression.

This is part of a conscious attempt by the government and ruling class to ‘normalise’ the use of the military. The assassination of Marielle Franco was part of the repressive atmosphere being whipped up. This has allowed local right-wing groups and individuals off the leash, resulting in the killing of activists and a PT mayor.

Reflecting this menacing regime was the case of comrade Camila Campos, a member of LSR who stood for PSOL in a council election. She reported a police officer who drove a car at a demonstrator. Yet, because she did not have video evidence of this action, she was sent to prison for two days and given a community sentence! Other instances have arisen of right-wing, semi-fascistic groups openly attacking individuals in the street who are wearing left-wing or radical t-shirts or badges.

It is against this background that the Supreme Court voted to prosecute and imprison Lula to prevent him running in October’s election. The court was divided on this decision. The day before the court ruling, Eduardo Villas-Boas, commander-in-chief of the army, issued a statement "rejecting impunity and demanding respect for the constitution…" It was clearly aimed at pressuring the judges and bringing the military directly into the political arena once again.

The offensive by the Temer government and sections of the state apparatus has been a shock for the younger generation. They do not remember the repression dealt out by the far-right and military in the past. The killings of landless worker activists in the rural areas – members of the MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra) – appeared somewhat remote to the youth in the cities. Now, reflecting the sharp class polarisation which has opened up, such brutal struggles have returned to the cities. The lessons of past struggle, including the sacrifices and battles waged by previous generations to build the PT and CUT trade union confederation in the 1970s and 1980s, will need to be relearned.

Ruling class uncertainty

The authoritarian, neoliberal offensive has provoked discussion on the left on whether there is a ‘conservative wave’ sweeping Brazil. The growth in support for Jair Bolsonaro, an extreme right-wing populist and former military officer who is running second in opinion polls for the presidential election, is one justification for this prognosis.

Of course, the threat posed to workers and those exploited by capitalism by these attacks and the growth in support for the far-right must not be underestimated. They represent the opening of a new era in Brazilian society. Yet, instead of a conservative wave, they reflect the growing polarisation in society. The attacks by the right wing and the growth of the far-right are also accompanied by a rejection of most aspects of this neoliberal programme.

A victory for Bolsonaro is not the preferred option of the ruling class. At this stage, it does not have a clear candidate. It is searching for a Brazilian Macron or Macri – the presidents of France and Argentina. Various candidates are emerging who hope to play this role, such as Mariana Silva, former PT senator who stood for the Green Party in 2010. The ruling class, however, seems to be putting its hopes on Geraldo Alckmin, a former PSDB (Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira) mayor of São Paulo. This uncertainty about who will be the preferred candidate for the ruling class only months prior to the election is an indication of the crisis it finds itself in.

In fact, since the social and political crisis developed, there has been a growth in support for more radical left-wing ideas. According to one poll, between 2014-17 those who thought that poverty was linked to a lack of opportunity grew from 58% to 77%. Those saying poverty was due to an unwillingness to work fell from 37% to 21%. Seventy-six percent thought that the state should be the main force for economic growth, and an overwhelming majority supported the idea that the state should guarantee equal opportunities and protect the poorest layers of society.

Eight out of ten preferred better health and education services over a reduction in taxes, and 74% defended acceptance of LGBT people. A clear majority opposed the criminalisation of abortion. The only area where there was more support for the programme defended by the right wing was on public safety and crime. This is being used cynically by the right wing to try and strengthen its support.

In opinion polls for the presidential elections before Lula was imprisoned, he was on 35% for the first round, and set to win in the second round. Even after his imprisonment his support has hovered around 30%. Despite Lula not standing on a radical left programme or defending socialism – as he has done in the past – this support does not point to a swing to the right in people’s outlook. The decisive question is the need to build a mass, fighting, socialist alternative, rooted among the working class and poor.

The formation of PSOL in 2004 represented an important step forward. However, it has not yet managed to sink the roots among the working class and poor that the PT was able to do before it swung to the right and embraced capitalism. The PT still retains significant electoral support among workers and the urban poor, including in the homeless workers’ movement, MTST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto). This reflects its history and the concessions it made to the most oppressed for a temporary period under Lula’s presidency. One of the challenges for PSOL is to try and win the support of these workers and urban poor.

The left’s new opportunity

An important opportunity exists to take a big step forward in building a new mass radical left. The decision of Guilleme Boulos, leader of the MTST, the largest urban social movement which leads mass land occupations in cities like São Paulo, to stand as PSOL’s presidential candidate is a potential point of departure which can take PSOL and the left to a new level.

The candidature of Boulos offers the prospect for PSOL to reach out to wider layers of the working class and poor, and to lay the basis for building a much stronger radical socialist alternative during the election. This can become a crucial instrument in the struggles that are certain to erupt subsequently. Although Boulos has joined PSOL, most MTST members and supporters have not. He is the candidate of a left front of PSOL, MTST, Partido Comunista Brasileiro and other social movements. This represents an important step forward, although it needs to be built on and strengthened.

Boulos has argued that his objective is to create a kind of Brazilian Podemos. However, the limited programme of Podemos in Spain – reflected in its failure to support the mass movement in Catalonia – and the absence of a democratically run and controlled mass party, are a clear warning of the dangers in such an approach.

Guilleme Boulos has advocated a series of radical demands and called for a programme of ‘radical democracy’. These can serve to mobilise big sections of workers and the poor, yet it is also necessary to go further. If the demands raised by the electoral front are to be secured, they need to be linked to a programme to break with capitalism. It is important to draw on the experience of the PT governments led by Lula as a warning of what a failure to do this would mean. While Boulos and the left are correct to oppose the attacks on Lula by the reactionary right-wing capitalists, it is also necessary to raise criticism of the pro-capitalist programme defended by Lula in spite of the fact that he also implemented some reforms for the most downtrodden Brazilians.

Brazil has entered a new era of polarisation and struggle. The coming presidential election opens up a new opportunity for the radical socialist left to emerge strengthened in preparation to intervene in the struggles that are certain to erupt under the new government. To do so it is important that PSOL together with the MTST and other social movements develop a fighting socialist programme to break with capitalism. The LSR is fighting in this election and in PSOL for such a programme of action.

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