Valerio Arcary: The left must lead the fight to impeach Bolsonaro

As of May 9, Brazil is reporting 146,894 coronavirus infections and 10,017 Covid-19 deaths, figures that grossly underrepresent the real toll, but nonetheless herald Brazil as a global epicenter in the pandemic. Although many factors are at play, the medical journal The Lancet argues “the biggest threat to Brazil’s COVID-19 response is its president, Jair Bolsonaro.” While the left is united in rejecting Bolsonaro’s outrageous attacks on public health, the Workers Party, by far the largest force on the left, has hesitated to support parliamentary impeachment proceedings filed by federal deputies in the Party for Socialism and Freedom.

Valerio Arcary is a leading member of Resistência, a revolutionary socialist current inside the Party for Socialism and Freedom (PSOL) in Brazil. Here he argues the time has come to impeach Bolsonaro, lest the far-right president regain the political initiative. Translated and published by No Borders News as part of our ongoing international coronavirus coverage.


1. The Brazilian left is facing a dilemma. If must decide whether or not to put forward a unified demand for the impeachment of President Jair Bolsonaro at a moment in which the pandemic is precipitating a social calamity. But this tactical dilemma is also an expression of a strategic divergence. In the last week of March, the Party for Socialism and Freedom (PSOL) decided to take up Fora Bolsonaro (Bolsonaro Out) as part of its political agitation as one axis of its overall Save Lives campaign. The Workers Party (PT) embraced Fora Bolsonaro two weeks ago and the Brazilian Popular Front (FPB) and the Fearless Peoples Front (PSM) have adopted Fora Bolsonaro. On the terrain of social struggles, entities in which the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB) is influential, such as the National Union of Students (UNE), have taken up Fora Bolsonaro and the PCdoB’s central committee settled on the formula Enough with Bolsonaro in a resolution on April 19.  

Any worker who takes up the slogan Fora Bolsonaro understands this to mean Down with the Government and in the parliamentary arena, this means supporting impeachment, which is the main institutional mechanism available for dislodging a president. However, up until now, the left-wing parties have not been able to articulate a common impeachment demand. Why is this? It seems like a mystery, but it’s not. In our nebulous context, a game of shadows is being played out where PSOL is collecting endorsements from organizations and their leaderships while it has decided to file impeachment charges in Congress on its own. Apparently, no better solution is available. All the same, we cannot adopt an excessively antagonistic attitude and it is important not to be seduced by the allure of the limelight or sectarian impulses. 

In fact, it ought to be up to the main left party, the PT, to assume the role of assembling the United Front. But the PT’s hesitation regarding the 1992 campaign for Fora Collor (President Fernando Collor resigned rather than face corruption charges and impeach proceedings in the Senate in the midst of an economic crisis) should not be forgotten, and it cannot be diminished. The PT was six months late in calling for Collor’s ouster. That was very late indeed. And it only came on board after mass demonstrations by students and youth in the second week of August. It would be a shame to repeat this mistake and it would be much more serious now. Bolsonaro is not Collor. Bolsonaro is the most important leader of a neo-fascist current and this current will not fall without a fight. If the left is not determined to rely on popular mobilization to overthrow Bolsonaro, then his government can recover the initiative it has lost over the past two months.

[Read next, Karine Afonseca: Fight like a nurse, facing off with Bolsonaristas in Brasilia.]

2. The political situation changed at least a month ago and we are witnessing a relative weakening of the government – concentrated in the executive, the state regime’s main institution – even if the overall situation, that is, a comprehensive characterization of the balance of social forces, remains reactionary. The current relationship of political forces has placed the government in check in relation to the regime’s other institutions (Congress, Judiciary, Armed Forces, etc) amidst a struggle in the superstructure over the role of political parties, the media, civil associations, and representative entities, etc.

We must employ two different degrees of abstraction to make sense of the dynamics of events. Within the general scenario, different particularities are mutating. What defines the general situation is the reciprocal position of the classes. In Brazil today, the working class remains in a defensive position. But the general situation has changed because the relationship between the majority of the ruling class and the new urban middle classes – an important fraction of the middle layers of society – is being transformed by Bolsonaro’s action and the pandemic’s impact. Bolsonaro had suffered setbacks before the pandemic – such as split in his own party, the grotesque episode of his secretary of Culture imitating a Nazi, or his break with the governors of Rio de Janeiro, Wilson Witzel, and São Paulo, João Doria. But his coronavirus denialism and his Bonapartist attempt to impose his will on the Federal Police provoked the resignations of Health Minister Luiz Mandetta and, most importantly of all, Justice Minister Sergio Moro. Critically, Bolsonaro failed to bend these to ministers to his will or throw them under the bus. Instead, they resigned of their own accord, maintaining their political credibility, denoting a qualitative change in the internal workings of Bolsonaro’s government.

Though preparing an offensive to launch a “self-coup” – modeled on Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori’s dissolution of Congress and seizure of dictatorial powers – Bolsonaro was forced to make concessions to the Centrão (Brazil’s military high command) to protect himself in the face of the danger of impeachment. This reversed an important trend and it was no small feat, considering the adverse situation in November of last year. There is still an important bourgeois faction supporting the far-right government, of course. The meeting at the Supreme Cournt (STF) of representatives of industrial sectors illustrates that Bolsonaro’s denialism (and his insistence on opening the economy) is not just a personal extravagance or anomaly, it is a monstrosity advocated by a fraction of the Brazilian ruling class. 

The evolution of the political situation will be conditioned, above all, by the development of the pandemic and the economic and social crises. Will we have thirty or fifty thousand dead by the end of May? At the same time, the neo-fascist president has not yet been defeated, and he maintains positions of strength, especially as the neo-fascist current is wreckless, unstoppable, out of control. We cannot rule out the possibility that Bolsonaro may precipitate a State of Emergency under the guise of social control in the face of the pandemic. He would not have a majority in the National Congress, nor would this be endorsed by the STF, but such a move might be enough to excite his fascist hordes on a scale far superior to anything he has managed since being elected. On the left, one limiting factor in the conjuncture is the impossibility, for a period, of mass action in the streets owing to the necessity of social isolation. Another limiting factor that weighs negatively on the left is extreme working-class class defensive in the economic field. 

[Read next, David Miranda, Fernanda Melchionna, and Sâmia Bomfim: Brazil fights multiple pandemics.]

But a left without “instinct for power” is a lion without any teeth, a clenched fist jammed in one’s pocket. Our hands must not tremble because an opportunity has opened up. Why? (a) because the majority of the working class is already against the government; (b) because less than a third of the population supports the government; (c) the left is in a position to fight to lead the opposition to Bolsonaro; (d) because consistency matters, the legitimacy of impeachment flows from the Fora Bolsonaro demand, it is nothing more than that demand’s parliamentary translation, thus, if it is not proper to impeach Bolsonaro, then the slogan Fora Bolsonaro is wrong too; (e) because Bolsonaro is the center of the pandemic and economic crises, we must try to stop him before he regains strength and attempts to take the initiative in a self-coup.

3. The strongest argument against filing an impeachment petition is that it would like “poking a bear with a short stick.” In other words, impeachment led by the left would play into Bolsonaro’s hands and allow him to claim a position of self-defense. In other words, it would be an ultra-left tactic. This argument is powerful, but it is wrong given the changing circumstances. It is nothing but a new version of the thesis raised by some on the left that it would be “wrong to polarize against Bolsonaro.” This tactical bet that it is better to avoid confrontation with Bolsonaro rests on the strategy that it would be preferable to wear him down, slowly, and to wait for the 2022 elections. In other words, it is possible to defeat Bolsonaro without taking risks. The problem is that Bolsonaro will not behave like former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and 2022 will not be like 2002 when Lula bested Cardoso. The premise behind not filing impeachment charges is that we can only proceed when there is a majority in favor in Congress. That is, it would only be opportune to do so when the organic representatives of big capital have come to the conclusion that Bolsonaro’s administration has become a dysfunctional obstacle to establishing social order.

This bet is wrong for four reasons: (a) myopia leads to seeing only individual frames instead of the moving picture, the dynamics that must define impeachment tactics are not today’s parliamentary relationship of forces, but an assessment of what the political and social relationship of forces will be in society in two months, when the apocalyptic impact of mass death shakes the conscience of millions; (b) the bet that President of the Chamber of Deputies Rodrigo Maia and his colleagues are allies that deserve our confidence in defeating Bolsonaro, or even just stopping him, is an illusion because any tactical differences that may exist between the pro-coup wing of the liberal right and Bolsonaro’s extreme- right government are much smaller than the strategic agreements they have with respect  to imposing an historic defeat on the working class; (c) caution seems prudent, but this underestimates Bolsonaro’s ability to retake the offensive and recover part of the social and political support he has lost; (d) the only way to stop Bolsonaro is through mobilization. Hopelessness, prostration, and paralysis will get us no where. The time for initiative, courage, and boldness has arrived because an accumulated hatred is growing fast and we must fight to place responsibility for all the dead squarely in Bolsonaro’s lap. Bolsonaro will not resign, he is no Jânio Quadros who resigned his presidency in 1961 after just six months in office. Bolsonaro will attempt a self-coup, probably in the form of declaring a State of Emergency. We cannot repeat the mistakes of 1964 when the military seized power. Our mistake then was not that we provoked the generals, it was that we did not resist.

[For international coronavirus coverage and analysis from working-class and socialist movements, read No Borders News.]

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