With more than 150,000 Covid-19 deaths and over 5,000,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, Brazil lags only behind the United States in the brutal price its people are paying for their rulers incompetence, racism, and far-right pandemic denialism. By the end of the year, President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro will have jointly overseen the deaths of some half a million people in less than nine months. The shear size of the body count appears to finally be breaking the back of the Trump administration, although it would be foolish to ignore the potential for electoral fraud and voter suppression. Bolsonaro’s reckoning, on the other hand, may be postponed for some time due to a series of complicating factors.
Valerio Arcary is the author of several books including O Martelo de História (History’s Hammer) and a leader in the Resistência current of the Party for Socialism and Freedom. Originally published in Jacobin América Latina, translated by No Borders News.
The pandemic has killed more people per capita in Brazil than in any other country in the world. Unemployment stands over 20 percent while groups on the far right are organizing bizarre demonstrations against a nine-year-old girl’s right to seek an abortion. At the same time, the ruling class has launched an offensive. They want to force through a constitutional reform that will allow an almost 25 percent nominal cut in public employees’ salaries as well as rapid privatizations, which are already being applied to basic health services. Now they are going after the post office and Electrobrás, the national electrical distribution system.
A pattern of chronic corruption is being repeated inside the government even as investigations come dangerously close to President Jair Bolsonaro himself after the imprisonment of his longtime advisor Fabríco Queiroz.
Meanwhile, an open war between the cartels in the hills of Río de Janeiro costs innocent lives in shootouts that last for hours and the fires in the Pantanal and the Amazonian agricultural borders have reached historic dimensions.
This is the context over the last two months in a Brazil that has grown dark… and very sad.
Marx once said that history could move ridiculously slowly. It’s important to remember that the military dictatorship in Brazil enjoyed widespread support at the beginning of the 1970s, however, by 1984 more than five million people took to the streets under the slogan “Direct Elections Now.” Twenty years had to pass before the generals were forced out. It’s also good to remember that José Sarney’s government was exceedingly popular at the height of his anti-inflation Plan Cruzado in 1986, but millions then joined the 1989 general strike and Lula made into the second round of the presidential elections. That process moved very quickly. And what about Fernando Collor de Mello’s governor? It was especially popular until hyperinflation exploded in 1991, and then, once again, millions marched to overthrow him. Hardly two years had passed. In 1994, President Fernando Henrique Cardosa’s government was enjoyed widespread support and he was reelected in the first round in 1998. But in 1999, the “FHC Out” campaign mobilized hundreds of thousands of people and opened the path to Lula’s 2002 election.
Bolsonaro is not going to fall tomorrow, but neither will his government last indefinitely. The current conjuncture expresses the partial and temporary outcome of an inconclusive political struggle. It will require a titanic struggle, a struggle that will surely happen, although we don’t know when. Below we will consider seven points that define the situation and subsequent perspectives.
Three interpretations on the left
The three great political battles over the last decade include the 2013 June Days, the 2016 impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, and the 2018 elections. The relationship between these three events holds the key to the current situation. In broad strokes, there are three interpretations on the Brazilian left with respect to Bolsonaro’s government and they are mutually incompatible. The debate between the three can, and should, be intellectually honest.
The first position holds that the June 2013 mobilizations initiated a conservative wave, opening the door to a bourgeois offensive in 2015-2016 that defeated Dilma Rousseff’s government, criminalized and imprisoned Lula, and ended in an historic defeat, that is, Bolsonaro’s election. This is the majority position in the PT-Lula camp. According to this point of view, Bolsonaro’s government was the result of a reaction to progressive reforms passed by coalition government’s led by the PT, in other words, a reaction against the progressive government’s achievements. It situates the bourgeoisie’s turn towards impeachment within a context of pressure applied from Washington, underlining the role played by intelligence agencies and secrete services (according to an “asymmetric warfare” formula), suggesting that the shift in middle class opinion was the product of an uncontrollable social resentment and explaining the weakness of the popular mobilizations against the coup by referencing, paradoxically, the restoration of the productive economy under the PT governments. This idea makes a certain appeal because it contains a kernel of truth. However, no government is defeated while it is succeeding.
The second position views the 2013 June 2013 as democratic and progressive mobilizations in the fullest sense, that the protests against corruption in 2015 were up for grabs politically, and that the election of Bolsonaro was the result, at bottom, of the PT governments’ limits and mistakes. This view is promoted by a section of the radical left, including a minority within the Party for Socialism and Freedom (PSOL) as well as currents outside it. This view downplays the weight of accumulated defeats on working-class consciousness and underestimates the existing tensions between the Bolsonaro government and some ruling class factions. They see Bolsonaro’s government as an historical accident.
The third position, the majority within PSOL, maintains that the 2013 June Days were socially contentious, but that the 2015-2016 middle class mobilizations were politically reactionary. Those who hold this interpretation positioned themselves squarely against Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment and identified, dialectically, the social and political contradictions within the unfolding process. Bolsonaro’s election was no accident. If it had not been Bolsonaro, the reactionary process would have found another leader. The current government is incomprehensible without the Lava Jatoanti-corruption investigations, Lula’s imprisonment, and the stabbing attack against Bolsonaro on the campaign trail in Juiz de Fora. Thus, taken as a whole, Bolsonora’s victory owes much to random, fortuitous, and contingent factors. The same cannot be said about the Brazilian bourgeoisie’s break with PT President Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016). This interpretation concludes that Bolsonaro’s government was only possible as a function of accumulated working-class defeats and errors committed by the PT leadership. However, its historic significance lies in its being part of a continent-wide bourgeois reaction driven by imperialism.
Change in the political relation of forces and the reversal of the conjuncture
Between March and July of this year, there was a tendency towards the government weakening, however, this was accompanied by exaggerated analyses that held as plausible – even imminent – the government being pushed aside or a self-coup by Bolsonaro. Six principal factors have inverted this tendency since the summer:
(a) The impact of the distribution of five monthly emergency payments of R$600 (a little more than US$100) to 65 million destitute Brazilians, the largest public assistance program in history, which prevented the growth of poverty and led to an increase in Bolsonaro’s approval ratings in August polls, especially among beneficiaries.
(b) Bolsonaro stepping back from a self-coup strategy after his advisor Fabrício Queirozwas sentenced to three decades in prison and a repositioning with respect to the Supreme Court’s investigations of Bolsonaro’s sons as well as a federal deputy and senator. That is to say, Bolsonaro shelved his “office of hate,” fake news blitz, and “rachadinha” corruption (a term referring to placing ghost employees on the payroll), in favor of a phase of “peace and love,” or at least reducing conflict with the press and the judiciary.
(c) The renegotiation of alliances in the National Congress which incorporated the majority of the “Centrão” (the traditional right-wing parties) in the government, thus providing a defense against some forty impeachment charges presented to the president of the Chamber of Deputies.
(d) The new agreement with the bourgeoisie to approve an emergency budget in 2021to maintain the spending ceiling, impose an administrative reform package that will introduce a trigger for reducing public employees’ salaries, and a tax reform that simplifies collection without increasing the tax burdens.
(e) A tendency towards the “naturalization” of the pandemic among Bolsonaro’s social base. Various polls identify a strong correlation between those who claim not to be afraid of the pandemic and those who support the government.
(f) Lastly, the inability of the left to strengthen itself through mobilizing the masses in the streets given the pandemic, despite the fact that there have been some defensive struggles such as the pathbreaking strikes by app delivery workers for better working conditions, against layoffs at Renault in Curitiba, in defense of railway workers’ rights in São Paulo, and resistance against the return to the classroom by teachers and students.
The pandemic continues
In general, Bolsonaro has more support among men than women, the old than the young, the least educated than more educated, and more support in the south than the northeast. Yet, among all the factors that have influenced the reversal of Bolsonaro’s downward trend, the one that has received the least attention is the trivialization of the pandemic, especially among those who support him, at least a third of the population.
The trivialization of the pandemic translates, broadly, into a tendency to absolve the government of responsibility for the health calamity, one which rests on many factors: (a) in Brazil, a third of the population over the age of fifteen (concentrated among those who are over fifty years old) are illiterate, or semi-literate, meaning they cannot make sense of a written text; in this sector, there is a lot of confusion about what the disease is and a distrust of scientific data; (b) there is a feeling that Covid-19 is only deadly for the old and the sick; (c) the victims themselves are held responsible, because they were not able to take care of themselves; (d) there is pressure to reactivate economic activity, which is much more intense among entrepreneurs in small businesses and informal workers; (e) there is great fatigue caused by quarantine after five months and great anxiety for the return to normal routine; (e) and there is a feeling that the height of the pandemic has passed and that the risks are acceptable.
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These and other factors – such as growing depression, apathy, indifference, and insensitivity in some sectors of the population in the face of a human tragedy as devastating as the pandemic – have provoked strong reactions. But why this specific reaction? The trivialization of death is not normal in general. But the truth is that this brutalization of life is not surprising in Brazil. It is, after all, a social and political custom. It rests on the dehumanization of the poorest, on Afro-Brazilians, and on the helpless, and has deep roots that distinguish Brazil from other countries, namely, slavery and social and racial inequality. Therefore, it rests on an ideology. This vision of the world undergirds the trivialization of the pandemic.
The economy is deteriorating
When the pandemic arrived in Brazil, most of the left, the moderate and the radical alike, prepared for the unprecedented challenge of creating health and harm-reduction strategies on the scale necessary to contain an accelerated deterioration.
Less than half of the economically active population have employment contracts, just over thirty million in the private sector and twelve million in the public sector. Another 40 million would not survive without state support. Furthermore, the construction of a rigorous quarantine was not possible because, among other reasons, the majority of the bourgeoisie was against it.
Initially, many believed that the combination of a humanitarian calamity and an economic crisis would leave the Bolsonaro government in fragile position. The hundreds of thousands of deaths, the tens of millions of unemployed, and the acute social crisis would generate and accelerated erosion of his support and, therefore, represent an opportunity. This expectation was confirmed during the pandemic’s first four months.
But the approval of an emergency budget– which authorized spending more than 10 percent of GDP, of which R$250 billion were directed to pandemic assistance, and raised the gross public debt from 75 percent to 90 percent of GDP – had a significant impact. At the same time, the deep recession lowered inflation forecasts below previous targets and the Central Bank reduced the base interest rate to 2 percent per annum, the lowest in history.
Thus, by August, conditions shifted and Bolsonaro recovered. There are good reasons to think this may be a temporary or transitory oscillation. There are trends and counter trends. Some factors push in one direction and others partially neutralize them. The truth is that uncertainty prevails.
Bolsonoro grows stronger
Emergency assistance, the adjustment of the government’s attitude with respect to state institutions, and the military serving as a rearguard, in addition to the government’s economic plans (the 2021 budget, administrative reform, tax reform, the cap on public spending and privatizations) helped improve Bolsonaro’s image. However, the left remains the strongest force among workers in the formal sector, the “celetistas” in the private sector (that is, those whose rights are enumerated by the CLT – the 1942 Consolidation of Labor Laws),civil servants, and the youth. The majority of women and black Brazilians oppose Bolsonaro. But popular confidence in the strength of the mobilizing remains low. We have been in a reactionary situation for the last five years and the political turn since August is unfavorable.
The neo-fascist current is the majority among businessmen, although there are divisions and internal differences, and it still has the majority among the middle layers, despite some wear and tear. Worse, the far right is making advances among informal workers, those who do not enjoy employment contracts. The government has also expanded its support among the military by placing more than 5,000 officers in government posts, in addition to having enormous influence among all police forces (national, state and municipal).
The paradox is that people’s experience with thefar-right government, despite accumulating, is doing so at a slow pace. This slowness should not be exaggerated, but it is a real factor. It is useful to remember Spinoza’s maxim: neither laugh, nor weep, but understand. The current development is not a mystery. The objective and subjective factors that explain these fluctuations are numerous and well known: the impact of the injection of R$250 billion in emergency assistance, the subsequent increase in consumption, a fatalistic adaptation to the long duration of the pandemic, the partial reactivation of economic activity, and the isolation of the left on social media, etc.
But the maintenance of emergency assistance will not be sustainable in 2021. And the end of assistance may lead to an increase in social unrest. The social psychology of the popular masses will react negatively to the loss of these established rights and expectations. Bolsonaro supported an increase in Bolsa Família, a targeted income transfer program implemented during the Lula government, recently renamed Renda Brasil (public income), which distributes between R$200 (or US$40) to 13 million families and R$300 to 20 million more.
The majority of the ruling class has already positioned itself against the extension of Renda Brasil during the coming year because it violates the law freezing public spending. This law is a Brazilian extravaganza, almost unique in the world, and was approved during the 2016-2018 mandate of conservative President Michel Temer. It mandates a reduction in public spending according to the GDP and pegs public spending to changes in inflation.
The resistance continues, despite the reactionary situation
Over the last two months, we have witnessed somecourageous defensive struggles. The strike at the Renault factory in Curitibia against 700 layoffs achieved a heroic victory. There was also the strike of railway workers in San Pablo against the loss of their rights on the job. In each case, the judiciary found in favor of the workers. And a national postal workers strike challenged the suspension of their labor contract.
In July, app delivery workers organized days of action in many large cities. The revolt of teachers and students against the return to classes in different states and in defense of the Fund for the Development of Basic Education and Appreciation of the Teaching Profession (FUNDEB) were equally successful. The feminist movement’s protests in defense of abortion rights had a big impact. And the influence of Black Lives Matterhas been important in the country that has more black inhabitants than any country outside of Africa.
Simultaneously, at the initiative of the Brazilian Popular Front and the Fearless People’s Front, two campaigns are being built: (a) solidarity with the most vulnerable of the popular masses during the pandemic, including the distribution of food and basic necessities; (b) days of struggle under the slogan Bolsonaro Out, which include street actions in accordance with social distancing and public health precautions to avoid contagion, accompanied by activities on social networks.
A slow and on-going process of reorganization on the left
The central issue here is that different projects are contending with one another in relation to the reorganization of the left. The strategic challenge we face is how to open a path to defeating Bolsonaro. But this task poses tactical dilemmas.
On the one hand, the left must fight for the leadership of the opposition to Bolsonaro against the conservative and liberal opposition, which could be expressed through the presidential candidacy of right-wing prosecutor Sérgio Moro or the conservative governor of São Paulo, João Dória. On the other hand, there is an argument among the left-wing parties.
This inter-party struggle is explained by the fact that each has a different political project, although the differences are still little understood among the public. And there are different projects because the left parties’ programs are different. At the risk of oversimplification, let’s examine the political projects of the majority of the PT, that of PSOL, and that of the PCdB (the Communist Party of Brazil). Last but not least, we must take into account the role played by Lula, the sphinx.
Lula’s second habeas corpus appeal to the Supreme Court should take place in the next ninety days. In principle, there are two possible outcomes. Either Lula loses his appeal, and cannot be a candidate in the 2022 presidential elections, or Lula regains his political rights and, if he so wanted, could declare himself a candidate in the party primaries. If Bolsonaro were to survive until then, and Lula is allowed to run, then we could expect them to face each other in the second round.
From a legal point of view, the trial basically consists of an evaluation of Sergio Moro’s procedural actions and his, potentially improper, relationship with the Curitiba prosecutors. But what is at stake politically is Lula’s fate, and this is inseparable from the future of Lava Jato. If Lula wins, Lava Jatowill suffer an irreparable defeat. If Sérgio Moro wins, Lula will be politically neutralized.
The project of the majority of the PT is, basically, articulated by the PT governors, the majority of PT senators, and a large part of the trade union and party electoral apparatus in the face of a permanent internal struggle with their left wing. They defend the tactic of the Broad Front to unite the opposition against Bolsonaro, which is why they supported the election of the right-wing Rodrigo Maia for the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies. They prefer any test of strength with Bolsonaro be confined to the 2022 elections; if it turns out that Lula cannot be a candidate, which is the most likely hypothesis, they will support Fernando Haddad, who ran in 2018. They are inspired by the Peronist victory and return to power in Argentina, because they defend a program to boost economic growth and the extension of compensatory public policies. They want to follow the same path they took in 2018 for a second time.
The project of the left wing of the PT – which maintains a dialogue with Landless Workers Movement (MST) and social movement umbrella coalition Consulta Popular, and which has influence over almost a third of the party – is different. It insistently defends the PT’s independence and is betting everything on Lula’s ability to reinvent himself through the Bolsonaro Out campaign where he can take a leading role in social mobilizations. The left wing of the PT is participating in the fight against Bolsonaro, it is not waiting until 2022 and even promotes a perspective of overthrowing him. It defends the centrality of organizing a Left Front as an opposition tactic, and looks to the Chavista experience in Venezuela favorably, which combines electoral campaigns with popular participation.
With respect to PSOL, the party’s project is to serve as an instrument in the anti-capitalist struggle in order to build, under the conditions dictated by the reactionary balance of forces, a Left Front capable of resisting the government. This strategy seeks build through defensive struggles to defeat Bolsonarism’s neo-fascist current, relying on direct action from the masses. PSOL does not fight for power solely for PSOL, rather it fights for a government of the left, that is, a government of the workers and the oppressed that goes beyond the limits set by the current regime of domination and presidentialist coalitions, a government that relies on popular mobilization and organization. PSOL aims to go beyond the limits of the experiences of the PT governments and their commitment to dialogue with the ruling classes, governments that were in power for more than thirteen years and which, finally, led to the working-class defeats that have accumulated since 2016.
The wager that unites PSOL’s internally diverse currents is the awareness that without a revolutionary attitude it is not possible to win social rights in Brazil. Although it is very difficult to reach the second round in Brazilian elections, for the first time PSOL could surpass the PT in municipal elections in the decisive centers of the country with Guilherme Boulos running in São Paulo, Áurea Carolina in Belo Horizonte, and Renata Sousa in Rio de Janeiro.
Finally, the PCdB’s project is presented by Flávio Dino, governor of the state of Maranhão, and shows a commitment to a “very broad” Broad Front, trying to minimize the damage during Bolsonaro’s mandate and blocking any self-coup attempts in order to guarantee Bolsonaro’s defeat in 2022. This, argues the PCdB, will only be possible with a center-left candidacy, such as that of Ciro Gomes of the Democratic Labor Party (PDB), that of Flávio Dino himself, or another similar figure. This Front could even assume the organic form of a new legal party, defined metaphorically as a “left-wing MDB,” (Brazil’s main center-right party) that could unite sectors of the PT dissatisfied with the insistence on Haddad’s candidacy, sectors of the PSB (the centrist Brazilian Socialist Party), the PDT, perhaps the REDE (the Brazilian Sustainability Network), and possibly others, in addition to PCdB itself.
But all of this is very complex because the parties are not homogeneous. Within PSOL, for example, there are those who maintain a discourse similar to that of the hard-left Unified Socialist Workers Party (PSTU), but there are also those who are not very far from what the PT left defends, and there are even those who flirt with the PCdB’s point of view. Likewise, there is a great deal of diversity within the PT: in addition to its majority, there is its left wing, those who support the PSOL, and those who prefer the PCdB. And in the PCdB, there is a majority position, but there are also those who are willing to consider the hypothesis defended by the left of the PT.
Everything is uncertain, nothing is simple, and the stakes are high. Just as strategic clarity is needed, so is tactical intelligence. And a little luck is always welcome.
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