Far-right president Jair Bolsonaro’s fanatical pandemic denialism has pushed Brazil to the top ranks of the Covid-19 per capita death toll, including 467,000 confirmed deaths. All the while, he has toyed with plans for a “self-coup” that might drive the country back towards the dark days of military dictatorship. Constrained by the public health emergency, Brazil’s vibrant working-class and social left has been unable to confront their common enemies in the streets. Two major events have shifted the balance. First, the Brazilian Supreme Court recently annulled guilty findings that would have barred former president of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Workers Party leader from running against Bolsonaro in 2022. And just last weekend, tens of thousands took to the streets to demand Bolsonaro’s ouster, Fora Bolsonaro, in the largest show of force since the pandemic began. Here, Valerio Arcary, 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 in Brazil, explains how crisis and the class struggle are shaping the Brazilian politics. This article was originally published in Jacobin América Latina.
There are three different evaluations of the Brazilian Supreme Court’s decision (STF) to annul the judgments against Lula. The question is of prime importance because it is central to one’s interpretation of the current political juncture. Lula leads all available opinion polls and, if current conditions hold—which is, of course, impossible to predict—Lula will face off in the second round of the presidential elections against Bolsonaro.
It is impossible to predict because no one knows what conditions will prevail by the middle of 2022. How will the Parliamentary Investigating Commission’s (CPI) report turn out? How will Bolsonaro’s governments evolve and, perhaps, what will become of him? What will the state of the Covid-19 pandemic internationally? What will be happening in the economy? What will the rate of inflation be? What changes will there be to the median salary? What will the social impact of the privatizations state-owned enterprises be. such as Electrobras, Correios, Cedae/RJ (slated for the second half of 2021), if they are not held up? And most important of all, what will be the relation of social and political forces by the time of the elections?
These and many other variables which are today unforeseeable because “shit happens,” call for maximum prudence. However, they do not diminish the necessity of drawing lessons from the Free Lula campaign because it was, after all, the most important democratic victory of the last five years and whoever downplays its significance is entirely wrong to do so.
The first assessment of the STF’s ruling is both naïve and circular: we won because the cause was just and justice was served. Yet many just causes are not recognized by the justice system. We should neither have big illusions nor place great expectations on the justices. Remember that the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff was backed by the SFT. Political trials are based on political interests, that is, the struggle for power.
This first interpretation, therefore, ascribes the STF’s finding of procedural infraction in the ruling by the Curitiba Tribunal, and the suspicion of partisanship on behalf of prosecutor Sergio Moro, to the strength of the national and international campaign for Lula’s freedom and political liberties. It emphasizes the talents of Lula’s defense team and their legal strategy, the unity achieved by the majority of the left in organizing mass meetings and, above all, in the vigil sustained in front of Federal Police headquarters. And it credits the untiring activity of legal experts organized in the Association of Democratic Jurists of Brazil (ABJD), the support of well-known popular artists and their global cultural influence, and the solitary of the most left-wing elements of the Catholic Church (who opened doors to the Vatican) as well as other denominations, with the victory.
This point of view can also point to the fortitude of the National Committee to Free Lula and its reach into many cities, the regularity of its informational bulletins, the quality of its agitation and propaganda materials, the organizations of large festivals and street actions, and to Lula’s own fearless commitment to the cause. There are, of course, many kernels of truth to be found in this evaluation. But in its most extreme version, it dispenses with an understanding of the division between hostile social forces, including forgetting that some of these are enemies, and rests upon an illusive vision of voluntarism.
The second interpretation is propagated by one section of the ruling class who came out in defense of Lula’s freedom in response to the new political situation precipitated by intertwined public health, economic, and social crises of the last year rooted in Bolsonaro’s disastrous extreme right-wing government. Bolsonaro’s isolation ended up favoring Lula. Bourgeois pressure on the STF arose as a preventative response to worry over the danger of a social explosion and the need to rely on Lula and the Workers Party (PT) to preserve institutional stability in case Bolsonaro were impeached.
Meanwhile, among the most sectarian currents, dangerous are flourishing; they are curiously contradictory when not downright paranoid. Some suggest that the most powerful fraction of the bourgeoisie pushed for Bolsonaro’s freedom in order to weaken Bolsonaro. Others contend that Lula had an interest in maintaining the president in power because Lula would lose support in the run up to the 2022 elections if Bolsonaro were deposed. No doubt, even here, we can find small bits of truth, but not more than that. At its most extreme, this version flirts with conspiracy theories.
The third interpretation is more complex. The campaign to free Lula began under very adverse circumstances. When Lula was detained in April 2018, it was impossible to predict that he would be freed in November 2019, much less that his civil and political liberties would be restored in March 2021. The change came very quickly. Other similar campaigns, for instance, the struggle to free Nelson Mandela, were incomparably longer and more difficult. Processes such as these can only be understood by taking into consideration a multiplicity of factors.
Clearly, it’s informative to begin by underlining the effect of the left’s united campaign for his freedom. This campaign provides an inspiring lesson for confronting future dangers. In the hour of defeat, it is essential to be able to keep one’s head held high. Nothing can make up for determination and dignity. History will judge those left-wing currents and groups who refused to defend the Free Lula campaign harshly.
Without the Landless Workers Movement’s (MST) relentless efforts to build the campaign, everything would have been much more difficult. Without the wager placed by the PT that Lula’s influence would give the campaign a mass audience, it would not have been possible. Yet, the unity of Brazils main left-wing parties, the PT, the Party for Socialism and Freedom (PSOL), and the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdB) was also critical. This was never just a struggle by the PT. The fight for Lula’s freedom thankfully involved, to a greater or lesser extent, the vast majority of the Brazilian left.
However, it would ingenuous to ascribe the STF’s decision to the strength of the campaign alone. After all, it was no possible to organize massive Free Lula actions. All of the mobilizations were, more or less, mobilizations of the vanguard. If we are honest, the campaign’s events attended by the activists. That is to say, they united the most conscious and ideologically politicized organizers, especially the “hardcore” and the “old guard” of the Brazilian left from the 1980s and 1990s.
Other factors weighed on the STF’s ruling. From the beginning, Lula’s trial was a political trial, closely tied to institutional coup that forced Dilma Rousseff out of the presidency. This was the Achille’s Heel of the operation that ended in Lula’s arrest: no important section of the bourgeoisie opposed the coup. Similar coups took place in recent years in Honduras and Paraguay. The coup against Rousseff opened Bolsonaro’s path to the presidency.
Political persecution masquerading as judicial proceeding was a dangerous tactic because it created a precedent for and legitimized a new kind of lawfare. Sergio Moro’s brazen acceptance of the post of Minister of Justice in neofascist Bolsonaro’s extreme right government provoked disturbances within mainstream political circles, especially in the international arena.
A division within the Brazilian judicial system between the so-called “rights advocates” (garantistas) and “car washers” (lavajatistas—so named after the Lava Jato anti-corruption campaign led by Moro) played out through the entire process. The model of constructing charges with the aim of forcing one group of defendants to accept plea bargains based on no more proof than the testimony of a different group of defendants looking for amnesty deals touched off a scandal.
Everything accelerated in proportion with Lava Jato’s manipulations being unmasked by the publication in The Intercept of messages exchanged between Sergio Moro and the prosecutors, later confirmed in the archives of Operation Spoofing. When the Centrão (a group of centrist parties) ceased merely providing Bolsonaro with a parliamentary base and entered directly into his government, conflicts of Lava Jato began to be expressed within Bolsonaro’s cabinet itself. Indeed, there are more than a few Centrão elected officials—including those from the Movement for Democracy (MDP), the Democrats, and even the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), no less than former 2014 presidential candidate Aécio Neves—who are themselves targets of Lava Jato investigations. Many of these parties were the historical representatives of the bourgeoisie at the end of the military dictatorship.
No less important was the slow-moving change in the political situation brought on by the pandemic’s public health bloodbath. Bolsonaro’s narrow-minded denialism in the face of the contagion’s massive human tragedy and the collapse of the national United Health System (SUS), his disregard of the urgent need to purchase vaccines, his defense of imaginary medicines, and the constant threat of a “self-coup” (in which he would disband parliament) all served to undermine him politically as well as socially. Finally, Trump’s defeat altered the Bolsonaro government’s global standing qualitatively.
Although Bolsonaro has retained majority support among the “mass of the bourgeoisie,” if we consider the totality of the six million business owners, the scale of the disaster underway has produced fissures with even the hard nucleus of the dominant class. No sector of this class supports impeaching Bolsonaro, but the Manifesto of 500 signaled a yellow alert. The bulk of the big bourgeoisie, a few thousands multimillionaires, continues to bet on the preservation of the democratic-electoral regime. However, Bolsonaro’s Bonapartist threats have fractured it; after all, a liberal-democratic regime is not possible without a left that can operate legally.
We won Lula’s freedom because we fought, but also because our enemies were divided. The class struggle is never in vain.