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Brazil: Recolonising a continent

Sue Branford examines the past failures and future prospects of the left in Brazil in the face of a concerted US-backed right-wing offensive

May 30, 2016
16 min read

Demonstrators react as they watch a big screen showing a parliamentary session debating the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. Photo: Reuters

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‘There is an operation spreading through Latin America in which coups, once carried out by the military, now occur with a legal facade, through constitutional processes. This happened in Honduras [with the overthrow of Manuel Zelaya in 2009] and in Paraguay [against Fernando Lugo in 2012],’ comments Rui Falcão, president of the PT (Workers’ Party), the party of Dilma Rousseff, the president whose impeachment is currently being sought. Nobel Peace Prize winner Pérez Esquivel, from neighbouring Argentina, is even clearer: ‘What is happening in Brazil is part of a US project for recolonising the continent.’

There seems little doubt that the US is backing the ousting of Dilma, as she is universally called in Brazil. Michel Temer, the vice-president poised to replace the president, is pro-American and is already talking about negotiating a trade deal with the US. President Bush Sr’s plan of creating a vast Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), which was knocked off course by the first PT president, Lula, is back on the table. On the day after the chamber of deputies voted by a two-thirds majority to impeach Dilma, Senator Aloysio Nunes, from the PSDB party (expected to be back in government once Dilma is forced out), visited Washington for unofficial meetings with politicians and high-level US state department officials.

There has also been meddling behind the scenes. There is evidence that two of the new street movements that have been campaigning against Dilma – Movimento Brasil Livre and Os Estudantes pela Liberdade – have been funded by Charles and David Koch, the owners of Koch Industries, the second-largest privately-held company in the US. In one of the many ways Brazil’s right-wing media has been promoting the impeachment, Kim Patroca Kataguiri, an unknown student drop-out who has emerged as one of the leaders of the Movimento Brasil Livre, has become a columnist with one of the country’s leading newspapers, Folha de S. Paulo.

Lost support

Yet US interference does not, by itself, explain what has happened. During its 14 years in government, the PT made some real advances, notably its success in lifting almost 50 million people out of poverty, through its cash transfer programme, Bolsa Familia. However, in recent years the PT has lost support, except in the impoverished northeast. Like people elsewhere, Brazilians have lost faith in the political system. Opinion polls show that today some 60 per cent of the population favour the impeachment of both Dilma and her successor, Michel Temer from the PMDB. Why has the PT, a party elected to power in 2002 with such grassroots enthusiasm, lost contact with its base?

One of the PT’s mistakes was to fail to press for political reform, particularly in the early days when it could have mobilised support from the street. Brazil has carried on with a deficient, unrepresentative system, created by the military back in the 1980s as part of the transition to civilian government. It is a system in which lobbies, particularly those run by the large landowners and big construction companies, are extremely powerful.

Christian Dunker, a lecturer in the Institute of Psychology in the University of São Paulo, told Red Pepper that he believes that the PT, far from attempting reform, let itself to be sucked into the existing political system: ‘The snake eats its own tail. Along with the support of its base among the working class, peasantry, and universities, the PT was elected because of its ethical stance. But realising that it was impossible to achieve the change it wanted, it quickly transformed itself . . . Remaining in power became more important than transforming power, and the need for alliances and concessions took the PT in the worst possible direction.’ (See also Hilary Wainwright on the PT’s adaption to the political system.)

Depths of corruption

Even so, the PT never descended to the depths of corruption, self-interest and exchange of favours of the other parties – a culture so devoid of any kind of moral integrity that a special word (fisiologismo), not found in other languages, had to be invented to describe it. Indeed, the current wish of the opposition politicians to destroy the PT may partly stem from the fact that they never really trusted it. And the people behind the impeachment of President Dilma are the most despicable of them all. It was embarrassing to watch on television on 17 April as corrupt deputy after corrupt deputy solemnly voted to impeach the president for ‘manipulating government finances’, a crime, if it is one, that pales into insignificance compared with the ones they are accused of.

The scene would have been farcical, were it not so serious. Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of the chamber, who presided over the session, has been accused of holding undeclared Swiss bank accounts – and was suspended a few weeks later by the supreme court to be investigated for corruption. No fewer than 299 of the 513 deputies have been accused of crimes, mainly embezzlement. Dilma herself is one of the few politicians for whom no evidence of misusing her office for personal enrichment has been found. But perhaps the most obnoxious spectacle of all was seeing former army lieutenant Jair Bolsonaro dedicate his vote to the late army colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, who was in charge of the army centre where Dilma was tortured when she was a political prisoner.

The failure to carry out political reform is only part of the story; political misjudgement also played a big role. The PT under Lula was always a party of conciliation. This worked while the economy was growing strongly and there was a big enough cake both to improve the lot of the poor and to let the rich get richer. But this policy, long criticised by the left, started to go seriously wrong in 2013 when the economy stalled. Fearful of antagonising the elite, the government cut back social spending but carried on subsidising industry. There were widespread street protests about the government’s failure to improve transport, health and education, particularly at a time when it was spending billions on the World Cup.

Ricardo Musse, a lecturer in sociology in the University of São Paulo, told Red Pepper: ‘The PT saw the protests in June 2013 as destabilising and tried to suppress them. At a crucial moment, it restrained the left, leaving the city space and the avenues available for right-wing militants, well positioned to take advantage of the left’s retreat. So the demonstrations ended up destabilising the government. The government had created a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a war of positions – let me use one of Gramsci’s metaphors – to retreat and leave a vacuum for the adversary is suicide.’

Key role

Tarso Genro, former justice minister during the Lula government and a leading PT thinker, believes that the handful of powerful companies, led by TV Globo, that dominate the mainstream media, have played a key role. The media, he says, ‘glamourised street protests, encouraging thousands of people of people on to the streets – largely people from the upper and middle classes but also some from the working class who were unhappy with the Dilma government . . . They set the agenda for the movements, creating the idea that “the giant had awoken”, managing with this simple and readily understandable message to wipe out from public memory all the social advances achieved by the PT governments.’

Many left-wing activists saw what was going on but were unwilling to spring to the government’s defence, largely because Dilma had refused to take on board their demands. They only mobilised belatedly in October 2014, when it seemed that the PT could lose the presidential election and a neoliberal government be elected. However, if they had expected some recognition of their vital support, they were soon disabused: once re-elected, Dilma swung further to the right, with a series of neoliberal reforms and the promulgation of a dangerous – and entirely unnecessary – anti-terrorism law.

‘Dependent submission’

At first sight, it seems strange that Dilma is being forced out, given that she is acting as a useful, left-of-centre facade behind which the neoliberals can hide. The labour sociologist, Ruy Braga, believes that the explanation lies in the scale of the economic crisis facing Brazil. The economy fell by 3.8 per cent in 2015 and a similar decline is expected this year.

‘Dilma is being forced out because she heads a weak government and is incapable of carrying out the reforms the neoliberals want’, he says. ‘At the moment, we have 48 million workers in the formal sector, with 12 million in the tertiary sector [ie. without a formal contract]. They want to transform the labour market so we have 30, 35 or 40 million workers in the tertiary sector and only a small number, of 10 to 14 million, with contracts. Dilma was not capable of delivering this… because of the resistance of the unions, many of them allies of the government.’

Tarso Genro broadly agrees. He says that international financial capital wants to impose a more elitist and conservative cycle of accumulation and is ‘unwilling to accept the concessions that social democracies have been making to the poor and destitute’.

Once Dilma has been forced out, Genro expects many of the PT’s achievements to be dismantled. In particular, he believes that the new government will target the ‘national champions’ – the huge new companies, similar to South Korea’s chaebols, that were built up with generous government subsidies to compete with the largest US multinationals. Brazil, he says, is to give up its dreams of becoming a regional power and brought back into a position of ‘dependent submission’. Apart from Venezuela, where chavismo has ‘totally failed’ and Argentina, where a neoliberal has been brought to power through legitimate elections, ‘the other democratic reformist governments in South America will either decide to submit or have submission forced upon them’.

Options for the left

So what future awaits the left? It is impossible to predict developments with any accuracy, because new disclosures of debased behaviour by the pro-impeachment politicians are made almost every day, behaviour that scandalises those anti-Dilma conservative forces committed to due process. Although the case against Dilma could collapse, it seems at the time of writing that the impeachment will proceed.

In such a scenario, Dunker believes that ‘Lula will remain a powerful force. Today, in the worst possible scenario, almost 40 per cent of the population says they will vote for him.’ But what does Lula represent today? According to the Brazilian journalist Eliane Brum, ‘Lula is pretending to be the Lula of the past. The old Lula doesn’t exist . . . His discourse has become a farce.’ In other words, he and his party have been so contaminated by their deep involvement in Brazil’s dirty politics that they can no longer convincingly claim to stand for their old ideals.

In any case, will the right allow even a watered-down version of the PT to be re-elected? Musse thinks not: ‘Everything suggests that we will go back to the 1980s, when the PT and the left were not admitted into the country’s decision-making system. The PT overcame this by employing the classic strategy of combining street demonstrations with the electoral route. It seems unlikely that this combination will be permitted again. The full installation of a “state of exception”, already visible in the attempt to impeach the president and criminalise the left, is possible.’

The left has two options, says Musse: ‘There will either be an internal struggle within rotten social democratic parties (as has happened with Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn) or the creation of new political groups (as in the case of Syriza and Podemos). In Brazil developments will obviously depend on the result of the internal struggle within the PT.’

New forces

Gilberto Maringoni, former candidate in the elections for mayor in São Paulo for PSOL (Socialism and Freedom Party), Brazil’s main left-wing alternative to the PT, thinks the first option will not work. He told Red Pepper: ‘I don’t think that the PT can recreate itself as an organising pole for the Brazilian left. It has lost credibility.’ Different, new forces, he says, will have to lead the left.

‘There has been a significant increase in the level of politicisation, both on the right and the left. To discuss politics has become an everyday occurrence in Brazilian society. As a result, we cannot be certain what will happen on the streets. Until a few weeks ago the right seemed to be dominating demonstrations and marches. But since March, the popular movement has re‑emerged, a large group of people who are not affiliated to parties, trade unions or NGOs. Most of them don’t want the impeachment nor are they defending Dilma’s government . . . Is this new mobilisation going to last? I don’t know. But it is an extremely positive phenomenon in these difficult days.’

According to Dunker, new forces have emerged almost unnoticed. ‘Many small libertarian and counter-institutional groups have been under-represented in the so-called discourse of the left. Feminist organisations, artistic collectives and single-issue local groups, such as those seeking to improve urban transport, have emerged outside the control of the government. And those campaigning on ‘moral’ issues, such as abortion and the consumption of light drugs, have also grown.’

Musse says that the traditional left-wing groups – the PT itself, the main pro-government trade union body CUT, the Frente Brasil Popular (a grouping of left-wing parties originally set up in 1989 to support Lula’s first presidential bid) – don’t understand the new forms of protest. ‘They want to control events and strengthen the hierarchy. So they organise demonstrations with silent militants following vans with loudspeakers from which politicians and trade unionists address the crowds.’

Back to the roots

But Júlio Turra Filho, the executive director of CUT, told Red Pepper that CUT and the PT are changing. ‘There is a lot of pressure, inside and out of the PT, for it to recreate its old relations with trade unions and grassroots movements and to regain its old characteristic as a party of struggle, either in a new formation of left-wing forces or in another way.’

He goes on: ‘What is clear is that the policy of class conciliation, initiated by Lula and inherited by Dilma, has led to a cul-de-sac. It is not possible to defend the interests of workers in alliance with national and international capital.’

Tarso Genro believes that a new cycle of struggle ‘from the bottom upwards’ is beginning, with new possibilities for uniting the left. We will see ‘resistance struggles not only against the abolition of rights but also in favour of the restoration of the legitimacy of political power: new presidential elections, new general elections, a plebiscite calling for them, emergency political reforms’. And, unlike Maringoni, he believes the PT will play a key role: ‘The PT, with President Lula at its head, must have sufficient humility both to defend its achievements, which weren’t few, and above all to share the political leadership of the left with other organised sectors and parties’.

Marigoni adds: ‘Michel Temer will form an extremely unstable and weak government, because it is taking power in the midst of the most profound recession of the last 85 years. If it can’t respond to the rapidly deteriorating social crisis, its illegitimacy will become much more obvious. To apply the recessionary policies of the “Bridge to the Future” project [Temer’s plan for government], he will have to take very repressive measures. It’s possible that he initially opts for some one-off measures to increase his legitimacy, such as an increase in payments under Bolsa Familia. But after the elections for mayors in October, he will apply his whole programme, with privatisations and the destruction of labour and social rights, in a much more savage way than Dilma ever attempted. We are heading for turbulent times.’

Dunker too sees the situation as very volatile: ‘There will be a whip behind the new government’s back. Any blunder and its supporters will immediately bring this whip down. It created this situation by promising too much.’

Movements catch fire

The leaders of Brazil’s powerful social movements seem prepared for turbulent days. Guillerme Boulos, from Brazil’s powerful MTST (Homeless Workers’ Movement), says: ‘If they carry out this coup and, even worse, apply this aggressive programme to destroy our social rights, then Brazil will catch fire. There will be strikes, occupations, mobilisation.’

João Pedro Stédile, the main leader of the MST (Landless Workers’ Movement), also believes Temer is in for a tough ride: ‘Brazil is living through a serious crisis – an economic, social, political and environmental crisis. It is part of the crisis in international capitalism. It is affecting the whole of Latin America. No social force is hegemonic. There is all to struggle for. And if Temer pushes ahead with the programme he has promised, we will bring the country to a standstill.’

Júlio Turra, from CUT, is also preparing for battle: ‘I don’t think the right-wing street movements, deliberately created to force the PT out of power, will become important, long term players.’ Instead, he predicts a resurgence of the left: ‘There will be an offensive against our social and labour rights and a wave of privatisations… This will lead to such a reaction from mass movements that their plans can be defeated. See the situation in Argentina where the new president Macri, in power for just a few months, is already facing general strikes.’

The left in South America is being battered to an extent not been seen since the ‘dirty wars’ of the 1970s and 1980s. But since then it has put down deeper roots in society. Even though these have been weakened by attempts by left‑wing governments to negotiate conciliatory ways forward with right wing forces, these roots are still there. It will not be an easy ride for the right-wing offensive.

Sue Branford edits the Latin America Bureau website. Interviews for this article were carried out by Ronaldo Bressane. Thanks to Gonzalo Berrón, Jan Rocha and Transnational Institute.


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