By André Ferrari, LSR (CWI in Brazil)
Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil is a country that is going backwards in all respects. Seven months after his inauguration, what we see is poverty, unemployment, the withdrawal of social rights, attacks on democratic freedoms, authoritarianism, submission to imperialism and a permanent offensive against workers, women, Indigenous people, LGBTQ+ people, and black people. That is, against the vast majority of the people.
This far-right government represents the cruelest face of an economic and political system in deep crisis. With Bolsonaro, most of the illusions about a “moderate” way out and in conciliation between the classes that were promoted in previous years under the governments of the PT (Workers’ Party, led by Lula) have fallen by the wayside.
Bolsonaro serves a ruling class that tolerates and even stimulates abuses and authoritarianism as long as they serve to implement social counter-reforms that guarantee the profits and privileges of banks, big companies and agribusiness.
Resistance to this enormous setback began earlier and with more force than many, including some on the left, expected. It has not yet been enough to defeat Bolsonaro’s attacks, but it is only just beginning.
It is necessary that the working class, the social movements, and the left draw lessons from their defeats and experiences of struggle and go forward in the fight against this government, this economic and political system and the barbarism they represent.
A Country in Deep Crisis
The scenario of severe political turbulence in Brazil bases itself on an economy in deep crisis and without prospects of improvement, associated with a worsening of the country’s structural social problems.
Since 2014, Brazil has not seen significant economic growth. It remained stagnant in 2014 (0.5% GDP growth), went through two years of recession with declines in 2015 (-3.55%) and 2016 (-3.31%) and had negligible growth in 2017 (1.06%) and 2018 (1.12%). The country has not yet recovered from one of the worst recessions in its history and is on the verge of a new recession. Growth expectations for 2019 are all below 1% and tend to get worse.
Unemployment is officially 12%, reaching 12.8 million workers. The total under-utilization of the labor force reaches 28.4 million workers, in addition to 4.9 million in a situation of inactivity (who gave up looking for work).
Informal work has grown, reversing a previous trend, and the average income of workers has fallen systematically along with a growing precariousness and worsening of working conditions.
About 22.7% of Brazilian homes do not have any income from work, and there are today about 11 million young people who neither work nor study.
A sign of worsening living conditions is the situation in large cities like São Paulo. Official data from 2019 points to the existence of 32,600 homeless people in the city. Although this official figure underestimates the reality, it already represents double the figure calculated in 2015.
This real social time bomb is behind the enormous instability and political volatility in the country. The neoliberal counter-reforms on Bolsonaro’s agenda will aggravate the situation. The imminence of a new global recession could have a devastating effect on the Brazilian economy with enormous social and political repercussions. The working class must organize itself for this scenario of intense resistance and struggle.
Cuts in Education and the Pension Counter-Reform
Resistance against Bolsonaro happens on multiple fronts, but in these first seven months of government, the largest mobilizations have taken place against the cuts in education and to stop the counter-reform of the pension system proposed by the government.
On May 15, more than one million students and education workers paralyzed their schools and universities and took to the streets throughout the country against the cuts announced by the minister of education and his aggressive extreme-right rhetoric.
At first, as an act of evident political persecution, the minister announced cuts only in universities considered “leftist” and marked by the “turmoil” of activism. He then announced the generalization of the cuts, justifying this with an obscurantist discourse.
The response was given en masse in the streets. For the first time since the beginning of the government, the mobilizations went beyond the already “oppositional” layers in society and reached part of the social base conquered by Bolsonaro in the last period.
The government responded with an attempt to counter-attack on the streets. It called for demonstrations to show strength and also to test the mood and conditions for the possible adoption of more authoritarian measures.
The right-wing demonstrations took place on May 26, bringing together several hundred thousand, mainly middle-class men from the southern and southeastern state capitals of the country. They showed that the government maintains a considerable social base capable of being mobilized to some extent. But it has also showed that there is a division within the right and that there is a relationship of forces that does not allow for Bolsonaro to embark on a more Bonapartist adventure, at least not at that moment.
The workers’ and youth movements responded with new demonstrations on June 30 and the confirmation of the call for a general strike on June 14, this time with greater focus on the struggle against the pension counter-reform.
On the eve of the general strike, the pension counter-reform project presented by the Minister of Economy, Paulo Guedes, an ultra-neoliberal “Chicago boy,” was modified by the Special Commission formed on the subject in the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house).
Some of the worst attacks were removed from the bill. Among them was the proposal for a complete change in the social security regime, from the system of partition (solidarity between generations) to the system of capitalization (totally individualized), along the lines of the Chilean model implemented by Pinochet’s dictatorship, which still today represents a real social disaster.
On June 14, many important sectors of the working class paralyzed production and the circulation of goods and services. There were significant street demonstrations. But the strike was smaller in terms of scale and impact than the general strike that had managed to stop the counter-reform of social security in 2017 under the government of Michel Temer.
Important sectors, such as public transport, for example, had lower participation. There was strong repression and intimidation by the Judiciary towards the unions in relation to the so-called “essential sectors,” with unions threatened with million dollar fines and other retaliations in the case of a strike.
But the fundamental problem was the lack of confidence of most workers in a concrete alternative. The discourse that without this counter-reform there would be chaos – Brazil would become a Venezuela! – found an echo even among sectors of the opposition to Bolsonaro in Congress.
Some congress members and center-left parties opted for a more “negotiating” approach, accepting the need for a counter-reform, but seeking to mitigate it. Part of the trade union federations, many of them ultra-bureaucratic and right-wing, played the same game.
The result was a defeat for the workers. The bill was approved in the first round in the Chamber of Deputies with a few more changes that mitigate the attacks, but do not change the fact that it is the harshest counter-reform of the pension system that has been adopted since the 1988 Constitution. It is harsher than that of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (the right-wing PSDB President) in 1998 or that of Lula (PT) in 2003.
Even with the changes made, the counter-reform will drastically reduce the value of pensions and condemn an increasing portion of the population to receive the lowest level of pensions. For workers with more stable employment, reducing the value of pensions will, in practice, stimulate the search for a private supplementary pension which will open up a large market for banks and private pension funds.
The bill will still have to be voted through in the second round in the House and then in the Senate. But the scenario now to stop it is much more difficult than during the previous period. Union actions for the right to retirement are being called for August, but the trade union centers are no longer talking about a new general strike.
Contradictions Among the Right-Wing
The approval of the pension counter-reform in the first round of voting showed a great unity of the bourgeoisie and its political representatives around the neoliberal counter-reforms, starting with social security.
At the same time, it is not secondary that this has happened amid serious contradictions and divisions between traditional right-wing politicians and the new Bolsonarist extreme-right. To a certain extent, this conflict also occurs between the institutions and powers of the republic.
The great protagonist of the approval of the pensions counter-reform was the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Rodrigo Maia, from a traditional right-wing party (Democrats) composed of faithful servants of the landowners, bankers and big corporations.
Many times, Maia acted in open conflict with Bolsonaro and the executive power. Previously insulted as the representative of the “old politics” and attacked by right-wing demonstrators on May 26, Rodrigo Maia adopted for Congress a much more autonomous dynamic than is normal in the Brazilian presidential system.
All the old and traditional methods of buying votes from deputies, distributing resources for parliamentarians for them to use in their electoral bases, etc. were used to approve the counter-reform of social security.
Aiming at his electoral base dissatisfied with traditional politics, Bolsonaro tried to appear distant from this practice, although he was responsible for it. He also tried to avoid further erosion in support with sectors of his social base harmed by the counter-reform. The military, for example, will not be affected by the approved counter-reform and the police have been promised mitigating measures.
The semi-autonomy of the legislative power concerning the executive power’s agenda could pose problems for Bolsonaro in future votes on other issues. Some sectors of the center-left opposition are betting on this path as a way to contain Bolsonaro. It was with this in mind, for example, that parties such as the PCdoB (Communist Party of Brazil) or the PDT (Democratic Labor Party) supported Rodrigo Maia in his election to the presidency of the Chamber at the beginning of the year.
But Rodrigo Maia’s program is the same extreme neoliberal program of the Brazilian bourgeoisie. They only disagree over how they will approve these projects. Maia defends the traditional methods of vote-buying, bribery and misleading negotiations and understands that Bolsonaro’s truculent and “populist” method will only lead to the defeats of the project they both defend.
The only way for the workers to exploit potential divisions among the ruling elites is to deepen the struggle and pressure from below. Without this, the elites will always come to an agreement against the majority of the population.
“Car Wash Operation” Crisis
Another fundamental political issue that directly affects the Bolsonaro government is the crisis involving the current “super-Minister” of Justice and public security, the former judge, Sergio Moro.
Recently, messages exchanged between the then judge Sergio Moro and the prosecutors of the so-called “Car Wash Operation” (Lava Jato), a mega operation to investigate corruption cases involving Petrobras, the Brazilian oil giant. and the PT governments, were leaked
The leaked messages are being published through The Intercept Brazil, directed by journalist Glenn Greenwald, the same protagonist as in the Edward Snowden case. They confirm the existence of explicit collusion between the prosecutors and the judge, with the clear aim of convicting and arresting the former president Lula (PT) and interfering with the political and electoral scenario in the country.
Bolsonaro’s election victory was only possible in large part because Lula was prevented from taking part in the elections. The “Car Wash Operation” also played a central role in building a favorable mood for the institutional coup that overthrew former President, Dilma Rousseff, (PT) in 2016, through a completely irregular impeachment process.
As a reward for his services, Sergio Moro was appointed a super-Minister by Bolsonaro with great powers. He took responsibility for two fundamental issues linked to the rise of the extreme right in Brazil, the fight against corruption and public safety. Sergio Moro also had much higher ambitions, such as an appointment to the Supreme Court or even a presidential candidacy. But the situation is now much more complicated. The messages exchanged between Moro and the prosecutors leave no room for doubt. Sergio Moro and the prosecutors committed crimes and acted illegally, affecting the whole judicial process that led to Lula’s arrest.
In the normal situation of a bourgeois-democratic regime, he would have at least lost his position as a minister, would have had to answer judicially for his crimes, and Lula would have been freed because of the irregularities of the process. In a true democracy, even in the liberal-bourgeois way, the electoral results of 2018 would also be compromised.
But Brazil is not in a normal situation of a democratic regime, not even that limited bourgeois democracy that it has experienced since the end of the military dictatorship and the 1988 Constitution. In this context, Sergio Moro and Jair Bolsonaro are opting to deepen the elements of a “state of exception” existing Brazil today, and the Bonapartist and authoritarian character of this government.
As acting minister of Justice, Sergio Moro prevents any investigation into the crimes he and the prosecutors have committed and directs the investigations of the federal police, under his command, to pursue the origin of the leaks and the alleged involvement of journalists in the crime of hacking the authorities.
Recently, the federal police dismantled a group of young people, supposedly hackers, who had infiltrated the mobile phones of public authorities. Moro immediately linked the case to leaks from “Car Wash Operation” messages and made a connection with public figures of the Brazilian left, such as Manuela D’Ávila (PCdoB), Vice-Presidential candidate in the Fernando Haddad (PT) Presidential campaign, who competed with Bolsonaro in the second round of the elections last year.
To build an environment of threats and intimidation, Moro also issued an ordinance that provides for the summary deportation of foreigners considered “dangerous people or those who have committed acts contrary to the principles and objectives set out in the Constitution.” Glenn Greenwald is an American citizen although he lives in Brazil and is married to David Miranda, a PSOL Congressman.
Given this scenario, the Federal Supreme Court, which should have already decided on a habeas corpus in Lula’s case, decided to postpone the decision for the next few months. Even with many Supreme Court members questioning the attitudes of Moro and Bolsonaro, a final decision against Moro, that would result in Lula’s release, would imply a level of political independence and autonomy that the supreme court does not have in Brazil. The complicity of the Court in the 2016 institutional coup is a clear demonstration of that.
Sergio Moro still leans on a reactionary social base of middle-class people, in addition to some confused popular sectors, using rhetoric against corruption and criminality, issues that Bolsonaro explicitly links to the left, with an “anti-communist” discourse typical of the cold war.
For these sectors of society, it does not matter if Moro acted illegally in the “Car Wash Operation.” What matters is that he was able to arrest Lula and his “gang of corrupt leftists.” This is the same reasoning that justifies the extermination of black youth in the peripheries of the large Brazilian cities by police and para-legal forces. It is in practice the adoption of a systematic death penalty without trial or right to a defense.
On this issue, Sergio Moro wants to guarantee the legality of extermination. As minister of justice and public security, he is the author of a proposal for a bill supposedly against criminality that, among other things, offers the Brazilian military police (which is already one of the worst killers in the world) a real license to kill without fear of subsequent legal proceedings.
At the same time as the government is sustaining Sergio Moro’s illegal and illegitimate actions, the President of the Republic has repeated statements in defense of the dictatorship and the role of the military in the torture and murder of political prisoners. In an interview, he attacked the president of the Order of Brazilian Lawyers making pejorative references to his father, Fernando Santa Cruz, a left-wing activist arrested and “disappeared” by the repressive forces of the military dictatorship in 1974.
With Bolsonaro in government, state and para-state violence has grown qualitatively in Brazil. In the countryside, indigenous and rural workers are systematically targeted by an armed offensive promoted by landowners and mining companies. The most recent case involved the murder of an indigenous leader of the Wajãpi people, named Emyra Wajãpi, in the state of Amapá in the Amazon region, by an armed group in the service of mining interests.
Bolsonaro dismissed the case and declared that he intended to legalize the actions of mining companies on Indigenous lands. The struggle in defense of the Amazon and the environmental struggle in general are directly linked to the struggle of Indigenous peoples and peasants for the right to land. The enemy is the same: agribusiness and mineral extraction and their bloodthirsty methods.
In cities today, situations in which the police or the army invade trade union or even academic meetings where resistance to government attacks is discussed are relatively common. The criminalization of social movements is deepening.
In São Paulo, for example, nine leaders of a social movement that fights for housing by occupying uninhabited buildings in the city center were arrested on June 26 with fabricated charges and remain in detention.
Intimidation and repression on the part of the authorities is growing. But among para-state sectors, such as right-wing groups linked to economic interests or organized criminals (such as the so-called militias of Rio de Janeiro), this process is even more serious. There are no public figures from social movements or the left who have not received threats in the last period. These actions find in Bolsonaro a stimulus and a reassurance of protection.
In his first speech after being elected, Bolsonaro said that there would only be two alternatives to the left: prison or exile. The strength of the mass struggle demonstrated so far has partially contained the hard hand of the government. But that threat remains on the horizon.
After the defeat imposed on the mass movement with the approval of the pension counter-reform, the Bolsonaro government took a more offensive stance. Its truculent out-of-government lackeys, militiamen, and protofascist far-right activists took the same stance.
At this moment, the government cannot take its authoritarian, dictatorial or even protofascist vocation to its ultimate consequences. There are contradictions in this respect within the elites themselves and the ruling class. But, above all, there has not been a qualitatively profound defeat of the workers and the oppressed sectors of society.
However, the only guarantee that this authoritarian outcome will not prosper is the mobilization, grassroots organisation and capacity to fight of the workers and oppressed, around a program capable of satisfying social demands and offering an alternative to this system. The working class has enough strength to resist, but it needs an adequate program, strategy, and organisation.
New Counter-Reforms and the Resistance
The first-round approval of the pension counter-reform is the hardest attack to date. If it is confirmed in the votes that still need to be held in the House and Senate, it will have represented a major setback.
From then on, the government and Congress will come with more attacks. A new project for a bill called “for economic freedom,” which in practice revokes basic labor rights, is in progress in the House. This means a radical deepening of the labor counter-reform that the Michel Temer government approved earlier.
The government has an aggressive program of privatizations. It has already begun privatizing important Petrobras subsidiaries (BR Distribuidora and TAG – Transportadora Associada de Gás) and is expected to carry out a mega auction for the concession of oil exploration areas at the pre-salt (continental shelf) level. The government plans to privatize the post offices, electric state company Eletrobrás, state banks and many other companies.
Bolsonaro has also announced further cuts in education and presented an aggressive privatizing project for federal universities, which includes the management of these educational institutions by so-called “social organizations” of a private nature.
The announcement of these policies has once again resonated like a bomb in universities. A new national education strike has been called for August 13 and is expected to be very big.
This mobilization in defense of public education should be seen by the entire trade union, popular, and student movements as an opportunity to unite the different struggles underway and build a new unified movement against government attacks.
Under these conditions, a new one-day general strike, this time with much more organization from below and effective impact, should be called. In this context, even the pensions counter-reform could still be fought despite the progress made by the government in Congress. That should be the position of the leadership of the mass workers’ movement.
Building a Real Left Alternative
Bolsonaro now has the support of only one-third of the population. This is the lowest level of support since the end of the dictatorship for a President after such a short time in office. But the government’s strategy is to base itself exactly on the cohesion and consolidation of this one-third of the population around its reactionary ideas, actions, and rhetoric.
Bolsonaro governs for this sector by raising his main agitational demands used in the electoral campaign: against corruption, against criminality, against the left (in particular the PT) which is identified with the aforementioned problems and with the “old policy.”
The idea that Bolsonaro would gradually become, under the weight of “democratic institutions,” a “normal” bourgeois politician, finds no basis in reality. The government is constantly testing the possibilities of shredding the boundaries of the bourgeois-democratic political system. It is succeeding in maintaining elements of a permanent “state of exception,” even under the appearance of continuity of the political system.
The election of Bolsonaro is the unfolding of the institutional coup of 2016 and of a completely irregular electoral process in 2018, marked by the arbitrary arrest of Lula, by the illegal private financing of a massive bombardment of fake news by social networks, by political violence in the streets, with the institutions of the regime completely subordinated to this process.This scenario causes embarrassment among sectors of the bourgeoisie itself.
The big bourgeois press is beginning to react, and there are many signs of dissatisfaction with the government’s direction. But, for all of them, the fundamental question is the capacity of this government to implement the structural counter-reforms of a neoliberal character that will guarantee the interests of the landlords and speculators.
Bolsonaro will have problems with the ruling class if he fails to deliver what he promised. While he is moving in this direction, we will still hear some complaints and mutterings from some representatives of the elites. But nothing that effectively hinders his path.
Recently, the president of the largest Brazilian bank (Candido Bracher, from Itaú) declared that Bolsonaro’s authoritarian rhetoric does not hinder the approval of the “reforms” and that the economic situation has never been as positive as it is now. At the height of his cynicism, he even celebrated unemployment: “the high level of unemployment allows for growth without any impact on inflation … This makes Brazil’s macroeconomic situation as good as I have ever seen in my career.” These people are not really worried about the authoritarian path of the government.
In the case of Bolsonaro losing any capacity to deliver on what he has promised, the ruling class is already working on other hypotheses and alternatives in the same direction or even worse. They can build a way out of the crisis on the right around the Vice President, the army general, Hamilton Mourão, or alternatives still under construction.
In any case, this would not happen without a worsening of the political crisis with several possible outcomes.
The so-called “democratic” bourgeoisie will not confront Bolsonaro seriously. He can only be barred by those who are directly affected by his policies, the working class as a whole and those sectors of our class who suffer special oppressions, such as women, black people, Indigenous peoples, “quilombolas” (inhabitants of African origin in marginal settlements), and so on.
That is why the democratic demands of the mass movement, which are fundamental at this time, must be directly linked to the struggle in defense of social and labor rights, and to the struggle to improve living conditions.
It is a reactionary illusion to think that, by giving up or making secondary the struggles against neoliberal counter-reforms, we can obtain the support of “democratic” sectors of the bourgeoisie and thus defeat Bolsonaro.
The basic problem is that the functioning of capitalism in this time of structural crisis of the system, particularly in a peripheral and dependent country like Brazil, is increasingly incompatible with democracy, even a limited bourgeois democracy.
For this reason, in building a way out of the serious crisis on the Brazilian left, we cannot look backwards, as the PT and the Lulista camp have done and continue to do, basing themselves only on nostalgia about their governments.
There is no class reconciliation possible in Brazil today and it is reactionary to defend any illusion that one could return to the few exceptional years in which, under the governments of the PT, bankers from the southeast and poor peasants from the northeast region patiently believed that things were gradually improving.
Continuing to opt for class conciliation, seeking the support of progressive bourgeois sectors and on the purely institutional path of elections is the recipe that permeated all the defeats that workers have had in recent years. That happened from the harsh fiscal adjustment policies applied by Dilma Rousseff (PT) in 2015, through the institutional coup of 2016, through the attacks of Temer in 2017, the victory of Bolsonaro in 2018, and to the approval of the pension counter-reform now.
We advocate a broad unity of action around concrete mobilizations against Bolsonaro’s attacks at all levels. We also work for a united front of the workers’ organizations in the struggle to defend their rights, as in the case of the People Without Fear Front that brings together trade union federations, social movements (such as the landless workers’ movement, MTST), student, women’s, black movements, etc.
But politically, it is more than necessary to build an independent and consistent left-wing, socialist alternative capable of overcoming the mistakes and betrayals committed by the leadership of the PT and the political camp of Lulaism. This task must be assumed by the PSOL (Party for Socialism and Liberty) in alliance with other sectors of the socialist left and the more militant social movements and movements of the working class.
This alternative should be the most combative and consequent wing of the united struggle against Bolsonaro. But it must also be forged in this struggle, building itself in the heat of the moment, as an alternative pole to the illusions in the class conciliationism which is still part of the ideology of the PT and the Lulaist camp.
It must, therefore, present a strategy based on the direct struggle of the workers and their allies among the oppressed sectors of society, on grassroots organisation, mass mobilization, strikes and occupations. It must place the electoral dispute at the service of the direct struggle of the workers and raise their political level, in the direction of an anti-capitalist and socialist consciousness. It must, therefore, present a coherent program of an anti-capitalist and socialist character.
An action program of the socialist left must contain the following demands:
- Defeat Bolsonaro and his attacks on social, labor and democratic rights!
- No to the pension counter-reform of Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Maia and the bankers! For the right to retirement for all workers!
- Not to the cuts in education and all public services!
- No to the withdrawal of labor rights – repeal the labor counter-reform of the Temer government and stop the new attacks of Bolsonaro!
- No to privatizations in Petrobrás, Eletrobrás, post offices and other state-owned companies! Re-nationalization of privatized companies, such as Vale and Embraer, under worker’s control!
- Get Sergio Moro out now! Punishment of the judges and prosecutors of “Car Wash Operation” who promoted political persecution in the service of big capital! Immediate freedom for Lula!
- No to Sergio Moro’s security bill against the black and poor people! No to the extermination of black youth in the favelas and peripheries!
- An end to the criminalization of poverty and social struggles! In defense of democratic rights and freedoms! Freedom for the nine leaders of the movement for housing in São Paulo!
- In defense of the rights of women, LGBTs, Indigenous and all sectors directly attacked by the Bolsonaro government! Punishment of the murderers of Indigenous people, women, LGBTQ+, and black people!
- Rebuild the mass struggle against the government’s attacks! Build a great national day of unified struggle on August 13 and prepare a real one-day general strike, organised from below and with mass street demonstrations!
- Build a left-wing political alternative that fights for a workers’ government with an anti-capitalist and socialist program! That program must be defended by an alliance between the PSOL, other sectors of the socialist left and the militant social movements.