Brazil’s new era of polarisation and mass struggles

Tony Saunois 4 May 2018

Tony Saunois, CWI Secretary, recently visited Brazil to attend a congress of the LSR (CWI Brazil). He discusses the new era of political, social and economic convulsions that Brazil has entered and the need for a socialist alternative.

Brazil has entered a new era of political, social and economic convulsions. The brutal assassination of Marielle Franco, a PSOL (Socialism and Liberty Party) councillor in Rio de Janeiro, was both symbolic of the new convulsive era and the extreme polarisation which has opened up in Brazilian society.

Marielle’s execution, probably by right-wing militias linked to the Military Police (PMs) in Rio, followed her struggles to expose the violence of the PMs against mainly black youth in Rio’s favelas. As a black, lesbian woman, originally from the favelas, she embodied a symbol of struggle. Her execution symbolises the war that has been launched against the Brazilian working class by the ruling class. The right-wing has moved onto the offensive in a series of repressive steps that have not been seen in Brazil at this level since the end of the military dictatorship.

The arrest and imprisonment of Lula, the former President of the country and leader of the workers’ Party (PT), is a further indication of the offensive that has been launched by the Brazilian right-wing neo-liberal sections of the ruling class. This poses new tasks and challenges for the new generation of fighters in Brazil, who are struggling to build a new left socialist alternative.

In the early years of the 21st century, Brazil, like many other Latin American countries, experienced an economic growth based almost entirely on the rise in commodity prices, which lasted from 2003-11. In this period, while the economies grew, the industrial productive component of the economy was increasingly hollowed out.

This development, as the CWI supporters in Brazil warned at the time, would mean that in the event of a new recession the Brazilian economy would enter it in an even weaker position.

In the growth years, the capitalist commentators and politicians got carried away. Expectations were raised amongst the population, as they were promised Brazil was on the thresh hold of joining the “first world”. The ruling class in this era was happy to allow the PT and its leader, Lula, to govern on the basis of class “conciliation”.

They could tolerate some concession being given to the most down trodden and oppressed. Over 29 million people were taken out of poverty into the ‘middle class’, albeit largely based on a credit boom. The “bolsa familia” (family allowance) provided benefits for the lowest paid and low cost apartments were available at favourable rates. Lula, in this period, rode high in the polls.

It was not all one-sided however. Lula and the PT had swung to the right and embraced capitalism. Along with the reform package, attacks were also unleashed on the public sector workers, especially pension reforms, which provoked the expulsion of some PT deputies who voted against it. This paved the way for the formation of PSOL in 2004.

The hopes and expectations of a new era of progress in Brazil were shattered following the consequences of the global economic crash in 2007/8. Although its impact was delayed in Brazil, by 2014 it had plunged into its worst economic recession and downturn for more than 100 years. GDP crashed by 8.6%, between 2014-16. All the reforms came to a spluttering halt and were reversed as unemployment rocketed and millions were thrown back into poverty and destitution. The dramatic rise in homelessness was seen in the shocking increase in street sleepers in central Sao Paulo.

As Lula was barred by the constitution from seeking re-election, his PT successor, Dilma Rouseff, lacked the strong authority and standing that he had built up. The PT had swung dramatically to the right and was riddled with corruption, like all of the capitalist political parties in Brazil.

The ruling class, despite splits and divisions, concluded that they could no long rely on a PT-led government to enact the brutal neo-liberal agenda that they now are demanding in the face of the historic economic collapse which has ravaged the country.

Operation Lava Jato
Operation Lava Jato, (Car Wash) uncovered an unprecedented web of corruption that had spread like a cancer throughout the entire political apparatus and big and medium business. It revealed the totally corrupt and rotten character of modern day capitalism. As the details of the corruption were revealed, the Brazilian press described it as the biggest corruption scandal in Brazilian history. As its tentacles were spread internationally, they then dubbed it the biggest corruption scandal in the world! It centred on Petrobras, the Brazilian oil company which was overpaying contractors of various companies from office construction, drilling rigs, refineries and exploration vessels. Money was then lavished upon politicians of all parties to secure government contracts and pay outs.

The scandal involved companies like Odebrecht, Latin America’s largest construction company. Odebrecht even established a special department to run its corruption schemes (Division of Structured Operations) to buy politicians in Brazil and other Latin American countries. This department shelled out US$800 million in illicit pay offs for more than 100 contracts in more than 15 countries! Rolls Royce is one of the companies under investigation for bribes paid to secure contracts with Petrobras.

An estimated US$2 billion was siphoned off by Petrobras in bribes and secret payments. Another US$3.3 billion was paid out in bribes by Odebrecht. More than 1,000 politicians were on the take from the meat-packing firm, JBS. Sixteen companies were implicated and 50 congressmen were accused of corruption. Four former Presidents are under investigation. All the parties were implicated, to one degree or another.

The PT (Workers’ Party) was supposed to be different. Yet it too became embroiled in the corruption. After winning the election in 2002, Lula was in a minority in the Congress. His Chief of Staff arranged monthly payments to politicians and parties in the congress and Senate to secure a majority (payments made usually by construction companies to secure government contracts).

When this scandal was exposed, the payments stopped and Lula reached out to the PMDB, a capitalist party which is a mishmash of different factions of rural landlords, urban politicians and evangelical church leaders. In 2015, the PT party treasurer was arrested on corruption charges of taking money from Petrobras executives.

The PMDB has been involved in every corruption scandal in Brazil. Michel Temer, the PMDB leader, eventually became vice president under Dilma. His party was given control of the international division of Petrobras and all the funds accrued from it. As the PT and Lula have now discovered, if you sup with the devil expect to pay a heavy price.

The revelations of corruption enraged the mass of the Brazilian population. The dominant sections of the Brazilian ruling class initially accepted Lava Jato as a means of trying to clean up the system. However, as it continued, they feared it has got out of control and has gone far enough and now want to close it down.

The entire political and judicial system was undermined and discredited. Together with the economic crisis, Brazil plunged into its worst political and social crisis since the 1930s.

It is against this back ground that the ruling class eventually, after some hesitation, moved to carry out a parliamentary coup against Lulas’ successor, Dilma Rousseff and impeached her in August 2016. They hypocritically accused her of corruption on extremely flimsy grounds. The parliamentary coup was carried through as the Brazilian capitalist class had decided that her government could not be relied upon to carry out the brutal neo-liberal policies they demanded. They concluded that they need a hard hand at the helm.

Parliamentary coup
The coup was also driven by the self -interests of some of the most corrupt capitalist politicians. Dilma was not willing to move to shut down Lava Jato. The move to oust Dilma was initiated in November 2015 by one of Brazils’ most corrupt politicians, Eduardo Cunha, an ally of Michel Temer of the PMDB. Cunha was one of the targets of the Lava Jato investigations. In secret Swiss bank accounts he had stashed away US$5 million. When the PT refused to protect Cunha against charges against him he hit back. As Chairman of Brazils’ lower house in the congress, he granted impeachment requests against Dilma.

One Senator, Romero Juca, who supported deposing Dilma, was caught on tape outlining the planned coup. Referring to Lavo Jata, he was tapped saying “We’ve got to stop that shit… putting Michel Temer in is the easiest way…” He then continued; “I am talking to the Generals, the military commanders. They are fine with this, they will guarantee it”! This provoked outrage –clear evidence that the military was involved in the plotting of the parliamentary coup – in a country when military rule was only ended in 1985. The increasing involvement of the military has been a tendency since Dilma was deposed and replaced by Temer, although not in the form of an outright military coup.

No evidence has emerged of Dilma’s personal gain from corruption. However, they bribed and bought their way to secure a majority in the Congress and Senate. Dilma was replaced by her former vice president, Michel Temer, from the PMDB, who himself is under investigation for corruption.

This crisis provoked a big debate amongst the Brazilian left over how to respond to this attempted parliamentary coup. While opposing the policies of the Dilma government, comrades from the LSR (the Brazilian section of the CWI), argued it was a mistake to support an attempted parliamentary coup by the right-wing neo-liberals that would bring to power an even more right-wing corrupt regime with an agenda of unleashing even more brutal attacks against the working class. It was necessary to oppose the impeachment by the right-wing and, at the same time, fight against anti-working class policies of Dilma and build a real socialist alternative through PSOL, the trade unions and social movements.

This was broadly the position agreed by the majority of PSOL (Socialism and Liberty Party). Some on the left, like the PSTU, adopted a very sectarian position, arguing in essence that it made no difference if it was a government led by Dilma or a government led by Temer. This isolated groupings, like the PSTU, and cut them off from big layers of workers who had voted for the PT and wanted to fight Temer.

Within weeks of Temer coming to power, the reality of the new government was clear, as it announced a viciously anti-working class programme of privatisation, cuts, attacks on pension rights and new labour laws. It even proposed amending the constitution to include a clause enshrining austerity packages for next 20 years to prevent government deficits.

In important states, such as Rio de Janeiro, public sector workers and teachers have suffered pay cuts, attacks on pensions and in some cases have not been paid for months as the states have run out of money.

These attacks provoked furious opposition throughout the country. In April 2017, the largest general strike ever in Brazil, of 40 million workers, took place against the government. It showed the burning anger which had developed and the willingness to struggle. However, the trade union leadership failed to build on this massive movement, by calling immediately a 48 hour general strike in preparation for a mass movement to bring down the Temer government, as demanded by the LSR.

The failure to act and follow this massive strike with further mass mobilisations gave the right-wing the opportunity to prepare a new offensive. The social and economic collapse has resulted in an upturn in urban violence. In Rio de Janeiro, according to official figures, there are more than 6,700 killings per year. Organised gangs – the most notorious being Comando Vermelho (Red Command) - are run like military units. Often working in collusion with militias, drawn from the Policia Militar, these forces are infamous for their brutality and killings, especially of young poor black Brazilians in the favelas. They effectively control areas of the city. Playing on the fears of many workers, the government launched a campaign on this issue.

As part of adopting a more authoritarian method of rule, the government deployed the National Security Plan for Rio de Janeiro and deployed 8,500 troops to the city, under the pretext of fighting violent crime. The troops were deployed to the poorest favelas in the city where they carried out indiscriminate repression.

Normalising the military
This is part of a conscious attempt by the government and ruling class to “normalise” the use of the military as part of its increasingly authoritarian method of rule. The assassination of Marielle Franco in Rio was part of the repressive atmosphere that is being whipped up by the government. This has allowed local right-wing groups and individuals off the leash. In some cases, this has resulted in the killing of activists and a PT mayor. Reflecting this increasingly repressive regime was the case of comrade Camila Campos, a member of LSR, who stood for PSOL in a council election. She reported a police officer who drove a car at a demonstrator during a protest. Yet because she did not have video evidence of this action she was sent to prison for two days and given a community sentence! Other instances have arisen of group of right-wing, semi-fascistic groups openly attacking individuals in the street who are wearing left-wing or radical T-shirts or badges.

It is against this background that the Supreme Court voted to proceed to prosecute and imprison Lula, to prevent him running in Octobers’ election. The court was divided on this decision. The day before the court decision, Eduardo Villas-Boas, the Commander in Chief of the Army, issued a statement, “rejecting impunity and demanding respect for the constitution…” clearly aimed at pressuring the judges and again bringing the military directly into the political arena.

The repressive offensive by the Temer government and sections of the state apparatus has been a shock for the younger generation. They do not remember the repression dealt out by the far right and military in the past. The killings of MST landless activists in the rural areas appeared somewhat remote to the youth in the cities. Now, reflecting the sharp class polarisation which has opened up, such brutal struggles has returned to the cities. The lessons of the sharpness of past struggles, including the sacrifices and battles waged by previous generations to build the PT and CUT union federation, in the 1970s and 1980s, will need to be relearned.

The authoritarian and neo-liberal offensive by the Temer has provoked discussion on the Brazilian left over whether there is a “conservative wave” sweeping Brazil. The growth in support for Jair Bolsonaro, an extreme right-wing populist and former military officer, who is running second in opinion polls for the presidential election, is one justification for this prognosis.

The threat posed to workers and those exploited by capitalism by these attacks and growth in support for the far right must not be under estimated. They do represent the opening of a new era of in Brazilian society. Yet rather than a “conservative wave” they represent the opening up of a polarisation within society. The attacks by the right-wing and growth of the far right are also accompanied by a rejection of most aspects a neo-liberal programme.

Search for a Brazilian Macron A victory for Bolsonaro is not the preferred option ‘plan A’ of the ruling class. At this stage, they do not have a clear candidate. They are searching for a Brazilian Macron or Macri. Various possible candidates are emerging who hope to play this role, such as, Mariana Silva, a former PT senator who stood for the Green Party in the 2010. The ruling class seems, at this stage, to be putting their hopes on Geraldo Alckmin, a former PSDB mayor of Sao Paulo. Other possible contenders are Joaquim Barbosa, who is currently a member of the pro-capitalist PSB (Brazilian Socialist Party) and former member of the Supreme Court – although at this stage nobody can say for certain what programme he promotes! This uncertainty about who would be the main preferred candidate for the ruling class, only months prior to the election, is an indication of the crisis they currently find themselves in.

In fact, since the social and political crisis developed, there has been a growth in support for more radical left ideas. According to one poll, between 2014-17, those who thought that poverty is linked to lack of opportunity, grew from 58% to 77%. Those who thought poverty was due to an unwillingness to work fell from 37% to 21%. And 76% thought that the state should be the main force responsible for economic growth. An overwhelming majority supported the idea that the state should guarantee equal opportunities and protect the poorest layers of society. A recorded eight out of ten Brazilians prefer better health and education services rather than a reduction in taxes. Seventy four per cent defend acceptance of LGBT people and a clear majority oppose criminalisation of abortion.

The only area where there was more support for the programme defended by the right-wing was on the issue of public safety and crime. This is cynically being used by the right-wing to try and strengthen its support.

In opinion polls for the presidential elections, before Lula was imprisoned, he was getting 35% on the first round and beat all other candidates in the second round. Even after his imprisonment, Lula’s supported hovered around the 30% mark in the first round. Despite Lula not standing on a radical left programme or defending socialism, as he did in the past, this support does not point to a swing to the right in the outlook of Brazilian people.

The decisive question is the need to build a mass, fighting, socialist alternative, rooted amongst the working class and poor. The formation of PSOL, in 2004, represented an important step forward. However, it has not yet managed to sink the roots amongst the working class and poor that the PT was able to do before it swung to the right and embraced capitalism. The PT still retains a significant electoral support amongst workers and the urban poor, including amongst the homeless urban movement, the MTST, reflecting its history and the concessions it made to the most oppressed, for a temporary period, under Lula’s presidency. One of the challenges for PSOL in this electoral battle is to try and win the support of these workers and urban poor.

Radical left
An important opportunity to take a big step forward in building a new mass radical left now exists. The decision of Guilleme Boulos, the leader of the MTST (the largest urban social movement, which organises homeless workers and lead mass land occupations in the cities like Sao Paulo) to stand as PSOL’s presidential candidate is a potential point of departure, which can take PSOL and the left onto a new level.

The candidature of Boulos offers the prospect for PSOL to reach out to much wider layers of the working class and the poor and to lay the basis for building a much stronger radical socialist alternative during the election campaign. This can become a crucial instrument in the struggles which are certain to erupt after the election. Although Guilleme Boulos has joined PSOL, the mass of MTST members and supporters, have not. He is the candidate of left front of PSOL, the MTST, the PCB and other social movements. This represents an important step forward. However, it needs to be built upon and strengthened.

Boulos had argued openly that his objective is to create a kind of “Brazilian PODEMOS”. Yet the limited programme of PODEMOS in Spain, was reflected its failure to support the mass movement in Catalonia, and the absence of a democratically-run and controlled mass party, are a clear warning of the dangers in such an approach.

Guilleme Boulos had advocated a series of radical demands and called for a programme of “radical democracy”. These demands can serve to mobilise big sections of workers and the poor. Yet it is also necessary to go further. If the radical demands raised by the electoral front are to be secured, they need to be linked together with a programme to break with capitalism. To do this it is important to draw on the experience of the PT governments led by Lula, as a warning of what a failure to break with capitalism can mean. While Boulos and the left are correct to oppose the attacks on Lula by the reactionary right-wing capitalists, it is also necessary raise criticism of the pro-capitalist programme defended by Lula despite also implementing some reforms for the most down-trodden Brazilians.
Brazil has entered a new era of polarisation and struggle. The coming presidential election open a new opportunity for the radical socialist left to emerge strengthened in preparation to intervene in the struggles which are certain to erupt under the new government. To do so, it is important that PSOL together with the MTST and other social movements, develop a fighting socialist programme to break with capitalism. The LSR (CWI Brazil) is fighting in this election and in PSOL for such a programme of action. Back
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