The current political crisis in Brazil is the most sustained antidemocratic surge since the military dictatorship, as new book Voices of the Brazilian Left painstakingly details.
My new book, Voices of the Brazilian Left, represents the culmination of 22 years living in Brazil and interacting with people from the Brazilian organised left, both as a development professional and as an activist journalist. The questions asked in the unstructured interviews with 15 union and social movement leaders, organic intellectuals and media critics that form the basis of the book were based on my learning through this long process of participant observation.
In 2016 a corrupt, conservative Brazilian Congress impeached its first woman president, Dilma Rousseff. There was overwhelming evidence that what had just happened was illegal. Shortly after taking office, President Michel Temer gave a speech at the corporate think tank AS/COA (producer of Americas Quarterly) in New York in which he said that President Rousseff was impeached, not over the official accusations of a non-impeachable infraction called ‘fiscal peddling’, but because she failed to support his party’s Washington Consensus-style economic plan. In other words, the president himself publicly admitted that the impeachment was a sham. Nevertheless, when Rousseff was removed from office the messages in the Northern media, repeated like mantra, were: the impeachment was a legal process; Brazil’s democratic institutions are working; the Brazilian people have won a victory in the fight against corruption. Immediately after taking office, Michel Temer butchered public health and education spending while raising salaries for the corrupt judiciary that had put him in office by R$57 billion, and shelled R$1 Trillion in tax abatement out to foreign oil companies. The Northern media cheer-leading continued. It either categorically rejected the idea that what happened was a coup, or as in the case of the Guardian, implied that it was something only the Brazilian left believed had happened and put the word in quotation marks. As Temer set labour rights back 70 years and his approval rating dropped to 4 per cent, a chorus of northern journalists with no formal training in economics gushed a new mantra: he’s unpopular, but he’s pushing through important economic reforms.
There is no doubt that the so-called ‘Pink Tide’ of radical and centre-left governments that from the late-1990s spread throughout the region is being pushed back, supported by international capital and the US government. The rise of ultra-neoliberal governments is a continent-wide phenomenon that is not limited to Brazil and not primarily a result of the ‘people’s frustration with corruption’, which seems to be the new US tactic for slandering democratically-elected governments with the collapse of moral authority on human rights issues and torture. The current Brazilian government – which is rolling back decades of gains in women’s, Afro-Brazilian, environmental, indigenous, small farmers, and labour rights – is more a result of conservatives’ inability to win four consecutive democratic presidential elections than any kind of perceived ‘failure of the left’. Illegitimate president Michel Temer’s PMDB party (Partido de Movimento Democratico Brasileiro, Brazilian Democratic Movement Party) has never actually won a presidential election, taking power three times though impeachments or the sudden death of a president-elect. The fact that it is back in power in Brazil, with an extremely corrupt government, cannot in any way be considered a victory in the fight against corruption.
I organised the book, Voices of the Brazilian Left, to add to the small but growing body of work in the English language about the period from 2014 to the present, during which Brazil transformed from a growing centre-left social welfare state that was making moderate progress in eradicating poverty, reducing inequality, establishing sovereignty on the international stage, and increasing civil rights, to a failed state run according to Washington Consensus principals by a rentier class of criminals. It describes a period in which a lawfare operation run by a US-supported conservative and partisan judiciary paralysed key sectors of the Brazilian economy causing massive layoffs and tripling the size of the recession, during which the nation dropped from the World’s sixth to ninth largest economy.
As this happened I grew increasingly frustrated, watching Northern commentators feign objectivity while stifling the voices of tens of millions of people who identify with the organised left-members of the poor and working class social movements and labour unions and the organic intellectuals and journalists who support them. Why wasn’t anyone talking to them? Based on media coverage one would think that there was nobody left in Brazil supporting the PT party, despite current poll numbers showing that Luiz Inàcio ‘Lula’ da Silva is leading all other 2018 presidential candidates by a 2/1 margin. Although this could be expected from conservative Latin America think tanks such as AS/COA and media outlets like Bloomberg or the Financial Times, it was especially to see this on the pages of ostensibly progressive publications such as the New York Times, which cited the ultra-conservative Veja magazine as an objective source dozens of times in the lead-up to the coup. It became tiresome during these past four years living in Brazil to have to constantly explain to friends and family back home – casual readers who enjoy the progressive reporting on national issues in England and the US in papers such as the New York Times and the Guardian – that the writing on Brazil favoured conservatives and bolstered support for an illegal impeachment process under a false posture of objective reporting. One of the people interviewed in my book, Universidade Estadual do Rio de Janeiro communications professor João Feres, runs a project in which media bias is quantified through analysing positive, neutral and negative coverage of key news issues and measuring air time and newspaper coverage of different politicians in the Brazilian corporate media. I have no doubt that if this methodology was applied to English-language media during the lead-up to, and aftermath of, the 2016 coup, the results would show a significant conservative bias in coverage.
As the Northern news narrative shifted from portraying Brazil as a winner to a loser nation, sensationalist stories of violence and corruption began to enter the headlines as if it these issues were completely new and not the result of deeply embedded structural problems that have plagued the country for centuries.
In 2014, I stopped writing for commercial media outlets, having become dissatisfied with how my work was being edited. I began writing for the only places that seemed interested in showing what the majority of the Brazilian people thought about what was happening in their country, such as the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) and, importantly, Brasil Wire, which was started by Daniel Hunt to address the same problems with English-language coverage on Brazil that were troubling me. During this period, I reduced my own analysis and commentary and focused on interviews with key figures of the Brazilian organised left. After all, why listen to me talk about what the poor and working class think about Dilma Rousseff’s illegal impeachment when you can hear it from social movement and labour union activists? Why read a Guardian article about urban reform written by someone with a bachelor’s degree in journalism who barely speaks Portuguese when you can learn about it from a woman who worked with Paulo Freire in the most progressive big-city government in history? Voices of the Brazilian Left, then, represents the culmination of my efforts to tell the story of what activists and intellectuals on the Brazilian left think about the coup. Their stories do not fit in the northern media narrative and I assume that that is why their voices were ignored. The following are a few excerpts from interviews that appear in the book.
On the 2016 Coup
“There is not a shadow of a doubt that we suffered a Coup in Brazil. And it was not a Coup against Dilma Rousseff. It was not simply a Coup against the PT party. It is a Coup that continues to be implemented on the backs of the working class. The working class is paying a high price for this Coup. And we are still not paying the price for everything they have planned for us. It is going to be a lot worse. It’s a Coup, as happened in other countries in Latin America. There was a Coup against Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, there was a Coup in Paraguay. And we had a Coup here in Brazil even though — I said this in a meeting a few days ago and ex-President Lula laughed — it was the crumbs that fell off the table of the bourgeoisie that supported us in the Lula and Dilma governments. Because it was the banks and the bourgeoisie who made great profits during the Lula and Dilma governments. We workers got the minimum possible — Bolsa Familia (conditional cash transfer program), Bolsa Gas (subsidized cooking gas), Bolsa Cisterna (rain water capture systems for families in the semi arid regions) – small things. I started predicting that this Coup was going to happen in 2005 when they tried to impeach Lula. They started building the Coup in 2005 and they continued developing it until 2016. I don’t have a shadow of a doubt that if they tried to carry out this Coup against Lula it would have been more difficult for them to pull off. But if they weren’t able to pull it off in 2016, maybe it would have happened in 2017. Because the bourgeoisie does not joke around with this type of job. The bourgeoisie is always, in an ever-increasing manner, trying to advance its project to take everything and leave the working class with nothing. They think the only rights for the working class are to have a bitter cup of coffee early in the morning, eat some rice and beans at lunch time and another plate of rice and beans at dinner time – that they do not need meat or milk or vegetables or a good life. Because the moment that the working class begins to have a better life, it will be able to think more clearly. It will begin to perceive that rights are obligations. And this is the issue. But if you see what is happening now, the Coup is an ongoing process. Every day there is a new vote against the working class.” – Luiz Gonzaga “Gegê” da Silva, dictatorship era anti-fascist guerrilla fighter and national leader of the Central de Movimentos Populares (Popular Movements Central/CMP), a federation of dozens of poor people’s social movements with around 250,000 members nationwide.
“We believe that there is North American interventionism in Latin America. It is very clear for us that the old North American strategy to use tanks and bombs has shifted to a more subtle strategy of propaganda, buying political agents and using the means of communication to build movements to destabilize governments using the same narrative everywhere – associating the governments with a sea of corruption. We’ve seen this happen around the world. This is what happened in Paraguay. This is what happened in Honduras with the Zelaya government. This is what is happening in Venezuela and it’s what happened in the Arab Spring when various governments that were against North American interests were deposed. It is important to emphasize the foreign interest in the pre-salt oil reserves behind all of this interference. Until recently, the petroleum reserves were considered a path to the future for the Brazilian people but we see the leaked state department cables that show Senator and former Coup government Foreign Minister José Serra had secret meetings about privatizing the pre-salt with American petroleum corporations. We believe they helped finance the Coup and that they financed destabilization, created agitation through the means of communication and the social networks and built a narrative that manipulated one part of society to impose a de facto Coup against a democratically elected government. This strategy is very clear to us because the same people who were defending ethics and transparency 6 months ago are now trying to bury the Lava Jato investigation. This government didn’t take power to try to solve Brazil’s problems. It took power to guarantee the interests of the North Americans– of North American imperialism and capital and elite interests here in Brazil.” – Douglas Izzo, São Paulo state Director of the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (Unified Workers Central/CUT) labor union federation, which represents 2 million workers.
On challenges facing the Brazilian left
“There is a structural problem. Sometimes the left focuses on ideological differences that clearly exist — co-option of sectors of the left can’t be overlooked either because it exists — but it forgets a structural problem that is going on in the world. There is a process within the capitalist productive structure that is changing in the entire world. The productive structurization that started in the 1950s and 1960s is changing due to new technologies and materials that are used today. The Fordist production model created large amounts of stock, used the logic of the production line and permanently produced cyclical crises of overproduction. This has changed in the whole world in part through use of the Toyota production model, which is being perfected around the world. I can’t go too far into this because my answer would become very long and complex but we are at a time in history when the world’s largest taxi company doesn’t own a single taxi. The largest hotel company doesn’t own a room. Large businesses no longer have formal employees. This process of weakening and outsourcing in the workplace is a reality for the entire world. Why am I saying this? Because this impacts the working class’ organizational instruments. It was one thing to hold a strike during the days of the Fordist model. If you shut down one sector of a factory it would completely freeze the others. Today many sectors are connected from a labor and financial standpoint. Companies centralize some of their activities and outsource others to various locations around the World. Many workers are now autonomous, without any labor rights whatsoever. So the instrument of the strike, which was fundamental to the working class for a long time, is no longer possible in many sectors of the economy. Many autonomous workers cannot strike because if they stop producing they stop receiving and they don’t have any financial or physical security. So we have a fundamental question here, from my point of view, and we are debating this within the left. The tools that the working class produced throughout history are not enough to confront the current political problems because they are, generally speaking, defensive measures. They were produced in a specific time in history when capitalist development still allowed advances for the working class. We are entering a new phase in history in which capitalist development is producing setbacks for the working class and it is hard to launch an offensive against this model.” – Gilmar Mauro, national leadership council member of the Movimento de Trabalhadores Rurais sem Terra (Landless Workers Movement/MST), Brazil’s largest social movement, with around 1.5 million members in 26 states.
On the Future
“I don’t think there will be direct elections in 2018. The elites who made the Coup in Brazil are not joking around. They sold off all of our pre-salt off-shore oil reserves and took billions out of the public health and education systems. However, they haven’t been able to finish pushing through their entire agenda in the year since they took power. Furthermore, they don’t have a candidate capable of beating anyone from the left. If Lula doesn’t run, it will be Ciro Gomes, Jacques Wagner, Fernando Haddad or Eduardo Suplicy. It will be someone who will beat them because they can no longer hide their unpopular agenda. Their agenda is more privatizations, a minimal state, more hunger and lower wages. They are trying to pass a new law in Congress reducing the lunch break to 30 minutes- this is an example of their agenda. They can’t hide it anymore. The Brazilian people already know what is going on. One year from now the Brazilian worker who did not take to the streets to fight against the labor law reforms is going to know how much his absence cost. The rejection level against this group who made the Coup and are governing Brazil is already above 90% and is only going to rise. So independently of whether it is Lula or Ciro Gomes, independently of the name, the Brazilian left would win the next election. But in my opinion this won’t happen in 2018. I believe that they will try to change the political system to parliamentarism and Congress will appoint Temer as Prime Minister because he is the only guy who has made a total commitment to the Brazilian elite’s agenda. It’s not just the poor who are furious with the agenda that Temer and his organized crime group are trying to implement. The Brazilian middle class can’t take it anymore. The Brazilian middle class is seeing that it entered into a hole and was robbed when it came out in favor of Dilma’s impeachment. The nationalist business class realize now that they entered a thievery scheme. It is no longer just the poor, it’s everyone who is losing out right now- nearly the entire country is losing. Latin America in general is being deconstructed to recuperate the US power that was lost in the 21st Century.” Miguel Lobato, national directorate member of the Movimento Nacional de Luta pela Moradia (National Housing Struggle Movement/MNLM), a poor peoples squatters rights/housing movement with around 200,000 members, most prominently in Belém, Porto Alegre, Belo Horizonte and Rio de Janeiro.
“Our biggest fight at the moment is to guarantee that the 2018 elections actually happen. Our strategy is based on resistance and perspective. We have to resist against the daily attacks on our rights, such as the attacks on labor rights and the retirement pension reforms. As we resist, we have to organize to guarantee that we can dispute the future of Brazil in direct presidential elections in 2018.” – Manuela D’Avila, 2018 presidential candidate for the Partido Communista do Brasil (Brazilian Communist Party/PC do B) and the nation’s first Communist presidential candidate since 1945.
The vast majority of the organized Brazilian left, including the CUT Labor Union Federation and the largest urban and rural social movements, believe the PT party is the only party that currently has a feasible plan to retake the Brazilian Government and to undo the damage that was done over the past year to human rights, the environment, national autonomy, the public health and education systems. This popular support for Lula, as represented in the election poll numbers, seems to represent a pragmatic choice. This is due to a difficult political and economic scenario in which other viable candidates for the presidency range from ultra-neoliberal to neo-fascist. The fact that the organized left continues to support Lula should not be ignored or downplayed by people who are trying to understand the current political context in Brazil. The current two top priorities of the Brazilian organized left are to fight to guarantee that direct elections actually take place, and electing Lula. As the MST’s Gilmar Mauro says, “We are confronting power and resisting against setbacks. This is why we support Lula at the moment. We are acting to form resistance, including electing him to the presidency to move forward with social reforms”.
However, as book interviewee Avanildo Duque says, the idea that betting on Lula is our best chance is a bad sign because it shows lack of renovation and a renewable program on the left. What, therefore, can be done? Some suggestions for possible courses of action appear in this book: 1) As Manuela D’Avila says, fight to guarantee that direct elections are not canceled in 2018; 2) Take advantage of an opportune moment to reflect on we, of the Brazilian left’s strengths and weaknesses and our reason for existence, so that when a new opportunity arises to retake power, we will be stronger than we are today; and 3) organize to plan for the kind of society we want in the mid to long term with the understanding that things are going to get worse before they get better.
What can people in the developed world do to strengthen these processes? One step in the right direction would be to question journalists when they don’t provide a right of response to people from the organized left in their reporting on Brazil. Another step would be to try to listen to what members of the organized left have to say and prioritize solidarity over criticism.
For more information on Voices of the Brazilian Left and to buy a copy click here.