Image from Esquerda Diario
Setting the Stage for the Crisis
In mid-April, Brazil’s House of Representatives voted in favor of President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment. What took place was a barbaric scene, with countless speeches by reactionary politicians who dedicated their vote to God, family and the police. Right-wing political leaders also spoke out against the president, accusing her not only of corruption, but also of creating a “communist dictatorship” in the country. It is clear that the push for impeachment has nothing to do with the formal charges of budget mismanagement brought against Dilma; in fact, this was hardly mentioned. Instead, it is an attempt to break with Brazil’s constitution and disregard the outcome of an election. It is a coup orchestrated by a corrupt right wing to seize political power from the Workers’ Party (PT).
More than likely, the Senate will ratify the impeachment and oust Dilma, who will likely be succeeded by Michel Temer, her vice-president from the PMDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party). This will secure the success of a right-wing coup.
The coup was planned and executed by reactionary political parties, the Chamber of Commerce and oligarchical mass media. Globo, the largest TV and news channel in Brazil, has actively supported right-wing measures throughout the process. From 1964 to 1985, it served as a propaganda tool for the military dictatorship. Despite its subsequent apology for supporting the dictatorship, today it continues its reactionary role. Globo anchors promoted the pro-impeachment demonstrations and called for the population to participate. These protests got round-the-clock coverage, while the struggles of workers and left forces got little air time.
The coup was led by the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), a right wing party which previously backed the PT and had the Vice Presidency under Dilma. It was also supported by the PT’s right wing neoliberal opposition, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB). The impeachment was facilitated by Brazil’s judicial system through orchestrated, selective attacks against the PT while ignoring charges against other parties involved in the Petrobras scandal, the largest corruption scandal in Brazil’s history.
How did the coup come about and how did the once-popular PT lose the reigns of power? It is necessary to answer these questions before examining the deep political and economic crisis the country is facing. The coup will not resolve this underlying crisis. On the contrary, growing tensions and conflicts are likely to emerge. At this historic moment, the situation in Brazil poses a tremendous challenge for revolutionary socialists.
The failure of class conciliation
The PT emerged out of working-class struggle. In the early 1980’s, metalworker strikes in Sao Paulo marked the end of the dictatorship´s complete control over workers and labor. Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva, then president of the steelworkers’ union, became a major figure in the labor movement during these strikes. He went on to create the Workers’ Party as well as the CUT (national labor confederation), creating a division between the PT’s political party and their labor organization, in other words, between the political superstructure and labor’s economic struggles.
Although the PT was built on workers’ support, it has employed a politics of class-conciliation. The PT’s 13 years in the presidency have been marked by minor social welfare measures that assisted people in extreme poverty. In the process, millions of precarious jobs were generated. PT measures broadened the consumer market and provided larger sections of the population with access to credit, giving the illusion of more prosperity than there actually was. It is not uncommon for Brazilians to say that President Lula eliminated starvation, or for poor people to say that thanks to the Workers’ Party, they can buy meat to eat with their rice. The PT years greatly expanded access to a university education. At the same time, however, the education system was highly privatized; large government loans were handed over to corporate executives. Free public university education has limited spaces and students are selected based on a highly competitive standardized test. Therefore, most spots are taken by students from wealthy families who can afford test prep classes and quality private schools, making free public education inaccessible to the vast majority of Brazil’s working class.
During the Lula years, everything seemed in order: he used to say, “All sides are winning,” yet this concealed the underlying contradictions. The working class was scraping by, while the wealthy were profiting. The measures that alleviated the conditions of the working class were minimal compared to the massive profits raked in by the banks, commodity industries and industries in general. Of the 10 million jobs created during Lula’s two terms, over 90 percent paid less than 1,500 reais per month (about $450 USD). Furthermore, the PT implemented pension reforms that obligated public employees work more years before retirement. Even prior to taking executive office, the PT held local and statewide positions and operated like any other neoliberal party, privatizing industries and betraying strikes.
The PT´s tenuous class-conciliation pact was also challenged by the left. Resisting austerity measures (ie., fare hikes) and fueled by a generalized discontent with political and economic conditions, the masses, the left, youth and workers took to the streets and challenged the whole political class in the momentous protests of June 2013- late in President Dilma’s first term.
As the economic crisis deepened, the PT could no longer maintain the social pact that it represented. There had emerged a crisis characterized by growing budget deficits, a gigantic corruption scandal involving one of the most prominent corporations, and a decrease in the price of commodities. From December 2015 to April, over one million workers joined the ranks of the unemployed; the unemployment rate jumped from 6 percent to over 10 percent in less than two years. The crisis has made it impossible for all sides to “win” or even maintain the illusion that they are winning. The PT has made clear that they will implement cuts and austerity measures, forcing workers to pay for the economic crisis.
Aggravating this harsh economic u-turn from prosperity to crisis, a political reversal has also taken place: from the PT’s dominant political position to Dilma’s ongoing impeachment. Dilma Rousseff was re-elected in October 2014 while campaigning on an anti-austerity platform. However, once in office she implemented harsh austerity. She even cut down many of the education reforms that the PT implemented – in one case, cutting the available seats in the technical college program by half.
Social discontent from these policies has caused Dilma’s approval rating to plummet to the lowest levels in decades (roughly 10 percent). The well-off middle class, not as affected by the economic situation as the poor, began to mobilize a year ago. Protests were organized by the PSDB, right wing opposition of the PT, which refused to accept the election results. Propelled by the mass media and widespread indignation over corruption practices, enormous crowds demanded Dilma’s removal. They praised the judiciary heroes cooked up by the media and railed against the left. Some even praised the military dictatorship.
In the process, the PT’s allies defected. Above all, they were pressured by powerful business lobbies and perceived a situation in which the media, the judiciary powers, and sectors of the middle class supported Dilma’s impeachment. All the right wing and center parties that once supported the government joined the opposition and pushed for impeachment trials. Most importantly, Michel Temer’s PMDB began to call for impeachment.
It is notable that the impeachment was orchestrated by the PT’s political allies. In the past, these right wing figures were not opposed or criticized by the PT government, which used this alliance of convenience to gain the presidency. The PT dug its own grave by allying with these forces to maintain power. Its strategy of class conciliation has proven an utter and complete failure, with its former right wing allies spearheading impeachment efforts and the working class nowhere to be seen.
The PT Refuses to Mobilize Workers to Fight Against the Coup
The division between the PT’s political party and its labor organization, CUT, was maintained during the impeachment proceedings. In the past, the Brazilian working class has engaged in strikes and work stoppages against cutoffs and other measures taken by the bosses or the government. The CUT engaged in these struggles only when given great pressure by its base to organize an action. Likewise, the CUT did not put up a real fight against the current right wing coup, largely because the PT did not want them to. The CUT called for inoffensive rallies that were more spectacle than struggle. This is particularly egregious when one considers that the CUT has approximately 25 million workers in its ranks, within strategic sectors of the economy, including metal, oil and banking sector workers. Yet CUT did not call for a single strike, assembly or picket – working class methods of struggle to challenge the impeachment.
Why would the PT, a party that emerged from the great metal worker strikes of the 80’s refrain from employing all of the weapons in its arsenal to fight the coup? Why wouldn’t the party use the same methods that brought it into existence? The answer is because the PT is implementing budget cuts and privatization, attacking workers and making them pay for the economic crisis. If the PT were to unleash the power of the working class to fight against the impeachment, who is to say that they won’t fight against the PT and their austerity measures next? CUT opened the way for the coup by its lack of resistance, showing more fear of working class radicalization than of the right wing coup. Instead of employing the CUT to fight against the impeachment, Lula attempted to form more coalitions by unsuccessfully trying to buy off right-wing representatives.
Despite the PT’s dismal mobilizations, many Brazilians opposed the impeachment. A substantial portion of the coup’s opposition did not support Dilma’s government, but rather, demanded democracy and were against the right wing. Many correctly understood that the coup would bring to power a more aggressive, unelected austerity government.
The Challenges Facing Temer
The most likely scenario is that Vice President Temer will become president and enact a series of new cuts. Last November, Temer and the PMDB published a document called the “Bridge to the Future,” which outlined strict austerity measures, such as reforming labor laws, dismantling workers’ rights, raising the retirement age, and privatizing public health and education. The big media corporations in the country demand that the upcoming government implement such a program right away and “shock” the nation in 10 days, much like Argentina’s neoliberal Mauricio Macri. Forecasting difficulties, they advise him to implement the measures by presidential decree – authoritarian measures for an unelected President Temer.
Yet Temer potentially faces various obstacles that will weaken his presidency. First, the working class could finally become a protagonist by fighting against austerity measures. Although the CUT did not mobilize to keep Dilma in power, the union may be forced to mobilize against the cuts due to growing workers’ discontent. Also, the international media has not expressed support for the impeachment, further weakening the strength of a possible Temer government. Furthermore, Temer has been implicated in the Petrobras corruption probe and investigations into election finance practices. Both issues could bring about a new impeachment process and the cancellation of his presidency by Brazil’s Electoral Court, which would give way to new presidential elections. However, at this moment, that situation doesn’t seem to be plausible. Brazil’s elite wants a strong government as quickly as possible in order to implement austerity measures.
With midterm elections coming up next year, Temer is in a difficult position. His support from the bourgeoisie is based on his ability to implement austerity measures, but these measures could prove detrimental to PMDB’s popularity in the midterm elections. Another challenge for the Temer government is a floundering economy which austerity measures cannot fix. What is more likely is that there will be further economic recession, possibly deepening into an economic depression. Based on economic forecasts, by the end of 2016 the country’s GDP will have fallen 9 percent since 2014.
One thing is certain: there is growing resistance against austerity measures. Students have occupied nearly one hundred schools in Rio de Janeiro in support of teachers who have been on a month-long strike demanding increased wages and denouncing constant delays in pension distributions. Throughout the country, university students are fighting against cuts to the education budget, and voting to strike and mobilize against the presidential impeachment. These actions point a way towards fighting the impeachment without supporting the PT government and its cuts.
The defeat of the PT is not synonymous with the defeat of Brazil’s working class. The worsening economic situation and Temer´s anticipated austerity measures will be a major test for Latin America´s largest working class.
Drawing Revolutionary Lessons From the Fall of the PT Government
It is clear to socialists that Lula and his successor Dilma are responsible for the privatization of Brazil’s oil, increased unemployment, billions in cuts to education and healthcare, and for the growth of the reactionary figures who led the coup. The left must fight these cuts. Yet opposing the PT and its austerity program does not mean supporting a right wing coup. While this seems to be an obvious difference, many Brazilian socialists have fallen into this logic.
The most important group to the left of the PT, the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), closed ranks with the PT and used their parliamentary leaders to denounce the coup. Yet like the PT, they demanded absolutely no action from the labor unions. However, within the PSOL, other sectors acted differently. The PSOL’s ex-presidential candidate Luciana Genro, who received nearly 1.5 million votes in 2014, demanded general elections in the crucial days leading up to the impeachment. Only on the eve of the vote in the House of Representatives did Genro finally release a statement against the impeachment. Her silence contributed to the absence of mobilizations and promoted the illusion that general elections could be an advance for the working class at this juncture. The call for general elections, now echoed by the The Economist, was supported by another ex presidential contender, Marina Silva. Silva’s presidential bid was strongly financed by Brazil’s largest bank and Brazil’s most-read newspaper Folha de São Paulo. Sectors of the right are on the same boat, calling for new elections ever since Dilma was elected.
The Unified Socialist Workers’ Party (PSTU), another left party in Brazil that has a stronger working class presence than PSOL, took an even more disastrous position. The PSTU’s main slogan was “out with all of them,” and it called for “general elections” via hypothetical general strike. The PSTU’s hypothesis of general strike has no basis in reality: there is no movement towards a strike and workers are not the subjects bringing about President Dilma’s ouster, or anyone else for that matter. Those who are yelling, “Out with all,” are in fact yelling, “Out with Dilma.” The PSTU’s call helps conceal the right wing nature of the coup. Certainly “out with all of them” would be progressive if it came from a workers’ uprising against all of those in the government. But the reactionary nature of the coup was demonstrated through the vote in Congress – with speeches dedicated to God and military dictatorship – if it wasn’t already clear. However, the PSTU did not speak out against the right and instead echoed them by calling for the immediate ousting of Dilma.
The toppling of government by the working class is one thing; the toppling of government by corrupt reactionaries is another thing entirely.
The essential lesson in Brazil is that one cannot characterize a movement solely by what happens, but rather, by who is the primary subject. Certainly, if the working class were to mobilize and oust the governing party due to its cuts and betrayals, it would signal a major advance in a revolutionary process. However, a victory by the right while the working class passively watches is far from revolutionary, or even progressive.
On overcrowded buses, in workplaces, at neighborhood bars, everyone is discussing the impeachment. Esquerda Diario, the most-read left digital news in Brazil, releases articles every day that reach thousands with the call to create a movement against the impeachment that is independent of the PT. The Revolutionary Workers’ Movement (MRT), the political party behind Esquerda Diario, has been pushing for a real plan to fight against the cuts and the impeachment. While the PT seeks to contain struggles, it is time for workers and students to knock down all the barriers created by the PT and the CUT to defend our democratic rights.
The only solution to the putrid regime we live in is a socialist revolution. However, we are not in a revolutionary period. There are many who wish to defend democracy against the coup, want to end corruption and get rid of a regime that opens the door to proto-fascist representatives in parliament. Therefore, mass worker mobilizations against the coup and against the PT cuts should culminate in a Constitutional Assembly to implement radical democratic measures. Such measures should include instituting the direct election and revocability of all government officials, from the currently state-appointed court justices to the representatives in Congress. Each politician and judge should receive no more than the salary of a school teacher. A Constitutional Assembly should address unemployment by prohibiting companies from firing workers. The assembly should also suspend the payment of the public debt that consumes 43 percent of the national budget, while public necessities like education and healthcare suffer aggressive cuts.
The submission of labor and student unions to the PT and its conciliatory strategy undermines the struggle of youth and workers against unemployment, budget cuts and the coup. This political surrender inhibits workers and students from building radical solutions to the grave situation Brazilians face.
But this chapter is not over. In the upcoming months in Brazil, these lessons are fundamental. They will be used address the growing grievances and offer a clear strategic position: fight the right-wing, oppose austerity and overcome the PT, which serves as an obstacle to a militant and revolutionary working class – a class which must be organized not in a corrupt pro-business party, but in a revolutionary party to put an end to capitalism.
The following article was written on April 28, 2016. It is featured in Left Voice Magazine, which you can purchase by clicking here.