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From Bolsonaro’s Crisis and Judicial Bonapartism to Lula’s Return

The rehabilitation of political rights for Lula, the former Brazilian president from the Workers Party, is a sign of the lengths to which the bourgeoisie will go to protect its interests in the wake of Bolsonaro’s gross mismanagement of the country’s health and economic crises.

Elizabeth Yang

March 24, 2021
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Translator’s Note: The following article was written for a Brazilian audience. Some context will help make its important points and analysis more accessible to English-language readers.

Lula Inácio Lula da Silva, popularly known as Lula, was Brazil’s president from 2003 to 2011. He is also a founding member of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, Workers Party) — the largest left-wing party in Latin America, which is probably best characterized today as social democratic in ideology. He was succeeded by Dilma Rousseff, also of the PT.

Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash), so named because it was first “uncovered” at a car wash in Brasília, is a criminal investigation into corruption by the Brazilian federal police that began in 2014 during Dilma’s first term as president and was initially centered on the Brazilian state oil company, Petrobras. It was later used to jail Lula — part of an effort, aided by U.S. imperialism, to keep the PT from winning the 2018 elections. It also became the basis for impeaching Dilma, a process that began in December 2015. At the end of August 2016, the Brazilian Senate voted to remove Dilma from office, finding her guilty of violating budget laws.

The “institutional coup” — which is how the PT described the impeachment process in a complaint to the Organization of American States — is repeatedly mentioned in the article. It was the underlying purpose of the Lava Jato operation, and it was used to silence Lula, suppress a potential PT successor to Dilma, and create the conditions for a victory by current right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro.

Brazil is putting the entire world at risk, owing to the scale of its Covid-19 pandemic. More than 2,000 people are dying daily from the disease in Brazil, which is seeing an unbridled spread of new strains. The sudden restoration of Lula’s political rights reveals the crisis of President Jair Bolsonaro and the judicial Bonapartism that has been the core of the institutional coup. The latter was undertaken to attack the living conditions of the masses and to surrender the country’s resources to the interests of international finance capital.

Lula’s first speech as a potential candidate was given to the metalworkers’ union of São Bernardo do Campo — the birthplace of the last great workers’ uprising that confronted the military dictatorship and gave birth to the PT — a symbolic place that highlights the weight and responsibility of this party and the figure of Lula in Brazil’s future history.

This context amplifies the need for a revolutionary Left that confronts the Bolsonarist extreme Right and the judicial authoritarianism with the methods of class struggle, uniting the forces of the working class, the women’s movement, and the Black movement, which have made their cry against oppression heard, and the youth who owe nothing to the ruling parties that led the country to its current calamity.

If Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic does not remind us of the hotel run by Jack Nicholson in The Shining, or we are disappointed by the pandemic’s abrupt interruption of Showtime’s Billions series, we might find come compensation in the scenes from Brazil’s Federal Supreme Court (STF). While Bolsonaro had insisted on treating the death of more than 270,000 people from coronavirus — making Brazil the world’s second-most-affected country — as a “little flu,” the judicial turnarounds that in that American TV series turned politics upside down gain materiality in Brazil’s Kafkaesque judicial system.

With a stroke of the pen, one of the main “lawfare” actors on Brazil’s highest court surprisingly restored the political rights of the former president. Judge Edson Fachin is a staunch supporter of Operation Car Wash and was in charge of coordinating the judicial and police forces that, under the leadership of Judge Sérgio Moro, investigated the corruption scandals at Petrobras. From there, a configuration of political and judicial persecution laid the basis for bringing together the forces needed to impeach Dilma, imprison Lula, strip him of his political rights, and — more than that — make it impossible for him to engage in any political activity by prohibiting him from communicating by video with his voters.

Today, there is abundant evidence that Operation Car Wash was created under the auspices of the U.S. State Department, where its prosecutors and judges took training courses. The greatest evidence of all is found in the fact that of the four divisions that make up Petrobras, only those that had contacts with the large Brazilian multinationals friendly to the PT government, such as Odebrecht, were investigated, while other divisions’ contacts with the international oil cartels were never investigated. All this played out amid the discovery of gigantic and profitable subsalt oil reserves. Even the rather timid measures adopted by Lula to privilege the exploitation of this by Brazil’s large national capitalists was too much for international oil-related finance capital, which does not have the luxury of missing out on big deals in times of global economic crisis.

Now Judge Fachin of the Supreme Court, responsible for developing the Car Wash cases, has declared Lula’s trial illegal on a procedural technicality. According to his decision, the Federal Regional Court of Paraná — where Moro has jurisdiction — was not a “natural judge” of the cases against Lula because they were based on facts from other states and there was no evidence of the relationship between those cases and the Petrobras corruption scandal. His decision is a 180-degree turnaround from what the Supreme Court has said in recent years in response to all the denunciations from Lula’s defenders who have made the same point repeatedly, in the face of denunciations from defenders who have run over this point relentlessly. It makes a fool of the court itself. How did this come to pass?

Handing Over Your Rings to Avoid Losing Your Fingers

Fachin’s abrupt inclination toward “justice” can only be explained by the risk he saw before his eyes of an outright destruction of the entire investigation built by Lava Jato. His decision was the beginning of a battle against another Supreme Court justice, Gilmar Mendes, who days earlier had publicly announced a veritable “crusade” against the investigations of the Petrobras corruption scandals.

Mendes is the president of the Supreme Court’s “Second Chamber” (the STF has a general plenum of 11 justices: the general president of the court and two subchambers of five justices, each with its own president). He is also an eminent politician of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) and represents the sector of the regime that seeks to undo Car Wash and restore as much as possible the actors of the “old regime,” including to reduce the relative strength of Lula compared to Bolsonaro.

The Second Chamber was scheduled on the day after Fachin’s decision to hear a request by Lula’s defense lawyers to declare Moro’s conduct throughout the Car Wash operation illegitimate and to nullify all the evidence collected over the years and drop the charges. That would have been a complete rejection of all those who had been involved in setting up the operation in the first place. To avoid a possible defeat for Moro, Fachin’s decision to restore Lula’s political rights also challenges the accusations against Moro, arguing that the request by Lula’s defense team no longer makes sense since his decision fulfills its objective (the suspension of the former president’s sentence).

A leak of thousands of hacked messages from participants in the Car Wash farce provided copious evidence of the monstrous illegalities and attempts at harassment in the operation. Those messages had once been barred from use in court because they were considered illegally obtained, but with the help of the Intercept website and CNN Brasil (largely steered by the U.S. Democratic Party) became widely known and garnered the legitimacy that made the Supreme Court have to consider them as valid evidence.

The evidence arising from that leak has been around since mid-2019, but the evidence of illegality in the prosecution of Car Wash goes back even farther. It was witnessed by eminent jurists from all around the world, and for years has been at the center of the arguments by Lula’s defense team. They saw Gilmar Mendes and other justices of the Second Chamber over which he presides serve Moro’s interests as he faced off against Lula and the PT. In fact, two justices — Fachin himself and Carmen Lúcia — had already voted years ago against the request to declare Moro’s leadership in Operation Car Wash illegal.

The Crisis of Bolsonaro and “Institutional Bonapartism”

The most profound and “devastating” politico-social force operating behind this dispute in the Supreme Court is the loss of legitimacy of the Bolsonaro government and all the actors who jumped on the bandwagon of “institutional Bonapartism” — the coup regime that has been in place since the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, based on the arbitrary use of justice and other “de facto powers” not established for arbitrating political disputes. It is a crisis that chugged along through a combination of pandemic denial, economic crisis, anti-popular attacks, corruption scandals, authoritarian “bravado,” and all manner of absurdities. The whole situation accelerated when Trump, one of Bolsonaro’s main supporters, lost the U.S. presidential election. The pandemic catastrophe caused a huge leap in the crisis: today, more than 80 percent of hospital intensive care units are occupied in 25 of 27 Brazilian states, and there are more than 2,000 deaths each day. This will probably lead to new social explosions against the Bolsonaro government. Each day that the pandemic crisis worsens — fed in turn by the economic and political crises — the likelihood of this grows dramatically, threatening to turn Brazil not only into a world center for the production of new coronavirus strains but also of class struggle.

The Brazilian bourgeoisie sees this danger, which is why it has begun to make political decisions to put an end to this dynamic. That explains the emergence of a new majority among the “power centers” of the coup (especially the judiciary, the main one) advocating Lula’s political rehabilitation so he and the CUT trade union confederation can play a preventive role, deflecting outbreaks of class struggle by channeling the growing discontent into the 2022 elections.

The more general calculation of this “new majority,” together with the coup “power centers,” is that it would be very risky to leave the leadership of the current crisis in Bolsonaro’s hands. After all, the coup has accomplished a lot: it has advanced the structural assaults on the masses through labor reform, pension reform, and attacks on public servants, and it has succeeded in privatizing Petrobras subsidiaries, airports, port terminals, Eletrobrás, Telebrás, the post office, the treasury, the national lottery, and so on. The bourgeoisie sees no reason to throw away what has been conquered by stimulating an explosion like the one in June 2013, when millions took to the streets in demonstrations, first over fare increases for public transportation that then widened to address government corruption and police brutality (or perhaps stronger and more generalized). So, according to this line of thought, the preference is to bring back Lula and create the hope that an electoral change will allow for a “normal and peaceful” transition, without major social upheaval, to a new government that maintains the essence of the coup plot.

The obvious consequence is that the judiciary, the main supporter of the coup, and many other coup “power centers,” such as the Rede Globo TV network (which maintains very strong connections with the military and government institutions), flip their positions as easily as flipping a pancake. To repair this collateral damage, Lula already began — in his rehabilitation speech — a reconciliation with whoever he must. He speaks of forgetting the past and looking toward an electoral future — even if it is out of step with the current crisis.

The Dispute over Restoring the “Old Regime” and Bolsonaro’s Future

The clash between Fachin and Gilmar Mendes expresses the internal dispute in the Supreme Court between different wings of the coup over the degree to which the forces of the “old regime” destroyed by the Car Wash should be rebuilt. Mendes represents the interest in rebuilding forces that go beyond the PT, to include eminent political personalities from Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s PSDB, the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB), and the center-right Democrats (DEM, the party of the local leaderships most connected to the interior of the country). These are also present, that is, the main political parties that have constituted the dominant regime since the end of the dictatorship. In addition, Mendes also represents the forces that defend the recovery of the large Brazilian monopolies that benefited from the Cardoso and Lula governments (such as Odebrecht), whose owners and executives largely ended up behind bars with Car Wash. Although quite weakened, these companies are still major global players that, were the charges overturned, would improve their conditions to play in the “big leagues,” and could still be compensated for the heavy fines they had to pay, moral damages, and material losses of all kinds.

Fachin, on the other hand, represents the numerous sectors that have benefited most from the institutional coup: the international oil cartels favored by the weakening of Petrobras, the financial capital that has participated in selling off public assets, wings of the army, radicalized sectors of the bourgeoisie willing to use any Bonapartist method to attack the mass movements, and so on.

Thus far, the forces represented by Mendes have not yet managed to carry out their program to its conclusion. They have been able to impose some important limits on Car Wash and strike at Moro’s legitimacy, but Mendes’s attempt to annihilate Car Wash in the STF Second Chamber has been stalled. One of the justices of the Second Chamber requested time to study the case, thus postponing his vote indefinitely — and giving a momentary victory to Fachin’s strategy, since his decision is the one in effect. This stalemate shows that the sectors represented by Fachin still have the strength to prevent the total liquidation of Lava Jato and Moro.

The political affiliation of the STF Second Chamber justice who paralyzed Gilmar Mendes’s attempt itself indicates the relationship of forces. His name is Nunes Marques, nominated by Bolsonaro to replace another recently retired Supreme Court justice. Many believed that Nunes’s influence on the “centrists” (a group of Congress members from different parties who have established pragmatic relations with the government in exchange for benefits) would define his vote against Moro, since a good number of these “representatives of the people” stand accused of a variety of types of corruption. What prevailed, however, was the influence of Bolsonaro and the military, who obviously still have more to lose than to gain from the destruction of the entire operation that brought them to power.

Some retired generals close to Bolsonaro have declared their dissatisfaction with the attack on Lava Jato and Moro, and they have even warned of an “institutional crisis.” But the active-duty generals have so far remained silent, which some analysts interpret as indicating internal divisions, with a growing sector that wants to distance itself from Bolsonaro and jump ship before it sinks, if necessary. It should be noted regarding the armed forces that in addition to the coup being institutional, the bourgeoisie made this institution — its most prestigious and which previously enjoyed a popular approval rate of 68 percent (well above Congress and the political parties) — occupy a place in the government. Involving the military in main governmental positions, General Hamilton Mourão as vice president and other soldiers in various ministries, such as General Eduardo Pazuello as health secretary, has eroded the armed forces’ image. At the moment, the best they can hope for is a policy of harm reduction in case the government crisis drags them down.

In the context of these disputes, the regime is not only taking action to channel discontent into elections. There seems to be no clear horizon for the end of the pandemic crisis, and it continues to fuel the economic crisis in a more immediate sense. That cannot wait until 2022, so sectors of the bourgeoisie and “coup power centers” have begun to move the management of the pandemic crisis increasingly to a coordinated effort among the governors of the main states, along with the Supreme Court and Congress.

Lula the Conciliator 3.0

Two days after being exonerated, Lula held a press conference that was yet another act of celebration of his triumph against those who had imprisoned him, especially against Sergio Moro. He made a speech to assert himself as the government’s main adversary, with whom any policy would have to be negotiated, whether electoral or otherwise. His speech was praised, quite cynically, by the entire grand coup and neoliberal media.

Lula took direct aim at Bolsonaro for his denialism and ignorance in leading the country amid the pandemic and increasing poverty. He spelled out the main points of popular discontent against the government and for which Bolsonaro loses support daily. Despite his 75 years, he showed himself to be strong and even compared himself to the even older Joe Biden, who faced Trump and beat him.

During the country’s health disaster, broad sectors of the masses see Lula’s reappearance of Lula as salvation or at least as something that could limit the Bolsonarist madness. It is the illusions and expectations of Lula that could contain the growing indignation over the hardships of pandemic and hunger.

At the same time, in his speech to the São José dos Campos metalworkers union, Lula said not a word about the labor and social security reforms implemented through the coup. He spoke out against privatizations, but without saying whether he will cancel any. He never once used the word “coup” and stated several times that he holds no grudge against those who arrested and banished him, but was ready to forgive and even have a dialogue, if necessary, with the coup plotters, as long as they are willing to confront Bolsonaro. In doing so, he empowered governors, Congress, and the Supreme Court — many of them coup plotters — as alternatives to the Bolsonaro government in managing the pandemic crisis. In yet another election campaign speech, he promised growth of the national economy based on income redistribution in some distant future, since the next elections are almost two years away. He offered no alternative for those suffering the consequences of the institutional coup right now, who have no illusions about forgiving the coup’s executioners, and who want to fight.

Lula is willing to manage the legacy of the coup, without questioning any of its main attacks. By reconciling with the coup plotters, he helps them escape the disastrous consequences of their rule and preserves them so they can continue to advance against the masses. In this way, he builds a correlation of forces that will later justify the “misery of the possible” within the coup legacy.

The PT is clearly not an anti-capitalist party; on the contrary, when it was in government, it guaranteed historically unprecedented profits to the capitalists without addressing any of the structural problems that make the country backward and dependent on imperialism, and it ended up assimilating the very methods of corruption so typical of a system made to benefit a caste of parasites at the expense of the vast majority. Since her first government, Dilma was unafraid to endorse the governors’ repression of the struggles for education, health, and better living conditions that emerged in the massive demonstrations of June 2013; as well as directly repressing the huge wildcat strikes of the most precarious workers in the country’s public works. The PT failed to take into consideration and turned a blind eye to the more progressive demands of these massive mobilizations. And in her second term, Dilma implemented a policy of adjustments and initiated attacks on social rights that would later be deepened on a much larger scale with the institutional coup. Thus, it was the PT itself that paved the way for the Car Wash operation to gain popularity and lay the groundwork for the coup offensive.

Building an Alternative to the PT

The PT leaderships of the unions and social movements, which still lead the main mass organizations, are responsible for the paralysis that prevents a response from the exploited and oppressed to the enormous crisis through which the country is going. The CUT ends up isolating economic struggles by limiting demands within corporate boundaries. This separates these struggles from struggles by the women’s movement and Black movement against oppression. These leaderships propose nothing to respond independently to the health crisis. And they limit the political struggle against the Bolsonaro government within the narrow confines of the impeachment petition, which means removing only Bolsonaro while keeping all the institutions and political personnel of the coup.

For example, in the midst of the strike against the privatization of Petrobras, the PT leaderships came out to applaud Bolsonaro’s intervention in the company — which involved appointing a military man with the goal of keeping fare increases to a minimum. The separation between health, economic, democratic, and political struggles weakens them all and is aimed at keeping them all within the coup regime framework, channeling whatever energy into electoral change. This is not only the PT’s policy, but also that of leftist currents such as the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) and even ones that claim to be Trotskyist, such as the United Socialist Workers’ Party (PSTU).

The Revolutionary Workers Movement (MRT, Brazilian section of the Trotskyist Fraction) has always denounced each advance of judicial Bonapartism and defended Lula’s right to be a candidate. At the same time, it has warned that the PT government itself was responsible for strengthening the coup-plotting Right and has called for abandoning the policy of conciliation with the coup institutions and instead for taking the path of resistance and struggle. This is a big difference with the PSOL, which entered a political-electoral bloc with the PT, feeding illusions in the Supreme Court and the coup Congress, and has coexisted peacefully with the PT union bureaucracies in the mass movements. The PSTU has functioned as a fifth column of the advanced coup, believing that the methods of Lava Jato were a legitimate way to remove the PT from power. That caused a split by nearly half of the PTSU, which entered the PSOL. Now, as it becomes increasingly difficult and unpopular to celebrate the successes of Car Wash, the PSTU continues to demand “prison for all the corrupt” and a judicial system uncorrupted by political interests, never explaining just what kind of magic it would take to create such judicial impartiality within the capitalist system.

Today it is necessary to fight for the vanguard of the labor, student, women’s, and Black movements to make the struggle against the pandemic crisis their own, through an anti-capitalist program that unifies economic and political demands, stands against the reactionary reforms of the government, and raises the demands of the social movements with the perspective of overthrowing Bolsonaro, the military, and the entire coup regime. That is what the MRT proposes in the universities, the unions, and everywhere. Instead of sowing illusions in the governors, Congress, and the Supreme Court as a solution to the catastrophe of the government’s mismanagement of the pandemic, we call for the unions to take up the fight for vaccines for all, for the centralization of the entire health system under workers’ control, for massive hiring and training of health professionals, and for the reconversion of industry and the hotel system to provide respirators and intensive care units to all who need them.

To build this unity, we must demand that the CUT and the PT break their truce with the government and organize a serious grassroots struggle. It will be fundamental to promote self-organization and coordination of all the sectors that are struggling, such as teachers against the unsafe reopening of schools, oil workers against privatizations and layoffs, bus drivers in several states against the nonpayment of wages, and others, so that a vanguard emerges that can overcome the obstacles imposed by the union bureaucracies and social movements. The MRT makes available Esquerda Diário, part of the La Izquierda Diario international network, as a tool for the vanguard in all these struggles.

The monstrous arbitrary manipulation of the laws by the judiciary to create and sustain a favorable relationship of forces for attacks on the mass movements and on public assets raises the need to struggle for a free and sovereign constituent assembly as a fundamental task for breaking with the Bonapartist judicial regime. It is the most democratic way to give weight, even within the bourgeois regime, to the will of the exploited and oppressed majority of the country against the minority network of corrupt and bourgeois judicial, military, and political parasites that rely on the institutions of “coup democracy.” A constituent assembly could repeal all the reactionary laws implemented by the coup, reestablish public companies under workers’ control, institute judges elected by universal vote, and raise a program for the capitalists to pay for the crisis. This is a perspective for showing the masses what bourgeois democracy really is and building the forces necessary to fight for a workers’ government that breaks with capitalism, one based on the direct democracy of the masses and their organizations in struggle.

First published in Portuguese on March 14 in Ideias de Esquerda.

Translation by Scott Cooper

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