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Lula and the Coup Regime

Lula’s convictions have been annulled, paving the way for him to run in Brazil’s 2022 presidential elections. But the regime’s goal is to save the legacy of the institutional coup, using Lula as an escape valve for social discontent. For Lula’s Workers’ Party, the task is not to fight the coup regime but to take its place within it.

André Barbieri

March 11, 2021
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Photo: Forbes

On Monday, Brazilian Federal Supreme Court (STF) justice Edson Fachin annulled all convictions against former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula). These include the convictions handed down by the Federal Court of Paraná relating to the Lava Jato (“car wash”) corruption investigations. The ruling restores Lula’s political rights, allowing him to run in the 2022 presidential elections.

Lula, a leader of the Workers’ Party (PT), served as Brazil’s president from 2003 to 2011. He was the frontrunner as he sought a third term in 2018 until he was jailed on corruption charges for, among other things, allegedly accepting a seaside apartment as a kickback for construction contracts. In a politically motivated attack as part of the right-wing Lava Jato investigations, he was prevented from appearing on the ballot, paving the way for Jair Bolsonaro’s victory. Lula was released from prison in 2019 after 19 months but was barred from running for office.

Fachin, among the STF judges most pushing the Lava Jato investigation and who collaborated with former minister of justice Sergio Moro, declared that the court of the southern state of Paraná had been incompetent in the cases against Lula. According to Fachin, Curitiba’s 13th Federal Court did not have the jurisdiction to try Lula. This decision could be overturned by the full STF, and the attorney general’s office will appeal the decision.

On Tuesday, the STF’s Second Chamber (the full body has two chambers of five judges each) declared that Moro had been biased in the trial against Lula and others, which led to the annulment of the Lava Jato convictions. Fachin’s goal is to save the coup legacy of Lava Jato and take the spotlight away from Sergio Moro. What is clear is that the STF, along with the entire Brazilian military and political regime, wants to sweep its direct participation in Brazil’s authoritarian course since the 2014 Lava Jato investigations under the rug.

This effort is a fragile one. There has long been clear evidence that Lula’s imprisonment and political banning in 2018 was arbitrary. The Supreme Court and Moro’s “squad,” with the full support of the high command of the armed forces, have acted in unison to build the structure of the coup regime over the past five years. Indeed, the STF has tried to protect the authoritarian, reactionary Moro, who did everything possible to ensure Bolsonaro’s triumph in the rigged 2018 elections.

The outcome of Fachin’s maneuver is uncertain, but it has revealed once again the fault lines within the STF. The justices most aligned with Lava Jato blocked the policy of the more moderate justices. But it is now possible that this faction of the STF will push ahead with an investigation of Moro.

Bolsonaro has warned that a “plan B” may be in the works for the 2022 elections, although the most concentrated sectors of finance capital and industry have shown no signs of interest in making any hasty moves. Agribusiness, for example, continues to be a loyal supporter of the government. The New York Times, a resounding voice of U.S. imperialism, wrote that the decision has “the potential to reshape Brazil’s political future,” a sign of contempt for the Trumpist ally. The high command of the armed forces has remained silent, which makes coup general Paulo Chagas’s characterization of Bolsanoro as “dazzled with power” all the more stark.

The right-wing parliamentary bloc known as Centrão, which represents the interests of the oligarchs and regional elites, has yet to weigh in as it awaits further developments. The bloc selectively supports the majority parties without directly allying with any of them. But the statement from Bolsonaro’s appointed president of the Chamber of Deputies, Artur Lira, is representative: “Lula may even deserve acquittal; Moro, never!”

The prospect of punishing Moro brings together Lula, Centrão, and the non-“lavajatista” wing of the STF — thus shedding light on the PT’s rapprochement with sectors of the coupists on other issues. The neoliberal PSDB (Brazilian Social Democratic Party) and the center-right DEM (Democrats) have chanted “against the extremes,” and Ciro Gomes of the center-left PDT (Democratic Labor Party) has signed on to the right’s line on punishment. Even the reformist PSOL (Socialism and Liberty Party) has celebrated Fachin’s decision, with its usual uncritical line in relation to the PT and the institutional coup regime.

But beneath this initial “coming together” lie structural factors that are independent of Fachin’s decision and that have emerged in reaction to the political trends in Brazil that grew stronger in 2020. One of them is the enormous weakening of the Lava Jato case. The 2019 Vaza Jato scandal, which exposed leaked messages between Moro and lead Lava Jato prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol, revealed the authoritarian measures used to imprison arbitrarilyLula and sustain the institutional coup. Lava Jato is the fraud behind it all — a pro-imperialist operation that paved the way for establishing a new regime born of that coup, and that handed over strategic sectors of the economy to foreign multinationals.

Moro became weaker after his break with the Bolsonaro government, in which he had headed the Ministry of Justice for more than 18 months. In the end, the Lava Jato investigation was dissolved in February 2021. Used to erode the regime that dated back to 1988, it had proven unable to stabilize a new regime in the midst of the global economic crisis — even less so with the forces unleashed in the post-coup regime, as Bolsonaro and the coup institutions fought over who would have ultimate decision making over the contours of a new political system.

The question of Lula’s political rights arose from the Lava Jato investigation’s fall from grace. The struggle against STF judicial authoritarianism and Lava Jato meant defending Lula’s freedom and the restitution of his political rights without giving any political support to the PT, which during its 13 years in power allied itself with the same reactionary social forces — agribusiness, evangelical groups, repressive forces, prosecutors, and others — that implemented and supported the institutional coup.

Nor can the role of U.S. imperialism be ignored. Lava Jato emerged in 2014, in the middle of the Obama administration. Behind the scenes, the U.S. State Department trained figures such as Moro in seminars like the 2009 Bridges Project, which brought together magistrates from several countries to train them in “investigation and punishment in money laundering cases,” as revealed by WikiLeaks. This led strategic sectors of the economy to submit to imperialist interests, driving the 2016 institutional coup so that the regime could carry out brutal attacks on the working class at a quicker pace than the PT of Dilma Rousseff (who succeeded Lula in the presidency). Under the guise of “fighting” the very “corruption” that is inherent to the capitalist system, Lava Jato destroyed much of what was left of the degraded democracy while replacing one corruption scheme with another.

These programs continued with the 2016 election of Donald Trump, Bolsonaro’s ally in the White House. But the 2019 Vaza Jato was driven by Brazil’s Intercept, a media outlet linked to the U.S. Democratic Party establishment. Having fulfilled much of the program of destroying labor rights and deepening the semicolonial features of Brazil as a dependent economy, the political line of U.S. imperialism apparently changed in the midst of the Trump administration. Democrat Joe Biden has assumed the U.S. presidency with Lava Jato already in decline. 

In short, the aim of subjecting Latin America’s largest economy to U.S. plans is as strong with the imperialist Biden as it was with Trump or Obama even earlier. Given that Lava Jato has fulfilled most of the tasks entrusted to it, this policy of subordination might change shape as the global crisis continues and it continues to be exacerbated by the pandemic.

The risk of social instability is heightened by high unemployment and widespread impoverishment caused by the health crisis. The IMF itself states that the pandemic increases the likelihood of violent social tensions and anti-government unrest around the world. In fact, Brazil’s eastern neighbor, Paraguay, is experiencing strong popular demonstrations against unemployment and the government’s lousy handling of the health crisis, with calls for the resignation of right-wing president Mario Abdo Benitez, Bolsonaro’s ally. The material conditions that triggered the protests in Paraguay are being amplified on a large scale across the border in Brazil.

These new conditions, which could intensify the class struggle in the middle of the pandemic in Latin America, could force the Brazilian regime to rethink how it might contain this trend. On the one hand, both foreign imperialism and the Brazilian coup regime want to preserve Lava Jato’s achievements while discarding its methods. That is the best way to continue the institutional coup regime and its economic agenda under the fragile guise of “democracy” that has been worn out by authoritarian maneuvers since 2016. On the other hand, the Brazilian bourgeoisie needs tools to control the social unrest caused by the economic and health crisis, which — combined with Bolsonaro’s erratic policies — make Brazil a global pariah.

Thus, the greatest tool the Brazilian bourgeoisie has to contain the class struggle in Brazil is Lula.

The calculations that Lula was the only candidate who could defeat Bolsonaro in 2022 had been going on for some time — and thus the necessity that he be rehabilitated. Merval Pereira, commentator at the newspaper O Globo and notorious advocate of Lula’s banishment in 2018, had already broached the topic of the Supreme Court reinstituting the PT leader’s political rights. And the STF itself was nodding in this direction: Justice Gilmar Mendes was preparing the vote on Moro’s investigation, and even the “converted” coup leader himself, Fachin, affirmed that Lula’s candidacy in 2018 would have “been good for democracy and strengthened the rule of law.” The calculation was complex, but the restitution of political rights would be made so Lula could be that escape valve the coup regime needs for social discontent. Naturally, everything now depends on Lula and the PT assuming the role of protecting the economic work of the coup — its ultra-liberal and anti-worker austerity — as the PT has been doing in the states of northeast Brazil where it governs.

The communion of the PT with the coup regime, making benevolent nods to the military and flirting with personalities such as the neoliberal ex-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, is even further proof that this party has nothing to offer the working class. For the PT, it is not about fighting the coup regime but taking its place within that regime. Why does Lula’s criticism of Moro not extend to the coup’s economic policies? Why does he say nothing about the need to repeal the labor and social security reforms? Why is he silent about the absolute paralysis of the PT union bureaucracy, which, despite leading millions of workers, has failed to organize them against the economic attacks of the entire coup regime, including Bolsonaro, the deputies, the STF, and the governors? Brazil’s main labor union confederations, the CUT and the CTB, must end the truce they have with the coup plotters and put the unions they lead at the service of these battles. The struggle to restore Lula’s rights must be combined with the struggle against all the attacks and a challenge to this entire rotten political regime.

We must not rely on the politics of the PT. The battles against the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, unemployment, and the economic attacks of the coup plotters must go hand in hand with the defense of our democratic rights. This battle demands an emergency program against the health crisis that attacks the capitalists. We must struggle for a free and sovereign constituent assembly that is independent of all the wings of the coup regime. Such an assembly would allow the Brazilian people to undo all the attacks and reforms imposed since the coup and decide on the measures with which to confront all the problems the great majority of people are facing.

First published on March 9, 2021 in La Izquierda Diario.

Translated by Otto Fors

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