Class Struggle in Brazil: Who Will Defend the Working Class?
With absolute freedom for the market who will defend the poor?
The political farce perpetrated against the Brazilian people on Sunday, April 17, when the country’s national congress approved the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff (PT—Partido dos Trabalhadores/Workers Party) is a critical moment in an ongoing class war against the left, labor and the poor. Instead of an exercise in democratic political sovereignty, as the center-right coalition would prefer the rest of the world believe, the congressional vote is a de-facto political coup. The amalgam of rightwing /neoliberal free marketers, with the support of the media, blatantly attacked basic democratic rule of law, as well as the doctrine of “innocent until proven guilty.” Most of all, there is no evidence that a crime was ever committed. The entire process was marked by the manipulation of legal procedures. This is just a small illustration of how far Brazil’s neoliberal representatives are willing to go to undermine popular democracy and working-class power.
The pathetic statements made by rightwing congressmen as they justified their votes in favor of impeachment—“for god, country and family” is just one of the more bizarre (to say the least) justifications too inane to repeat—are scarily similar to right-wing mobilizations of the past, when a U.S. backed military coup seized power in 1964. The current “crisis” in Brazil represents long-term tensions between the interests of important financial sectors (both in the US and Brazil) aligned with right-wing free marketeers and the neoliberal “left”2 all united by the objective of putting an end to the expansive socioeconomic and political policies implemented over the past 13 years, policies that have moved millions of Brazilians out of historical abject poverty while providing greater inclusion for working class organizations in the political decision making process. For the left, both in Latin America and the United States, the current political conflict is not only important for its immediate impact on the region. Just as vital is a larger debate regarding the future of left and center-left governments around the globe and their struggle against neoliberal-austerity projects. In this way Sunday’s political travesty does and will have long lasting implications for the left in Latin America.
The PT: navigating politics and class conflict
The class nature of the conflict underway is not simply a political battle between the rightwing alliance led by PMDB and the left but mirrors unresolved constitutional definitions that date back to the process of transition to democracy. The current constitution, approved by a Constitutional Congress on July 27, 1988, is probably the most democratic constitution in Brazilian history. Not only does the Magna Carta provide a broad understanding of social, human, cultural and political rights, such as public healthcare, commitment to public education, anti-discriminatory laws, among many others, but the document itself was the outcome of a constitutional congress convened at the final stages of Brazil’s long, negotiated, transition to democracy and included an intense process of popular mobilization and participation. What the new constitution, named “the Citizens Constitution,” couldn’t do, however, was correlate political advances to the prevailing economic structure or align democratic politics and the economy.3 As Emir Sader argued:
The transition to democracy in Brazil had the wherewithal, contrary to other countries in the region, to convene a constitutional congress and adopt a Carta that restored democracy…it became clear early on that the constitution would be difficult to implement because it was born against the current of the neoliberal wave that was being implemented around the world and in Latin America … [in this sense] the transition to democracy came to an end without democratizing economic power in Brazil.4
The rise of the PT to national politics in 2003 in this context, while opening a new path of socioeconomic and political development, was faced with increasingly high levels of resistance by corporate representatives in Congress. The PT’s main proposals focused on elimination of historical abject poverty, reversal of neoliberal privatization schemes of publically owned companies adopted by then President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira—PSDB) and expansion of working class political participation. To achieve these goals the party proposed a reorganization of the economy that included expanding and creating new social initiatives directed to low income and marginalized sectors of society, implementing national development programs in industries and infrastructure (power, transportation, basic industry and technology) and increasing the political participation of the working class. To achieve the last objective, the PT initiated or expanded the mechanisms of direct and indirect participation by labor organizations and social movements in public policy forums at various levels of government.
Governing from the Left—Confronting Neoliberalism
But because of the non alignment of the political and the economic, Lula’s election in 2003 was not and probably could never have been a first step toward socialism (in spite of the wishful thinking by some on the Left in the US and Brazil immediately after the election). In his first inaugural speech, Lula sounded more like Roosevelt than Lenin—and what he proposed was an expansive version of the New Deal, which many in the newly formed government alluded to during the first days of the PT presidency. Lula began his 2003 inaugural speech by setting the tone and rhythm for change in Brazil. He was not proposing an assault on the Winter Palace (or the Palacio da Alvorada, the presidential residency) but, as he declared, in what appeared to be a message to some sectors of the left:
We are going to change [Brazilian society] yes. Change with courage, but carefully, with humility and audacity, but also conscious that change is a gradual and continual process, not simply an act of aspirations or volunterism. Change through dialogue and negotiation, without sidestepping or precipitation, so that the results are conscious and long lasting.5
The current political crisis in Brazil thus accentuates the importance of a broader analysis of the role of the PT in national politics since 2003 and especially of the problems, limits and importance of left participation in electoral and institutional politics. Among the sweeping left critiques of the PT that have recently emerged are charges of pursuing excessively pragmatic economic policies, alienating smaller left groups within the party, institutionalizing social and labor organizations (thus making them ineffective), just to name a few. For the most part, these critiques fail to take into account the structural limits (both immediate and long term) for any leftwing political agenda, including the national and international forces lined up against redistributive policies and the complex and varied structure of the Brazilian economy. This failure leads critics to minimize the political impact of the redistributive measures adopted over time and the significance of the transformations that have shaped Brazilian society over the last 13 years. Just as important, they fail to take into account the complex and varied ways in which the left has emerged as a political alternative in the last decade. As Steve Striffler correctly points out:
Not surprisingly, elections did not sweep away old regimes with the speed and decisiveness of armed revolution. Once elected, center-left governments found themselves in charge of countries where the opposition stilled controlled most of the media, the economy, the church and significant sectors of the state.6
A general misconception made by left critics has been to presume that the party had become (at least for awhile) a hegemonic power in national politics. Alfredo Saad Filho and Armando Boito, for example argue that:
The protest wave expressed, in our view, the disintegration of the political hegemony of the PT and the emergence of a “new right”….The PT governments have almost invariably followed the path of least resistance: there was no meaningful attempt to reform the constitution, the state, or the political system, challenge the ideological hegemony of neoliberalism, reform the mainstream media or transform the country’s economic structure or its international integration…The PT had been building this neo-developmentalist front for several years through the dilution of its own leftwing aspirations, disorganization of its militant supporters, exclusion of far left groups, containment of the trade unions, NGO’s, community and other associations and movements previously linked to the party, increasingly close dialogue with business organizations—in particular the Industrial Federation of the State of Sao Paulo (Federacao das Industrias do Estado de Sao Paulo).7
Similarly Perry Anderson argued:
The trade unions, if somewhat more active under Dilma, were a shadow of their combative past. The poor remained passive beneficiaries of the PT rule, which had never educated or organized them. Let alone mobilized them as a collective force. Social movements—of the landless, or the homeless—had been kept at a distance. Intellectuals were marginalized. But not only had there been no political potentiation of energies from below. The style of the material beneficiation of the regime created little solidarity. There was no redistribution of wealth or income.8
Their critique of the PT seems tellingly reminiscent of the analysis made by some far left groups of Salvador Allende’s government in the months preceding the coup in Chile. As the conservative forces against the UP coalition in Chile coalesced, Allende struggled to maintain the Popular Unity government intact. Amidst a growing isolation of the UP coalition, some left organizations, such as Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR), called for more “revolutionary action,” eventually leading to the rupture of the governing coalition.9
Attributing “hegemonic power” to the PT disfigures the institutional functions and structure of political power. By doing so critics like Saad-Filho, Anderson and others who are inclined to judge the PT harshly for not living up to the mission they had assigned it unrealistically attribute to the party the power to determine, as if by its own aspiration, political outcomes. In this way they create a political straw horse, which, among other problems, can obfuscate the class nature of the conflict.10 The false premise of PT hegemony provides the framework for imagining political options that were and are in fact, non-existent. Hegemony, be it political, economic, cultural or social, has long been the terrain of intense dispute and social conflict but always within the domain of Brazil’s economic elites. Moreover any real challenge to elite hegemony in Brazilian society, given the country’s expansive economy, geography and diverse population and socioeconomic conditions will certainly take much longer than 13 years of what has been in fact a coalition government.
Some far-left organizations over the years have argued that the PT has “betrayed” the working class by not implementing socialist economic and social policies. Some of their arguments are: the process of agrarian reform is too slow, the party has become a buffer for bourgeois politics and/or that national development policies are no longer effective. With few exceptions these critics view the political process through the rose-colored lens of “socialism or nothing.”11 In many ways the far left critique of the PT “that the party has deviated from its socialist mission” reinforces a purist vision of left politics. This is a short sighted view of politics, rather than understand the construction of socialism as a long, complex and heterogeneous process, their analysis is based more on ambition than on the long term correlation of forces and organization needed for such a massive political project.
They fail to acknowledge that in order for the left, (in the sphere of electoral politics), to have any short-term, meaningful, transformative effect, political action cannot occur outside of the formal institutions and structures where policies and decisions are taken. A good example is Valerio Arcary’s argument that “The PT of 2016 is almost unrecognizable. The PT is now Brazil’s most professional electoral machine, thoroughly integrated into the government institutions and closely associated with some of the country’s most powerful corporations.”12 If the PT was as electorally proficient as the author claims why has the left—in general, the PT included—never achieved a legislative majority? Some go even further to argue that since the PT has deviated from its socialist past, they are paying the price for betraying the working class. In their rationale the PT deserves to be the object of the current impeachment campaign. For example, Sabrina Fernandes argues that no one should “feel sorry for [Dilma]”; rather the PT deserves to be the object of the current impeachment campaign: “this is something the party has brought upon itself.”13 In this way, besides indulging in a good dose of victim blaming, they perpetuate a “revolutionary fervor” that is both misinformed and misdirected.
Neither the PT, nor the Brazilian left for that matter, has ever elected a majority to congress. Saad Filho and Boito, while arguing that the PT is (or was) a hegemonic political force, strangely acknowledge that “The PT has never elected even 20 percent of the Deputies and Senators, and even the “reliable left” (including the PT itself) rarely exceeded one third of the seats.”14 Since the PT won the presidency in 2003, it has had to, with success and setbacks, navigate a highly fragmented political party system, with seemingly disparate political forces, which were canalized electorally by the immense popularity of Lula and later Dilma. From a political perspective, the disparite electoral outcome between the presidential and legislative elections, seem to indidcate, as John French appropriately notes: “The election of Lula in 2002, “was a defeat for neoliberalism and the Washington policy consensus of 1989, but the mass popular vote for Lula was not a conscious repudiation” of the same.15
Rather than abdicate from the process of political reform and revision of the constitution, as the left critique claims, constitutional reform has been an issue continually driving the party’s political action over the years. The process of political reform, however, demands a strong coalitional legislative voting bloc and is axiomatic to the ongoing political battle of classes, organized social forces and their institutional political wherewithal.16 In this sense while the left critique makes sweeping claims about the PT’s “failures,” most of those claims lack any analysis of the correlation of political forces at any given moment. As Marcus Iononi pointed out:
A Constitutional Congress and constitutional revisions occur or fail to occur tied to the effective historical process of the struggle between classes, fractions, parties and interest groups [in this case]…not [a dispute] between democracy and authoritarianism but rather what type of democracy, i.e. political democratic system. It is a fundamental dispute to [either] deepen the transformations that have occurred since 2003 or the containment of democratic participation and the political system within the boundaries of a classical representative system.17
In 2006 Lula proposed convening a constitutional congress, arguing that if there were sufficient popular support he would submit a Proposal of Constitutional Amendment (PEC) to congress.18 In 2009, PT Congressman Marcos Maia, submitted a proposal to congress (PEC 384/2009) requesting that congress convene a Constitutional Congress, with the specific task of “reviewing the constitution with regard to political representation.”19 Maia’s proposal received little response in congress outside of the left.
The 2013 demonstrations initiated in São Paulo, brought forth a wide array of disparate claims. The only general claim of the demonstrators, clear from the onset, indicated that reform of the political system was urgent. Increasingly larger sectors of the population deemed the legislative process ineffective at best. In response Dilma and the PT proposed a popular plebiscite to determine how the process of political reform would occur. The PT proposed that congress convene a limited constitutional congress focused on restructuring political representation, with the hopes of reorganizing the party system. In addition to the institutional actions, a broad array of social movements with the support of the PT and others organized a national petition drive demanding a plebiscite to move forward with the process of political reform. A poll taken shortly after the initial demonstrations in 2013 indicated that 85 percent of those interviewed were in favor of “political reform” either through a process of popular legislative initiative or a Constitutional Congress. In this sense there was both national mobilization and a highly favorable political climate for initiating a broad and democratic process of political reform. In spite of popular political support, large sectors of congress, galvanized by the neoliberal right aligned with sectors of PMDB effectively blocked any democratic process of political reform. As Ianoni argued:
To begin with [the movement to block political reform counted] a significant number of parliamentary and political leaders, among which some notables from PMDB, such as the vice president of the Republic and the president of the House of Representatives. According to Michel Temer [vice president and president of PMDB] “an exclusive congressional congress [as a means of] proceeding with political reform means the absolute demoralization of the current congressional representation. It is proof of our incapacity to actualize the current political party and electoral system.” However, the incapacity as much as it is regretful and demoralizing, it is a fact.20
The Rightwing-neoliberal-left Alliance
The central aspect of the strategy of the rightwing alliance has been an ongoing campaign to demonize and criminalize the PT leadership. The rightwing/ neoliberal-left alliance has argued that the PT and its extensive social welfare policies have drained the Brazilian economy. The class nature of the current conflict is obvious; capital has declared open war on Brazil’s poor and working class. Increasingly common among the Brazilian elite are comments (veiled or not) that the poor have become lazy; they don’t want to work; there isn’t enough money; state regulation of the economy debilitates growth, etc., that corruption is rampant in the government. Many of these arguments are also flavored with lingering cold war rhetoric portraying Brazil’s role in the region and internationally as subversive to “national interests” for its support of other left-progressive governments and for maintaining an independent perspective even when in conflict with US foreign economic policy and interests.21
The object of the rightwing coup is clear—to reverse the victories and safeguards of the working class and the poor that were acheived over the last 13 years and to preempt further redistributive reforms. Their proposals for a future government are clearly laid out in the document “Uma Ponte para o Futuro” (A Bridge toward the Future).22 The document is a roadmap to deregulate state control of the economy, defund—i.e. eliminate—social welfare programs, expand the privatization of secondary education, weaken working-class legal protections and redirect Brazilian economic and foreign policy to prioritize economic alliances with the United States and Europe. Published in October 2015, the proposal is a clear indication that the coup was a long time in the making.
Left and center-left governments in Latin America have favorably influenced national, regional and international political and economic policies, in many cases creating alternatives to neoliberal market solutions. The PT’s role in shaping national policy has enabled reversing neoliberal socioeconomic policies, such as privatization schemes of state owned companies; strengthening the State’s political and economic initiatives and regulation of market activity; attracting private economic activity into state sponsored National Development Programs (Programas de Aceleracao de Crescimento –PAC / Program of Accelerated Growth) while redirecting significant portions of the revenues generated by these efforts toward the implementation of social welfare programs in housing, healthcare and education to increasingly larger sectors of the poor.
To achieve these goals the government had to work within a diffuse political party structure defined by weak party identification, conflicting interests and party leaderships representing distinct political factions, with additional layers of conflicting interests at the regional and national level. In contrast to other political parties, the PT is by most accounts the only left party in Brazil with a mass base where voter identification surpasses by a large margin all other political parties.23
The broad governing alliances elected to Brazil’s national government make politics messy on the best of days; shifting alliances of political parties and social forces are common practice. Beyond the immediate electoral victory, governance in Brazil is a continuous negotiation and requires among other factors maintenance of a broad and stable political coalition among very distinct forces, under conditions in which keeping your allies “satisfied” is an everyday affair.
The process of political change from an institutional standpoint occurs on a highly fragmented terrain within a presidential – federalist system. In this sense navigating the legislative process—to approve social policies- intfertwines parties, factions and institutions in complex ways that shape the very structures of how and where decision making takes place. Alfredo Monteiro points out that in many cases, such as Brazil, presidential systems have morphed into what has been defined by many as “coalitional presidentialism.”24 As Monteiro stated:
If the president can set the agenda and legislate, the president can also use these powers more continually sustain a governing coalition in the congress. …scholars began to see a consistent pattern of “coalition presidentialism” (presidencialismo de coalizao). Unlike presidentialism in purest form, coalitional presidentialism has the executive share power with the assembly in ways that allow the branches to form alliances based on inter-party colaborations and the strategic distribution of cabinet posts to party leaders. This forms the institutional framework that enables the management of voting blocs on select pieces of legislation. …the actual use of decrees by Brazilian presidents tended to be consistent with coalitional presidentialism. It should be noted that congress retained the power to amend the constitution and revise decree authorities.25
The Brazilian legislative structure is comprised of 513 congressional representatives and 81 senators. There are currently 35 registered political parties of which 26 have elected representatives to congress and/ or the senate. Most political parties have varying degrees of political influence which are regional at best. Within this highly fragmented structure, three can be considered national parties, they are, the PT, PMDB (Partido do Movimento Democratico Brasilieiro) and PSDB (Partido da Social Democracia Brasiliera). PMDB originated from the MDB (Movimento Democratico Brasilieiro/ Brazilian Democratic Movement) the only opposition party permitted to exist during the dictatorship. During military rule MDB represented a broad political front of liberals, some radical groups, socialists and communists.
With the transition to democracy PMDB morphed into a large centrist party by weaving together a network of regional political groups held over from the dictatorship. In this sense it has become a “catchall” party. The social base of PSDB, reflects, in large part, Brazilian commercial and industrial entrepreneurs and upper middle classes. Since its inception it has been the main national exponent of neoliberal political economy.
Building a national political alliance capable of winning a presidential election also requires successfully negotiating regional interests, primarily with governors and state legislatures. At any moment during the process, nationally consolidated alliances can rupture regionally, such as in the state of Ceará during the 2014 election when the PT and PMDB (at that time allies nationally) squared off in state runoff elections for governor. Moreover, constructing congressional majorities requires navigating organized-interest based political blocs within congress that do not necessarily follow national or regional alliances.
The national political process over the years has been polarized by electoral disputes between the PT and the neoliberal opposition led by PSDB. The results of the 2014 congressional elections are particularly illustrative of the polarization and fragmentation of national politics.
Fig. 1. Political Party System based on the 2014 congressional election.
Specifically, for the PT, governing in the sphere of national politics over the last 13 years required navigating the asymmetry between the politics of government and the politics of the party (the gap between political activism, be it the party, in labor organizations and/or social movements and the responsibility of government in a broad political coalition). Striffler points out, “What has been the most unique about these highly uneven transformations are the changing class compositions and political coalitions that have driven the revolution or revolutionary agent.”26 These uneven relations are further strained by institutional power sharing schemes since ministries and regional federal agencies are distributed among seemingly disparate political parties. A good example was the appointment of Senator Katia Abreu (PMDB) to the Ministry of Agriculture after the 2014 election. Abreu’s political base can be found among the large landowners and agribusinesses; and she certainly is not a friend of agrarian reform. In this sense, the broad political alliances that sustained the national government, could, at times, increase tensions with the party’s allies to the left end of the political spectrum.
The left critique has argued that since 2003 the PT has had a negative influence on Brazil’s vibrant and expansive labor and social movements; that they have become, as Anderson argues, “a shadow of their combative past”27 or largely ineffective, due to what Saad Filho and Boito argue was the party’s “containment of trade unions, NGO’s.”28 Their arguments, however, ignore the historical conditions under which most of the major social movements were formed; the largely anti-democratic sociopolitical structure that has dominated much of Brazilian history as well as the mechanisms created after 2003 to reverse elite domination of politics.
The measures to expand working class political participation have provided new venues where organized labor and social movements intervene in policy decisions. Rather than contain or weaken working class power, since 2003, elites have had to deal increasingly with, and as Lula indicated in his inaugural speech, negotiate policies with popular organizations. If in the past the elite political structure shielded politicians from public accountability29, the new measures expanded the sphere of political debate and policy decisions.
The experiences of popular participation, while varied, focused on two spheres of politics. At the national level participation has expanded through national sectorial counsels, where organized groups discuss and examine the implementation of public policies. A good example, at the regional and municipal level (well before 2003), PT municipal governments had devised various forms of political inclusion, one of the most recognized of which are the participatory budget councils. These are municipal councils where elected local community representatives, in conjunction with the mayor, define the application and investment priorities of local government. These organizations not only provided avenues for popular participation in local government but served as a stimulus for popular organization. Examining the social and political impact of the municipal councils for the poor in Porto Alegre, Gianpaolo Baiocchi wrote:
Established by Porto Alegre’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) municipal administration in the early 1990s, the OP [Municpal Budget Counsel] has drawn tens of thousands of participants each year to its meetings around the city and decide on a variety of matters. The majority of the participants have been from among Porto Alegre’s poorer citizens, who live in working class neighborhoods and poor slum areas. Many have come to the OP to discuss a specific problem, have stayed on to take part in local organizations like CCP, if not in local neighborhood associations, which have come to thrive.30
The argument that the actions of the PT have weakened Brazil’s labor and social movements ignore the expansive and diverse (political, social and economic) composition of social movements that engage in national and regional politics over a broad geographic territory. At the same time they neglect to acknowledge the socioeconomic transformations of Brazil’s working class over the last 13 years, and the influence it has had on popular organization. As Marilena Chaui points out:
The projects and income transference as well as the guarantee of social rights (education, health, housing, nutrition) and economic (minimum wage increases, policies to guarantee employment, unemployment insurance, agrarian reform and solidarity cooperatives) all indicate that the working class in Brazil is complex and heterogeneous, and not limited to industrial and agricultural workers.31
By attributing to the PT the power to “contain” or weaken Brazil’s labor and social organizations they underestimate the political capacity and independence of movements and leaders with many years of experience. In their account activists and popular leaders appear as cogs of the internal machinations of a political party that has sold out to the bourgeoisie.
Noticeably, their misconception regarding the effectiveness of Brazil’s social and labor movements stands in stark contrast with the recent popular mobilizations, occupations and organization of millions of Brazilians in defense of Dilma and the government. The massive mobilizations over the past three months, which by many accounts has equaled or surpassed the mobilizations of the right, indicates something else is going on. The recent mass demonstrations in defense of Dilma, Lula and the PT are comprised of and led by many of the same social forces Saad Filho, Boito, and Anderson claim to have been marginalized by the PT, i.e., labor and popular organizations, intellectuals and the poor.
What seems clear is that the Brazilian left is not going to make the same mistake made by some sectors of the Chilean left before the coup against Salvador Allende. A recent evaluation of the movement against the coup by MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra) leader Joao Pedro Stedile pointed out that the current mass mobilizations against the coup were being organized and led primarily by labor and popular organizations, he stated:
Over the last few months there has been a process of unification of popular forces that are present in the Frente do Povo Sem Medo (People without Fear Front) and the Frente Brasil Popular (Popular Brazil Front), and there is a broad unity with intellectuals, artists, jurists as well as Christian and African religious organizations.32
Beyond the terrain of institutional politics, its limits and possibilities, the roots of the current political crisis run much deeper and display characteristics faced by many left governments in Latin America.
Neoliberal Imperialism Brazilian Style
What is scarily absent from the left critique of the PT is the role and influence of US imperialism in the region, as if Brazil were immune from foreign political and economic interests. If the United States has not sent the Marines to Latin America in a while (at least not yet) there is no reason to think that imperialism, in this case, U.S. and European corporate financial interests, have been less active in the region than in the past.33
This is particularly apparent in the current political conflict—where economic manipulation of the economy by national and international financial sectors aligned with US interests have taken aim at Brazil’s poor. National and international economic and political forces, including US foreign policy, have continuously sought to constrain the PT’s political agenda, adding greater uneasiness to the already complex terrain where institutional politics is decided.
The opposition’s political strategy included manipulating the economy to force an increase in prices i.e., inflation and subsequently the foreign currency exchange rate. Adalberto Moreira Cardoso argued that the Brazilian economy was hostage to an “organized anti-redistributive collusion”—formed by large businesses, industrial rentiers, the middle class and the service sector, with ties to the US economy—that has been able to influence and manipulate unfavorably the process of economic development.:
When interest rates reached the lowest rate ever of 2% it became clear it was time to punish Dilma. By withholding their investments they forced a general increase in prices. Brazilian businesses argued that they were withholding their investment due to high risk levels. With low interest rates, rather than invest, as occurs in the United States, they decided to increase their prices—given the way the Brazilian economy is structured—starting in 2014 inflation rates quickly expanded.34
Instead of gunboats, imperialist intervention in the affairs of states in the neoliberal era is the result of economic manipulation and political pressure organized by foreign economic interests and their national allies, where success requires “trustworthy” governments to impose their policies on the working class and the poor. It reflects the juncture point of national and international corporations and economic interests of national elite classes. As David Harvey accurately points out:
The benefits of this system were, however, highly concentrated among a restricted class of multi-national CEO’s, financiers, and rentiers….This class looked, as always, to the United States to protect its asset values and rights of property and ownership across the globe…debt crisis might rock Brazil and Mexico…but the rentier elements within all these countries could not only preserve their capital but actually enhance their own internal class position. Privileged classes could seal themselves off in gilded ghettos in Bombay, Sao Paulo and Kuwait while enjoying the fruits of their investment on Wall Street.35
In practical terms Harvey’s argument illustrates the current battle for the integration of Latin America into the framework of the neoliberal political economy and the way in which elite class interests are projected across national boundaries. For example, on a grand scale, the clear rejection by progressive governments in Latin America of the US led Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP ) stand as an important roadblock to the economic consolidation and interests of Wall Street and their Brazilian allies’ in the region.
As political analysist Luis Nassiff points out, the Wall Street—Coup connection is more than apparent:
For example, the interests of finance capital, i.e., Wall Street, is closely aligned with those of the “richest man in Brazil,” Jorge Paulo Lemann, multibillionaire Suisse–Brazilian and owner of Heinz Ketchup (jointly with Tereza Heinz Kerry, wife of the current US Secretary of State, John Kerry)…[or] Burger King, which is the majority stockholder of the companies Anheuser–Busch and Budweiser, and enjoy close relations with Warren Buffet….[at the center is the battle is the TPP and TTIP which] are viewed as supranational business infrastructure, which essentially subordinates the signatory nations to the hegemonic command of large companies and finance capital…Everything indicates that after Macri [recently elected neoliberal president of Argentina], and if the coup is successful in Brazil, the treaties will be quickly approved. It should be even less a surprise that other groups active in the anti-government protests, are likewise financed by Wall Street, such as the infamous Koch Brothers. Charles and David Koch, are the financial backers of the Movimento Brasil Livre (Free Brazil Movement) and the Estudantes pela Liberdade (Students for Freedom), and several of the coup leaders were trained through the Atlas Economic Research Foundation.36
In light of this it comes as no surprise that immediately after the favorable vote in congress to impeach Dilma, PSDB leader, Senator Aluisio Nunes embarked on a trip to Washington, with the objective, as Glenn Greenwald reported, of meeting “with various US officials as well as with lobbyists and assorted influence peddlers close to Clinton and leading political figures.”37 The Washington-Wall Street connection with Brazilian elites is unambiguous, Vice-President Michel Temer (PMDB) suggested that if they were successful in seizing power, the future Minister of Finance would be none other than the chairman of Goldman Sachs in Brazil, Paulo Leme.38
From a sociopolitical standpoint the anti PT demonstrations are fueled by the mobilization of the middle classes primarily in the south eastern region (the wealthiest section of the country). There is a clear class distinction among those participating in the anti PT/ pro impeachment demonstrations. According to a recent poll, a majority of the demonstrators were males, above 36 years of age, with income levels and education far above the averages of urban Brazilian society. For example, 77 percent of demonstrators interviewed in a recent rightwing demonstration were university educated and declared incomes of 5-20 times the minimum wage. This percentage is extraordinarily higher than the average for the city of Sao Paulo, where 28 percent have achieved higher education, and 23 percent have incomes at level declared by the protesters.39
The anti PT discourse has likewise taken on a racialized character; 77 percent of the demonstrators declared themselves to be white (i.e. of European origin) and many “blame” the poor of the north and northeast for the economic problems facing the country40. The electoral success of the PT in the north and northeast of Brazil is exceptionally high by all accounts. In 2014 for example, in the state of Ceará, Dilma received 76.75 percent of the votes.41 As one rightwing demonstrator stated when asked if he thought Lula would be elected in 2018: “He will agitate the poor in the northeast who are all on Bolsa Familia [welfare]; it could happen.”42
The Fight Against Poverty in Brazil: Expanding Working Class Political Participation
Implementation of the PT’s progressive reforms required confronting business interests within the government and in congress while creating a legislative majority that inevitably would include non-left parties. The PT argued that creating a favorable balance between the GDP and government expenses was contingent on expanding the national economy, implementing a broad range of economic development plans, and lowering interest rates. And not by sleight-of-hand accounting as finance sectors of the economy were proposing. The PT-led government’s delicate balancing act has enabled a shift in the political economy that supported new state welfare initiatives, such as a family welfare plan (Bolsa Familia) which by April 2014, guaranteed a monthly income for approximately 14,145,274 million families, over 50 million people (almost 25 percent of the Brazilian population). Approximately 28 million people were elevated above the level of extreme poverty (as defined by the World Bank) and by 2014 Brazil was removed from the UN’s Map of Hunger.43
After years of austerity measures and multiple attempts to sell off the country’s national resources, Brazilian society was beginning to show signs of economic stability, a greater redistribution of the country’s wealth and the reduction of income inequality. Strong regulatory measures, the reduction of interest rates aligned with the actions of the two major public banks (Banco do Brasil and Caixa Economic Federal) to curb financial speculation were vital measures to create the resources needed to finance national development programs. Analyzing the PT’s political economic measures to combat inequality and poverty, Nelson Barbosa (Minister of Finance during Dilma’s Government) explained:
Over the last ten years the political economy was defined by the creation of a new model of economic development, based on the expansion of the internal market and the strong intervention of the state to reduce income inequality…[based on] five economic events, 1) …favorable external exchange between Brazil on the world market, 2) the earnings from the favorable international market were reinvested were redirected to shore up the countries financial vulnerabilities and the acceleration of growth with the domestic investment and expansion of domestic consumption, 3) …actions to better the distribution of income…thus expanding income and consumption on one side and expanding investment and productivity on the other 4) …the expanding economic performance generated a strong process of social inclusion with the reduction of unemployment, real salary increases and the access to consumer credit by larger sectors of the population…5) expansion of Brazil’s exchange capacity on the international market, which lead to a strong cambial appreciation, which ultimately affected Brazil’s competitiveness in the international market particularly in the last four years.44
In 2007 the implementation of PAC (Program of Accelerated Growth) began providing investments to bolster major industries and infrastructure (including in the poorest regions of the country). The program expanded access to housing for low income families, created free 24 hour local community healthcare units across Brazil and expanded access to higher education.
A central aspect of the PT’s public policy over the last 13 years has been the massive investment in and expansion of Brazil’s public education system. Education is viewed not only as a measure to reinforce national development programs but also as a mechanism that expands the democratic participation of masses of poor working class youth and can reduce inequality.45 Since Lula’s first election the national budget for education has increased by 218 percent, from R$ 18 billion reais in 2002 to R$ 115.7 billion reais in 2014.46 During the last 13 years, as a result of the investment in public education 18 new federal universities with 173 campuses and 422 Technical Schools were created.47 All federal educational institutions have fixed-access reserves for low income and non-white Brazilians. This is particularly important for the federal university system which has historically been dominated by white, upper middle class students. To understand the impact that the increased investment in public education has had on Brazilian education in a historical context, “it took the country 5 centuries to reach the benchmark of 3.5 million students enrolled in universities, and only 12 years [2003-2014] to reach the current 7.1 million university students.”48 At the secondary level, the pattern is the same: in the hundred years up to 2003, 140 federal technical schools were created; in the last 12 years 442 federal technical schools were established. Even under the current adverse economic situation federal student grants for education (Prouni) continued to expand, even if at the slower rate of 7.28 percent from 2014-2015.49
The state’s intervention in the economy was multifold. It limited financial speculation, partly by increasing taxes on speculative operations, exercising strict control over the foreign currency exchange rate, and reducing interest rates (making it unattractive to those who lived off financial speculation) while redirecting resources to the poorest sectors of society, for example by forcing electric energy distributors to lower their rates 30%. Between 2003 and 2010 the annual unemployment rate declined from 12.4 percent to 5.7 percent; 15 million formal permanent jobs were created, and the GDP per capita grew from (US$) 2,870 to 8, 217, with national minimum wage increases based on the inflation rate, and economic growth (GDP) of the past two years.50
Fig. 2 The Evolution of Poverty—Green indicates Extreme Poverty / Blue indicates “Poor”51
Fig. 3. The Evolution of the real minimum wage.52
Fig. 4. The Evolution of Unemployment Rates.53
For the poorest sectors of Brazilian society the political effects of reducing income inequality, increasing access to goods and services, healthcare, education and housing were transformative and tantamount to a revolution for a country dominated by economic elites for over 500 years. The revolutionary character of the changes has been experienced primarily by the poorest sectors of the country in the north/northeast. Removing the shackles of abject poverty has also substantially improved everyday life as increasingly larger numbers of the poor have gained access to aspects of Brazilian life previously reserved for the middle and upper classes. Tony Benn’s argument is illustrative of the transformative impact that the reduction of poverty can have on politics:
If you are shackled with debt [in poverty], you don’t have the freedom to choose …people in debt [poverty] become hopeless…there are two ways in which people are controlled. First of all frighten people and secondly demoralize them, an educated, healthy and confident nation is harder to govern.54
In this sense the class hatred of elites who saw their control of the poor slipping away has become increasingly visible in the rightwing mobilizations.
Class Hatred—Mobilizing the Middle Class
The virulent public manifestations of hatred for the poor by the upper middle class and elite sectors of society, combined with calls for the return of the military to power, clearly present in the pro-impeachment demonstrations, provide important insight into the impact of reducing income inequality. As journalist Mario Magalhaes recently pointed out, “during the 13 years of PT governments, the income of the most poor increased by 129 percent, after inflation while income of the most rich increased by 32 percent.”55 As a result of increasing income and economic stability under the PT political alliance, elites are now “forced to share” universities, airports, cultural activities, commercial centers, among other venues with a sector of the population that had been marginalized for most of Brazilian history. Even traditional members of the opposition were taken back by the class nature of the attacks on Dilma, Lula and the PT by middle class protesters. Bresser Pereira, Minister of Finance during the Governments of Jose Sarney and Fernando Henrique commented:
[There has] emerged in Brazil for the first time a phenomenon I have never seen before. All of a sudden I have witnessed the class hatred of the upper class, of the rich, against a party and a president. It is not worry or fear; it is hate. This hate is the result of the fact, that for the first time, a center-left government, with postures and policy clearly on the left continues to defend the poor against the rich. Their hate is based on the government’s clear option for workers and the poor.56
From a political perspective class “hatred” of Brazil’s elites stems (in large part) from the overall successful redistributive policies which until 2014 seemed to further consolidate the role of the PT in national politics. The future looked increasingly bleak for any successful electoral challenge, more so if, as he indicated, Lula were to run for president in 2018.
In this sense the strategy of the rightwing –neoliberal “left” coalition has focused on rupturing the alliances that formed the national government. Drawing initially on right wing sectors of PMDB (until recently PMDB was the principal ally in the government coalition)—the party has recently moved entirely to support the opposition campaign and Dilma’s impeachment. Removing Dilma from the presidency clears the way for vice president Michel Temer (PMDB) to assume the presidency.
Another important component of the class war against the poor draws on a strong antigovernment media campaign that has been working day and night to sway public opinion in favor of the coup.
The corporate media has played an important role in the rightwing coup/ pro-impeachment/anti-PT mobilizations currently underway in Brazil. At the forefront is the media monopoly Globo (although most commercial media venues have since united in the campaign) and have incorporated anti Dilma/ anti PT misinformation, promoting the coup, in different venues of their daily programing, i.e., not simply by manipulating news and information. By introducing anti government propaganda into what were seemingly innocuous cultural and entertainment broadcasts the corporate-financed media campaign against Dilma, Lula and the PT has become a 24 hour- week long subject of media programming. The use of corporate media to lay the groundwork and promote political coups is not new in Latin America. Ariel Dorfman and Armand Marttelart analyzed the use of corporate media in preparing the coup that brought Pinochet to power in Chile wrote:
Each day, with expert US advice, in each newspaper, each weekly, each monthly magazine, each news dispatch, each movie, and each comic book their arsenal of psychological warfare was fortified. In the words of General Pinochet, the point was to “conquer minds.” While in the words of Donald Duck (in the magazine Disneylandia, published in December 1971, coinciding with the first mass rallies of native fascism, the so-called “March of the Empty Pots and Pans”) the point was to restore the king.57
Any similarity with Brazil is not mere coincidence. The corporate controlled media that fuels the rightwing campaign is not just about what is published but also what is withheld from the public. For example, while small antigovernment protests frequently receive large coverage, coverage of the massive demonstrations in support of the PT and Dilma tend to be minimal at best. In this sense, media “silence” driven by class self-interest is just as important in the struggle for the “hearts and minds” of the Brazilian people, as Jose Luis Fiori wrote:
When a critique or news article does not appear in the papers – and here is the change in the local order—it is not because of orders by military censors who determine not to publish articles about Banco Economico so as not to disrupt the financial market and the expectations of international investors, whose investment decisions can affect our monetary system, can help the president, guarantee the happiness of our middle class so that they can go to Miami beach. It is more probable that they have the same reaction, determined by the collective interests to uphold all of this fiction. There is no need for great strategic rationalization. All that is needed is the media organization think of their own investments and will come to the conclusion: suspend publication of the article!58
The final ingredient of this attack on the duly elected government is the support of rightwing federal justices who have coalesced, fueled by unfounded charges of corruption against Dilma and Lula. In all senses the process mounted by Brazil’s elites is a coup that will have a chilling effect, weakening the country’s democratic institutions.
The question of corruption serves as a subterfuge to demoralize PT politicians, primarily Dilma and Lula, thus attempting to weaken the electoral outcome in the upcoming October municipal elections and the 2018 general election. Just as important, the corruption scandal helps justify future privatization schemes, primarily of the state owned petroleum company Petrobras. The center piece of the opposition’s claim is an investigation—dubbed Operation Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash)—into the existence of wide scale corruption in the state-owned enterprise. What is rarely mentioned, however, is the fact that the scheme to divert funds was organized during the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso. A majority of the politicians identified as corrupt are not from the PT, but are mostly from other political parties, including the head of the movement to impeach Dilma, the President of the National Congress, Eduardo Cunha (PMDB) suspected of hiding bribe money in Swiss bank accounts. Cunha was recently removed from office by the Supreme Court as he awaits examination of his own ongoing investigation for corruption.
There is no indication that Dilma had any involvement in any corruption scheme. Just the opposite, politicians and CEO’s involved in corruption schemes have never been so severely punished as they have been under the presidency of Dilma Rousseff. Indeed, it’s only since the election of Lula that the fight against corruption in public administration been taken so seriously. Jorge Hage argued:
Since 2003, Lula, fulfilling a campaign promise, adopted a fundamental policy to invest in the state organizations of control and investigation, such as the Federal Comptroller’s Office, (Controladoria Geral da Uniao -CGU), the Federal Police (Policia Federal –PF) and the Counsel to Control Financial Activities, a department of the Ministry of Justice (DRCI/MJ). This policy translated into hiring a substantial number of qualified professionals, wage and benefit increases for these employees, the re-equipment of these organizations, and more importantly their absolute independence of action.59
The importance of independence of action for these organizations in the overall struggle against corruption is twofold, first so that their investigations are shielded from political influence, a recurrent problem of past governments. Second, it allows the organizations of control and review the possibility of acting jointly.60 Corruption in Brazil is a systemic problem brought about by an elite dominated political structure and party system; the only real cure is a deep and democratic process of political reform, which the rightwing-neoliberal/left has, not surprisingly, fought against at every turn.
Brazil is the seventh largest economy in the world and the 5th largest country in population, in this way the center-left government is an experience of left governance with massive characteristics.61 Since Lula’s first election Brazil has played a highly progressive role in Latin America and in world politics. The transformation of Brazilian society over the past 13 years exemplifies the complexities of the struggles against neoliberalism. If the rightwing—left/neoliberal alliance is successful it will certainly be a setback not just for the millions of Brazil’s poor and working class but for the left in general. As political scientist Andre Singer argued: “Democracy will pay a high price if the impeachment is approved”62 and we would add not just for Brazil but for the progressive and left governemts across Latin America as well.