Poverty and Politics: Bolsonaro, Neoliberalism’s Authoritarian Alternative, and the Ongoing Assault on Democracy in Brazil
Those who are against Fascism without being against capitalism, who lament over the barbarism that comes out of Fascism, are like those who wish to eat their veal without slaughtering the calf. They are willing to eat the calf, but they dislike the sight of blood. They are easily satisfied if the butcher washes his hands before weighing the meat. They are not against the property relations which engender barbarism; they are only against the barbarism itself. They raise their voices against barbarism, and they do so in countries where precisely the same property relations prevail, but where the butchers wash their hands before weighing the meat.
—Bertolt Brecht, “Five Difficulties in Writing the Truth”
Prelude to an Infamous Political Repertoire
A January 2, 2020 article in British newspaper The Guardian describes what would appear to be one of those political oddities (that occur every now and then) affecting millions of people in Latin America and particularly in Brazil, if it were not for the consequences. The article, entitled “‘Unqualified, dangerous’: the oddball officials running Bolsonaro’s Brazil,” highlights a few of the many political contradictions and unqualified persons appointed to positions of authority as a result of Jair Bolsonaro’s rise to power as the president of Brazil.1 The 2018 elections in Brazil gained international attention, in large part due to the meteoric rise and victory of authoritarian extremist Bolsonaro in the race for the presidency. If the support he received in the first round of the election caught some off guard, his ultimate victory should be little surprise at all. His election was the consequence of an ongoing national and international campaign led by neoliberal political forces to defeat popular governments with broad economic redistributive policies; the campaign, moreover, seeks to isolate labor-left and progressive political forces in Latin America. In Brazil, right-wing extremism has gained greater expression since the 2013 anti-government mobilizations in opposition to democratically-elected president Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party (PT), and extremists later achieved their first victory with the 2016 judicial coup that removed her from office. The coup counted on the support of large national media organizations, such as Globo, right-wing organizations, and national and international economic groups that financed right-wing movements such as the Movimento Brasil Livre (MBL), brainchild of the Koch brothers. The assault on democracy was also supported by center-right and nominally center-left political parties ideologically attuned to the neoliberal political agenda of disrupting the basic structure and institutions of democratic governance. The coup transferred power to political forces that had been repeatedly defeated in elections, and promoted policies that proposed to privatize a significant part, if not all, of the national economy, eliminate the country’s social welfare structure, and remove labor protections. With the neoliberal economic reforms set in place after the coup, the country descended into a deep economic crisis, experiencing massive rates of unemployment.
Bolsonaro’s political strategy, with the support of centrist, extreme right-wing and neo-fascist organizations, employs a well-known tactic of right-wing political forces in Brazil and Latin America. Their actions seize upon issues normally resolved in the realm of institutional politics, transforming them into a perceived political crisis, and propose solutions that inevitably weaken the legitimate institutions of democratic governance. During Rousseff’s presidency, they sought to immobilize the government’s effectiveness and ability to pass legislation, adopting a tactic of “pautas bombas,” which are congressional political maneuvers and proposals that disrupt or “detonate” policy initiatives. A good example would be proposing across-the-board budget increases during an economic crisis. This plays to the population, but disorganizes and disrupts the overall direction and application of political policy.2 Following the 2016 coup, frenzied demands for the return to military rule repeatedly appeared in right-wing demonstrations as well as in actions such as the national truckers’ strike, which, in May 2017, paralyzed the country. The truckers’ strike, the likes of which had been resolved in the past without much disruption, quickly spread and paralyzed the country in a matter of weeks, provoking large-scale food shortages and price gouging. The continued calls for the military to seize power against the institutions of democratic governance have been a recurrent theme of Bolsonaro and his supporters. The extreme right-wing government and its ministers can increasingly be seen demanding that the Supreme Court, congressional leaders, and governors be jailed, using terms like “let’s take them out,” and demanding that the left parties, mainly the Workers’ Party, be outlawed. These are not simply the rantings of isolated fringe groups, they are a rallying cry hoping to mobilize diffuse political forces embedded in the government and in positions of authority. Bolsonaro himself, a frequent participant in these right-wing demonstrations that habitually and conveniently occur outside the presidential palace, uses the mobilizations as a mechanism to pressure political leaders and authorities, a constant threat that if things do not go his way, if the judiciary or legislature do not act accordingly… in effect, democracy, or its remnants, are being held hostage.
Since 2013 there were clear signs that neoliberal economic forces were increasingly committed to constructing an authoritarian response to the mounting political and economic crisis, echoing in many aspects the Chilean coup in 1973, which was informed by neoliberal economists trained by University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman. It is not by chance that Paulo Guedes, Bolsonaro’s economic “guru” and Minister of the Economy, is one of the founders of Brazil’s largest financial investment firm. Trained at the University of Chicago, he was a professor at the University of Chile during Augusto Pinochet’s regime.3 Nor is it a coincidence that the primary focus of Guedes’s investment activity is in the area of privatized educational schemes, and that Bolsonaro’s first announced international trip was to meet with Chilean president Sebastián Piñera. In 2018, it was reported that Guedes was under investigation for fraudulent pension investment operations in Brazil, but the investigation and cloud of impropriety did not impede his appointment as Minister of the Economy.4 Not surprisingly, the investigation was recently set aside. After two years in control, the Brazilian economy continues in free fall. Bolsonaro, with the support of neoliberal fundamentalists, centrists, and right-wing congressional leaders, pushed major social security and labor reforms through Congress, gutting many of the regulations and laws that protected Brazil’s working class.
Even as the Covid-19 pandemic surges across Brazil, the neoliberal alliance in Congress was not deterred from approving legislation that further weakened Brazilian labor legislation with the approval of MP 905/19, called the “Green and Yellow” labor contract (the colors of the Brazilian flag—as if attacking workers’ rights is in some way patriotic), which provides “flexibility” to labor relations, reducing both employer responsibilities and workers’ rights.5 The government argued that the reforms were an essential part of their “economic recovery plan.” However, even the neoliberal fundamentalist Minister of the Economy admitted that the economy continues to stagnate and the country is clearly in recession, with annual growth rates below 1%.6 Recent economic analysis indicates that “the Brazilian economy receded by 5.3%, the largest decline in 20 years. The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) announced that in 2019, 170 thousand people were added to the list of those living in extreme poverty.”7 The rates of extreme poverty have continuously increased since the 2016 coup against the PT and Rousseff.8 The failing economy existed well before the pandemic, in spite of the regime’s claims that the growing poverty rates are the result of Covid-19. As the country continues to face a monumental health crisis, Rousseff observed that a decade earlier, “Brazil manufactured aircrafts, ships and oil platforms. Today it cannot manufacture disposable masks.”9
June 2013: Framework for a Coup
Understanding Brazil’s regression into authoritarianism will, undoubtedly, remain the focus of academic and political debates for years to come. Particularly in Brazil, this discussion is further complicated because the PT-led governments were highly successful at implementing many of the party’s popular programatic objectives. One of the major points of contention in this debate is how, in spite of the PT’s success, the political context changed so quickly. After almost thirteen years of center-left governments Brazil had become regionally and internationally acknowledged for reducing poverty through a myriad of state driven and regulated economic and social initiatives. In many ways the attack on the PT-led governments was simultaneously an attack on the left and on the Brazilian state and its regulatory role in the economy and larger society. A central part of this discussion entails a closer examination of the events leading up to the 2016 coup and particularly the social forces that coalesced and bolstered the 2013 anti-government protests. While the 2013 mobilizations alone could be the topic of a book-length study, they were an essential part of Bolsonaro’s rise to power. As a recent review of the 2013 mobilizations argued, “To this day June 2013’s popular portrayal obscures espionage, infiltration, manipulation, incitement and the seeds of an economically and diplomatically submissive, re-militarized Brazil. June 2013 can no longer be evaluated on its optics, nor can the geopolitical context in which it happened be dismissed.”10 Analyzing the context surrounding the 2013 right-wing movement against democracy, Perry Anderson argued that a particularly elevated concentration of highly educated younger sectors of the population, who were in fact beneficiaries of the government’s expansion of higher education, had become increasingly discouraged with the deceleration of economic growth, providing a mounting sentiment of unfulfilled expectations. Anderson argued:
Frustration at this reversal of expectations was particularly sharp among youth who had benefited from the popular expansion of higher education, however indifferent in quality, that had been another of the benefits extended by the PT to the poor, and who now found they had no access to the jobs for which they had been led to hope. Here was the combustible mass that became critical in the great street uprising of June 2013 … [André] Singer’s meticulous analysis of its participants—statistics beyond the dreams of Marx’s time—shows that 80 per cent of those who marched in the demonstrations were below the age of forty. Eighty per cent had been or were involved in some form of higher education, as against 13 per cent of the population as a whole with a university diploma; yet half had household incomes of no more than between two and five minimum wages, where under two wages is the poverty line. Those below it, the sub-proletariat proper, were marginal to the events, making up less than a sixth of the participants. Decisive in the evolution and outcome of the protests, however, was the ability of the other third of the marchers, the true middle class, to secure the support of the half that believed itself or aspired to be part of the middle class, in a generalized indignation against the government, and, beyond it, the political class as a whole … Structurally, though not sociologically, it might be said that in Singer’s vivid account the uprising of 2013 occupies a position not unlike la pègre in Marx’s account of 1848.11
Anderson’s account is a helpful illustration of shifting alliances among social classes that drove the 2013 mobilizations, however, there are important factors that remain eclipsed in his analysis. One of these is the emergence of anti-PTism, as a continuous campaign, which united in discourse, even if not in objectives, sectors of the nominal left committed to anti-statist market solutions and the “socialism is the only solution” left which continuously charged that the PT-led governments had betrayed the Brazilian working class. Anderson’s account fails to acknowledge the extent to which the events of June 2013 and beyond were the result of external forces. For example, the incipient economic crisis that preceded the coup was not a cause, but rather an effect, of the mounting assault on democracy. Economic deceleration reflected the movement by national and international financial interests and elites, with the support of a majority in parliament, to hijack the Brazilian economy, in spite of attempts by the government to disarm them. Aloizio Mercadante and Marcelo Zero argued:
These strategies to combat the effects of the crisis were successful by 2014. After all, as unemployment exploded in Europe and levels of inequality increased in the United States, formal employment continued to expand in Brazil, and inequalities were in decline. The share of wages in GDP increased and the percentage of the population in poverty was drastically reduced. In 2014, the unemployment rate reached 4.8% and, in 2015, it was 6.9%. However, the economic downturn itself at the height of the 2009 crisis [in Europe and the United States] and the subsequent slow, fragile recovery of developed economies produced negative impacts on the pace of growth of the Brazilian economy. The country suffered from the effects of falling international trade, credit restrictions stemming from the fall in sub-prime and derivative markets and the violent recession in the international market.12
Failing Brazilian international commercial activity was seized upon by banks and corporations as a means to deepen a crisis that could have been ameliorated, as it had been in the past. Jessé Souza pointed out:
The economic interest [behind the coup] is incredible because it is always invisible. It was an attempt by internal market forces to appropriate the public budget through interest manipulation. Yes, it was a parliamentary coup, but what independence does the parliament have to act? A demoralized parliament, elected with the financial support of banks and large corporations. The year preceding [the impeachment] the president made an enormous effort, using public banks, to reduce interest rates. In response, corporations immediately began withholding their investments and the press began attacking [Rousseff].13
Equally problematic in Anderson’s study is his view that the failure of the PT to mobilize the working class against the mounting coup was in some way a “legacy of slavery.” He argues: “The last decade has not seen any mobilization of the popular classes in Brazil. The fear of disorder, and acceptance of hierarchy, which still set them apart within Latin America, are legacies of slavery.”14 His formulation attributes the lack of popular mobilization against the coup as an acquired behavioral characteristic, as if nothing, or very little, has changed since slavery. Just as problematic is the second half of Anderson’s equation, that popular responses in other parts of Latin America are somehow more politically astute and organized than in Brazil, which lumps the experience of workers from different regions and histories into the same historical bin. Both as history and as a political formulation, Anderson’s argument is problematic; I would argue that it minimizes the very rich experience of working class mobilization and organization in Brazil, past and present, which includes, but is not limited to, the organization of the PT and the Unified Workers’ Central (Central Unica dos Trabalhadores, CUT), both indisputably mass working class organizations. It limits the multiple ways in which power and politics, particularly class politics, are construed and constrained over time. It likewise does not take into consideration the repression suffered by labor and the left in Brazil over long periods of time—which for many years, in the more recent past, worked clandestinely under very difficult conditions. This discussion is not new, and plays out among the left in Brazil and in other countries, especially as authoritarian neoliberalism becomes increasingly prevalent in various continents. My most immediate reaction has always been to remember a popular Brazilian adage, “pepper in other peoples’ eyes looks refreshing.” Marcelo Hoffman’s critique of Anderson’s analysis makes an important contribution to this discussion. He argued,
Finally, there is more than a trace of the notion of masses who are acted upon but who do not act themselves in Anderson’s strident emphasis on the passivity of popular classes in Brazil. Taking his cues from the Brazilian political scientist André Singer, Anderson sees “fear of disorder” and “acceptance of hierarchy” as “legacies of slavery” that distinguish these classes from their counterparts elsewhere in Latin America (p.97). He delivers this strand of argument with one big brush stroke. It feeds logically into his larger critique of the refusal of the PT to mobilize the sub-proletarian masses. That refusal left the popular classes in Brazil in their condition of political passivity, according to Anderson. But the very notion of an exceptional popular passivity in Brazil relative to the rest of Latin America warrants (at the very least) a far more elaborate analysis. The implications of such a notion also seem problematic, if not downright troubling. The very premise of “popular passivity” points to inert and dormant masses awaiting to be be politically awakened (p.197).15
Operação Lava Jato and Lawfare as Class War
Bolsonaro’s rise to power represents a strategic political shift by liberal center-right and right-wing neoliberal economic forces, following previous failed attempts to isolate and eradicate the influence of the left in Brazilian politics and impose anti-redistributive reforms that clearly lacked popular support. Bolsonaro’s emergence as a viable exponent of neoliberal politics during the 2018 election provided continuity to the 2016 coup. Between 2016 and 2018 it became increasing clear that political proposals of the centrist and right-wing neoliberal parties that sustained the 2016 coup lacked electoral viability. From a historical perspective, as Ian Bruff argues, the neoliberal authoritarian alternative is “an ideology that actively promotes the coercive, non-democratic and unequal reorganization of society … eroding substantive and formal political and social rights … Since 2008, these developments have been aligned with constitutional and legal changes that explicitly seek to restrict democratic rights in the name of economic necessity.”16 An essential mechanism of authoritarian neoliberalism is lawfare, commonly adopted to challenge progressive Latin American political leaders. Lawfare is a tactic used by right-wing political forces, with the support of a judiciary committed to neoliberalism, that manipulates the legal system and seeks to provide a façade of legitimacy to an illegitimate political process, in the process weakening left political leadership. In Brazil, lawfare gained the name of Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash), which signaled a wholesale attack on the PT, their leadership, and the socioeconomic and political rights of workers guaranteed in the Constitution.
Since the onset of the 2018 election, coup leaders and their political parties were commandeering a failing economy and a legislature largely paralyzed and politically demoralized. The election of Bolsonaro was essential to provide continuity to the neoliberal assault on democracy. The 2016 coup itself had proven incapable of imposing all of the proposed reforms. The predilection for an authoritarian alternative to the mounting political crisis that coup leaders and their political parties had engendered was increasingly heightened as it became apparent that the leaders of the coup and the operators of the Lava Jato corruption scheme were one in the same. Email and phone messages between then-federal judge Sergio Moro and prosecutors brought to public scrutiny the collusion between federal authorities to prosecute Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Rousseff’s predecessor, in spite of a lack of evidence, and further revealed that this process was entirely directed to weaken the PT in the upcoming elections.17 This was no coincidence, nor was it by chance that Moro was appointed Minister of Justice and Public Security after Bolsonaro’s election. As the political and economic crisis intensified, popular support for the parties that spearheaded the 2016 coup dwindled. As a result, the illegitimate government led by Michel Temer was unable to pass through Congress essential parts of their proposed agenda, such as a draconian social security reform that would have extended the retirement age and contribution requirements to the point that retirement would become impossible for a large sector of the working class. The coup perpetrators’ reforms were unable to be imposed in their entirety, and the perpetrators’ effectiveness was also constrained by considerable popular resistance organized by labor-left-progressive political forces, including a national strike that paralyzed significant parts of the country and numerous massive demonstrations.
Mounting political uncertainty was heightened with the rupture of democratic legitimacy and tempered by right-wing discourse seeking to discredit major political parties and politicians. The focus of the right’s argument placed the cause of the crisis on the state’s regulatory control of the economy, which, they argued, was the root of large-scale corruption and a product of previous PT governments. This argument, as simplistic and absurd as it is (corruption has long existed in Brazilian political life, and was notably expansive during the military dictatorship) was a central component of the media campaign against democracy. This argument sought to shift the focus of the crisis from neoliberalism’s anti-popular and anti-democratic characteristics to the camp of morality and individual behavioral depravity. The images that repeatedly played out over the national media outlets portrayed a political structure honeycombed with corrupt politicians, lining their pockets at the expense of the people. The right-wing campaign sought to weaken even further any democratic political alternative, and in particular the PT, in the upcoming elections. The anti-corruption campaigns, with the support of right-wing federal judges and prosecutors, had a chilling effect, limiting the left’s political alternatives and reinforcing, as Benjamin Fogel correctly argued, “a cycle of diminishing expectations, producing apathy and political demoralization … In truth, corruption is more than simply a set of illicit exchanges. Rather, it is a political strategy that specific interests use to capture or influence institutions or the state. It is, in essence, the privatization of public life.”18 In Brazil, the right-wing anti-corruption smear campaign had the de facto effect of weakening public trust in the institutions of democratic governance and political parties, and it encouraged sectors of the population to look toward non-democratic solutions to the political crisis. The judiciary’s moralistic campaign was in fact a subterfuge to turn over control of the most productive and lucrative sectors of the Brazilian economy to international corporations. Even traditional politicians, such as former Senator Roberto Requião (Brazilian Democratic Movement [MDB] / 2011–2019), in a speech delivered to the Senate appropriately entitled “Lava Jato, betraying the country is not a crime? Selling off the country is not corruption?,” acknowledged the correlation between Lava Jato and the government’s massive giveaways to international conglomerates:
Judge Sergio Moro; Prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol have full knowledge. From the plenary I was the first senator to support and ask for support for Operation Lava Jato. I was also the first to propose corrections for its excesses and errors. However, above all, since the beginning I also indicated the operation’s overseers’ lack of commitment to our country. I maintained that the fight against corruption, disconnected from the country’s political and economic reality was useless and misleading … I renew my question, to squander the people’s hard earned taxes while granting tax exemptions to the world’s largest corporations isn’t corruption? To give away our precious Pre-salt, our passport to break with underdevelopment is not the most supreme, absolute and unforgivable act of corruption? Is it not an abominable act of corruption to reduce the minimum wage while giving petroleum companies exemptions?19
Electing a Dictator
Predictably, the conditions created by the coup provided the perfect milieu for the emergence of right-wing extremism, enabling Bolsonaro, once an insignificant congressional representative from a small and insignificant political party with extremist views, to garner electoral traction. While Bolsonaro and major national media attempted to portray him as Brazil’s version of Donald Trump, nothing could be further from the truth, even though in some moments he has attempted to childishly mimic Trump, hoping to demonstrate his subservience to U.S. economic and political interests. This was not only an effort to distract the electorate and attenuate his extremist views, but it also facilitated the consolidation of his authoritarian political agenda with center-right political parties defeated in the first round of the election. Bolsonaro, an ex-army captain, and his running mate General Antônio Hamilton Mourão are political dinosaurs, dusted off and revived by Brazilian elites. His campaign attracted sectors of the middle class who erroneously believed their position in the prevailing social hierarchy was weakened by the PT’s far-reaching social and economic redistributive policies. His crusade was further reinforced with the support of sectors of the population dissatisfied with the hardening political inertia of the country’s main legislative bodies. Gianpaolo Baiocchi and Marcelo K. Silva’s arguments are somewhat helpful to understand how the center-right coup provided the conditions for the emergence of right-wing extremism as a viable political alternative. Bolsonaro’s electoral support came from various groups, they argued:
First, of course, are the country’s economic elites. Bolsonaro has received support from arms manufacturers, large land-owners, and owners of industry and commerce … Bolsonaro has also been well-received among the country’s middle classes, including among professionals such as doctors and lawyers … These voters were the main motor of the pro-impeachment movement that brought down Rousseff in 2016 … Crime and violence also explain his support among poor working-class voters, particularly in urban areas in the country’s wealthier South and Southeast. To live in an urban periphery of a city such as São Paulo today is to be at ground zero for the very violent war between drug gangs and the military police … For them, it was a moralistic law-and-order discourse that carried the day … Finally, conservative Christians, both Catholic and Evangelical, were the final factor in cementing his victory. In the last decade, conservative Christians have found their political footing as they work to oppose what they perceive as feminist and LGBT excesses by the national government.20
Baiocchi and Silva’s arguments help explain the convergence of socioeconomic and political forces behind the right-wing alternative. However, the electoral impact of organized Christians and elevated crime rates on the right-wing victory remains unclear at best. While evangelical leaders certainly came out in force to support Bolsonaro, the PT and center-left political alternatives claimed overwhelming victories in the northeastern region of Brazil, which mitigates this claim. Moreover, even if the “law-and-order” argument motivated some sectors of the middle class, it remains doubtful that it could be considered a principal factor, since Bolsonaro was victorious in states where crime rates were actually declining, such as São Paulo.21 If there was ever a region where religious fervor, both Catholic and Evangelical, runs strong, and where crime rates are elevated, it is in Northeastern Brazil. In this case, the arguments of high crime and religious underpinnings are less plausible when confronted with the impressive electoral support for the PT and center-left parties in the region. I would argue that above all, the PT’s success and commitment to reducing poverty, a result of its social and redistributive policies in the region between 2003 and 2016, was the core factor behind center-left electoral victories in the region. The results of the 2018 national election and the situation of the left in its aftermath can be better appreciated by recalling Amilcar Cabral’s text, fittingly entitled, “Tell no lies, claim no easy victories…,” in which he pointed out: “Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children.”22
Bolsonaro emerged from the rubble of a dark past, when the country was subjugated to a brutal military dictatorship that banned, tortured, and assassinated thousands of Brazilians for 25 years. Bolsonaro, a strong supporter of the 2016 coup, cleverly disassociated himself from the disastrous economic effects of the coup during the two years that followed. Instead, he nurtured the image of a political outsider, even though he has been a member of Congress for over twenty years, all the time avoiding any of the organized public debates. It is revealing that Bolsonaro dedicated his support for the coup against Rousseff to army colonel Carlos Brilhante Ustra, a strongman during the military regime known for his use of torture, and the only person ever convicted of torture in Brazil. Bolsonaro’s virulent political rhetoric embodies a nostalgic and ahistorical view of the 1964 military coup that ushered in the dictatorship as a beneficial period in Brazilian history. This view ignores the military regime’s central characteristics, which were the exploitation of the working class, state sponsored violence, a reign of political terror (e.g., death squads), and unchecked large-scale corruption that many attribute to the immense international debt the country faced in the late 1970s and 80s. Bolsonaro’s support for class, gender, and racial inequality (always laced with overt racist-misogynistic commentaries) is mirrored in the appointment of military and right-wing fanatics to key ministerial positions. His ultimate objective is to “free” the economy from state regulatory control, abolish environmental regulations, and criminalize the “red menace”—i.e., the organized left, labor unions, and social movements—by enacting anti-terrorism laws. His policies are a revised version of Brazil’s authoritarian past, informed by neoliberal rhetoric to support international economic interests. Bolsonaro is the invention of neoliberalism in a country with weak political institutions and an economy pressured by international commerce and finance.
The Election Without Lula—Phase II of the Coup Against Democracy
The election that confirmed Bolsonaro to the presidency is the radicalized continuity of converging national and international neoliberal political forces that promulgated the 2016 coup against democracy. As I argued in a previous article, “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 a juncture point of national and international corporations and economic interests of national elite classes.”23 The governments of Lula and Rousseff had long stood in political and economic conflict with U.S. interests in the region, so support by the U.S. government and corporations for movements committed to destabilizing PT governments is scarcely surprising. Governments under Republican and Democratic administrations alike viewed the PT as an obstacle. According to one American diplomat, “Lula’s 2005 rejection of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), Brazil’s leadership on projects for regional integration, and its protagonism within the BRICS grouping [Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa], had bothered the Bush and then Obama administrations under which [former head of Western Hemisphere Affairs and Ambassador to Brazil Tom Shannon Jr.] served.”24
This, however, should not be understood as an attempt to minimize or sidestep the weaknesses of the center-left; defeat is just what the word implies, and in this case, the electoral defeat has had, and will continue to have, sweeping effects not only for the future of democracy in Brazil, but for the prospects of left-progressive politics in Latin America. The rush by center-right politicians to embrace Bolsonaro and the authoritarian alternative after the first round of elections, along with the Brazilian judiciary’s continuous reassurance that the country’s democratic institutions were sufficiently resilient to withstand right-wing extremism, are not only political sleight-of-hand, but are attempts to obfuscate their own responsibility and involvement with the anti-redistributive authoritarian political project. The election occurred under the auspices of an illegitimate government whose institutions were themselves notoriously committed to the premises of the 2016 coup and the rupture of democracy.
The support Bolsonaro received during the electoral process should not be underestimated; however, an essential aspect of the process that consolidated the right-wing victory was constraining the political alternatives available to the left, and particularly the PT. This is a strategy that continues to rematerialize in different moments but was central to guarantee Bolsonaro’s election. This tactic resonates with the strategies adopted in Brazil’s authoritarian past. During the military regime, while the dictatorship imprisoned, tortured, assassinated, banned, and exiled thousands, with few exceptions, elections for the country’s national, state, and municipal legislative bodies were held regularly, all within the limits set in place by the dictatorship. In this sense, elections on their own are no guarantee of democracy if the institutions of authority are committed to an illegitimate government. They can quickly become means to provide an avenue of political continuity where, in this case, under normal circumstances electoral victory would have been doubtful at best.
During the 2018 election the political debate was characterized as a dispute between two distinct political projects, however, this distinction remained unclear and convoluted when presented as a debate between thirteen presidential candidates. On one side of the national debate were center and extreme-right political parties and their neoliberal project of privatization, unemployment, and declining rights. On the other side was an amalgam of center-left parties, social movements, and popular-national development projects, all with programmatic variations that moved uneasily across the progressive political spectrum. A good example of the programmatic variations among center-left candidates was Democratic Labor Party (PDT) candidate Ciro Gomes’s proposals for social security reform and his views on privatization. As news outlets reported during the presidential campaign, he called for a new “national development program” tempered by neoliberal market-driven solutions. While he defended the continued public control of Petrobras, a corporation in the petroleum industry, he argued, “Privatization was a tool we should use intelligently and not with ideological prejudice” and added he was “completely in favor” of privatizing the telecommunications industry.25 In another interview, his proposals for social security reform included reducing the current payout limit and linking individual retirement accounts to investment funds, i.e., to the stock market.26
One of the effects of the right-wing judicial and media campaign during and following the coup is that it crafted a view that widespread corruption and criminality had taken over Brazilian society, diffusing the underlying political objectives of center-right parties and fueling a sentiment of anti-politics, that is, that all politics and political parties were at best ineffective. This reaction gained traction with some middle and working class voters in large urban centers; in this way, issues of criminality and corruption helped muddle deeper issues of politics and policies. This is akin to what Adolph Reed, Jr. defined as a “polluted debate,” one that entails “an electoral strategy that constricts what news chat guys and dolls euphemistically call ‘hot button’ issues and milks them for advantage.”27 In this case, the media focus on criminality and corruption as “hot button” political issues helped obscure the central stakes.
The dispute occurred fundamentally under the same legal structure as past elections, however, it occurred with some significant changes and in a vastly different political context. Electoral legislation approved before the election and the continuous fragmentation of the party system ruptured even further an already atomized political party structure. In 2016 Brazil had 26 political parties, but by 2018 the country counted 35 registered political parties, which split even further the political representation in the Congress and Senate, as well as the realm of possible alliances and future legislative bodies.28 Participating in the first round of the national election, besides thirteen candidates for president, were 354 candidates disputing 2/3 of the Senate seats and 8,588 candidates disputing all 513 congressional seats. One difference that informed the political alliances for both right and left political parties was the “cláusula de barreira” (barrier clause) approved by Congress in 2017. This regulation imposed a minimum electoral representation in Congress for parties to gain access to public funds and free media time; it would, at a later stage, ban electoral alliances for proportional municipal, state, and national legislative bodies. Starting in 2019, receipt of public electoral funds and access to free media time was contingent upon a party receiving 1.5% of the valid votes, distributed across at least nine states, with a minimum of at least 1% of the valid votes in each state; alternately, a party that elected at least nine congressional representatives in at least nine states (one congressional representative in each of the nine states) in 2018 would qualify. The law foresees the gradual expansion of electoral benchmarks until 2030, when the minimum will be 3% of the total of valid votes and the election of fifteen congressional representatives in at least 1/3 of the states.29
Although viewed as a means of reducing the excessive number of political parties, the immediate impact of the cláusula de barreira was to hinder political alliances and strategies during the first round of the election. In this way, the law underscored a tendency among center-right and right-wing neoliberals since the 2016 coup to avoid a deep political reform and instead prioritize what Reed has called “procedure over substance,” which is to “look for technical fixes to political problems” (109). In addition to the limits imposed by the barrier clause, the Supreme Court confirmed the decision of the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) to cancel 3.36 million voter registration cards shortly before the election. The court alleged that voters had failed to complete the biometric registration process. Approximately 50% of the canceled registrations occurred in the Northeast, a region where support for center-left and left parties was strongest. The cancelled voter registrations reflected 3.83% of the Northeast region’s electorate, while in the Southeast, where center-right and right-wing parties were strongest, canceled voter registration counted for approximately 1.1% of the electorate. This decision ignored difficulties of travel and access that are significantly greater in the Northeast.30
The right-wing “anti-corruption” campaign underscored a growing sentiment, particularly acute in major urban centers, that the national legislature was incapable of carrying out any meaningful political reform, in spite of the fact that, for years, political reform had figured prominently among center-left congressional legislators and was continuously blocked by right-wing legislators. The 2016 coup and subsequent crisis fueled a sentiment that the political system was broken and led a critical mass of voters to view the 2018 election with distrust and apathy, thinking that Congress was legislating in its own interest. In Brazil, where voting is mandatory, this, at least in part, provides greater texture to understand the importance behind the large number of abstentions (failing to appear at the polls) as well as the blank and voided votes cast in both the first round and subsequent runoff election. The effect of the crisis was illustrated in the results of the second round of voting. Voided votes reached “7.4%, the greatest [percentage] since 1989: a total of 8.6 million votes. It was a 60% increase in relation to the 2014 runoff election, when 4.6% of the votes were void.” Further, “Adding abstentions, voided, and blank votes, 42.1 million people chose neither candidate, approximately one third of the total. The candidate-elect Jair Bolsonaro received 57.7 million votes while the defeated candidate Fernando Haddad received 47 million votes.”31
As the national elections grew closer it became apparent to the coup leadership, and to the country, that in spite of the massive attacks on the PT and its leaders since 2013, both the party and its presidential candidate, Lula, continued to enjoy relatively high popular support. In August 2018 the polls registered that 29% of the nation preferred the PT, while the political parties that had sustained the coup were in political freefall.32 In this sense it was clear that the only viable candidate capable of defeating Bolsonaro was Lula. Early on Lula had continuously appeared as the absolute frontrunner among all presidential candidates, with particularly high levels of support in the Northeastern region of the country where poverty is greatest.
Since the anti-PT media and judicial campaign had been only partially effective at deterring Lula’s popularity, removing him from public life was necessary to guarantee the political continuity of the 2016 coup. With great speed the government’s right-wing judicial co-conspirators convicted and arrested Lula on charges that remain unproven, impeding him from communicating or partaking in the electoral process. Even pressure from the UN Committee on Human Rights, demanding Lula be released and his political rights restored, was blatantly ignored by the illegitimate government, as servile federal judges continuously denied all legal appeals, isolating Lula from public life.33 There is no doubt about the extent to which federal judges such as Sergio Moro, garbed as the guardians of “political moralism,” were in fact committed to the authoritarian project while at the same time advancing their political and professional careers. With Lula’s candidacy blocked, the only realistic option available to the PT was to indicate the slate’s vice presidential candidate Fernando Haddad, ex-Minister of Education and ex-mayor of São Paulo, as the party’s presidential candidate, and Manuela d’Ávila of the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB) as the candidate for Vice President. The success of the left’s electoral-political outcome was thus tied to Lula’s ability to transfer votes to Haddad (Fig.1).
The national legislative elections illustrated the further fragmentation of an already politically atomized national legislature. Over the previous eight years the composition of congressional representation has increased from 22 parties in 2010 to the Congress elected in 2018, at the time comprised of 30 different political parties, mostly small parties with localized expression at best. Similarly, the Senate’s political representation expanded from fifteen to 21 political parties. The Brazilian party system is comprised of a plethora of parties, with regional expression at best, that are beholden to localized interests. This is a major road block for left political unity based on a program of national development and political reform. The continued rupture of political representation is a clear indication that Congress will continue to legislate in the interests of elites, corporations, and international financial institutions with little or no regard for the country’s Constitution, much less to defend democracy and its institutions.
In spite of the massive attacks by center and extreme right-wing political parties, the judiciary, and national media, the center-left and left-wing parties suffered only minor reductions to their congressional representation. In particular, the PT emerged from the 2018 election as the single largest party, electing 56 congressional representatives, suffering a loss of five seats from the 2014 legislative election. In contrast, the center right-wing MDB and the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) sustained significant losses. Going in to the election MDB and PSDB held 51 and 49 congressional seats, respectively. After the election, MDB’s congressional representation was reduced to 34 seats and PSDB’s to 29 seats. In contrast, riding Bolsonaro’s coattails, the Social Liberal Party (PSL), which entered the election with eight congressional representatives, garnered 52 seats, making it the second largest party in Congress after the PT (Fig. 2). The PSL’s most notorious electoral base is the western zone of Rio de Janeiro (the area that continuously re-elected Bolsonaro, formerly the party’s only congressional representative, to Congress), an area known for the strong presence of right-wing militias. The ability of the party to gain national prominence reflects the convergence of pro-market anti-PT political forces behind the Bolsonaro candidacy. Almost a year after his election, mounting conflict between Bolsonaro and the PSL leadership led the quasi-dictator to leave the PSL, and he is currently organizing another (yes, one more) political party, called the Alliance for Brazil (Aliança pelo Brasil). But Bolsonaro’s political organizing skills may not be as well-honed as his ability to spew right-wing rhetoric. It was recently reported that, at the current speed, the Aliança pelo Brasil would only achieve legal status as a political party in 18 years, since party registration requires 492,000 valid support cards and it currently has approximately 17,886.34
The elections for governor replicated the atomized characteristic of the overall political structure, and thirteen political parties elected at least one state governor. The statewide elections confirmed a strong center-left presence in the Northeastern region of the country. Together, the center-left and left parties—PT, the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), PCdoB and PDT—elected a third of the 27 governors. Even though hardly a majority, similar to the congressional election, the PT elected the largest individual number of governors out of all political parties—electing four governors in the Northeastern states of Bahia, Ceará, Piauí, and Rio Grande do Norte (Fig. 3). It is important to remember when reviewing electoral results that Brazil’s center-left and left-wing political parties were never close to holding a majority in the national legislature, even during the thirteen years of PT presidencies.
The election was marked by extremely high levels of organized political violence emanating from Bolsonaro’s neo-fascist zealots, who sought to intimidate progressive candidates, in particular PT supporters. Early on during the campaign, political repression gained the support of right-wing advocates entrenched within the state apparatus. Brazenly, police invaded public universities and interrogated professors,35 while ignoring the acts of overt violence by Bolsonaro’s goon squads. Since Brazil’s return to democracy, repression and violence during elections had been recognizably minimal, for the most part restricted to isolated incidences of localized political feuds. Yet as the election date drew closer so did the escalation of violence, spearheaded in many cases by state and federal police forces. The numerous cases reported included a synchronized operation by state military and federal police in eight states, invading PT-led coalition offices to seize campaign material that contained Lula’s image.36 In another instance the police invaded the campus of the Universidade Federal Fluminense, alleging that they were confiscating “illegal” political materials, which were in fact protesting fascism in Brazil.37 In yet another case, students protesting the rise of right-wing extremism were jailed. Still another example occurred in the metropolitan region of Fortaleza. On the evening before the election it was reported that armed Bolsonaro supporters shot into a pro-PT demonstration, killing a young worker.38 One day after the election, a Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) encampment with 150 families was set ablaze in the city of Tamboril, Ceará.39
Bolsonaro and his right-wing cronies did not waste time. Following Bolsonaro’s victory in the runoff election, a state representative from Santa Catarina, Ana Caroline Campagnolo, urged students to record professors who expressed their opposition to his authoritarian regime and to turn the recordings over to her with the name of the professor and the school.40 Ignoring the constitutional guarantee of freedom in the classroom, this was the first attempt to implement an ongoing right-wing legislative campaign entitled “Schools without Parties” that proposed purging universities and public schools of any political discussion and criminalizing anyone who challenged the authoritarian neoliberal “new order.” The Bolsonaro clan’s support of “Schools without Parties” is well known; in 2017 congressional representative Eduardo Bolsonaro (PSC) (Bolsonaro’s son) argued in favor of the repressive legislation, as media outlets reported: “In defense of the measure [Schools without Parties], [Eduardo Bolsonaro] criticized ‘indoctrination’ by teachers and attributed the poor indicators of Brazilian education to the use of ‘socialist manuals’.”41 Even before the want-to-be dictator had taken office, increasingly high levels of political repression augured a dim future for democracy, reinforcing doubts that the country’s political institutions were either unable, or in many cases, unwilling, to challenge the actions of the right-wing extremist government that continuously ignores the country’s Constitution and rule of law.
During the 2018 election, the PT, and the center-left parties in general, faced enormous political obstacles. It was increasingly evident that the broad anti-coup and anti-Temer coalition that had coalesced after the coup could not be replicated as an electoral alternative to the neoliberal authoritarian political agenda. On one hand, the electoral strategies of smaller left parties, with weak electoral expression, were, at least in part, constrained by the demand to meet the cláusula de barreira legislation. Their political-electoral programs also demonstrated high levels of political shortsightedness regarding the impending, disastrous Bolsonaro victory. Their programmatic-electoral proposals ranged from high doses of identity politics to a demand for the immediate socialist control of government. For the most part, it was sterile political promotion that produced negligible national electoral results. In other instances, such as the PDT, a nominally center-left populist party, the electoral posture of its presidential candidate Ciro Gomes appeared driven by varying degrees of personal political cunning and a divisive electoral strategy that hoped to draw on the support of progressive voters influenced by the anti-PT media campaign. Since the election, Gomes’s commitment to a unified response to the expansion of right-wing extremism was (and to date continues to be) conditioned by a ceaseless personal ambition to become president of Brazil. Shortly after casting his vote in the runoff election Gomes declared he would not partner with the PT.
The PT’s electoral strategy consisted of maintaining Lula’s candidacy until the last possible legal recourse was denied and reconstructing historical left alliances. They sought to unite political parties committed to a national democratic program that had been the center of past PT governments. The alliance prioritized an electoral strategy with the PSB and the PCdoB and involved supporting candidates of these parties in regional gubernatorial elections, even in some cases where the PT had demonstrated electoral viability. Such was the case in Pernambuco, where the PT candidate for governor stepped down in favor of the Socialist candidate, and in Bahia, where the socialists supported the PT candidate as governor. In other cases, however, where it was viable, the party pursued broader political alliances to sustain current PT governors, as was the case in Ceará. The election was viewed as a moment to challenge the ultra-neoliberal political agenda and strengthen the left’s representation at the state level while consolidating a national popular-democratic political base in the national legislature. As the PT’s national electoral-tactical resolution delineated: “With the purpose of strengthening the unity among popular political forces around Lula’s candidacy and creating the conditions for the formation of a progressive political alliance that would govern the country beginning January 2019, the leadership of the PT has developed an intense dialogue with other parties, primarily with the PSB and the PCdoB, with whom we maintain historic ties.”42 The alliance also included a smaller party, the Republican Party of the Social Order (PROS). The tactical electoral resolution is important because it underscores the role of the organized left as an influential, if not central, force among progressives, proposing a common platform of national development and democratic rights that looks beyond the immediate issues of the election.
Another obstacle, among the many that hindered the possibility of a left-popular democratic alternative early on, was the fact that the PSB, possibly the second largest nominally center-left political party, was facing its own internal demons. Since the 2016 coup left-wing socialists faced an ongoing internal battle within their party, emanating primarily from those among its congressional delegation who were seeking to realign the party with the center-right neoliberal project. This limited their ability to engage with a singular, unified electoral project. The internal divisions led them to divide their support among different presidential candidates that were defined regionally, while focusing on the elections for Governor and Congress. The PSB’s ongoing internal struggle illustrates just how far-reaching and entrenched neoliberal market ideology has become among sectors of the left. Ultimately, the only clear recommendation of the party’s 2018 electoral resolution for the first round of the presidential election was to ban regional leaders and party members from supporting the candidacy of Jair Bolsonaro. In a resolution the national party leadership stated:
We are facing the most debauched electoral period of recent times, with the frontrunner Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva imprisoned and the threat to block his candidacy—which the PT insists on maintaining. To date, the last day for party conventions, progressive political forces remain entirely divided, while the center right-wing parties concentrate their support for Geraldo Alkmin of the PSDB and the extreme-right supports the candidacy of Jair Bolsonaro. Since Joaquim Barbosa declined the offer to be our presidential candidate, various state-wide sectors have defined electoral strategies with parties that have different candidates for president. There is nothing remaining at the national level but to preserve our historical coherency and the unity of the PSB beyond the first phase of the 2018 national election.43
The election results indicated that the center-left in general, and the PT in particular, won massive support in the poorest regions of the country, while the extreme right-wing candidate, with few exceptions, was able to garner considerable support in the wealthier, central, Southeastern and Southern states. The election illustrated a clear class divide between the wealthier and the poorer sections of the country and the success of thirteen years of PT governments that elevated millions out of abject poverty. However, the results also indicated the ability of the extreme right to entice significant support from sectors of the industrial working class situated in the major urban centers of the Southeastern region, either because of voter apathy or the anti-politics rhetoric of despair that stemmed from a demoralized political structure. MST leader João Pedro Stédile argued that working class support for Bolsonaro stemmed from the fact that: “the left [had] lost the ideological battle against the right, they used their economic power, control of the media and judiciary, they imposed their own narrative on society. They were able to convince a large sector of the proletariat and poor.”44 Despite herculean efforts by the left-progressive alliance, they were unable to sharpen the clouded political debate that characterized the first election and expand their electoral base. Going into the runoff election, Stédile anticipated that in the runoff election, with only two candidates, the debate between right and left political projects would sharpen; however, this remained an impossible aspiration on the left’s political wish list:
I think that, in the runoff, it is not going to be about regions. What it is going to be about is a battle between projects and classes. Haddad won in the Northeast, but not because they live in the Northeast. It’s because there are poor people there whose lives have been changed with the Lula and Dilma [Rousseff] administrations, and therefore they raised their class consciousness.
And now it’s only two candidates [running in the second round], it is clear that it’s about two projects. Bolsonaro, despite his hypocritical speech, obviously represents this country’s reactionary forces. It’s not a coincidence that most of the armed forces support him, most members of the military police support him, most bankers, represented by [his economic guru] Paulo Guedes—who is a partner of the investment bank Bozano. So I think it will become clearer to the people. And that is what I hope Haddad can explain to the people. More than being a spokesman for Lula, he has to be a spokesman for the working class.45
The hopes for greater clarity during the political debate never materialized and the mass abhorrence for the political architects the 2016 coup, Temer and the PSDB leadership, did not translate to automatic political support for the PT-led left alliance. Bolsonaro avoided direct debates throughout the entire electoral process, alleging medical constraints due to being stabbed early on in the campaign. His reported “medical” condition, however, did not impede him from making public campaign appearances, particularly in the weeks preceding the runoff election. The participation of federal authorities in the electoral fraud to elect Bolsonaro became evident when his son, Flávio Bolsonaro, “was tipped off by the Federal Police of an ongoing investigation into a corruption scheme and that he should fire his assistant, Fabrício Queiroz, who was responsible for the family financial operations.”46 He successfully avoided responsibility for supporting the socioeconomic and political policies that led to the crisis and attributed the catastrophic situation to the failure of PT and the left, who in his opinion should be exterminated.
The runoff election was characterized by the political alignment between forces in favor of redistributive politics and those aligned with the neoliberal political project set in motion by the 2016 coup. With the looming victory of the candidate for dictator, the left and center-left parties hoped to transform the runoff election into a plebiscite between those in favor of a democracy and the neoliberal right. Even though the PT electoral alliance was able to consolidate the center-left vote, and expand on the results of the first election by an estimated 15.7 million votes, support for the extreme right increased by approximately 8.5 million votes.47 With only three weeks between the first round and the runoff election, Bolsonaro, with the financial support of large corporations that sustained a massive social media smear campaign,48 proved capable of coalescing the center-right forces to support his authoritarian political project as the neoliberal-nominal left looked on and shrugged.
The coup leaders’ electoral strategy, personified in in the campaigns of the MDB, the PSDB, and their allies, epitomized the best of political hucksterism. Seeking to ride the political center, they hoped to weaken the center-left electoral strategy by drawing on anti-PT sentiment, with Lula silenced and in jail, while critiquing Bolsonaro’s extremist views. They offered the electorate a “gentler” version of Bolsonaro’s authoritarian anti-redistributive agenda. Their ploy did not work. In spite of all their attempts, they were unable to dodge their responsibility for the deep political and economic crisis facing the country. After being hammered in both the presidential and legislative elections, the parties and politicians that supported the center-right political alliances of MDB and PSDB offered a variety of alternatives to the up-coming battle—all of which led to de-facto support for Bolsonaro. While many quickly shifted gears to embrace the dictator-elect, others declared their opposition to “both radicalisms,” and still others contemplated voiding their vote or remained silent in face of the looming authoritarian victory. In this sense, their class allegiances to the neoliberal authoritarian political project eclipsed their rhetorical commitment to democracy in Brazil. In many ways the center-right’s speedy adherence to Bolsonaro’s “new order” is emblematic of a political option adopted by a variant of liberalism: those who are, first and foremost, committed to anti-egalitarian or anti-redistributive policies. Their presence in politics is in no way exclusive to Brazil, and over the years has been all too common among groups and political figures once considered staunchly on the left political spectrum. As Reed has correctly argued: “Their behavior exposes a deeper truth about the political commitments on which this strain of liberalism rests: this is the politics motivated by the desire for proximity to the ruling class and a belief in the basic legitimacy of its power and prerogative. It is a politics which, despite all its idealist puffery and feigned nobility, will sell out any allies and egalitarian objectives in pursuit of gaining the prince’s ear” (112).
A Country Turned Upside-Down: The Authoritarian Regime Dances to the Sound of his Master’s Voice
Attempting to sum up how Bolsonaro and his clique of right-wing neoliberal fundamentalists have, during their first year in office, dismantled basic democratic and social rights, as well as economic regulations and protections, is no easy task. Since taking power, the right-wing leader has led the charge to quickly transform what was once an economically vibrant and democratic nation into an authoritarian, market-driven horror show. In many ways the first year of the Bolsonaro regime is nothing less than the political continuity of the 2016 coup against Rousseff. One comprehensive review of the country’s rapid decline was provided by Andrew Fishman and Alexandre de Santi, who argued:
In Brazil, the right-wing agenda is mostly the following: Gut regulations of all kinds, particularly environmental and labor; cut social spending; make taxation even more regressive; privatize almost every government-controlled asset; expand the privatization of education and health care; increase access to firearms; ban abortions in all circumstances; promote environmentally destructive extractive industries; build more prisons and fill them by passing tougher sentencing guidelines; greenlight more aggressive policing of poor neighborhoods; increase the military’s power and prestige; reign in the press; roll back freedom of information programs; and dismantle laws and programs that support and are supported by progressives.49
Even before taking office, Bolsonaro sidestepped the structures of organized politics, such as political parties elected to the national legislative bodies. When forming his government he preferred to interact with congressional interest groups, comprised of military, religious, and economic factions that supported his right-wing extremist policies. This, in and of itself, illustrates an ongoing practice that looks to weaken the structures of organized politics, and more importantly, his unwillingness to engage with and negotiate with the legislative or judicial branches of government. Antônio Augusto de Queiroz argued, “Inasmuch as the nucleus of power [of the Bolsonaro government] is concerned, it is evident that it is a government organized to represent three groups: his fundamentalist electorate; the moralist-revenge seeking middle class [mobilized by anti-PTism and their imagined threat to class status]; and the market. No one, however, speaks to the people, particularly that sector of the population that depends on public services and policies.”50
In this sense, the government functions and is sustained by three basic nuclei, which, as Silvio Alemida pointed out, are: “ideological-diversionist,” “police-judicial-military,” and “economic.”51 The first, “ideological-diversionist,” is the continuous mobilization of the extreme right, tempered by Bolsonaro’s often bombastic political rhetoric, which diverts attention from the real political transformations underway. This includes, in Queiroz’s terms, “making polemical statements, that may or may not be based on reality, to attract the attention of the media and distract [public opinion] from the real issues that are important to the country.”52 Or as Hannah Arendt argued, “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.”53 The second nucleus, “police-judicial-military,” characterizes the mounting repression of organized labor, social movements and poor communities, or, as Alemida puts it, a situation “where guns are real. A brutal situation. It goes from jailing to the moral and political destruction of their adversaries.”54 This nucleus is comprised of the military, both active and in the reserves, that continuously challenge and threaten to seize power, in order to end the rule of law and existing democratic institutions. The third nucleus, “economic,” is comprised of what Queiroz identifies as neoliberal and anti-statist fundamentalists striving to privatize state assets while de-regulating economic activity and abolishing basic labor rights and social benefits, such as education and healthcare, guaranteed in the Brazilian Constitution.55
The role of the military in the Brazilian neoliberal authoritarian regime is an important part of this equation. Since taking office, the military have played an extensive and ever expanding role in the regime, assuming many major parts in the administration. Early on, their presence in the administration was viewed by many progressives as a constant threat to democracy and its institutions (given Brazil’s 25-year military dictatorship, this fear is not unwarranted). The main concern has always been that if Bolsonaro were to sense that his regime has become vulnerable, he would be positioned to stage a coup and seize power by force. As support for a military coup by Bolsonaro and his clique of neo-fascists gains daily prominence, some members of the military in important positions use (or better stated, abuse) their power by threatening the country’s constituted powers. Recently, General Augusto Heleno, Bolsonaro’s Chief of Institutional Security, wrote an open letter to the nation in which he threatened “unpredictable consequences” if the Supreme Court continued to demand that Bolsonaro turn over his cell phones as part of an ongoing case involving Bolsonaro’s participation in a massive fake news scheme. The following day, as Bolsonaro supporters threatened “civil war,” a second document supporting Heleno emerged, signed by military personnel in the reserves.56 The regime’s threat of a constitutional coup to legally justify military intervention draws on a misconstrued interpretation of Article 142 of the Brazilian Constitution by the Federal General Prosecutor, Augusto Aras, which erroneously attributes to the Armed Forces a “moderating power” in times of political crisis, with the power to intervene in the institutions of democracy.57 In this case, as with many of the fantasies and untruths that emanate from the regime, nothing could be farther from the truth. The role of the military in Brazilian political life has long been a problematic and complex issue; however, the Constitution of 1988 is clear regarding the role of the military. Among those responding to the regime’s attempt to legalize a military coup are jurists, progressive movements, and sectors of the Armed Forces, such as General Santos Cruz, ex-Bolsonaro minister and Army General (Reserves). Santos Cruz argued, “Our moderating power is the Federal Constitution, not the armed forces. This interpretation is extremely dangerous … The people [military personnel appointed to the administration] do not represent the institution, independently of the position in the [military] hierarchy. The political representation of the armed forces lies with the Minister of Defense and the commanders. Those on the reserves can have a personal opinion but do not represent the institution.”58
The Bolsonaro government is a hodgepodge collection of 22 ministers, representatives of right-wing fundamentalist interest groups, and national and international economic forces that sustained his election. The government is also influenced by his three sons, who have been inundated by charges of corruption and have close ties with militias (a modern day version of the death squads) in Rio de Janeiro. Bolsonaro himself has, on numerous occasions, supported the existence of the militias.59 The government is also comprised of a large number of high-level military officials (besides the vice president), who hold many of the privileged ministerial positions, followed by right-wing judges, neoliberal technocrats, and evangelical leaders. A telling sign for the future of organized labor under the Bolsonaro regime was the elimination of the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, a large part of which was transferred to the Ministry of Justice, under the command of Sergio Moro. Under the Bolsonaro regime, workers and their organizations are viewed as cases to be dealt with by the police. One of Bolsonaro’s closest advisors and family “guru” is the self-proclaimed philosopher, one-time astrologer, and fringe conspiracy theorist Olavo de Carvalho, who resides in the United States. Since its first day in office the Bolsonaro government has been challenged daily, rocked by scandals, charges of corruption, and intense in-fighting and backbiting among the “leaders” of Bolsonaro’s authoritarian regime. In its short existence the government has experienced a high level of instability, as ministers are regularly appointed only to be dismissed when they disagree with the tyrant in charge, and many have jokingly stated that the regime’s ministers should be hired as day laborers given their short tenures in office.
The elected dictator lost little time. Following his inauguration, Bolsonaro published an “Agenda for the first 100 days of Government,” listing 35 national priorities. The extremist “priorities” were subsequently incorporated into Provisional Measure (MPV) No. 870. The draconian measure proposed to: either gut or eliminate federal regulatory structures for economic activity, particularly labor relations, divest federally-funded scientific research and higher education, and attack human and environmental protections. The presidential act, in any number of its proposed measures, is unconstitutional,60 not that adhering to the Constitution matters to Bolsonaro and his right-wing flunkies; most, if not all, of their political agenda would not withstand a close reading of the Brazilian Constitution.
What has become increasingly clear since the 2016 coup, and has since crystalized with the Bolsonaro presidency, is that Brazil has become an echo chamber for U.S. political and economic interests in the region, to the detriment of the people and the progressive nations of Latin America. Even mainstream economists, such as Nobel Prize recipient Robert Shiller, did not mince words. After listening to Bolsonaro’s six-minute speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos (2019), Shiller stated, “Bolsonaro makes me afraid … Brazil is a big country and deserves someone better.”61 Since the 2016 coup, allegiance to U.S. economic and political interests has only intensified, and as a result, the country has witnessed the return of increasing levels of poverty and extreme poverty. In a report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, of twelve Latin American countries studied between 2016–17, only Brazil registered an increase in poverty and extreme poverty levels.62
The economic crisis brought on by the 2016 coup continues to grow with no relief in sight. Under Bolsonaro, the authoritarian neoliberal project has had a devastating effect on working class and poor communities across the country. Unemployment rates continue at extremely high levels. Recent studies by the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (IBGE) confirm unemployment rates at an all time high with 13.8 million out of work, or an unemployment rate of 14.1%.63 During the first half of 2020 1.2 million workers lost their jobs.64 Job loss in Brazil is by no means an effect of the pandemic, as high levels of unemployment have been a major characteristic of the right-wing regime since the 2016 coup. Driven by weakened labor regulations, high levels of unemployment are a result of market-driven economic policies that have devastated the productive sector of the economy. Since the 2016 coup unemployment rates have ebbed and flowed at dangerously high rates. According to IBGE, in 2019 (Bolsonaro’s first year in office) the unemployment rate averaged 11.9%, or approximately 12.6 million workers unemployed. The unemployment rate in 2019 was only slightly lower than the year before, when the average unemployment rate was 12.3% of the active working population.65 For Patrícia Pelatieri, research coordinator for the Departamento Intersindical de Estatísticas e Estudos Socioeconômicos (DIEESE), the crisis and steady decline of the GDP over time “means less income and an increase in the number of families with no income at all. It is the deepening of working class poverty. The return of many to the poor and the economic decline of the middle class.”66
Under the neoliberal regime, Brazilian foreign policy underwent a drastic reversal from that of past governments, when the country had positioned itself as a progressive force in Latin America that promoted regional integration and development. The authoritarian regime has consolidated the foreign policy shift initiated with the 2016 coup, advocating for U.S. foreign political, military, and economic interests in the region. Bolsonaro’s foreign policy has institutionalized subservience and knee-jerk support for U.S. attacks on progressive nations, quickly reverting to Brazil’s role as gendarme of U.S. interests in Latin America. Particularly troubling, with long-term economic and political repercussions, is Brazil’s inclusion and participation in the United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), a combined U.S. military command for the Southern hemisphere. Specifically, Brazil’s inclusion in the military organization’s Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force allows the country to appoint a general to serve as Deputy Commander for SOUTHCOM. As Marcelo Zero pointed out: “SOUTHCOM will be used offensively in Latin America to meet this North American geopolitical goal. It is not a question, as the panglossians may imagine, of mere training exercises for humanitarian purposes, but also of military actions aimed at destabilizing regional governments and establishing dependency ties with the armed forces of allied countries … As this happens, we will not just be a dog. We will be a toothless mutt, barking at our master’s enemies.”67
Bolsonaro unleashed his regime against workers and the poor, in an environment where labor-left and progressives are facing an extremely aggressive and repressive political landscape. Certainly, the democratic structure of Brazilian political life, guaranteed in the Constitution of 1988, faces daily challenges as the right-wing neoliberal regime seeks to abolish (as promised in their campaign): labor protections, public education and healthcare, national economic and political sovereignty, as well as basic democratic rights, such as freedoms of association, expression, etc. Baiocchi and Silva correctly point out: “As a result [of Bolsonaro’s election], democracy, which most assumed to be consolidated, becomes more fragile every day. The political disputes have changed terms: from a debate between adversaries to, according to Bolsonaro and his allies, an existential contest between enemies to be vanquished.”68
As the struggle against the authoritarian neoliberal regime continues to unfold, the actions of the organized labor-left in general, and the PT in particular, will be pivotal for constructing an opposition capable of defeating right-wing neoliberal authoritarianism. The heightened quality of the political conflict ahead will also challenge the way in which left and progressive forces perceive and develop political action, demanding a left capable of organizing and mobilizing resistance in multiple (institutional and non-institutional) spheres of politics simultaneously. The basis for unity is a commitment to the defense of democracy in general, and specifically for the rights of workers and the poor. José Sergio Gabrielli de Azevedo argued:
The main battle to be fought is that of democratic resistance. Haddad will have an important role in this movement. With millions of votes, he can consolidate a new leadership, articulating individual actions with the force of the collective, which is the party … The PT emerges from this period as the Brazilian people’s greatest instrument of struggle. With the largest congressional representation, massive support in the Northeastern states, a strong presence in other states, and the support of anti-PT sectors that revolted against the challenge to democracy. However, these sectors still have criticisms of the PT. We have to know how to examine these critiques, correct our direction and incorporate new ideas, this will be a difficult exercise of political competence if we wish to lead the democratic resistance. Solitary resistance is ineffective. United resistance is more powerful.69
A central aspect of this debate, particularly among the left, is a clear concept of the political characteristics and conditions of “democratic resistance” in the current situation. The Bolsonaro government has clearly entered into a phase of political meltdown. According to a recent poll, “the negative evaluation of the Jair Bolsonaro government increased to 43.4%, as the sum of the 32.3% that evaluate the government as terrible and 11.1% as bad. In January  the total of the two categories was 31%.”70 This is not to say Bolsonaro is any less dangerous (he is not a “paper tiger”) and probably, as the vulnerability of his government increases, so may political violence and the demands for a military takeover. However, there are also clear divisions among the forces that congealed to support his rise to power. The neoliberal authoritarian government continues with the legislative support of centrists, led by representative Rodrigo Maia (Democrats, and until recently the president of Congress). Maia has continuously sustained the Bolsonaro regime—in spite of the fact that he is, at times, the object of neo-fascist, pro-Bolsonaro demonstrators—and has been essential for blocking legislative attempts to move forward with every request (approximately 63 currently under analysis in Congress) for Bolsonaro’s impeachment, as well as several congressional investigations.71 On one hand, right-wing centrists committed to the neoliberal socioeconomic and political reforms continue to seek an alliance that would join sectors from the center-left and the right, hoping to create a friendlier, “gentler” version of Bolsonaro. Looking forward toward the 2022 presidential election, Maia argued, “If no one proves capable of unifying the political center, we will be excluded from the second round of the election. This goes for Doria [Governor of São Paulo], Luciano Huck [TV announcer and pre-candidate supported by TV Globo] and Ciro Gomes [PDT], this goes for everyone from the center-left to the center-right of the political spectrum. If we do not unite these forces, the result will certainly be Bolsonaro on one side and Lula’s candidate on the other side.”72 In this sense, their objective is to sidestep their responsibility for the underlying issues that led to the coup and the institutional crisis, while reaping the benefits of their support for Bolsonaro. It was recently reported that the government “was parlaying leadership positions of government agencies with the centrist parties, all with important regional power and expressive budgets.”73
In spite of continuously shielding Bolsonaro from the growing demands for his impeachment during his term as congressional leader, Maia ultimately became a fatality of his own political pandering to the extreme right when Bolsonaro’s candidates for the leadership of Congress and Senate were victorious, in opposition to Maia’s slate. The victory gave Bolsonaro even greater influence over the daily operations of the Congress and Senate, and over defining the legislative political agenda. He lost no time, and with the support of centrists and right-wing representatives, he sponsored legislation proposing the privatization of the state-owned electric company Eletrobras and the Brazilian Postal Service.
Moving in a somewhat similar direction, bankers and economic elites hope to dress up as “democrats” and leaders of the opposition to Bolsonaro’s neo-fascist movement. A well-rehearsed script that has been replayed many times over in Brazilian history, elites now seek to distance themselves from the very monster they created—and why not, since the neoliberal socioeconomic reforms have all been put into effect. Earlier this year sectors of the Brazilian middle class repeatedly broke out in nightly “panelaços” (beating pots at the same time every night), crying, “out with Bolsonaro” like neoliberalism’s trained seals, as bankers and economic elites continue organizing their own alternative to the political troglodyte they put in power. Their rise to power was only achieved by disregarding the Constitution and the rule of law when they coalesced to support the impeachment of Rousseff and the imprisonment of Lula, removing his political rights. Increasingly repentant neoliberal “democrats,” seeking to reposition and distance themselves from the wannabe dictator that they placed in the presidency, published a declaration entitled “Manifesto Juntos” (All Together) earlier this year which was, as was reported, the product of corporate media and bankers. The text was the responsibility of an organization called “Pact for Democracy,” which is sustained by billionaires, such as the Lemann Foundation of Jorge Lemann, the richest man in Brazil; Maria Alice Setúbal, majority stockholder of Itaú Bank; and Beatriz Bracher, mother of Candido Bracher, president of Itaú Bank. The “movement” is also supported by an NGO from the United States, known for its connections to hybrid wars and “color revolutions,” called the National Endowment for Democracy.”74
The emergence of this movement also demonstrates how murky and muddled the class interests that underlie resistance to the authoritarian regime have become, when even some individuals clearly on the left, such as Fernando Haddad (PT) and Flávio Dino (PCdoB) signed on to the document. In many ways their support for the document is indicative of how attempts to obfuscate the class nature of the 2016 coup, the Lava Jato lawfare, and the neoliberal political agenda imposed on the Brazilian people have influenced some sectors of the left. Justifying his position, Haddad, a potential presidential candidate in 2022, argued that the struggle against Bolsonaro has to take place on two distinct fronts of political action, one anti-fascist and another progressive, with distinct objectives and political compositions.75 I would argue, however, that the defense of the democratic state and the rule of law, as well as the defeat of “Bolsonarismo,” are intrinsically tied to the defense of the basic rights and protections of the Brazilian working class, as Lula correctly pointed out: “I am telling people not to jump onto the first bus that passes by. They want to rethink Bolsonaro, but they don’t want to rethink Guedes … There is very little of interest to the working class in these manifestos.”76 Similarly, legal professor Carol Proner argued that it is hard to sign on to a “manifesto” that does not recognize the responsibility for and effects of the 2016 coup and Lava Jato, stating “It is not possible rebuild democracy without a discussion of the impact of Lava Jato … It is necessary to know who is proposing, who finances and who is represented and who is excluded from these manifestos.”77 Clearly, the interests of the Brazilian working class were not contemplated, and it is reasonable and justifiable that neither Lula nor Rousseff signed on to the neoliberal political hustle.
Organized resistance to the authoritarian regime requires a left and progressive movement committed to the struggle for workers’ rights and the defense of national sovereignty, a movement against poverty and inequality. Democracy, in this context, is not a scholastic exercise or the topic of debate club, but the struggle to roll back the neoliberal-market reforms imposed by the authoritarian regime. Just being against Bolsonaro is insufficient, and on its own will not necessarily lead to the restoration of democracy and the rights of working people. Recent experiences have already proven as much. In spite of the expansive movement to remove 2016 coup leader Temer from office, neoliberal market forces responsible for illegally manipulating the political-electoral process—promoting the impeachment of Rousseff and jailing Lula—were able to elect Bolsonaro. Democracy cannot be perceived as separate from the very real and dire issues facing Brazil’s working people.
It is important to understand that these battles are axiomatically tied to any broader struggle in defense of democracy, a political battle in which, as André Singer argued, “the only deadly sin is sectarianism.”78 I would add, however, that non-sectarianism cannot mean giving up the struggle against neoliberalism or putting it on the back burner of a weakly-defined movement for the return to democracy. At this point, the left and progressives cannot afford to suffer from historical memory loss. In Brazil, fundamental political change (as in the past with the movement against the dictatorship that led to the formulation of the current constitution) only occurs when the working class and organized labor movement are engaged and their interests represented. Without this, the neoliberal nightmare set in place with the 2016 coup against democracy will continue independent of who occupies the presidency.