The dreaded day has come. Jair Bolsonaro has taken office as President of Brazil.
In its first month, the new administration rolled back social progress. Expected increases to the minimum wage were reduced. LGBTQ people were removed from Brazil’s human rights directives. The demarcation of indigenous lands has been transferred from the National Foundation of Indigenous Peoples (FUNAI) to the Ministry of Agriculture, which is solidly controlled by agribusiness interests. The Ministry of Labor is now slated to be extinguished.
The 2018 elections polarized the country in an unprecedented way since the return to direct elections in 1989. The left’s efforts were monumental. A diverse political front took to the streets in a series of demonstrations, rallies, and community meetings under the slogan “Ele Não” (“Not Him”) to defeat Bolsonaro’s bid for the presidency.
But the far right, under the banner “Brazil Above Everything, God Above Everyone,” swept the run-off elections with 55,13 percent of valid votes against 44.87 percent for Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party.
What made Brazil’s turn to the right possible?
The defeat of the Workers’ Party
The illegal arrest of Lula–nearly certain to win the 2018 elections according to every projection–was essential for securing Bolsonaro’s win.
Lula’s 2002 presidential election victory was historic. A union leader and metal worker born in poverty in the neglected northeast region had become president against seemingly insurmountable odds. It would be the first of four consecutive presidential election victories for the Workers’ Party, defining a new period in Brazilian politics. Yet some of the most corrupt figures in Brazilian history, under the ironic pretext of “fighting corruption,” succeeded in putting Brazil’s most popular politician in prison with no material evidence, and pulling him from the elections despite massive demonstrations in his support.
This sharp rightward shift can be explained by changes in the political conditions in Brazil in the past 15 years.
The Workers’ Party did not ride a wave of mass political radicalization to the presidency. Rather, faced with the furious resistance of powerful Brazilian elites and foreign investors, and defeated in three consecutive presidential elections, Lula was elected president in 2002 by moderating his program and building alliances with centrist forces.
The government of the Workers’ Party reflected this correlation of forces. Its economic and social programs undeniably improved conditions for large sectors of the Brazilian working class, bringing about a reduction in poverty, increases in affordable housing, and access to higher education for poor people of color who would have never gone to college before. Alongside initiatives that helped poor workers, many business-friendly policies were pursued. To some degree or another, these features characterized both the Lula government and that of his successor, Dilma Rousseff.
These politics of conciliation were possible in no small part due to an extended economic boom cycle of the Brazilian economy. The high price of commodities in the world market, particularly due to China’s economic growth, boosted Brazilian exports. Economic growth during 2010, the last year of Lula’s second term, was 7.5 percent–the largest for Brazil since 1986, and only behind China and India. Hostility from the wealthy toward the Workers’ Party was tempered by massive profits.
But starting in late 2014, the boom turned to bust.
Dilma’s second term was beset by an economic crisis as commodity prices fell. Concessions to the working class, once somewhat palatable to the Brazilian elites, quickly became totally unacceptable. The ruling class demanded a new political order. Austerity for workers became a priority in order to protect profits. Enticements and giveaways to investors abroad were a must as the Brazilian bourgeoisie turned to foreign capital for rescue.
Social democracy was not fit to carry out these tasks. The Workers’ Party had to go. This became the dominant orientation among the Brazilian ruling class, with the support of imperialist interests eager to profit from the situation. It was an all-out war against the Workers’ Party and, for that matter, the entire Brazilian left.
The deteriorating economic situation provided the Brazilian right wing with a base of support, primarily among discontented members of the Brazilian middle class. It was that sector of the population that fueled street protests, ostensibly organized against government corruption, in order to bring down the Rousseff government. Their increasingly hysterical support helped judge Sérgio Moro claim a cover of legitimacy and a mandate for his extensive legal and constitutional violations as the “Car Wash” operation expanded into an all-out crusade against the Workers’ Party.
Those formerly allied with the Workers’ Party could see which way the wind was blowing. Key figures within the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), facing charges in connection with the Car Wash investigation, became zealous supporters of the coup to save their own necks. Senator Romero Jucá was recorded suggesting that removing Rousseff from the presidency could “stop the bleeding” and bring an end to the corruption indictments. Eduardo Cunha, president of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, shepherded the impeachment proceedings against Rousseff as an act of political vengeance for the Workers’ Party not protecting him against extensive corruption charges that would eventually land him in prison. The PMDB’s Michel Temer, Rousseff’s vice president, not only helped carry out the political coup that brought down her government, but once sworn in as her replacement used his brief presidency to articulate a program of massive rollbacks of the social gains of the preceding 13 years. For his services, Temer received protection from Congress against a potential impeachment, and is now being considered by Bolsonaro for an appointment as ambassador to Italy — an assignment that would protect him from accusations of corruption and money laundering.
It was this utterly corrupt cast of characters that carried out the coup against Rousseff. But, of course, the attacks on the Workers’ Party were never about corruption.
Lula’s arrest in April 2018 was a continuation of the 2016 coup. The sham impeachment of Rousseff had been expected to deal a deathblow to the Workers’ Party, but Lula’s strong lead in the polls suggested the Brazilian masses missed the memo. Temer’s program had to be cemented and expanded to please the interests of capital, and a return of Lula threatened this agenda. Every institutional instrument at the hands of the Brazilian bourgeoisie, the state apparatus first and foremost, was set in motion. The judiciary, corporate media, political operatives and their financial backers, and the military brass all played their part. Without any material evidence and amid condemnation from international jurists and the UN Human Rights Committee, Lula was arrested and barred from participating in the presidential elections.
With Lula out of the race, the rising right-wing tide gained momentum. Haddad, the replacement candidate of the Workers’ Party, did not have the same national recognition or deep connection to the working-class. The Superior Electoral Tribunal and Supreme Federal Tribunal did what they could to silence Lula, going as far restricting mentions of him in electoral ads and illegally barring media interviews with him. Demonstrations under the “Not Him” slogan countered Bolsonaro rallies and brought together a broad coalition. A number of parties, among them the Brazilian Communist Party and the Socialism and Liberty Party, supported Haddad besides their political differences. A notable exception in the united front was Ciro Gomes, candidate of the Democratic Labor Party, who kept his silence until the elections and is now trying to position himself as an opposition leader. The Haddad campaign ultimately could not overcome the right-wing offensive.
To secure Bolsonaro’s victory, the defeat of social democratic and progressive forces was complemented by the bankruptcy of center-right and right mainstream parties.
The Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) ran former governor of São Paulo Geraldo Alckmin, marred by corruption scandals (not the least of which involved grafting of funds destined for school children’s meals). Though the PSDB had made it to the run-off against the Workers’ Party in the four most recent elections, Alckmin got a meager 4.7 percent of the votes. The PMDB was so deeply damaged by Temer’s unpopular presidency and austerity program, along with the party’s opportunist role in the coup against Rousseff and its own share of criminal corruption charges, that it did not even bother running. Those who had done everything to bring down the Workers’ Party leadership offered little to the people of Brazil.
This political crisis was fertile ground for the far-right demagoguery of Bolsonaro. It evoked a vision of order and progress, of putting an end to corruption, and overcoming the economic crisis, putting the blame for the country’s problems squarely on the backs of leftists and “communists.” His religious rhetoric appealed to conservative evangelicals, including some in Brazil’s working class. Bolsonaro may not have been the first choice of the Brazilian elites, but political crisis in Brazil made Bolsonaro the consequence of their “anything but the Workers’ Party” orientation.
Bolsonaro openly embraces misogyny, homophobia, and racism. But his fascist discourse and the return of the military brass to political bring back memories of a dark chapter in Brazilian history.
Militarism on the rise
Bolsonaro’s militaristic inclinations go back to his childhood. He takes pride in having helped army soldiers navigate the woods near his home in their search for revolutionary leader Carlos Lamarca in the 1970s. Following high school, Bolsonaro joined the Brazilian military where he attained the rank of captain. He aggressively demanded better pay for the armed forces, plotting small-scale bombings of military facilities in 1987 if adequate wage adjustments were not implemented. Bolsonaro and his accomplices were absolved, though it was later confirmed that schematics for the bombing matched his handwriting.
Bolsonaro’s political career, first as a municipal legislator in Rio de Janeiro and later as a representative in the federal Chamber of Deputies, has been defined by his far-right positions. His cabinet is now filled with top military brass, with a former general as his vice president. Above all, Bolsonaro has been an ardent admirer of the Brazilian military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985.
But what did the period of military rule mean for Brazilians?
The 1964 military coup was a reaction to the leftist government of President João Goulart. Following the resignation of President Jânio Quadros in 1961, military leaders nearly succeeding in preventing Goulart, his vice president, from taking office. Goulart’s ties with labor and his progressive program, along with his willingness to build ties with the socialist bloc, caused alarm among the Brazilian capitalist class and landowners. Goulart did take the presidency — but only through a political compromise that amended the constitution to create a parliamentary system and reduce presidential powers.
When a 1963 popular referendum to make the parliamentary system permanent was soundly defeated in the polls, Goulart assumed full presidential powers. His government swung to the left, and the pursuit of his “basic reforms” accelerated. These reforms included an education campaign that emphasized literacy and agrarian reform that was much feared by wealthy landowners.
Goulart’s decrees nationalizing oil refineries and authorizing land expropriation were the spark that lit the fuse. Signed on March 13, 1964, they were played up as proof of a “communist threat” as opposition protesters poured into the streets. Virtually all major daily newspapers openly called for the end of the Goulart presidency. The conditions for military intervention were set. On April 1, less than three weeks after he had signed the decrees at a rally of 150,000 workers, farmers, and students, Goulart was overthrown by the army. Leading government figures were stripped of their political rights, cleansing Congress of effective opposition. The multi-party system was replaced by a two-party system and direct presidential elections were replaced with indirect elections by Congress, all of which reaffirmed military rule.
But the worst would come in 1968, with the publication of Institutional Act 5 (AI-5). Though triggered by events in the Brazilian Congress that were seen as a challenge to military authority, in reality AI-5 was a response to growing student protests, increased armed resistance by urban and rural guerrillas, and growing labor unrest illustrated by the courageous metalworkers strikes in Contagem and Osasco.
The AI-5 marked the beginning of the “Years of Lead.” The act’s immediate effect included the closing of Congress, the banning of political meetings and a suspension of habeas corpus for alleged political crimes. Soon enough it normalized torture and killings of dissidents, which had a chilling effect on political activity. The official figures vastly underestimate those killed by the dictatorship, especially the massacres of indigenous peoples. Leading the dictatorship’s torture program was Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra. Among his victims were Rousseff, decades before she would become president. Bolsonaro would later praise Ustra from the floor of Congress during the vote on Rousseff’s impeachment.
The coup that ushered this repressive era of Brazilian history is celebrated by Bolsonaro and his more loyal followers as the “Revolution of 1964,” terminology used today only by the most extreme right-wing elements in Brazilian politics. For Bolsonaro, the greatest fault of the military rulers was to torture when they should have killed.
The role of the United States in the 1964 coup is confirmed in declassified documents and recordings. The 1959 Cuban revolution brought the specter of socialist revolution to Latin America, and Washington was committed to ensuring it would not spread. Lyndon B. Johnson’s government inherited its policy toward Brazil from the John F. Kennedy administration, which had already begun planning potential actions in Brazil in response to the growth of the Brazilian left.
Lincoln Gordon, the U.S. ambassador to Brazil, was the main orchestrator of U.S. participation in destabilizing the Goulart government. Gordon had helped develop the Alliance for Progress, a program designed to prevent Latin American countries from turning to revolution.
In the lead-up to the 1964 coup, Gordon funneled U.S. funds into the Institute for Research and Social Studies, known in Brazil as IPES. The primary activity of IPES was the production and dissemination of anti-communist propaganda in the form of documentaries, leaflets, and other materials. The government of Goulart was directly targeted. The work of IPES was essential in setting the stage for the overthrow of Goulart. U.S. warships were sent to the Brazilian coast to signal U.S. support to coup leaders as part of Operation Brother Sam. Especially in its early years, the dictatorship aligned itself almost entirely with the United States, and throughout the harshest period of military rule successive U.S. presidents maintained good relations with the Brazilian government.
Brazil is no less important to U.S. interests today than it was then.
Brazil, Latin America, and the world
Brazil is the largest country in Latin America, with area surpassing that of the continental United States. It borders all countries in South America except Chile and Ecuador. The Brazilian economy is the world’s 8th largest. Brazil ranks 9th in oil production, and its offshore pre-salt oil fields are highly coveted by foreign oil companies.
Bolsonaro is turning Brazil towards Washington, and his own personal style and views align well with Trump’s. This realignment has strong implications.
The most immediate consequences will be felt at home. Foreign capital has great expectations for Bolsonaro. The program of privatizations begun under Temer, selling off the country’s wealth for peanuts, is expected to expand. As far as Wall Street is concerned, the true test for Bolsonaro will be whether he succeeds in reforming–that is, destroying–the public pension system. “Investors hope the ‘Trump of the Tropics’ will liberalize Brazil’s economy and reform its costly pension system; entrenched special interests are gearing up to resist,” writes Russell Walter Mead for the Wall Street Journal as he cheers on Bolsonaro. The “entrenched special interests” are retiring public workers, which investors see as a drain on cash reserves better used to service interest payments on foreign debt.
The Bolsonaro government also brings significant changes to Brazil’s foreign relations. Bolsonaro has made strong overtures toward Israel. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was among the most prominent heads of state at Bolsonaro’s inauguration, and is the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit Brazil. If he gets his way, the Brazilian embassy will be transferred to Jerusalem, following Trump’s lead and pleasing Bolsonaro’s evangelical supporters.
The new administration may also alter the dynamics within the BRICS block. Formed in the 2000s, it originally consisted of Brazil, Russia, India, and China, with South Africa joining in 2011. At the time, Brazil was strengthening its partnerships with other countries and reducing its reliance on the United States. BRICS came to symbolize an alternative bloc led by emerging economies to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and other economic groups dominated primarily by the imperialist interests of the United States and Western Europe. With U.S. national security strategy presently preparing for major power conflict — that is, conflict with Russia and China — weakening the BRICS block and strengthening U.S.-Brazil economic ties at the expense of China-Brazil relations would advance U.S. goals. Given how important China has become for the Brazilian economy, it remains to be seen whether the Bolsonaro administration will succeed on this front.
A greater and more immediate danger is the threat that Bolsonaro’s presidency poses to Latin America — and to Venezuela first and foremost. Washington’s goal of bringing down the Bolivarian Revolution has an important ally in Bolsonaro.
Bolsonaro’s running mate, General Hamilton Mourão, said in a September interview, “I, in the most recent meetings of our Army’s high command, said our next peacekeeping force would be in Venezuela.” Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo reiterated Mourão’s message in October: “We will free our Venezuelan brothers from socialism and hunger,” he stated at a campaign rally for his father. He had previously suggested Brazil could freeze cash flows destined for Venezuela and Cuba. His remarks were made in Washington, DC last November, following meetings with representatives from the State Department, the National Security Council, and the Department of Commerce, as well as with representatives of Vice President Mike Pence. Eduardo also joined a meeting organized by the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute — behind closed doors, of course.
The United States along with the Group of Lima, which includes Brazil and whose sole purpose is to undermine the revolutionary process in Venezuela, is intent on overthrowing the government of Nicolás Maduro. With their support, the head of the Venezuelan National Assembly stated January 11 that he is ready to take over the presidency until new elections are held; an overt call for a coup. This serious situation is only aggravated by the potential of Brazilian military involvement.
Forging unity in the Brazilian left
The Workers’ Party’s experiences at the helm of Brazilian politics are a lesson in the limits of social democracy. It is undeniable that the Workers’ Party government brought positive changes to the Brazilian working class and represented a departure from the neoliberal governments of their predecessors. The character of social democratic reforms is limited, but that is not its greatest shortcoming; it is rather its inability to bring an end to the dictatorship of capital, and its inherent and recurring crises. It leaves the gains of social democratic reforms at the mercy of capital once its search for ever greater profits inevitably brings about a counter-attack. Brazil’s experience could not have made this any clearer.
The upcoming period will test the Brazilian left. With the Workers’ Party severely damaged by persecution and electoral defeats, other forces among leftist and progressive organizations are seeking a leadership role. Debates on questions of organization, strategy, and tactics will be central to mounting an effective opposition capable of pushing back the Bolsonaro government. With progressive parties weakened in Congress as well, the movement will now be ever more reliant on its own ability to mobilize and make change in the streets.
Luckily for them, that is a very powerful weapon.