Bolsonaro, Brazil and the left

Submitted by martin on 24 July, 2021 - 8:38 Author: Luiza Xavier
Protest against Bolsonaro

Luiza Xavier spoke at Ideas for Freedom, the Workers' Liberty summer school 2021.


I feel like people in the UK, especially people, are not really tuned into what's going on in South America, are a bit surprised by the mad figure that is Bolsonaro suddenly taking power in Brazil, especially after years of PT government led to massive social reforms.

2013, I think, is a good point to start talking about how Bolsonaro managed to get into power. In 2013 there were massive demonstrations in Brazil all over, and they got kick started because of some protests around the bus fares in Sao Paulo.

In contrast with England, public transport is what takes the biggest chunk, possibly, of people's salaries. Bus fares are a really, really big issue. The demonstrations were heavily repressed. After that repression, protests started sparking off everywhere in Brazil.

This was at a time after Lula had been in government for eight years and done some massive socio-economic reforms, in part because the economy worldwide allowed for him. When Dilma Rousseff got into office in 2011, she was in not in that situation any more. It got more and more difficult for her to balance both sides, which is what the PT, as a bourgeois workers' government, was doing. And so: one, the bourgeoisie was not very happy with Dilma at all. And, two, people started being not very happy too. They had had those massive reforms, but then things got very stagnant about 2013.

There were huge demos. They had some demands, but they were very empty, though, about better health care, better education, more public spending in general, but they also didn't get really channelled by the left in any way. In a way they were very anti-political-party, anti-political-organisation.

In part because of the nature of these massive demonstrations, in part because of the failure of the left to organise in them, in about three years these demonstrations changed. They started quite plural. Then the colours changed, towards green and yellow, which are the Brazilian colours.

The right managed to channel quite a lot of the energy of the demonstrations into their own stuff. They narrowed the demands, which at the start were quite broad and around general improvements to working-class life, into being very much just about corruption and the corruption charges against some PT leaders.

The protests became very much an anti-left-wing, anti-PT type of protest. Dilma, who was the PT president at the time, was impeached.

But the agitation about corruption also attacked a lot of people on the right who were in government. When Dilma was impeached, a vice president who was a horrible right winger that took power.

After that, when there were elections, there was a bit of a vacuum. The PT president had just been impeached. It was going to be really difficult for the PT to win. But the right, too, had a lot of people implicated in corruption. There was a vacuum.

In Congress, there are what people call the BBB benches, where BBB stands for Beef-Bullet-Bible, the agricultural bourgeoisie, the arms trade, and the evangelical Christians whot have massive influence. And these are obviously forces in society as well.

Brazil is the type of place that has mega-churches that will draw thousands and thousands of people. The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, UCKG, is a huge business in Brazil, and it has taken over communities that felt disenfranchised or unsupported by the by the government. It has massive power.

Bolsonaro was already a known figure in Brazil. He didn't come out of nowhere. He had already been a deputy in the Chamber of Deputies for decades at that point and was seen by the left as a clown. Nobody really took him seriously.

But he was there. He was very much on all of these sides. He loves the agricultural bourgeoisie.He is very much for selling up the whole of the Amazon and indigenous land to make fields for cattle to feed on, or soy fields. He wants to legalise possession of arms by civilians, and he is mates with the president of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.

He ticked all the boxes. And so Bolsonaro got elected.

I'm not going to go a lot into the general things that Bolsonaro did, but I'll say just a little bit about Bolsonaro in the pandemic, because that's new stuff and it feeds into a lot of what the left is saying at the moment.

At the start, Bolsonaro denied the pandemic. He denied that it was a real problem. He told people not to wear masks. He told people not to stay home; he actively told people not to stay at home. He told people that the way to to treat Covid was by taking hydroxychloroquine. That is an antibiotic which is proven not to do anything, but he pitched it as a kind of populist thing, that everyone is hiding the truth from you, what you actually have to do just have to use this specific kind of medicine. There were pretty much no benefits for people that were losing their jobs or having to stay at home.

The one type of benefit that was passed nationally was the 500 reais a month. The minimum salary, which is already incredibly low for what you actually need to live in Brazil, is about a thousand reais a month, so the benefit is half of that.

Unemployment in Brazil at the moment, because of the pandemic, is at a high for many years, at 14.7%. You can see the graphs of cases of Covid in Brazil that, very much because of Bolsonaro's policy, you didn't even have waves like in other countries.

The case were a bit lower in October, but you have to bear in mind that testing is not rigorous. Pretty much, you just have cases going up across the whole time-frame.

Now there's a parliamentary enquiry commission on the handling of the pandemic. That this happens at all already shows a good thing, because these enquiries into the handling of anything by the government have to have a third of people in the Chamber of Deputies calling for them. To get a third, when the left is no longer a majority in the Chamber of Deputies, means that some of the right and probably some bourgeois forces already recognising that Bolsonaro is probably not ideal even for the ruling class in Brazil.

This massive enquiry has shown that Pfizer sent 62 emails to Bolsonaro offering the vaccine at 50 percent discount to be taken in Brazil, and he ignored all those emails. Why did he ignore those emails? Because he was asking other vaccine companies for a bribe of one dollar per vaccine. We know that he did that to people selling AstraZeneca and the Indian Covaxin vaccine, more expensive than other vaccines, even though it is much less effective. Everything indicates that massive, massive corruption.

And then there's the actual discourse from the president, telling people to not do anything about the virus.

Now I'm going to talk about the left and Bolsonaro. I'll talk a little bit about Black Lives Matter in Brazil, which happened at the beginning of the pandemic.

That might not seem directly related to Bolsonaro, because most of the horrible operations by the police that kill literally a person every two minutes in the favelas in Rio are not directly connected to the federal government. But Bolsonaro is shown to have links to the militias which have de facto parallel governments in many of these communities.

At the beginning of the pandemic, with Black Lives Matter happening in the United States and with the news that two black kids, on two separate occasions but days apart, had been killed by the police, one 13 year old boy, one 10 year old girl. I think the 13 year old boy had 50 shots. He was at home, he was not doing anything, he was not looking like he was carrying a gun of any type, he was blatantly killed because he was a black young person.

There were protests at the beginning of the pandemic. They weren't as big as we would expect them to be now, because it was the beginning of the pandemic, and people were very scared to go onto the streets, but they happened and they put pressure on the government, and on the Supreme Court, to put a stop to all militarised operations into favelas during the period of the pandemic. That was a victory, especially kind of propaganda-wise, because everyone had the news we could put some pressure on the government, even with a small bit of organising.

Since then, 954 people have been killed by the police in the favelas of Rio. In the meantime, we have had the biggest massacre by the police, with 25 people being killed in an operation that lasted about an hour.

It's horrible, but I think what is exciting about it is that the movements that came out on the streets were predominantly black, while the left in Brazil is still predominantly white, even in unions, even though Brazil is a country with a gigantic black or mixed-race proportion of its population.

Coming a bit closer to where we are right now, that there have been massive demonstrations in the streets. The left has become a bit more organised. Now that people know a little bit more about the people, they are a bit less scared to go on the streets, especially if they are wearing masks, which is what most people do.

And after the enquiry that I talked about around corruption in the handling of the pandemic, massive demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people in the capitals of all the states of Brazil have happened.

There's certainly a lot more presence of the left than in the demonstrations in 2013. The demands are very much just for the impeachment of Bolsonaro and for vaccines free at the point of use, available for everyone.

There's unfortunately been a very low rate of union organising. At the very beginning of the pandemic, there was a big strike across the country of delivery drivers. That was great. At the beginning of the pandemic, people could see the contradiction between middle class people being able to stay afloat, having all their stuff delivered and not having to go anywhere, while other people had incredibly precarious work, at a time when food insecurity was high in Brazil, so delivery drivers were fainting on the way to deliver some food, someone's food, because they didn't have money to eat.

And there was a very big organisation around it. It was exciting. The workers are self-employed, and it's very difficult for them to organise, and yet they did. It culminated in a proposal for more rights for delivery drivers being put forward in the Chamber of Deputies, and I haven't heard any outcome yet. So unfortunately, it seems like it died out.

The other big strike is a lorry driver strike, which is due to happen in a couple of weeks because of the hike in the price of petrol. Brazil doesn't really have trains, so lorries take everything everywhere. Petrol goes up and lorry drivers, who are in general the self-employed have to pay for their own fuel, so it cuts the amount of money that they get massively. And they are in very precarious work.

The demands that they're making are for renationalising the oil industry in Brazil and so that we can regulate the price of oil better. There doesn't seem to be much talk about the environmental side of it.

But the demonstrations and strikes are huge. The left seems to be a little bit in disarray. The different left parties, all but the PSOL, are crumbling. You don't really see political parties guiding these demonstrations. It is mostly social movements, like the MST, which is the Landless Workers' Movement, or the MTST, which is the homeless workers' movement, though there's some presence of political parties in them.

Lula, who was in prison for about one year, is now free again of pretty much all charges, and is going to run for president against Bolsonaro again next year.

We have three main left political parties. The PT is the biggest party and was in government for quite a bit of time before Bolsonaro. It is by far the biggest, but not very democratic.

Then we have PSOL, which is a split from the PT, still quite small, gets about one to two per cent of the vote in presidential elections sometimes, but is in touch with the social movements like MST and MTST.

And then the Communist Party, which I guess is just pretty much similar to Communist Parties elsewhere in the world.

Lula is going to run against Bolsonaro. There is now a big debate over whether there should be what they call in Brazil a broad front against Bolsonaro by all of the left and the centre - instead of having many candidates on the first ballot, having a single candidate to try to defeat Bolsonaro.

There's a split in the PSOL about that.

The political parties seem to be changing a lot and not really building their own democracies, and things seem to be falling apart organisation-wise. Flávio Dino, who is the state governor of Maranhão, the only governor who was a member of the Communist Party, is moving to a centre party. Marcelo Freixo, who was a very big PSOL guy, is also moving to a centre party. Both are going to the Socialist Party, which is not left at all.

Guilherme Boulos, who is perhaps the biggest PSOL figure, and in the leadership of the homeless workers' movement in Sao Paulo, may be, it's difficult to know, moving to the PT and is arguing that the PSOL shouldn't run anyone else in the first round of election.

There's also some rumours going on that Boulos and Haddad of the PT are going to run against each other for governor of Sao Paulo.

In the last presidential election when the PT couldn't run Lula as a candidate, because he was in prison - Lula is by far the biggest figure, especially now that everyone hates the PT because of what I explained at the beginning of this talk - the whole PT campaign was based on the idea that Haddad, the PT candidate, "is" Lula. The president that Lula chose, the president that Brazil needs - Haddad is Lula.

I think that maybe shows how much trouble the PT is in, if it can only rely on the figure of one leader and not any sort of grassroots organisation.

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