Which side will win out in Brazil?

March 24, 2016

Bruno Ruviaro and Todd Chretien explain the backdrop to Brazil's political turmoil.

IS A "legal coup" underway in South America's largest and most powerful country? That's what some on the left are warning as Brazil's political crisis grows deeper.

Earlier this month, 200 federal agents carried out raids and arrests in three Brazilian states as part of an investigation, code-named Operation Lava Jato ("Car Wash"), into allegations linking Brazilian political leaders to corrupt deals with the country's state oil giant Petrobras.

As part of the operation, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Worker's Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT) was taken into police custody on March 4 under "coercive conduction," a legal measure that permits prosecutors to compel a witness to testify. Lula was questioned about his potential involvement in the corruption scheme.

All this comes amid growing calls by the conservative opposition for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, Lula's successor and the current PT leader. This politically provocative maneuver would undo by other means the outcome of two national presidential elections--the most recent in 2014, which Rousseff won by a 3.5-million-vote margin.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (left) and Dilma Rousseff
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (left) and Dilma Rousseff (Ricardo Stuckert)

At the same time, in a desperate and widely criticized move, Rousseff of the PT attempted to appoint Lula as her chief of staff--a post that would give him legal immunity. Her goal was plainly to shield him from further prosecution as well as squash any testimony he might give that would drag other leaders of the PT into the scandal.

THESE EVENTS give concrete expression to two main elements in the current political crisis in Brazil.

On the one hand, the detention of Lula--a historic working-class leader and widely popular former president--is part of an orchestrated campaign by the right-wing opposition with the aim of wrestling the presidency away from the PT after a decade and a half in power. The right might have to wait for the next elections, but its moment could come sooner if the impeachment drive against Rousseff gains steam.

On the one hand, the raids, the corruption investigation and the threatened toppling of Rousseff are further steps in the decline of "Lulism" and the PT.

The PT started off as a small but solidly working-class party in 1980. It won only 3 percent of nationwide vote in 1982, but grew quickly, almost winning the presidency in 1989 with Lula as its candidate. Though the mainstream parties managed to prevail in two more elections in the 1990s, Lula finally won the presidency in 2002.

Corruption is by no means new in Brazil--scandals have plagued governmental institutions for decades. But the implication of the PT, after it won four presidential elections in a row, has shocked and angered its base.

And for a party that once was committed to establishing socialism, though by gradual means, and to vehemently denouncing corruption, the PT of 2016 has become almost unrecognizable. As Valério Arcary, a leading member of the Unified Socialist Workers Party (PSTU), wrote earlier this year, the "PT is now Brazil's most professional electoral machine, thoroughly integrated into government institutions and closely associated with some of the country's most powerful corporations."

The PT progressively distanced itself from socialism in the late 1990s, forthrightly adopting a version of center-left social democratic reformism. This process accelerated after Lula was first elected president in 2002 and then reelected in 2006.

Like Lula, his handpicked successor Rousseff is a veteran of Brazilian left. She was tortured in the early 1970s while a prisoner of the military dictatorship. But during her five years in power so far, Rousseff has moved squarely to the political center. She now implements austerity measures she once decried, including privatizations and the dismantling of public services.

Luciana Genro, a founder of the Socialist and Freedom Party (PSOL), which was expelled from the PT in 2003 by Lula for opposing his own austerity plans during his first term, has written:

It is unfortunate that a historic leader such as Lula has abandoned [working] people to become an ally of the elites, ruling with them, and receiving gifts from them. I feel sorry about this because the Workers Party, when it came into being, was a necessary construction. There are thousands of honest PT members who do not deserve this.

Genro also stresses the fact that the right-wing politicians now calling for Rousseff's and Lula's heads have themselves been part of similar corruption schemes. But workers and the poor in Brazil expect right-wing politicians and the bosses to be corrupt--they hoped for better from what they thought was their own party.

TAKING FULL advantage of the scandal, the center and right-wing opposition has successfully mobilized its supporters in mass demonstrations against the government, creating an atmosphere of increasing social tension.

Under the banner of fighting corruption, millions of middle- and upper-class Brazilians have taken to the streets, dressed in green and yellow (the national colors), to demand impeachment. Prominent public displays of Brazilian flags has been a counterpart to center-right political demonstrations in recent years.

In the biggest demonstration yet, on March 13, as many as a million people marched in São Paulo. The protest exceeded the numbers of the historic "Diretas Já" ("Elections Now") demonstration of 1984, which demanded direct elections and helped bring down the brutal military dictatorship. In a telling irony, a vocal minority among today's protesters is bizarrely defending a return of the dictatorship.

At the same time, supporters of the PT government have also taken to the streets to defend Rousseff, though in much smaller numbers.

In a recent article headlined "Brazil is Engulfed by Ruling Class Corruption," Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Fishman and David Miranda present an excellent overview of the present political puzzle. They write that the "PT is indeed deeply corrupt and awash in criminal scandal, but so is virtually every political faction working to undermine it and vying to seize that party's democratically obtained power."

Greenwald, Fishman and Miranda criticize the crude oversimplification of mainstream media depictions of the protests as "the people versus the president," calling them "a manufactured theme consistent with what is being peddled by Brazil's anti-government media outlets such as Globo...; Brazil's corporate media outlets are acting as de facto protest organizers and PR arms of opposition parties."

Going beyond the "crass propaganda designed to undermine a left-wing party long disliked by U.S. foreign policy elites," the Intercept's writers uncover the questions we need to ask in order to understand the corruption scandal and the pro-impeachment street protests: Who is behind the demonstrations and what is their actual agenda? And how representative are the protesters of the Brazilian population?

BRAZIL IS in the midst of a deep economic recession with unemployment in metropolitan areas reaching the record highs of 2009. Gross domestic product shrank by 3.8 percent in 2015, accelerating to an annualized decline of 5.9 percent in the last three months of the year.

The severity of the contraction has led to an unusual agreement between the PT government and the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), the main opposition in parliament. The PT itself has only 10 percent of the seats, forcing Rousseff to rely on a diverse coalition of more than a dozen parties for support.

The PT's drift to the right has met resistance. The revolutionary left in Brazil, while much smaller than the PT, constitutes a substantial force. Collectively, left parties have thousands of active activists, lead important trade unions, and have won more than a million votes in national elections.

But the impeachment and corruption crises present unique challenges. For example, PSOL's Genro recently wrote on social media, "For our part, we feel an increased responsibility to build a left that is not afraid to say its name, a left that does not ally with the elites to govern against the people. Let's build an alternative to rescue a coherent left, independent of the bourgeoisie."

Hundreds of people from various left tendencies replied both for and against her statement. Some were angry because she wasn't willing to defend Lula and Dilma and thus supposedly "lined up with the right." One typical comment read, "No use in crossing your arms while the right wing is stabbing us and killing democracy, this won't solve anything!!"

But another comment, in support of Genro's analysis, stated: "I hope people will now understand that Lula and Dilma no longer represent the interests of the working class! PT has morphed into a bourgeois party associated with construction companies, speculators, bankers and agribusiness."

The economic policy convergence between the PT and PSDB has drawn condemnation from other revolutionary organizations. In a statement released earlier this month, the PSTU denounced how the two parties are working together to impose a series of austerity measures that will push the cost of the crisis on the backs of workers.

Among the measures is a new pension reform establishing a minimum age for retirement and legislation that would create a permanent system of automatic triggers for further budget cuts. Even minimum wage increases might be revoked or repealed. Pointing out the similarities between PSDB and PT policies, the PSTU asserts:

Lula and the PT are now suffering the consequences of having adopted a politics of ruling in partnership with the bosses and their parties; and of creating a government aimed at serving the interests of bankers and big business. As a product of this alliance with the business class, [the Worker's Party] ended up adopting their modus operandi, like the corruption schemes that indiscriminately affect all the bosses' parties.

However, many traditional mass organizations such as the CUT (Unified Workers' Central, the main union federation), MST (Landless Rural Workers' Movement) and UNE (National Student Union), to name a few, still maintain friendly ties with the PT government and argue that it deserves support, even though they may make some criticisms on specific points.

AMONG THE socialist left critical of the PT, several common themes have emerged, although tactical differences and analytical emphases remain.

First, there is agreement on support for corruption investigations such as Operation Lava Jato, though the selective targeting of PT government figures should be criticized.

Second, these organizations agree that right-wing forces are growing and gaining momentum--and countering them requires building a strong left outside the PT government and critical of it. For example, a statement by the MES (one current inside of PSOL) argues: "There is justified and irreversible indignation against the government; if this sentiment is unable to find a channel to the left, it will more and more feed the right."

Third, the left is calling for general elections--not just a presidential election--as the best way to counter bourgeois political forces that would benefit from Rousseff's impeachment.

This week, PSOL released an official statement that combined opposition to right-wing forces and a forceful criticism of the rightward movement of the PT government:

We will participate in the Demonstration for Democracy organized by the progressive coalition Frente Povo Sem Medo ("People Without Fear Front") on March 24, and the broader demonstrations on March 31. We will maintain a clear stance against both the reactionary offensive from the right and its institutional coup-mongering and against austerity measures put forth by the Dilma government.

The PSTU has also released a statement calling for workers to "take the lead in demonstrations" while arguing against participation in any rallies defending Dilma and Lula. The working class, according to the PSTU, needs to "take the streets, shut down the factories, and block the roads in order to demand 'Out with all of them.'"

The statement calls for immediate general elections, the jailing of corrupt individuals, an end to layoffs, a reduction in work hours without a reduction in wages and suspension of debt payments to bankers in order to invest in health, education, housing and basic sanitation.

WITH GROWING plans for mobilizations on both the right and the left, the tasks ahead for Brazilian socialists are challenging, especially given the unfavorable correlation of forces. As Journalist Luís Leiria writes:

To fight the right, to denounce the impeachment, while at the same time maintaining its independence from the PT government and fighting against its politics, we must create a front between parties such as PSOL, PSTU, PCB (the Brazilian Communist Party), and social organizations such as MTST (Homeless Workers Movement) or CSP Conlutas (a left-wing union federation) and Intersindical (a left-wing network of union activists), in order to build a third camp that can emerge as an alternative.

Will it be possible to at least begin to discuss such a front? Will it be possible to build this third camp? All divergences between these organizations should be seen as secondary in view of this task immediate task. It remains to be seen what can be accomplished.

The political crisis could spin out of control quickly, leading to an impeachment confrontation, or the time frame may extend through the coming weeks or months. Either way, the outcome of the battles in Latin America's most powerful economy will reverberate for months and years to come.

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