PUTTING BRAZIL IN CONTEXT: THE FALL OF THE WORKERS PARTYFormer Workers Party (PT) Presidents of Brazil, Lula de Silva and Dilma Rousseff, on stage at a campaign rally.
Introduction by Adam Weaver
With the election of far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency of Brazil many are struggling for answers as to how the world’s fifth most populous country elected a president who openly praises the Brazil’s former dictatorship and has threatened to jail left political opponents. At the same time the charismatic former Worker’s Party (PT) president, Lula de Silva, is blocked from running as he remains jailed on corruptions charges instigated by the right wing.
The context of Bolsonaro’s victory is driven by the country’s deepest economic recession since the end of the dictatorship, corruption scandals that have discredited existing political institutions and parties, and a 2016 parliamentary coup initiated by the right-wing to oust Dilma Rousseff of the PT from the presidency. Factors that are not to be forgotten are the support Bolsonaro received from right-wing media, illegal campaigning by wealthy backers, support from Koch brother funded organizations, and the counsel of former Breitbart News editor and Trump adviser Steve Bannon.
But the story would not be complete without an understanding of the decline of the PT. As Jewish Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin noted, “every resurgence of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution.” Lula de Silva, a union leader and former metal worker, rose to global prominence with his 2003 election to the Brazilian presidency and association with the PT hosted World Social Forum held in Porto Alegre, Brazil 2001, 2002 and 2003. But similar to the ill-fated Syriza of Greece, the PT has transitioned from political darling to quickly forgotten footnote for many. Once in office Lula embraced a rhetoric of “fiscal responsibility” and a practice austerity measures, cutting social programs and attacking labor rights. Some progressive reforms were enacted, such as increases in minimum wage and cash transfer programs, but overall the PT faced the classic contradictory dilemma of attempting to implement their program or actually governing.
Rodrigo Santaella, an activist with Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL), a left leaning split from the PT that emerged after Lula’s pension reforms and which assassinated Afro-Brazilian activist Marielle Franco was an elected official of, describes the trajectory of the party as such:
“The Brazilian left was, since the end of the 70’s, all focused on building PT as an alternative political tool for the working class and social movements in the country. … Around 1988, PT had begun to grow inside the state’s institutions and this started to increase the pressure to adapt to the bourgeois social order, with the same process happening also in the labor movement. After PT’s defeat in the 1989 elections, in which the party still had a very radical program and also an activist-centered form of organization, the central part of its leadership, with Lula at its head, proposed that it was necessary to moderate the program in order to achieve electoral power. A right-wing of PT, which papered over the class struggle and sought broad alliances with moderate and right-wing forces, slowly gained dominance within the party. This also started to change the internal organization of PT, and since the 90’s it turned from a militant party with the priority of organizing branches to a party organized around elections, with professionalized campaigns, private financing, etc. … The tendency of moderating in order to win elections accelerated, and in 2002, with a big businessman as his vice-presidential candidate, Lula was finally elected. At that point, the compromises and alliances that PT had would leave a definitive mark on its public policies, reforms and government programs that came later. This showed that the party was completely adapted to the neoliberal global order, though with some peculiar characteristics, such as the increase of the social compensation programs like the Zero Hunger campaign.”
The below article, “Life After Dilma” by Jeffery R. Webber was originally published in Jacobin in May 2016. It opens with the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff and in an ominous foreshadowing of the current moment notes that Jair Bolsonaro “dedicated his [impeachment] vote to Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, chief of secret police during the military dictatorship,” a reference to the torture that Rousseff endured as a captured Marxist guerrilla. But more importantly the piece discusses the structural pressures the PT faced once in power and how ultimately it became another chapter in the long tale of “the left in power.”Life After Dilma
By Jeffery R. Webber
Millions of Brazilians were glued to their televisions on April 17, waiting for the results of the Congress’s impeachment vote. They came through late: the 513-seat lower house of Congress voted 367 to 137 in favor of impeachment charges against President Dilma Rousseff. The Senate is expected to vote to formally open the impeachment trial and prompt Rousseff’s suspension as president on May 11.
For a moment it seemed the vote in the Senate might be canceled. On May 9, seemingly out of nowhere, Waldir Maranhão, a member of Congress for the center-right Partido Progressista (Progressive Party, PP), and interim president of the lower house since last Thursday, suspended the impeachment process, citing at least four procedural irregularities in the voting process of April 17. Maranhão insisted that the Senate cease its proceedings on the matter and send it back to the lower house for further deliberations.
Having none of this, the president of the Senate, Renán Calheiro, called Maranhão’s decision an “anti-democratic idiocy” and announced that the process would proceed in the Senate as scheduled.
Calheiro is a member of the Partido do Movimento Democrático (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, PMDB) — once an ally of the government, but now its leading nemesis. On the eve of the reckoning in the Senate, and in lieu of action by the Supreme Tribunal, it appears as though Rousseff’s presidency will be suspended.Coup in Congress
The spectacle in the lower house in mid-April was as ugly as it was farcical. In the ten-second speeches members gave before voting, the vast majority of the opposition did not invoke the actual impeachment charges — that Rousseff tinkered with government accounts to conceal the true size of the deficit.
Instead, the speeches were rallying cries about god and country, alongside a string of fringe irrelevancies.
No doubt the darkest harbinger of things to come was Congressmember Jair Bolsonaro’s intervention who dedicated his vote to Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, chief of secret police during the military dictatorship that began in 1964.
In obvious reference to the torture Rousseff endured as a Marxist guerrilla during the authoritarian period, Bolsonaro praised Brilhante Ustra as “the terror of Dilma Rousseff.” Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo then used his time to note that “they lost in ’64 and they lost in 2016.”
The Senate’s electoral structure, where the more densely populated, richer, and intensely anti-government states of the south and southeast are relatively underrepresented, is slightly more favorable to Rousseff than the lower house. But unlike in the lower house, where a super-majority of two-thirds is necessary for impeachment, the Senate only requires a simple majority.
Estado São Paulo predicts that forty-six of eighty-one senators favor an impeachment trial, with only twenty expressly against. If the Senate votes as expected, Michel Temer, leader of the centrist PMDB, the vice president, and former ally of the government, will assume powers as acting president.
The final stage is a Senate vote to impeach, which would take place in late June. This vote requires a supermajority. If it succeeds, Temer will be the country’s formal president until the next scheduled elections in 2018.
How did Latin America’s biggest economy and most important political power come to this point?Global Slump and Corruption
The country’s steep economic downturn since 2011, when the global crisis made its delayed landing in the country, is certainly one catalyst. In 2010, a counter-cyclical stimulus package produced 7.6 percent growth, seemingly extracting the country from the global downturn. But that illusion was quickly shattered.
Between 2011 and 2014, economic growth averaged 2.1 percent annually, half of the 4.4 percent growth Brazil enjoyed between 2004 and 2010.
Then the economy shrank by 3.8 percent in 2015, transforming the country long touted in the financial press as one of the fastest-growing economies in emerging markets into one suffering its deepest recession since official records began. Projections of a further 3 percent fall in 2016 are similarly dour.
The economic crisis has had dramatic political consequences. The renowned “realism” of Rousseff’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party, PT) worked in a period of high growth with strong external drivers: the rich could get exponentially richer, and the poor could become less poor. But that model has since come crashing to the ground.
At the same time, a massive corruption scandal called the petrolão (big oily) has added fuel to the fire. It began in 2014, when Sergio Moro, a little-known judge from the southern state capital of Curitiba launched an investigation into a currency dealer suspected of tax evasion.
The scope of the operation widened, eventually revealing “an extraordinary tale of large-scale bribery, plunder of public assets, and funding for all major political parties, centered on the relationship between Petrobras and some of its main suppliers — precisely the stalwarts of the PT in the oil, shipbuilding, and construction industries.”
As of March 2016, Operation Car Wash (as the investigation was called) has led to the arrest of 133 people. Some of the richest business figures in the country from sixteen different companies — among them, Camargo Corrêa, OAS, UTC, Odebrecht, Mendes Júnior, Engevix, and Queiroz Glavão Engenharia — are incarcerated.
Politicians of every stripe — those opposed to and those aligned with the government — are embroiled in the affair, including members of the PT, the PMDB, the PP, the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (Brazilian Social Democratic Party, PSDB), and the Partido Trabalhista Brasileiro (Brazilian Labor Party, PTB).
The hypocritical intensity of the impeachment effort defies satire.
Forty of the congress members who voted against Rousseff themselves face criminal indictments; the Car Wash investigations have implicated fifteen more — including several members of Temer’s PMDB.
The day after the lower house made the impeachment vote, a former Petrobras executive claimed that Calheiros, the PMDB speaker of the Senate, accepted bribes of six million dollars from an oil rig supplier. Meanwhile, the electoral authority continues to investigate both Temer and Rousseff for using money from the Petrobras corruption scheme to fund their reelection campaigns in 2014.
Eduardo Cunha, until last week the right-wing evangelical speaker of the lower house, ally of Temer, and a central protagonist in the impeachment drive, faces separate corruption charges involving secret Swiss bank accounts that hold roughly thirty-seven times his declared wealth at home. The Supreme Court already indicted this surrealist avenger for corruption and money laundering.
Even though “the big oily” seems to cover everyone, mainstream newspapers and TV channels have focused their scrutiny almost exclusively on the PT’s involvement. In what became a major media event, investigators detained and questioned Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (the former leader of the PT and two-term president) over claims that he acquired a beachside apartment and a rural getaway through illegal kickbacks.
Rousseff tried to appoint Lula as her chief of staff, which would have shielded him from prosecution from any judicial body below the Supreme Court. Federal judge Catta Preta Neto blocked the appointment, illegally publicizing an illegal recording of a conversation between Rousseff and Lula that, according to the opposition, irrefutably proves that Lula’s brief chief of staff appointment was made only so that he could escape jail time.
At the same time, Preta Neto posted pictures of him and his family participating in anti-government demonstrations on his Facebook wall. Revealing the crass politicization of some sections of the judicial apparatus, he wrote beneath the photos: “Help topple Dilma and be able to fly to Miami and Orlando. If she falls, the dollar will drop.”
Slaying Lula, who had eighty percent approval ratings at the close of his second term and remains intensely popular, would slay the PT. It would also redirect attention from the many opposition leaders implicated in the scandal.