How did a monster come to power in Brazil?

October 30, 2018

Todd Chretien talks to socialists in Brazil to understand the reasons for the far-right candidate’s victory in the presidential election — followed by an election-night statement from Resistência, a revolutionary socialist current within the Party for Socialism and Freedom, translated from Portuguese by Bruno Ruviaro.

A NEOFASCIST has been elected president of Brazil.

Jair Bolsonaro is a far-right bigot who now sits atop the world’s eighth-largest economy measured by nominal gross domestic product — and in command of Latin America’s most powerful military, with a fervent base among the continent’s most violent police force.

As Aldo Cordeiro Sauda, an activist in the Party for Socialism and Freedom (PSOL, by its initials in Portuguese) explained: “The vast majority of police and armed forces are with Bolsonaro. In many ways, his party is the army.”

Rising from the margins of Brazil’s extremist fringe, Bolsonaro won 57.8 million votes, or 55.1 percent of the total, in a runoff election against Fernando Haddad, the Workers’ Party (PT) candidate, who amassed 47 million votes. More than 30 percent of Brazil’s electorate cast a null or blank ballot or didn’t show up to vote at all.

Supporters rally for Brazil's newly elected President Jair Bolsonaro
Supporters rally for Brazil's newly elected President Jair Bolsonaro (Alessandro Dias)

Meanwhile, the only man who could have plausibly defeated Bolsonaro, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the PT, sits in jail, imprisoned on trumped-up corruption charges by prosecutors and political parties which are themselves among the most corrupt in the world. When Lula proposed running for office from his prison cell, the Supreme Court barred him from doing so.

Having clawed to power on the back of the military and security forces, Bolsonaro now proposes a dangerous lurch to the authoritarian right, pledging to wipe the PT from Brazil’s political map.

His son Eduardo, who won election as a federal member of parliament, went further, suggesting that not only political opponents, but even mechanisms of formal democracy, like the Supreme Court, could be silenced. “One wouldn’t even need a jeep, sending a soldier and corporal would be enough,” the president’s son bragged.

Donald Trump was quick to recognize a kindred spirit, tweeting: “Had a very good conversation with the newly elected President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, who won his race by a substantial margin. We agreed that Brazil and the United States will work closely together on Trade, Military and everything else! Excellent call, wished him congrats!”

BOLSONARO’S VICTORY caps a string of right-wing presidential victories in South America, including Mauricio Macri in Argentina and Sebastian Piñera in Chile. However, Bolsonaro may cause the kind of unease among conservative cabinets in South American that Trump has stirred in Europe. For instance, according to Argentine activist Martín Mosquera:

If the “Bolsonaro effect” leads to an authoritarian radicalization among a section of the middle classes, it won’t be so easy for Macri to capitalize on this. They might even come to see the current government as too concessionary, “too liberal” and provide a social base for the emergence of new political phenomena. At the same time, we are still quite a ways off from what is happening in Brazil.

Bolsonaro may be the leading champion of Brazil’s far right, but there are other forces among the reactionaries.

In March of 2018, gunmen with suspected links to right-wing forces assassinated PSOL leader and Rio de Janeiro City Councilor Marielle Franco and her driver. No one has been arrested, much less prosecuted for this heinous murder.

And mass protests in 2015 and 2016 saw hundreds of thousands of largely white and middle-class Brazilians mobilize against former President Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s successor. Although sparked by anger against pervasive corruption, the marches soon took on an unmistakable right-wing character, laying the basis for Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016.

With Rousseff out of the way, Michel Temer — Rousseff’s former vice president, but from the neoliberal Brazilian Democratic Movement Party — launched a series of austerity measures aimed at cutting social spending, lowering taxes and breaking the power of Brazil’s unions.

Faced with stiff resistance, Temer’s attacks stalled, setting the stage for Bolsonaro to declare himself the only politician strong enough to break the impasse.

BOLSONARO’S CAMPAIGN throughout 2018 fueled racism, misogyny, homophobia, anti-indigenous hatred and middle-class hostility to the PT. And now he intends to craft this prejudice into policy and law.

According to Gloria Trogo, of the Resistência current within PSOL, “Bolsonaro will stack his cabinet and ministries with army officers, and he will apply a harsh neoliberal economic plan, with privatizations, etc.”

Not content to attack only from above, Trogo believes Bolsonaro will mobilize his supporters from below to conduct a war against unions and social movements. “Teachers are the targets now,” Trogo said, giving one example. “Just today, he made a video asking students to film their classes in order to persecute left-wing teachers.”

Middle-class and even working-class support for Bolsonaro was driven by escalating violent crime — over 70,000 people were murdered in 2017 in Brazil, including more than 6,000 by the police — and a crippling economic crisis.

After growing under PT presidents between 2002 and 2014, GDP growth turned negative in 2014-16, leading to an estimated 13 million unemployed today. If the PT’s long presidential run was underwritten by rising profits in the former period, which allowed the government to tax exports and use the money for social spending, economic crisis in the latter years destroyed the basis for social peace.

With Lula in prison, the PT ran former Education Minister Fernando Haddad. After taking 29.3 percent in the first round to qualify for the runoff, a powerful upsurge of anti-Bolsonaro sentiment pushed Haddad’s vote to 44.9 percent in the second round, demonstrating that the new president will not get his way without a fight.

At the same time, however, the PT’s leadership appears committed to playing by the rules of a system that is rigged against them.

Although Haddad refused to place the requisite congratulations call to Bolsonaro, he did tweet an ambiguous message: “President Jair Bolsonaro. I wish you success. Our country deserves the best. I write this message today, with a light heart, with sincerity, so that it stimulates the best of us all. Good luck!”

This might be dismissed as post-election formalities, but Haddad’s tweet only highlights the PT leadership’s instinct to “play by the rules” — and its refusal to mobilize its ranks in the streets, the schools and the factories against a clear and present danger. Bolsonaro won’t stand on any such niceties as sets about stoking violence and anti-left politics.

Fortunately, there are signs that Brazil’s powerful social movements and combative left understands the danger.

Sean Purdy, a PSOL activist and professor at the University of São Paulo, argues that, as bad as Bolsonaro’s attacks will be in the policy realm, his radicalized supporters represent just as much of a problem. “There were four political murders during the presidential campaign and several hundred cases of violence against the left,” Purdy said. “In response, LGBTQ people have formed self-defense brigades.”

And if PT leaders remain circumspect about unleashing struggle, “the base of the party came out during the last weeks of the campaign,” Purdy said. “It was truly impressive. The far right tried to mobilize a protest today [at the University of São Paulo] to humiliate students, staff and professors, but they only turned out 40 people, and we had 500.”

Brazil’s social movements and working class face a difficult struggle — and it’s one that people around the world facing their own attacks must pay attention to and learn from.

As Genilda Souza, from Resistência in Rio de Janeiro, said:

We expect this government to carry out vicious persecution against the left alongside all unions and social movements. Just as you in the U.S. need international solidarity in your battle with Trump, your support for our side will be decisive for the future of the class struggle in Brazil.

Statement from Resistência on the presidential election

By a smaller margin than initially expected, Jair Bolsonaro won the Brazilian presidency with 55.1 percent of the valid votes. The wave of protests in defense of democracy and civil rights, which inspired millions of people all over Brazil, narrowed the margin.

Fernando Haddad, the Workers’ Party candidate, who got 29.3 percent of the votes in the first round of elections, was able to get 44.9 percent in the runoff. The fierce resistance that spontaneously flourished in the streets of hundreds of cities, involving students, workers, artists, intellectuals and feminists, has made history and sowed hope for the future, for the fight against fascism.

What we have witnessed is not a democratic contest. The candidate to be dictator won an election stained by the political banning of Lula (who led in all the polls by a comfortable margin); the criminal use of secret business slush funds to finance a massive spread of fake news on social media; the anti-democratic and partisan behavior of the electoral courts; and favoritism towards Bolsonaro, the Social Liberal Party candidate, from most of the mainstream media, big business and evangelical churches.

Bolsonaro won an important battle at the ballot box, but the fight is not over yet. Democratic resistance will continue on the streets and in workplaces, schools and homes. We will build a great wall against fascism in every corner of this country.

Take heed: we will not accept the end of democratic rights, social and labor rights, beginning with the pension reform announced by General Mourão [Bolsonaro’s vice presidential candidate]. We will not tolerate any violence or discrimination against women, Black people, LGBT people, Native people and quilombolas [ancient community of escaped slaves] and immigrants.

We will rise up against the extermination of the Black and the poor population from the outskirts of cities. We will rebel against the establishment of an authoritarian and repressive regime. We will defend our natural resources and cultural heritage. We will be unconditionally with Native Indigenous people and quilombolas.

We won’t accept the criminalization of social movements: landless workers and the homeless won’t be alone. We will close ranks against persecution of the left and its leaders. We will be paying attention to any attempt to censor the press, the arts, schools and universities.

Let Bolsonaro and his gang know: we will resist, and sooner or later, we will defeat them.

We are many, we are millions. He won the overall popular vote, but lost among low-income workers, in all of the Northeast [historically one of the poorest regions in Brazil], and among women, Black people, young people and LGBT people. In other words, democracy and the left prevailed among the most exploited and oppressed layers of the population.

From now on, our central task must be the building of a United Front (uniting all of the left — PT, PSOL, PCdoB, PCB, PSTU, etc., plus social, labor, and student movements) to resist and defeat the extreme right-wing government of Jair Bolsonaro, as well as to build a democratic unity with all sectors of society willing to fight together against authoritarianism and fascism.

Building this united front must take as its starting point the women’s movement that united against Bolsonaro [#EleNão], putting more than 1 million people in the streets on September 29, and the spontaneous street movement led by tens of thousands of activists in the runoff election. This valuable accumulation of experience must be preserved and drawn into action.

In the democratic resistance, we will also fight for building a new Left, one that seeks to overcome the grave mistakes and limitations of the PT, along with PSOL [Socialism and Freedom Party], PCB [Brazilian Communist Party], MTST [Homeless Workers Movement], APIB [Brazil’s Indigenous People Articulation] and all sectors willing to build for a new socialist perspective in our country.

We will certainly face difficult days with the election of Bolsonaro. But we need to keep our heads and our morale high. Truth is on our side. The rise of neofascism must be responded to by broad unity from the left and democratic sectors of society, and we must do so with courage.

Let us unite all “activisms,” all movements, collectives and organizations. Let’s hold our hands together along with working and oppressed people. United we will be strong to resist and win!

Further Reading

From the archives