By José Sanchez
On May 5th, up to 40 million workers held a one-day general strike across Brazil bringing the American behemoth (second only to the U.S. in population and wealth, world’s fifth-largest in area) to a standstill. Roads and subways were empty throughout São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Belém; as well as the capital, Brasília, and other metropolises and towns throughout the country. Beyond the charred barricades, clouds of tear gas, and pitched battles between masked, stone-throwing youths and cops that the Brazilian and international media were fixated on, the massive crowds of demonstrators in their hundreds of thousands in various places were typically peaceful, yet undeniably impassioned. That day’s general strike was the largest since the demonstrations that brought down military rule in the mid-1980’s and illustrated the Brazilian state’s precipitous collapse of popular legitimacy. Elected by no one, President Michel Temer is now polling in the single digits, and with him and the rest of his far-from-youthful, all-white and all-male administration facing corruption charges, those numbers don’t appear to be growing anytime soon.
Brought into power last August via a “soft coup” against Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party (PT), capital eagerly deputized the hapless Temer into fast-tracking an austerian package of anti-planet, anti-worker policies named “Bridge to the Future.” Brazil’s right wing had been locked out of power since 2002 when Lula da Silva was elected president and enjoyed sky-high levels of approval due to an expanded center-left policies, such as the famous cash transfer program Bolsa Família, and a commodities boom mostly fueled by a rising China. Unfortunately, his successor Dilma fell on bad luck in her second term: she lumbered her way through an historically steep recession that began in 2014 when the commodities boom came to an abrupt slowdown, while the Petrobras scandal ate up members of the political class (including members of the PT), official by official. Right-wingers took this chance to fabricate impeachment charges against Dilma for crimes she didn’t commit. In spite of Dilma’s innocence, right-wing lawmakers such as the fascist Jair Bolsonaro and the evangelical-dominated Bible, Beef, & Bullets caucus in Brasilia and the family-owned media conglomerate Grupo Globo, Latin America’s biggest, hammered away at Dilma and the PT, manipulating the Petrobras scandal’s investigation, Operation Car Wash, against their center-left opponents.
Although the right wing could only win back power through undemocratic means, the PT deserves much of the blame for the mess they’re in. Living standards and popular rights were undoubtedly expanded under the PT’s rule, yet concessions to the super-rich class of what journalist Alex Cuadros called “Brazillionaires” meant that while working-class Brazilians saw their incomes rise, the wealthy saw theirs rise even further, still leaving far too many behind. When the recession hit, with the logic of class conciliation already in place, Dilma’s government saw fit to sideline unions and other popular movements such as the Landless Workers’ Movement to impose austerity from above. Having unwisely hemorrhaged its base, the PT and its partners in civil society, including Brazil’s major unions, were too demoralized and disorganized to launch the struggle needed to fight the coup. Then when municipal elections came in October, the PT lost 60 percent of the seats it won in 2012 to Temer’s center-right Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) and Sao Paulo’s mayoralty to media mogul-turned-politician João Doria (think Donald Trump but younger and better-looking). Nevertheless, the right’s victory was a hollow one, since the abstention rates as well as blank or invalid votes combined were over 35 percent. Indeed, not even Doria won a popular majority. Brazil’s conservatives, like the U.S.’s, just can’t seem to win the popular vote fair and square!
Over-confident and rushing to accomplish something before next year’s elections (and with a still-influential Lula positioned to run again) Temer’s right-wing allies in December approved a draconian law to take aim at pensions, the elderly, public sector workers, and others. Ever since Temer’s coalition stole the presidency, things have been kicking off in Brazil: numerous universities and over a thousand high schools have been occupied by students, and last month indigenous archers clashed with police outside the national Congress. On March 31st, unions and other actors such as Brazil’s Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT), Latin America’s largest labor confederation with 7.4 million members, held protests in cities such as Salvador in the northeast, and Porto Alegre in the far south. Last Friday was then a culmination of months of militant protest and organizing, demonstrating the sloughing off of over a decade of “Lulismo”, a politics marked by conciliation between the diametrically opposed classes of labor and capital. The CUT, MST, and other unions as well as organizations representing feminist, student, indigenous, and Afro-Brazilian tendencies were also well-represented at last Friday’s general strike. Crucial to further radicalization of the Brazilian class struggle will be leadership of organizations such as the DSA’s partner the Party of Socialism and Liberation (PSOL), a party founded by militant ex-PT-ers and the most electorally significant party in Brazil left of the PT. With concessions already being given to the still-muscular popular forces of the left and the government’s wishes having been paralyzed by terrified (and often indicted) legislators, it does appear that the Brazilian proletariat is on the move and in open revolt.
José Sanchez is part of the Central New Jersey chapter of DSA and attended Rutgers-New Brunswick, majoring in history, minoring in political science and Latino & Caribbean studies.
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