How did Brazil’s Right Wing Triumph?

 In International, South and Central America

In the last two decades, workers, peasants and the poor in several Latin American countries fought huge struggles against neo-liberal policies. In Argentina, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil, nasty elitist governments were defeated and replaced by left leaning parties.

In Brazil, the Brazilian Workers Party, (PT), has been in power since 2003. But in May the Senate voted 55 to 22 to remove President Dilma Rousseff and to proceed with her impeachment, signalling a victory for right wing forces in the country. How did Brazil get here?

Global slump and corruption

Until recently, Brazil was one of the fastest growing emerging markets in the world. In 2011 it was hit by steep economic downturn. Economic growth halved and in 2015 the economy shrank by 3.8 percent as Brazil suffered its deepest recession since official records began.

The economic crisis had dramatic political consequences. The PT model was that of conceding to capital’s demands while offering handouts to people dependent on the state. It was a ‘create wealth at the top and it will trickle down’ model, similar to that of our National Development Plan or GEAR. It barely worked in a period of high growth, but in recession, that model became a disaster for the poor.

Then a massive corruption scandal broke. All major political parties were involved. The scandal revolved around the relationship between a company, Petrobras, and some of its main suppliers, many of whom were allied to the PT in the oil, shipbuilding and construction industries. So far, 133 people have been arrested, many of who are politicians. Forty members of Congress who voted against Rousseff face criminal charges. Yet nothing to date actually implicates Rousseff in illegal activity. Rousseff’s impeachment is proceeding on the grounds that she used funds from public banks to cover budget gaps and to make the deficit look smaller – a common practice in Brazil that other presidents have got away with without facing impeachment.

The PT ran away from its roots

The PT has its roots in the organized working class. Former president, Lula, was a trade union militant. Yet even before taking office the party let down workers by committing to fiscal austerity. There was then little room to introduce pro poor policies.

This is not say that Lula didn’t try. His first two terms saw growth in the economy. He was able to increase the minimum wage, and extend the role of development finance. In his second term, Lula reacted to a loss of support at the polls by introducing further social reforms, including a conditional cash transfer scheme that reached millions.

He also expanded higher education and introduced university quotas for Black students. None of this constituted the much needed but expensive infrastructural investments like basic urban transport and water, which would become flashpoints in coming protests. Simultaneously, he held on tight to government’s allegiance to big business, allowing the rich to capture a hugely disproportionate share of the country’s increasing wealth.

At the end of his two terms, Lula used his popularity to virtually guarantee Rousseff’s election. She inherited a booming economy, but less than a year later, Brazil was hit by recession. Rousseff’s administration introduced severe austerity measures, cutting social spending and attacking workers’ rights. Unemployment soared and wages plummeted.

Workers fight back

These attacks alienated organized workers, students and unemployed workers and youth, the very support base of the PT. By 2013, full-scale protest had broken out onto the streets, with over 2 million people involved.

The rebellion was taking place in the cities. People’s rage was aimed at the money being squandered on the World Cup, rather than on social spending, particularly for decent public transport, water, healthcare and basic infrastructure. Many protesters were young, students or unemployed. Protesters occupied streets and began to practice new forms of direct democracy.

Since 2003 the PT had fostered the myth that Brazil was a country where all classes could prosper, under the friendly face of capitalism. This myth was now falling apart. One million people were on the streets fighting for change – the June 2013 demonstrations were made up of many classes, NGOs and so on, with different interests and varying ideologies, including capitalists and far right. But where was the organized Left to provide leadership?

They were too fragmented and marginalised to get it together.

A new populist Right was able to capture the moment by the end of June 2013. The protests emboldened proto fascist and fascist groups who began to physically attack and expel those carrying left-wing banners.

In the 2014 General Election, Rousseff campaigned on an anti neoliberal ticket, promising to defend the gains won by decades of workers’ struggles. She clearly feared losing working class support. But straight after the elections she introduced a severe austerity package, signalling once again that the PT’s top priority was appearing credible to the market. Rousseff’s approval ratings fell into single digits.

The new right-wing populist groups organised mass demonstrations. The call for impeachment grew louder. Hundreds of thousands of upper middle class, mainly white, protesters backed by the mainstream media, took to the streets in 2015 and 2016. By March 2016, three million Brazilians participated in demonstrations.

The 2015-16 protesters are not the same as the people who took to the streets before the World Cup in 2013. The 2015-16 protesters are right wing, and pro-impeachment. While they will probably succeed in removing Rousseff from office, the New Right lacks any credible political party. Meanwhile corruption charges have entangled virtually the entire leadership of the PT. Important figures are now in prison and Rousseff is under house arrest, with no political authority. The ruling party that only recently turned the state on workers and students protesting against austerity now mourns the absence of its own moral capacity to mobilize the poor against the right.

Workers and the poor continue to reject the PT government’s austerity packages. The challenge is to build a political alternative to the PT that is aligned to the most radical movements. Out of the land struggles, housing struggles and movements for transport and against racism and police brutality, something new must emerge – that can oppose Rousseff’s austerity programmes, while combating the growing new right. It’s a huge task, and the Left is fragmented, but the prospects of a far right victory in a country that suffered the brutality of a dictatorship in its recent past, means that the widest possible worker and poor movement is needed to defend the gains of the class, and to diminish the chances of the New Right.

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