Brazil: An assessment of the national situation and the need for an independent party

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By Roberto Robaina

April 28, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Any assessment of the current national situation needs to begin with the shifts that occurred in the country in June 2013. Since then, the bourgeois democratic political regime has been in crisis: the capacity to politically represent the interests of the social classes has been tremendously eroded; the gap between political parties and the people has taken on an unprecedented dimension; the already worn-out institutions have become even more discredited; and the course taken by the country has been marked by confusion and uncertainty. For a few months in that year, street mobilisations had an impact on politics not seen until then. The political stability that had finally been achieved in 1994 with the election of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and reinforced in 2003 with the rise of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the confirmation of the social liberal nature of his government, became a thing of the past. The New Republic — the regime that replaced the military regime — began to fall apart.

Unsurprisingly, a balance sheet of 2013 continues to be subject of much dispute. What for us represented the eruption of a mass movement onto the political scene — with many subjective limitations and no program but without which we can not explain the feminist spring and rise in anti-racist protests seen since — is viewed by the majority in the Workers’ Party (PT) as a movement driven or hijacked by the international right. Nothing could be further from the truth than this PT view, which seeks to preserve the prestige of the party apparatus and tries to discredit the first, forceful mass response to the crisis of capitalism more generally, and in Brazil. The 2008 collapse that destabilised global capitalism first hit countries in the centre. Bourgeois and reformist economists even argued that the crisis was not global, and that the countries of the periphery would not be impacted. Nothing was further from the truth.

The effects of the crisis were only delayed. The crisis radiated from the centre to the periphery and, in 2011, its symptoms began to show in Brazil, proving it would not be an exception. In 2014, the crisis reached an uncontrollable level. The recession began. The country became impoverished. GDP fell in the following years. The June 2013 uprising had occurred before the most powerful effects of the crisis hit, but its symptoms were already present. The contrast between the promises of a better life and reality was enormous, expressing itself in the explosion of demands until then contained. In 2013, bourgeois rule was shaken up and it became evident that the PT, which had guaranteed the management of the state for 10 years, no longer had the capacity to control mass movements and channel discontent.

Presidential elections were held the following year. Ever since 1994, election results had been respected and terms in power completed. In 2014, the PT narrowly managed to reelect Dilma Rousseff. The results were once again accepted, but the bourgeois opposition, led by Aécio Neves, questioned the electoral process itself. It was not a strong movement, but it was the first sign that the pact of the 1988 Constitution could be broken (Fernando Collor de Mello was impeached in 1992, but this was an exception: respect for electoral results and full terms had been the norm since 1994). It is clear the pact was based on absolute respect for the norms of a government that did not break with the interests of the ruling class. Part of this commitment was the Letter to the Brazilian People that Lula signed in August 2002. The alliance with Geraldo Alckmin today is proof that Lula continues to hold onto that same commitment. But let's go back to 2014.

With Dilma's reelection, the bourgeoisie sought to guarantee the application of a more intense neoliberal economic adjustment program, the essence of which was to offload the burden of the crisis onto workers. Rousseff nominated Joaquim Levy as Minister of Finance. Levy was an economist at Banco Bradesco. The myth that Rousseff did everything by herself and that her shift towards defending neoliberalism would not be accompanied by Lula was contradicted by the fact that Lula wanted Bradesco's owner Luiz Trabuco, Levy's boss, for the position. Trabuco did not want it and sent his employee for the job. From then on, the recession deepened, poverty rose and the base of the PT and the Dilma government evaporated, once and for all, in the streets. Then it evaporated in National Congress. During this period, Operation Lava Jato was already at the centre of the political scene. The operation hit all parties like a bomb, but its focus was primarily on the PT and its allies among the bourgeois parties. The PT, Progressives (PP) and Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB) were the focus. Aécio Neves was protected, as was the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) as a whole. Leaders of the PP and MDB called on Dilma and her government to stop the operation. At the forefront of this pressure was notoriously corrupt MDB deputy and president of the House of Representatives, Eduardo Cunha. Also leading the charge were government leader in the Senate Romero Juca (MDB) and Senate president Renan Calheiros (MDB), to name just a few of those who controlled the National Congress. The PT government did not have the strength to stop Lava Jato because it did not control the judiciary. This lack of control was key to sectors seeing the fall of the government as necessary in order to protect their interests.

After March 2015, the scenario continued to worsen for the government with the emergence of mass mobilisations in favour of impeachment. After the interval in 2014, when the entire party system, still led by the PT, PSDB and MDB, tried to stifle the effects of 2013 and provide a semblance that the country had returned to normality, street protests once again began to dominate the political scene. The policy of defending the bourgeois regime combined repression of protests during the 2014 World Cup with a democratic reaction via electoral contests. This policy succeeded in demobilising sectors of the left via intimidating and repressing some, and producing illusions and co-opting others. But it was unable to rebuild the subjective base of support for the political regime, nor build confidence in the rarefied democracy that had emerged in the country. Niether did it prevent street protests from continuing to express themselves. This time, however, the protests were under the leadership of the right. It was a simulacrum of June 2013. A response, by the right, to the eruption of street protests.

A mass social base for impeachment was a given. Bourgeois political sectors who were uneasy with the Lava Jato scandal joined up with bourgeois sectors linked to business that were uneasy with the government’s inability to further implement neoliberal adjustment, finally closing ranks to demand the overthrow of the government. The wing of the PSDB linked to Fernando Henrique and Alckmin was the last to join the bloc. In the end, even the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) of Marcelo Freixo, who the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) may support in elections for Rio de Janeiro governor this year, voted in favour of impeachment. The rule of respecting mandates was broken. The parliamentary coup was consecrated in April 2016. The mobilisations against impeachment were a failure because the government's base had been eroded. Despite this, the PT's line was to call for mobilisations in support of its government's policy and not for democratic unity; it even went as far as to spread false propaganda that the coup was equivalent to the counterrevolutionary military coup of 1964. At no time did it occur to the PT to propose an alternative mechanism to combat the impeachment manoeuvre through a policy of expanding democracy and holding, for example, new elections in which Lula himself could participate. Lacking support in Congress, and without support in the streets, Dilma fell without shame or glory.

The Michel Temer government deepened the neoliberal adjustment program. It carried out a counter-reform of the social security system and labour laws. The political crisis, however, did not come to an end. The regime continued to crumble. Popular discontent with everything and everyone continued to be fed by the social crisis, and by accusations emerging from Operation Lava Jato. It soon became apparent that the heads of the operation, particularly its main boss, Judge Sergio Moro, would not accept negotiations with those bourgeois parties that had entered the government through the back door. His ambitions led him to decide to enter politics and try to ride the wave of his popularity in elections. In the end it was with the help of the extreme right that he became Minister of Justice under Jair Bolsonaro. In his attempt to reach power, Moro committed the crime of removing former president Lula from the race by illegally jailing him.

It is worth noting that, despite Bolsonarism registering a sharp rise in support in 2018, Lula’s chances of winning the election were very real. The far right could have ended up not being the majority electoral force. A part of the population distinguished between the experience of Lula and Dilma in government. Dilma’s impeachment had interrupted the chance of people experiencing the full extent of PT governments, and the disaster of the Temer government had already begun to rehabilitate Lula's own strength, despite the media campaign, Lava Jato and imprisonment on corruption charges.

But the strength of the far right was real and, via a series of manoeuvres, it eventually won. Bolsonaro’s vote combined an anti-system vote against the New Republic with the reactionary votes from those at least 10-15% of ultra-right sectors present in all classes. It also included those votes driven by bourgeois sectors — especially agribusiness, but also bankers and other segments — and political sectors of the middle classes, especially those linked to the military. These sectors are still present and represent the hardcore of Bolsonarism, even today, alongside reactionary sectors directly linked to evangelical churches and criminal organisations, be they militias or involved in illegal extractivism.

The project of Bolsonarism has been to produce a change in the political regime in Brazil, from bourgeois democratic to semi-fascist. The collapse of the New Republic and the absence of a mass alternative from the left made it easier for this project to win the presidency. His government took steps in this direction, but it was not able to stabilise itself. On the contrary, in 2019, we had an uprising in the education sector. In 2020, anti-fascist mobilisations gathered together a large portion of the social vanguard, numbering in the thousands, in protests that were far larger than the Bolsonarist mobilisations. Impeachment was put the agenda. Divisions within the bourgeoisie expressed themselves in the government with Moros’ divorce from Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro’s genocidal management of the pandemic produced a national trauma and drove most of the upper bourgeoisie into the opposition, while the masses definitively broke with the government. The extreme right was unable to hegemonise the bourgeoisie.

We don't need to repeat our thesis that the tragedy of Bolsonaro provoked a reaction in the masses, who first sought to overthrow him via strong street mobilisation but which was subsequently channelled into an electoral response that sought out an alternative candidate capable of defeating him in the elections. Lula is undoubtedly that candidate. His project is to rebuild the New Republic. With his political rights restored — something that would have been impossible without a significant part of the Supreme Federal Tribunal (STF) having not foreseen such a scenario, notably Gilmar Mendes — the former president has emerged as the frontrunner to take back the national government. From the start, Lula made it clear that this was not about building a left front, and has instead talked about a Broad Front. The Lula/Alckmin formula is the concretisation of Lula's policy of rebuilding the New Republic.

PSOL, which in the years since its foundation has operated as a pole that sought to demonstrate that a left worthy of this name still existed, grew by asserting itself as an independent project. This independence has been expressed in presidential elections, with PSOL running its own candidate since 2006. Voting for Lula in the first round would hinder the maintenance of this independence today; moreover, it would represent a tactical error. The problem is the policy of exalting Lula as our leader. Our commitment to vote in the second round for Lula against Bolsonaro is a democratic obligation, but this does not mean participating in his government. On the contrary, the working class needs an independent organisation, which can promote struggles for its interests. Lula's government will not be a workers' government. Just like his previous governments, it will be a government of class collaboration, social-liberal, a definition accepted by the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. It is true that Bolsonaro has not been defeated and that our priority has to be to campaign for his overthrow with all our forces. But PSOL also needs to prepare for the future. Positions in support of joining a PT government have been gaining strength within the party. It is necessary to unite all those within the party who reject this proposal. Such a proposal would represent the liquidation of the idea of an independent project and completely subordinated PSOL to the PT. This means that those sectors who defend class independence must publicly reaffirm their struggle. Part of this struggle is to defend the idea of the party running its own candidate in Sao Paulo. Those who support joining a Lula government want to enter it via the door of Sao Paulo, where spaces for negotiation are greater, in order to incorporate PSOL more prominently and make it easier for this group of leaders to convince their ranks to campaign in favour of taking up roles in the management of the bourgeois state.

Our tactic regarding support for a federation is also part of this strategy for independence. Viewing the federation between PSOL and Rede in a simplistic and superficial manner makes it difficult to recognise the fact that this is the only possible means by which to protect the independent character of the PSOL in the current scenario, given that overcoming the current barriers to maintaining electoral registration are impossible, even if this is not the only reason to justify the decision. For some tendencies with PSOL, overcoming such barriers are not necessary, but in a scenario where social mobilisation is weak and there are real possibilities that the next government will be a class-collaborationist one and, therefore, a conglomeration in defence of the interests of the bourgeoisie, operating as a non-legal entity would be like fighting in a vacuum. The paths to avoid falling into this vacuum are not many, nor are they easy or safe.

In opposition to the federation with Rede, another hypothesis was floated for overcoming the barriers: a federation hegemonised by the PT (and together with the Communist Party of Brazil (PcdoB) and the Green Party (PV)). This was the risk that PSOL faced: that such a hypothesis would be supported by a good part of the PSOL leadership who already defend the idea of joining Lula's government if he wins. Federation with the PT would represent a fundamental step towards PSOL’s integration into the PT project of reviving the New Republic and being part of the bourgeois Lula-Alckmin government.

Does the class character of Rede contradict the socialist principles that helped consolidate the PSOL as a radical left alternative in Brazil? No. This is because the PSOL will have hegemony within the federation, and its independent and anti-capitalist line will be maintained, based on the paths and decisions that the party itself takes. It is these decisions that threaten to put at risk the future of PSOL. Those internal sectors whose centre their line of struggle on rejecting a federation with Rede dilute the issue of the central struggle, lose sight of the main issue and end up attributing problems to the Rede that in reality are problems internal to the PSOL. PSOL's participation in an eventual Lula-Alckmin government is the real threat, not a federation with Rede. The path we should be alert to is the one proposed by PSOL Popular (Primavera and Revolução Solidária). I hope these groups end up changing course. Currently, the position of the PSOL Semente bloc (Resistencia, Insurgencia and Subverta) is against participation in such a government, although it supports the leadership of PSOL Popular. Due to this support, it has not been fighting for its position against participation. When it wakes up — if it wakes up to this battle against PSOL participation in government — it may be too late. The thousands of posts obtained may strengthen opportunism in PSOL and change the relationship of forces, which are currently slightly in favour of a formal resolution against participation.

Therefore, more than deciding on whether to run its own candidate or support Lula in the first round or railing against a federation with Rede, the PSOL Conference needs a solid resolution opposing participation in a possible Lula-Alckmin government. This involves defeating the politics of acquiescence that is already being implemented in the country's main state. Guilherme Boulos, with the support of PSOL president Juliano Medeiros, withdrew his candidacy for São Paulo governor, making evident his willingness to integrate into the PT project of Fernando Haddad's candidacy. The counterpart to this is PT support for Boulos in the 2024 election for mayor of São Paulo. Haddad already has the support of Alckmin. So any talk about "defeating 30 years of the Tucanato [PSDB rule] in Sao Paulo" by having a former Tucano [PSDB] and former governor in the trenches sounds more like a joke. Yet this is the scenario, with its tragic possibilities, that the party faces regarding its future as a unitary and independent project, as spaces of power in a Sao Paulo government for the PSOL could be easily handed over by the PT, thereby materially strengthening the opportunist positions in the party.

The PSOL needs to be an independent, left-wing opposition pole in the next national legislature. This is also true for Sao Paulo. When we consider the federation with Rede, we should not lose sight of this strategy. At this point, the federation with Rede is positive, because it has increased the room for manoeuvre for left-wing parliamentarians, especially if it leads to the election of candidates such as Joênia Wapichana and Heloísa Helena, who have clear positions to the left of what will be the new government. Strengthening these cadres increases the "confusion" about what the federation's relationship will be with the next government and could be key to maintaining the independent character of the PSOL and — why not — its survival as a leftist party.

Thus, with the federation with Rede, not only are we responding to the need to overcome the barriers to running candidates in 2022 and 2026, we are ensuring that the PSOL does not end up in a federation with the PT, but rather with a smaller petty-bourgeois party that has in its ranks some PSOL founding members. These sectors have already made clear their willingness to fight for democratic unity against Bolsonarism while maintaining independence from Lulism and its eventual government.

We know that the situation will not be the same as in 2003, when we called to found the PSOL, because the country now has an organised extreme right wing that needs to be defeated and such a fight will not end with elections. But the best way to confront the extreme right is with a PSOL that maintains its independence.

Roberto Robaina is a leader of PSOL and the Socialist Left Movement (Movimento Esquerda Socialista, MES), editor of Revista Movimento and a councillor in the city of Porto Alegre. Originally published in Portuguese here. Translated by Revista Movimento, edited for clarity by Federico Fuentes