The Future of Brazil’s Left Turn

President Dilma Rousseff appears to have weathered calls for her impeachment, but the ruling Workers’ Party is in tatters, and a resurgent right is threatening the social progress of the last 12 years. Yet despite recent setbacks the left is showing signs of regeneration.

Sunday, August 16, witnessed a third round of protests against Brazil’s embattled president Dilma Rousseff. As at previous demonstrations in March and April, crowds of overwhelmingly white middle- and upper-class Brazilians draped in the colors of the national flag descended on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Avenida Paulista in São Paulo, the Esplanada dos Ministérios in Brasília, and streets and squares across 13 other states to demand the Rousseff’s resignation or impeachment. Like the previous protests, these were noteworthy mainly for their absurdity, as protesters brandished signs lamenting that the former leftist guerrilla had not been tortured to death during her imprisonment under the 1964-1985 military dictatorship. Other signs called for a military coup, or even the return of Brazil’s 19th-century monarchy. Still others proclaimed that if Brazil were only run by the rich, corruption wouldn’t be a problem, since wealthy people don’t need to steal. Although foreign media outlets like the Wall Street Journal breathlessly reported that Sunday’s protest was the second-largest in São Paulo since March, they forgot to mention that this was only the second round of protests since March. Indeed, across the country, the protests were noticeably smaller than the ones that preceded them; the national media assiduously avoided sweeping aerial shots that would have revealed crowds made up largely of empty space.

A dramatic loss of political support for impeachment has paralleled the fizzling of the protests. The powerful and polarizing speaker of the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of Congress), Eduardo Cunha, dramatically broke with the government on July 17 and hinted at his support for impeachment. But his party, the Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (PMDB), long infamous for its eagerness to ally with whoever is currently in power, overwhelmingly refused to follow Cunha’s cue. Then, on August 11, Rousseff announced an accord with Senate president Renan Calheiros, in which the government agreed to controversial policy concessions in exchange for Calheiros’s continued support. Cunha’s position was weakened further on August 20 when the federal prosecutor’s office released a long-awaited denunciation of the speaker, asking that he be tried for accepting a US $5 million bribe to help facilitate a contract for drilling ships between the state oil company, Petrobras, and the Korean-owned Samsung Heavy Industries. Meanwhile, even prominent opposition politicians appeared reluctant to support impeachment. Former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso suggested that Rousseff should resign (but not be impeached), and São Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin argued that any talk of impeachment is premature. And 2014 presidential runner-up Aécio Neves, a critic of PT corruption, has himself now been named a beneficiary of bribes by the professional money launderer at the center of the “Lava-Jato” (Car Wash) scandal (a scheme involving kickbacks paid to politicians from rigged contracts between the state-owned oil company and construction companies).

Yet even if the threat of an illegal impeachment has been averted – at least for the time being – the future of the PT’s model of gradual income redistribution and social inclusion for historically marginalized groups combined with macroeconomic stability, is far less certain. Rousseff’s approval rating stands at a historically low 7.7%. Although her predecessor, the wildly popular Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, would be a strong PT candidate in the 2018 presidential election, an ongoing (and, PT loyalists would argue, politically motivated) investigation seeks to discover whether Lula engaged in influence peddling on behalf of the construction firm Odebrecht. Regardless of whether Lula is implicated in corruption, at least one early projection sees him losing to Neves or the PSDB’s José Serra in 2018.

Perhaps more threatening to the PT’s identity as a party of the working class,  Rousseff’s government has entered into discussions with Congress about a conservative reform package in order to ensure her political survival. The so-called “Brazil Agenda,” while not as radical as reforms proposed by Cunha in the Chamber of Deputies, could halt or roll back much of the social progress made not only under the PT, but also under the 1988 Constitution, which was written with input from social movements during the years of democratic effervescence at the close of the military regime. Some of the more controversial proposals would re-evaluate boundaries of indigenous lands to “make them compatible with productive activities,” “incentivize new productive investments” in environmentally and historically protected areas, enable fast-track environmental approvals for large infrastructure projects, and raise the retirement age. Even when the proposals don’t directly attack indigenous or workers’ rights, according to economist Guilherme Mello, they offer “a ‘centrist’ exit from the political crisis, giving space for proposals from the financial, business, and ruralist sectors, with little input from workers and social movements.” PT Senator Lindbergh Farias put it more starkly, arguing that Calheiros and Rousseff’s austerity-promoting finance minister, Joaquim Levy, are taking advantage of the “fragility of the government to impose an extremely conservative agenda that caters to the interests of big capital and takes rights away from the workers.”

Even though the economic crisis is far less dire than the one that dominated Cardoso’s second term (1999-2002) or the decade of hyperinflation and near economic collapse prior to the stabilization of the currency in 1994, enthusiastically neoliberal Brazilian and foreign media outlets appear determined to paint the most ominous picture possible. While it is true that the global commodity market upon which Brazil’s economy largely depends is in shambles, The Center for Economic and Policy Research has argued that the ensuing contraction has worsened as a result of the government’s decision to tighten credit and cut public spending and investment.  By embracing austerity, seen as the cost of preventing a downgrade of Brazil’s investment rating, Rousseff ignores the growing consensus among economists, including Brazilian ones, that austerity hinders economic recovery, as it has in Greece. At the same time, the PT’s strategy of making deals with self-interested parties like the PMDB (as personified by the most recent negotiations with Calheiros) appears to have caught up with it: the party has conceded so much that one wonders how much of a progressive agenda remains to give away. And the ongoing investigation into kickbacks to politicians from rigged contracts between the state-owned oil company and construction companies – led by a judge with ties to the PSDB and targeted almost exclusively at government-allied politicians – increasingly appears engineered to remove Lula as a viable presidential candidate in 2018, preferably through charging him with wrongdoing, but possibly simply through guilt by association. The question, then, isn’t so much whether Rousseff will complete her term; it is whether the PT and its center-left model of commodity and credit-driven economic growth and gradual wealth redistribution will survive.

To make matters still worse, as the anti-PT protests this year have shown, the right, on the defensive since the fall of the military dictatorship in 1985, is back on the offensive. Despite Rousseff’s re-election last year, the Congress elected in 2014 has been widely called “the most conservative since 1964.” Dominated by a coalition of evangelical Protestant, landowning, and military/police interests called the BBB block (Bibles, Bulls, and Bullets), Congress this year has seen proposals to increase penalties for abortion, lower the age at which youths can be tried as adults, and displace some of the state’s responsibility for providing healthcare onto employers. Far right extremists like Rio de Janeiro’s Jair Bolsonaro, who has been called “the most misogynistic, hateful official in the democratic world,” earned high vote totals last year; when I walked by Bolsonaro’s office in the Chamber of Deputies earlier this year it was adorned with posters exposing supposed gay plots to indoctrinate school children, and he once told a PT colleague that she “wasn’t worth raping.” Meanwhile, right-wing pastors like Marcos Feliciano (also a congressman) and Silas Malafaia, with a large social media following, aggressively spread messages of intolerance. The neo-Pentecostal Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (IURD) owns one of the country’s largest TV networks and a 24-hour news network. Rousseff, São Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin, and São Paulo city mayor Fernando Haddad attended the opening last year of the denomination’s Jewish-themed central church building, dubbed “Solomon’s Temple.” Constructed at a cost of US $300 million, the church includes menorahs and a gold-plated replica Ark of the Covenant. Ominously, many of these groups’ right-wing positions have broad support across Brazil; a 2014 poll revealed that 79% of Brazilians opposed legalizing abortion or recreational marijuana use, while 83% supported reducing the age of criminal responsibility, and 46% supported the institution of the death penalty.

The last couple of years have also seen the rise of libertarian-inspired groups with links to U.S. organizations funded by the Koch Brothers. Calling for smaller government, lower taxes, deregulated markets, and a focus on individualism and “freedom,” groups like the Free Brazil Movement (MBL) have played a prominent role in the anti-PT protests while idolizing U.S. libertarian heroes like Ayn Rand and Rand Paul. And finally, as far right and libertarian groups have grown, Brazil’s traditional rural and business oligarchy, never averse to state intervention as long as it promotes their interests, has begun flexing its muscles again, allying with different factions of the right when it suits their interests.

Is this the future for Brazil? A country in which the poor and dark-skinned are told that discrimination isn’t real and that hard work will guarantee their success? A gradual stripping away of the democratic gains achieved over the last three decades? A country that forsakes its Constitution’s promises of “freedom, justice, and solidarity” in favor of a Thatcher-inspired model of survival of the fittest? A defeated and demoralized left that stands idly by while the far right, libertarians, and oligarchy compete to see who can offer the most regressive agenda?

Brazil is not alone in facing these issues, as left and center-left governments throughout Latin America reckon with a resurgence of right-wing provocations. Over the last decade the right from Honduras to Venezuela to Argentina has reacted angrily, even violently, to the threat the region’s “pink tide” represents to elite interests. Though they frame their fury as a struggle against corruption, populism, or dictatorship, or as a defense of economic freedom or meritocracy, much of their opposition appears to derive from discomfort with the left’s promise to empower the working classes and marginalized racial and ethnic groups. Throughout Brazilian history the socio-economic elite have proven remarkably capable of stemming dissent through co-optation, clientelism, or coercion. Their resolve and cunning ought not be underestimated.

At the same time, there are signs that the left in Brazil is not as moribund as the crisis of the PT and resurgence of the right might suggest. First, there is a significant movement within the PT that is profoundly dissatisfied with the direction the party has taken. In June, over half of the party’s federal deputies signed a manifesto titled “Change the PT to Change Brazil.” In addition to calling for the party to return to its roots of facilitating participation for social movements, the document proposed a thorough restructuring of the party to reduce opportunities for corruption and the involvement of business and financial interests in the party’s internal processes.

Second, Rousseff’s 7.7% approval rating should not be seen as a sign that 92.3% of voters support the right-wing policies of politicians like Cunha and Bolsonaro. A June survey revealed that 48% of Brazilians would still consider voting for a PT candidate, while only 39% ruled it out. The same survey asked respondents to rank the Cardoso, Lula, and Rousseff governments in 14 categories; Lula came in first in 13 of the categories (including doing more than Cardoso or Rousseff to fight corruption), while Rousseff took one, for her defense of women’s issues.

A significant portion of the opposition to the PT comes not from its right, but from its left.  The best organized of Brazil’s small leftist parties, the Party of Socialism and Liberty (PSOL), has gradually increased its profile. The party’s 2014 presidential candidate, Luciana Genro, earned over 1.6 million votes in the first round. Though this represented only 1.55% of the total, it nearly doubled the PSOL vote total from 2010 and was good enough for fourth place in an 11-candidate field. In mid-2015, when the electoral justice system released updated party membership data, it turned out that the PSOL had gained the second-highest number of new members among Brazil’s 33 parties this year. Although the party has only one senator, three federal deputies, and six state deputies, it has one of the country’s most recognizable young politicians in federal deputy Jean Wyllys, an unapologetic defender of the rights of women, Afro-Brazilians, and LGBT people, who is also Brazil’s only openly gay congressperson.  The PSOL is one of the PT’s strongest critics in Congress, and in recent months it has begun to quietly court discontented PT leftist politicians, seeking to woo them away from the PT.

Moreover, Brazil still has a remarkably effervescent progressive civil society made up of labor unions, environmentalists, and movements representing Afro-Brazilians, women, LGBT people, landless workers, indigenous people, and those living in substandard housing, among many others. Some of these are allied with the PT, and some are further to the left, but they have in common a determination to defend the social gains of the last decade and oppose the right’s counter-offensive. For example, on August 12, the National Confederation of Agricultural Workers, with support from the government, organized a march of at least 30,000 (and perhaps as many as 70,000) rural women on Brasília, in support of the government and against “golpismo.” “March, woman, march / Get your feet wet, but don’t do your nails / We’ve come from across Brazil / To demand the head of Cunha,” they chanted, in a challenge to the controversial right-wing speaker of the Chamber of Deputies.

More significantly, August 20 witnessed a series of counter-demonstrations across Brazil, planned by groups like the Unified Workers ‘ Central (CUT), National Union of Students (UNE), Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), the Communist Party of Brazil PCdoB), and the PSOL. These demonstrations were intended not only as a direct response to the anti-government demonstrations of the weekend before, but also as a criticism of the Rousseff government’s unpopular austerity measures. Though they received virtually no publicity from Brazilian media and were practically ignored by foreign media (the Wall Street Journal and Guardian did not cover the protests at all, and Reuters gave them only a paragraph in another article), anywhere from 75,000 to 200,000 protesters nationwide, clad in red, marched to express their opposition to impeachment and economic austerity. As one sign put it: “[Unlike the right], I don’t want to see my adversaries dead. I want them on their feet to see… the poor flying on airplanes, the child of the factory worker becoming a doctor, black people going to college, the [class] pyramid turned into a diamond, Brazil without hunger.” Even if the August 20 protests were smaller than the anti-government protests, one observer pointed out that in São Paulo, protests tend to be held on the centrally-located Avenida Paulista, which is adjacent to the wealthy neighborhoods that supported the anti-government protests, but far away from the working class neighborhoods from which the government draws its support. The same is true in places like Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, and Brasília.

Finally, whatever the future holds for the PT, there are signs that some of the progressive policies it has instituted would be difficult to undo. For example, a 2013 poll revealed that 64% of Brazilians supported quotas for Afro-Brazilian students in university admissions. A year later, the same national poll that showed widespread opposition to the legalization of abortion or marijuana use also revealed that 75% of Brazilians approved of the conditional cash transfer program Bolsa Família, and 59% opposed the privatization of the state-owned oil company Petrobras. Even at the anti-Rousseff demonstrations of August 16, three quarters of demonstrators opposed private electoral campaign financing; support for universal free public education and healthcare stood at 87% and 74%, respectively.

Perhaps the PT really is breathing its last breath, a victim of economic crisis, a conspiracy of foreign and domestic media and economic elites, and its own errors. Yet opposition to Rousseff and the PT does not necessarily translate to support for the right, particularly when it comes to the role of the state in reducing social inequality. The left remains vibrant and capable of mobilizing large crowds, and parties like the PSOL and others have growing and dedicated followings, particularly among intellectuals and civil society activists. Put simply, the left is more than just the PT. With Dilma or without her, with Lula or without him, with the PT or without it, leftist parties and activists will have a pivotal role to play as Brazilians decide whether to return to an authoritarian, unequal past, or whether they wish to build upon the remarkable progress of the last twelve years.

This article was originally published on NACLA 09/08/2015

Main Image Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (Rede Brasil Atual / Creative Commons)

By Bryan Pitts

Bryan Pitts is assistant director of the UCLA Latin American Institute. His book, Until the Storm Passes: Politicians, Democracy, and the Demise of Brazil's Military Dictatorship, was published in 2023 by University of California Press.