Brazil on Edge

Five points on the political crisis in Brazil — and what it means for the Left.

On March 4, Brazilians awoke to the news that ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had been forcibly detained and questioned in relation to the corruption scandal embroiling the state petroleum company, Petrobras. Four days later, public prosecutors in São Paulo petitioned judges for the preventative imprisonment of Lula. And on Wednesday, the same day that President Dilma Rousseff announced she was appointing Lula to a ministerial post, a federal judge released bugged phone conversations between the two, aiming to prove the president was attempting to shield Lula from prosecution.

With the economy in free fall and Rousseff facing impeachment for suspect accounting policies, this string of events has heightened the tension among a populace already on edge.

Government supporters say the detainment of Lula, the release of the phone conversations, and the impeachment proceedings against Rousseff represent an affront to democracy. They have raised the specter of a “coup” orchestrated by the judiciary, the corporate media, and the right-wing opposition parties.

Physical scuffles between Workers’ Party (PT) backers and critics have even broken out in recent days, and both sides have called for national demonstrations. On Sunday, anti-government protesters, predominately white and middle or upper class, mounted massive demonstrations in every major city. A political shakeup — one in which at least a few PT heads roll — is increasingly likely. But to what end?

Here are five points on the events roiling Brazil.

1. The treatment the PT has received is hypocritical and unfair, even by capitalist democracy’s shallow standards.

While witnesses interviewed in the corruption investigation have named politicians from various parties, including opposition leaders, the media and the judges have focused almost solely on the PT. Not surprisingly, many of the key judges and prosecutors are tied to the opposition parties.

In addition, the media was tipped off about the police action against Lula beforehand, and had already prepared a circus spectacle outside his apartment when the authorities showed up.

This would never have happened to, say, ex-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso of the opposition Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB) — even though he and his presidential foundation have received millions from many of the same donors and businessmen. That Cardoso, a retired university professor, owns a Paris apartment valued at €11 million has also conveniently escaped the glare of the media.

The call for Lula’s imprisonment and the judge’s release of the Lula-Rousseff phone calls — which numerous commentators, including those opposed to the government, have concluded do not contain any incriminating evidence — are unprecedented attacks on civil liberties. They clearly show there is an orchestrated attempt to unlawfully remove a democratically elected president.

2. The PT isn’t blameless — its corrupt practices have helped bolster the Right.

Leading PT members at the federal, state, and municipal levels have had their hands in the till for decades.

In spite of a founding platform that emphasizes ethics in politics, the party has engaged in the same appalling behavior as the country’s other capitalist parties. From phony contracts and mob connections in PT-ruled cities in the 1990s to bribes for votes at the federal level in the 2000s, the party has been transformed into a business-as-usual operation.

Many of the media outlets, politicians, and capitalists now jumping on the impeachment bandwagon were brought into the Lulista fold throughout the 2000s, and have prospered enormously under PT governments.

Indeed, while economic inequality has shrunk during the fourteen years of PT federal governments, it’s the capitalist class that has benefited disproportionately — until recently banks, agro-business, and construction companies have reaped record profits. Lula has also defended the multinational Brazilian-based construction companies involved in the Petrobras scandal as patriotic companies that are good for Brazil.

3. Lula has used political office to enrich himself, likely through legal and illegal means.

Lula’s ministerial nomination (since suspended by another federal judge) was clearly an admission of guilt — ministers are only subject to decisions made by the Supreme Court, not the lower judicial bodies currently prosecuting him.

A few additional facts seem to indicate his hands aren’t clean.

After categorically denying any wrongdoing at the outset, Lula’s lawyers have changed their story several times. While the properties being investigated are not in Lula’s name or his family members’, they visited the country estate in question 111 times over a four-year period. And Lula’s wife partially oversaw $300,000 renovations to the three-story beachfront condo — rather difficult to explain away.

But even more than this, the idea that a onetime lathe operator in an auto parts plant could become a millionaire simply by holding the nation’s highest office invites charges of rank hypocrisy.

Over the last few years, he’s received $5 million in speakers’ fees and boasted that he’s second only to Bill Clinton on the ex-presidents’ speaker circuit.

Nor is he alone: the ability of many ex-PT leaders to parlay their political experience and contacts into multi-million-dollar speaking fees, consulting, and lobbying businesses has similarly scandalized the party’s militants.

4. The PT’s problems are bigger than corruption.

The scandal has blinded the bulk of the PT’s supporters to the coup that has already occurred: Rouseff reneging on her vows during the 2014 election campaign to boost social spending and expand social rights.

The PT president has instead launched an outright assault on the Brazilian working class and the workers’ and social movements. Massive cuts to health care, education, social welfare, and pension rights have been coupled with a government-sponsored anti-terrorist bill which may criminalize dissent and social movements. Meanwhile, the government continues to ally with some of the rottenest elements in Brazilian society, including corrupt clientelist political bosses and former members of the military regime.

PT supporters have also conveniently forgotten that it was a PT government who sent the shock troops in to brutally break up the 2013 June Day demonstrations, the anti–World Cup protests in 2014, and which supports a police force that murders poor blacks on the peripheries of the big cities on a daily basis.

This blindness to the PT’s more severe crimes is in part the result of the transformation of the party over the last couple decades into “Lula’s party.” The formation is now one in which the bulk of militant members have been squeezed out, expediency crowds out principles, corruption is tolerated, and right-wing policies and spurious alliances are defended in the face of economic crisis.

The “threat to democracy,” “the coup in process,” and dubious comparisons of the judiciary with Nazis and fascists, all function as smokescreens for the PT’s ongoing attacks on workers and democratic rights. Any criticism of the PT government or Lula is attacked as “playing the game of the Right.”

5. The Brazilian left’s fight is on two fronts.

Ultimately, the small but growing non-PT left in Brazil is faced with the same challenge as before the political crisis erupted in 2015: building a broad-based movement against both the government’s neoliberalism and the Right.

Fighting attempts to undemocratically depose the government can’t mean shelving criticisms of the PT government and its corrupt leaders. However the political crisis is resolved, ordinary Brazilians will still face attacks on their living standards.

Movements on the ground are already fighting to repel these assaults.

Militant teachers’ strikes have broken out in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and the combative homeless movement continues to mobilize large numbers in building and neighborhood occupations. Feminists and LGBT rights activists have launched important initiatives in recent months that cut against both the traditional right and the government. A plethora of antiracist groups and organizations against police violence are mobilizing throughout the country.

The Left can also draw inspiration and lessons from the explosion of student occupations in São Paulo at the end of 2015, which thwarted government plans to close high schools. Not by chance, many of these radicalized young people joined the Free Fare Movement, as well as the feminist and and LGBT movements that have continued to mobilize in 2016.