The Right Marches on Brazil
Brazil’s new interim president Michel Temer’s motto seems to be: “Injure all at once, and perhaps, one day, return benefits little by little.” Existing social gains, especially those won by the Workers’ Party (PT), are already being eroded. His government hopes the Brazilian people will swallow this bitter pill in hopes of a vaguely defined payoff later.
The domestic popular outcry and international opposition — which could turn into a diplomatic crisis if more countries recall their ambassadors — have only accelerated this process.
Fearing that the impeachment might not stick, Temer is trying to accomplish the coup’s mission as quickly as possible: remove as many rights as he can, transfer the weight of the economic crisis from the elite to the working class, and contain the anti-corruption outcry.
While Dilma Rousseff’s second term was the least progressive of the past four PT administrations, Temer seems intent on proving even Rousseff’s least enthusiastic supporters right by demonstrating that what is bad can always get worse.
The Temer Agenda
One of Temer’s first moves was to assemble an all-male, all-white cabinet that better suits a military regime than a diverse, populous democracy.
Diversity alone does not ensure egalitarian politics, but it suggests that a government wants to at least appear representative of a country as a whole. Temer’s new ministers have little consideration for this formality.
The new minister of agriculture, Blairo Maggi, is directly responsible for rainforest deforestation and the denial of indigenous rights. Maggi is probably the only choice worse than Kátia Abreu, who held the post under Rousseff and represented the agribusiness association.
His minister of justice is Alexandre de Moraes. As secretary of public security in the state of São Paulo, Moraes encouraged police violence against high-school students protesting school closures.
The irony is that, because of Rousseff’s flirtation with right-wing politics during the impeachment campaign, Moraes is empowered by the PT’s own anti-terrorism bill to repress anti-Temer and anti-impeachment protests.
Meanwhile, the new health minister, Ricardo Barros, has taken as his mission the dismantlement of Brazil’s universal health care program (SUS) and the empowerment of private health care providers. He insists that universal right to health care as established in the 1988 Brazilian constitution is un-deliverable.
The door to attacking SUS was opened long ago and remained a problem during PT administrations. Rousseff did establish the Mais Médicos program to improve health care access in places where doctors did not want to go, but the PT government never paid serious attention to the health system.
Long waits, outdated and dangerous equipment, and scarce resources have delayed important medical procedures and even led to deaths in the waiting room. Combined with the negligence of previous administrations, Rousseff’s government allowed private health care to grow through private plans and practices all over the country.
Part of the new government’s austerity agenda is built on the myth that the Brazilian state is just too large. For years, the Right has used the media to argue that the public sector employs too many people too inefficiently.
This has become common sense, even though, ironically, most middle-class university graduates hope to join the public sector and to enjoy the secure, benefit-clad, well-paying jobs it provides.
But the truth is the government employs only about 10 percent of Brazilian workers. The layoffs and the ministry closings have less to do with streamlining and more to do with changing the government apparatus’s ideology.
This is most reflected in the drama surrounding the dissolution of the Ministry of Culture (MinC). The PT governments had empowered the ministry through funding opportunities for artists and cultural projects. Despite some poor investment choices, the MinC was responsible for progressive and grassroots projects that would otherwise be drowned out.
Temer’s supporters argue that, during an economic crisis, a ministry geared toward cultural incentives is a waste of money that only privileges left-wing artists. These resources would be better spent on health care or education.
Occupations of government offices exploded after the announcement of MinC’s dissolution, leading Temer to re-establish the ministry — but on his own terms. It is clear that he intends the new Ministry of Culture to serve ideological functions more aligned with the rest of his government.
Moreover, there is no question that sabotaging MinC has nothing to do with protecting more “vital” ministries. The newly appointed minister of education supports privatizing education and plans to cut the PT’s main educational financing projects, such as the University for All Program (PROUNI) and the Post-secondary Student Financing Fund (FIES).
These projects were nothing radical — they provided access to education through the financial market or through the direct transfer of public funds to the private sector. Yet they were responsible for giving underprivileged, black, and indigenous students the opportunity to go to university and enter into a job market that had long been dominated by elites.
Certainly, the PT’s policies have been questionable. They’ve cloaked neoliberal measures with expanded, yet still limited, social policies. But the Right’s coup has already been a disaster.
Hiding in Plain Sight
Temer is already implementing the “Bridge to the Future” platform of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), his own party and the PT’s former ally.
Ministries and secretariats responsible for human rights, minority rights, and gender politics have been cut. Anything related to social policy will have its budget slashed.
The housing program Minha Casa Minha Vida (responsible for funneling public resources into low-cost housing enterprises throughout the country) has already been decimated in an act of retribution for the Homeless Workers’ Movement’s struggle against Temer, the impeachment, and the past year’s austerity measures.
There are rumors that the already-low minimum wage, which amounts to less than $250 a month at the current exchange rate, will be reduced.
Same goes for pensions, with pension reform looming on the horizon. Although it seemed likely that Rousseff would promote another widely unpopular pension reform (similar to the one during Lula’s tenure), Temer’s looks to be worse.
Congress, which was already controlled by the PMDB, is likely to raise the retirement age to seventy-five.
Osmar Terra, minister of social development, has also announced a 10 percent cut to the acclaimed Bolsa Família cash transfer program, which even former right-wing Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) presidential candidate Aécio Neves promised he wouldn’t touch.
The Ministry of Labor will not lag behind. It plans to destroy well-established workers’ rights by removing benefits and protections and impeding access to employment insurance and retirement prospects.
Thus the dismantlement of any social gain achieved during the PT’s tenure advances forward. Yet the campaign against corruption, which was the key instrument of the impeachment drive, has come to a halt.
The federal police and Judge Sérgio Moro’s Lava Jato investigation has stalled, and Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes has shelved every complaint against Aécio Neves, the PSDB politician who ran against Rousseff in 2014 and is accused of taking bribes from the state-owned electricity company, Furnas.
Rousseff’s appointment of Lula as a minister to protect him from Lava Jato drew great outcry, fueled as usual by Globo and other media monopolies. But Temer’s appointment of no less than seven ministers currently under investigation is barely mentioned.
Temer’s minister of planning, Romero Jucá, has dispelled any remaining delusions about the new government’s anti-corruption credibility. Jucá has been caught on tape explaining how Rousseff’s fall would prevent Lava Jato from moving further and taking more politicians down with it.
Jucá insinuated what left organizations have been sounding the alarm on since last year: that right-wing social movements and the media monopolies promote Lava Jato because it affects the Workers’ Party and bolsters the impeachment. Once Rousseff goes away, so does Lava Jato and the remaining charges against other suspects.
Just when Temer exonerated Jucá from his post, counting on the media’s efforts to bury the story, another leak surfaced wherein Senate leader Renan Calheiros, from the PMDB, corroborates Jucá’s words that the Brazilian Supreme Court is part of a pact to ensure the impeachment.
Adding to the exposed hypocrisy of the PMDB, Temer claims that eliminating the Corregedoria Geral da União (CGU) — the autonomous body responsible for investigating malfeasance in the government — and replacing it with a ministry subordinate to the president will help fight corruption.
The impeachment was orchestrated to keep corruption inside of the government, rather than outside.
Brazilians are upset at these cuts and changes, but the level of indignation varies depending on whether they supported the impeachment, opposed it, or did not care at all. Depoliticization is rampant.
The moderate left, led by the PT, would like to blame the phenomenon on the alliance between media monopolies and the Right. But the PT governments’ policies are as much to blame: they effectively demobilized the people and co-opted the Left’s leadership and organizations for years.
This is not to mention the fact that Lula and Rousseff had the opportunity to dismantle the media monopolies they now rail against, but instead opted to fund them, hoping for favorable coverage that was never delivered.
Meanwhile, the radical left faces one of its most critical challenges. It must attend, in a climate of depoliticization and hostility to the Left, to the needs of the people while trying to stop Temer’s many attacks.
A few spots of mobilization bring hope, such as the students occupying more than 230 schools to keep them open, the outpouring of support for the MinC and the CGU, the organizing power of the MTST in some states, and the general outrage from those who recognized the illegal impeachment as a coup from the beginning.
Together, they contribute to daily acts of defiance against the Temer government, though mass protests are yet to be seen.
However, even in these spaces, many hope to use unrest against Temer to support a Rousseff government that is, in many ways, responsible for the current situation. The PT, after all, guided Brazil through neoliberalization and formed an alliance with Temer’s PMDB.
The governista base is so accustomed to negotiating with the devil that Brazil’s largest labor union confederation, the Central Union of Workers (CUT), has stated its willingness to discuss pension reform with Temer. This is disappointing for those who advocate a general strike against the coup.
Even in the current critical scenario, the PT’s forces continue to demobilize against their own benefit, and Rousseff herself discouraged the occupations that have constituted the most visible opposition to the coup.
Supporters of the impeachment who were mobilized by anti-corruption sentiment, rather than a conservative platform, are upset, but now that Temer is in power, he depends less on his popular support. They are unable to stop Temer from manufacturing consent for his illegitimate government and proposals.
The workers who have the most to lose aren’t organized enough to mount an effective challenge at the moment. But the memory of past struggles — like the 1984 Diretas Já movement — aren’t too far removed. In that we must rest our hopes for the future.