Elections in Brazil: Rise of the Far Right, Attacks on Workers, and the Need for a Fight Back

Written by La Voz/Workers’ Voice, 11/29/2018
The victory of former army captain Jair Bolsonaro (Partido Social Liberal – PSL) in the Brazilian presidential election on Sunday October 29th, represents a clear victory for the extreme right in Brazil, with all of the potential dangerous consequences to be expected. The election, with many contradictions, demonstrated the great dissatisfaction of the working class and the majority of the population with politicians and their parties that are responsible for the unemployment, misery, violence and corruption that plague the country.  But the lack of perspective in the face of the economic crisis and the disillusionment with the PT governments and their adaptation to the logic of capitalism have strengthened this extreme right option.  The country has been experiencing a deep social crisis marked by polarization, erosion of institutions, and attacks on the rights of workers and oppressed sectors.  In addition, there has been a rise of extreme right-wing violence and attacks on democratic rights leading up to the elections.
However, throughout the course of the elections there emerged a strong fightback and struggle against Bolsonaro’s election, mobilizing a broad section of workers, students, and oppressed and democratic sectors of civil society.  This is because Bolsonaro’s program represents what is most damaging to the working class and the country as a whole: from attacks on democratic rights and civil liberties and rights, outright disrespect for human rights seen by the racist, sexist, and homophobic discourse against oppressed sectors, and an extreme neoliberal economic policy that aims to give up Brazil’s public wealth and sovereignty through the privatizations of all state-owned companies.
Election of a Reactionary – Bolsonaro
While many are left disillusioned with the results of this election, we should seek to analyze the situation and understand why a large section of Brazilian workers voted for Bolsonaro, leading to his election victory.  Bolsonaro won 57,797,456 (55.1%) votes, defeating Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT) candidate Fernando Haddad who garnered 47,040,829 votes 44.8%).  While Bolsonaro won a clear majority, and will become the next Brazilian president, it is important to note that this election also witnessed a record 42 million blank votes, void votes, and abstentions.  It is necessary to look for an explanation of the political void that led workers to vote for a candidate like Bolsonaro.  The results of this election will lead to immense challenges for the Brazilian working class and threats to oppressed sectors.  It is necessary that the Brazilian and international working class be prepared for the struggle in defense of the rights and interests of Brazilian workers, above all in this moment of their acute struggle against a fascist tide, and of all workers internationally.
Bolsonaro defends a project of dictatorship for Brazil. He defends the torture and military dictatorship that existed in Brazil after the military coup of 1964, which lasted 21 years.  After Brazilians toppled the dictatorship, they could finally, directly elect the President, along with winning the right to strike and hold demonstrations, to freedom of expression, organization, and union rights.  This brutal, authoritarian, military dictatorship between 1964-1985 defended the interests of the big business and the banks, and detained, tortured and even murdered those who did not agree and those who dared to oppose it.  This is the type of repressive and anti-democratic form of government that the new president seeks to build.
He also expresses the most perverse face of a servile bourgeoisie, which hands Brazil over to the rich countries, their multinationals and banks. A bourgeoisie that is a minority partner of imperialism, at the expense of plundering the country, the super exploitation of workers and the misery of the population.
Workers Under Attack
Bolsonaro has a history of supporting measures against the working class. He voted against the rights of domestic workers and voted in favor of outgoing president Temer’s 2017 labor reform, the outsourcing law, and the spending ceiling that freezes investment in health and education for 20 years.  The labor reform, which was fought against by unions across Brazil through strikes and demonstrations, aimed at eliminating or weakening labor protections and rights including increasing the amount of hours worked in a day, weakening vacation rights, eliminating union dues for non-members (just like the elimination of ‘fair-share’ fees through the Janus v. AFSCME case in the US).  The outsourcing law aimed at making it legal for companies to hire outsourced labor for their primary labor activities (under previous law, they could only do this for ‘secondary’ activities’ like maintenance or cleaning).  Bolsonaro used the political arena to amass great wealth, and he now pushes a privatization agenda along with tax cuts for corporations. His government would do nothing to end the oppressive discrimination, violence and humiliation that mark the lives of all poor people who live in the peripheries of the great urban centers. On the contrary, the commitment of the elected president to guarantee increases in profits of the banks and big corporations could only result in an increase of suffering to the Brazilian people.
The Brazilian working class have already been facing attacks from the Temer regime through labor reform, the outsourcing law, and other anti-labor policies.  But this seems to have been just a taste of what’s to come. The Bolsonaro administration stands to further the assaults going after the right to retirement and social security with the Previdência’ reform; an unpopular reform pushed by outgoing President Michel Temer in 2017 which would change the social security payout and contributions model.  Instead of having both employers and workers making contributions to social security, the proposed reform would have workers contributing individually to their own private pension plans with no government or employer contributions.  If you are unemployed, or cannot make payments, your pension plan will be negatively impacted.  This reform was implemented in countries like Chile, Mexico, and Colombia and had disastrous results with retirees receiving payments lower than the minimum wage and they have become targets for ruthless hedge fund managers taking advantage of them through pension fraud schemes.  Additionally, the new government seeks to to broaden and deepen the labor reform which would take away holidays, privatize all goods and services that are now publicly owned and managed.
While the dominant ruling class ideology has led internalized sentiments of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and LGBTQ+ phobia among all classes, leading workers to vote for Bolsonaro based on his reactionary agenda, we also know that many from the working class voted for Bolsonaro not because they agree with these barbarities. They voted for him because they are outraged with the myriad problems affecting their lives; unemployment, widespread corruption, and the loss of democratic and workers’ rights.  They also voted against the PT.  While the PT emerged from the working class, over the last 13 years in power, they became just like bourgeois parties by seeking to maintain political power, allying themselves with the bankers and big business in order to win elections, and when the crisis came, they had to ‘manage’ it through austerity measures making the working class pay for the capitalist crisis.  While they were able to win reforms for the working-class during a period of economic growth under Lula’s presidency, when the capitalist crisis deepened, they turned their back on the workers and defended the interests of banks and large companies. Many workers who had previously voted for the PT today feel betrayed. This is not only because of the corruption scandals.  Dilma Rousseff, in the 2014 elections promised not to remove any rights. But immediately after being elected, she placed a banker in the Ministry of Finance,eliminated  unemployment insurance, and increased gas and power supply rates. (In the history and theory section of this magazine, there is an article that discusses in more detail the degeneration of the PT.)
Attacks on Agricultural Workers, Black People, and Peasants
While Bolsonaro painted himself as a political outsider, in reality he represents the worst part of this system – in addition to his attacks on democratic and workers’ rights, he wants to eliminate freedom of organization, and the right to protest. He has stated that he will “end all activism in Brazil”.  This means that his government is going to harshly repress the struggles for the rights of women, workers, LGBT+, black, and indigenous people. The same murderers who killed with impunity social leaders like Marielle Franco will be given the green light to commit more murders.  He also wants to prevent the working-class from organizing to defend its rights, threatening the country with a dictatorship.
According to the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), in 2015, 50 people were killed in agrarian conflicts. In 2016 there were 61 deaths, and in 2017 at least 65 people were killed in the same conflicts. The Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) publishes an annual report and has highlighted an increase in violence related to land conflicts.  The theft of land and the violence practiced by the expansion of the agricultural frontier, as well as the application of the labor reform in the countryside, which imposes a work day of 60 hours a week, are part of the daily reality faced by millions of workers.
The violence used by the Brazilian State to take rights away from the majority of the population is a reality in the  peripheral neighborhoods of large urban centers, something that is denounced by different organizations as a policy of extermination of the black youth.  In the countryside, violence is the product of social polarization due to the advance of the land concentration of an agro-export economic model; that is, as large vasts of land became concentrated into fewer hands controlled by large agro-business, there was an active response of peasants, indigenous people, and landless and agrarian workers who organized, mobilized, and engaged in direct actions to reclaim and defend their territories.  In order to protect the interests and profits of large agro-business, the latifundio (large landowners) always used paramilitary bands to murder peasants, quilombolas (black autonomous communities), and rural workers subjected to semi-slavery. What is new is that all this violence can become officially-sanctioned government policy.
For these reasons, latifundistas were some of the first to endorse the Bolsonaro campaign. Bolsonaro also left no doubt about his politics with regard to  quilombolas and the demarcation of indigenous lands, not only in campaign videos but in the program of his candidacy.  Bolsonaro’s victory will not only lead to the continuation of a process of legalized land theft for the expansion of the big agro businesses but it will also intensify  the violence already used by these big landowners.
Rise of the Extreme Right and Fascism
Another aspect of the current period in Brazil is related to the far right and fascist groups that have surrounded the candidacy of Bolsonaro and have used violence and intimidation leading up to the election.  One example is the killing of Luísio Sampaio, leader of the Workers and Family Farming Workers Union, who was brutally murdered inside his house on October 11, in Castelo dos Sonhos (Pará). Or the case of Moa do Katendê, a capoeira leader murdered in Salvador by a supporter of Bolsonaro. Or of the attack on October 7 at Campo Maria Petit in Duartina (São Paulo), an encampment of landless people named after a Brazilian Communist Party militant who fought against the military dictatorship, when the land reclaimers had moved to the city to vote and returned to find their encampment on fire.  Abel Barreto, a leader of the encampment and of CSP-Conlutas (a trade union council of 4 million bringing together the labor movement and other social movements) said, “By the way the fire spread and other pieces of evidence, it indicates that it was arson..It was an attack on the working class and against social movements that fight for dignity…It’s very serious….But that will not intimidate us. They will not burn our dreams for agrarian reform. Our dreams are very big. This strengthens us even more, strengthens our solidarity to rebuild everything again.”[1]
There is a need for immediate solidarity and the development of a broad support network for the sectors that today are being targeted by these murderous groups. Attention must be brought to the entire Brazilian working class about these attacks and killings in the countryside.  Broad solidarity creates the conditions for its own defense, if necessary.  Therefore, unions and other working class organizations in Brazil must push forward a struggle to keep all of its territory, the right to organize and fight, and widely share the atrocities that have occurred.
Social Crisis – Background and Rise of PT
To understand the current situation, it is important to look back to the social and economic crises that the Brazilian working class and the poor faced at the turn of the 20th century.  Throughout the 1990s, austerity measures were pushed by the global capitalist class, in the form $41.5 billion of International Monetary Fund (IMF) structural adjustment programs leading to immense poverty and one of the world’s highest levels of inequality.  People were tired of the inequality, injustice, abuse, corruption, and the violence to which the capitalist system subjects them.  This led an increasing part of the working class to look towards the PT for the kind of hope that it no longer had in the traditional parties of Brazilian politics. That culminated with the election of Lula in 2002.
Thirteen years later, the accumulated disappointment with the PT government was enormous. The massive demonstrations in 2013 opened up a new political situation in the country and sent a clear message for all those who wanted to see.  It was not only the corruption that led to the workers to split with the PT, even though this is an important element. It was also the perception that the PT said one thing, and did another. They spoke about the defense of workers’ rights, but what they defended were the interests of the rich. The result is what we are seeing today.
The feeling of betrayal that spread among the workers in relation to the PT was so strong that workers began perceiving it as a party ruling in the interests of the rich, big business, and the banks that financed them, and not for the poor, not for those who work. This was made evident in the electoral arena with the vast numbers of corruption cases involving the government and leaders of this party. The class alliance with big business and bankers, which Lula and the PT made to win elections and to stay in power, came with a heavy price.
It is this process of fissure among and within the Brazilian population that is at the base of the political crisis that eroded support for ex-president Dilma Rousseff.  The PT created the conditions that were taken advantage of by the so-called ‘traditional right’, with the PSDB (Brazilian Social Democracy Party) at the forefront, to carry out the process of impeachment that ousted Dilma in 2016.
Women Fight Back – ‘Ele Nao’
While this election represents a defeat for working people, throughout the presidential campaign, women led important mobilizations against Bolsonaro across the country that brought together broad sectors of the the Brazilian working class and oppressed sectors.  Hundreds of thousands of women took to the streets on September 29th, and took over the most important cities of Brazil with the cry “Ele Nao” (not him). Throughout his political career, Bolsonaro said that women should receive a lower salary than men, has made jokes about rape and sexual assault, and on repeated occasions protested against sexual diversity.
These multitudinous marches took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brasília, São Paulo, Salvador de Bahia, in other urban centers, such as Belo Horizonte, Recife, Porto Alegre, Curitiba, Fortaleza, Manaus and in almost all the state capitals of the country.  Moreover, these demonstrations occurred not only in Brazil, but internationally.  Protests against Bolsonaro took place in several countries around the world, including Germany, France, Argentina, Mozambique, South Africa, and here in the United States.
These mass mobilizations were summoned in their great majority by movements of women who, through social networks, expressed their rejection of this misogynist, homophobic and fascist character; other organizations, political parties, groups in favor of sexual diversity and for the rights of black people, political personalities and even celebrities like Madonna and Cher gave support for the ‘Ele Nao’ movement.
The PSTU (Unified Socialist Workers’ Party) of Brazil, the sister organization of La Voz/Workers Voice, was also present in these mobilizations. There, our comrade and presidential candidate Vera Lúcia stated, “we are against Bolsonaro, because he wants to attack the rights of workers and we cannot allow it.  He represents the worst of the national and international bourgeoisie, he is subservient to the order of the multinationals that plunder the country.” She continued: ”The working class is able to stand up. Women, black people, and the comrades who joined in this fight are an example of that. Let’s do this against Bolsonaro but against the others too.  We need to annul the labor reform, the outsourcing law, fight in this country and rebel as we do today, organized as our class must do to have the right to work and live.”
A United Front in the Defense of Democratic and Workers’ Rights
With the incoming right-wing government, the few and limited democratic freedoms that remain in Brazil will also be at risk, be it the right to strike, to organize workers to fight for their rights, or the right of black people, of women and LGBT+ to organize themselves to fight against the discrimination and violence they suffer in this society.  Despite the political differences existing among organizations and the working class itself, the best way to to build a defense against a situation like that is to unite and mobilize the working class.
Last year, in the months of March and especially April with the General Strike that many have claimed was the largest ever witnessed in Brazilian history, the working class prevailed on the political scene and prevented the approval of the Previdência’ reform pushed by the Temer government and described earlier in this article, which would have made the working class pay for the capitalists’ crisis. The mobilization was only possible because of the unity of all trade union councils and popular movements in a unique call for the struggle around a goal of preventing the approval of this reform which aimed at attacking social security and retirement rights and in defense of working class rights.
Brazilians need to return to that methodology, now with even more energy. It is necessary to organize workers in a united front in defense of retirement, employment, decent wages, healthcare, housing, education, and for an end to discrimination, violence, and humiliation imposed on the most oppressed sectors of Brazilian society – black people, LGBTQI, women, and those who live in the peripheries of large urban centers.  A united front is needed to defend democratic freedoms, guarantee the right of organization, of expression and freedom of assembly and demonstration, and to prevent the government from giving a green light to continued attacks and murders of the most vulnerable people in Brazilian society.  This front would bring together the population and builds fighting committees in all communities, to ensure meetings and assemblies in workplaces and unions, plenaries of organizations and activists in each region and city.
This requires a large responsibility on the part of the trade union federations. They need to take the lead in this process and organize a national and unified plan of action that can unite and fight for the entire working class and the poor people of Brazil.  Given this necessity, it is significant that all of the major union federations came together on October 26 to put forward a manifesto calling on workers to prepare to fight against any backlash on labor, social, or democratic rights carried out by whoever was to win the election.[2]  Furthermore, on Nov. 1 the labor federations got together to put forward a plan of education and struggle to defend the rights of the Brazilian working class,
“Gathered today, November 1, in the DIEESE headquarter in Sao Paulo, the labor federations CSB, CSP-Conlutas, CTB, CUT, Força Sindical, Intersindical, and Nova Central, decided:

  • To intensify the struggle against the proposal of reform of the Social Pensions, recently disseminated by the communication means;
  • To organize the labor movement and the social sectors to clarify and alert society on the proposal about the end of retirements;
  • To carry out a seminar on November 12, to begin the organization of the national campaign about the Pensions we want;
  • To retake the struggle for public, universal Pensions that end all privileges and broadens social protection and rights.”[3]

Ultimately, it is in the struggle and in the streets that workers and poor people will be able to prevent any further attacks on their rights.
A Revolutionary Alternative
Through the struggle, the Brazilian working class needs to organize to defend their rights.  They must take concrete steps to organize a political alternative for the country, with a strategy to tear down the capitalist system and build a socialist society. A society that puts an end to inequality and injustice, in which everyone has material security, dignity, a decent life free from exploitation and oppression.  In order to achieve this society, we need a political organization of the working-class, against all bosses, to be an instrument for the struggle of workers, the oppressed and poor people. Only then will we make the revolution that Brazil and the world needs, to have a government of our class, of the workers and the poor.
[1] http://cspconlutas.org.br/2018/10/acampamento-de-sem-terra-maria-petit-em-duartina-sp-e-alvo-de-incendio-no-domingo-7/
[2] https://litci.org/en/brazilian-labor-federations-unite-against-bolsonaro-and-backlash-on-workers-rights/
[3] https://litci.org/en/brazil-labor-federations-reaffirm-unity-and-intensify-the-struggle-against-the-pensions-reform/

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