After 13 years in power, the Brazilian Workers’ Party was unceremoniously rejected by the populace in massive spring demonstrations. This opened the door to the eventual impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in August. It was a swift but constitutional fall from power for the hand-picked successor to popular former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
While not a coup in the strict sense of the word, it amounted to the ouster of a democratically-elected president through the collusion of Brazilian business groups, right-wing media moguls, neoliberal political parties, evangelical churches, Wall Street, and a powerful Brazilian judiciary.
The backdrop to these events is the worst Brazilian recession in three decades combined with massive corruption scandals that have rocked the public’s confidence and patience with the political establishment, including the Workers’ Party.
Ironically, Rousseff’s impeachment resulted in Vice President Michel Temer of the center-right Brazilian Democratic Movement Party becoming president. Temer is one of the most reviled politicians in Brazil and is barred from running for office for eight years because of illegal campaign practices. Once installed in power, he wasted no time making a pilgrimage to Wall Street to assure foreign investors that the doors to Brazil’s enormous oil reserves and nationalized property were wide open.
Today it is clear that the undefeated Brazilian working class and the poor are facing a gargantuan battle to save the reforms implemented by the Workers’ Party, and to protect the country’s natural riches from the conquistadors of free trade and their Brazilian collaborators.
Path to impeachment. Rousseff’s fall was a dramatic change in fortunes for the social democratic Workers’ Party. Just five years ago, Brazil was predicted to overtake France and Britain and become the fifth largest economy in the world. And when Lula da Silva left office in 2010, he had an 80 percent approval rating.
Workers’ Party popularity rested on the combination of an expanding economy and a set of social welfare reforms that provided cash payments to the poor and publicly funded health and education programs.
Unable to mount winning presidential candidates, a section of the Brazilian capitalist class made an alliance to rule with the Workers’ Party. In return Rousseff made Michel Temer her vice president. However, this political marriage of convenience hit the rocks when Rousseff announced that she would try to keep oil fields discovered in 2007-2008 (the largest in South America) under the control of Petrobras, the state-owned oil company. And she helped pass legislation to ensure that Petrobras’ earnings would continue going to social programs.
Wall Street was not amused. Chevron, Shell and Exxon Mobil wanted in on the oil bonanza. Instead, Petrobras turned to joint operating agreements with Chinese oil firms that were willing to give the state-owned company a 30 percent stake in whatever they found.
In 2010, Chelsea Manning’s WikiLeaks documents revealed that the U.S. was trying to influence the presidential election by supporting a candidate calling for privatization of Petrobras. Three years later, Edward Snowden released National Security Agency files showing that the U.S. had spied more on Brazil than Russia and China by tapping Rousseff’s phones, reading her emails and spying on Petrobras.
Rousseff charged Washington with trying to get insider information that would help U.S. companies at an upcoming auction of Petrobras’ big oil fields. In the end, the U.S. boycotted the auction and Globo, a powerful right-wing media firm, launched a propaganda assault on Petrobras.
These were the warning shots in the assault on the Rousseff regime.
Anger at the Workers’ Party. In 2014, news broke of a massive corruption scheme known as Operation Car Wash involving billions of dollars. It consisted of kickbacks from building contractors to Petrobras executives and politicians, many of them Workers’ Party officials who used the money for election campaigns. Rousseff was never accused of having benefitted personally from Operation Car Wash, although she was on the Petrobras board of directors and it seems likely she knew something.
The corruption scandal resulted in large protest demonstrations over two years.
On March 13, 2016, 3.5 million people filled the streets in 326 cities against Rousseff’s regime, reportedly the largest mobilization in the country’s history. The proportion of middle class protesters was high although workers and the poor made their voices heard as well. Anger over the battered economy (9.34 percent inflation and 11.2 percent unemployment), Workers’ Party retreat on some fronts, government paralysis, and fear for the future fueled the marchers.
Right-wing forces moved quickly. Two weeks after the massive marches, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party withdrew from the governing coalition leaving Rousseff holding the bag. On April 6, a special commission published a report recommending her impeachment. On May 3, Brazil’s chief prosecutor authorized an investigation of Lula da Silva over corruption at Petrobras.
Rousseff was suspended from office on May 12 for 180 days and brought to trial in the Senate on Aug. 25. The charge? She authored three decrees in 2015 which increased government expenditures without congressional consent. On Aug. 31, the Senate, 60 percent of whom are themselves accused of corruption, voted to impeach Rousseff 60-21. Two hours later, Temer was officially inaugurated as president and announced a government of “national salvation.”
Polarization rising. Temer wasted no time appointing an all-white, all-male cabinet, including a general trained during Brazil’s dictatorship and a finance minister who spent 28 years at a U.S. bank. Already congress is considering a constitutional amendment which would freeze the budget for public spending until 2037. This would force all future governments to limit expenditures in health, education, social welfare and public service. The bourgeoisie fears that the Workers’ Party can make a comeback and wants to prevent the return of social democracy.
While the government is moving rightward as fast as it can, the working class has not been defeated. Rather, workers and other oppressed groups are disgusted with bourgeois electoral politics — municipal elections held in October had the highest abstention rate in the country’s history.
Street action is quite another matter. Protests dubbed Brazil’s “feminist spring” in October numbered in the hundreds of thousands. They demanded that congress cease its attacks on reproductive rights, including a higher penalty for abortion in the wake of the Zika virus. And high school students are occupying 500 schools across the country denouncing Temer.
There will be greater resistance to the right as time goes on. Austerity is neoliberalism’s only answer to a diseased economy. And struggle the only answer to austerity.
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