Protest at the National Congress, Brasilia, June 2013. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Protest at the National Congress, Brasilia, June 2013. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Leonardo Péricles looks at the character and context of the June Days protests in Brazil which he argues did not directly lead to the 2018 coup

Introduction by Orlando Hill

In June 2013, thousands of young working people took to the streets of the main cities in Brazil to protest the increase in bus fares. They were violently confronted by the military police, who are under the authority of state governors and not the federal government. As a consequence of the violent repression, huge street demonstrations erupted.

The prevailing view on the left of the events, that came to be known of the June Days, was that they were a prequel to the right-wing middle-class demonstrations that lead to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff.

In the following article originally published in A Verdade, Leonardo Péricles disagrees. He argues that “those who associate the June Days with the beginning of the 2016 coup are mistaken.” Unlike the demonstrations in 2016 that served to overthrow Dilma, the demonstrations of June 2013 were the result of the frustrations of the youth with the limitation of the economic model adopted by PT governments. The 2015/16 demonstrations and the eventual impeachment should be seen in the context of the tactic adopted by the leadership of PT to not ”radically resist and confront the institutional coup”, but to prioritise the 2018 presidential elections. 

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When discussing the great event that was the June Days of 2013 in Brazil and its subsequent results, we must remember what the country was going through during that period and the events that followed. The coalition government of PT (the Workers’ Party) / PCdoB (Communist Party of Brazil) (2002-2016) managed to generate jobs, increase the minimum wage and implement some important social policies such as Bolsa Família, as well as expand vacancies in higher education and public technical education, among other measures. These were important for the poorest people in the country. However, they also opted for a policy of class conciliation and adopted an economic model based on the strengthening of large national and international capital and the banks’ control over the economy.

The true winners of this economic policy were the bankers. It is enough to see that from 2003 to 2015 the profit of the four largest banks in Brazil increased 850%, from US$ 2.1 billion to US$ 20 billion (Jornal A Verdade – October 2015).

Within this context, we call attention to the high priority given by PT governments to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. These so-called “mega-events”, in practice, not only served to inflate ticket prices at the stadiums, further elitising Brazilian football, but also inflated land prices in large cities and greatly increased real estate speculation, which has driven thousands of poor families out of their homes to make room for major infrastructure projects. This policy even weakened the Minha Casa Minha Vida programme (a large public housing programme). These works, in their majority, consumed large resources of the Brazilian state and were marked by huge corruption scandals and illicit enrichment of politicians and executives of large contractors and companies.

At the same time that these mega-events were being prepared, the economic crisis that had started in 2008 in the main capitalist countries in the world, acquired even more strength in Brazil from 2013 onwards. Because this crisis was centred on the main capitalist economy, the United States of America, it had and still has a gigantic impact on all the economies of the world. It was not, therefore, just another crisis, but a structural crisis in the capitalist system. Offering credits to those who could not pay and, later, selling these debts to the rest of the world, the USA led what became known as the “real estate bubble”. In fact, the Brazilian economy tried, in vain, to prevent the crisis from arriving in our country through measures to encourage domestic consumption, reducing taxes such as IPI (Tax on Industrialized Products) and IOF (Tax on Financial Operations), among others. 

It was in this context that the so-called June Days 2013 erupted. Those who associate it with the beginning of the coup in 2016 are mistaken. Unlike the demonstrations of the middle class and the big bourgeoisie that served to overthrow Dilma, the June Days began with the struggles against the increase in bus fares in Porto Alegre, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. They erupted and evolved into gigantic demonstrations as a consequence of the strong repression by the Military Police against those who demonstrated. From then on, the demonstrations spread throughout Brazil and became a great spontaneous movement that included the participation of millions of people from different social classes.

With wide range of demands, the June Days were characterized by an expressive participation of the youth. They were marked by the radicalisation of the demonstrations and the dispute, in the streets, of the demands that should be carried forward. In some states there were physical confrontations between right and left-wing groups. But fundamentally we can affirm that the concrete result of the June Days was the strengthening of the left for three reasons:

  1. The demonstrations led to a reduction in bus fares in hundreds of Brazilian cities, directly favouring the lives of the poor who depend on public transport;
  2. That same year, there was a significant increase in the number of strikes at the national level. According to DIEESE (Inter-Union Department of Statistics and Socioeconomic Studies), in 2013, the number of strikes in Brazil totalled 2,050, after a period of certain reflux in the 2000s, and the peak seen in the immediately preceding period. The highest number so far had been 1,962 strikes in 1989. In relation to 2012, there was a growth of 134%.

The strikes mobilised approximately 2 million workers. This average continued until 2016, when 2,093 strikes were recorded. Let us also not forget the victorious general strike of 28 April 2017, when around 40 million men and women downed tools and defeated Michel Temer’s pension reform. These strikes achieved improvements in wages and maintained already won rights;

  1. Let us remember that as a result of the June Days, some issues gained strength in the streets, such as the struggle of the homeless, racial issues, feminist and LGBT’s struggles.

However, also quite significant, was another immediate result of this whole process of increasing social struggles in which the June Days were a great expression, a greater intensification of the class struggle, that is, the significant increase in the polarisation in society. It is true that after the June Days, there was a direct weakening of the PT government, but this result must be much more associated with the arrogance of the government, which at the time, did not meet the demands of the demonstrations.

And to justify their inaction, the government treated them as a “right-wing coup”, since for the first time in 30 years, large national demonstrations were not called and (or) led by the PT and its direct allies. This distance and complete lack of skill of the government, ended up causing huge disappointment in a portion of the people, which was grist to the right-wing’s mills. However, the immediate result of the June Days cannot be associated with the 2016 coup, as we remember, that in the elections held a little more than a year later, in October 2014, PT, despite facing enormous difficulties, received the support and vote of millions of people who were on the streets in 2013. PT once again won the electoral dispute, albeit with a small majority, re-electing Dilma Rousseff for her second term.

But the polarisation did not end with the electoral victory. The program implemented by PT in late 2014, was partly the program defeated at the polls, which included a policy of freezing investment funds, the withdrawal of public funds for health, education and social security, changes that hindered access to unemployment benefit, and a disastrous economic policy that led to a resounding increase in unemployment and the consequent distancing of the PT government from its main support base, the working class. Furthermore, historic enemies of the Brazilian people were brought into the government with the appointment of Joaquim Levy to the Ministry of Finance, Nelson Barbosa to the Secretary of Planning, and Alexandre Tombini to the Central Bank. Thus, the already worn out policy of combating the effects of the crisis, was even more focused on maintaining the privileges of bankers and the Brazilian people felt in an accelerated way the deepening of social problems, especially unemployment, which was growing rapidly.

The result is that 2015 began with a better organised and larger movement of the extreme right, strengthened by the government’s constant mistakes and its distance from the majority of the people.

At the same time, the interests of international capital was another central factor for the fall of Dilma’s government. A movement was organised from inside the US State Department to demoralise and destabilise the popular democracies of the continent and prevent the election of their leaders. The main objective was to prevent Lula being re-elected in 2018 as the president of the largest economy in South America. The discovery of pre-salt oil reserves off the coast of Brazil by state-owned Petrobras, in 2006, and the subsequent discoveries of oil and gas, with an estimated extraction of 5 to 8 billion barrels, made Brazil even more of a target for the USA and other imperialist states.

As a result, we witnessed absurd actions such as the scandalous tapping of the then President Dilma and 29 ministers’ telephones, organised by the American National Security Agency, revealed by Wikileaks in 2015. This action violated international norms regarding the sovereignty that Brazil and the US are participants, showing once again that bourgeois democracy, also in the international field, is a front. And in a context of such threats, it was clear that the people had to be mobilised and prepared for confrontations to come.

Anyone who has doubts about this path, should observe the one adopted by the government of our neighboring country, Venezuela. There, we know that the problem is not democracy, but oil, since that is where the largest reserves in the world are to be found. They underwent pressure “a hundred times worse” by US imperialism, with the support of all the main imperialist countries in the world, and not only won successive attempts at coups, but also consolidated themselves even more as a popular government and forged the people with the greatest anti-imperialist conscience in South America. Inspired by Cuba, they also follow the resistance against a criminal international economic and media blockade.

The Class Enemy’s Action and the “Non-Resistance” Line

“And when they have run into a blind alley, when they have sufficiently compromised themselves to make it necessary to activate their threats, then this is done in an ambiguous fashion that avoids nothing so much as the means to the end and tries to find excuses for succumbing. The blaring overture that announced the contest dies away in a pusillanimous snarl as soon as the struggle has to begin, the actors cease to take themselves au sorieux, and the action collapses completely, like a pricked bubble.”

(The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Karl Marx 1852) 

In this context, which, as we have seen was preceded by serious mistakes committed by PT governments, Dilma suffered a coup d’etat, covered up as an impeachment, with the complicity of the National Congress and the Judiciary, demonstrating the class character of the Brazilian bourgeois state. The coup d’état plotter Michel Temer, who was Dilma’s vice-president as proposed in the coalition agreement by PT’s leadership, takes over the presidency.

The tactic dominant in 2016 was not to radically resist and confront the institutional coup led by the mainstream media, the judiciary and business leaders. Although President Dilma and her party suffered a coup, they fell without basically imposing resistance to the enemy. Despite organising street demonstrations throughout Brazil, most of its leaders encouraged all movements and militants not to carry out radicalised actions. This docile position of “harmony between rich and poor” in the end served to ideologically and politically disarm the working class and the people and contributed to the regression of class consciousness, nurturing an illusion that it was possible to end poverty and unemployment in a bourgeois economy without dismantling the apparatus that guarantees happiness for the few and misery for the majority.

However, what was really surprising was that PT governments carried on funding the mainstream media that actively worked in favour of the coup. The total volume of federal advertising that went to Grupo Globo (the largest mass media group in Latin America) was almost half of what was spent by the administrations of Lula and Dilma to advertise on all other media groups in the country. Furthermore, after the consummation of the 2016 coup, PT insisted on forming alliances with political parties that actively participated in the coup in municipal elections in hundreds of cities across the country that same year.

Another aggravating moment was at the end of 2016, during the great political unrest that began with the occupation of hundreds of schools and universities and culminated in the largest general strike in the history of Brazil, held on 28 April 2017. This was followed by one of the largest national demonstrations ever held in Brasilia, on 24 May. These great movements blocked the Social Security Reform and made Temer’s de facto government, which already had a great social rejection and low popularity, sway and be very close to being toppled. However, the General Strike called for June 30 of that year, despite the speech about the importance of the strike, was boycotted by PT and its direct allies to once again pursue the path of class conciliation, focused only on the 2018 elections. In doing so, much of the left continued to be driven by constitutional illusions, eventually underestimating the advance of fascism and the reactionary character of the armed forces. The result is that, the strike was consequently a fiasco and instead of serving to further strengthen the left, the popular movements, and overthrow Temer’s government, served to create even more disappointment in millions of workers, and put the movement on the defence. The demoraliation was so profound that it led to the labour reform passing through congress. In the beginning of 2018, Confederations of Trade Unions were mere spectators of the great mobilisation carried out by truck drivers. 

It is important to note that the “spell also turned against the sorcerer”, as some of the politicians and parties that were identified with the Coup were also considerably weakened. The Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) and the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) elected fewer parliamentarians. It was not only left wing candidates that suffered from the slogan “Fora Todos” (Out with All of Them). 

Basically, the line of non-resistance from certain sectors of the left caused such a lack of confrontations and social struggles that it ended up giving enormous space and morale to the enemy, the extreme right and fascism. This was the environment that allowed the coup to deepen in 2018 and, undoubtedly, the victory of the fascist candidate Bolsonaro. It is now up to the radical left to reflect on this period, evaluate the mistakes, correct them and prepare for the new confrontations that are to come.

A new left now has the task to rescue the best that was built in the past, adapt to the new conditions that have emerged and seek to consolidate so as to develop the struggles under better conditions. We need to defend a clear, socialist program that deals with the serious social problems that overwhelm the vast majority of Brazilians and guarantees our sovereignty from international financial capital. In this sense, overthrowing the Bolsonaro government is the order of the day. It is necessary to strengthen the struggles, develop strikes, organise occupations and participate actively in the marches. Only class struggle can, in fact, bring men and women to power and build a truly popular government. Let’s get on with it!

Leonardo Péricles

Leonardo Péricles is a Brazilian black activist, president of the Popular Unity for Socialism (UP) and member of the national steering committee of the Movimento de Luta nos Bairros, Vilas e Favelas (MLB). MLB is a national social movement formed by thousands of homeless families.