Covid-19 is yet another crisis to haunt Bolsonaro argues Orlando Hill (in London) and Lilian Hill (in Rio de Janeiro)
Brazil is going through the greatest crisis in its history. An economic crisis that began in 2014 transformed into a social crisis as a result of the ruling class’ decision to throw the solution to the impasse of the crisis onto the shoulders of the working class. The result was unemployment, job insecurity, wage cuts, and welfare and pension reform.
Then came the environmental crisis as a consequence of the offensive drive of the capitalist class against natural resources, specifically the extraction of minerals, water, and the excess use of pesticides. Dams from privatised mining companies burst sending a flood of toxic water down valleys and into the sea killing people while leaving a poisonous waste in its wake. Clouds of smoke from the burning of the Amazon forest veiled the city of São Paulo.
This culminated in a political crisis as the bourgeoisie tried to put the blame on president Dilma Rouseff. Brazil ended up with a government elected with the use of fake news and automatic tweets generated by computers and supported by the financial capital and the mainstream media.
As if that was not enough in the beginning of the year the country was hit by the coronavirus pandemic adding a public health crisis to the extensive list.
Bolsonaro described the virus as nothing more than a little flu. Following the example of his leader Donald Trump, he put the blame on a left-wing conspiracy orchestrated by the media. Consequently, Brazil was left with a total lack of a strategic vision to interpret the virus as an invisible enemy and declare war on it as a means of saving the people. There was no leadership in the federal government that could coordinate all the public and private resources to organise the society to confront the virus. State governors were left to their own devices. The result is that Brazil is now the epicentre of the pandemic with a thousand deaths reported in one day. It is second only to the US in confirmed cases and deaths.
How are the social classes behaving at this moment? Like everywhere the capitalist class is concerned with guaranteeing their profit. In the usual manner, they do this by throwing the onus of the crisis onto the shoulders of the working class and seeking financial aid from the State to carry on accumulating capital. This has been true among those involved in production, commerce, and agribusiness.
The monumental crisis has opened opportunities for capitalist development mainly in the agricultural sector. An example is the provisional measure 910 that would legally allow big landowners to grab areas of land and declare them their own. It would allow them with the protection of the law to seize public land, kick the native people off it, cut the trees, and legally declare it as their own private property.
The government was forced to postpone the MP 910 as a result of a united pressure from social movements, intellectuals, artists, and political parties. The hashtag #MP910Não was trending on social networks days before the provisional measure was due to vote. It was an important victory demonstrating that even with all the constraints of social distancing it is possible to organise and win. But it was a partial victory. The government will now try to present MP 910, with a few tweaks as a bill. Different from a provisional measure (or executive order) a bill does not have a deadline to when it has to be discussed in congress.
Ricardo Salles, Minister of the Environment, caused public outrage when he was filmed in a meeting declaring that the government should take advantage now that the media is focused on Covid-19 to approve measures that facilitate the seizure of land by agribusinesses and do away with regulations that protect the environment. In his own words, “let the cattle pass by” while the country is worried about the pandemic.
But there is a split in the capitalist class. An important sector no longer wants to be identified with Bolsonaro’s government and the extreme right due to their handling of the pandemic and the consequential international isolation. Their objective is to build an alternative that excludes progressive sectors and the left. They might no longer want Bolsonaro, but they still do not have the unity or political force to overthrow him. The aim is to have this bloc ready for when Bolsonaro is overthrown they will come out as a united bourgeoisie alternative to the crisis. The main political representation of this bloc is the governor of São Paulo, João Doria from the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), who since the beginning of the pandemic, has publicly argued with Bolsonaro, especially regarding the adoption (or not) of social distancing measures. For those who are unfamiliar, São Paulo is the financial and industrial centre of Brazil and Latin America, the beating heart of capitalism in the South.
The mainstream media has criticised Bolsonaro, but has fallen short of asking for his impeachment. The plan seems to be to weaken Bolsonaro and when the problem of the pandemic is over, join forces with the movement for impeachment.
The middle class, of which 55 percent voted for Bolsonoaro, have now shifted sides. They are the ones who bang pots from the windows while on lockdown and post statements on social media.
But what about the working class? They are in a very difficult position. Not only do they have to face the problems of the economic crisis and all that it entails, unemployment and job insecurity, but the virus has now started to reach working-class neighbourhoods.
According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) 17 million households have no source of income. They survive on the little income support they receive from the State. That translates to around 60 million people, more than the population of England, who are on the margins of society and are not needed for the development of capitalism in Brazil. Between 2007 and 2017, the number of homeless families has increased by 7 percent and now stands at 7.78 million. The situation is made even worse by the cancelling of the favela urbanization programs, while the country experiences a process of growth in favelas because of the housing deficit. Brazil is the second most unequal country in the world and the inequality is increasing. Half of the national income is controlled by 206 billionaires.
Under normal conditions, the working class would express their political force with their numbers through strikes, occupations, and marches. However, with the lockdown this is impossible. So what is left? Mutual aid and solidarity movements have multiplied across the country. It is as if the working class have realised that they can only depend on themselves. As the theology of liberation preaches “God only helps those who organise”.
Movimento de Luta nos Bairros (MLB) is a national social movement which organises the homeless and fights for urban reform. They have organised a nation-wide network of mutual aid and solidarity. Since the government has turned its back on the people it is up to the people to provide for themselves.
The pandemic is being used as an excuse to further isolate indeginous communities leaving them even more vulnerable to attacks by militias and agribusinesses. Responding to this threat the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST), on Saturday (30 May), donated 300 basic food hampers and 600 tree seedlings to the Guarani and Kaiowá indigenous communities of Dourados, a city located in the western state of Mato do Sul. The hampers contain products from the Agrarian Reform such as pumpkin, sweet potato, cabbage, manioc, eggs, vegetables, meat, cheese, among others, totaling more than 15 items. The initiative should benefit around 1,200 families. This action reaffirmed the importance of solidarity between the people of the countryside and the forest.
So in this context, what is the political situation and the correlation of forces? It is clear that Bolsonaro is isolated both domestically and internationally. Trump, his political idol, imposed a travel ban on non-US citizens coming from South America in response to the soaring number of cases in Brazil. The Financial Times describes Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic as a disaster.
Domestically, almost no state governor supports him. He has lost three ministers (including two Health Ministers - during the pandemic), and he is facing opposition from the right and the mainstream media. Members of his family are accused of being involved with paramilitary groups. There are 20 petitions for his impeachment ready to be considered.
How can a government so isolated and weak remain in office? Bolsonaro has tried to build up support in congress by handing out second rank positions in the government to members of the bloc of right-wing parties known as the “Centrão”. During his 2018 presidential campaign, Bolsonaro described the Centrão as the worst in Brazilian politics and heavily criticised the policy of exchanging favours for support in congress. The president of congress, Rodrigo Maia, does not accept requests for impeachment because he knows that it will not be approved by congress. Two-thirds of the congress have to vote for it to be approved. Besides that Bolsonaro still counts with the support of business leaders from companies such as Smart Fit, Madero, Havan, and Sadia.
Bolsonaro also has the backing of the armed forces. There are nine ministers from the armed forces in his government and 1300 military personnel working in the high ranks of government.
At the moment there is an equilibrium of political forces. There is Bolsonaro’s government with the support of the military and sectors of the capitalist class, there is another sector of the capitalist class who have not yet decided to overthrow the government and on the third point of this triangle is the working class. None of these forces are strong enough to impose itself. While Bolsonaro weakens, neither the capitalist nor the working class has the strength to overthrow him.
So what should the working class and the social movements do under these conditions? According to João Pedro Stedile, from the National Directorate of the MST, there are three tasks. Build and strengthen the united front to impeach Bolsonaro. It is only by overthrowing him can there be an effective combat against this coronavirus. The landless workers’ movement have summoned forces with the Frente Popular and the Frente Povo Sem Medo to demand the impeachment of Bolsonaro. Meanwhile, the solidarity campaigns and mutual aid groups should be strengthened along with the protests on social media and from the windows. Finally, we should take the opportunity to study and prepare ourselves for the next stage when we will have to be more decisive in pointing to a true alternative.
However, things are moving faster than expected. Last Sunday (31 May) organised groups of antifascist football fans took to Avenida Paulista (the main artery in São Paulo) for a pro-democracy demonstration. This unified act of football fans from all major teams was in response to the weekly pro-Bolsonaro demonstrations against social distancing measures. There were black lives matter (vidas negras importam) and justice for George Floyd banners. What had been a pacific demonstration was met with tear gas by the police and followed by a thirty-minute street battle. The organised football fan groups (torcida organizadas) are made up mostly of the young working class.
Meanwhile, a manifesto was launched calling for all those who defend democracy “to put aside old disputes in search of the common good. Left, center, and right united to defend law, order, politics, ethics, families, voting, science, truth, respect and appreciation of diversity, freedom of the press, the importance of art, the preservation of the environment, and responsibility in the economy.” The emphasis is mine. The manifesto was defended by the ex-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC) a leading figure in the centre-right PSDB. Artists, journalists, academics, and politicians are among the initial 230 signatures, some of whom had campaigned for Bolsonaro and some like Marcel Freixo from the centre-left Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL).
It seems that things are moving as predicted. The battle is not simply about impeaching Bolsonaro, but who assumes the leadership of this movement. As Gregorio Motta Gould, an activist from Unidade Popular Pelo Socialismo (UP), posted on Facebook, “I prefer the movement of the organized football fans, then most of these big shots (signatories of the manifesto) who didn't even criticize the atrocity of the police in their tweets.”
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