Crisis and resistance in Brazil: survival strategies as a way to build a new future

Natália de Oliveira

Summary: Updated version of presentation to online November 14 mini conference of the IMHO on, “Where do we go from here? Global Revolutionary Perspectives on the Present Moment” — Editors

Overall, we are indeed experiencing one of the worst social, political and economic crises within and of contemporary capitalism globally.

On November 15th, we held our municipal elections in Brazil. These elections are always held on a Sunday and on a single day, with the rules being equally applied across the country. Municipal elections concern the election of mayors and councilors, and it is common to have several candidates from different parties. This electoral process is important in this case, because it not only precedes the Presidential elections by 2 years (and is sometimes seen as a thermometer that indicates the expectations in that future elections) but also because it is about policies which directly affect the populace: these are policies aimed at each city´s problems, involving issues like primary education, urban policy and basic health care.

In the current elections, a more militarized profile can be seen, with a record number of candidates with police and military connections running, over 7200 of them (REVERBEL, 2020). This record is also related to the profile of the current federal government, since President Jair Bolsonaro was elected around this agenda. Today, more than six thousand active duty and reserve military personnel occupy civilian positions in his government (LIS, 2020). Brazil had had a military dictatorship for about 20 years, which was characterized by the censorship of the press, political repression, and torture and murder of the opposition. The process of democratization, beginning in 1985, is recent and that is why the ghosts of dictatorship still haunts Brazil’s present. Thus, the increasing numbers of military and police in mainstream politics causes fear, discomfort and concern among the most oppressed sections of the population.

In the 2020 municipal elections, the most worrisome fact is the great interference by the “militia.” These are armed death squads of public officers (police, military, firefighters, etc., whether active or retired) who dominate the public services (for example: transport services, commerce in general, gas and water supply; security services, hitman services, etc.) in areas that they believe to be their domain, such as various communities, favelas and neighborhoods in the city. It was a reality that has already been observed in Rio de Janeiro over the past several years, but this form of criminality has by now branched out into other Brazilian cities as well. Militias have participated in politics both directly and indirectly, especially in local (city) politics and this process has only intensified with time. To be clear, militias do not infiltrate and corrupt the State, like the Mob does; rather they become the State themselves: they are public officers who receive salaries and pensions from public funds and yet carry out criminal activity which subdues people in their own communities and neighborhoods (EIRAS et al., 2020). One of the cases of subjugation, which garnered global attention, and which involved militia action, is the 2018 execution of the councilor Marielle Franco (woman, Black, LGBTI and belonging to the Socialism and Freedom Party – PSOL) and her driver Anderson Gomes. The crime was perpetuated by the “Office/Bureau of Crime,” a militia comprising hitmen and that has been previously charged with loansharking, land grabbing, payment of bribes to public officials, and illegal construction. In Rio de Janeiro itself, militias and drug trafficking are present in 96 of the 163 neighborhoods in the city, with militiamen controlling an even larger area than the drug dealers. In 2019, they dominated 25.5% of Rio’s neighborhoods, which represents 57.5% of the city’s total territorial surface (SATRIANO, 2020). Such violence mostly victimizes those who live in the favelas and the peripheral areas in the city.

We already have the results of 2020 municipal elections, and as we can observe, there were great victories for right-of-center parties and politicians from the mainstream (old school politics). It seems that the far-right wave that carried Bolsonaro in his 2018 election has lost its strength, as candidates that he has championed have performed badly overall.

However, something unprecedented happened in São Paulo: the candidate from a genuinely leftwing party, the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL) made it to the second round of the mayoral election. (In cities with more than 200,000 voters, if the winner has not reached an absolute majority, a second round is held between the top 2 candidates). The traditional left Workers Party underperformed and did not make it into the runoff, although it remains competitive. In the runoff, PSOL´s candidate lost the election to a candidate of a right-of-center party.

Therefore, even though the far-right wave seems to be weakened, its replacement for now, is a right-of-center regime, at least at the municipal level. The only city where the elections did not take place is Macapá, capital of the Amapá state, in the North. The election in that city was postponed due to a power blackout in the area that lasted for twenty-two days and ended on November 24th. Not only Macapá, but 13 of the 16 cities in the state of Amapá barely had electric power: people had no way of cooling their food, charge their phones, live a normal life without the electricity. The state experienced a rationed supply, through a rotation of 3 and 4 hours of electricity. The authorities still don´t know how to explain what actually happened and keep saying that the electrical system showed instability and the causes are being investigated (G1 AMAPÁ, 2020). As if it wasn´t enough to get sick of Covid or suffer from unemployment, the population also suffers from the bad quality of essential services (both public and private ones, which is the case of electricity supply in Brazil).

Beyond these structural issues, we have a neoliberal policy which has been in effect for some years now and has meant cuts in government spending (which brought cuts in important public policies such as public health and education), reforms in labor and social security laws, all of which has made the Brazilian workers even more vulnerable. Since the onset of the pandemic, many of these workers, already surviving within complicated situations, have become unemployed or have been forced to work in more precarious jobs likes making product deliveries and driving for Uber. Still during this pandemic period, we have seen inflation in the prices of food products for daily consumption such as rice, beans, and soybean oil. The poorest are harmed the most by this these price increases, since the little they receive is barely able to allow the purchase of food and the payment of rent, water, and electricity bills. Thus, in addition to having a new disease, Covid-19, which statistically kills more poor, Black, and Indigenous people (HALLAL et. al, 2020), we have a scenario of intense social crisis in other sectors of human survival besides health.

Finally, Brazil has also been in the spotlight because of its policy towards environmental destruction. The current government encourages actions to expand agribusiness in the Pantanal and Amazon regions, in addition to encouraging illegal mining within Indigenous and other environmentally protected areas. These incentives occur through the dismantling of the institutes responsible for monitoring compliance with environmental laws and policies. The state encourages the expropriation of traditional community lands such as quilombos (in the past, quilombos were centers of resistance by Black slaves who escaped forced labor; nowadays they still represent Black people´s history of resistance) and Indigenous land by agribusiness, in order to expand economic revenues relating to this sector. The crisis of the environment, however, is not new. In 2015, in the city of Mariana in Minas Gerais State, the dam associated with a mine owned by the company Samarco broke down. Samarco is a joint venture with the largest mining companies in the world, the Brazilian Vale S.A. and the Anglo-Australian BHP Billiton. The torrent of mud and iron ore tailings hit the Rio (River) Doce, which supplies essential means of survival to 230 cities in the state, causing damage to its ecosystems, and poisoning the surrounding soil and vegetation. This disaster severely affected the lives of riverine people and traditional communities who depend on the Rio Doce and survive through fishing and cultivating the land. In 2019, another dam owned by the Vale company collapsed in Brumadinho, a city in the same state, causing death of more than 259 people. Once again, the toxic mud hit the rivers and the land, affecting lives of thousands of people. After both these disasters, the companies engaged with compensation and reconstruction projects for cities, which drag on in court or, when fulfilled by plea deals, will not actually compensate for all the social and environmental loss that people have been subjected to.

These crises are not mere disasters or accidents, but they occur due to a capitalist mode of production, which has brought forward a certain way of producing goods for human survival, which have come to be understood as commodities, and the accompanying social relations. It is a social constitution that manages to put itself forward globally through colonization, the expropriation of land and the destruction of the way of life of the native communities in the colonies, and the process enslavement based upon racial criteria; both processes expanded the augmentation of value on a scale never seen before. Capitalism is characterized by continuous processes of concentration and centralization of capital, so its expansion in the world and the constant expropriation of people and workers are impulses we can expect to see throughout its development. The way we relate to nature, produce our food, and relate to each other is aimed at increasing value and capital accumulation, even if that means environmental destruction, and the exploitation and expropriation of workers, especially the non-white workers. A social relation led by capital cannot lead towards a universal human emancipation because its history and core impulses prevent that. It is no mere coincidence that the layers of society which are subjected to the highest levels of oppression and exploitation are the workers, poor people, and non-white people: they are the ones who get sick and die from Covid-19; they are the most frequently unemployed or relegated to precarious work; they are those who can barely afford the basic necessities of life such as rent, rice and beans; they are the ones who suffer and die the most in the favelas, communities, tribes and quilombos at the hands of the militia, illegal gold miners, and the capitalist activities of mineral extraction. All of this takes place under the watchful eyes of a militarized and authoritarian government. From this perspective, we can observe the clear enhanced imbrications between class, gender and race which become even more noticeable at these times of crisis, and with this comes a powerful potential for mobilization.

So far, I have talked about crises that, as we can see, are many. However, in this sea of exploitation, oppression, and expropriation we have experienced reactions, which are sometimes violently contained, but nevertheless insist on resurging. In the midst of the pandemic, after the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the U.S. — and also after the deaths of Ágatha Felix and João Pedro, two Brazilian children, all killed by police — communities, favelas and social organizations organized demonstrations in the streets demanding an end to the militarization of the police and pointing to systemic and institutional racism. In addition to these anti-racist protests, in the same period we had anti-fascist demonstrations opposing the Bolsonaro government. There were demonstrations in at least 13 of the main cities of the country, with banners about “Black lives matter” and “in defense of democracy” (MAMMI, 2020). In the midst of the pandemic, deliverymen organized two strikes demanding better pay and working conditions, exposing the exploitation carried out by the companies for which they work (MACHADO, 2020). The traditional, Indigenous and Quilombola communities still struggle and resist the companies mining metal ores and various other forms of expropriation. After the collapse of the dams mentioned above, mobilizations in the affected communities and states have intensified. The organization of the Krenak people (known as the Botocudos of the River Doce Valley) intensified post-2015 with the rupture of the dam in the city of Mariana and the destruction of the River Doce, essential for the life of these people. These communities still managed to live, to a large extent, through a mode of production not managed and dominated by capital: their mere existence is therefore a potent form of resistance. When a capitalist action to extract iron ore destroys the river and the lands that are fundamental to its existence, the Krenak peoples mobilize themselves by resisting and fighting against a big Brazilian company. The history of their people’s struggle is long, going through land expropriations, physical violence and repression in colonial times and also today.

This resistance takes place in order to survive, and in times of deep crisis, the most oppressed and exploited suffer the most and the dire need to breathe and survive becomes even more urgent. On November 19th João Alberto Silveira Freitas, a Black man, was beaten and smothered by private security guards of a large supermarket chain. His death was recorded and the striking images show his blood on the floor and his cry for help, saying he couldn´t breathe. João Alberto´s death occurred on the eve of Black Awareness Day which is celebrated on November 20th and it is a day of reflection on racism and the (lack of) Black communities´ recognition in the country. This date November 20 refers to the death of Zumbi, leader of Quilombo dos Palmares that existed in colonial times and resisted for more than a century, becoming the great symbol of slaves’ resistance. João Alberto was (another) Black working man who died violently by the hands of some kind of authority. As one of his relatives asked, “The main question I asked myself is: if it were a white person there, would they beat him to death?” (BRASIL DE FATO, 2020), which is a question that elucidates clearly the dehumanization of Black people in this country. After his death, demonstrations were held for days in the city, protesters demanded justice for him and pointed out our society´s racism.

For all the reasons mentioned above, protesters hit the streets, even within the pandemic, to oppose the daily processes of racist extermination committed by our institutions and to oppose an authoritarian government. The most precarious and most vulnerable workers, in terms of social protection and income, resisted by stopping work. Traditional communities resist by insisting on living and reproducing the non-capitalist relationships – fighting for land, water and nature, opposing themselves against big companies and mining activities.

However, it is necessary to realize that Bolsonaro’s supporters also took to the streets to defend him, and the big Brazilian companies encouraged and supported the neoliberal measures of the current Ministry of Economy. Illegal miners continue to invade Indigenous lands, mining continues to occur along with an incessant victimization, killing and subjugation of the poor and the non-white. These tensions may often cause violent clashes; however, they also help to build the objective conditions for achieving new and revolutionary social relations, unlike the current ones based on the power of capital, centered on oppression, exploitation and expropriation. If the history of capitalism is the history of the expropriation of the working class and non-white people, the long road towards overcoming it will also come from the struggle and resistance of these very oppressed and exploited people. And that is the path we must be building now.



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