The 2016 Coup d’État in Brazil

Paulo Morel

Summary: The background to the soft coup d’état wherein reactionary neoliberal forces overthrew the elected Workers’ Party government without resorting to the military is part of a pattern in Latin America; analyzes the last 60 years of Brazilian national life, laying bare the contradictions of bourgeois democracy, and pointing toward the revolutionary unrest that is sure to emerge in the long run — Editors

From the larger geopolitical and regional perspective, the coup d’etat of 2016 in Brazil is one more episode in the “new type” of “parliamentary coup d’état” inaugurated in Honduras with the deposition of Manuel Zelaya in 2009, continued in Paraguay in 2012 against Fernando Lugo. Elected presidents are thrown out of office by their political opponents in congress by “legal” means, and in this way, a “balance of power” is redefined against the wishes of the majority of the voters. The “legality” of the coup is assured, of course, by a judiciary already implicated (“passively” or actively, or both) in the process. Therefore, military participation (the traditional agents of disruption of democratic rule in Latin America and elsewhere) is made unnecessary (when everything goes as planned) and the military establishment, “defenders of the homeland and of its institutions,” can pretend political neutrality by means of a particular type of “active passivity,” as it happens in Brazil now.

From the domestic perspective, the coup d’etat of 2016 in Brazil is also part of a historical series that started in 1954, continued in 1961 and culminated in 1964. In 1954, President Getúlio Vargas was about to be overthrown by a coalition of conservative interests when he responded to a hopeless political situation and final defeat by committing suicide in the presidential residency in Rio de Janeiro. With this “last political gesture,” given the popular commotion and violent protests it produced against Vargas’s political enemies, he was able to prevent his adversaries from receiving the full profits of the institutional crisis.

During his first period in power from 1937 to 1945, Getúlio Vargas was the autocratic leader of the nation, an autocracy issued from the so-called Revolution of 1930 (the decade of military rebellions and confrontations in Brazil against the oligarchic rule of the traditional elites of the states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais). Vargas’s “Estado Novo” regime was a dictatorship that flirted with fascist forms and ideology, while at the same time it displayed and promoted nationalist and “populist” ideas and initiatives.

In his second period as national leader, from 1951 to his death in 1954, the period of return to a democratic order, Vargas was elected president on a nationalist and “populist” platform. The period was marked by industrialization and modernization of the country. And that included the organization of the working class “from above,” the creation of state-backed official unions, legislation for the protection of the rights of workers and the establishment of a minimum wage. From that experience was born the political movement called Trabalhismo (from trabalho = work) and its organization, the Partido Trabalhista Brasileiro.

In 1961, newly elected president Janio Quadros, a conservative politician from the state of São Paulo, elected on a popular platform of “moralization” of the political life and mores of the nation, suddenly renounced his mandate for reasons that are still unclear today. It was due to “occult powers,” he stated, although he never publicly identified those who were conspiring against his presidency, undermining and preventing his political actions. As some analysts have speculated, Quadros trusted his mass appeal and political style as a type of “outsider” to the traditional political establishment to gain the support of popular opinion against his opponents, and return to power in more favorable conditions, via a kind of Bonapartist arrangement and supportive coalition of diverse political forces.

If that was indeed his objective, the plan was never realized. Conservative forces tried to prevent the vice-president, the trabalhista leader and Vargas political heir João Goulart (known as Jango), from assuming the presidency, but popular support and the decisive actions by the regional trabalhista leader Leonel Brizola, governor of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, frustrated what was being rehearsed as a de facto coup d’etat against the existing political and legal order, and against the popular forces of trabalhismo.

Facing economic instability, social unrest and conflicts related to the new dynamics of industrialization, dependency and a variety of obstacles to growth, Jango proposed a number of structural reforms that were backed by popular movements, democratic opinion, and left parties, especially the relatively small but influential (among organized workers, intellectuals and democratic elements of the petite-bourgeoisie) Communist Party of Brazil.

The Brazilian right wing, including political parties, the commercial press, think tanks and other reactionary organizations and public figures, after a massive campaign of disinformation and vilification of the government and of workers’ organizations, in which the rhetoric of Cold War “anti-communism” gained new dimensions of deceit and hysteria, succeeded in mobilizing the ultra-reactionary wing of the Armed Forces, ever present in all the political crises of the nation through the 20th century. The military coup of 1964 began two decades of brutal, bloody, corrupt and incompetent military rule. The oil crisis of the 1970s hit hard in Brazil and exposed the dictatorship in all its ineptitude, but the regime’s criminal, brutal repression prolonged its life into the 1980s.

Pro-democracy movements and mass mobilizations marked the end of the military regime in the mid-80s. Seeing the impossibility of prolonging the dictatorship, the goal of the conservative coalition shifted towards the control and confinement of the process of democratization, to prevent the radicalization of democratic reconstruction in Brazil. In many aspects of this process it is possible to say that conservative forces succeeded quite well, for no golpista (putschist) general, no torturer, no business leaders who profited from military rule, no military officer from the repressive and administrative apparatuses of the dictatorship, and not one politician who supported the military dictatorship was ever brought to justice in Brazil. “Conciliation among elite groups” is how sociologist Florestan Fernandes defined conservative control of the return to democracy and the rule of law in Brazil at the time.

At the same time, from the experiences and the mass struggles against the dictatorship was born the Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT (Workers’ Party) in 1980, under the leadership of the metalworker and union leader Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. The PT was initially a united front of the left that was able to unite tendencies from the moderate left to ultra-left or radical groups and tendencies, including progressive religious groups, the Catholic left, and progressive democratic currents, as well as unions and other workers collectives and popular movements and organizations, with the exception of the traditional Brazilian Communist Party (PCB) and its dissident “Marxist-Leninist” organizations (such as the Communist Party of Brazil – PC do B). This diversity of currents within the PT brought problems into party life, but also gave a unique dynamism to the party’s initiatives within and outside the institutional channels of Brazilian political life.

The combat against neoliberalism in Brazil, against the neoliberal policies promoted initially by the conservative presidency of Collor de Mello from 1990 to 1992, and later intensified in the period from 1995 to 2002 under president Fernando Henrique Cardoso (a once “left” leaning academic turned mainstream neoliberal “superintendent,” and nowadays an activist for the coup), was the guiding idea and practice of the party, and helped to stimulate the institutional growth of the PT within the national political structures (including municipalities, state houses, congress, senate) with many elected officials giving support to popular movements of peasants and workers, the unemployed, marginalized social groups, etc., and being supported by them.

The growth of the PT within the Brazilian political system led to internal disputes that ended with the victory of the “moderate” group led by Lula da Silva and Jose Dirceu, and the expulsion of radical groups, from organized Trotskyist currents to independents and other tendencies. New leftist parties resulted from this process, with the goal of radicalizing the struggles and “correcting the deviations” occurring in the party of Lula da Silva, among others: the Partido do Socialismo e Liberdade – PSOL (Socialism and Freedom Party), Partido Socialista dos Trabalhadores Unificado – PSTU (Unified Workers Socialist Party –Trotskyst), Partido da Causa Operária – PCO (Party of the Worker’s Cause – Trotskyst). None of these, however, were able to recreate for themselves the mass basis of the PT, nor to challenge the leadership of the PT within the organized workers’ movement and be able to impact the public arena and political life in Brazil as it did and still does the party of Lula da Silva.

When it emerged, the PT represented a new stage in the political development of the working class related to the post-military dictatorship social and economic realities of the country. It was better equipped than the traditional Marxist-Leninist parties to play a decisive role in public life. And, in many ways, it played an important role by bringing a working class leader to be the president of the largest nation of Latin America, a nation plagued by enormous social inequalities throughout its history as an independent and modern nation.

Lula da Silva’s presidency came at a cost, and the party had to adapt to the restrictive political structures of the nation, from the de facto monopoly of right wing parties in the political arena to the economic straightjacket of neoliberal policies left by the Cardoso presidency, and from the conservative structures of the state, and the lack of a true democratic culture, to dependency and to the ideological submission of its traditional middle class and the frankly reactionary ideology and practices of the Brazilian dominant class. As some analysts remarked, following the social disaster (instability, unemployment, poverty, social conflicts, etc.) created by Cardoso’s neoliberal conservatism, the presidency of Lula da Silva was “tolerated” by the dominant groups as a kind of “interval” for the recomposition of the reactionary pact and policies of the elite: certainly, the working class president could not and would not succeed in his role in such a large and complex nation, and the usual conservative political groups would be back with renewed dynamism after the presidential “fiasco” of the PT. Such was, implicitly or explicitly, the intended plot. But the plot failed. The political intelligence of Lula da Silva, his abilities as a negotiator, moderator, and conciliator, developed from his union and his life experiences, allowed him to navigate the troubled waters of a historical context of economic uncertainties in the international arena with policies to promote integration of large numbers of poor and marginalized families and individuals to the economic structures of the nation, to promote employment, basic education and basic rights. The growth of Brazilian exports, the influx of foreign capital during the period of Lula da Silva’s two terms as president, allowed the state to promote a modicum of distribution of wealth with great social impact via social programs such as: Fome Zero (Zero Hunger), Bolsa-Família (Family Educational Stipend), housing, health care, higher education and technical schools grants, among others.

“Squaring the circle,” Lula da Silva’s actions against inequality, to promote rights and democracy, to minimally protect public ownership of strategic resources such as oil, etc., went side by side with neoliberal corporate concentration and internationalization of the Brazilian economy, the growth of monopolies, the growth of private banks and the power of finance capital, the control of state finances by private ownership of public debts, the precarization of work, the monopoly of communication by conservative groups, the political growth of reactionary religious mass organizations inspired by North American Protestant models, and similar contradictory developments. By strategic choice, and as we now know, by miscalculating the enemy’s dispositions and goals, Lula da Silva and his successor Dilma Rousseff avoided direct confrontation with the right in some crucial areas. This was indeed the case in the field of public communication (press, TV, radio), among others. Also, the particular institutional structures in Brazilian political life force a minority government (and the left was never an established majority in congressional and senatorial representation in the post-dictatorship period) to search for alliances in order to be able to operate. The dealings with center-right and right wing political forces were both “necessary” and a source of various types of difficulties at the root of the present political crisis in Brazil.

The integration of the PT in the institutional structures of the country also gave rise to opportunistic policies within the party, to unprincipled conflicts over matters of power advantage, to “pragmatism,” a narrow strategic vision, and adaptation to the “realities” of an incomplete, immature, unstable, limited type of democracy, unable, as we know now, to defend itself from the assaults of old and new enemies, such as thieves, obscurantists, exploiters, authoritarians, and fascist elements and organizations, both domestic and foreign. During Lula da Silva’s administration, as time went by and new practices were established within the PT for the party’s new condition and responsibilities of ruling the state, social movements and unions were gradually assigned a secondary or subordinated role in the political arena, a tendency that intensified under Dilma Rousseff.

One episode of economic policy during President Dilma Rousseff’s first mandate is worth considering: a dispute about high interest rates charged by private banks led the president to order two state owned banks, Banco do Brasil and Caixa Economica Federal, to lower rates for consumers and business, an initiative that at the time forced private banks to follow suit and lower their rates. In this episode, Dilma Rousseff dared to directly confront the power of the banks and the interests of landlords and speculators: a capital sin for the neoliberal credo, and most probably an early source, one out of many, of her later political difficulties.

The immediate context of the coup d’état of 2016 is related to the economic difficulties surfacing in the second mandate of President Dilma Rousseff from changes affecting international trade and global economic growth. It is worth noting, however, that the recent economic difficulties in Brazil, if compared to the disastrous neoliberal years of President Cardoso’s administration, could be considered as “mild” indeed. Nonetheless, it has impacted both business and the common people, and yet, the dimension of the economic crisis was greatly exaggerated by the press to create political instability and blame the government.

The role of the press has been decisive indeed for the coup. A more than two decades old press campaign against the PT and Lula da Silva evolved from openly reactionary criticism to frankly hysterical alarm, lies and insults in recent years: a mix of Fox style pseudo-journalism with Nazi-fascist type of propaganda. Grotesque distortions, badly written falsehoods insulting the readers’ intelligence, hypocrisy elevated to a “way of life” and a “model of business” have characterized the Brazilian press in recent years, with Globo TV as the leader, followed by traditional news organizations such as Folha de São Paulo, O Estado de São Paulo, Rede Bandeirantes (TV, radio), and others.

The “anti-PT” rhetoric in a time of systemic pressures and ideological confusion confronting individuals and challenging social groups’ identities, a time of programmed and enforced individualism, of fluctuations and uncertainties in material and affective spheres of life, of devaluation of culture and language, although targeted mainly to the middle-class also had its effects on other social groups, such as the urban “precariat” of the services sector.

All in all, the strategy and the goal of the privately owned mass communication system in Brazil, as in the coup d’etat of 1964, is to demonize the left in the first place and through it, to delegitimize political life as such, preparing the way to a de facto dictatorship under a “providential” ideology. Such ideology reduces political life to a “moral” question, a type of mythical “contest between Good and Evil,” in a process of constant emotional appeal and pressure that contributes to a psychologically regressive mass experience: the energy source and the soil of fascism, as we all know from the historical experience of the early 20th century and the present neoliberal context of the revival (in different and not so different garbs) of right wing extremist ideologies in Europe, in the US, and elsewhere.

Given the centrality of the problem of mass communication it is difficult to understand the strategy of Lula da Silva, Dilma Rousseff and the Worker’s Party, or rather, their lack of institutional and strategic response to the right wing monopoly of “public opinion” in Brazil. In a sense, the election of Lula da Silva as president marked the “professionalization” of the PT, as the new “public arena” was no longer “simply” the street and the factory, but one that required the advice of communication experts and marketing professionals, and that, according to analysts, took away the prominence and critical contributions of intellectuals, members or allies, in party life. Was it excess of confidence? Was it the belief that democracy was finally consolidated in Brazil and the rule of law would not be challenged by “extremist” political factions (that is, reactionary and conservative forces), as in the past? In any case, we can state now that the context was misapprehended and the enemy was underestimated, a fatal error in life as much as in political life.

Some militants, intellectuals, left journalists, friends and friendly critics of PT saw the coup coming, and alerts were made. A much-needed movement of fighting corruption in political life was initiated under Lula da Silva and intensified under Dilma Rousseff. However, acting in concert with the press, conservative sectors of the judiciary and the Federal Police took control of the process and it soon became clear that the stated “combat against corruption” had a clear political line: “corruption” was defined as anything, from ambiguous occurrences in the state administration, infractions or violations of law of whatever kind and gravity, together with advantages or bribes, real or imaginary, to state officers, under the table political and other kinds of deals that were and are common in Brazil, etc., anything in short that could be used by courts and by the press against the Worker’s Party, its leaders and associates, was made into a public scandal by a rabidly partisan press. The very same press organizations (owned by few families that control mass communications in the country) that have always benefited from not so clear or “law abiding” dealings with politicians and the state, and always looked the other way when corruption cases involved friends and associates, suddenly became the self-appointed arbiters, public courts and judges of “ethical conduct” and “public morality,” and, ironically, the defenders of “democracy” in spite of the fact that in the past they had all supported and largely benefited from the military dictatorship. The Brazilian public was served continuously by combined doses of hypocrisy, hysteria and schizophrenia regarding the country and its political system.

In 2012 José Dirceu and José Genoino, two PT officials, were imprisoned under charges of negligence and corruption. José Genoino, chairman of PT from 2002 to 2005, was a former guerrilla fighter who saw his comrades tortured and assassinated by the military in a remote region of Central Brazil in the 1970s and spent years in harsh conditions of imprisonment. After a period in prison from 2012 to 2014 for “corruption” crimes, crimes never clearly characterized by his accusers and judges, he was pardoned in 2015. José Dirceu was a former student leader and later coordinator of the clandestine opposition to the military dictatorship who lived in exile part of his militant life and was able to return to Brazil before the end of the dictatorship to live under an assumed identity. With the end of the dictatorship, he resumed his public political life and became an important leader of PT. A close ally and collaborator of Lula da Silva, he had central political roles in the administration. Today, in his 70s, he lingers in prison under a harsh sentence for corruption given “without clear and final evidence” in the very words of one of the judges who condemned him. “Imprisonment for life” does not exist in Brazilian law, however, nowadays the law is what right-wing activist judges determine it to be, and in 2015 Jose Dirceu was again condemned (after a 7 years sentence given in 2012) to 23 years in prison, which is, in fact, a life sentence. He is a de facto political prisoner not considered as such, and suffers from the concentrated hatred of the anti-PT forces, given the fact that he was one of the main collaborators in Lula da Silva’s first successful bid for the presidency and one of the main people responsible for the strategy of “normalization” of the PT as a political force within the Brazilian state and party system.

The legal proceedings and imprisonment with regard to both José Dirceu and José Genoino are episodes that can be seen as a kind of “preparation” for the coup d’etat now in course, given the fact that the response of the party to the attacks and condemnation of two of his most prominent figures were, to say the least, uncertain, confused, even puzzling. These were feeble responses to a critical episode that, besides bringing to light party divisions and competing interests of pragmatic factions and groups, willfully or equivocally ignored the long-range and crucial political significance of the whole affair, and the clearly partisan, that is, conservative and reactionary, role of the judicial arm of the state that revealed itself as a de facto auxiliary agent of the opposition, that is, of the conservative political forces in Brazil.

A turning point in the conservative agenda was the mass demonstrations in Brazil in 2013. What started as a localized and marginal initiative by left wing youth organizations in the city of São Paulo against increases in the price of public transportation (a municipally regulated but privately owned system) turned into massive and diffused street protests immediately capitalized upon by the conservative parties via the press as agents and organizers for the mobilization of large middle class sectors against the “establishment” in general, that is, against the PT and its allies. It also took to intimidation and violence on the part of group of right-wing thugs and provocateurs that, in “coordination” with the repressive police apparatus of the conservative governor of the state of São Paulo, assaulted the young left wing militants in the streets. A “coming out of the closet” into the streets and on TV and daily press of para-fascist and properly fascist groups, ideologues, militants and sympathizers, united in the common hatred of “communism” and the PT was one of the results of the 2013 demonstrations, with the implicit and explicit support of opposition parties, conservative religious leaders, business organizations and, of course, the communications industry.

In spite of the organized and mounting hysteria, Dilma Rousseff was reelected in 2014 thanks to the mobilization of popular and progressive organizations and movements. The country was clearly divided, but the state apparatuses, especially the judicial system, the communications system, and the congressional majority, were firmly in the hands of conservative forces. These were the instruments for the coup d’etat of 2016: unable to defeat the PT in democratic elections, the Brazilian ruling class, as in the past, decided to do away with democracy itself, although this time by way of a “democratic” process, that is, a parliamentary coup, supported by the higher courts and “embellished” by a clearly totalitarian press. Defeated four times in national elections, the neoliberal political and economic project effected by Fernando Henrique Cardoso, his PSDB party and its allies, has been reinstated with a vengeance by a criminal and rather unstable alliance of reactionary parties, business organizations such as the FIESP (Sao Paulo Federation of Industries), landlords, speculators, a finance capital sector allied with foreign states, banks and their interests, and with the “discreet” but clear and effective support the Obama administration, considering that the US government is and has been the “patron saint” of all the reactionary elites and anti-democratic initiatives in Latin America in the 20th and the 21st centuries.

The unelected “government” established by the coup, nominally headed by a mediocre careerist and extremely unpopular figure, Michel Temer, is rapidly and rabidly attacking workers’ rights and dismantling not only the social programs of Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, but all the programs of the more than 15 years under the PT related to education, scientific development, the rights of minorities, public health, housing, and anything else that has to do with civilization and civic life as we know it from modern history. Temer is the leading figure of a gerontocracy composed of corrupt, male chauvinist, reactionary, ignorant thieves and robbers, representing the very worst in political life. They are supported by the Brazilian press mafia. Temer’s program and his pronouncements constitute a kind of caricature of austerity policies and neoliberal commonplaces. One example is the absurdity of a new law freezing for 20 years public expenditure in education, health, and everything else related to the living conditions of the majority, which is a caricature with real effects on the life of the majority, and with disastrous consequences for the economy in both the near future and in the long run. In contrast, state subsidies under the form of payments for advertising services have been increased for the commercial press. The already inflated salaries and benefits for judges and the courts have also been largely increased. Certainly, “austerity” is not for everyone, not to be “universally” distributed… Mercosul, a commercial union of South America nations, is being sabotaged for purely ideological reasons, in spite of the economic benefits it brought to Brazil and the region. The important efforts toward an independent foreign policy under Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff are “deconstructed” by the sinister and decrepit figure of José Serra, a former secretary of state under Fernando Henrique Cardoso and a defeated presidential candidate in 2010, a true lackey of US imperialism and the man responsible for recently undoing state control of oil production in Brazil in favor of foreign companies.

Public demonstrations against Temer and the golpista (putschist) government, his allies and collaborators of the communication industry, demonstrations ignored or minimized by the press, are constant in the streets of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and other large cities. They are also found in social media, under the leadership of youth groups and students, the coordination of social movements, women collectives and unions. And yet, the response against the coup d’etat by the PT and other left parties represented in parliament has been somewhat tentative, apparently uncoordinated, or purely reactive in the sense that a clear strategy of concentrated confrontation is somehow missing. It is clear, on the other hand, that the social and economic disaster being planned and effectuated by the coup d’etat will more and more generate social unrest and lead to a de facto situation of mass intervention against the enemies of the people. Today, Brazil is no longer a democracy for the rule of law does not apply to the golpistas, and the law itself has become a mere instrument in the hands of reactionary militant judges and police forces. And yet the mirage of presidential election in 2018 and the return of Lula da Silva as elected president (or whoever he will publicly support), given his unshakable popularity with the Brazilian masses (a fact recognized by polls from the golpista press itself), is still guiding the political initiatives of a great part of the institutional left. It is also crystal clear that the right wing, the neoliberals, and the reactionary forces in the country can no longer afford to “play democracy” and are at this time trying by all kinds of sordid and unlawful means to incriminate Lula da Silva and arrest him, as a matter of life and death for the future of the coup d’etat. Sooner or later, there will be confrontations in the streets and elsewhere, confrontations that part of the left thought it could circumvent, and that the reactionaries also thought they could prevent by the brutal actions of the coup. It is certainly difficult to say when the conflict will exceed the boundaries of the actual system, but the price of the coup is and will be heavy on the nation as a whole.

As in the past, the right wing is acting to institute a new dictatorship without the unpleasant face (and ugly memories) of military rule (for now). On the other hand, sectors of the popular masses under Lula da Silva who have tasted for the first time the benefits, even if limited, of basic rights as citizens, of better material conditions of life, of human rights and participation, will not calmly go back to slavery, to constant humiliation, to material insecurity traditionally imposed by the Brazilian dominant class, and to previous forms of marginality. Sooner or later, the implosion of democracy in Brazil will take its toll also on the promoters and assumed beneficiaries of the coup d’etat of 2016.

To conclude, the coup d’etat in Brazil, as we stated in the beginning, is part of the present regional context in which progressive governments, governments issued from democratic and popular movements, and progressive social movements and forces are being attacked in different and also in similar ways in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Chile. Despite all their ambiguities and contradictions, those movements, coalitions, parties and popular leaders can very well be called “progressive” in comparison to the forces actively opposing democracy in the continent. This gives relevance and actuality (once more) to discussions on the nature of democracy and the unfulfilled and unfinished promises and character of the “bourgeois revolution” in Latin America (as well as in other regions of the world). Perhaps we could say that the bourgeois revolution that historically in the core countries created the forms of political democracy with the development of modern capitalism has turned universally into the bourgeois counter-revolution, not only in the periphery, but also in the core, in the form of neoliberal ideology and the totalitarian control of economic processes (called the “free-market” economy!), of political processes and social life. The notion of the “revolution in permanence,” as developed by Marx from the experiences of the struggles for social and economic transformation during the 1848 revolutions, and encompassing a continuous process from democratic revolution to social revolution, may gain a renewed actuality in Latin America, of consequence to other places and contexts.



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