What shape will the resistance to Bolsonaro take?

November 28, 2018

With far-right President-elect Jair Bolsonaro due to take office on January 1, the left in Brazil is taking stock of the struggles and challenges that lie ahead. Pedro Fuentes, a leading member of the Party for Socialism and Freedom (PSOL) talked about the conditions that gave rise to Bolsonaro’s victory and the resistance that has already emerged, in an interview with Susan Carroll, who also translated it from Portuguese.

WHAT MAKES Bolsonaro different from other figures of the right like Donald Trump or even Mauricio Macri of Argentina?

BOLSONARO IS a son of Trump, and both are ideologically sons of Steve Bannon. They are part of a new right that is very authoritarian, and that uses racist, xenophobic, anti-ecological, white supremacist, misogynist and ultra-religious discourse.

They are part of an important ideological process that is more than just a matter of rolling back democratic rights. It’s a negation of science and of human progress. Trump was able to exploit the issue of immigration and the economic crisis. Bolsonaro rose to power as a forceful male figure, thanks especially to the deep insecurity that exists in Brazil. There is a war against the poor and against the favelas that kills 60,000 people a year.

The front of a mass demonstration against Bolsonaro in Brazil
The front of a mass demonstration against Bolsonaro in Brazil

Bolsonaro is about all of this, but with one important difference: Bourgeois democracy — which isn’t what we understand as our democracy, but which still exists and matters — is much stronger in the U.S. than in Brazil. There’s a crisis in Brazil. The capitalist regime and the capitalist state is more in crisis than it is in the U.S.

So in one sense, the dangers are greater, but in another, things are very similar.

There’s a new regime in Brazil that I call proto-fascism. Why “proto”? Because the seeds of fascism are there, but they haven’t bloomed yet. We will have to see the conditions of their development and how the balance of class forces will shape them — how the working class moves; how the feminist movement, which has been the vanguard of the resistance, moves; how the youth and the universities move. In this sense, I’m optimistic.

HOW ARE the different sectors of the Brazilian ruling class aligning themselves with Bolsonaro and to what extent did that support shift over the course of the election campaign?

THE FIRST people who supported Bolsonaro were the rural bourgeoisie and the big agribusinesspeople — soy producers, etc. — who tend to be very conservative. By putting Paulo Guedes, a neoliberal “Chicago boy,” in the Ministry of the Economy, Bolsonaro received support from the banks and international capital.

The sector represented by ex-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso had the most conflicts with him, but it was electorally liquidated. This was the segment of Cardoso’s party, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB, or Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira), that represents São Paulo’s industrial ruling class. They have their own interests, which are not the same as those of the soy exporters and the exporters of raw materials, and they didn’t initially support Bolsonaro.

Clearly, now they will offer him critical support because his anti-worker reforms are very much in their interest. If Bolsonaro pushes through his labor reforms and pension reforms, they’ll support that. The ruling class of the Northeast, where the Workers’ Party (PT, or Partido dos Trabalhadores) won, is less supportive of Bolsonaro. They’ll have to support him regardless, but there’s a greater point of social resistance in the Northeast because the governments there are led by the PT or allied with it.

WHAT ABOUT Bolsonaro’s evangelical base? That was a big reason for his victory, right?

THE STRENGTH and size of Bolsonaro’s evangelical base is largely unique to him. The evangelical churches in Brazil, especially the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus), are run by a very corrupt sort of mafia that is intimately tied to Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro won for two reasons: The first is that he gained the support of major businesspeople through WhatsApp campaigns, and the second is that he had the support of the evangelicals.

Among evangelicals and among the poor people who voted for him — which was not the majority of poor people, because the PT candidate Fernando Haddad did much better than Bolsonaro among people who earned less than two times the minimum wage — Bolsonaro gained support because people wanted an alternative and a strongman.

There are two segments of people who supported Bolsonaro: one is the Brazilian right wing, which is hardening and growing into a serious right, and the other is the middle class and others who oscillate politically and ideologically from one side to the other, depending on whether or not they see an alternative to their current reality.

And in the middle of a crisis, those with politics and force imposed themselves and gain the upper hand.

COULD YOU expand on that crisis, which developed through the years that the Workers’ Party governed? How did that shape Bolsonaro’s presidential run? How do Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Fernando Haddad and the PT’s shifting social base through their years in power fit into this context?

LULA’S GOVERNMENT was a tremendous missed opportunity for Brazil. It had genuine mass support and was based in a workers’ party that, in its moment, was independent. But then it began to appeal to the support from the ruling class.

It is unquestionable that Lula’s government had organic relationships with the bourgeoisie — with bankers, agribusiness, big businesspeople, big construction projects, etc. It was a government that we would call social-liberal.

Because of the fact that it was in a relatively favorable economic situation, the PT government was able to give some small concessions to the working class and especially to poor people, the unemployed and the dispossessed — like Bolsa Familía [a social welfare program]. But at the same time, you have Bolsa Banqueiro and Bolsa Empresário [billions in public spending going to banks and businesspeople].

Internationally, Brazilian bankers made the most. Bank of Brazil (Banco do Brasil) was one of the banks that profited the most. Brazilian interest rates were the highest in the world. The Brazilian economy under Lula centered on the sale and export of raw materials, not on domestic economic development.

So when the global economic crisis began to hit Latin America, Lula’s approach and politics also went into crisis.

You can’t have any analysis of the Brazilian situation without taking into account the mass protests in June and July of 2013, during which former President Dilma Rousseff of the PT was in power. There were more than 2 million people in the streets.

While the demonstrations started out against transportation fare hikes, they expanded into a spontaneous movement for more social services, like health care and education, and less investment in projects that didn’t actually benefit the majority of the population, like the building of mega-sports stadiums for the World Cup and the Olympics.

This was a similar and parallel political process to the movement of the Indignados [the Spanish anti-austerity struggle], the uprising of Tahrir Square in Egypt, to the Gezi Park protests Turkey. It crystallized into a rupture with the PT government.

Had the PT government not been tied to the financial oligarchy, Dilma would have had the chance, in that moment, to open up a process of discussion with the population and a new constituent assembly.

But those to the right of the PT, the ruling class, absolutely did not want that. Opening up a constituent assembly where everything is discussed, with the aim of achieving a new type of political representation, went totally against the status quo of that moment.

Dilma refused to do this. She won the very polarizing elections of 2014 with a semi-populist program, and feigned left while playing to the right. Right away, she appointed Joaquim Levy — then-president of Bradesco Asset Management, a division of Bradesco, Brazil’s second largest private bank — as finance minister and began a harsh plan for economic restructuring and reductions in public spending.

This coincided with corruption cases being revealed. The crisis of 2013 opened all of this up. It created the conditions for Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash), which revealed he co-existence of what we call the political caste and big business, with the biggest corruption taking place in the state of Rio. Rio’s ex-governor, Sérgio Cabral Filho, was sentenced to over 50 years in prison. The plunder of Rio was historic.

No one can deny that Lava Jato was the international theft of the century, even though it was Lula who ended up imprisoned, which rendered the recent Brazilian elections illegitimate because he was barred from running.

Anyway, there was a situation of heightened polarization in the country, and Dilma didn’t respond to it. It was in this moment that the right began to get stronger.

WHEN WOULD you say that the right began to reconfigure itself? Was it during Dilma’s presidency or was it more recently — after she was impeached and Michel Temer became president?

TEMER’S COUP was already testament to a great portion of bourgeois thinking: Dilma was unable to fully carry out her plans for austerity, the PT has reached a crisis point, we’ve squeezed as much out of it as we could, and so now it’s time to move onto something new.

The PT government failed despite the fact that, even then, there were possibilities for the left and the mass movements to strike and shift things back in our favor. Yes, the right came out into the streets in support Dilma’s impeachment, but there was also the tremendous general strike of April 28, 2017.

I’ve lived in Brazil for the last 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like it — it was the most important strike of all those years, where everyone was in the streets because they could see the anti-working class reforms and cuts in pensions coming.

The conditions to expand that fight existed. So what happened? The PT and the CUT (Central Única dos Trabalhadores, the Unified Workers’ Central in English, the largest and most important trade union federation in Brazil) opted for the electoral route instead of trying to destabilize the regime. Lula never started a “Temer out” movement. His “Temer out” call was always electoral.

What was missed in that moment, when everyone was out in the streets, was the chance to push for a break that would have opened up a new, pre-revolutionary — or almost pre-revolutionary — situation in the country. Once that chance was missed, all that was left was the elections.

The 2016 elections were municipal council elections. In 2016, PSOL began to get stronger. Many women entered councils, despite the fact that the electoral movement was actually weaker. The reason for this was the feminist movement — the last new movement to rise before 2018.

The feminist spring brought down Eduardo Cunha [then-president of the Chamber of Deputies], the country’s most corrupt politician, who led the way in Dilma’s impeachment. The removal of Temer was also on the table, but the truth is that the political caste didn’t want to get rid of him.

It’s easy to see everything in terms of the country moving increasingly to the right, but people aren’t stupid, and they aren’t intrinsically right wing. When people move to the right, it’s because they don’t see another alternative and because someone messed up. Otherwise there would be no fascism, and the Spanish civil war wouldn’t have been lost. The same is true in Brazil.

YOU MENTIONED the feminist spring. Could you speak more about that, as well as other movements of the left, like the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST, or Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra), the Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST, or Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto) and the protests after the assassination of Marielle Franco, the PSOL member and a city councilor in Rio de Janeiro? How have those movements shaped and been shaped by the political context and the rise of Bolsonaro?

IN 2013, two movements in particular emerged in Brazil as movements with real social force: the youth movement, which occupied schools and public places, and the MTST. The MST stayed behind during these years and didn’t play as central a role.

The labor movement also had difficulties. While the Conlutas (Coordenação Nacional de Lutas, the National Coordination of Struggles in English, a left-wing union confederation that split from the CUT) may have grown, it didn’t get qualitatively stronger, or at least not as strong as it needed to be in order to contend with the CUT for political leadership.

Marielle Franco’s murder in March of this year brought to the fore the movement of Black women and the movement for Black liberation more generally, particularly in Rio.

It’s striking: The impact of the murder of Marielle has been bigger than that of Lula’s imprisonment. Obviously, one of the big demands is that the murder must be investigated. We know who did it — the political mafia in power — but the investigation is on hold. Even the Minister of Justice denounced the police for covering it up.

That movement took on an electoral expression in 2018. Plus, the women’s movement kept going, and in the 2018 elections, when the country was already polarized, it played a key role with the “Ele Não” (Not him) movement against Bolsonaro.

“Ele Não” was the most important mobilization in Brazil this year, and it was led by women — and, importantly and particularly, by Black women. On the eve of the elections, the big banners and signs and slogans were overwhelmingly about Marielle: “Marielle vive” (Marielle lives) and “Justiça para Marielle” (Justice for Marielle).

In the elections, the PT made a grave error that is indicative of its political approach. It was a moment where there was a fight for democratic liberties, where the PT could have, and needed to, extend the call for unity in action to broader layers of the population, and not only stick with the question of Lula, Haddad and the PT.

The conditions for that existed. But the PT didn’t attack Bolsonaro until the last two weeks before the elections. The people who challenged Bolsonaro were the women and PSOL, but not the PT.

Bolsonaro’s victory means that we’ve clearly suffered a defeat. We lost an important battle, but we haven’t lost the war. The resistance movements exist and will continue to exist. There will be lots of resistance from below, and it’s already started.

On the day of the elections, there were signs everywhere in the universities that said “No to fascism.” Several judges from various states, evidently in coordination with Bolsonaro, ordered the signs to be taken down. This sparked a large movement of university occupations. The Supreme Court had to concede that students could do whatever they wanted in their universities.

PSOL came out of the elections doubling its electoral offices from five to 10 representatives, which includes three women, one of whom is a Black woman. In Rio, the PSOL is stronger than the PT. The PT elected one national representative while the PSOL elected four. So our responsibility now is much greater.

In terms of the resistance, I think there are a few anecdotes that really encapsulate what it means.

To give one example, a professor gave a class on fascism. Bolsonaro asked, through his networks, that the Bolsonarista students film it and publish it online. The video of this professor simply teaching his students about politics went viral, and the professor received a slew of threats.

The next day, the professor was welcomed on campus with 200-yard-long lines of supporters — stretching from the street to the furthest entrance to the building — with signs and messages of solidarity.

Another story is of a Black, queer kid in a school in Rio, near the Morro dos Macacos favela, who was beaten up by a Bolsonaro supporter. The school and the leader of the student center, who is also Black and queer, organized a huge public action in solidarity.

In São Paulo, the emboldened right-wing representatives of the pro-Bolsonaro Free Brazil Movement (MBL, or Movimento Brasil Livre), which won a lot of votes, dared to call for a mobilization of the right at the University of São Paulo. They planned to start with the literature department buildings and make their way through the other buildings.

They had seven people show up. And these seven were met at their first stop by thousands of counterdemonstrators.

Fights for democracy and fights against neoliberal economic measures will take place. The problem will be the repression, which will be very strong. Resistance will develop in a new and difficult context, and it will require unity in action, including with some bourgeois parties, as long as they’re democratic.

What is needed is a working-class united front to defend democratic liberties, as well as a party rooted in mass movements that can be an alternative. This is what we’re trying to do — to transform electoral weight into social weight. We are currently in the midst of a membership drive — we’re trying to grow. When Sâmia Bomfim was elected as a federal deputy for São Paulo, 600 people joined PSOL.

The resistance came out with a very beautiful slogan after Bolsonaro was elected: “Ninguém solta a mão de ninguém” (Nobody lets go of anybody’s hand). And that’s what we have to do.

This will require international solidarity — solidarity with socialism that is growing in the U.S. The U.S. is part of the Americas. When Trump says that America is only for Americans, I flip it on its head: We are all Americans, and so let the caravan in.

We have regional enemies: Trump, Bolsonaro, Iván Duque Márquez of Colombia. We all have to be involved that fight.

WHAT ABOUT the traditional strongholds of the left — the unions and the universities — that are both, as you said, places of resistance to Bolsonaro and his supporters, but also disputed terrain, where the right wants to come in and repress the resistance. How does the labor movement fit in?

IN THE universities, the democratic sentiment is very strong. It’s difficult terrain for Bolsonaro. High schools are more divided. Bolsonaro has this whole thing about “schools without parties,” which is a very conservative campaign for authoritarian doctrine in schools. So there will be resistance there, as well as in the universities and among the whole cultural movement, too.

Among workers, the most notable resistance I think is coming from teachers and professors. Because no one wants Bolsonaro’s vision of “schools without parties,” there will be a large conflict in education. There will probably be surveillance of educators and attempts to censor and repress. The teachers’ unions are historically very democratic and belong to either the PT or the left.

In the industrial workers’ movement, things are unclear. For example, when a comrade in Conlutas, a longstanding working-class leader at General Motors who had come out against Bolsonaro, went to the factory the day after the elections, he was reproached by his co-workers for his vote.

This is just to say that the anti-PT sentiment has definitely penetrated the labor movement. Not so much among educators and public workers, but in other working-class sectors — unfortunately, this is the case.

And I don’t think that the PT will organize or call within the unions for an opposition movement against Bolsonaro. Their position will be a parliamentary one, with their eye on the 2022 elections and making Haddad the president. Those are the politics of the PT because they have organic connections with the bourgeoisie.

The PT no longer has bases that would mobilize. That’s why the people who mobilized during the election were the feminists, the women, the homeless, the landless — not organized workers. When Lula was taken to prison, the majority of the people who came to see him off were from the MTST and the MST, not the industrial labor movement.

I’m confident that there will be very important pockets of resistance, but I also think that we can’t get ahead of ourselves, calling for general strikes. The moment is one of taking each other by the hand, not letting go, and continuing to organize.

HOW DO you see the reconfiguration and regroupment of the left in this moment?

THAT’S TOTALLY open right now. We need to be very broad in our united fronts, working with everyone and anyone who wants to fight back, but we also know that we need to build a new alternative in that process.

That alternative can’t be the PT. It will emerge out of this process. And we hope that PSOL will be prepared to meet the moment and the circumstances, and that other opportunities will emerge with the MTST, with the MST and with the unions.

While other left forces are calling for a front and the PT is calling for something separate, PSOL is saying that we will join anyone who wants to fight back — not with one or the other, but with everyone.

Our elected representatives will make a difference in parliament. We have three very strong women, and we have Marcelo Freixo, who is, to me, a key person who needs to lead the new democratic movement.

WHAT CAN we do in the U.S. to support and stand in solidarity with Brazil? What are the prospects for resistance in the rest of Latin America and how have past Latin American resistance movements, such as the green tide in Argentina, shaped those in Brazil?

THE BRAZILIAN feminist spring is the daughter of the green tide and Ni Una Menos in Argentina, which became a global phenomenon with the strikes on International Women’s Day. It is undeniable that women are the vanguard. The strongest international movement today is the women’s movement, and lots of people have been saying that.

So what are the tasks for us in Latin America and the Americas? The most important thing is to organize against reactionary governments in each country — against Macri, against Duque, against Bolsonaro. In the U.S., it’s to cultivate the growth of socialism, develop the fights and movements of resistance, and defeat Trump in the elections.

And at the same time, we have to think, like the international socialists that we are, about what networks we can create beyond the fight for democracy, that can involve truly militant and active campaigns.

For me, there are two main places in Latin America where we have to put our support: the first is Brazil, and the second is Nicaragua, where a murderous dictatorship is carrying out repression. Helping to organize internationally is one of our fundamental tasks. And we’re in it together.

Further Reading

From the archives