Brazil: growing resistance

Capital can no longer accumulate in Brazil without removing even those small gains for the poor made possible by the commodity boom prior to 2015.  The new austerity imposed by the government of the unelected President Temer on the working class is fast bringing rebellion. Unemployment and poverty have risen dramatically.

In the 12 months to January 2017, more than 1.28 million jobs were lost, with a dramatic increase of 608,000 from November 2016.  The unemployment rate hit 12.6% in January, with 12.9 million people out of work. Industrial production fell 6.6% last year, after falling 8.3% in 2015, all in all 17% over the last three years.  Overall GDP fell 3.6% last year. Lower commodity prices, for oil and iron ore, hit the state’s budget, provoking aggressive cuts to spending.

Temer is pressing ahead with privatisation such as opening up the oil sector to imperialist finance,  and  selling  infrastructure concessions for airports, roads, electricity and ports, along with making bankruptcy easier and cutting state employment.

After cutting public spending, and preparing to cut future pensions so that most Brazilians will die before reaching legal retirement age,  Temer is planning three more ‘reforms’ before the 2018 elections requiring attacks on education and labour, and reduced tax for the wealthy. The rich are happy. As a result, in 2016, the currency strengthened more than 20% against the dollar and the stock market rose 37% in local currency terms. So far, in 2017, Brazilian stocks are up another 9%, while the Brazilian currency, the Real, has risen by 4%.

As US imperialism struggles to find a strategy to deal with its own crisis, the Brazilian bourgeoisie is looking elsewhere for trade and investment. Chinese companies are currently strong contenders for 34 concessions for ports, airports, roads and other infrastructure projects. The government auctioned concessions for four airports in smaller state capitals on 16 March to German, French and Swiss corporations, raising R$3.72bn ($1.19bn).

Absolute corruption

On 14 March, the Brazilian prosecutor-general indicted 83 congressional representatives on charges stemming both from the Odebrecht corporation and the three-year-old Car Wash (Lava Jato - Petrobras) corruption scandals; including five members of the cabinet, the current and former heads of both houses of Congress and at least two former opposition leaders – Aécio Neves and José Serra – though mysteriously not current president Temer, even though he is implicated in numerous testimonies. The answer probably lies in the fact that the key investigator, Justice Teori Zavascki, died in a mysterious plane crash in January and was conveniently replaced by a Temer aide, ex-Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes (as Minister he called anti-government protesters ‘guerrilla members’). The list is thought to include just about every major politician to have occupied power over the past decade. Some governors or senators, such as Romero Jucá and Renan Calheiros, have been accused in both the Odebrecht and Petrobras scandals. Ex-Senate head Calheiros refused a Supreme Court judge’s order to stand down while he was being investigated, and so completed his term of office on 1 February 2017. Congressmen have tried to ban plea bargains – a rich source of evidence against them - and to pass an amnesty law that would block trials. Two former Workers Party presidents – Lula  and Rousseff - have been dragged in to the scandal by right wing manoeuvring to weaken the party. The lower house of Brazil's Congress shamelessly passed a law that would allow members of congress accused of corruption in turn to accuse the prosecutors and judges of abusing their authority, but this was dropped after street protests and legal challenges.

In addition, 211 of the cases of local politicians’ have been sent to lower courts and 350 new investigations are expected to come from the Odebrecht testimonies involving politicians and countries hitherto untouched by the case.

The ruthless cynicism of the Brazilian ruling class and its dominant landowners – most of whom belong to the infamous association the Uniao Democratica Ruralista (UDR) - was shown again on 20 March when five gunmen burst into a small-town hospital in Parauapebas in north-eastern Brazil’s Pará state, surrounded security guards and murdered prominent land rights activist Waldomiro Costa Pereira, who had worked with the Landless Workers Movement (MST) and who was recovering from an earlier attack. Sixty one agrarian reformers, local workers, were murdered in 2016. Large landowners (latifundistas) hold some 45% of all rural land, twenty of them own 2.2% or 18.88m hectares in Brazil's rural zones. Their private ownership is an obstacle to progress and humanity.

A powder keg

In  Vitória (population 360,000), the capital of Espirito Santo State,  the state’s 10,000 police walked off the job on 3 February over equipment cuts and low wages and five days of rioting broke out. Strikes are forbidden so police families picketed stations.  Two hundred and fifty shops were ransacked.  Bus drivers refused to work. Nothing like this has been seen in the town in living memory. 1,200 troops were sent in on the 6 February, a number then doubled. Poverty and desperation breed violence and by Friday 10 February more than 122 persons had been killed, including one police officer. The state authorities then charged 703 striking military police officers with the ‘crime of revolt’.

In nearby Rio de Janeiro, limited protests by police and their families worried many living outside of the impoverished hillside slums. Here the police have been clashing with demonstrators protesting against state government cost cutting and projected state property sales including the local water utility Cedae. Demonstrators, most of them public employees, had not been paid in months, the consequences of chronic incompetence, fiscal mismanagement and high-levels of corruption. On 24 February the annual Carnival celebrations saw large-scale demonstrations against the political class in Brazil along with anti-imperialist protests.

On 15 March a ‘Day of Paralysis & Mobilisation’, a rare general strike, saw the biggest demonstrations yet against Temer’s post-coup government. Called by Frente Brasil Popular and Povo Sem Medo, CUT Trade Union, various Social Movements and left parties, the strike closed ports, metros, bus terminals, post offices and schools. Brazilian civil servants, rural workers and unions staged nationwide demonstrations against Temer's pension reform plan. An estimated total of one million people participated across the country. In São Paulo the protest by 200,000 people was peaceful, and former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva spoke against the changes. In Rio de Janeiro protesters clashed with police. In Belo Horizonte, an estimated 150,000 demonstrators joined the protest, in Rio de Janeiro, 100,000, in Curitiba 60,000, Fortaleza 50,000, Recife 40,000. In Brasilia, 20,000 marched and more than 1,500 people from peasant and homeless groups protested at the finance ministry. The Landless Workers Movement invaded the ministry in the dawn hours and some remained there for eight hours. Sustained street protests worry the capitalists.  Many congress members are now thinking how best to save their skins from the corruption probes, either  to reject the cuts to gain popular support, or  back them and hope that their economy  turns a corner before the 2018 presidential election.

Alvaro Michaels