Plague of reaction threatens Brazil

Women and LGBT activists protesting against Jair Bolsonaro's vicious homophobic views

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 268 February/March 2019

Once installed as President of Brazil on 1 January 2019, Jair Bolsonaro immediately extended the assault begun by stand-in predecessor Michel Temer on the many previous hard-won gains of the working class. Bolsonaro ‘disinvited’ the Cuban, Nicaraguan and Venezuelan presidents from his inauguration, at which he declared that the country would start to ‘free itself of socialism’. He now aims to implement the grim list of threats made in his election campaign. The outcome depends entirely upon the resistance and fight back that must be waged by the working class. Alvaro Michaels reports.

On his first day in office Bolsonaro decreed that the office of the Government Secretary would coordinate and monitor international NGOs in Brazil. Another decree allows Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina to define indigenous territories, previously the responsibility of the national indigenous agency FUNAI. Both decrees aim to allow agribusiness and miners to plunder lands demarcated for indigenous Brazilians and slave-descendants (quilombolas). Bolsonaro tweeted that 15% of the national territory is currently classified as reserves ‘despite’ a population of less than one million, and that ‘together we will integrate these citizens’ – a shameless threat to steal their lands, destroy their communities and proletarianise any survivors. His Environment Minister, Ricardo Salles, was appointed despite a court ruling banning him from the political arena for three years. As Sao Paulo state’s Environment Secretary from 2016 to 2017, Salle altered maps to clear the way for factories and mining operations along the protected areas around the Tietê, Sao Paulo’s most important (and polluted) river. In the first three weeks of Bolsonaro’s presidency, the Brazil stock market rose 13%.

Another decree removes policy-making on LGBT matters from the Human Rights Ministry so that the LGBT community no longer has a specific agency to enforce its rights. Indeed, the new minister, evangelical pastor Damares Alves, has said ‘diversity politics threatens the Brazilian family’. This reactionary is one of only two women in the 22-seat cabinet, which has seven former military men as ministers. Brazil has also abandoned the Global Pact for Migration, the result of the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants, guidelines adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2016.

On 15 January Bolsonaro issued a decree easing restrictions on gun possession. Civilians who live in rural areas and violent cities can now own up to four weapons and keep them in their homes or business premises. Licences now last 10, not five, years and expired licences are forgiven. No justification is now needed for gun ownership. However, his promises to reduce the age requirement from 25 to 21 years of age, remove the police veto and make permits permanent were not introduced. Brazil already has the world’s highest death rate by firearms. All these decrees have to be approved by Congress in 120 days.

Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party has only 52 seats in Congress. The Workers’ Party retains 56 and with its allies has 135 seats. There are 30 parties in Congress, the second most fragmented in the world. To pass any laws Bolsonaro has built a raft of agreements with the most reactionary parties, dubbed ‘BBB’ – for ‘Beef, Bullets and the Bible’ – totalling 131 seats. The process has always been held together by grubby deals, and has never been stable given a so-called middle group of parties holding 247 seats. Already Bolsonaro has been forced to withdraw changes to the bidding rules for the purchase of textbooks in 2020 for school grades 6-9, which were to allow advertising, remove the requirements for source referencing and do away with illustrations representing ‘the ethnic diversity of the Brazilian population, the social and cultural plurality of the country’.

Corruption and class justice

Brazil’s justice is ruling class justice. The impeachment of Workers’ Party President Dilma Rousseff in August 2016 for the previously common dressing up of the state budget was the result of a hypocritical campaign against the party by powerful agricultural, mining and media interests. Even her enemies acknowledged that she never accepted the bribes common to her accusers. At the same time, they moved for the arrest of ex-president Lula, at the time the anticipated winner of the forthcoming 2018 presidential election, who would certainly have defeated Bolsonaro. These interests thus used the massive multibillion-dollar Car Wash bribery scheme at state-owned oil company Petrobras to change the presidency.

The Car Wash investigations had already charged over 280 people and secured about 110 convictions by the end of November 2017. They included Lula, the former House Speaker Eduardo Cunha, former head of Latin America’s largest construction company Marcelo Odebrecht, and billionaire banker Andre Esteves. Two big plea bargain agreements involving Odebrecht and a giant meatpacker have implicated more than 1,800 politicians from over two dozen political parties.

The right-wing opponents of the Workers’ Party, usually political rivals on minor issues, united to water down or block further investigation. Stand-in President Temer slashed the federal police force handling the investigation. Congress twice voted against the admissibility of charges against Temer. In June and October 2017 senators united to allow Aecio Neves (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party) to return to his seat after he was accused of demanding bribes. In April 2018 investigations were reopened into these charges.

On 28 December 2017, Brazil’s Supreme Court suspended parts of President Temer’s annual presidential ‘Christmas pardon’ for criminals, since it granted near-impunity to those convicted in the Car Wash scandal. Lead prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol argued the pardons would set a terrible precedent: suspects would refuse to plea bargain, expecting similar pardons in the future. Many politicians and businessmen investigated for corruption had anyway been released from jail in the days leading up to Christmas as Temer significantly softened the terms compared with previous years. All first-time offenders convicted of non-violent crimes who had served at least one-fifth rather than a quarter of their terms became eligible for release from jail. Brazil’s chief public prosecutor, Raquel Dodge pleaded that ‘The pardon reinstates the period of monarchic absolutism, in which there was no separation of powers, the system of checks and balances adopted in the Brazilian constitution.’

With Bolsonaro in power, the ruling class has stepped up its manipulation of the legal system. On 17 January 2019, the Supreme Court suspended an investigation into $305,000 of irregular cash flows in 2016 and 2017 involving Fabricio Queiroz, the driver-bodyguard of Bolsonaro’s son, Senator Flavio Bolsonaro. Part of this money went to the new ‘First Lady’ Michelle Bolsonaro. Flavio’s brother Eduardo Bolsonaro has suggested the Supreme Court could be shut down.

An economy run by and for imperialism

Brazil depends upon the imperialist states for its capital. To attract capital now means offering privatisation of state property. Temer’s government had already started the privatisation of assets ranging from hydro-electricity companies to the National Mint. Everything is for sale, from ports and highways to airports and railways. The GDP grew a mere 1% in 2018, showing that the serious economic downturn that has hit Brazil since 2014 can only be resolved by reducing the conditions of the working class further, and massively increasing the capital, invested at new rates of exploitation. New Economy Minister Paulo Guedes promised tax and public spending cuts, including pensions, which make up 50% of public spending. A decree raised the minimum wage only 4.6%, well below the previous state budget target. Since 2015, the state debt has risen from 57% to 75% of GDP. 12% of GDP goes on pensions – more than France, Germany, Britain or the US, as the Brazilian state desperately tries to buy itself out of the crisis by securing the loyalty of the civil service and the military. The richest fifth of Brazilians receive 41% of pension benefits; only 3% goes to the poorest fifth. This is why Temer and now Bolsonaro have to be cautious in cutting them. Temer’s 20-year lock-imposed on public spending from 2016 has already squeezed all other state spending.

The corruption crisis has combined with the serious recession to provide opportunities for foreign investors to buy up Brazil’s resources and investments at low prices. These investors will squeeze everything they can from Brazil and its working class. On 3 January 2019, after three years of litigation in New York over losses caused by a giant corruption scandal at Petrobras, large investors led by the Universities Superannuation Scheme, a UK pension fund, extracted a $2.95bn settlement, the biggest such agreement for a foreign issuer in Brazil.

To encourage foreign investment, Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo wants to launch a Brazil-US partnership agreement, to cover issues from commerce to defence and technology. He wants to weaken the regional trade bloc Mercosur’s rules to allow individual members to sign bilateral international trade deals and then pursue a free-trade deal with the US. At the moment, however, it is China that has the excess capital and know-how in infrastructure which Brazilian capitalism needs, while Brazil has the raw materials and food China requires in return. Chinese companies do not face the same political resistance in Brazil to their investments as in other countries, such as Australia, where they have been barred from some farmland and electricity transmission company deals. In 2009, then-president Lula limited foreign purchases of land in a move seen as aimed at Chinese acquisitions of large farms. Now Bolsonaro is desperate for any investment he can attract.

After peaking at $170bn in 2016, Chinese investment in the world excluding Brazil dropped 40% in the first eight months of 2018, as Beijing put a brake on its overseas investments. The opposite happened with Brazil: China invested $24.7bn in 2017 in the country, up from nearly $5bn in 2015, and the highest since the record of $12.5bn set in 2010. Between 2012 and 2016, Chinese companies invested more than twice as much in Brazil as US corporations, particularly in power and infrastructure, to prepare for an extended supply chain.

Bolsonaro has hesitated over the sale of Petrobras, and as a sentimental nationalist resents his country’s dependence on foreign capital, but he is willingly subordinating his government’s efforts to the demands of imperialism, the rape of nature and the further oppression of the mass of the workers.

Dam disaster: a crime not a tragedy

A dam operated by Vale, the world’s largest producer of iron ore, collapsed in Minas Gerais in Brazil on 25 January, killing at least nine people and leaving over 400 missing. The dam collapse at the Feijão mine sent a torrent of iron ore waste through Vila Ferteco, swallowing people and houses, destroying roads and leaving a river of contaminated mud in the ruins. This is the second devastating dam collapse overseen by Vale in Minas Gerais in just three years. The last collapse, considered Brazil’s worst environmental disaster, happened when the Fundão dam (which Vale jointly managed with Anglo-Australian BHP Billiton) burst, killing 19 people, destroying hundreds of homes, and leaving 250,000 people without drinking water. A court case was brought against Samarco, of which BHP and Vale each own half the stock, as internal documents showed it was thoroughly aware of the likely threat of such a disaster, and yet the directors ‘prioritized profits and left safety in second place’ (The Guardian, March 2018). Privatised in 1997, Vale received The Public Eye award for being the corporation with the ‘most “contempt for the environment and human rights” in the world’ in 2012. 

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro lamented the ‘accident’ and told a local radio station it confirmed that ‘something has been done wrong’ in Brazil’s mining industry for years. Bolsonaro’s government threatens to unleash a torrent of environmental and human destruction, as he attacks environmental regulations and calls for mining to be expanded into protected indigenous reserves and the Amazon.

Ruby Most