- Interview by
- Loren Balhorn
The choice facing Brazilian voters on October 2 could not be more stark: either four more years of Jair Bolsonaro, the gun-loving, God-fearing, right-wing populist whose time in office has seen hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 deaths and record levels of destruction of the Amazon rainforest, or the return of Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, the Workers’ Party (PT) icon who governed Brazil from 2003 to 2010.
While Lula’s two terms in office delivered a massive rise in living standards for the working class and a number of progressive reforms, accusations of corruption (mostly baseless and cynically weaponized by the Right) and a judicial coup against his successor Dilma Rousseff fed a dynamic of reaction that ultimately brought Bolsonaro to power in 2018. Since assuming the presidency, he has worked hard to privatize as much as possible, roll back the social welfare programs instituted under the PT, and foster a toxic atmosphere of chauvinism and resentment.
Lula, making his political comeback after being jailed on bogus corruption charges four years ago, is now campaigning to “defeat the totalitarian threat” and “rebuild and transform Brazil.” The stakes, to put it mildly, are high.
With a little over one month to go before voters head to the polls, Brazilian ecosocialist Sabrina Fernandes spoke to the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Loren Balhorn about Bolsonaro’s grim track record, the state of the opposition to the sitting president, and what the Left can learn from her country’s experience in building powerful movements and taking state power.
Brazil’s presidential election campaign officially kicked off several weeks ago. It’s going to be quite the showdown, with right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro up for reelection against the former president from the Workers’ Party, Lula da Silva. How has Brazil changed under Bolsonaro’s four-year rule?
If you look at past Brazilian presidents, we had one, Juscelino Kubitschek, who promised to develop the country fifty years in five. With Bolsonaro, it feels like we went back forty years in four.
He was able to do that not only on his merit, but also because he came in after the coup against Dilma Rousseff. The former interim president, Michel Temer, had begun to implement an austerity agenda and counterreforms against workers’ rights and pensions. Bolsonaro came in with a plan to dismantle even more, such as privatizing public companies. His minister of the economy, Paulo Guedes, is considered to be generally successful by Bolsonaro’s supporters, but they actually wanted to privatize more, like Correios, the Brazilian post office, or Petrobras, the Brazilian national oil company.
When the pandemic hit, Bolsonaro showed what he was there for: making sure that the state wouldn’t provide for people. Brazil’s health care system is divided between a public and private sector, and the pandemic should have been the moment to demonstrate the power of public health care. But because of the austerity plan that was implemented under Temer and furthered by Bolsonaro, the government claimed there was no money. Austerity began before Bolsonaro was elected, but by claiming to be democratically elected, he came in with a strong mandate to deepen it.
“Claiming” to be democratically elected? He won the election fair and square, didn’t he?
Yes, but it’s really important to emphasize that the 2018 elections involved a lot of corruption and a level of fake news that we hadn’t seen before. Bolsonaro deployed the tactics of Steve Bannon to manipulate the electorate. In that sense, the mechanics of the election were fair — people really did vote for Bolsonaro, but the campaign itself represented an attack on democratic principles.
Would you say Bolsonaro has a coherent ideological agenda, or is he more of a right-wing opportunist doing the bidding of Brazilian capital?
I think the easiest way to describe Bolsonaro would be a liberal conservative. Which is quite funny, because for the past four years there’s been a fight between Brazilian conservatives and liberals, depending on whether they like him or not, saying “No, he’s not with us. He’s just a conservative,” while others say, “Oh, no, he’s not conservative enough.”
Whether we should call him a fascist or a protofascist or a neofascist is more of an academic discussion. Bolsonaro certainly plays into the fascist imaginary — he has a neo-Nazi base of support, and we’ve seen an increase in neo-Nazi groups in Brazil over the past years. Classical fascists like Bolsonaro a lot, and he has done absolutely nothing to repudiate that. Some elements of his ideological platform are similar to classical fascism, such as the way he appeals to the masses with religious, evangelical Christian rhetoric.
But at the same time, he’s not a big protectionist. His economic agenda is really about playing to imperialist powers. His connection to Donald Trump was important here. While Trump was president of the United States, Bolsonaro felt really connected to the US as Brazil’s main ally in the region. We were coming out of the Pink Tide. A lot of right-wing governments were coming to power across Latin America, such as in Argentina and Chile, then with the coup in Bolivia, and Bolsonaro saw himself as part of this trend.
As far as the international capitalist class is concerned, Bolsonaro ensured that foreign shareholders in Brazilian companies benefited and that foreign investors had access to Brazilian land. But the traditional Brazilian elite was probably the happiest of all of them, especially agribusiness. Even if Bolsonaro isn’t a traditional protectionist, he has served the interests of the national capitalist class the whole time.
How have working people fared under his presidency? Have the social achievements of Lula’s government been reversed?
One of Lula’s biggest victories in his first term was his program to fight hunger. Brazil historically had a huge problem with food insecurity, and Lula made fighting it a priority. He started a program called Fome Zero, or “Zero Hunger,” that combined food programs at schools, expanding national stockpiles to help regulate food prices, credits, and cash transfers. Lula is very proud of these initiatives, and Bolsa Família is probably the most successful conditional cash-transfer program in the world, so much so that the World Bank uses it as a model. It might not have been very radical, but it was very important.
Now under Bolsonaro, Brazil is back in a deep state of food insecurity. This is reflected in the data, but you can also just take a look around and see that we have a lot more people sifting through garbage cans for food, collecting bones behind butcher shops because they can’t afford meat, and so on.
The assassination of indigenous leaders has also gone up. Brazil has always been quite dangerous for environmentalists and indigenous activists, but it’s gotten worse under Bolsonaro. This is combined with the destruction of nature overall: the Amazon rainforest used to be a carbon sink but now is a net emitter due to changes in land use and deforestation. Bolsonaro is largely responsible for that. Femicide and gender violence rates are also alarmingly high now.
From every angle, we can see a deterioration in people’s ability to live their lives. It’s not only the more than 600,000 people who died during the pandemic or Bolsonaro’s delays in getting the vaccine or his refusal to take proper action to halt the spread of the virus — in many ways, it’s a combination of factors in a government that is based on necropolitics.
If Bolsonaro has been such a disaster, how can we understand his rise in the first place? How was he able to defeat what was once a very popular and successful coalition? After all, he doesn’t even have a political machine behind him.
There is a common explanation that connects to a lot of the analysis around the Pink Tide and the commodity boom at that time. Those governments were very intent on redistribution, but since the economic pie was growing, record-high profits could coexist alongside that redistribution. That meant that part of the elite was quite comfortable with social programs, because it was also winning. When the economic crisis hit, those same capitalists sought to change the game to retain their profits.
That’s certainly part of the story, but I think there’s more to it than that. To understand Bolsonaro, we need to talk about conservatism and the role of fundamentalist Christian leaders who were upset at the PT government’s progressive policies. For example, the Afro-Brazilian movement had been campaigning for affirmative-action policies for a long time, some of which were implemented under the PT. This was enough to poke to the bear and change how parts of the middle class thought about themselves.
The Workers’ Party is a project of democratization, but it was also a project of raising working-class consciousness. Over time, the party lost some of that, while parts of the middle class began to see themselves as separate from the working class.
Conservatism and the historical privileges enjoyed by certain parts of Brazilian society also played a role. Some people were upset to see that their house cleaners now had more rights and could afford to travel or hang out in the same shopping malls as them. This bred resentment among sections of the middle class and even part of the working class, which was then amplified by allegations of government corruption.
It sounds a lot like the classical dilemma of social democratic parties in Western Europe: as successful social democratic policies raise workers’ living standards and life opportunities, the working-class base that brought social democracy to power begins to fray as more and more workers move into the middle class.
It’s related to that, yes, but we’re talking about countries at the margins of capitalism, where social mobility means more than having a car — it means having three meals a day. There are very basic things around social mobility that are quite powerful. But if you don’t associate a project for social mobility with working-class gains, let alone working-class organizing, then you start to lose people on the ideological front.
And yet the Workers’ Party remains the only force capable of defeating Bolsonaro. Even if the polls are narrowing a bit, Lula has maintained a firm lead since announcing his candidacy in May. Can you say a little bit about his significance for Brazilian politics and society in general?
There are a couple of ways of describing Lula. One that’s very common is that he’s the best president Brazil ever had. With all the contradictions, problems, and all of the other things we have criticized him for, he was the best president, and he was very concerned with people’s well-being. The understanding that you need to lift people out of poverty, to make sure that they’re eating well, that they have good jobs — this is all very much a priority for Lula, and that’s what makes him stand out.
He’s also a very skilled politician, in the sense that he’s able to put people together in a room and create consensus when nobody else thought it was possible. That’s quite positive considering how politically fragmented Brazilian society is, both in terms of consciousness as well as political organizations. We have more than thirty official parties in the country, so his ability to talk to a lot of politicians is quite important.
On the other hand, his way of governing also leads to him giving things up — this idea that everyone can win as long as each side gives up something for the other side, which is obviously a problem when we’re talking about working-class power. We have to understand Lula not as a radical leftist leader but a moderate who often gives in to the center right and the capitalist class.
How is that playing out in the current campaign? What kind of a coalition has he assembled behind himself, and what message is he pushing?
It was very clear that Lula wasn’t going to be able to win with a “pure” left-wing ticket, like in 2018 when PT candidate Fernando Haddad ran with Manuela d’Ávila from the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB). They had to pick someone from the center right.
The issue for me is not so much that they picked someone from the center right — that I expected — but the particular person they chose: Geraldo Alckmin. He served four terms as the governor of the state of São Paulo and was tied to a lot of corruption. He’s also from a party that was one of the PT’s main opponents and helped to launch smear campaigns against the Left and promote fake news before fake news was a thing.
A lot of people on the Brazilian left believe that Alckmin is essential for winning. This isn’t only coming from Lula or a small group of people within the Workers’ Party. Part of Lula’s social movement base is quite okay with Alckmin being there.
We’ll have to see how it works out, but I think it hurts him in the sense that, particularly in the state of São Paulo, poor communities really suffered under his rule. When teachers unions went on strike, they were beaten up by the police. There’s a credibility problem when you say, “Look, I know this guy wasn’t good for you, but you have to deal with him because this is who we need to win.”
The coalition behind Lula is very much focused on fighting Bolsonaro. If Lula’s main opponent were not Bolsonaro but some other moderate center-right person — perhaps even Alckmin, who did run against Lula in 2006 — he might not have adopted the same strategy. But now that it’s about removing Bolsonaro, there’s a tendency for people to accept certain things about the campaign, including the level of political moderation, just to make sure that Bolsonaro is kicked out.
The Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), which began as a left-wing split from the PT and is one of the bigger forces on the Left, is supporting Lula this time around. What about the rest of the radical left?
The Brazilian left is very fragmented. For example, we have the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB), which is fairly moderate compared to the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), which is a more traditional Marxist-Leninist party. The PCdoB has been very close to the PT for a long time and was part of its governments.
Particularly under Bolsonaro, there’s been some convergence between the PT and PSOL. This makes sense in terms of building a strong alliance against Bolsonaro, but it also has created tensions within PSOL, and some people left as a result. Overall, however, the membership has grown. It’s still quite small compared to the PT, but it has become more relevant in certain sectors of society.
Three smaller parties on the radical left, including the PCdoB and the Unified Workers’ Socialist Party (PSTU), a Trotskyist party that broke with Lula long before his first term, are running their own candidates. Everyone else backs Lula. It won’t really impact the election, because they don’t have enough support to make a difference. But it does reflect the increase in public debate around socialism and communism in Brazil. Just as anti-communism has spread under Bolsonaro, so have communist ideas.
You said that, despite all the criticisms and limitations, Lula remains the best president Brazil ever had. At the same time, none of his far-left critics have had much success in advancing a more radical agenda. Do you think there are any general lessons that can be drawn from the PT’s track record in terms of building left-wing majorities?
One of the main issues that we have in Brazil is that our politics are very centered around the institutions we build — unions and parties and social movements — and not so much around how can we make those projects resonate with the rest of society. One of the challenges is that we have a Left that’s often basically eating itself. We’re fighting over the same base and not so concerned about growing that base.
That, in turn, is usually connected to the idea that our base is actually really large because we can elect people — just look at the Workers’ Party, right? In that sense, there’s a confusion between an electoral base and an actual popular base.
I’m not sure whether the Left has learned this lesson, especially if Lula comes back and people get used to the idea again that an electoral base is enough. But it’s something that at least some parts of the PT leadership are aware of. If they want to implement some of Lula’s bolder proposals, they will have to get people back on the streets. They will have to mobilize. Rousseff has been key to this process of reflection and almost self-critique, of understanding that we should have mobilized more people against the coup — we have to ensure that when we govern, we govern through mobilization. I think that’s pretty significant coming from her in particular.
You alluded to the Pink Tide, the wave of left-wing Latin American governments of which Lula’s victory was a part, as well as the setbacks it faced over the last decade. Following the string of election victories in Bolivia, Colombia, and elsewhere, what impact do you think a Lula victory could have on Latin America more broadly?
The fact that Lula is a very skilled politician also helps a lot in terms of Latin American integration. If he does win, and assuming there is no coup, he’ll be important to strengthen the relationships between these new progressive governments, and to mediate some tensions. For example, there’s definitely tension between Gabriel Boric’s government in Chile and Nicolás Maduro’s government in Venezuela, and I think Lula can help with that.
Lula is also key to conversations around alternative governance bodies in the region, like the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, and to opposition to US hegemony on the continent. But his influence goes way beyond Latin America. Lula is really big on South-South cooperation involving the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa] and other partnerships. At the same time, he is well-regarded in Europe and the United States, especially because of how bad Bolsonaro has been.
You’ve been a postdoctoral fellow in the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s International Research Group on Authoritarianism and Counter-Strategies for several years now. To what extent is there really something like a global authoritarian trend? Can we draw clear parallels between what’s happening in the US, Brazil, and, say, Turkey?
There’s always a tendency to make comparisons and draw parallels. During the Colombian elections, for example, many people said that [center-right presidential candidate] Rodolfo Hernández was like the Colombian Bolsonaro or Trump. We could draw similar parallels to the Philippines, India, or Turkey. That’s fine, but understanding the mechanics behind it is a little different.
We know there are direct relationships, such as how they use social media. This is not an accident; they’re not just copying each other. There are companies and training involved. There are also real relationships between these movements. We’re not at a point where we can say there is a unified global far-right alliance, but they certainly communicate with each other. They share best practices, and they have direct partnerships. There were clearly connections between Bolsonaro and Juan Guaidó, who tried to declare himself the interim president of Venezuela.
This isn’t just in Latin America, it’s a global phenomenon. When we look into the parallels, our job is not just to draw comparisons, it’s also to dig into the relationships and see how they feed into each other. I think that’s something we’ve been able to do in our research group quite well.
In that sense, would the defeat of a figure like Bolsonaro also have implications for similar leaders around the world?
It has symbolic implications, for sure, but it’s important to understand that defeating Bolsonaro is not defeating Bolsonarism. There is a bigger phenomenon behind him that we’re still trying to grasp. Just because Bolsonaro loses an election doesn’t mean that the far right will take a break.