At AFL-CIO headquarters, Brazilian unionists describe dire human rights situation there
A woman holds a hashtag sign that reads in Portuguese "Free Lula" during a demonstration on the anniversary of the incarceration of former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, outside the jail where he is being held in Curitiba, Brazil, April 7. While Da Silva serves a 12-year sentence, he and his Worker's Party maintain his innocence, and claim persecution by political enemies to prevent him from running again for president. Denis Ferreira Netto| AP

WASHINGTON—The human rights and unionists’ rights situation in Brazil, under new right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, is direr than people in the U.S. realize, two top unionists and one of their consultants from the large South American republic said at a meeting at AFL-CIO headquarters here yesterday.

It includes not just a crackdown on unions, but the murder of one prime political foe of the Bolsonaro government, turning over environmental protection to the pro-corporate Ministry of Agriculture and internal security to the military, and paramilitaries.

It also includes planned privatization of Brazil’s Social Security system along the lines of a similar privatization disaster in Chile, and reductions in the minimum wage and in pension payouts by 50 percent for all but the rich.

“In economics, this government is the most extreme form of neo-liberalism and in human rights, it wants a return to the Middle Ages,” said one of the three, Antonio Lisboa.

Speaking through an experienced translator to several Steelworkers, Auto Workers, News Guild members, and one top Postal Worker official on April 29, unionists Monica Valente and Lisboa and pro-union consultant Kjeld Jakobsen said Bolsonaro’s government is bent on quashing human rights.

But it’s also imposed an extreme measure that destroys most Brazilian unions’ finances, they told the session, sponsored by the AFL-CIO International Affairs Department.

Valente, International Affairs Director for the Brazilian Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores), and Lisboa, International Secretary of the CUT (Central Única dos Trabalhadores) – Brazilian Workers Central, the equivalent of the AFL-CIO — described the situation during their campaign to increase U.S. and international support for freeing former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, a longtime union and Workers Party leader and former two-term Brazilian president. Lula has been jailed for a year.

That campaign will include a one-day work stoppage by Brazilian teachers on May 15 and a planned general strike “all across the country” on June 14, they said. They appealed for, and got, support and solidarity from the unionists at the AFL-CIO session, led by a letter from Steelworkers President Leo Gerard. In turn, Lula sent a letter – read at the session – thanking the AFL-CIO for awarding him its Meany-Kirkland Human Rights Award earlier this year.

More information is available on the “free Lula” website,

The AFL-CIO’s strong support for Lula and his Workers Party is in contrast to what the federation has done in the past regarding political developments in Latin America.

Under former AFL-CIO presidents George Meany and Lane Kirkland, the AFL-CIO was known for its down-the-line support of U.S. foreign policy – including wars – and against progressive forces including unions. It also engaged in close but covert cooperation with the CIA and other intelligence agencies, in Latin America and elsewhere, as disclosed at 1975 congressional hearings.

Also breaking from this bad history, the Steelworkers have been supporting the independent Mexican union Los Mineros, its leader Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, and new progressive Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Obrador’s presidency too has been welcomed by the AFL-CIO.

The three visitors at AFL-CIO headquarters also explained a Bolsonaro executive order revokes a law that provides most of the money that private sector unions in Brazil depend upon for their finances. The law dedicates one day’s pay of every worker nationwide to be split between the Ministry of Labor and union treasuries. That robs many Brazilian unions of 80 percent of their revenue, Jakobsen explained afterwards. The government money is in lieu of union dues.

If Bolsonaro can make that stick, Brazilian unions would be left without the means to defend the workers, especially in the private sector, the three said.

Not all unions take the government’s money. Public sector unions can’t, the three explained. Lula’s union, of steelworkers, didn’t. It relies on voluntary payments by members, rather than government funding, as do several other unions. But most don’t.

The Bolsonaro government jailed Lula on what the three speakers and the AFL-CIO consider trumped-up charges of quid pro quo payoffs – an apartment he never owned, rented, or lived in – in return for alleged favors to Brazil’s biggest businesses.

Before that, the right wing lodged charges of budget manipulation against his elected successor, Dilma Rousseff, also from the Workers Party. She was impeached and removed from office. The party treasurer has also been indicted on flimsy charges, the three said.

“The Brazilian media has portrayed the party as thieves and corrupt, 24 hours a day,” said Valente. “When you get arrested, they consider you guilty.” Major U.S. media have gone along with that, she added.

Jailing Lula took him out of the 2018 presidential race, which he would have won handily. A stand-in Workers Party nominee, former São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad, lost to Bolsonaro by 55%-45% in an October 2018 runoff.

“Without his imprisonment, we wouldn’t be here. Lula would be president,” Lisboa said. Now in jail, “perhaps he’s become like (Nelson) Mandela” was in apartheid South Africa, Valente said. Its rulers jailed Mandela, the anti-apartheid leader, for 27 years.

The three said Lula’s and Rousseff’s biggest “crime,” in the eyes of Brazil’s business elite – which backs Bolsonaro – was to introduce a measure of equality into a highly unequal society. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, through its Brazilian affiliate, also backs Bolsonaro.

In their terms in office, Lula and Rousseff brought some 40 million Brazilians – many of them African Brazilians from the northeast – out of poverty, instituted environmental controls on development and agriculture, and instituted social programs and a wide range of other pro-worker actions. Unemployment declined to 4%. It’s since risen to 13.4%, the three added.

Bolsonaro, the three said, uses a right-wing majority in the Brazilian Congress to start rolling reforms back, even though the Workers Party won the largest bloc of congressional seats – though not a majority – in the last election.

He’s also turned over running the country to the elite, the three said. Bolsonaro’s Minister of Justice, for example, is the former prosecutor who jailed Lula. “The financial sector now runs the economy,” one of the three said. Bolsonaro also wants to end free tuition at national universities and universal government-run health care. Both programs predate Lula and Rousseff.

Bolsonaro also has the verbal support of right-wing U.S. GOP President Donald Trump, as well as the right-wing president of Hungary. Bolsonaro met Trump in Washington earlier this year, amid protests called by pro-democracy groups.

In answer to a question afterwards, Jakobsen said no U.S. government money is flowing to the Bolsonaro government, yet. But a Trump administration request has been sent to Capitol Hill, though he did not know the amount.

“It’s the kind of thing we’re beginning to research,” Jakobsen added.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.