Brazilian Left pushing hard for referendum to stop rightward slide

The left in Brazil, including the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB), is pushing hard for a referendum as a tactic to block right-wing, anti-worker policies being imposed by the government of interim President Michel Temer of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB). The referendum would, if approved, authorize new elections for October of this year, instead of in 2018 as scheduled. But holding the referendum depends on first defeating the efforts of the right to remove President Dilma Rousseff from office.

Temer, the former vice president of Brazil, took power on May 12 when the Brazilian Senate voted to suspend the twice-elected president, Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party (PT), while she faces an impeachment trial. If Rousseff is convicted by a two-thirds vote of the 81 member Senate for the dubious “crime” of having fudged some accounting measures in 2014 and 2015 in order to cover a budget deficit, Temer will take over as official president until the 2018 national elections. If Rousseff is acquitted by the Senate, or if no decision is achieved within 180 days of the Senate taking up the impeachment charges, she will take power once again. Term limit laws prevent Rousseff from running again in 2018.

But Temer is in worse shape: He can’t run for president either because of credible accusations of corruption in the huge Lava Jato (operation Jet Car Wash) scandal, which grow and grow. The latest news on Temer is that a businessman who has been seeking a plea bargain in his own corruption prosecution has accused Temer of arranging an illegal campaign contribution for one of his party’s candidates for election from a company doing business with the national oil company, PETROBRAS. The former president of the Chamber of Deputies, Eduardo Cunha of the PMDB, and the moving spirit of the effort to impeach President Rousseff, faces his own multi-dimensional corruption probes and probable prosecution. On Tuesday, June 14, the Ethics Committee of the Chamber of Deputies voted 11 to 9 to suspend Cunha from his chairmanship and ban him from electoral activity for eight years for lying about his secret offshore bank accounts. This vote must now be confirmed by the full Chamber. Cunha has reportedly told interim president Temer that if he eventually “goes down” he will take up to 150 federal legislators with him, including top allies of Temer.

Should Temer, as many have demanded, also be impeached and removed from office, Cunha would have been the person to take over the presidency while the trial of Rousseff continued. This now seems impossible. The next in line to take over the presidency would be the President of the Senate, Renan Calheiros, also from the PMDB, but he is also now implicated in the corruption scandals, having been caught on tape maneuvering to blunt the Lava Jato investigations. So he might also be removed from the line of succession to the presidency. To balance things out a bit, Aécio Neves, from the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB, a right-wing party despite its name), who narrowly lost the presidential vote to Dilma Rousseff in the 2014 elections, is now also implicated in Lava Jato.

Earlier in the week, Tourism Minister Henrique Eduardo Alves was forced to resign because of being implicated in the Lava Jato affair. Previously, the minister of Planning, Romero Jucá, was pushed out when a recorded conversation showed that he and others had cooked up the impeachment of Rousseff in order to block the Lava Jato investigations. Subsequently, Temer’s minister in charge of rooting out corruption, Fabiano Silveira, also resigned for the same reason. Now it is reported that another Temer minister, Education Minister Mendonça Filho, may be in the sights of prosecutors for having taken illegal payments also.

These scandals, affecting the selfsame people who have been such eager beavers in the attempt to impeach Rousseff, may be making Rousseff, who has not been accused of corruption, look good by comparison. Whether this will peel off enough senators to block the two-thirds Senate vote needed for her impeachment is yet to be seen.

Undoing the Lula-Dilma achievements

The economic and social policies that Temer and his crew are feverishly promoting may do the trick, as they threaten to undo everything that has been achieved by the Lula and Rousseff governments over the past decade and a half. These policies, initiated by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2003 and furthered by Dilma Rousseff after her elections in 2010 and 2014, are credited with lifting millions of Brazilians out of poverty. They have also made a start, at least, in creating a more just society by fighting centuries-old patterns of racism and patriarchy, and by strengthening the role of labor unions, women’s, Afro-Brazilian, indigenous and LGBT organizations in the country. These programs are very popular among people who have benefited from them but deeply resented by old elites.

But neither of the two PT presidents ever could count on a parliamentary majority of their own party and its close left-wing allies. They felt obliged to work with some parties further to the right to get their measures passed. This is how Temer came to be Rousseff’s vice president in the first place. These center-right parties, including the PMDB, have now turned against Rousseff and, with even more right-wing parties in Congress, are pushing both the impeachment effort and also efforts to dismantle the measures strengthening the social safety net which Lula and Rousseff had achieved.

Specific actions which Temer and his ministers are promoting, one month after taking power:

*The opening of Brazil’s vast offshore oil deposits, called “Pre-Sal,” to foreign and domestic private companies.

*An amendment to the progressive 1988 constitution to cap the growth of social welfare spending so that in a given year, it can not grow beyond the rate of inflation. This cap would be in place for 20 years, and would effectively block any new initiative to attack poverty and social inequality.

*Specific cuts to health care, education and housing budgets. Cuts to health and education spending would have to overcome current law which requires that 13.2 percent of the federal budget be dedicated to health care and 18 percent to education, so this would have to be changed.

*Future changes in pension plans, which Temer’s team says it will negotiate with unions. Most of Brazil’s union leadership is highly suspicious of Temer and his cronies and strongly oppose the impeachment of Rousseff.

*Labor law reform, with the purpose of making Brazil more attractive to investors – in other words, to weaken labor unions and workers’ rights. The age at which Brazilian workers would be able to retire on a pension would be extended.

*Moving Brazil away from the “Bolivarian” integration process of Latin America and the Caribbean, and into a closer relationship with the United States and the other wealthy capitalist countries.

“Prosperity through austerity?”

All of these things and potentially more are being pushed in the name of “restoring the confidence of the [international] markets” in Brazil’s recessed economy. This sort of “prosperity through austerity” approach has never worked anywhere in the world. Moreover, the confidence of “the markets” is unlikely to be restored by a government whose leaders are falling like ninepins to corruption and bribery scandals.

Public opinion surveys in Brazil show strong opposition to Temer’s policies, on top of a very negative perception of Temer himself. A survey published on the website of the United Workers’ Center of Brazil (CUT), which represents 7.5 million workers, and carried out by CUT and Vox Populi in early June, showed that 67 percent of Brazilians have a negative opinion of the Temer government, 52 percent think Temer’s policies will increase unemployment, and 77 percent oppose the idea of changing the retirement age. All Temer’s negatives have been increasing over the month he has been in power.

In response to this, the Brazilian left, including Rousseff’s Workers Party, the Communist Party of Brazil and numerous labor, student and other mass organizations, are focusing on a demand for a referendum, which, if it wins, would also authorize that new elections be held this year instead of 2018 as scheduled. On Tuesday, June 14, President Rousseff met with several of these democratic sectors. Carina Vitral, president of the National Students’ Union (UNE), reported that the Popular Front of Brazil (FBP), which includes labor and other groups, has been meeting to come to a unified position on the idea of the referendum and new elections, in conditions she characterized as a weakening of democracy because of the coup.

For its part, the National Committee of the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB) is strongly backing the referendum-election plan. In a declaration on Thursday, June 16, the Party accused Temer’s government of being at the service of financiers and speculators from inside and outside the country. The government’s programs of social welfare and labor “reform” represent, for the party, a bridge to a more savage form of neo-liberalism than existed in the past. The 1988 constitution guaranteed social and economic rights, which the Temer government now seeks to dismantle, according to the communists. If this government remains in power, these aims will be carried out even faster. Restoring democracy in Brazil, in the opinion of the PCdoB, requires first of all that the attempt to remove Rousseff be stopped, and then that the plebiscite be carried out to authorize new elections in 2016.

Photo: Farmers hold signs that read in Portuguese “In Defense of Democracy. Not to the coup” during a protest against the administration of acting President Michel Temer in Brasilia, Brazil, June 16. Farmers say Temer will end social programs and halt agrarian reform that was underway under suspended President Dilma Rousseff. Eraldo Peres | AP



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.