By: Adriana Miranda da Cunha and Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon
Only weeks after the Olympic torch was deadened in Rio, plumes of tear-gas and riot police ushered in a new unelected government in Brazil as hundreds of thousands took to the streets in opposition to what they call a “coup”.
On 31 August, Michel Temer, the acting president and former deputy president officially became president of Brazil, followed by his all white, male ministers. The Brazilian senate voted by a majority of 61 to 20 to impeach President Dilma Rousseff on so-called “Crimes of Responsibility,” after she was initially removed for three months from power in May this year and subject to what amounted to a show trial. The charges relate to budgetary re-allocations that her defenders have pointed out were neither unlawful, nor unprecedented.
Temer is the leader of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro or PMDB), a centre right party that was in a strained coalition with Rousseff’s Worker’s Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores or PT), before he turned against her, with the support of a hostile senate.
However, a parade of self-aggrandizing senators, many of whom themselves are implicated in corruption scandals, some former supporters of the military dictatorship, had little time for matters of law when justifying their votes.
Some of Temer’s allies have claimed that the impeachment is a constitutional act to avoid the ungovernability of Dilma’s mandate, but a voice recording of one of his ministers revealed it as a way to protect themselves against corruption investigations. Corruption has become rife in Brazil’s political life across parties, though Rousseff herself has never been directly implicated.
Rousseff, often simply called Dilma, and thousands who took to the streets before and after the impeachment consider this a “coup” or golpe – an unlawful and expedient appropriation of political power.
Many on the left fear the impeachment will result in direct attacks on workers’ rights and the dismantling of social welfare, which social movements in the cities and rural areas fought for over decades. They also fear increased police repression. And it has already started.
In Florianópolis, an island in the South of Brazil, protesters gathered on the night of the impeachment on the highway, blocking traffic along the seaside promenade, which boasts among the highest real estate prices in the country. The bridge, which is the only entry-exit by land, was taken for a few minutes, disturbing the island’s traffic, though letting ambulances through.
Highway blockades, like the one in Florianópolis, have a particular resonance in Brazilian post-dictatorship history. In April 1996, 19 members of The Landless Worker’s Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or MST) were murdered by military police, under Cardoso’s government, in dos Eldorado dos Carajás, allegedly after a deaf and mute militant failed to respond to police orders. It was, in a sense, Brazil’s Marikana: this was a moment that highlighted that police violence remains a constant threat in post-dictatorship Brazil.
Later in the week in Florianópolis, although aiming for a peaceful gathering, many of the 10,000 people marching in the historic centre of the island were twice brutally attacked with tear-gas and, later, batons by the military police when trying to reach the elite area.
In São Paulo, early protests, prior to and immediately after the impeachment, were organised by youth, the Secundaristas, who had been involved in school occupations last year, along with other independent political movements. Again, throughout the week responses by the military police were heavy-handed with tear-gas being used indiscriminately.
Maria Carlotto, a professor of international relations at the Federal University of ABC, on the peripheries of São Paulo, described the scenes on the eve of the impeachment:
“It was a very calm protest and then [on] the right side of the avenue some guys started to set the trash on fire, and then the police started to make a huge repression. […] A student of mine was wounded on the protest, and lost one eye from a tear gas bomb. It became very violent, they were with three helicopters and hundreds of policemen.”
Leigh-Ann Naidoo, Wits University student, attending a workshop in São Paulo at the time, said: “We marched with thousands of people protesting against the constitutional coup. When the “bombs” started, we managed to slip into a side-street and avoid the beating that many got from the very militarised police.”
Naidoo recalled the events which took place later at the nearby Al Janiah restaurant and bar: “Around midnight the police threw tear gas bombs outside the restaurant while many were still inside. When people tried to get out for air the police, who were standing on a bridge overhead, kept throwing more bombs. A gang of police on scramblers arrived at the bar and looked ready for action. Fortunately, they sped off without engaging anyone.”
On Sunday 4th September, in São Paulo, the largest march so far was organised, involving the Brazil Popular Front (Frente Brazil Popular) an umbrella organization for social movements, the PT, the major union federation CUT (Central Única do Trabalhadores), MST, and other and popular organisations, including the radical People Without Fear (Frente Povo sem Medo). Carlotto estimated that there were up to 100,000 people at the march, a figure confirmed by independent media.
However, it went widely unreported in the Brazilian mainstream media. According to Carlotto, on the Sunday, tear gas drifted into metro stations and a tear gas bomb was used on a bus. Twenty six members of the Secundaristas were arrested while eight remained in detention at the time of writing.
Protests against the impeachment have brought together social movements in Brazil on the left, who have had at times a fractious relation with the PT in spite of the socio-economic gains under the party. Many of the movements themselves are critical of the direction taken by the Worker’s Party under Dilma and previously by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, popularly called Lula, particularly with regards to the close relationship with capital, the slow pace of land-reform, and recent anti-terrorism laws introduced by Dilma.
The golpe, however, is seen by social movements not simply as an attack on Dilma but also on workers, women, and indigenous and black populations in Brazil. It also invokes bitter memories of past military violence.
A Bitter History of Worker’s Struggles
In 1964, the left-wing democratically elected president João Goulart was removed from power by the military as he attempted to embark on a programme of economic and social reform in favour of the working-class, leading to four decades of military dictatorship. The PT developed from the union movement and opposition to the dictatorship in 1970s and 1980s, along with support from other social movements, particularly the MST.
However, it was only in 2003, almost two decades after the end of the military dictatorship, that Lula finally came to power, and since then the PT has never been defeated in presidential elections – Brazil has independent elections for the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, and for the Senate.
Lula’s government undoubtedly presided over an improvement of the living conditions of many in the country, such as Minha Casa Minha Vida (My House, My Life), an extensive housing programme, and Bolsa Família, a basic grant for lower income households.
However, he also struck coalitions which gave many on the left-wing of the party and in social movements a sense of dissatisfaction. Nonetheless, during the PT’s years in government, the outright repression and surveillance of social movements, characteristic of previous regimes, lessened.
PT has, however, largely operated under a parliamentary minority, a situation which has made governance difficult and contributed to the vote-buying scandal which rocked Lula’s government.
Dilma, a former left-wing guerrilla who was imprisoned and tortured during the dictatorship, assumed another approach of governing, less connected to the popular base and operating in a more economically-volatile time, though stronger against corruption which made her many enemies.
“The criticism of the president does not justify the interruption of her mandate,” Benedito Roberto Barbosa told us. Barbosa is a lawyer on popular movements, an activist in the National Urban Reform Forum, with decades of experience working with housing movements in São Paulo, and who has been involved in the protests in São Paulo.
“Dilma should have made a left-wing government, instead of trying to play the coalitions of her predecessor, Lula. This created a big frustration and crisis with the popular base, and friction with social movements. We are against the coup, it represents the disruption of the democratic process, but we also don’t accept the adjustments proposed by Dilma,” said Barbosa.
The problems facing PT worsened with Dilma’s government, which began in 2011. Although she won the election in 2014, Dilma found herself not only dealing with increased opposition, a fragmented popular base, but also a global drop in commodity prices, which had sustained economic growth during the first era of PT’s government.
Dilma had lost much support among workers, while the elites were unhappy with taxes levied on them and state intervention for workers’ rights. She was also not popular due to adjustments to social programmes – such as on Bolsa Família – under pressure from the lower and upper houses of government.
Dilma also didn’t have the media shield that previous presidents have had. She and protestors were severely attacked by interests of a highly centralised and largely right wing mainstream media. For instance while the media empire Globo covered many protests in favour of the impeachment, it gave scant attention to those against, and the magazine Veja ran editorials about the anti-coup protests with headlines like “They are not protestors, they are thieves.”
Fears among workers of the fields and city
In both the country-side, and the cities of Brazil workers’ movements fighting for land and accommodation have managed, under PT’s government, to make significant gains, even while frustrated with the rate of progress.
Ivaneti Araujo, coordinator of Frente Luta Por Moradia, is one of the leaders of a housing occupation in inner-city São Paulo. The appropriation of an old unused hotel, now known as the Mauá Occupation, is entirely run by its residents who have maintained and repaired the building, ensuring its security and renovations. The city government, under the progressive PT mayor Fernando Haddad, even attempted to purchase the building for its occupants, and has developed several low-cost housing projects.
“The coup tore our democratic rights, tore up the constitution, ended our right to decide who is in the government. Brazil as a whole will suffer the consequences,” said Araujo in May in the week after Dilma was initially removed. “It is a chauvinist government that aims to end the rights of diversity… But we will continue to fight because we do not feel represented by this president.”
In the week after his election, Temer announced the cutting back of state support for social movements, and the removal of the culture minister, though this position was re-instated after protests. He has subsequently announced a 30% cut in social programmes, particularly those targeted at gender and racial equality, while increasing spending on the military, nuclear power and civil aviation.
Distant from São Paulo, in the mid-winter, we visited one of the “settlements” of MST. There are hundreds of these throughout the country, tracts of unused state or private farming land that has been appropriated by landless workers and put to productive work. In these areas the formerly landless workers produce and market their own goods, through cooperative and community-oriented agriculture. However, police surveillance has remained a continual part of the MST militants’ life in rural areas.
Many rural activists see the coup as likely to bring a phase of increased repression. In the shadows of the Araucária trees, the emblems of Santa Catarina, we spoke to Paulo Carneiro, MST local coordinator.
“The coup will directly reach the workers of both the field and the city. All rights that family farming captured will be cut […]. It will be a great challenge, not only for the MST but for all social movements. The purpose of this scam is to attack the working-class, there was no other reason. For the bourgeoisie, the poor having rights is a crime,” said Carneiro. “This will directly affect the pockets of the people. Besides, Temer would never be democratically elected, they had to use a coup to rise in power.”
The threat the coup in Brazil poses is not only one to the dignity of Dilma, nor simply of the party, as unfair and unjust as it is. It is a threat of an entrenched, nepotistic and corrupt elite to the rights of workers, urban and rural, and of social transformation.
Leaders like Eduardo Suplicy, life-long advocate of the basic income grant, and former PT senator of São Paulo state have called for international solidarity in supporting opposition to the impeachment.
“Adolfo Pérez Esquivel [The Argentinian Nobel Peace Prize Winner] visited Brazil and went to the Brazilian senate and spoke in a very rough way criticising the movement to take away Dilma from the presidency. This was a good step, more people doing this in the world is good. Some countries in Latin America have told openly they are not in agreement with what Brazil has done,” Suplicy told us in May.
After the impeachment was confirmed, Suplicy has also called for early elections.
Few media spaces in Brazil exist for open debate, with most of the mainstream media in support of the impeachment, and few covering the social protests. Most of the protesters have come to rely on social media or independent online news sources like Ninja Media and Jornalistas Livres.
The struggle for Brazil is not just the struggle for the return of PT or Dilma, but to maintain the rights of workers, and people without land and accommodation, throughout the country’s cities and rural areas. It is a struggle against the threat of increased police repression, with the acid of tear-gas already in the air.
Adriana Miranda Da Cunha is a PhD candidate at the State University of Santa Catarina, Brazil, doing comparative research between Brazil and South Africa.
Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon is a researcher at the African Centre for Migration & Society, Wits University, Johannesburg, South Africa and is a writing fellow on the Migration & Health Project, Southern Africa.
In addition to those quoted above, this article has benefitted from conversations with many people who could not be quoted directly here. Thank you in particular to Marilia Carbonari, Francisco Comaru, Pedro Bennaton and Sonia Maria Miranda.
Thank you to the Frente Luta Por Moradia, Projeto Ipiranga, Projeto Mauá, Coopere Centro, Equipe do Observatório de Remocoes (UFABC), Equipe Observatório de Remoções e Defensoria Publica for their hospitality in São Paulo, and to the local MST branch for their hospitality in Catanduvas on the trips which informed this piece. Several pieces by Alfredo Saad Filho along with the volume Challenging Social Inequality: The Landless Rural Workers Movement, edited by Miguel Carter, were used as background sources. Interviews were conducted between May and September 2016. Responsibility for the analysis and translations of interviews from Brazilian Portuguese, remains with the authors. All photos except for those by Eduardo Valente and Sandra Alves are the authors’.
Featured Photo: Protests in Florianopolis, Eduardo Valente