Emergency in Brazil: Democracy and Social Progress Under Threat

The most extraordinary thing about recent political developments in Brazil is that just 55 senators overturned the will of 54 million Brazilians at the ballot box who re-elected President Dilma Rousseff. They did this by suspending her as the President for 180 days and installing Michael Temer as interim President. For those of us who expressed solidarity with activists against the US-backed dictatorship in Brazil from 1964-1985,and stood with the Chilean people against General Pinochet following the 1973 coup there, alarm bells are ringing at this right-wing attempt at regime change in one of the world’s largest democracies.

As the British TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady put it, “The seizure of power by Vice President Michel Temer in Brazil, while President Dilma Rousseff fights the impeachment Temer has backed, is deeply troubling.”

The acclaimed US economist and analyst on Latin America Mark Weisbrot is worth quoting at length on the issue. He argues that the impeachment process is “an attempt by Brazil’s traditional elite — which includes, as one of the most important players, most of the major media — to reverse the outcome of Brazil’s 2014 presidential elections… it has nothing to do with corruption, or any serious offense. The charge is that the government used borrowed money in 2014 to maintain the appearance that the primary budget surplus was within its target. But this is something that other presidents had done, and is hardly an serious offense.”

Tellingly he adds a comparison that “When the Republicans in the U.S. Congress threatened to shut down the government over the debt ceiling in 2013, the Obama administration used a number of accounting tricks to extend the deadline, and there was little controversy over this.”

His views seem to be echoed by the Brazilian people themselves. According to a survey soon after the suspension of Dilma, conducted by Brazilian market research company Ibope between May 12 and 16, only 23 percent of Brazilians believe that members of Congress and the Senate acted “on behalf of the country’s interests” when casting their votes on whether to move forward an impeachment process against Rousseff and 66 percent believe that politicians voted “for their own benefit and interests of private parties and institutions.” Numerous social movements, including the main trade union confederation in Brazil, consider the regime of Temer to be illegitimate.

Amazingly, the initial cabinet announced by Temer totally failed to represent the people of this diverse country – it included a total of zero women or Afro-Brazilians, in country where the majority of residents self-identify as black or as of African heritage. As the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights put it, “The designation of a cabinet of ministers that does not include any women or persons of African descent leaves more than half the population excluded from the highest government offices.” The IACHR added that “The last time Brazil had a cabinet with no female ministers was during the military dictatorship.”

In the weeks since taking over from Dilma Rousseff after the Senate voted 55 to 22 to suspend her for 180 days to face an impeachment trial, the imposed President Michael Temer has already unveiled an aggressive austerity agenda that includes cuts to social spending and privatization plans. And a proposed pension reform that would see the minimum retirement age set at 65 years old and see pension benefits delinked from adjustments to the minimum wage.

Undoubtedly, these cuts and neo-liberal policy shifts are set to mostly impact Brazil’s poorest and former President Lula da Silva, whose voter support for the next scheduled presidential election in 2018 soars above Temer’s in some polls by some 20 percent, has slammed Temer and his cabinet for acting as a permanent rather than interim government

The stakes for the future of the country and the region couldn’t be higher – Dilma Rousseff was suspended from office for 180 days through a Senate vote on May 12 to face an impeachment trial over allegations of budget manipulations. If the Senate decides at the end of the trial overseen by the Supreme Court to impeach Rousseff, Temer will be permanently installed until the end of the current term in 2018 and seems determined to overturn the legacy of the governments of Presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff. The country undoubtedly faces many difficulties and changes, but they achieved a narrowing of the inequality gap while it has widened globally, falling rates of poverty and illiteracy. This is a result of world renowned social inclusion programmes like the Bolsa Familia programme for people on low incomes, increases in the minimum wage and other policies.

One example of the material difference the coup government’s austerity will make to the lives of Brazilians can be seen in proposals to make drastic cuts to one of the country’s key flagship social programs that provides low-cost housing to Brazilians, and is widely seen as one of the government’s best achievements.

This housing programme provides a subsidy to people depending on their level of income, with the lowest earners receiving housing virtually free-of-cost and, together with the aforementioned Bolsa Familia subsidy for low-income people, has lifted millions out of poverty.

Additionally, the Temer government will only honour existing contracts for social housing developments already underway, whilst Rouseff’s government made a commitment in February to build 2 million new units of social housing.

Alongside this, the Government is also proposing controversial reforms to the rights of working people that would erode the country’s labour code and open up hours, wages, benefits, and collective bargaining processes to changes. The proposed changes would also aim to ease regulations on outsourcing. The Brazilian trade unions have raised concern over the new government scrapping legal rights to maternity leave; annual holiday entitlements; year-end bonus payments; double payment for overtime; and guaranteed redundancy payments for long service.

Frances O’Grady was right to call for international solidarity with Brazil and to explain that “The economic elite – which still dominates many of the 25 parties in the national legislature, as well as the country’s media – have lost four Presidential elections in a row, and don’t seem to want to run the risk of a fifth and sixth under the charismatic former trade union leader, twice President and global figure Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva [as] he could prolong their exclusion from power to a staggering 24-year period.”

Our battle against neo-liberalism and for a better world is more international than ever in today’s increasingly globalized economy – the Labour movement globally must raise our voices as loudly as we can in solidarity with democracy and social progress in Brazil.

First published on WriteYou.