Translator’s note: Brazil is now the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. As of May 27, there have been 412,000 cases of infection, second only to the United States, and almost 26,000 deaths. The infection and death curve continues to increase daily despite the massive underestimation of the real number of cases. In this article, Valério Arcary, a long-time socialist activist and theorist, and prominent member of PSOL, analyzes the Brazilian economic and political experience in the first two months of the pandemic. Since the article was written in April, a united front of left parties including PSOL and the PT (Workers’ Party) presented a formal request for the impeachment of President Bolsonaro. In April and May, two respective Ministers of Health were fired for disagreeing with Bolsonaro’s denial stance in relation to the pandemic, and there is currently explosive tension between the Supreme Court and the government over Bolsonaro’s interference in the Federal Police to protect corrupt family members and allies and the Court’s active investigations into “fake news” and threats to the democratic order propagated by Bolsonaro’s supporters.
Translated by Sean Purdy
- Moro’s resignation from the Ministry of Justice on April 24 is yet another confirmation that “Fora Bolsonaro” (“Bolsonaro Out!”) is a necessary turn in the tactics of the left opposition. PSOL, and now the PT, have correctly decided to defend it. It is a slogan of agitation and not yet for action. The success of a campaign organized by an action program that unifies “Save lives, prevent layoffs, strengthen SUS (public healthcare), tax big fortunes, [and] Fora Bolsonaro” depends on a left united front. The decision to embrace it generated strong controversy. Some believe that it was too early, others believe that we arrived at it with weeks, or months of delay. These are two understandable positions. Whenever there is a change in the political situation, it is reasonable to expect that there will be some disagreement during tactical situations. We have been in a reactionary situation since 2015. We have accumulated defeats continuously. Now that Bolsonaro has become more fragile there are hesitations. The appreciation of times, rhythms, and moments is of crucial importance in defining what to do. After all, the fall of a government is not an eleventh hidden commandment. No one is more revolutionary because they started defending Fora Bolsonaro a few weeks or months before the others. Even more so when, for the time being, the conditions have not been met to effectively mobilize for the overthrow of the government. No government in the world is overthrown by the left without monumental, extraordinary, and colossal popular mobilization. And we do not, at this point, have the forces to even try. In addition, the left must have a project. Let us learn from what happened in Chile: Piñera trembled, but he did not fall.
- In the last two months, the health crisis has turned into a social calamity, with over 100,000 people confirmed to be infected—although underreporting is a 100% certainty—and over 7,000 dead, an underestimated number as well. For the second week of May, it is expected that deaths will reach 1,000 a day, and that we will have entered the apocalyptic moment of the pandemic. If the worst case scenario is confirmed, in the next six weeks, we will have tens of thousands of deaths, and unemployment for a few million more workers. The country already had twelve million unemployed in an economically active population estimated at 105 million in one of the already most unequal countries in the world. At least thirty-eight million work informally without contracts. A minimum emergency income program was presented to Congress by the government, in the amount of R $ 200.00 per month, for up to three months, but it was increased to R$600.00 (something around US$ 112). The dollar has skyrocketed from R$4.1 to R$5.3 since December. So far, just over 50 million people have benefited from the emergency assistance.
- May and June will most likely be the peak months of the pandemic. But instead of raising the level of social distance, estimated at just 50% in São Paulo by the GPS location methodology of mobile phones, most state governments are advocating flexibility to return to work. It is not ruled out that there will be late lockdowns in some capitals. In the political sphere, we are, for now, facing a very unstable impasse since March 15, when Bolsonaro sought support in the streets for his strategy against social isolation. With the impact of the pandemic in March, and Bolsonaro’s bizarre denialist stance, the ruling class’s orientation was, for a few weeks, to put pressure especially on generals in the government, to limit the excesses of the presidency. But it quickly became clear that Bolsonaro is unstable, unstoppable, and uncontrollable. His political isolation has not stopped increasing, as has his decline in popularity, but at different rates, because he maintains resilience in the hard core of his social base: the proprietary petty-bourgeoisie, and very poor popular sectors, dependent on informal work and influenced by evangelical churches.
- The political relations of force have reversed, weakening the government. First, Bolsonaro lost more than half of the deputies in the party he used for the election, including Gustavo Bebianno, who directed the election campaign, and the federal deputy, Joyce Hasselmann; soon afterwards, the popular state deputy Janaína Pascoal in São Paulo; subsequently, he lost the support of the governors of Rio de Janeiro, Witzel and of São Paulo, João Doria; Mandetta, the Minister of Health, and Sergio Moro, Minister of Justice and main proponent of the Lava Jato (Car Wash) operation. In the current juncture, Bolsonaro has neither the social and political strength for a self-coup nor does he face the prospect of an imminent impeachment. The majority of the ruling class has already broken with Bolsonaro, but has hesitated about his displacement during the heat of the pandemic. The fate of the political situation remains uncertain. But it will be conditioned by a catastrophic dynamic, and it signals Bolsonaro’s weakening. In this context, Bolsonaro, the maximum leader of a neo-fascist current that maintains mass influence, albeit a minority, continues to agitate for more powers: the defense of a self-coup in the service of a Bonapartist project, but he does not have the strength to take the decisive steps to advance. Therefore, he seeks to consolidate the support of the Armed Forces, with a greater presence of Armed Forces officers in the Ministries, and the expansion of his parliamentary base with the integration of parties from the center into the government. He has been repeatedly contradicted, especially since March, by dozens of decisions by the Supreme Court (STF). While Bolsonaro tries to protect himself from impeachment, the leftist opposition remains divided. The majority of the working class in union-organized sectors is already in opposition, and the new urban middle class with higher education degrees is in the process of rupturing, frequently going to the windows of their apartments and houses to protest within the quarantine conditions. PSOL has decided to support the presentation of an impeachment request through the initiative of popular leaders. But the PT still falters.
- Faced with the difficulties of the economy to overcome the stagnation of the GDP (which has varied below 1%, since 2019), and the loss of allies and support in the majority of the National Congress, Bolsonaro had been defending a position of a self-coup à la Fujimori in Peru in the 1990s. The clearest expressions of this were national demonstrations in support of the president on March 15. The national political scenario, however, began to change, radically, with the first impacts of the pandemic crisis, and through its economic reflexes. Initially, Bolsonaro and the economic ministries of the federal government underestimated the effects of the pandemic. They remained on the defensive from March 8 until March 15, when a growing division in the ruling classes and a fissure in the government began to open up. On the one hand, in relation to the pandemic, the Ministry of Health under Mandetta, from a right-wing party, DEM (Democrats) allied with the government, and the vast majority of state governors, preached social isolation, distancing themselves from Bolsonaro’s denial position. On the other hand, the economic ministries lived days of paralysis, adopting innocuous measures such as the pre-announced dollar auctions, which consumed US$45 billion of the imposing US$375 billion in reserves, while the Brazilian stock market melted, causing its first recorded circuit breaks and temporary closures.
- The government countered and tried to go on the offensive but failed. On the one hand, Bolsonaro denounced Congress for “preventing him” from governing. Suspected of contracting covid-19, Bolsonaro said he was threatened and did not accept isolation. Fed by the most extreme neo-fascist wings in his family environment that compare to the Tea Party of the American Republicans (Marco Rubio, for example), he called demonstrations on March 15 whose participants called for the closing of the Congress. However, between March 15 and 21, in the field of combating the pandemic, differences within the government deepened. While Bolsonaro continued to deny the effects of the pandemic, putting the economy first, part of the government’s support base such as the DEM, with the Ministry of Health at the helm, and the rest of the new center, like the PSDB and the PMDB, followed by their respective governors, mayors and parliamentarians – including those of Bolsonaro’s erstwhile party, the PSL and the PT, most concerned with the municipal elections scheduled for October, insisted on the policy of social isolation. On March 16, Bruno Covas, the mayor of Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo, decreed a state of emergency and some public universities like the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) in the interior of the state, begin to suspend classes. It is in the course of this arm wrestling, by insisting on maintaining economic activity, in detriment to combating the pandemic, that Bolsonaro increasingly isolated himself, and bourgeois sectors began to move to the opposition. The situation changed when the bourgeois majority passed over to the opposition.
- With the state of public calamity decreed, the fiscal orthodoxy that underpinned the Finance Minister Paulo Guedes’s economic plan was definitely abandoned, with the first measures to combat the crisis in the economic area being announced. The monetary easing (interest rate reduction) that had already been applied, was added to the total fiscal easing, with resources of up to R$600 billion, 8% of GDP, applied to counteract the effects of the pandemic. On this basis, Guedes began to lower tensions with bourgeois sectors—first the banks and, later, the industrial sector—and to tune in with the National Congress. On the same day, the newspaper, Estado de São Paulo, one of the three most important in the country, declared open opposition to Bolsonaro; articles in the largest daily, Folha de São Paulo, discuss the possibility of impeachment; Globo, the newspaper of the largest national communication group, advocates interrupting Bolsonaro’s mandate due to his psychological incapacity. At this point, there were already ten impeachment requests, the first filed on March 5. On March 17, the National Directorate of the PT rejected the slogan “Fora Bolsonaro.” On the same day, anticipating a call for window demonstrations on the 18th, there was the first big panelaço (pot banging) in the windows of middle class neighborhoods in SP. On March 18, even with the announcement that General Augusto Heleno, a key government security Minister, had tested positive for COVID-19, Bolsonaro supported an apocryphal call for demonstrations in front of army barracks for March 31. This fact alarmed military officials, and the Minister of Defense, General Fernando Azevedo Silva, declared that such acts “do not help.” On this day, Sâmia Bonfim, a federal deputy from PSOL and two other colleagues from her party, presented, without approval from the party leadership, an impeachment request. The panelaço called for 8 pm on the same day extended to various parts of the country. Bolsonaro called for a counter-protest for 9 pm, but it was noticeably weaker.
- On March 19, Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo, a federal deputy, denounced China as responsible for the pandemic and the Chinese embassy responded by accusing him of being in Trump’s service. The Bolsonaro clan’s statement clashed with the bourgeoisie, particularly agribusiness, fearful that economic relations with the Chinese would be affected. El Paíspublished a Political Atlas poll in which Bolsonaro’s management in the pandemic was disapproved by 65% of the population with 45% in favor of impeachment. On March 20, the national student union, UNE, approved a position of Fora Bolsonaro, but remained against impeachment. On the same day, the steering committee of Resistencia, one of the large tendencies in PSOL, decided to incorporate “Fora Bolsonaro and Mourão (vice-president)” into its system of slogans. XP published a study which showed Bolsonaro’s approval rating at just 36% while the Minister of Health, Mandetta, was supported by 56%. Since then, although the fluctuation has been slow, the government’s lack of approval has continued to grow.
- Between March 21 and 30, while the contagion and the number of deaths rose, mainly in São Paulo, and Guedes himself was already starting to withdraw, Bolsonaro doubled the bet, and summoned caravans of protest for the weekend of March 28-30 defying the orientation of social isolation. On the 21, a new panelaço erupted spontaneously. The subway union in SP won in court the removal of workers at high risk among its staff. On the 22nd, a survey was published in which a majority of 73% of the population supported the containment measures. Folha de São Paulo prominently highlighted that the population of the Paraisópolis slum in São Paulo, the largest in Brazil, was self-organizing against the pandemic. At this point, Bolsonaro’s allies begin to abandon him in earnest. Luciano Hang, a department store magnate and symbol of corporate Bolsonarism, at first opposed to stopping the economy, realized that his expansion plan in 2020 financed by 500 million borrowed from the state bank, BNDES, turned to dust, and began to preach for “national union.” From the podium of the legislative assembly in São Paulo, Janaina Pascoal, the most voted-for deputy in the history of São Paulo, and who was touted as a candidate for vice president, asked for Bolsonaro’s removal.
- In the meantime, governors and mayors, together with a broad majority sector of parliamentarians, stepped forward, and coalesced as a whole to defend isolation and disrupt the Bolsonarist plans against quarantines and social isolation. The background was a process of rupture with the government. Ronaldo Caiado, governor of Goiás, an agribusiness leader, booed on March 15 by Bolsoanro supporters after defending social isolation, definitively broke with Bolsonaro. The demonstrations of the neo-fascist wing resulted in failure, clashing with the sentiment of the majority of the population that supports social isolation. On March 23, XP, the largest investment consultancy on the Stock Exchange, spoke of the need to apply a Marshall Plan, while the government launched MP 927 authorizing the suspension of the employment contract for four months. A poll showed 25% approval rating for Bolsonaro against 48% disapproval. Governors (Helder of Pará, Dino of Maranhão, Witzel of Rio de Janeiro, etc.) launched videos against Bolsonaro condemning the caravans against the quarantine in support of a self-coup. Ciro Gomes, leader of the laborist party, PDT, petitioned the Supreme Court against MP 927. Social networks indicated an increase in discontent with Bolsonaro. DataFolha, the most respected polling institute in the country, published research on the government showing 35% as excellent/good, 26% regular and 33% bad/very bad. The Ibope research company showed 25% approval and 48% rejection. Bolsonaro revealed amazing resilience, but his dynamics of support declined.
- On the same day, March 23, the Central Bank decided to provide support of 1.2 trillion (16.7% of GDP) to banks, a figure much higher than the 117 billion injected in the 2008 crisis. Predicting the difficulties of the credit system, on February 20, the government had reduced the bank’s compulsory rates from 31% to 25%, as well as the compulsory collection, meaning a relief of 135 billion. Another measure included a further decrease in the rate (25% to 17%, plus 68 billion) as well as flexibility in the rules of the LCA (bank loans for agribusiness, 2.2 billion) and the LF (general bank loans, 670 billion) and, finally, a package of only 85.6 billion for health funds for states and municipalities. Yet on March 24, in the midst of a strong panelaço, Bolsonaro made a statement reflecting a retreat in these positions. The military estimated that the pronouncement was wrong in its tone of confrontation with governors and the Congress, but considered it correct in content, since the governors defended social distance, and therefore reduced economic activities. João Amoedo, the leader of the neoliberal party, Novo, opposed the pronouncement. ACM Neto, mayor of Salvador and president of DEM and João Dória, governor of São Paulo and a prominent leader of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), two organic parties of the ruling class, came out at the top of their lungs condemning him. Only 5% of two million tweets supported the pronouncement. Entrepreneurs spoke of the need for “a Mandetta in the economy,” possibly because they considered bank aid to be too much compared to theirs. On the other hand, in the Jornal Nacional of Rede Globo, Brazil’s main broadcast TV journalism program, with an audience of over seventy million households, Mandetta eased social isolation. A detail: in the afternoon, General Edson Pujol, commander of the Army, made a statement placing the fight against the coronavirus as the most important mission in the history of the corps (offering a helping hand), preached unity, and promised to defend the constitutional order (offering a strong hand) with rigor. This was a clear signal that the Army was against the ongoing confrontations, as well as Bolsonaro’s adventurous course. Institutional division in the face of the pandemic was rampant.
- On the other hand, in the U.S., Trump advocated a return to work, which signaled Bolsonaro’s fine-tuned orientation with the White House. The next day, March 25, another government funding source, the EDF, announced a R$2 trillion package to ease the impact of covid-19 on the economy (500 billion for industry; 350 billion for small and medium-sized businesses; 100 billion for hospitals; 150 billion for local governments). Still on March 24, two large social movements, the Frente Povo Sem Medo (People Without Fear Front) and the Frente Brasil Popular (Brazilian Popular Front) met to approve a platform of demands on the government, the most important embryo of a United Front of the Left. Northeastern state governors launched a manifesto against Bolsonaro. In Rio, Mayor Crivella, following Bolsonaro, decided to reopen the stores; Governor Witzel disallowed him. Carlos Bolsonaro, another son of the president, decided to join the Republican (PRB) party of Crivella (a prominent bishop in the Universal Church) to run for election, sealing a strategic alliance with evangelicals. Bolsonaro made a statement on social media, and protest against him broke out; vice-president Mourão defended social isolation and said that the president may have expressed himself badly in social media networks. Lula gave an interview and talked about Bolsonaro’s resignation or impeachment. The supermarket tycoon, Abílio Diniz, said he spoke to Guedes who committed R$600 billion for the economy aimed at industry and consumption. In a joint letter, 26 governors requested the application of a basic income for emergency citizenship. On that day, there was another panelaço, and Bolsonaro spoke of a “coup in progress” against him. On March 26, a new survey by the Political Atlas indicated that impeachment was approved by 47% while 45% rejected it. Military officials met to discuss the issue of Bolsonaro’s resignation. Ex-president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, said that “it was better that Bolsonaro leaves than the people.” The articulation of a non-party impeachment began. Bolsonaro doubled the bet, and called for new caravans in support of the government under the slogan “Volta Brasil” (Return Brazil). In the favelas in the northern zone of Rio, it was already possible to observe the return to normal activity. Proposed minimum emergency income of R$600.00, which may reach R$1,200.00 for families headed by women, was approved by Congress for unemployed workers and those without a contract. It was estimated that between fifty and sixty million people could benefit and the cost was estimated at more than R$50 billion.
- On March 27, while the government announced aid of R$40 billion to finance the payment of employees of small and medium-sized companies, Bolsonaro launched the campaign “Brasil Não Pode Parar” (“Brazil cannot stop”), hiring an advertising company without bidding for R$4.8 million. The fall in oil prices stemming from the dispute between Russia and Saudi Arabia threatened to destroy the already-indebted North American shale oil industry, and seriously affected Petrobras, the largest national company. In response to Bolsonaro’s counterattack, governors prohibited “Volta Brasil” caravans. The Supreme Court prohibited Bolsonaro from adopting measures against social isolation, and invalidated two decrees that considered churches as an essential service. On March 28, the news came out that a military summit of the Armed Forces (Army, Navy and Air Force) had held two meetings to analyze the gravity of the national scenario and discuss the wear and tear on the president. They decided for greater pressure from the eight military ministers (out of twenty-two) to set limits on Bolsonaro.
- At the same time, Bolsonarist caravans begin to fail. In Porto Alegre, they were relatively weak and strongly criticized and, in Rio de Janeiro, they could not even get off the ground after being banned by the courts. The Ministry of Health extended the term of isolation of schools. The G20 and the UN sent a letter to Bolsonaro warning of the risk of an apocalyptic pandemic. There were only three governors left with Bolsonaro: in Santa Catarina, Mato Grosso and Rondônia. The press ran the news that Bolsonaro wanted to fire Mandetta. Party leaders and political figures from the left (such as Ciro Gomes, Gleisi Hoffman, Fernando Haddad, Guilherme Boulos and Flavio Dino) launched a manifesto calling for Bolsonaro’s resignation. The Frente Povo Sem Medo and Frente Brasil Popular launched an economic emergency program. In the Supreme Court, the leader of the lower house of Congress, Rodrigo Maia, still opposed impeachment, arguing difficulties and the political costs of the process in the middle of the pandemic. A note from the Air Force was published on March 31. Although supporting the 1964 coup in the face of communist danger, under the impact of the Cuban revolution, the corp identified itself as guardians of the constitutional order, indicating that they were against the interruption of the democratic regime in the midst of the crisis. Justice Minister Moro and Health Minister Mandetta continued to act against Bolsonaro’s wishes. In the afternoon, the government press conference on combating the pandemic appeared in a new format, now coordinated by General Braga Neto without the presence of Bolsonaro. On April 3, Estado de São Paulo published an article revealing that on March 30 Bolsonaro had visited Reserve General Eduardo Villas Bôas, obtaining his support. Soon, Villas Bôas issued a message that “nobody protects Bolsonaro.” Villas Bôas has enormous respect in the military, but he is in the reserve. Military support seemed insufficient to shield Bolsonaro.
- We are still in a reactionary situation—as the framework of bourgeois offensive, regression, and political-ideological division in the working class, and the political location of a significant sector of the middle class in the extreme right, remains. We are on the defensive, but the situation has changed. The political relationship of forces has changed positively with the weakening of the Bolsonaro government. A new conjuncture has opened up with the outbreak of the new coronavirus crisis and the government’s genocidal response, which adopted a line against social isolation and greater political-institutional confrontation. The pandemic will worsen in the country in the short term, greatly increasing the number of deaths (on the scale of tens of thousands) and producing the collapse of the health system in many regions. Actually the collapse has already started in the capital cities of Manaus, Rio de Janeiro, Belém, Macapá, Fortaleza, São Luiz, among other cities. The months of May and June should register the peak of the disease in its first wave in the country. The year 2020 is expected to record the biggest drop in GDP in over a hundred years in the country. A quick V-shaped recovery is unlikely. The tendency is that, after the severe depression in the first semester, there will be a more prolonged crisis period in the medium or long term.