Latin America

Brazilian elections: some very real lessons

Jair Bolsonaro, president elect of Brazil

It might seem strange that an open racist could be elected in a country with a majority of black and “mixed race” (as it’s described there) people. It might seem strange that a country with such powerful radical working class traditions could elect such a reactionary. Or strange that a country with such open and free traditions as far as sexuality could elect a man who once said that he’d prefer for a son of his to die than to be gay. Or an open misogynist.

But that’s what’s happened in Brazil, and socialists and the world’s working class movement should take note and learn the lessons. Especially since what happened there is part of a global trend.


Historical background

Brazilian soldiers celebrating the coup in 1964

Brazil was under a military dictatorship from 1964-1985. Following that, a new constitution was written to create a “bourgeois” or capitalist democracy. In the US, the “founding fathers” – slave owners and capitalists to the last (white) man (and it also was all men) – established the system of “checks and balances” to ensure that the masses of people would never be able to get full control over the government. The new Brazilian constitution (written in 1988) accomplished the same goal by structuring the government in such a way that no single political party, or even small coalition of parties, could really control congress. As a result, whoever was elected president would have to cut all sorts of deals with the leaders of a whole series of different parties. This would have consequences that played an important role in Bolsonaro’s election.

Repression under a military dictatorship, also known as “bonapartism”, is not as severe as under outright fascism because bonapartism lacks a mass base. Therefore, in Brazil workers were able to go strike under the military regime and in 1980 a “Workers Party” – the PT – was formed. It was led by the dynamic strike leader Ignacio “Lula” da Silva. (The old line Stalinist Communist Party of Brazil had cut deals with the military dictatorship and was marginalized.) In 2002, Lula was elected to the presidency. He had the good fortune to serve as president while world commodity prices were high, and this benefited the Brazilian economy, which was largely based on commodity exports. Within that, Lula was responsible for raising the minimum wage and other advances for Brazilian workers. At the same time, however, he made sure to keep the confidence of international capital through typical neoliberal policies like limiting public investment. As one analysis describes it:

Ignacio “Lula” da Silva, a talented and popular leader.
He was prohibited from running for president this year because he was in prison due to corruption.

Accelerating economic growth because of the global commodity boom and Lula’s political talent supported his elevation to spectacular heights. He balanced the demands of rival groups through his legendary shrewdness and the judicious distribution of resources through state investment, development funds, wages, benefits and labour law. The economy picked up speed, and taxation, investment, employment and incomes increased in a virtuous circle. The dynamics was sufficiently strong to support bold expansionary policies in the wake of the global crisis. By the end of his second administration, Lula’s approval rates touched on 90 per cent.Poverty rates fell by over 50%  during his time in office. Parallel with this, though, he was able to maintain the confidence of international capital by, for example, appointing the neoliberal monetary conservative Henrique Meirelles to the Brazilian central bank.

Lula’s PT successor, Dilma Roussef, was not so fortunate and she introduced further neoliberal economic policies – not as great as international and Brazilian capital wanted, but attacks on workers nevertheless. She was left with the worst of both worlds, having lost support from both classes.

Meanwhile, two other processes were at work that would lead to the present crisis:

First was the massive corruption that permeated Brazilian government. This corruption is present in all capitalist regimes everywhere. In the United States, for example, it is quite open and takes the name of “campaign contributions.” In Brazil, its scale is connected with the constitutional set-up that left the Brazilian congress an unruly mob of different and competing relatively small parties. The result is that the president has to make deals with the leaders of every one of the different parties by offering them bribes.

Central to this are the scandals revolving around Brazil’s national Bank for Economic and Social Development, a bank so huge

Belo Monte dam project.
Massive corruption is involved in securing contracts for projects like this.

that it is even greater than the World Bank. It made loans both domestic (for example for the development of the huge Belo Monte Dam) and international, and its bonds are traded on Wall Street.

Central to its developmental loans is the operation of the major construction contractor Odebrecht, which according to Forbes is seen as “public enemy No. 1”. An international contractor, they built part of the Miami International and Ft. Lauderdale International and Airports and are currently building the Grand Parkway in Texas.

Massive and widespread bribery has been involved in securing these contracts. The same Forbes article describes video footage seen by millions of Brazilians in which, “you can hear these people in their own words. You can see sacks of money being delivered to congressmen’s houses.”

Under the Roussef government, the conservatives went onto the attack. They used this corruption to get her out, although the person who replaced her – Michel Temer – was every bit as corrupt and probably more so.


The corruption and the increasing poverty (as Brazil’s economic expansion ground to a halt) also led into another crisis – that of crime, especially violent crime. In 2017, murders reached 30.8 per 100,000 Brazilians (over 60,000 in total). There were over 60,000 rapes reported and an average of 606 cases of domestic violence reported daily. Much of the murder took place in Brazil’s poorest slums, where criminal gangs were running wild.


The police also are running wild. Paid low wages, they are notoriously corrupt… and murderous. In 2017, the police killed 5,000 people, which is a 25% increase over the previous year. Many of those killed are the street children.

Rise of religious fundamentalism & reaction

The poverty, corruption and turmoil combined with the inability of the workers’ movement (in the form of the PT) to find a solution. It opened the door to the rise of religious extremism as an apparent explanation and solution to this chaos. Inevitably, the solution involves massive repression and authoritarianism. This is part of a global development. In India, this comes through the rise of Hindu extremism. In Myanmar, it is the Buddhist hierarchy that plays that role. In many predominantly Muslim countries, it is Islamic extremism. And in countries like the US and Brazil, it is Christian fundamentalism or evangelism.

An Assembly of God congregation
Like all fundamentalists from all religions, Brazil’s evangelical churches play a confusing and reactionary role.

Historically, Brazilian religious life was dominated by the Roman Catholic church. No longer. By 2010, 25% of the population consider themselves to be evangelicals, some 20% of federal elected officials are evangelicals, and this year some 500 evangelicals ran for public office.

As is pretty universal among religious fundamentalists of all stripes, sexism and intolerance of those with different sexual orientations is essential to the evangelicals, and Bolsonaro played to this. “I would rather that my son died” than be gay, he said, for example. An open sexist, he has also in effect defended rape. This also plays to the evangelicals.

Similar to Trump, Bolsonaro has openly appealed to the country’s traditional racism. But this is overlooked by some black voters because he appears to offer the only alternative to the high murder rate (because of the higher poverty rates due to racism, it is 9 times as high among black men as among whites). According to one estimate a plurality of Brazil’s black voters voted for Bolsonaro.

Brazil is a country with a historically strong military, as the long military dictatorship shows. Bolsonaro has played on those traditions and has praised the military dictatorship.

Bolsonaro’s base

Is Bolsonaro a fascist?
Bolsonaro has been called a fascist. But a key difference is that he lacks a para-military wing like Hitler’s SS or Mussolini’s Brown Shirts. And his ascendency to the presidency comes at a time when the working class has not been decisively defeated. In fact, like Trump, he was not considered to have a chance of even coming close to winning the election, nor was he originally favored by Brazilian capital. (A capitalist politician named Geraldo Alckmin was. Like his US counterpart, Jeb Bush, Alckman’s candidacy simply collapsed like a house of cards.) So, although repression, sexism, racism and homophobia will be on the rise, it seems unlikely that he will be able to carry out repression on the scale of traditional fascism.

Sources of instability

The Kayapó form a line dance to protest the Belo Monte dam. It and similar projects are devastating the indigenous people’s way of life as well as the global enviroonment.

A major target of Bolsonaro’s racism has been Brazil’s indigenous population. This is linked with his plans to accelerate the destruction of the Amazon rain forests. Aside from the devastation of these indigenous people, this poses a huge threat as far as global climate disruption/global warming, since the Amazon is known as the “earth’s lungs” and is responsible for not only removing a huge amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, it is also a huge player in the world’s weather and rainfall patterns.

Part of his campaign involved nationalistic attacks on Chinese imperialism. But China is a major player in Brazilian economy. According to China Daily
  “there is already $54 billion invested in Brazil [from China] in many areas, such as banks, infrastructure and agribusiness…. Belo Monte dam… uses Chinese transmission technology…. [and] another chinese company, Shandong Electric Power Construction No. 1 already built two sections for the first phase” of Belo Monte. 30% of China’s agricultural exports go to China, including 40% of its beef exports. So, it will be interesting to see how Bolsonaro handles this contradiction. That is especially so considering that he will inevitably have a close tie with Trump, who’s ramping up the trade war with China. So this is another potential source of instability for Bolsonaro.

But back to the original point of this summary – the lessons for the workers movement and for socialists within that movement:

The PT governments under Lula and then Roussef did not have to lead to this. On the one hand, they tried to please two masters, and ended up confusing and partially demoralizing the working class.

But there is an equally important lesson: The idea that the working class and its parties can achieve its goals simply by electing its representatives into office is known as “parliamentarism”, and this has historically been a complete failure. On the one hand, it means sticking strictly within the constitutional and legalistic boundaries set up by the capitalist class, boundaries that are intended to constrain the working class. In the US, all the great advances, from black people and women winning the right to vote to the establishment of the unions as a powerful force, were gained outside these boundaries. They were accomplished by mass mobilization and disruption of the system.

How could the issue of violence in Brazil be resolved? Giving a free rein to the corrupt and violent police offers no solution. What would have been required would have been establishing committees of public safety, which linked up workers – including workers in the gig economy – and the communities, with these committees being organized by the working class parties and publicly funded. And as far as the issue of corruption, it seems from here that again the mobilization of white collar worker specialists would have been necessary to investigate and root out corruption. Not only that, but given that the Brazilian government is constitutionally structured in such a way as to ensure that the working class parties cannot control the congress, an extra-parliamentary structure seems to be necessary.

Any truly working class party will have to participate in elections, yes, but it cannot be confined to that. It must organize and mobilize the class in action.

Also, there is the question of internationalism. Epitomizing Lula’s attempt to increase Brazil’s role within Latin America, following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, he sent Brazilian troops to that country as part of a UN “peacekeeping” force. In reality, this force was sent there in a situation in which the Haitian capitalist state had collapsed (both physically and socially). The UN troops, Brazil’s among them, were there to ensure capitalist rule, and those Brazilian troops among other things were involved in shooting Haitian protesters.

This is a clear example of the national strategy of Lula. There was no serious attempt to link up with, inspire and help develop and act together with the workers movement in the region. (A similar limited strategy was employed by Alexis Tsipras of Syriza in Greece with equally failing results.)

Very real issues
These are not just some academic or abstract points. In the United States, we see the first example in over 75 years of a nominally socialist group achieve a wide base. We are referring to the Democratic Socialists of America, which now boasts of 50,000 members. Yet the sum total of its activity has been pretty much (although not absolutely entirely) limited to participating in elections – and for capitalist politicians, no less. The fact that these politicians call themselves “democratic socialists” changes nothing. Nearly every single one of them continues to corral the workers movement into the capitalist Democratic Party. They thereby make it all the more difficult for workers to organize to fight on all fronts, including in the streets, the work places, the schools and the communities.

In Britain, we see the left wing Jeremy Corbyn of the working class Labour Party very possibly getting elected as the next prime minister. His ascendency to the leadership of the party has been a huge step forward in and of itself. If he becomes prime minister that would be an even greater advance. But it would also have some dangers. Any reforms he tries to undertake would be met with capital flight from Britain. It would also be met with political sabotage both from domestic and international capital. As we see from the experience of the PT governments in Brazil, these attacks can only be defeated by (1) mobilizing the working class; and (2) building an international working class movement. If this is not carried out, then reaction in Britain would threaten, just as has happened in Brazil through Bolsonaro.

Like in physics, in politics each action causes a reaction. The working class in Brazil has not been decisively defeated. Far from it. The election of Bolsonaro is bound to cause instability and, thereby, a renewed movement of the working class. The lessons of the past are there to be learned, in Brazil and around the world.

2 replies »

  1. A good overview, but I found this passage debatable: “Repression under a military dictatorship, also known as ‘bonapartism,’ is not as severe as under outright fascism because bonapartism lacks a mass base.” In the first place, my understanding is that “Bonapartism,” among the various kinds of dictatorships of the right, is usually thought of as distinct from fascist and military dictatorships (although these types may overlap). Beyond this, the kind of dictatorship (however one defines it) doesn’t necessarily have much to do with its degree of repressiveness. In the last century there were several military dictatorships in Latin American that were far more brutal than Fascist Italy, coming closer in their repression to Nazi Germany.

Leave a Reply