The week of the coup

UFF Poster

During most of this week I have been in Campos, in the state of Rio de Janeiro, participating in a very interesting event organised by Rodrigo Monteiro and his colleagues at the Universidade Federal Fluminense. My talk was given in a final session on “Conflict, Public Space and Securitization”, held in the evening of May 11, while the Brazilian Senate was voting on whether to proceed with the impeachment process against President Dilma Rousseff. At the time the conference was originally organised, none of us imagined that we would be talking about these issues on the day that the country’s democratic life was suspended by what President Rousseff has justifiably denounced a coup d’état. But what I actually talked about, the implications of deepening capitalist crisis for human security in the broadest sense, and the intensification of repressive measures against all who threaten to impede neoliberal revanchism, turned out to be depressingly relevant to this tragic historical moment in Brazil.

It was a great pleasure to meet colleagues and students from the universities located in Campos. The visit was also enriched by a visit to the Central Juvenil São Pedro, a social project sponsored by the Salesians that offers teaching and skills training to children and adolescents in one of the city’s favelas. All the more impressive because of the professionalism of its dedicated staff, lack of an “assistentialist” ethos, and uninterested dedication to serving a community whose families are generally not Catholic in religious orientation, the Centre has accompanied the residents through a series of tribulations that were sadly all too typical of Brazil even in the years in which the PT headed the coalition of parties controlling the federal government and advanced the fight against poverty, lack of jobs, and social and racial injustice.

Like the residents themselves, the Centre had its water supply cut off as the local authorities tightened the screw in their efforts to evict poor people from an area of great interest to property developers. The Centre staff also highlighted the problems of those who have been removed and relocated to a more spatially peripheral area of the city. Relocated families not only face problems of basic service provision and limited public transport services in their new homes, but they also face heightened problems of physical insecurity. In the original location, residents could reach a modus vivendi with local drug traffickers who were themselves part of the community, but in the new area different groups with whom they have no prior social connections are fighting for control and parents are terrified that their kids will be caught in the cross-fire. This is a very typical story, repeated throughout Brazil.

It is appropriate to criticise the kinds of class compromises accepted by PT governments at national, state and municipal level as contributing to the perpetuating these kinds of injustices and inequalities, which continued to limit the “right to the city” of the poorest Brazilians even during the years when Bolsa Familia and other social programs were radically improving the lives of so many. But it does not require much imagination to see why the installation of a centre-right  government headed by the PMDB’s Michel Temer is likely to produce a future that will be very much worse. Indeed, there isn’t much that is centrist about the new regime. Although Temer has promised to maintain Bolsa Familia, he has also promised to pursue a government true to Brazil’s national motto of “Order and Progress”, a remarkably unreflective rhetorical move on the part of someone accused of commanding a white coup. It is also remarkable that Temer’s new cabinet contains absolutely no women in first rank positions, and that all its male members are white. But it is when we look at exactly who this gang of white males are that things get increasingly alarming, and not simply because Temer and some of his colleagues have themselves been accused of serious acts of corruption (in contrast to the deposed President).

Dilma Rousseff’s minister of agriculture was Kátia Abreu, one of the few members of the PMDB who refused to resign her post, thereby manifesting a level of personal decency sadly absent in the case of the new acting president. Kátia Abreu was a leading figure in the landowner-agribusiness lobby and Dilma Rousseff was heavily criticised for appointing her friend to this post by the Movement of Landless Workers and environmentalist activists. But Temer’s choice is the far more extreme Blairo Maggi, the so-called “King of Soya”. Maggi is sponsoring an amendment to the constitution that will deal a death blow to any serious attempt to stop the accelerating environmental devastation being produced not only by agribusiness but by mining interests, despite the fact that a mining project in which British capital was heavily involved recently succeeded in producing the biggest environmental disaster in the country’s history. This is only one example of the kind of changes of economic and social policy that this administration has been created to implement.

Backed by São Paulo’s industrialists, one of whom argued that workers don’t need lunch hours since they can operate machines with one hand while they eat a sandwich with the other, Temer’s cabal are looking to implement drastic so-called “reforms’ of Brazil’s labour laws as well as its pension system: all these proposals are clear reflections of the “austerity packages” and increasing precarianisation of work being promoted by the political right as a “there is no alternative” response to the deepening global crisis of neoliberal capitalism. This is one of the lines of argument that I pursued in my talk about human security at the UFF. But the “order and progress” dimension of Temer’s inaugural speech also suggests the potential relevance of the other angle of my talk at the UFF, the growing militarisation and repressive and punitive nature of public security systems, together with all the problems created by the growth of private security operations and the “sequestration” of the police and military by private interests. The coup process has provided ample scope for the expression of every possible kind of class and racial prejudice. The fact that the deposed President was a woman and the front-line ministers chosen for the new cabinet show such a shocking lack of concession to the most minimal standards of diversity speaks for itself.

We should probably not expect much sensitivity to these kinds of issues from Michel Temer. His political skills, amply demonstrated in the unseemly negotiations of recent weeks, consist mainly in making alliances through the trafficking of government posts and dividing the spoils of office. This is what most of the PMDB, with its culture of regional caciques, is about. Imagining the leader of such an organisation could prove a “national saviour” is implausible in the extreme. The PMDB’s co-accomplice in the coup, the PSDB, is still a little more ideological, although its current ideology is strongly neoliberal, after passing beyond the “third way” variant that led social democracy to a centre that has moved ever rightwards whilst (implausibly) claiming to offer an alternative to neoliberalism. Some PSDB politicians have recently proved themselves unscrupulous in their conscious manipulation of class and racial prejudice. Others, including former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and defeated presidential candidate Aécio Neves, have been at best hypocritical in attacking the PT as corrupt to the core, whilst insisting that any charges levelled against themselves and/or administrations that they have headed are false, and ignoring President Dilma’s unprecedented willingness to allow anti-corruption investigations to proceed unhindered by the elected political executive. The PSDB is, however, divided by internal competition for power, and, since it wants the Presidency for itself in 2018, may not prove a very reliable ally for Temer’s crew if things go badly, despite the inclusion in the cabinet as foreign minister of José Serra, defeated in presidential elections by both Lula and Dilma. As a senator, Serra has been at the forefront of attempts to liquidate national resource sovereignty and delivery of key national assets to US transnational companies, another project that is central to the positions of many of the interests in banking and other sectors that are behind this coup. These are all things that a majority of Brazilians reject as proposals when they are given a chance to vote.

But although the indicators are not good, only time will tell what this new government will eventually do, or be unable to do. In the short term, the ending of capitalist and congressional sabotaging of government economic policy and “the markets” approving the coup may make things a bit easier. But Dilma has not actually been impeached and removed from office, of course. She has merely been suspended from office while the case for impeachment and permanent removal are judged, although it currently looks as if the two-thirds majority in the Senate that will eventually be needed to complete her removal is there for the taking.

The fact that Temer is only running the country as a non-elected substitute who demonstrably has no electoral appeal in his own right, raises important questions about his right to appoint a completely new set of ministers, who in many cases wish to implement policies that a majority of the electorate has repeatedly rejected. Even more questionable is his right to abolish and merge ministries, allegedly in the interests of saving public money, but in effect not simply changing the structure of government administration but potentially changing the priorities of public policy without any kind of democratic mandate. This government has been installed “constitutionally” in the sense that procedures for removing Dilma were followed, even if the legal case for impeaching the President appears risible to most impartial commentators, the essentially political nature of the process is absolutely clear, and the role of the judiciary has also been catastrophically politicised, as I argued in earlier posts. But the more that Temer and his gang do that has no democratic mandate, the more the process will be seen as the coup that it really is.

So far it is mainly the golpistas who displayed violence and intolerance, and hopefully this pattern of behaviour will be moderated now that they have got what they wanted. But perhaps not, since the propagation of hate and contempt is absolutely central to the strategy of Brazil’s growing far-right movement, given that facts and logical argument do not tend to support their prejudices. Temer’s newly appointed justice minister, Alexandre de Moraes, was appointed Public Security Secretary in the PSDB government of São Paulo in 2014, rapidly becoming controversial for various cases of disproportionate use of force against protestors that occurred on his watch. He recently achieved a new level of national notoriety for sending in the military police to evict public school students occupying the administrative headquarters of the state’s system of technical schools and colleges, in protest about lack of punishment for those responsible for corruption in the system supplying the state government’s (woefully inadequate) school meals. Having already described pro-Dilma protests in São Paulo earlier in the week as “the acts of guerrillas” (as a student, Dilma was tortured for her participation in urban guerrilla opposition to the military dictatorship), Moraes has today warned anyone who plans to join street protests against Dilma’s suspension that any signs of “criminal behaviour” on their part will be dealt with vigorously. Both the congress and the new executive branch of government are sending out a clear message that from now on social movements should prepare themselves for a new level of repression, a disturbing prospect given the amount of violence that they have already faced. Even more disturbing is the fact that the Justice Ministry that Moraes heads is now transformed into a Ministry of Justice and Citizenship, incorporating the old secretariats responsible for women’s rights, racial equality and human rights. It seems unlikely that the minister will show a great deal of commitment to advancing these causes, but the real worry is that he will foster authoritarian responses that will actually lead to regression in the already too limited enjoyment of these rights in Brazil.

The supporters of the PT and other left-wing parties must resist the temptation to undermine the strength of their case to be the defenders of democracy and social justice by succumbing to provocations. Temer does not lead a government that has any real claim to be recognised as legitimate, and Dilma Rousseff is perfectly justified to call it (and the broader campaign against the PT) the outcome a coup. The coup should be peacefully resisted, whatever the final outcome of the impeachment proceedings, and if peaceful resistance produces positive concessions, this may help to win the country back some of the international respect that it has lost. But new elections are not enough. Brazil needs a real political reform that will make a repetition of this ugly farce, and the kinds of politics that have produced it, impossible in the future. Vai ter luta. But the struggle is likely to be protracted.