Yesterday Manchester University’s Global Development Institute hosted a meeting in which staff and postgraduate students had an opportunity to meet and talk with former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.
Elected for a second term in 2014, and the first woman to become president of her country, Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party was removed from office by a “constitutional” coup d’état in 2016. The charges of administrative impropriety used to justify her ouster were, in fact, unfounded, yet in practice they proved virtually irrelevant to the grounds on which members of the congress declared their support for votes in favour of the president’s impeachment. It was a political lynching by politicians willing to do the bidding of an economic elite determined to make working people pay for the economic downturn provoked by reduced Chinese demand for export commodities.
In the light of the abysmal record in office of her now deeply unpopular successor, Michel Temer of the Brazilian Democratic Movement party, who has continued to evade prosecution on charges of personal corruption, the number of Brazilians who would deny that President Rousseff’s ouster was a coup today has diminished considerably. One of the points that President Rousseff made yesterday was that the backers of the coup now faced the problem that they do not have a candidate who is capable of winning this year’s presidential elections. Polls continue to show that Dilma’s predecessor in office, former President Lula, would win in the second round of presidential elections under any conceivable scenario. Lula is in gaol in Curitiba, as a result of a process that, as President Rousseff demonstrated in considerable detail, was transparently political in nature and without judicial merit, designed to block him from being a candidate. Yet he continues to lead the polls by a substantial margin. The candidate in second place in the polls is the ultra-right wing Jair Bolsonaro. Although he is a long way behind Lula and unacceptable to a majority of Brazilians, if Lula’s candidacy is blocked and the high rates of null and blank votes cast in recent municipal and state elections were to be repeated in the presidential race, there is a serious possibility that Bolsonaro could be elected by default as a result of mass abstention.
President Dilma emphasised that the coup, engineered through a process of lawfare against the PT conducted by a politically biased judiciary with the support of the mainstream media, had now created a serious threat to the continuity of democracy in Brazil and a generalised crisis of confidence in the country’s institutions. Yet she also offered her audience in Manchester a strong positive political message. The PT’s ground-breaking past achievements in reducing poverty and social inequality have been seriously undermined by the coup regime’s focus on cutting wages and dismantling the rights of labour, infliction of a savage fiscal austerity on public healthcare and education, and determination to privatise national assets and give foreign capital free rein in acquiring control over the nation’s resources. A new government of the centre-left would have to roll back all the socially regressive measures imposed by the coup, but doing that would require a massive demonstration of support from the Brazilian people, since the reactionary and unrepresentative nature of the current congress, rooted in the enduring power of regional oligarchies, would continue to pose serious problems for an executive that more truly reflected the will of a majority of the people. The PT was now committed to pursue more radical measures to tackle the kinds of inequality that had made the coup possible, the inheritance of wealth and social privilege within an upper class that benefited from a profoundly regressive tax regime that left dividends untaxed and protected the inter-generational transmission of wealth whilst imposing heavy burdens on the less privileged sectors of society.
This was a message of commitment to profound reform of a system that the coup has shown to be completely broken. The return to extreme neoliberal policies in neighbouring Argentina under Mauricio Macri has now produced a spectacular train-wreck that left Macri no choice but to return to the tutelage of the IMF and accept conditionalities that leave the future looking bleak for most Argentinians. Yet, as President Rousseff pointed out, Macri was democratically elected. The Brazilian embrace of extreme neoliberal austerity policies has no democratic mandate and seems unlikely to secure one. Thus far the coup regime has benefited from the substantial foreign exchange reserves created by the PT governments, but the spectre of an Argentine scenario is drawing closer as the real continues to devalue, growth remains feeble, and industrial productivity and investment stagnate while interest rates and bank profits remain extremely high. The key issue now is whether a genuinely democratic presidential election will be possible this year in Brazil, and the stakes are higher than ever, given that the outcome of taking Lula out of the presidential race could be a Bolsonaro victory with a minority of the popular vote through the growth of an “anti-politics” in a flawed democratic system that fails to offer electors choices that they consider truly representative of their interests in an ever more polarised country.
What yesterday’s meeting made clear was that Dilma Rousseff is deeply committed to fighting against such an outcome and to continuing to serve her country. She defended her own record in government vigorously, and with considerable justification in the light of what has happened since her impeachment. But she also looked to the future and the new kind of reform agenda that will be necessary to get her country moving forward again, resuming the positive role it played in Latin America and the world before the new regime installed by the coup embarked on a project that threatens to turn the clock back to the Brazil that existed before the days of Getúlio Vargas in the mid-twentieth century, let alone the years of PT rule that began with Lula’s 2002 election victory. Dilma was happy to talk to us all individually and share ideas through a Q & A session. It was an enormous privilege to have her visit our university. I am sure that those present who are not experts on Brazil now have a clearer idea of what is at stake in that country in the challenging months to come before the election in October, along with the importance of the international solidarity that President Rousseff’s visit to the UK seeks to promote.