By Rebecca Tarlau
It has been one year since the first female President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, was removed from office and her Vice President, Michel Temer, took power. I have spent most of the past year in Brazil, observing the tumultuous events unfold. In this short blog post, I recount some of the most important developments that have taken place under Temer’s new administration. I highlight three overarching takeaways from Temer’s year in office: 1) Temer’s administration is a radical ideological break with the previous, left-leaning Workers’ Party’s (PT) administration, and represents a coherent and coordinated attempt to shift the country in a more conservative political and economic direction; 2) Brazilians have broadly rejected Temer’s proposed austerity reforms, in particular the reform of the public pension system; and, 3) The organized left is divided about how to harness this discontent and collectively act to stop these reforms from being implemented.
When Dilma Rousseff was forced to step down from the presidency on June 12, 2016 due to allegedly manipulating budget accounts, her Vice President, Michel Temer, immediately fired her entire cabinet and appointed in its place a cabinet of his political allies—all of whom were white males. Although it was still several months until Rousseff would be tried for impeachment, Temer was already playing his political cards and pushing forward a series of economic reforms as quickly as possible. Why would a Vice President represent such a different policy paradigm than the President? Unlike the United States, Brazil uses a system of coalition politics, in which more than 35 political parties make alliances each election to win enough votes to take office. It is common practice for parties to shift alliances every few years, more often based on opportunism than ideological coherence. This is what happened when Michel Temer’s center-right Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) aligned with the left-leaning Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT). The PMDB, linked to one of two legal parties during the dictatorship, was infamous for being the “chameleon” of Brazilian politics, i.e., shifting alliances based on the political tide. The PT, known as a “social movement party,” was founded by grassroots movements and oppositional labor unions during the democratic transition, and has generally promoted progressive social and political policies. In 2006, in order to maintain power after Lula’s first term in office, the PT made an official political alliance with the PMDB, despite the PMDB’s drastically different origins and shaky ideological positions.
Fast forward a decade later. In 2016 it became clear that the PT’s popularity was faltering throughout the country (see previous CLAS blog post). In a strategic move to remain aligned with the most powerful forces in Brazil, the PMDB dramatically broke with the PT, despite Temer’s Vice Presidential status. The PMDB formed a new alliance with a much more ideologically coherent party, the center-right Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), which was the PT’s major rival in the political scene. The PSDB supported fiscal austerity, cuts to government spending, and restrictions on the power of labor unions, all with the hope of reviving the economy and increasing international financial investment. The reforms that Temer began to push forward in 2016 were straight out of the PSDB economic playbook. The most important of these initiatives was a freeze on public spending for public education and health for twenty years (known as the “ceiling reform”), a restructuring of the high school system to support more vocational offerings, a change in workers’ rights legislation to allow contracts to trump workers’ rights laws, the elimination of automatic union dues, a law that makes the outsourcing of workers easier for employers, and most polemically, a major transformation of the public pension system.
Since these reforms have been rolled out there has been an increasing wave of discontent and unrest. The organized left, of course, has been furious since 2015, when the calls for Rousseff’s impeachment first began, describing the process as political coup d’état: using the rallying call of “corruption” to overthrow a legitimately elected government (again, for more on these corruption allegations see previous CLAS blog post). Nonetheless, as the agenda of the Temer administration became increasingly clear, the idea of an unfolding coup began to take on more meaning in the lives of working-class populations across the country. I was doing field work with teachers unions in São Paulo when Temer announced the specifics of the pension reforms. I went to dozens of schools and saw as teachers’ jaws dropped when they were told that they would have to work 49 years to receive their pension benefits—a huge increase from the current 25-year requirement for women and 30-year requirement for men. Although unionists and social movement activists had been trying to mobilize workers to take to the streets for months, their calls of emergency were finally being heard. On March 8, International Women’s Day, there was a huge national mobilization involving hundreds of thousands of people. On March 15, over a million workers participated in a national day of protest and mobilization, largely due to the teacher unions that instigated these protests.
Then, on April 28, all of the union confederations in the country—deeply divided politically and ideologically—called for a general strike and 35 million workers shut down many parts of Brazil for 24 hours. Finally, just a few weeks later, it seemed as though Temer’s fall had finally come, as the all-powerful TV network Globo, traditionally a strong ally of the Temer administration, released tapes that implicated the President in a corruption scandal that involved payments to a prominent politician in exchange for his silence. To keep up the pressure, on May 24, tens of thousands of people travelled to the capital city of Brasília, to call for Fora Temer! (Out with Temer!) and Diretas Já (Immediate Direct Elections!). Temer deployed federal troop to crackdown on the protesters, an extreme measure that many interpreted as a signal of an increasingly precarious grip on power.
But Temer did not fall. And direct elections have not been called. Temer claims that the tapes were manipulated and he has refused to resign; instead, he has committed to pushing forward what he acknowledges as “highly unpopular” but “essential” reforms to restore the economic stability of the country. The organized left, which up until this point has succeeded in coordinating several significant national actions to contest these reforms, seems divided about next steps. The union centrals have called for another general strike on June 30. The Workers’ Party (PT) is still calling for immediate direct elections but is also looking ahead to the 2018 election cycle, placing their bets on ex-President Luis Inácio “Lula” da Silva’s ability to win the presidency again and reverse many of these reforms. There are dozens of other political groups, social movements, and unions that support this strategy, most of which participate in the broad national coalition “Brazil Popular Front.” These groups have invested a lot of energy into mobilizing against the attempts to implicate Lula in the ongoing corruption scandals. On May 29, the Brazil Popular Front also launched an “Grassroots Emergency Plan,” with 76 proposals concerning the democratization of the state, employment, agrarian reform, tax reform, workers’ rights, health, education, culture, housing, public security, human rights, environment, and international politics and national sovereignty.
Large Assembly of teachers participating in a National Day of Action in Brazil. (Photo by Rebecca Tarlau).
The other major left-coalition is the “People without Fear,” which also includes several grassroots social movements, as well as many other political groups that have broken with the PT over the previous two decades. Many of these organizations dismiss the Lula-as-savior strategy and are attempting to organize what they refer to as a “left front” that will promote a more radical transformation of the capitalist system, not a series of reforms through political alliances. What exactly this would look like is unclear. Some of the groups in the “People without Fear” front have been organizing “grassroots neighborhood advisory councils” that they hope can take on the role of governing local neighborhoods if there is a full collapse of the state. As of now, the biggest question is whether any of these groups will be able to continue mobilizing the unorganized popular masses, i.e., the millions of workers who do not participate in parties, movements, or unions, but who are worried about living in a country without pensions, without workers’ rights, and without job stability. There is clearly momentum, but the big question is how to keep this momentum going and in what direction. The general strike called for June 30th will be an important litmus test of whether workers are willing to take to the streets again to protect their rights, or whether other organizing strategies are necessary. What we can be sure of is that Temer represents a stark break with the social and economic policies of Brazil’s previous decade. People did not vote for this new economic and political paradigm and the majority of the country does not seem to accept the reforms as legitimate. With decades of hard-earned workers’ rights at stake, the organized left has to think hard about the most appropriate political strategy to take as Temer enters his second year in office.
Rebecca Tarlau is a Postdoctoral Scholar at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. Her current research project examines teacher organizing in Brazil, Mexico, and the United States. Some of Tarlau’s recent publications include “How Do New Critical Pedagogies Develop? Educational Innovation, Social Change, and Landless Workers in Brazil” (Teachers College Record); “Not-So-Public Contention: Movement Strategies, Regimes, and the Transformation of Public Institutions in Brazil” (Mobilization); “From a Language to a Theory of Resistance: Critical Pedagogy, the Limits of ‘Framing,’ and Social Change” (Educational Theory).