‘Millions have their hopes set on a Bolsonaro defeat’: An interview with Brazilian socialist Roberto Robaina

January 26, 2022
One of the many protests that took place across Brazil on October 2 to demand 'Bolsonaro out'. Photo: Revista Movimento

With Brazil’s extreme right president Jair Bolsonaro up for re-election later this year, the desire to have him thrown out of office is running high — and not just in Brazil. Millions across the globe want to see an end to his government, which has presided over mass impoverishment, environmental destruction and one of the world’s worst COVID-19 death tolls.

The Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL) has been among those at the forefront of resisting his government inside Brazil. Roberto Robaina is a member of the PSOL national leadership and a leader of the Socialist Left Movement (MES) tendency within it. He is also a city councillor in Porto Alegre and editor of Revista Movimento.

Green Left’s Federico Fuentes spoke to Robaina about Bolsonaro’s extreme right project, the upcoming elections and how Brazil might fit into the new wave of left governments in the region.

* * *

How would you assess Bolsonaro’s government role — domestically and internationally?

The Bolsonaro government was a disastrous experience for the Brazilian people, who have endured a brutal rise in unemployment, a wage squeeze and environmental devastation.

More than 40 million workers have been pushed into the informal sector, where they have no rights such as superannuation or holiday leave.

In the past year, we saw a new record in terms of destruction caused by wildfires in the Amazon.

Perhaps, worst of all, was the traumatic experience endured due to his COVID denialism and opposition to vaccines and science, which led to more than 630,000 Brazilians dying from COVID-19.

The Brazilian people were not prepared for this traumatic experience. But they learnt a lot from it, leading to masses of people turning against his government.

Evidently, expectations have focused on finding a way out of this trauma, which in turn has led to a narrowing of horizons in terms of peoples’ expectations.

Internationally, Bolsonarism was an example for the extreme right. Its defeat will have strategic importance. The extreme right’s unpreparedness to run Brazil has been exposed to the world.

The process of politicisation has expressed itself in actions. Parts of society were forced out of their comfort zone and felt obliged to confront Bolsonaro. As a result, we have seen large street mobilisations.

While these protests did not bring down his government, they did impact on Bolsonaro’s ability to implement his full project. In these elections, he will be defeated.

It is clear, however, that the extreme right will not disappear with the end of his government. It has won support from a section of the proletariat and from desperate sections within the poor and middle class who, confronted with capitalism’s crisis and the lack of left alternatives, have deposited their hopes in these types of projects. And this trend is continuing. It is based on mobilising peoples’ most destructive instincts.

However, the extreme right has suffered some heavy defeats. We saw this first with [Donald] Trump and we will see it with Bolsonaro.

At the same time, we need to mobilise and organise because we know that, in the last instance, the extreme right is a product of capitalism’s continued existence.

With elections later this year, there is undoubtably pressure to support a “lesser evil” candidate against Bolsonaro, most notably Workers Party candidate and former president Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva. Can you tell us how the election is shaping up and what MES/PSOL’s position is regarding which candidate to support?

Millions of Brazilians have their hopes set on a Bolsonaro defeat. Defeating him is the priority.

In this case, it makes sense to support a lesser evil, because a second term for Bolsonaro would represent a further rise in political violence. The government has used the state apparatus to promote violence, to further restrict the freedoms of the left, of the working class and of the media, incentivising hatred towards the press while promoting disinformation and fake news.

Bolsonaro’s continuity represents such a threat to democratic freedoms that it is vital he is defeated in the elections, given that street mobilisations, while having prevented him from consolidating his project, have not been able to bring his government down.

One section of the Brazilian capitalist class, while continuing to push for ways to further exploit the working class, opposes Bolsonaro’s strategy of a counterrevolutionary regime, of eliminating democratic freedoms. Bolsonaro’s disastrous management of the pandemic has deepened this division.

Therefore, it makes sense to seek out a lesser evil, and we recognise that Lula — even if the PT is much weaker than it was in the 1980s and during its time in government — maintains strong electoral support.

During [Lula’s] time in government, capitalism’s crisis was not as deep as it is now. The PT was able to pursue a developmentalist policy and manage the interests of capital, allowing it to accumulate capital, while pursuing social measures, mainly in the forms of cash handouts, to attend to some of the demands of the poorest sectors.

At the time, the country’s growth was linked to the boom in commodity prices, rising exports and China’s growth; they were years of certain economic stability.

Part of the search for a lesser evil can be understood by the fact that many had a better experience under the PT, while life has been a trauma under Bolsonaro. The hope many have is to put an end to this trauma, this disaster.

Lula has emerged as the candidate capable of defeating Bolsonaro. Given Lula will undoubtably make it to the second round of the election — in Brazil, elections go to a second round run offs if no candidate wins more than 50% — we as MES believe PSOL should present its own candidate in the first round with a transitional program comprised of measures capable of attending to the most profound interests of the working class.

Achieving this aim will require attacking the interests of the millionaires, the large multinational corporations and big Brazilian capitalists in order to genuinely redistribute the wealth. This means basic measures, such as raising taxes on profits and dividends and taxing large fortunes.

We know that the capitalist class is strongly opposed to this. It will not accept state investment in policies that help the country develop through improvements in the living conditions of workers and the construction of an internal market in which wealth is generated via means that do not rely on the super-exploitation of the working class or relegate the country to a dependency on exporting commodities to the world market.

We have proposed federal deputy Glauber Braga as PSOL’s candidate. Another wing of the PSOL believes we should support Lula in the first round. Unfortunately, they are the majority.

We also do not believe it is a certainty that Bolsonaro will make it through to the second round, precisely because his popularity is so low.

If Bolsonaro makes it to the second round, then Lula would absolutely count on our support to defeat him. But we believe elections are an opportune moment to present our party’s program, and that a party that does not present its program in an electoral contest will have great difficulty developing.

We believe that we must develop an anti-capitalist alternative in Brazil, capable of mobilising youth and workers, because the fight against capitalism is a necessity and the fight against the extreme right will not end at the elections.

Lula’s alliance with Geraldo Alckmin, a capitalist politician who governed the largest state, Sao Paulo, for almost 20 years [and has been proposed as his vice-presidential running mate], demonstrates that the PT’s project remains social liberal.

So, of course, it is right to vote for Lula against Bolsonaro. But not presenting ones’ own candidate in the first round would represent a capitulation.

What impact do you think recent progressive victories in Chile and Peru might have on the elections? How do you see the general situation for the left in the region? 

Gabriel Boric’s victory in Chile was fundamental because his opponent was [former dictator Augusto] Pinochet’s heir. Boric’s victory was ultimately due to the protests and rebellion of recent years in Chile.

At the same time, and as a reaction to this rebellion, an extreme right has emerged in Chile that almost won. It failed to win because, in the second round, millions of people felt the need to ensure the extreme right’s defeat.

Pedro Castillo’s victory in Peru was also an expression of a longer process in the country. As a teacher who emerged on the political scene in 2017 as the leader of a very important teachers strike, Castillo’s victory came by surprise.

His discourse was very left-wing, challenging mining companies and multinationals and the predatory, extractivist program implemented in Peru for their benefit.

The processes in Chile and Peru are part of a new wave of the left in Latin America that is seeking out alternatives to capitalism, to neoliberalism. This new wave had its starting point in Bolivia.

At the time, the 2019 coup against former Bolivian president Evo Morales appeared to represent a key turning point for the extreme right and for the return of neoliberalism.

However, the coup was ultimately defeated and a leader of the Movement Towards Socialism was elected president after a period of very intense resistance in the streets. 

Bolivia was the start of this new wave, which now faces the challenge of developing a program for Latin American integration, in which these experiences can feed off each other and potentially pursue a common economic policy.

If Lula wins in Brazil, the challenge we will face is making sure he does not act as he did previously. During the previous left wave in Latin America, the Brazilian government acted like a firefighter, attempting to extinguish the processes of mobilisations rather than pursuing genuine Latin American integration.

It sought advantages for Brazilian capital in these countries rather than a policy of integration in which the state used its resources to construct a common Latin American internal market and achieve true independence.

This will be a challenge because it appears as though no lessons have been learnt from that previous experience; instead, we see the continuous pursuit of negotiations and collaboration with sections of the capitalist class that have no interest in regional independence.

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