How would you analyze the current situation in Brazil, and what do you consider to be the most important tasks before us in this reactionary period, featuring a government headed by extreme-right President Jair Bolsonaro?
Brazil, like the whole world, has been turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic. The situation is even more urgent in Brazil than in many parts of the world. We are one of the epicenters of the pandemic, and this is not due to natural causes. It stems from a political position, from the political indifference which the government has demonstrated.
Besides the coronavirus, Brazil is confronting Bolsonaro, who is not only directly responsible for the aggravation and intensification of the pandemic, but also for the development of an authoritarian project.
The Brazilian left, and the popular sectors in Brazil, must confront the effects of the pandemic with proposals to protect people’s lives and build solidarity networks, while at the same time meeting the authoritarian threat head on.
Bolsonaro, or more to the point, Bolsonarism is following a twisted logic with respect to the pandemic. We might say that we are dealing with the mathematics of death. It was predictable, based on real-life information, that the impact of the pandemic would be devastating if adequate safety measures were not taken.
I believe they made a conscious calculation, macabre but conscious, to say “let it run its course,” and then concentrated on “protecting” employment in order to present themselves as “guardians” of the economy, as those who wanted to prevent the economy from coming to a halt, as the supposed defenders of the people’s interests, of all those people who could not quarantine or isolate themselves.
Basing themselves on this fallacy, they made the following calculation: how many people are going to die? A hundred thousand? Two hundred thousand? Three hundred thousand? The difference was not so important for them. What was the impact of these deaths? How many loved ones did each of these casualties leave behind? I believe that they made exactly these kinds of cold mathematical calculations, the mathematics of horror.
Assuming that every person has ten loved ones, if three hundred thousand people die (a tragedy that would represent the greatest human disaster in Brazilian history), then we are talking about three million directly affected people, or a little more than 1 percent of our population.
On the other hand, unemployment, leading to the deterioration of living conditions, might affect thirty, or forty, or fifty million people. I think the calculation they made was exactly this: “What does it matter how many die?” While at the same time they decided to present themselves as the “guardians” of the economy.
Bolsonaro’s logic, combined with emergency aid to the population – which itself was not included in the government’s calculations and was in reality the fruit of opposition within the National Congress – has brought about a certain increase in his popularity precisely at the moment in which the pandemic is spinning out of control, at a moment in which there is no strategy to fight it, precisely at the moment when we are surpassing a hundred thousand deaths.
All this shows that, despite this strategy being a disaster from the point of view of humanity, from a pragmatic point of view, it had a certain impact. This was the calculation that they made.
I think our main task as the Brazilian left is to defeat Bolsonarism, to interrupt an ongoing genocide, and put an end to his authoritarian project. These are our tasks. The question is, how do we accomplish them?
By building unified spaces and trying to construct connections and fronts that isolate Bolsonaro, that weaken Bolsonarism by creating the conditions to disrupt the ongoing process of destruction. This might be through impeachment, disqualifying him as a candidate, or through the advance of popular mobilizations. This is the most important thing.
Moreover, the Left must be able to reinsert itself in the popular process, so that it can be seen as a credible alternative by the people. To do so, it must present a clear project linked to popular demands, that points to a new cycle that takes as its starting point the defeat of Bolsonarism, but also points to where we want to go.
The pandemic clearly demonstrated collapse of the neoliberal logic that has been hegemonic at a global level for more than forty years. How has the market, conceived of as a guiding light for society, responded to the pandemic? It has speculated on respirators, increased the prices for hospitalizations. This is the market’s logic: it places profits above human life.
In São Paulo, mortality among the black population is 63 percent greater [than the population as a whole], and it’s similar in the United States. The twenty neighborhoods in which the greatest number of people have died in São Paulo are concentrated on the periphery of the city, aligning with a pattern we have seen all over the world.
Inequality and segregation have once again been exposed as traits common to capitalism. Principles of solidarity are destroyed, and people are abandoned to the logic of “save yourself if you can.” All this raises the possibility, the opportunity, of discussing a different model of development. This opportunity can be taken advantage of, or it can be lost.
You touched on the theme of the politics of death. These policies are directed, especially, against black populations, women, oppressed people in general, indigenous people, the colonized people of the world, and, chiefly, “non-white” populations. Does the Left have to, among other tasks, update its vision of constructing a political project?
Without a doubt. But this has been considered before the current situation, no? If we’re talking about Brazil, we are speaking about a country that has lived the majority of its history as a colony, whose people have been enslaved for the majority of their history. We are talking about a country in which the marks of social inequality cannot be reduced to income or inheritance.
The marks of social inequality reside, principally, in the racial division of society, which is what defined and characterized slavery as a mode of production in this country, and they continue to express themselves today in the division of people who are considered “citizens” and who are considered “peripheral” in Brazil.
We must also deal with the marks that have been left by genocide against indigenous peoples, those left by sexism and violence against women. Clearly, we recently witnessed a revealing episode with respect to the latter: a case involving the rape of a ten-year-old girl. These marks are the expression of the whole breeding ground of Brazilian history.
I believe there is no way to construct a left project in Brazil that does not include a project of reparation. If one pays attention to transitions, how they have taken place, historically, in Brazil, several things become clear. The abolition of slavery was an incomplete abolition, a transition managed from above, one that maintained the black population as subaltern subjects in society and one that sustained structural racism.
Or we look at another more recent “transition”: the end of the military dictatorship and so-called “re-democratization.” This was a process that was carried out without any kind of historical reparations for the crimes of the dictatorship. Again, it was a transition managed from above, ending in a sweeping agreement whose construction and definition excluded the people. It was an incomplete re-democratization. All of these processes have left their marks.
Drawing an analogy with psychoanalysis, this is what Freud calls “the past which is not complete.” This is something that exists in our unconsciousness that, instead of elaborating, we repress. And by repressing it, this repression always returns as a symptom, as a dream, returning to our lives every hour. Brazil suffers from profound historical repressions. The historical repression of slavery; it was not overcome, there was no reparation. The historical repression of the dictatorship; it was not overcome, there was no reparation.
We might even say that this is what has inculcated us to a racism so brutal that the president of the Republic is a man who defends torture. This would be inconceivable in a country that had made historical reparations for the crimes of the dictatorship. This would be inconceivable in a country that had made historical reparations for slavery. All of this is to simply point out just two transitions that have left import marks on our history.
Thus, any project designed to fight inequality, and any anticapitalist project in Brazil, must be a decolonizing project. It must be, by definition, an anti-racist project. And, it must also be, by definition, be a project that deepens democracy and popular participation and is consequently anti-authoritarian. I believe the marks of our history, which all of us carry, place before us the urgency for a transformational project for our country.
How do you see the movements among sectors of the Right which are trying to distance themselves from Bolsonaro, but at the same time support his project?
Our main task is to work to isolate, to the greatest extent possible, Bolsonarism at a social level. This means that we look favorably on those sectors of the old Brazilian right wing who are recoiling and putting some distance between themselves and Bolsonarism. Of course, this does not imply that we have any confidence in these sectors, given that we know who they are and what they represent.
Yet it is preferable that these sectors de-link themselves from the Bolsonarist bloc, further isolating those who remain close to him. It is enough to see how Bolsonaro’s coalition with the centrist parties in Congress ended up strengthening his government, which was on the ropes in early summer. It is much better for us that the center opposes Bolsonaro rather than supports him.
Taking this into account, from a practical point of view, raises the possibility of an impeachment process. This is important, and it should lead to political initiatives on our part. We must create political initiatives which concretize some kind of anti-Bolsonarist expression in defense of democracy, against authoritarianism, against fascism, around which anyone who supports this banner may congregate.
I would not call this a “front,” a term that has generated a great deal of tactical confusion on the Left. “Is it a broad front? A left front? A popular front?” Perhaps calling it a front would be the most didactic way to explain it. Though this term implies a sense of a permanent, organic organization, when this is certainly not the case. But I think it’s important to have spaces in defense of democracy that are broad and plural in order to isolate Bolsonarism.
On the other hand, we must understand these sectors’ limitations. They are not going to fight Bolsonaro to the final consequences. The clearest expression of this development on the traditional right, of the relationship these sectors have with Bolsonaroism, is the fact that Rodrigo Maia (president of the Chamber of Deputies) has received more than thirty requests for impeachment. But these sectors are not really against Bolsonaro’s project. They believe that Bolsonaro’s project is fine, that the only problem is that Bolsonaro is prone to outbursts, that he is too eccentric, that he talks a lot. These are the kinds of specific differences they have with Bolsonarism.
Other times, their differences have to do with personal, political-personal, or political-partisan projects, as in the case of João Doria, the current governor of the state of São Paulo, drawing close to Bolsonaro when his electoral capital was useful, but later attacking Bolsonaro when he needed to disassociate himself in order to build up his own presidential aspiration ahead of the 2022 elections.
Therefore, for one part of these sectors, their opposition to Bolsonaro is pure and simple political opportunism, and for another it hangs on specific differences with Bolsonaro. They agree with his agenda, but think that it can be implemented with much greater delicacy.
Understanding the position of these sectors, without forgetting that they are our adversaries, means understanding that some may eventually play a role in isolating Bolsonarism. However, they represent another political camp, another political project — a project of retrogression, which is deeply anti-popular. That is why they must be fought.
The current municipal elections serve as an example. They will have a national relevance never before seen in Brazil. Looking at who our opponents will be here in São Paulo, the largest city in the country, it is clear that Bolsonarism will be our main opponent, but so will the “tucanos” [the centrist Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB)]. Doria and Covas will be our opponents.
Therefore, we are faced with two different camps. We have to have the maturity to understand the difference between them and refine our tactics, especially when it comes to dealing with the traditional Brazilian right, but without losing sight of the fact that we are facing two different forces, that we have two opponents in the political struggle.
In this process, especially in the elections, how do you think PSOL should operate at the social level, both in terms of appealing to social layers dominated by the traditional left and those influenced by the discussion you referenced above with respect to differences of tone in the application of the right-wing project? What should PSOL do to position itself as a new component in the process of an alternative historical experience?
PSOL has had significant growth in its social and electoral base, although this growth has been concentrated in parliamentary representation. And if you look at the profile of that growth, you can see that it occurred, above all, among the youth, in movements and activism fighting for diversity — in the women’s movement and in the anti-racist movement. PSOL has won over dynamic sectors of society, which have genuinely identified the party as their channel for political and electoral expression. This is important, but it is insufficient to build a project capable of defeating Bolsonarism and opening a new cycle for the Left in Brazil.
To accomplish this, PSOL’s main task is to become a popular force, a force among the people. PSOL faces a historic challenge. Success depends on PSOL’s ability to carry out the task set before it today, which means merging itself with the popular masses, whether or not we have yet reached the high point of inaugurating a new cycle; promoting a new cycle for the Left in Brazil; and becoming a real alternative power. PSOL’s greatest challenge is to immerse itself in the people, without losing its dynamic capacity, or its capacity for dialogue with the vanguard sectors of the Brazilian social struggle. PSOL must achieve greater insertion into popular life.
I don’t think it is a question, in general, of reinventing the wheel. It is clear that the world has changed, the way people communicate has changed. We don’t use mimeographs, now it’s WhatsApp. The forms of communication are different, yet people always have a certain idea when talking, for example, about grassroots work.
For instance, they think of the CEBs [Base Ecclesial Communities, which were central to organizing influenced by liberation theology] of the 1980s, which would be like the original wheel in our story. But something has changed and that must be understood. What does it mean today, for example, to influence consciousness on social media? What can we learn from techniques (even those used by the far right) to expand the social diffusion of our message through WhatsApp? The Right uses it to circulate fake news, but this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.
Alternatively, some things remain the same, and we get beaten when we forget them. I say “we” here in reference to the progressive project as a whole, the left project that has become disconnected from the people on the periphery, that has abandoned building networks of contacts and solidarity, that has lost its presence.
The question is: for a woman who lives in the Paraisópolis favela, here in São Paulo, whose gas has run out, and whose son was killed by the police — who is she going to turn to? Will she turn to the Left or her local pastor? That is the question.
We have to deepen our insertion into the urban periphery, especially in Brazil, to become a daily reference for the people, to rebuild a bond of trust and credibility. This is the space that the neo-Pentecostal churches have progressively occupied — some of them, not all, becoming instruments for a backward and conservative political project. This is a space that the Left, the social movements, and the political parties have left empty.
PSOL has the paramount historical task of re-occupying that space. This will take time. We are not talking about a project to be completed in the next elections. However, in the meantime, we can win electoral victories because electoral dynamics depend on other factors. But it must be kept in mind that if we do not undertake this task, we will not have historic victories. We can and must work assiduously to win elections.
Our approach cannot be mechanical: first build grassroots work among the people, then contest the elections. Life doesn’t work that way. Besides, elections, if we use them as a time to fight for our principles, can also be understood as a form of grassroots work and popular base building. But this has to be accompanied by ongoing work. You cannot alternate between ideological contestation and grassroots work every four years, because this will only contribute to the loss of credibility with the people.
In this sense, there are two fundamental points involved in this debate: on the one hand, a new type of relationship is at stake with organized social movements and, on the other hand, in a country like Brazil — although not exclusively, since perhaps this is the case throughout Latin America — both a relationship and a response to the space that the churches are occupying (particularly the churches more closely linked to a fundamentalist perspective and the preservation of the established order) is needed.
I think we have to overcome the stigma that the Left has instilled on evangelicals. A part of the Left, which in some cases has become elitist, has the idea that evangelical people are ignorant and are nothing more than objects to be manipulated by the Right. Life is much more complex.
I have participated in a social movement for more than twenty years whose base is predominantly evangelical. And there are evangelicals who participate in land occupations to fight for housing, who block roads, who occupy city halls, and who march to Brasilia.
Many evangelical leaders, oftentimes women, see their own project as more linked to the traditions of the Left.
PSOL even has evangelical leaders. Pastor Henrique Vieira is one of the best known.
And there are many evangelical women who play leadership roles in the MTST and other popular movements.
They are leaders. Women who occupy land, who organize whole regions, who create political nuclei, and they are evangelicals. We must drop this stigma because it leads to a certain distancing.
The other day I was talking to a pastor in a live interview. He is an interesting figure. He said to me, “Look, this posture on the Left of ‘don’t get close, he’s an evangelical, look away,’ generates a reciprocal attitude, no? It strengthens the reciprocal attitude the evangelicals hold toward the Left.” This generates a gap that is very difficult to overcome.
This does not mean constructing a religious dialogue. It means, first of all, building a dialogue based on “being present” at the grassroots level. What the evangelical churches have done was what the Catholic Church did in the eighties with its Base Ecclesial Communities.
So our main duty is to be in those territories, to become a reference point, to build solidarity networks. This is the popular element that the evangelical churches are mainly expressing today.
The other issue at stake is a debate over principles, but it is a frequently neglected debate. The worst the Left can do is face off with evangelical people over their slogans, especially on the issues that we know are very sensitive to the morality of these people.
I am not talking about taking down our banners or retreating backward. Rather, we must know how to argue. We can’t argue in an offensive way, in disrespectful ways. We have to know how to talk to people and understand what their own understanding is, their own conception and awareness about these issues.
We have a long ways to go. We tend to have a very self-proclamatory line, even (though it is sometimes necessary given the importance of some issues). For instance, take the LGBT issue: every day, an LGBT person dies as a victim of violence. Or the issue of abortion, which is now back on the table after the rape case of the ten-year-old girl. Our impulse is to adopt an extremely aggressive discourse. But we have to know how to contain this impulse. Because if we don’t, we are simply giving the reactionary pastors a stick with which to beat us.
It is essential to be able to have this kind of debate. Knowing how to approach a debate, for example, about “entrepreneurial spirit.” This idea has had a deep impact on evangelical people. What is our response in relation to the issue of individual initiative, which is an issue that evangelical ethics — what they call prosperity theology — presents as a solution for people and that today is a hegemonic sentiment among people living the periphery? Are we just going to ignore it?
It’s a sentiment that has a whole history, which was strengthened when the majority of the population was forced to bow before it, from slaves who bought their freedom with what they earned to the population as a whole, which today is abandoned to their own luck.
Right! The “entrepreneurial spirit” is a “pretty” name they use to talk about precarious work, for the self-initiative that the Brazilian people display on a daily basis. The formal labor market was never completely dominant among the Brazilian people. There were always the same mass of “precarious” laborers that we see today, the guy who works on his own, who manages to get by, who works for Uber today, who works as an app motorbike deliveryman. This type has always existed, in different ways, in Brazil.
We need to be able to respond to this. Our response cannot be limited to defending formal work contracts for everyone. Obviously, we have to defend the formalization of work, the guarantee of rights, and the guarantee of access to pensions. Those are historical gains critical for combating inequality and for defending workers.
But we also have to know how to dialogue with individual initiatives, from the woman who sells cakes at the entrance to the Capão Redondo metro at six in the morning to the young man who wants to found a startup, or any other project of this sort. We have to put forward proposals that include these people. And this will be closely connected to our ability to dialogue with the evangelical base, a base that is very widespread in the peripheral neighborhoods today.
In addition to what you already mentioned about the abandonment of a social base by the Left that was then forced to seek other alternatives, what do you think are the main mistakes of the Left across the continent today? And what were the main limitations that we have faced over the last thirty years?
On a daily level, I point to three big limitations of the progressive experience. I’m not talking about all of Latin America, because it’s a heterogeneous picture. It’s not possible to speak of Chavismo in Venezuela in the same breath as Lulismo in Brazil, or to compare Correa in Ecuador with Argentina. Each has its own historical peculiarities.
But despite these distinctions, it is possible to put the experience of the progressive cycle of the first decade of the twenty-first century in Latin America in the same bag. That said, I am going to talk mostly about Brazil.
In the first place, one important limitation of the Workers’ Party governments was their opting for a program of social improvements, programs aimed at reducing poverty, without proposing structural reforms. This is what we call a “conciliationist strategy,” one which consists of saying, “we are going to create the Bolsa Familia, a social program, to get more people into universities, to increase social spending, to improve people’s lives.” But do all this without challenging the historical privileges of the dominant sectors in any way, without carrying out a tax reform, or a reform of the financial system, without fighting against the banks’ destructive influence, or reorganizing the Brazilian state, which favors the concentration of wealth rather than its redistribution. In short, we must consider a whole set of reforms essential to combating historical privileges, to advancing historical reparations.
A second important limit was the absence of a fight over principles at the social level. As former Uruguayan president José Mujica says, referring to the Latin American cycle as a whole, “We did not create citizens, we created consumers.” In other words, we strengthened the logic of consumption, the ability to buy a car, as a stand-in for victory, for a prosperous life, without challenging the principles or the model. Today we are paying the price for this with a society based on horror.
A significant number of people whose lives improved during the PT [Pink Tide] governments voted for Bolsonaro, and today they are part of Bolsonarism’s social base. There was never a fight that asks: Will it be “save yourself if you can” or will it be “solidarity”?
What kind of development model do we want? The idea of raising the poorest people’s income, and of guaranteeing economic growth as the ultimate goal, without questioning the overall project, questioning its principles, questioning the social model, led us to where we are today.
Thirdly, there is the problem of not having made progress in democratizating society. The PT governments themselves were victims of this. They were hostage to this policy when they naturalized the idea that governance meant nothing more than having a parliamentary majority, using the same traditional methods by which a parliamentary majority was always achieved in Brazil. Thus they suffered a setback in 2016 [when PT president Dilma Rousseff was impeached] at the time when they were at their weakest and they had lost that parliamentary majority.
The construction of participatory processes was lacking, the democratization of power in Brazil was lacking, the PT governments failed to open space to govern together with social movements, to strengthen mobilizing processes within society, which may be decisive in some cases.
They might be decisive, for example, in forcing the National Congress to relinquish its privileges. Nobody denies the real correlation of forces, nobody denies that the Left never had a majority in Congress [despite electing Lula and Rousseff to the presidency] and that it needed Congress for many things.
But the ability to govern does not end with “give and take.” This is not the only way to govern a country. Stimulating popular and social mobilization can change the relationship of forces. In Congress, each deputy’s only goal is to be reelected four years later. If the right conditions are constructed and created in society — and having executive power is essential for this — space can be opened for deeper transformations.
What are the broad outlines critical to facing today’s situation and advancing the prospects for a new cycle of reorganization and rearticulation for the Left, both in Brazil and in Latin America?
In a way, we have been talking about this the whole time. One very important axis is to emphasize the fight against the extreme right. The far right isn’t confined to Brazil. It became a significant political phenomenon throughout Latin America and all around the world. One of our objectives is to develop a line and a unifying tactic that will strengthen the fight against the extreme right.
Secondly, we need programmatic clarity so as not to repeat the mistakes from the previous cycle. This implies a program based on the fight against financial capital, on understanding the importance of turning the state into an instrument of distribution, of fighting inequality; a program that understands that the fight against inequality does not end with raising income.
It is about combating the different forms of inequality and oppression that confront society, which implies raising a forthrightly anti-racist, anti-sexist program that values diversity and opens up space for native peoples.
We have to be able to chart a new developmental model. Today, Brazil has established itself on the world stage as “China’s farm.” Indeed, all of Latin America is in this position, due to a process of reprioritizing the production of primary commodities implemented on the basis of the extractivist model dominated by rapacious agribusiness that poisons food and destroys the rivers, mountains, and the peoples that inhabit in them. In addition to combating social inequality in a comprehensive way, it is essential to place another development model on the table, one that presents alternatives to environmental destruction.
The decolonization of the commons is likewise important. This issue has gained a lot of force in the wake of the pandemic, and we have to find a way to transform it into a program, into a political proposal.
For example, let’s take health: when we defended the Unified Health System [SUS] in Brazil before the pandemic, they treated us like dinosaurs. Suddenly, the SUS became a national consensus — health professionals, who were branded as “vagabonds, privileged, parasites,” have become national heroes. This opens a space for us to argue that health care is not a commodity, and neither are education, water, or land. Instead, they are essential common goods. This recovery of the public, this recovery of the common, has to be an important axis in any program for the Left that points to the future.
Finally, there is a connection with the people. We’ve already talked about this. The Left will only be able to really promote a new cycle if it relies on the masses, on the people, if it has the ability to speak with the people, to dialogue with the people, and to stand alongside them.
In this scenario, defined by the greatest pandemic of the century, what place do municipal elections have? And what place does your candidacy have, which is the result of a social movement that gained strength over the last period?
The challenge we face in the São Paulo elections, in addition to the obvious one — defeating Bolsonarism, the “tucanos,” and the political project that sees the city as nothing more than a business — is to show that there is an alternative. That this alternative is real, even in the midst of a devastating scenario like the one in which we are living, with more than a hundred thousand dead, with Bolsonaro in government, with an economic crisis looming that will force our people into a very difficult situation. Even in this scenario, it is possible to build a new project for society.
São Paulo is the largest city in Brazil, and what happens here resonates throughout the country. And if we defeat Bolsonarism in São Paulo and, in addition to that, we construct a project that inspires hope, that places the periphery in the center, that makes the fight against inequality the central axis of a popular government, that shows that this is possible (even if it is at the municipal level with all the limits that this implies), then it will be possible to begin Bolsonarism’s defeat here and promote a new cycle for the Left.
That is why I do not believe that these elections are simply municipal. We clearly face the challenge of thinking about a citywide project. São Paulo is one of the most unequal cities on the planet. In just twenty-five kilometers across the Jardines neighborhood from Cidade Tiradentes, the life expectancy of people drops from eighty to fifty-six years. In the twenty kilometers that separate Moema or Higienópolis from Jardim Ângela, the Human Development Index drops from being equivalent to that of Sweden to being equivalent to that of the poorest countries in the world. Two worlds exist in the same city.
That is why a project that fights inequality in São Paulo, that enjoys broad popular participation, that inverts priorities, that places the periphery in the center, can become an example of what we want for Brazil. And beyond this, it can be an example of what is possible to achieve in Brazil. This concrete utopia is what we can build and show under a popular government in São Paulo. I think this will be our challenge in the campaign and in our prospective government.