Brazil: tsunami against education cuts shows Bolsonaro government can be brought down

15 May saw a tsunami of demonstrators come out against education cuts and counter-reforms to pensions in Brazil. More than 1.5 million hit the streets of over 200 cities across the country during the national education strike against the latest measures of the Bolsonaro government, which include a 30 percent cut to university budgets. Despite its bravado, the government is weak and divided. The slogan “Fora Bolsonaro” (Bolsonaro Out) resonated widely. Certainly, Brazil is not in the throes of fascism. Far from it. It is now time to prepare a general strike to bring this government down.

The national education strike, called by the National Confederation of Education Unions (CNTE), the National Union of Students (UNE) and many other organisations of teachers, non-teaching staff and students, was a direct response to the provocative actions of education minister Abraham Weintraub, who announced the university budget cuts, as well as a complete freeze in research grants for graduate students. This was not just a case of a reactionary government carrying out education cuts, which would be bad enough. Weintraub belongs to the olavista wing of the Bolsonaro government, made up of those who support the former disgraced astrologist turned YouTube influencer, Olavo de Carvalho.

Weintraub, who was only appointed at the beginning of April, has presented his attacks on state education as part of a war against “cultural Marxism” in the universities, and made endless provocative statements against teachers, students and the state education system in general. He started by announcing he would cut the budget of three universities, the University of Brasília (UnB), the Federal Fluminense University (UFF) and the Bahia Federal University (UFBA), which he accused of “not being up to standards” and of using resources to organise “silly events and pandemonium”. A few days later, it became clear that the 30 percent cut affected the whole of the education sector.

A wave of outrage

This triggered a wave of outrage amongst students, lecturers, researchers and others. There were mass assemblies, and already on 8 May there were massive demonstrations in the most-affected universities. 15,000 lecturers and students marched at the UFF in Rio de Janeiro. The mood was very angry and spreading to ever-wider layers. That set the stage for the massive outpour on 15 May.

According to the National Union of Students (UNE), the total number at the demonstrations was 1.5 million. There were huge demonstrations in Brasilia (50,000), Fortaleza in the North East (100,000), Belo Horizonte in the South-Eastern state of Minas Gerais (where the bourgeois media put the figure at 250,000) as well as in Sao Paulo (250,000) and Rio de Janeiro (over 200,000). The movement had a real national spread, covering the 26 states of Brazil.

As an indication of the problems the Bolsonaro government faces in getting its policies through, Weintraub was forced to appear before a control session in parliament. Amongst those who voted for the control session were some parties that support the government. At the session, which took place on the day of the strike, Weintraub attempted to play down the scope of the cuts, explaining that in reality, they amounted to “only 3.5 chocolates out of 100”. In fact he was talking of the overall budget, rather than the discretionary budget that he has direct control over, which is indeed being cut by 30 percent. During the day, there was confusion as to whether the government had been forced to make a concession, with some members of parliament saying the minister had withdrawn the cuts. In the end, Weintraub said he had convinced Bolsonaro to maintain the cuts. Meanwhile, vice-president Mourao, who is the acting president while Bolsonaro is on an official visit to the US, said that the government had “failed” in explaining the cuts in education, revealing once again the deep rifts that criss-cross the government, mainly between the olavistas and the generals, including Mourao.

In its usual style, Bolsonaro from the US added fuel to the fire by describing the protesters as “useful idiots”:

“It is natural [that there are protests], most of them are militants. There's nothing in their head. If you ask them how much is seven times eight, they do not know. If you ask them the formula of water, they do not know, they don’t know anything. They are useful idiots, imbeciles, who are being used as the maneuvering mass of a smart little minority that makes up the nucleus of many federal universities in Brazil."

The Folha de Sao Paulo carried an article quoting from sources within the military saying that Bolsonaro’s tactics were reckless. “Instead of explaining the cuts in terms of the budgetary needs… Bolsonaro prefered to use the cuts as an ideological weapon against the ideological domination of the academic world,” complained another article in the Folha, which pointed out that the mobilisation had gone beyond the layers directly involved in the unions and the left, with the participation of “many middle-class students, many of whose parents certainly voted Bolsonaro”.

Fora Bolsonaro Image fair useBolsonaro's education cuts have unleashed a massive wave of protest, and his reckless insults towards the protesters have only poured fuel on the flames / Image: fair use

What the most astute sectors of the Brazilian capitalist class are warning is that Bolsonaro’s brazen tactics threaten to create a “proliferation of demonstrations.” This is “precisely at the time when the focus should be on the pensions reform”, so complained “sources within the Ministry of Defense” to the Folha.

Another bourgeois commentator, Helio Gurovitz, described Bolsonaro’s attacks as a big mistake and warned on the website of the right-wing Globo media group: “Treating the issue as an ideological clash, as the government has done from the outset, shows only ignorance. Added to Bolsonaro's ineptitude for politics, he could seal a fatal sentence for his government.”

Failures of Brazilian ‘left’

The scope of the mobilisation on 15 May surprised all bourgeois commentators. The Folha de Sao Paulo, one of the main mouthpieces of the capitalist class, headlined: “The streets surprise the political world again”. Equally stunned were all those in the left who had described Bolsonaro’s election victory in October as the arrival of fascism. They wrongly interpreted the vote for Bolsonaro as a shift to the right in society, with millions endorsing his reactionary demagogy. They utterly failed to understand the meaning of that election.

Yes, there is no doubt, Bolsonaro is a disgusting reactionary demagogue and his stated views are abhorrent. The fact that he has been elected means that fascist gangs and the state apparatus now feel they can act with even more impunity than before. But his election does not mean that an overwhelming majority of Brazilian society supports him and all of his views, and he certainly has not been able to build an organised mass movement he can use against the working class and the left.

First of all, a large part of his vote was on an anti-establishment basis: a vote against corruption, against insecurity and crime, against the “democratic” system, which offers millions of Brazilians very little. Of course, this anti-establishment vote has been captured by a reactionary demagogue and that is mainly the responsibility of successive PT governments, which carried out, in the main, the policies required by the ruling class, and in coalition with one of the main capitalist parties. In the face of an anti-establishment surge, the PT decided to fight back with empty appeals to the “unity of all democrats” (that is, the capitalist parties) and to “defend democracy” (that is, the status quo that the people had already rejected).

Secondly, Bolsonaro received 57 million votes in the second round, 39 percent of all registered voters. The PT candidate, Haddad received 47 million, 31 percent of the electorate. But to this we have to add 43 million who either abstained, voted blank or spoilt their ballots, a significant 29 percent in a country where voting is compulsory. The main trend in the election was the rejection of the whole of the political system.

Fora Bolsonaro Image Liberdade e LutaThe scope of the mobilisation on 15 May surprised all bourgeois commentators, not to mention the leadership of the Brazilian 'left' / Image: Liberdade e Luta

We explained at the time that the Brazilian working class had not been defeated, its forces were intact and that as soon as the government started to implement its economic programme, represented by Chicago-educated finance minister Paulo Guedes, it would be faced by massive resistance. This is what we are starting to see now.

This government is barely five months old and, as well as being riddled by open internal conflict and contradictions between its wings (Bolsonaro and the olavistas, the generals and Guedes), and being marred by corruption scandals, it has already conjured an unprecedented mass movement against it. Quite a feat.

Recent opinion polls show that the government that has suffered the biggest fall in popularity at this point of its mandate since the Collor government in the 1990s, which was removed by a mass movement. In January, just as it took office, 40 percent of the people considered the government “good or excellent”, while only 20 percent said it was “bad or appalling”. The most recent poll, carried out at the beginning of May, before the beginning of the current movement, showed that approval for the government had fallen to 35 percent while disapproval had increased to 31 percent.

Even more interesting was the fact that a majority (51 to 44) now reject the pension counter-reform, the key policy the ruling class needs to get from this government and which, of course, was not highlighted during the election campaign.

The education strike on 15 May also included amongst its demands opposition to the pension counter-reform, which will mean workers having to pay higher contributions and having to work longer to get the same pensions as before, which will have a major impact particularly on public-sector workers. This question promises to be a key battle for this government and it is not clear it will be able to get it passed.

Fora Bolsonaro 2 Image fair useThe Brazilian working class has not been defeated, its forces are intact, and now that the government is starting to implement its economic programme, it is beginning to face massive resistance / Image: fair use

The problem with those who drew very pessimistic conclusions from the election of Bolsonaro is that their wrong analysis then prevented them from understanding the real mood that was building up. When I attended the national conference of the Esquerda Marxista (the Brazilian section of the IMT) at the end of April, one of the main debates was precisely on the question of the slogan “Fora Bolsonaro!” (Bolsonaro Out!). As the comrades pointed out: “Marxists see a qualitative change in the political situation, where class struggle is raging and social explosions are on the horizon. The base of support of this government has been melting since 1 January, and more and more workers are becoming aware of its reactionary character.”

The comrades explained how all the main tendencies in the workers’ movement and the left were against raising this slogan. The PT argued that as “Bolsonaro had been elected democratically” he should be allowed to finish his term of office! At the Sao Paulo May Day rally, the PT leader Haddad specifically spoke against raising the slogan… on constitutional grounds. Responding to shouts from the crowd of “Fora Bolsonaro” he replied: “We have to be very careful, because the Constitution establishes that impeachment must have a crime of responsibility. It cannot be a slogan. Crime of responsibility is one thing and we must be strictly faithful to the Constitution"

On the other hand, the ultra-lefts, in all of their varieties, refuse to raise this slogan on the grounds that it is “premature”, and as Bolsonaro got a majority vote by millions of people, we are “facing an offensive by neo-fascism”, etc. Scandalously, some of these groups are the same that, during the impeachment of Dilma, raised the slogan “Fora Todos Eles” (Kick Them All Out), de facto siding with the right wing, and see no problem in raising the slogan “Fora Maduro” for Venezuela, in the midst of an imperialist coup.

Fora Bolsonaro!

At the Esquerda Marxista congress, a comrade from Sao Paulo explained his experiences in the teachers’ union where he is active. While discussing mobilisations in the education sector, he raised the need to use the slogan “Fora Bolsonaro”. He was opposed by both the PT and the other left groups represented in the assembly, but when it came to the vote, almost half of the union members present voted in favour.

A comrade from a teacher’s union in Florianopolis also reported from the school where he works. He started to agitate against the pension reform. Florianopolis is in the Santa Catarina state, where Bolsonaro received over 75 percent of the vote in the second round. The comrade knew that a majority of his work colleagues had voted for him. He offered to use an online calculator to work out what would be the impact of the pension counter-reform for each of them individually. They entered a few basic facts and they got the results. Of course, in all cases they would have to pay more and retire later. As soon as they realised, they were demanding strike action!

The problem is that, instead of carrying out a serious campaign of explanation and mobilisation, the trade union leaders have been dragging their feet. At the time of the election, the leaders of the CUT boasted that they would never recognise the Bolsonaro government, as it was illegitimate. Soon they changed tack. Now their strategy for fighting the pension reform seems to be one of making appeals to members of parliament!

The pensions reform law was accepted for parliamentary discussion on 14 April. The unions then used May Day to announce a joint general strike... on June 14. The date could not be worse. It would be 45 full days later, when the parliamentary procedure would be well underway. The trade union leaders do not see the general strike as part of a plan to defeat the government through mass mobilisation to eventually bring it down, something which is completely possible given the balance of forces, but rather as a way of putting pressure on the members of parliament.

The upsurge of the movement against education cuts, which many have compared to the mass mobilisations in 2013, shows that the terrain is favourable for a mass fight to tear down the government. The concrete demands of each sector (against privatisation, against attacks on women’s rights, against cuts in education, against police and army repression, etc.) need to be unified in a joint struggle. “Fora Bolsonaro” is the slogan that crystallises that strategy, and that is why it was so popular on 15 May everywhere the comrades from the Esquerda Marxista and the Liberdade e Luta youth organisation raised it, through leaflets, placards and from the official speakers’ stages.

The UNE has already called for another national day of struggle on 30 May, and then there is the general strike against pensions counter-reform on 14 June. The stage is set for further explosions of the class struggle and political polarisation. If the trade union leaders had a clear strategy it would be possible to defeat the reactionary Bolsonaro government through mass action on the streets, posing the question: who rules the country?