Miguel Mendez – Chicago, IL (USA)
Ten years ago, Brazil was swept by the biggest and widest uprising in the country’s history. This took place amidst the tide of social upheavals in many other parts of the planet (such as the “Arab Spring”, “Occupy Wall Street” in the US, “Los Indignados” in Spain etc), organised through social media and networks and without a clear leadership from the traditional left and trade union organizations. The mobilisations were sparked by the deterioration of the living conditions of the working class and the youth, the cost of urban transport, the crisis of public education and health system caused by austerity and neoliberal policies, etc.
However, ten years later, the June uprising is not being celebrated by many sections of the Brazilian left movement. Many of them –especially the ones supporting class conciliation governments– created a narrative according to which June 2013 was the root cause of a right-wing offensive that generated a coup d’ état against the PT government three years later and, furthermore, provoked the rising of Bolsonaro and the far right.
In this article, we will explain why this false narrative is nothing more than a hoax to justify their support and participation in the present PT government, and why the June 2013 memory must be celebrated. More than that, drawing the lessons learned in that process, Brazil needs a deeper and stronger “June” in the future.
2013: 10 years of PT government and the end of a cycle
The traditional (centre-) left party in Brazil, the PT (Workers’ Party), was launched in the early 1980s, during the transition from the military dictatorship to the country’s re-democratization. Throughout the 1980s, PT was a growing left-wing party, connected to the trade unions and social movements (rural workers, oppressed layers, students). Through the 1990s, PT initiated a shift to the centre, having become part of city and state governments in broad coalitions. And in the early 2000s, PT won the presidential elections after having launched a manifesto pledging to keep the foundations of the neoliberal agenda (albeit with “social concerns”) in Brazil.
Lula da Silva, former trade-unionist and lifelong PT leader, was inaugurated as Brazilian President in January 2003. The global commodities boom, when the prices of commodities (oil, minerals) steadily increased due to the growing demand from emerging markets and particularly China, had a significant impact on the Brazilian economy. It allowed Lula to adopt policies that –even though not making structural changes in society– reduced poverty and increased social investments. This boosted the popularity of PT and the government, and Lula was re-elected in 2006. His successor Dilma Rousseff also won the elections in 2010.
The application of these policies doesn’t mean that Brazil had a workers’ or even a proper left-wing government during those years. The government was a PT-led coalition with other bourgeois (and even right-wing) parties, refusing to implement policies that challenged the status quo.
When a neoliberal pension reform was launched, and a number of Congress representatives voted against it, they were expelled from the PT (and proceeded to create the left-wing party PSOL). Lula used to boast that, under his government, “the rich made money as never before”, while he was able to deploy welfare assistance and social inclusion programs.
Brazil was also appearing to gain momentum on the international scene. Lula was called “the most popular politician on Earth” by Barack Obama (the US President at the time); the country ranked 6th in the world in GDP terms; and it secured the hosting of two major global sport events: the FIFA 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The overall propaganda of PT’s government was based on that claim: continuous growth to become a Europe-US like economy in a class collaboration model where the working class and the bourgeoise would thrive together. But that story was, obviously, nothing more than an illusion.
That growth economic cycle reached its limit and came to an end. The commodity boom lost momentum in the global economy, especially after the 2008-9 crisis, and that was reflected in Brazil. The working class, particularly its most deprived layers, were the first ones to notice the impact.
The cost of living was soaring in most of the Brazilian cities, especially the ones directly involved in the global events. The average rental costs in Sao Paulo, for example, nearly tripled in a couple of years. The household indebtment rate was very high. There were huge amounts spent on the infrastructure required by FIFA and the IOC (and its associated corruption scandals), in contrast to the lack of social investments in public schools and hospitals. The expectation of a brighter future for everyone in a shiny new country began to be challenged by large sections of the working class and the youth.
An uprising starting from people’s, youth’s and the working class’ demands
The beginning of 2013 was marked by struggles in many cities, most of them around the cost of public transportation. In some cases, as in Porto Alegre, local governments had authorised bus fares hikes, and the students (and other youth movements) took to the streets against this. Despite the fierce repression, the struggles went on, and were important although not that massive.
In June, the same happened in Sao Paulo, the biggest and most important Brazilian city. The mayor at that time was PT’s Fernando Haddad (who is currently Minister of Finance). There were students’ demonstrations, organised by MPL, a social movement fighting mainly against the public transportation high costs. Again, there was fierce repression by the Police, which is controlled by the State Government. The Governor then was Geraldo Alckmin, currently the Brazilian Vice President. Both the mayor and the governor went to the mainstream media defending the fare increase and the police actions.
But, instead of intimidating and stopping the protests, that was the spark for the biggest upheaval in Brazilian history.
The demonstrations became increasingly bigger, more frequent, and spread throughout the whole country. The agenda also became much wider. The most frequently used slogans were “this isn’t only for the 20 cents”, and “we demand hospitals and schools on FIFA standards”, showing very clearly the profile of the mobilisations.
At the end of June, there were daily demonstrations all over the country. And on June 21st, millions of Brazilians took the streets in more than 100 cities, in very radicalised demonstrations clashing with the police, setting fire on police cars and attacking public buildings.
The mainstream media shifted from ignoring and condemning the demonstrations, to providing verbal support them, trying to isolate the “radical and violent groups” – in an attempt to impose their own agenda. Right wing groups joined the demonstrations, aiming to take advantage of the general disappointment with PT which was in government. There were physical confrontations between left- and right-wing groups, and large reactionary sections of the middle class took to the streets with their own slogans, but none of those got even close to determining the revolt’s general profile, which was clearly very much positive and popular.
The upheaval and the government reaction
The then President Roussef, after the massive nationwide demonstrations, initially called for a Constituent Assembly, only to withdraw the idea one day later because of the pressure by her coalition. Then, she invited several people and groups who were playing different roles in the leadership of the movement, including trade-unionists, influencers, social movement representatives, etc, to put together a plan to extinguish the fire.
In addition to that, a huge repression operation was put in place by the government, targeting mainly the activists and groups which were not keen to leave the streets in an attempt to curb mobilisations. There are many stories of activists imprisoned for unexplained reasons, police agents infiltrating left-wing groups, and other basic rights violations deployed to break the struggle.
Even considering this unpresented police repression operation, 2013 was the year with the highest number of strikes in Brazilian history. More than 2,000 strikes took place, most of them being wildcat strikes (built from the grassroots). From June to November, there was at least one demonstration every single day in the country.
“Electoral embezzlement”, Coup D’état and the rise of Bolsonaroism
Most of the pledges from the government, designed to let off steam, which marked the slowing down of the massive insurrection, have never been implemented. In the October 2014 Presidential elections, Roussef was re-elected (in a slate with Michel Temer as Vice President). Roussef won the first round against Aecio Neves, from the traditional right-wing bourgeois party PSDB, by a narrow margin. In the runoff, her campaign assumed a left-wing approach, motivating and inspiring large sections of workers and youth, leading to her victory.
Shortly after the elections and at the beginning of the new term, the economic crisis in Brazil’s became much worse. The PT government’s response was to install a traditional neoliberal cabinet and adopt an austerity-neoliberal agenda. That manoeuvre became known as the “electoral embezzlement” and demoralized all those who campaigned for PT’s re-election. One year later, in 2015, right-wing middle-class layers began massive demonstrations against the government, based on false corruption accusations, with the goal of impeaching the President. One of the architects of that parliamentary and judiciary coup was Dilma’s Vice President, Michel Temer, who replaced her for 2 years after the impeachment. The far-right grew and dominated those mobilisations, and ended up electing Bolsonaro in 2018, and incarcerating Lula for more than a year, based on charges already proven as false.
Lula and the new PT-led government
After a disastrous Bolsonaro term, Lula is now back at the Presidency. But he seems to be repeating, on a bigger scale, the same steps which created the “monster” that put him in jail and overtook the government not so long time ago.
Lula leads a very broad coalition together with representatives of the main bulk of the Brazilian bourgeoisie and imperialism. His Vice President is one of the main political representatives of that political current, who personally supported the coup against Dilma Roussef in 2016. Also, there are ministries in the hands of right-wing parties, and an agenda which is even less disruptive for the system than the one from PT’s previous terms.
The finance minister, Haddad, presented a clearly neoliberal budget, based on social spending cuts and austerity. And now the indigenous people are under direct attack from Congressmen, many of whom are part of the bloc that supports the government. In a way, PT sees the government highjacked by its own parliamentary bloc, imposing an agenda even worse than the government was originally announcing it would implement.
Mistakenly, the Brazilian left party PSOL supports the government and some of its members have important roles in it, which seriously compromises the organisation’s independence from this class coalition government.
And now, PT and its allies are presenting the June 2013 upheaval as the root cause for all the defeats imposed on the Left between 2015 and 2018. Blaming the June 2013 uprising for this is not only a falsification of the actual history, but is also a dishonest way to scare the working class and the youth in order to keep them demobilised.
The biggest threat to the Left is not the working class and the social movements mobilising for their own agenda, independently from the government, against any kind of austerity and the far-right. The biggest threat is to follow the same steps taken by the previous PT governments: govern with the bourgeoisie and the right-wing, engage in repression against the social movements and inflict demobilisation of the working class and the social movements. That will allow Bolsonaro –or any potential new right-wing or far-right leader replacing him– to take advantage of the people’s disillusionment with the Lula government, directing it against the Left and gaining momentum to overthrow the government from a right-wing perspective.
The Brazilian Left must defend June 2013 memory and be independent from Lula’s government
For these reasons, the celebration of the June 2013 memory should be among the main tasks of the Brazilian Left at the moment. Brazil and Latin America need more “June upheavals”, and the Left must position itself to lead those processes towards an anticapitalist agenda. As usually happens in history, huge mobilizations provoke reactionary responses – and in Latin America it couldn’t be any different. The existence of that reaction cannot be used to undermine the need to mobilise. On the contrary, the Left should intervene in these processes and movements to counter the right-wing influence and fight for their leadership.
And for that, it is imperative that the left organisations are independent from the class conciliation governments. Otherwise, a gate for political action will be widely opened for the far right. That is a lesson not only from the recent Latin American events (Chile, Peru, Brazil) – but from the class struggle throughout the last 100 years. As already said by Karl Marx, history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”.