What the Liberal Left Doesn’t Want to Hear About Brazil — Caio Gontijo

Dilma Rousseff and Hillary Clinton

Slavoj Žižek famously criticizes the sections of the Western left that voluntaristically adheres to and idealizes anything slightly resembling of a “revolution” as long as it is in some distant and not very well-known third world country. He is right. I can’t help noticing a certain condescending tone in the left when the subject is Brazil and Lula. I understand. There is probably no one more charismatic than Lula on the entire world left today. Also, the Brazilian right has no morals: they subjugated democracy in 2016 and arrested Lula without proof of his alleged crimes. In addition, a far-right Covid-genocide was elected president. All this makes Lula extraordinarily preferable. But that is not all there is to the situation. What if Lula and his neoliberal billionaire bankers-Ministers of Finance (who went on to work for Temer and Bolsonaro) like Meirelles, Levy, Palocci etc. aren’t really the only viable alternative?

What if Bernie Sanders was from Brazil?

I don’t want to single out my criticism in one person or another, but I need to illustrate what I’m criticizing with a significant example. Michael Brooks, Lula’s famous unconditional defender, interviewing Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa, compares Dilma Rousseff to Hillary Clinton and goes as far as saying that descriptions about former and latter “an exact match”: although both have several problems, they are “resilient”, with “personal courage”, and suffered “a huge amount of misogyny” [at 2:30] [1]. But Brooks then contains his comparison, in a probable internal discomfort of comparing Lula’s pick for president to the ideal-typical figure of the neoliberal Democratic establishment.

As Žižek (intentionally provocatively) constantly does, I would like to propose that we understand this comparison as some kind of slip, and that we develop Brooks’ reasoning to its ultimate consequences.

Just as President Dilma was preceded by Lula, a hypothetical President Hillary would have been preceded by Obama; both having worked in high positions of these governments. Thus, it becomes inviting to think of Lula as Obama: both coming from socially and economically excluded minorities. Both managed to reconcile a neoliberal political economy to social improvements of historical dimensions (notably more Lula than Obama). Both are prime examples of a charismatic personalization of politics – in what Marx observed under the name of Bonapartism (to please all classes at the same time, to make them feel personally thankful, as if possible to give to one without taking from the other).

Having been, in this hypothesis, president after Obama, it is as if Hillary took power and made a horribly unpopular government, with austerity and cuts in social programs (anti-Bonaparte, managed to be hated by all classes) and was cynically impeached by a coalition of coup leaders who did not hesitate to mobilize low-level misogyny to disqualify her (but misogyny, in itself, was not the reason for the coup, as most of the PT at the time claimed). Bernie Sanders would then find himself in a complicated situation, radically opposed to both: the growing far-right, and the “left-wing” liberalism which produced it.

We should also add to this the complication of a hypothetical arrest of Obama, where Bernie should maintain a delicate position: contrary to the arrest because it is a fake process with no evidence of crime, and at the same time, he must say an emphatic ‘no’ to corruption. Embarrassingly to the left, Antônio Palocci (the “number 2 of the PT” and main minister of Lula and Dilma for many years), 6 months prior, confessed the embezzling of over 100 million Reais of public money for himself.

Some comrades on the left, very aware of “historical necessities”, may even criticize discussing corruption as mere “moralism”. I’m sorry, but the general population will not do the same.

Despite the reductionism, it is a fact (verifiable in Esther Solano’s research in the poor peripheries of São Paulo) that the general population, especially the poor, is absolutely convinced that corruption is a concrete determinant of their problems (it would therefore be due to corruption that they lack health, education and other public services).

In this hypothetical conjuncture, Bernie Sanders would have to deal with a completely helpless and angry population who sees the old leaders on the right as opportunists, and the old leaders on the left as corrupt.

Despite the somewhat ideological blaming of the PT within the scope of what Gramsci would call the “common sense” of the average Brazilian, the real reasons (that is, the political-economic totality in which it is inserted) for the crisis unsurprisingly also have to do with the 14 years of the PT government. But they are rather related to the conduct of the economy, particularly the intentional negligence towards the exchange rate (overvaluing the currency via commodity exports to China), in order to generate an immediate sense of well-being through consumption for the lower classes (mistakenly sold as poverty reduction), but culminating in a situation of “Dutch disease”, deindustrialization and extermination of jobs: the ideal situation for Fascism.

The forgotten history of the real left

Let us develop the comparison more explicitly. In the hypothetical situation we described above, the situation for Bernie would be very complicated. But, nota bene, was there anyone in Brazil exactly in this situation? Yes. His name is Ciro Gomes, but like Bernie he goes by his first name. A politician who comes from a small state in the northeast of his country (although born on the outskirts of the largest national metropolis) in whose most populous city he was a very successful mayor, and unashamedly wants to discuss socioeconomic inequality, class struggle, progressive taxation of the rich, legislation to control speculative capital and the need to bring back the successful anticyclical experiences of public investment of the 1930s. The description holds true for both Ciro and Bernie, and it is to be noted how their comrades on the ‘left’ make an impressive effort to discredit them based on the fact that they are old white men and supposed “secret misogynists”.

Bernie reissues the true American progressivism and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Ciro reissues the true Brazilian progressivism and Getúlio Vargas’ Developmentalism.

Before ‘left’ in the United States meant the liberalism of Obama and Clinton, the forgotten history of the true American left also included Jesse Jackson against Reagan’s ultra-conservatism, and even the old communist Eugene V. Debs. Before ‘left’ in Brazil meant the national consumerism of Lula and Dilma Rousseff, the forgotten history of the true Brazilian left also included Leonel Brizola against the repressive Military Dictatorship, and even the communist Luís C. Prestes (who later joined Brizola building his party, the PDT, represented today by Ciro).

But for the comparison to be really complete, in that scenario in which Bernie Sanders would incarnate Ciro Gomes, it should be noted: Bernie would also have been Obama’s secretary in the past, loyal throughout the attempts of destabilization of his government (such as the 2005 “Mensalão” scandal) and against the 2016 coup. But as soon as he became a direct competitor for the leadership of the left, Bernie would have been run over by an unprecedented smear campaign and immoral tactics to destroy his support.

Ciro had made an alliance with smaller left-wing parties like the Socialist Party and the Communist Party. The former went on to accept a strange pact with the PT which seemed to be a mix of blackmail and bribery (regarding the state government of Pernambuco) and the latter can be said to have been tricked by the PT, who offered the ticket of vice president for Manuela D’Ávila, who the PT later tried to hide throughout the campaign for fear of anti-feminist/communist attacks. The worst was the defamatory crusade that PT supporters undertook on Twitter that Ciro had beaten his ex-wife, actress Patrícia Pillar, who went public to deny it as absurd, reaffirming their current friendship and even her vote for Ciro [2]. If we are angry that Bernie is constantly run over by the DNC’s “rules of the game”, we should also be angry at how the PT manipulates the left.

Bernie and Ciro were the only left-wing candidates who would beat respectively Trump and Bolsonaro according to all polls [3, 4, 5]. Both went through the ‘national’ method of choice of their political fields: Bernie was held back at the 2016 Democratic National Convention (then again in 2020), Ciro was held back at the first round of the 2018 election (and says he is likely to run again in 2022). The imperative for both was to support what was left of the neoliberal left against the far-right candidate. But as we have seen from our “Brooksian” comparison, the situation was not exactly the same. The difference was that after 20 years of cooperation and loyalty rewarded by systematic betrayal, Ciro did not once again accept to prostrate himself to the will of the PT. Ciro announced “critical support” for PT’s Fernando Haddad (neoliberal with socially progressive appearance who can be equated to Elizabeth Warren) but did not campaign for Haddad.

Ciro’s brother, prominent politician Cid Gomes, campaigned for Haddad, but was harassed by Haddad’s supporters who did not allow him to speak into the microphone in Ceará. When he finally managed to speak, he said to the PT crowd in a prophetic tone: “You will lose by a landslide! Who created Bolsonaro were you. Lula? Lula is in jail, stupid!”. In February 2020, Cid Gomes (who was also a loyal minister of the Dilma Rousseff government) was shot by the Bolsonarist militias in Ceará while he, as in an action movie, heroically tried to free a barracks taken by the militia driving a backhoe. Lula and the PT never bothered to express any support whatsoever for Cid, who came very close to death. This ended up confirming an irreparable and hateful split of the Brazilian left into two.

Bernie and Ciro are what Žižek has called the necessary miracle for the global left [6]: the combination of: older politicians linked to the ‘old’ class struggle of the industrial proletariat + the ‘modern’ struggles of the diverse minorities (young people like AOC). This means giving these struggles a new presentation outside the liberal-politically-correct appeals for more petty-bourgeois rhetorical politeness and much more importantly: to propose concrete, bold and comprehensible solutions. That’s precisely Bernie’s miracle in Vermont: winning a seat that was formerly Republican for decades and disputing that same population who favored Trump in 2016. The miracle of Ciro in Ceará: the only Brazilian state to give 2/3 of the votes against the 2016 coup, the only Brazilian state in which Bolsonaro took third place, behind Haddad (second) and Ciro (first).

Everything else (style, etc.) varies: Ciro mentions dense economic concepts, Bernie focuses on a moral appeal for social justice, Ciro claims to be ‘center-left developmentalist’, Bernie a ‘democratic socialist’. Etc.

Chomsky, Greenwald, Varoufakis: Ciro Bros?

There are leftists who seek inspiration from great third world revolutionaries like Mao and Lenin, or from great reformists like Deng Xiaoping and even Evo Morales. I wonder, as a Marxist, why no great contemporary leftist, while recognizing the important advances in some of his social programs, considers Lula a particularly worthy example to be followed.

Surely part of the reason can be explained by pure unfamiliarity. In this case, nothing is said. But how about those public intellectuals of worldwide relevance who dared to say something?

On September 2, 2019, in the act of launching a movement of opposition to the Jair Bolsonaro government, in São Paulo, none other than Prof. Noam Chomsky said that the excessive dependence on the worn-out PT led the opposition to a situation of apathy towards the government and that: “A dynamic leader like Ciro Gomes could very well organize, lead and develop a center-left coalition to make a powerful opposition to the dangerous policies of the Bolsonaro government” [7]. (An argument that is even better made by Mangabeira Unger, famous Harvard professor and coordinator of the Ciro 2018 presidential campaign).

Glenn Greenwald, probably the most revolutionary journalist of our time, persecuted by Obama’s almighty United States (for the Snowden case) and, recently by Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil (for the Vaza Jato case), says in an interview in April 2019:

I confess that I found Ciro to be a very, very interesting, very intelligent, very charismatic candidate, with an ideology that is not perfect but was very good. I think he is a politician with a lot of courage. The first time I thought “my God, this guy is very impressive”, was when he was interviewed at Roda Viva. […] When I interviewed him, I also thought that this interview was one of the most interesting I have ever done as a journalist, because he was very honest, he thinks very deeply about complex subjects, but at the same time he is charismatic, he has a strong personality. Unfortunately, and perhaps there will be people in your audience who will not like this, but perhaps many who will agree, the person who prevented Ciro’s candidacy was Lula. Because in prison, Lula did not want to give up control of the left and I think Lula decided that he would rather lose the election to Bolsonaro or Alckmin than to let another party represent the left. This was a very problematic decision that Lula made. And because of that, I understand why Ciro is very, very angry about it. Because he is thinking “I have always been very faithful to Lula”. He denounced Dilma’s impeachment as a coup very clearly. So all the time he’s thinking “I’m very loyal to the PT, of course, sometimes criticizing Dilma, but I’m allied with Lula for many years and he’s in prison trying to destroy my candidacy to make a fraud against the people who trust him, pretending that he will be the candidate”. Later, it was obvious to everyone that Lula would be contested and would pick Haddad, who no one knew in the country, who had no charisma and who had this baggage of hate against the PT that Ciro did not have. So, I think Ciro blamed the PT and Lula for Bolsonaro’s victory for valid reasons. But if Ciro can let it go, and go back to being the politician he is, perhaps he is the strongest possibility to defeat Bolsonaro’s movement in 2022. [8]

In a recent interview at Michael Brooks’ show, the only time Lula is confronted is when Brian Mier [at 10:24] [9] asks about the line of thought spread by Bresser-Pereira (the most famous economist on the Brazilian developmentalist left, close to Ciro) that all social advances, poverty reduction, etc. in his government were due to the commodities’ price boom (in fact, Bresser-Pereira’s argument is much more complex and centers around the concept of ‘Dutch disease’). Lula downplays the criticism of his leftist friend and argues that what the PT achieved in his government is comparable to a miracle never performed in Brazil’s history. But Lula should know that when the developmentalist left was in power in the 1950s and 1960s, social advances and poverty reduction were significantly superior to his government and more lasting.

Yanis Varoufakis, in December 2018, meets and debates precisely Fernando Haddad – shortly after losing to Bolsonaro. In this interesting exchange (found on Spotify: “The Dig: Haddad and Varoufakis Fighting Right-Wing Populism”), Haddad argues that Bolsonaro is to be explained by the phenomenon of fake news spread via WhatsApp [at 23:11], but the Greek economist brilliantly removes the focus from the more superstructural manifestations of the event, and presents it [at 27:59] just as Bresser-Pereira:

Will you allow me a vulgar, determinist, reductionist point for one second? Here’s my take: the Pink Wave in Latin America was result of frustration by indigenous people, working class, trade unions and so on, but… it rode the tsunami of China. It was the exponential increase in Latin American exports to China that created the macroeconomic circumstances for Lula and his comrades to have the luxury – which is always very short-term, never lasts for very long – of taking a chunk of value and using it in order to finance an increase in the income of the working class – which was fantastic, I’m not criticizing it. All I’m saying is that that was a bubble that was inevitable to burst.

Dear Western left, why not interview Ciro?

I cannot fail to notice how we are doubly unlucky: as if not enough to be a poor peripheral colonized country, it is like we also have to settle for Lula against Bolsonaro and cannot dream of Ciro; while in the USA one dreamed of Bernie against Trump instead Obama’s return, in France one dreamed of Mélenchon against Macron and Le Pen instead of Hollande, in the UK one dreamed of Corbyn against Johnson instead of Blair, etc.

I can partially understand it: if I didn’t know anything about the US, couldn’t read English, etc. I would probably turn to that country’s ‘leftist’ comrades if I wanted to hear about it. Consequently, who would I talk to? Possibly supporters of Clinton, Biden, Obama, etc. who would assure me that they are great leaders, that the Democratic Party is on the right track and that the whole problem is the conspiracy articulated by the almighty Trump, Bannon, Russia, Bernie didn’t campaign for Hillary enough etc. We would all fall together in the fallacy of the enemy’s omnipotence that exempts us from our faults.

The organic intellectuals of the Western left could perhaps help us overcome this complicated situation. It would be wonderful to see Michael Brooks giving Ciro the same spotlight. I even suggest him ask tougher questions and criticisms. Ciro does not need to be treated with either patronizing or overly friendly tone. If he is given the same exposure time as Lula, perhaps he will take the chance to tell the forgotten story of the true Brazilian left, founded by Getúlio Vargas, carried on by President Goulart until the 1964 coup and by number one enemy of the military dictatorship and contemporary national hero Leonel Brizola.

Caio Gontijo – PhD candidate in Social Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA).


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lAhbGYT7HIk

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Jin7qATxu4

[3] https://veja.abril.com.br/politica/no-2o-turno-bolsonaro-so-perde-para-ciro-e-alcanca-haddad-diz-ibope/

[4] https://veja.abril.com.br/politica/ciro-gomes-venceria-todos-adversarios-no-2o-turno-diz-datafolha/

[5] https://www.em.com.br/app/noticia/politica/2018/10/06/interna_politica,994878/ibope-e-datafolha-mostram-que-bolsonaro-ganha-de-haddad-mas-perde-par.shtml

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6pyufzQs4I

[7] https://politica.estadao.com.br/noticias/geral,dependencia-do-pt-levou-oposicao-a-apatia-afirma-noam-chomsky,70002995603.

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wzamRdzdXZU&t=9s.

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p6Mzsqo0zLg

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