On January 24th, 2019, representatives of the Brazilian Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) joined the DSA at the Verso Books loft in New York City for an event titled “Against Bolsonaro, Against Trump.” One of Struggle for a New World’s writers was in the audience and wrote this report.
One DSA representative, the New York State Senator Julia Salazar, spoke first. The audience could not help but be struck by the shift in tone between the initial speech by Salazar and the women of the PSOL. Salazar spoke in relatively simple terms about how she represented people rather than profits, but defended the Democratic Party and even the Republicans as being “tolerant” of her because of the popularity of her positions. Scarcely a word was uttered about the dangerous direction the imperialist United States is heading as indicated (but by no means caused by) Trump. Indeed, all serious analysis of Trump was left to the analogies drawn by the Brazilians, displaying once again the backwardness of the more popular and politically capable elements of the US left relative to their equivalents in other countries.
Fernanda Melchionna spoke first and with the most explicit internationalist focus. Like Sâmia Bomfim, who spoke after her, she judged the Trump regime to be the result of failures of the socialist left to respond to the crisis and pose an alternative to the masses. Further, Melchionna emphasized that Clinton’s victory over Sanders likely strengthened Trump’s hand. Underlining that the struggle against capital in all its forms was international, so too must the movement against it be, she urged the US audience to draw a lesson from the rise of fascism in Brazil. Unfortunately, beyond insisting on a democratic and socialist politics distinct from the deal-making with which she characterized the PT’s pre-coup governance, she did not outline any meaningful strategy for how the PSOL would replace the PT as the leading left force in the eyes of the masses themselves, or what strategies outside of protesting fascism and running for office could actually be employed.
Sâmia Bomfim, who followed Melchionna, moved the discussion more towards the specifics of Brazilian life under Bolsonaro. Emphasizing, as did Melchionna, that corruption is endemic in Brazil even preceding PT rule, but that the PT weakened the stance of the socialist left by engaging in compromises with corrupt businesses and religious reactionaries who today work hand in glove with the Bolsonaro regime. In a striking note for the US audience, Bomfim condemned Bolsonaro’s push for gun control, stating that this would not lessen violence, since it would leave guns in the hands of the (heavily militarized) police and criminals. Beyond a Brazilian particularity, Bomfim emphasized that gun control had been shown, in its examples from other countries, to not work for the stated goal of decreasing gun violence.
Additionally, and recalling Melchionna’s argument that the Trump campaign had succeeded because of the failure of the Sanders campaign, Bomfim dwelled for some time on the point that those who voted for Bolsonaro, like those who voted for Trump, were likely overwhelmingly not any richer or more privileged for their candidate’s victory. Most of them voted for a fascist candidate out of desperation with the current state of the capitalist system in their lived experience, and are shocked to find that despite his anti-system rhetoric, Bolsonaro serves the same system in Brazil, with all its blood and corruption.
A political history was also invoked by Bomfim, as a cause for the descent of Brazil back into fascism. Bomfim emphasized that Brazil’s history includes slavery and military dictatorship, neither of which really reached a definite end, and thus were not actually overcome. The process of reemergence of the ugliest, unfinished business of Brazil’s history, Bomfim cautioned, could be seen in many other countries as well.
Finally Talíria Petrone, an Afro-Brazilian activist, took the microphone. Her impassioned speech, while seemingly the most particularly Brazilian at all, should resonate with US readers. Repeating that Brazil was the last country in the region to formally outlaw slavery, and that the relations of slavery inherited from Portuguese colonialism had not been overcome, she repeatedly called the audience’s attention to the fact that of the famous gun violence which wracks Brazil, of the murders and rapes of women and LGBT people which are the ugly reality Brazilians know from their news, the overwhelming majority take place in the favelas and other areas dominated by Afro-Brazilians. Of the Brazilian working class, it is the clear descendants of slaves who are still treated as slaves and subjected to slavery-esque exploitation and the violence that slaves were subjected to.
Petrone made the point that the majority of the Brazilian working class and people are women, and are black, and thus to stand up for black people and women is to stand up for the majority. The Afro-Brazilian poor and their neighborhoods are disproportionately the target of the violence of the militias and militarized police which Bolsonaro praises. The war on the impoverished and oppressed does not, however, merely target the urban majority, but also the Indigenous and their previously semi-protected land. Emphasizing that capitalism’s obsession with production for the profit motive meant the squandering of resources which are in a very real sense finite, Petrone warned that in addition to attacking these communities which Bolsonaro warns are not “integrated” into Brazilian society, the attack on Indigenous land for profits also threatens to make life unlivable for all Brazilians through environmental destruction, just as capitalist development on a global scale threatens the future of the planet.
Like all the speakers, Petrone emphasized the relative continuity between the years of military dictatorship and the current Bolsonaro regime. Their criticisms of the PT aside, they acknowledged that there was a period of relative democracy, but that the democracy did not really reach into the favelas, hence the ease of restoring police terror on the descendants of slaves, who never reaped the benefits of even the most “democratic” and “modern” periods of Brazil’s modernization. In a country where femicide is the fifth highest in the world, Petrone said, the victims overwhelmingly came from black neighborhoods and are coded as black. To them, the experience has been passing more or less directly from Portuguese colonialism under the banner of the Roman Catholic Church, to a neo-colonial existence sponsored by US imperialism, which imports arch-reactionary neo-pentacostal ideology to justify the violent “correction” of homosexuals (including the rape of lesbians), the murder of trans people, and the subjugation of women.
Surprisingly, given the current coup attempt in Venezuela, backed by Brazilian president Bolsonaro and US imperialism (including both the Democratic and Republican parties), it took a question during the question and answer period to even bring up what is assumed to have been on everyone’s mind: how did Brazil’s socialist left appraise events in Venezuela? Both Petrone and Melchionna answered the question, but Melchionna did so with a more specific appraisal of the PSUV and Venezuela: it was their view that Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution was right and correct under Chavez, but had “degenerated” under Maduro. Detail was not offered as to the source and form of this “degeneration”, but in spite of this, the PSOL representatives made clear that they completely opposed imperialist intervention to install yet another fascist leader in the Americas.
Other than their own word, quite left out of the discussion was the question of how, if they were to achieve more electoral support, the PSOL would avoid the compromises the PT made which are blamed for the latter’s downfall. However, the event was all in all a sober reminder of the pressing and universal need to organize all poor and oppressed against their marginalization, unite their struggles, and bring down forces of capital for whom fascism is an acceptable alternative to scaling back its rapacious development.