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The Struggles against Authoritarianism in Brazil: An Interview with Raimundo Bonfim of “Out Bolsonaro!”

InterviewRaimundo Bonfim, national coordinator of the Centre of People’s Movements (CMP), talks about the current political situation in Brazil and gives perspectives on the struggle against Bolsonaro and the challenges currently posed to the Brazilian left.

On 24 July 2021, thousands of Brazilians took to the streets across the country to protest against Jair Bolsonaro’s government, its neo-liberal economic policies, and the absence of effective measures to control the COVID-19 pandemic. The 488 demonstrations held that day were part of the national campaign “Out Bolsonaro!”, a coalition of social movements, unions, and left-wing political parties. Since 2020, “Out Bolsonaro!” has sought to unify opposition to Bolsonaro’s government and build a movement with the aim of ending a government they consider genocidal and neo-fascist. In this interview, Raimundo Bonfim, the national coordinator of the Centre of People’s Movements (CMP), one of the entities that actively participated in the organization of the campaign and demonstrations, talks about the current political situation in Brazil and gives perspectives on the struggle against Bolsonaro and the challenges currently posed to the Brazilian left.

Raimundo Bonfim lives in São Paulo, is a social activist in Heliópolis, the city’s largest favela, and has been coordinating the CMP since 2018. He began his activism in the 1980s in the struggles for urban reform in São Paulo which sought to guarantee land, labour and social rights for the popular classes. He participated in a long political-organizational process that resulted in the creation and consolidation of both the new popular and trade union movements and the Workers’ Party (PT). Since the 1990s, the CMP has participated in the organization of urban struggles that resist the advance of neoliberalism in Brazilian cities. The CMP brings together several urban popular movements that advocate for issues such as housing, health, women’s rights, black rights movements, and youth movements, with the aim of articulating common struggles and overcoming the existing fragmentation between popular organizations in Brazilian cities.

For Bonfim, the protests against Bolsonaro were an important demonstration of the discontent with Bolsonaro’s government present in broad sections of society. However, these demonstrations and actions were insufficient to alter the correlation of political forces and change the course of economic policy in favour of the interests of the working classes. In this context, the main challenge posed to the Brazilian left is to carry out permanent grassroots work that builds strength around another project for Brazil.

In your opinion what challenges does the political landscape of Brazil pose to Brazil’s leftist movement?

Raimundo Bonfim: There are three really important aspects to consider when analysing of the current Brazilian context. The first is the advance of the destruction of the Brazilian State in relation to its social branch of protection for the workers. Incredible as it may seem, during a pandemic which caused a crisis of increased poverty and hunger, the National Congress — which is important to say, since many refer only to the figure of Jair Bolsonaro — is approving a dismantling of social policies. They approved the land grabs, the privatization of Eletrobras (a public company that generates and distributes energy), and of the post office, public banks may be next. In other words, an ongoing process of plundering what little that was left of the Brazilian social state as a result of our resistance in the 1980s and which had been recovered in the first decade of this century.

The second point is the advance of coup, of Bolsonaro’s threats to democracy. As the economic and social crisis increases, there is a resurgence of mobilizations and a fall in his popularity. In response to this, Bolsonaro doubles down on confronting institutions, a narrative he relies on to keep his base mobilized. To divert attention from the revelations of the Covid-19 CPI[1], a parliamentary investigation that shows that a real gang was formed in the Ministry of Health to divert resources intended for the fight against the pandemic, Bolsonaro uses these tricks, going as far as placing military tanks in front of the National Congress. So, the government is cornered, with the increase of its rejection, including by parts of the business community and in response, increases the tone of its authoritarian bias. The third important point is the resumption of street mobilizations by progressive and leftist factions, a very relevant fact at the present moment.

How did this mobilization process, the National Campaign “Out Bolsonaro!”, come about?

Raimundo Bonfim: The Campaign emerged in June 2020, in pandemic times. We already had two struggle fronts that unified social movements, unions, and political parties, such as the Frente Brasil Popular (Popular Brazil Front) and the Frente Povo Sem Medo (People Without Fear Front). From time to time we met, there was a dialogue between the groups, as well as other coalitions and alliances, religious groups and different articulations moving, building manifestos, and doing solidarity actions. In June 2020, there were mobilizations in defence of democracy and led by football fans, in which we from CMP participated. In this context, it was agreed to create a space that we call the movement “Fora Bolsonaro!” (“Out Bolsonaro!”). The premise was that all entities and political parties that aimed to fight for the end of the Bolsonaro government were invited to participate. In 2020, we did not have much success with demonstrations because of the pandemic.

At the beginning of this year, we debated about alternative ways to protest. Between January and March, we held motor rallies, symbolic actions, and a decentralized act on April 7 — World Health Day — to denounce the lack of vaccines and policies to combat the pandemic. On that day, we managed to carry out 123 symbolic actions all over the country. Then, on the first of May, we carried out actions through social networks and our first attempt to hold street protests. This forcefully brought a controversy over whether we should return to the streets to the fore, a debate took place on both fronts and in the Campanha Nacional Fora Bolsonaro (National Campaign “Out Bolsonaro!”).

We defended our position, that it was no longer possible to stay at home in this situation of unemployment, hunger, misery, lack of government aid, violence, and with Bolsonaro increasing the strength of his attacks on democracy. The great majority of workers are already forced to go out to work every day, so we proposed a big demonstration on 29 May. It was not a consensus decision but most movements, entities, and parties argued that it was time to resume street actions. I’d like to highlight three very important organizations and pioneers in the debate in favour of the protests, Central de Movimentos Populares (CMP), União Nacional dos Estudantes (National Students’ Union, UNE) and Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto (Homeless Workers Movement, MTST). Other entities, such as the CUT and the MST, were radically opposed to our call to protest because of contradictions in our defence of the slogan “HealthyAtHome” and our calling for public action. Our position in favour of the demonstrations prevailed and in a large plenary session, we approved the realization of our call to demonstrate and that’s what happened. We had the protests in 214 cities in Brazil and more than 20 abroad, a very successful level of participation. This interrupted people’s fears of demonstrating and the sectors that did not initially call for protests began to join the campaign.

What was the role of the popular movements in this process and in the political struggle in general?

Raimundo Bonfim: I think that a major novelty is the role of the social movements, with the unions not being that strong, even the largest in the country, like the Central Única dos Trabalhadores or CUT, Força Sindical, and Central dos Trabalhadores e Trabalhadoras do Brasil or CTB. Unfortunately, we had little participation from the trade union movement. This shows that we are in another world. It’s hard to imagine having participation of the magnitude we had in May and June without the trade unions but we did. This means that we have new participants and new political leaderships in the social movements. The left-wing political parties (PT, PSOL, and PCdoB) were also hesitant at first, afraid of being criticized. However, when they saw that the protests were successful, they decided to join in. I think that the change in labour relations, the issue of informality, technology, home office work, and the strangling of workers’ rights affects this reality. In addition, there is the emergence of new groups in the peripheries. So, we need to combine the experiences of the traditional social movements with these new groups and act together. An article came out denying the existence of organization in the protests, emphasizing the spontaneity. This is false, there was organization, articulation, backstage discussion, definition of slogans, etc., one can’t deny that there is organization when there is a command and these new groups help a lot. So, we have to think about how to align the more traditional organizations, like ourselves, the UNE, the MST, or the Landless Workers’ Movement, with the new organizers on the political scene. We also must pay more attention to rural or peripheral grassroots organizing.

What are the expectations of the struggle?

Raimundo Bonfim: We’re very concerned. Notwithstanding the large demonstrations, the increase in misery, unemployment, and authoritarianism, we don’t perceive any growing movement which we expect will lead to the removal of Bolsonaro. We have a National Congress, especially the House of Representatives which is dominated by the “Centrão”[2]. Bolsonaro has handed over important parts of the government and the budget to this sector. The media and a large part of the business community lose patience only with Bolsonaro’s manner and with the constant threats to democracy but from the point of view of economic policy, they have an agreement. Rede Globo, Brazil’s largest commercial open television network and the other media support privatization, the handing over of natural resources, etc., so, we fear that if the struggle does not move towards victory and I mean the overthrow of the government, there will be repercussions to the mobilization process. Another big challenge is to build calendars of constant mobilization for larger demonstrations. In August 2021, we had a series of activities, by students and by public servants who were leafleting neighbourhoods with material about why we defend “Out Bolsonaro!” who are now heading back to the streets with large demonstrations on 7 September.

And beyond the struggle against Bolsonaro, what are the main challenges for the movements?

Raimundo Bonfim: I think the biggest challenge is that we need to overcome not only Bolsonaro but also, to resume conditions in which we can build a popular project for Brazil. This happens through the return of grassroots work, by political education, which is not restricted to the elections. Our provinces are dominated by values other than those of democracy and the defence of life. Often they are dominated by conservatism, racism, and homophobia. This is a great challenge for us, to work out how we can resume grassroots work in the peripheries and begin discussing country projects from the workers’ perspective with the people that live there. It has already been shown that an electoral route alone will not solve our problems. It is important to bear this in mind because we are even struggling to have elections in 2022 and to avoid a coup. However, it is not enough to win elections if we don’t disrupt the interaction of forces and make structural changes in the country, something that we didn’t do in the Lula government. If we had made the structural changes, we would not have regressed so quickly. Undeniably, we momentarily produced very important social inclusion policies but we did not change the power structure and we did not share the wealth, which continues to be concentrated in the hands of very few. Unfortunately, a large part of the left continues to prioritize the electoral and institutional route to equality. That’s why we are going to keep knocking on this door: are we or are we not going to create land reform, urban reform, and tax large fortunes? We need a political popular project to make clear to the workers what we stand for and to organize the working class which today is very complex, very diverse, and is organized not only by trade unions but by a complex of networks of actions and forms of activism. This is the challenge for the popular movements. In the CMP, we have been focusing on the discussion and understanding of the current stage of the struggle, how it is expressed in the provinces and how we can better influence the political situation. And for that, mobilization and elections are not enough. What is our project for the country and what is its base of support in the working class? Building this base is the challenge.

[1] Covid-19 CPI is an ongoing “Parliamentary Commission of Enquiry” [CPI] in the Brazilian Senate, investigating omissions and irregularities in the actions of the federal government of President Jair Bolsonaro during the pandemic. It was established on April 13, 2021 and must be completed by November 5, 2021.

[2] “Centrão” is a way of referring to the physiological sector of the National Congress, which means the political forces that base their support on government and decisions on the exchange of favours and private benefits and not on a political programme or platform. It has become Bolsonaro’s main base of parliamentary support and guarantees him a majority of congressional votes.

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