Brazil is the largest nation with the largest economy in Latin America. It has gone through a tumultuous transition over the past decade: from a left-leaning government to one that was right-wing and authoritarian and now back to a Workers’ Party–led coalition government under President Luis Inacio Lula de Silva.
To address the current situation in Brazil and to unpack many of the issues that receive scant attention in the mainstream US media, the two of us interviewed a pair of Brazilian theorists: Artur Henrique, the former president of the Central Unica dos Trabahaldores (CUT)—the largest Brazilian labor confederation—and the treasurer of the Workers’ Party (PT)–aligned Fundacao Perseu Abramo, and Marcio Pochmann, a professor of economics at the State University of Campinas, the former head of the Institute of Applied Economic Research, and the current president of the Instituto Lula. They shared their thoughts on the incredible changes in Brazil and the continuing danger of the far right, as well as new possibilities for labor, Indigenous peoples, climate justice, and building an anti-imperialist united front in Latin America.
—Bill Gallegos and Bill Fletcher Jr.
Bill Fletcher Jr: I want to start with the political situation in Brazil—specifically your analysis of why the election was so close and the significance of the coup attempt that happened in January.
Artur Henrique: To answer that question, we need to look back at what has happened since the constitutional coup against Dilma Rousseff in 2016. The coup was a particularly nasty manifestation of neoliberalism, which always attacks the working class. This was a way of weakening the unions and their efforts to decrease the concentration of wealth in the country. Work became more precarious after the coup, especially after the 2017 labor law reform. Then we faced the 2018 presidential elections, which was not dissimilar to what you in the US lived through in 2016. Individualism and egocentrism took root. Many workers fell prey to the “theology of prosperity,” which preached that everyone should become their own boss through running small businesses and that collective political projects, such as unions, were no longer necessary. We saw the denigration of much of “left culture” during that electoral process. We see that, even after last year’s elections, the far right is not dead and the growth of the far right is very much linked to workers’ objective economic situation. The lack of income, the lack of employment breeds hate and violence. The coup attempt on January 8 was the apex of that violence, which continues to be very alive in Brazilian society.
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Marcio Pochmann: The organizations that helped facilitate the re-democratization of Brazil have been weakened. One example is unions. The unionization rate at the end of the dictatorship, around the late 1980s, was around 33 percent. Today, it is at only 10 percent. The creation of a digital culture has been utilized more effectively by the right and the far right than the left. This has impacted public opinion. The left in Brazil is much more connected to the past than the future. The right wing is good at using social media and Internet platforms to spread fake news, and the left has not been effective in contesting that fake news. There has also been changes in the structure of the economy and the labor market. The rank-and-file working class was largely employed in the manufacturing sector; now it is employed in the service sector. The country is suffering from deindustrialization.
BF: How did the percentage of union members drop from 33 percent to 10 percent? Where is manufacturing relocating?
AH: There are two reasons. One is that the unions have their base in the formal sector, like the industrial sector, and also the union structure itself is very fragmented. There are new technologies being introduced that impact job creation but also have induced the creation of new forms of flexible job contracts, such as gig work, consultancies, and the like. We see these kinds of technologies introduced in many sectors, such as retail, banks, transportation, and other service. On top of this, we have deindustrialization, which is eliminating jobs in a sector marked by high levels of unionization. Those factors contributed to the fall of the unionization rate. But we also have to deal with problems related to the communications strategies of unions themselves, which don’t seem to resonate well with the working class anymore.
MP: The system of union representation and labor relations is outdated. It was created back in the 1930s to build a salaried working class. In 50 years, from the ’30s to the ’80s, a large number of rural workers became integrated into the urban industrial workforce. Since the 1990s with the implementation of neoliberal policies, there has been a concerted effort to reduce the number of salaried workers as a way of reducing labor costs. In 2021, only 41 percent of workers are employed as salaried workers in for-profit businesses. In 1999, 63 percent of workers were part of that base. The rest of the jobs that exist in Brazil today are informal jobs, jobs that exist just to guarantee a worker’s survival by any means necessary. So there are two problems, one problem is the structure of the labor movement, which does not allow for the representation of these new kinds of informal workers, and the other problem is the structure of capitalism and the labor market itself, which is not creating enough formal sector jobs.
Bill Gallegos: How does the union movement, and the different sectors of the union movement, see their connection to the climate justice movement and the efforts to mitigate climate change?
AH: This question is one of the most central issues in the world and in Brazil in particular. Young workers are getting very involved in environmental activism in Brazil. Unions in the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas have discussed and decided that it is important to change the patterns of consumption. At the same time, it is important to create dialogues between workers, governments, and the business community to enact policies that leave nobody behind, that take into consideration job creation and transferring jobs from one sector to another, in the context of building a low-carbon economy centered on environmental sustainability.
MP: For me, there is a paradox between the labor situation and the environmental question. There is rhetoric among the left, that environmental sustainability is important. But the problem is that the green jobs being created in a low-carbon economy are less attractive than jobs in a high-carbon economy. There are some alternatives, which we see with the agro-ecological production being done by the Landless Workers Movement [MST]. The organic products that they sell have a higher value added than industrially produced agricultural products.
BG: What about the relationship of unions to the Indigenous movement and its struggle to protect native lands?
AH: The left is learning a lot about sustainability from the Indigenous movement, and we are understanding better how important the struggle for the preservation of ancestral lands is, as the right resists the demarcation of these lands. The right propagates lies, saying that the Indigenous people have too much land, and make too much money off of resource extraction on those lands, which is totally fake news. The left needs to be in solidarity with the Indigenous movement to counteract those lies. One concrete example of the advances being registered is the fact that Lula created a cabinet-level position, the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, in his government.
MP: The regions where Indigenous peoples are concentrated are the most sensitive ecosystems in the country. However, Indigenous people are around 900,000 people, out of a population of 210 million. At the same time, 25 percent of the Brazilian population is food insecure. So because of that, topics related to day-to-day survival are what take precedence among urban social movements in Brazil.
BF: I want to understand, where did manufacturing jobs go? In the US, deindustrialization is a misnomer, because manufacturing has moved either to rural areas or in some cases overseas, but manufacturing has not disappeared.
MP: There are two forms of deindustrialization—the kind that has happened in Global North countries, which is called mature deindustrialization. This happens to a working class that has already been given access to the benefits of an industrialized society. In Global South countries, such as Brazil, we see early deindustrialization. In this case, a large fraction of the working class has never had access to manufactured consumer goods, and now never will have that access. Starting in the 1990s, when Brazil opened up its domestic markets and adhered to neoliberalism, many companies started to offshore their production or simply went bankrupt, as they were not competitive enough. The only way that Brazilians now can obtain manufactured goods is through buying imports.
BF: What I’m hearing is that this is more than deindustrialization. This could be called a “re-underdevelopment” of Brazil.
MP: You are right, Bill, deindustrialization is just a symptom of this larger problem of the dismantling of the Brazilian economy. There is no way to increase the standard of living for over 200 million people if your whole economy is based on exporting natural resources and low-value-added goods. So one of the big priorities of Lula’s government, in addition to addressing social emergencies like hunger, is to tackle reindustrialization.
BF: For a long time, the Brazilian establishment attempted to deny that there was racial repression, then grudgingly there has been an acknowledgement. How has race played out in the development of the right-wing authoritarian movement that Bolsonaro represents? Is race a key issue, or is it more complicated?
AH: All the social inequalities that we see in the country are also reflected in the economic inequalities. So within the old left in the country, there is an idea that talking about race and gender divides the working class. But when, as a union leader, I am fighting for the rights to childcare and to maternal health care, I’m not just fighting for the rights of women. I’m fighting for the rights of the entire working class—it’s a false dichotomy. The same kind of dynamic happens with issues related to racial equality. While the left is more and more favorable to combatting racial equality, the 20–25 percent of the population that sympathizes with the far right constantly makes arguments against affirmative-action policies. Far-right sympathizers say on their social media that women should go back to the kitchens and Afro-Brazilians should go back to slave-labor conditions. Sometimes they are too embarrassed to publicly state what they think, but they certainly act accordingly. Around 20 percent of the population really thinks this way.
BG: I want to ask a question about the “pink tide” in Latin America. It’s something that is not happening anywhere else in the world, where countries are electing a succession of left-leaning governments. It seems like countries like Brazil and Mexico can play an important role in creating an anti-imperialist front. I would like to know your assessment about that role and the relationship between the Lula government and the AMLO government in Mexico.
AH: We need another hour to talk about this! We are in a situation right now marked by the China-US geopolitical dispute. During the last four years, Brazil was not a protagonist on the global stage. Now we hope that the Lula government can reclaim that role, and in particular that he can rebuild ties with other Latin American governments. We think that Mexico is strategically important to advance any proposals for Latin American integration. It is good to see the Lula government emphasizing the need to rebuild relationships with other Latin American countries, other Southern Cone countries, vis-à-vis MERCOSUL. This is part of an effort for Brazil to look at the world through different eyes and for the world to look at Brazil through different eyes.
MP: In the last two decades, we have experienced two pink tides. However, there are important differences between this one and the previous one. Twenty years ago, the economic structure of Latin American countries was stronger and more diversified than it is now. There was a domestic industrial bourgeoisie that now does not exist, and now our productive capacity depends heavily on China. So I think this new pink tide responds more to economic necessities than a political shift per se. The political transitions that happened in countries across the region, from a right-wing government to a left-wing government in places like Colombia, Chile, Bolivia, and Peru did not impact trade relations with China. During the time of the first pink tide, Latin American countries had much stronger relationships with the US and with the European Union. Now their primary economic relationship is with China. This is also because the US has little to offer Latin America now.
BF: In listening to these comments, two things come to mind. I hear you saying that a truly alternative approach to economic development needs to be at the top of the priorities of these left governments. The other is, that to the extent that Latin America remains dependent on China, nothing will fundamentally change. It will just be a different type of dependency. Given the lack of independent social movements in China, there is no pressure exerted on the Chinese government to condemn right-wing regimes. So one of the longer term questions is: What should be the nature of international solidarity?
AH: I think that two things are fundamental. We need more investment in science and technology for the process of reindustrialization. We also need to strengthen CELAC, UNASUL, and other organizations to strengthen Latin America as a political and economic block. In this way, Latin American countries, which are so rich in natural resources, can negotiate with countries like China from a stronger perspective. remember, when Lula was president the first time and I was president of the CUT, I went to Sudbury in Canada, in solidarity with the strike of the workers of the mining company Vale do Rio Doce. This kind of worker-to-worker solidarity is so important.
MP: President Lula has said, since last year, that “Brazil is back!” Brazil will now take a more autonomous position in the global scenario. The challenge for Brazil is more internal than external. Brazil is a huge country with many natural resources. We need to create a political mechanism so that the wealth from these resources goes to a larger segment of the population instead of to a small group of elites. In the first Lula government, the priority was to increase international cooperation projects with Africa, Asia, and other Latin American countries. Brazil does not have imperial designs. It is more interested in strengthening relationships with the Global South, not to exclude the Global North, but because it has more in common with other Global South countries. Recently, Lula mentioned the importance of environmental diplomacy—building relationships with countries that have similar ecosystems to us. Last month, an agreement was reached with the eight countries that house the Amazon rain forest in order to build common policy solutions to help preserve that ecosystem. Finally, President Lula, who is an organic leader of the Brazilian working class, has defended the need for full employment. This will strengthen the working class as a whole as working people with formal-sector jobs will be more likely to identify as a member of the working class. The possibility of strengthening working-class identities is inextricably linked to the creation of decent jobs.
As a last comment, I remember a time when Lula was at a meeting of the G20, about two decades ago, and Lula said to other world leaders, “I’m just a worker, what am I doing here? I haven’t even finished high school. But nobody else here has felt firsthand what it means to be unemployed, to be hungry, so maybe I am the most qualified of all.” This is why Lula is so important for Brazil, to re-center the question of work and labor rights in the political debate and in policy-making.