DSA Members Watched a Crisis Unfold in Brazil

Members of the DSA NPC were in Brazil to observe the first round of the presidential election. They saw how precarious the situation is for Brazilian democracy.

For a few hours, a hotel in São Paulo, Brazil was the international left’s base of operations. There were 170 delegates from across the globe – with socialist parties from Spain, France, Uruguay, and Chile represented – who hoped to observe the Brazilian presidential election’s results and support former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Among them were four leaders from the Democratic Socialists of America: DSA National Political Committee members Kristian Hernandez, Sofia Guimarães Cutler, and Jose Alejandro La Luz, as well as Jana Silverman. The group spent four days in São Paulo preparing for election night.  

Lula, leader of the Workers’ Party known as PT, announced his presidential campaign six months ago, and polls have shown him leading current President Jair Bolsonaro by double digits ever since. A transformative figure in Brazilian politics, Lula left office in 2010 with an approval rating of 83%. Lula’s departure included allegations of corruption, which were later disproved in a federal court, and prevented him from running in the 2018 presidential election, where Bolsonaro first won. Throughout this period, his popularity remained unchanged. 

Meanwhile, Bolsonaro’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic only deepened his unpopularity and bolstered Lula’s profile. Even outlets like The Economist – who praised the Bolivian military for ousting Evo Morales – were now predicting Bolsonaro’s defeat. Based on all available metrics, it appeared Lula would finish significantly above Bolsonaro in the first round and comfortably win the second round runoff. There was even an outside chance Lula could clear 50% in the first round and avoid the runoff altogether. 

Yet as more results of the first round came in, that consensus was shattered. Initial returns showed a Lula landslide. But large portions of the population were casting ballots for Bolsonaro, and the gap closed quickly. Some polls even showed him leading. 

Inside the hotel, the mood was shifting. Proclamations of victory were replaced by nervous whispers, and everyone wondered if they were watching Lula’s lead fully collapse. Half the room was “cheering every percent gain,” while the other half were “looking very closely at down ballot races,” Hernandez remembered. “Everybody was stunned,” recalled La Luz. 

La Luz first met Lula as a DSA representative in the 1990s, when the former president was still the leader of a minor progressive party, little-known outside leftist circles. Since then, he’d watched his star rise – from the presidency to prison to freedom – with equal admiration. That night, La Luz turned to a representative of PODEMOS in Spain, and said watching the results almost felt “like having a heart attack.”

Lula won the first round, but by significantly smaller margins than the polls had predicted, just 48.4 to Bolsonaro’s 43.2. Worse still, Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party won a majority in both chambers of Congress, along with numerous governorships. Admitting the results were “not what we wanted to see,” Silverman also acknowledged they “weren’t that terrible,” but “psychologically and symbolically very difficult.” 

Silverman’s relationship with Brazil began in her college years. She received her PhD in Labor and Development Economics from Campinas State University in São Paulo, and worked for the AFL-CIO while there. Decades of research into Brazilian labor and politics have taught Silverman that “the Right has always been entrenched in Brazil.” 

One tool for cementing their authority has been the Brazilian Evangelical movement. Nearly 70% of evangelicals casted their vote for Bolsonaro in the 2018 presidential election, and support for him remains above 60% in this constituency. In a country where 90% of the population identifies as Catholic or Protestant, this influence is vital. “Religion is important culturally,” explained La Luz, who has worked with labor groups and mass movements throughout Latin America. A religious argument for socialism is “something we need to better articulate,” La Luz said. But La Luz also stressed that the religious right’s growth wasn’t “an isolated development in Brazil,” and is happening “throughout the Americas,” with “influence and support from the United States.”

Megachurches aren’t the only conservative institutions in Brazil receiving backing from the American far-right. Many DSA delegates felt “Bolsonarismo” is identical to right-wing authoritarianism in the United States, with similar rhetoric, tactics, and enemies. Most notably, both share a propensity for political violence. Cutler felt that there was “a lot of fear” spreading among Lula supporters of retaliation from their Bolsonaro-supporting neighbors. Cutler’s grandmother, who lives outside São Paolo, was apparently “too scared” to put up PT’s flag on her porch.

Loosened firearms laws coupled with extreme rhetoric have created a culture of “loose cannons,” so reckless that “Bolsonaro himself can’t even control it,” said Hernandez. Though they spent only four days in São Paulo, the threat of violence was “something we kept hearing about.” Hernandez, familiar with white supremacist groups in her native Texas, could “feel parallels of that with Trumpism.” Trumpism has “exacerbated Bolsonaro-ism,” Hernandez believes. Many Trump acolytes and cabinet members are now informal advisors to Bolsonaro, and have amplified allegations of election tampering since the first round ended. A close first round result, escalating political violence, and an incumbent leader with authoritarian ambitions are all ingredients for a possible military coup. Local organizers, national strategists, and international viewers have all speculated whether Bolsonaro would attempt a coup if he loses. Going into the October 30th second round runoff, Lula leads the polls, and already Bolsonaro’s allies are claiming misconduct. Bolsonaro’s son with Flavio claimed that his father was a victim of “the greatest electoral fraud ever seen.” 

Pablo Kokay Valente, an Assistant Professor at the University of Connecticut and a member of PT since 2012, currently leads PT’s Boston chapter, which is the “largest by number of members,” outside Brazil. Valente takes the threat of a coup seriously, noting that Bolsonaro has “the support of a large section of the armed forces” and has appointed “several generals” to cabinet positions. Comparing Bolsonaro’s actions with Trump’s attempts to circumvent the 2020 presidential election results, Valente thinks the former is more likely to be successful. “Brazilian democracy is much more fragile,” Valente warned. 

Given the looming threat of a coup, what contingency plans does DSA have in place to support its allies overseas? “Political organization is the greatest weapon we have to stop a coup, and respond if a coup should occur,” Valente clarified. DSA’s delegates agreed. Already, DSA is “preparing to turn our members out to the Brazilian consulate,” responded Cutler when asked the same question. Coinciding with “pressuring Biden,” Silverman stated that DSA would “coordinate with the Washington Brazil Office,” an independent think tank, to “petition the U.S. government.”Even in a scenario where Lula succeeds in the second round and Bolsonaro concedes defeat, a right-wing legislative branch could curtail his vision.

Today’s Lula “is not the firebrand leader of the 1970s,” Silverman admitted. Given Lula’s choice of former presidential opponent Geraldo Alckmin as his vice president; anti-abortion statements to assuage evangelicals; and embrace by Brazil’s economic and media establishments, it’s’s possible a second Lula presidency won’t be effective given this dysfunction. Valente dismissed these concerns, calling Lula “more of a diplomat than Bolsonaro.” Valente implored socialists waiting for the outcome of Brazil’s election to do one thing: “stay mobilized.”