Reportage. The massive labor strike in protest of neoliberal government reforms had very high adhesion, but President Michel Temer has so far refused to yield.

In Brazil, the general strike puts Temer at crossroads

“A historic day, a moment of hope and resistance.” This is how Dilma Rousseff has described the general strike that paralyzed Brazil, the first strike in 21 years. ”The struggle for better days for all Brazilians has just begun. The expansion of democracy will lead us to victory,” wrote the former president in a statement.

Almost a year after her impeachment on Aug. 31, when she was relieved of her duties after a long and flawed trial, Rousseff is back on the field against her former centrist ally, Michel Temer, who stabbed her in the back to become the president of Brazil, a position to which he never could have aspired democratically. Since then, the protests against the “coup president Temer” have multiplied. He still remains in the saddle despite the heavy corruption charges over his head and those of his ministers, some of whom have already resigned.

Now, the wrath on the streets has also focused on the haughtiness with which the government protects the interests of the sectors it represents — the oligarchs and the big international capital funds — by bending the rules in their favor and deleting those that get in the way. This attitude is back in vogue in regional blocs of Latin America, where the two big countries that have turned to the right (Brazil and Argentina) make and unmake the rules to get rid of cumbersome partners (Cuba, Venezuela and the ALBA countries). To silence judges (at least the unfriendly ones) the Brazilian Senate (with the participation of 24 elected senators who are under investigation for corruption) voted for a special gag law and a special constitutional amendment that will turn back the clock on basic rights, stopping social spending for 20 years.

After the pension reform, a similar labor reform, full of savage neoliberalism, has passed the Senate and now can go to the Chamber. The minimum retirement age was raised to 65 years for men and 62 for women. At the same time, the labor reform has legalized so-called intermittent work and opened new opportunities for companies to bypass unions and sign individual agreements with workers. Under these conditions, it is difficult for workers to accrue the required minimum contributions. The obligation to finance the unions with a day’s work, as it has been for 73 years (since Getulio Vargas’ progressive government) was abolished.

Brazil has 16,933 trade unions, and most took to the streets for a general strike. The data on Temer’s government indicates who is paying the costs of the much discussed “recovery,” with blows of massive privatizations, layoffs and brutal cuts in social spending. For the first time in history, Brazil has surpassed 14 million unemployed, who — in the first three months of the Temer government — have come to represent 13.2 percent of the working population. Very far away from the full employment policies advocated by the governments of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Rousseff. It is estimated that four out of 10 workers are in temporary positions and work under the table, without any protection provisions.

The labor reform, welcomed by entrepreneurs and rejected by the unions, would also increase slave labor, still very present in Brazil, especially in the textile sector where undocumented migrants are employed. A month ago, the government released a blacklist of these companies, which also swell the money laundering market. According to the unions, the list should be multiplied at least 40-fold.

“Fora Temer” shout the protesters while clashing with police. In Sao Paulo, they tried to attack the house of Temer, who at that time was in his official residence in Brasilia. In downtown Rio de Janeiro, the military police used rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the crowd that was carrying out a protest march in front of the Legislative Assembly headquarters. Groups of masked demonstrators threw stones and Molotov cocktails toward the officers and attacked banks.

The general strike is considered successful: Despite the sabotage of large private media, who supported the impeachment of Rousseff and then the media lynching against da Silva, condemning him as corrupt even before any court could prosecute him. Da Silva, who has repeatedly declared his innocence, asked to be heard by Judge Sergio Moro about corruption in the state oil company Petrobras.

The hearing was postponed for security reasons because it was near the time of the general strike. Instead of May 3, it would be held on May 10 in Curitiba (in southern Brazil), but by that date, the situation could be incandescent. Temer is standing firm in his plans to “modernize the national legal framework” and has ruled out dialogue with the unions. He said that the debate on the reform “will take place in the appropriate forum, the Congress.” The demonstrations? They are organized by “isolated groups,” he said. And according to the Minister of Justice, Osmar Serraglio, the current event “is not a national strike, because businesses are open, industries are operative and workers are going to their regular jobs.” It is rather “general chaos.”

A political strike, in the scenario of the 2018 presidential elections. Da Silva remains the favorite in the polls, but behind him is the “Brazilian Trump,” the grim Messias Bolsonaro. Da Silva and the arc of forces that support him — even the progressive Catholic Church has supported the general strike — push for an earlier appointment with the ballot.

“This country is not being governed and is going through the worst recession in its history,” da Silva said. “This country does not need someone occupying the presidential seat improperly. We want direct elections and we do not want to wait for 2018.” In other words, a constituent assembly, called for by all the popular organizations that promoted the strike and now also supported by Rousseff and da Silva.

The Brazilian situation helps to clarify what is happening in Venezuela, where there are violent protests, but under another sign and opposite claims. Virtually all the acronyms that organized the general strike — the Workers’ Party, at its most radical left, trade unions, movements of the Landless and Homeless, the base church — signed a document delivered to the embassy of Venezuela in Brasilia: They want to express their support for the “Bolivarian revolution” and condemn foreign interference and attacks by the right, represented in the media by Lilian Tintori, who supported the election campaign of Macri in Argentina and the Temer government.

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