The General Strike and the Survival of the Latin American Left: An Interview with Luiz Gonzaga Gegê da Silva

By Brian MierResearch Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs’ Brazil Unit

 This interview was originally conducted in Portuguese, and translated by the author.

Luiz Gonzaga Gegê da Silva is a historic figure on the Brazilian left. A member of the MR-8 resistance movement during the military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985, he spent time behind bars as a political prisoner and later became a founding member of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party, PT), running for national party president in 2005, representing the Socialist or Barbarism internal current.  Despite being a founding member of the party, he has never run for public office and never accepted a government job. Instead, he’s dedicated the last 30 years of his life to political organizing in squatter’s movements in São Paulo and the national Afro-Brazilian rights movement. Today, at age 67, he lives in a former squat that was converted to social housing in the downtown São Paulo region, drives a 20 year old car, and spends most of his days in the headquarters of the Movimento de Moradia de São Paulo (São Paulo Housing Movement, MMC) working to appropriate the hundreds of vacant tax-scofflaw buildings in the downtown region for conversion to social housing. Gegê is also a member of the national directorate of the Central de Movimentos Populares, or CMP. The CMP is a broad-based social movement coalition with around 200,000 members nationwide that represents landless peasants, squatters’, women’s, LGBT, and Afro-Brazilian rights movements and victims of forced relocations from hydroelectric projects. The CMP was a key actor in mobilizing for the April 28 general strike that took place nationwide in protest of President Michel Temer’s policies; most notably, his proposal to raise the retirement age as high as 74, depending on years spent in the workforce.

I caught up with Gegê on the afternoon of April 27, the day before the strike, to talk about the current political atmosphere and the upcoming strike. After the interview, Gegê made me a proposal: Would I like to come with him to shut down a road during the strike? So, the following morning, I met him and a group of 20 MMC members at six o’clock AM in their headquarters in Sé. All buses, trains, and subways were at a standstill, so we walked through downtown to 23 de Maio Avenue, where we were met by around 100 members of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra do Brasil (MST, Landless Workers Movement) and Levante Popular da Juventude (the Youth Uprising Movement). The group walked down a hill and, suddenly, there was a mad race to grab tires and gasoline from a site that was disguised to look like a homeless camp. Mirroring actions that were taking place on hundreds of avenues across the country at that moment, they blocked off one of the city’s most important highways with burning tires. For 40 minutes, rush hour traffic was paralyzed, the smoke billowed, and the crowd chanted “Fora Temer” (“Out with Temer”). Then, riot patrol police showed up and opened fire on us with tear gas canisters. As the crowd retreated, regrouped, and then started walking and singing through Anhangabau Valley, Gegê said, “Well, this is what we wanted. We wanted confrontation and we got it.” That day, 35 million people  refused to open their businesses or go to work and transport routes were shut down through all of the major cities across the country. The day before, this is what we talked about:

What is your social housing strategy here in downtown São Paulo?

We have had some great difficulties here in the city center because the unbridled capitalist system always sees the center of the city as a part that should be conserved and cultivated for the powerful, for the bourgeoisie. And when we started talking about social housing in the downtown area, many people thought it was absurd that we would want to live downtown. As if poor people and blacks had a location just for them, a ghetto.  When I started in this movement, the first thing that I tried to implement was dignified housing in the region. Due to my presence in the MMC and the other activists in the downtown area, we deepened this debate. We created a federation called the ULC (Unificação das Lutas de Cortiços por Imóveis Dignos nos Centros Urbanos, Unified struggle of Boarding House Residents for Dignified Housing in Urban Centers) and we worked to deepen the debate, to help people know that living in a dignified manner is a human right and a responsibility of the state.  Living in a dignified manner is a fundamental right. What good does it do to live under a bridge or viaduct? You do not have your dignity preserved there.  When I say that the greater center is a large stage, it’s because it is a stage that shows the division between the bourgeoisie and the social movements. São Paulo started in this central region and as the city grew, this bourgeoisie abandoned downtown to the point that today there are a lot of empty buildings here. Capital is not invested to reform these buildings or to guard them for the future. In other words, the center is a market reserve that capital creates so that a few years from now, the capitalists can sell property at a higher value. But buildings that do not fulfill their [constitutionally mandated] social function should all be occupied by families that do not have any dignified place to live.  We in the MCC are occupying various buildings. Two of them were taken from their owners and converted to social housing and in other cases where the city appropriated and converted tax-scofflaw abandoned buildings, we were able to place some of our families there. But our victories are still relatively small because the government still doesn’t have this vision that public buildings, or private buildings that are not fulfilling their social function and not paying real estate taxes, should be used by people who already live in the region.

There are people in the anglophone world who say that what happened last year was not a coup, because, at least ostensibly, Dilma Rousseff was thrown out through a legal mechanism. Others argue that even if it was a coup, Brazilians should no longer worry about that point but try to move forwards. What is the opinion of the CMP on this matter?

There is not a shadow of a doubt that we suffered a coup in Brazil. And it was not a coup against Dilma Rousseff. It was not simply a coup against the PT party. It is a coup that continues to be implemented on the backs of the working class.  The working class is paying a high price for this coup. And we are still not paying the price for everything they have planned for us. It is going to be a lot worse.  It’s a coup, as happened in other countries in Latin America. There was a coup against Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, there was a coup in Paraguay. And we had a coup here in Brazil even though—I said this in a meeting a few days ago and ex-President Lula laughed—it was the crumbs that fell off the table of the bourgeoisie that supported us in the Lula and Dilma governments. Because it was the banks and the bourgeoisie who made great profits during the Lula and Dilma governments. We workers got the minimum possible—Bolsa Familia (conditional cash transfer program), Bolsa Gas (subsidized cooking gas), Bolsa Cisterna (rain water capture systems for families in the semi arid region), small things.  I started predicting that this coup was going to happen in 2005 when they tried to impeach Lula. They started building the coup in 2005 and they continued developing it until 2016. I don’t have a shadow of a doubt that if they tried to carry out this coup against Lula it would have been more difficult for them to pull off. But if they weren’t able to pull it off in 2016, maybe it would have happened in 2017. Because the bourgeoisie does not joke around with this type of job.  The bourgeoisie is always, in an ever-increasing manner, trying to advance its project to take everything and leave the working class with nothing. They think the only rights for the working class are to have a bitter cup of coffee early in the morning, eat some rice and beans at lunch time, another plate of rice and beans at dinner time – that they do not need meat or milk or vegetables or a good life. Because the moment that the working class begins to have a better life, it will be able to think more clearly. It will begin to perceive that rights are obligations. And this is the issue. But if you see what is happening now, the coup is an ongoing process.  Every day there is a new vote against the working class.  The day before yesterday there was a vote in the  Labor Commission about labor law reform. They did not allow enough time for society to debate the issue, and yesterday it was already voted in a plenary session. 270 Congressmen decided to vote quickly on it so there would be no time for debate. Why did they do this? Because they know that the working class is waking up. And it is waking up in the sense that its leaders and representatives are starting to show them what their rights and responsibilities are. And this is why we are about to start a general strike, which will start in great vigor on April 28 in Brazil, when there hasn’t been anything like this for many years.  On April 28, we may have the largest general strike in the history of Latin America, not just Brazil. The repercussions of this strike could be so big that the other countries in Latin America begin to change their posture. If the strike fails, the bourgeoisie will continue to advance its recapturing of the space that the working class has gained throughout the continent. I am not a political analyst and never went to any fancy university, but I see this with a high degree of clarity: if the coup  consolidates its power in Brazil, the next country where a coup will take place in Latin America is Venezuela, even though they know that if it happens in Venezuela, blood will be spilled. But they are not worried about that. The people who organize the coup will not die. The people who will die will be their pawns and the working class trying to defend their rights. I lived in Venezuela in 2006 and I participated in a debate and said that a coup was in the works in Brazil.  When I returned from Venezuela later that year, I said this during the opening of the national Centro Unificado de Trabalhadores Labor Union Federation congress to a small group of media. In 2009, I was forced to leave Brazil and went to Venezuela; then I returned to Brazil in 2010, 9 days before Dilma Rousseff was elected, and I said it again.  When I said this, various petit bourgeois intellectuals, who were among us, laughed at me.

“Listen, cowboy,” they said, “you are in Brazil, you are not back in Venezuela. Over there they could have a coup any minute, but here in Brazil we don’t have these kinds of things. We don’t have a political climate for that here in Brazil.” And now, where are all these intellectuals providing an analysis of their mistakes? Because the left that made a mistake in not making this analysis. They thought that once they won the election it was over. The bourgeoisie does not joke around.

You fought against the Military Dictatorship (1964-1985) and spent time as a political prisoner in that era. Could you talk a bit about what some of the tactics you used during that time were and what tactics are being used today to fight President Michel Temer and his coup government?

First of all, the Military Dictatorship never really ended. It just transformed from a green uniform dictatorship to a suit and tie dictatorship. But all of the Military Dictatorship’s instruments that we were subjected to during the “years of lead” are still here.  It was not taken apart. We never got the right to take down the dossiers they had on our comrades. We still don’t know how many thousands of people they were investigating. We should be able to access these records, to see how all of the disappearances happened.  They found innumerable human remains in the mass grave in Perus (neighborhood on the periphery of São Paulo) of people who had disappeared. In the bourgeois project, they are the ones who have the power. But they forget that while they have the power, we the proletariat have the force. They may have the economic and financial power but the working class has the force. Unity within the working class is a fundamental tactic -unity between the city and the countryside. When I see a peasant, I have to be with him in his defense.  Where there is an Indian I have to be together with her in her defense.  Where there is a maroon community I have to be there in its defense. I can’t be here acting in self defense when the urban social movements are small, too small to create a mass intervention. Why did the Chinese revolution succeed? Because they achieved unity between the city and the countryside. In the same manner, I say that here in Brazil we need to deepen the debate on unity between the countryside and the city. Groups of social movement members here in the city should return to the countryside and live there for awhile and have new experiences living as peasants. What is the struggle like there in the countryside? And our comrades in the countryside should come to the city to gain experience and knowledge about how to move around in the city. It’s not enough to just come here and get on a bus. You have to understand the city as an instrument of defense in the process of class struggle and social transformation.

When Temer took over the presidency, National Public Radio in the United States ran a story which erroneously stated that Michel Temer never worked for the Military Government, that he had nothing to do with it [Gegê laughs]. So I would like to ask you, do you remember when he was part of the dictatorship government as a public prosecutor and São Paulo State security minister?

Temer is a guy who has always been involved with coups of one sort or another. I don’t have all of the details of his career but I know that he was even involved in a coup within the university student movement during the dictatorship.  He has no history of ever being involved in the opposition to the dictatorship. There is no record of him ever contributing to the opposition.  There are some people from the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB-  Brazilian Social Democracy Party)  party, for example, who are even today defending the right and the coup with body and soul, like José Serra, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and Aloisio Nunes, all of whom spent some time on the side of the left during the dictatorship.  They passed through but were not real leftists. Tellingly, when Fernando Henrique Cardoso was elected, he said, “forget about everything I ever wrote. My writings are worthless.” Today, José Serra is a guy who defends privatization tooth and nail. Aloisio Nunes defends the far right. But Temer always collaborated with the right.  And it was a classic error – I said it at the time and I’ll say it again – for Dilma to give this guy the vice presidency. Dilma Rousseff came with all of her baggage as a fighter, as a defender of the working class – and here on the other side, we had her vice president Michel Temer who always did well during those days. He was never able to get elected to anything but he even committed a coup within the Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (PMDB-Brazilian Democratic Movement Party)  party.  He used trickery to become a Congressman.  He was always at the service of the unbridled capitalist system. And he is one of the architects of the coup that we are living with today. He played the right cards.

Tomorrow is April 28 and there is going to be a national general strike. What will be the role of the Central de Movimentos Populares in the strike? How many people are you going to put on the streets and where and what are you going to do?

[Laughter] We can’t talk about this type of thing. We do not discuss our strategies. I’ll just say that all of the social movements and people associated with the Central de Movimentos Populares across the country are called to the streets tomorrow so that, on April 28, 2017, they will participate in the General Strike of the working class.  It can’t merely be a strike of the bus drivers and train conductors. It’s a strike by the Brazilian people. And we all have a fundamental role in this strike.  We are going to be together, organized, taking action and protesting in the streets. Wherever there is a need for a fight, we’ll be there.  I don’t have a shadow of a doubt that if this general strike goes as well as we imagine, we are going to have a change and this change will be, fundamentally, for the survival of the Latin American left. If this strike doesn’t work out, the left will be decimated in Latin America. It will start in Brazil and it will go to Venezuela, from Venezuela it will go to Uruguay, and from there it will go to Ecuador. Either this strike is going to work or the Latin American left will be crushed, because the right will come at us with all of its rancor. We know that the left isn’t so small, but it’s become a bit complacent. It has to return to the streets. It has to return to the classrooms to dispute with the right-wing youth on a daily basis.

By Brian MierResearch Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs’ Brazil Unit

 Additional editorial support provided by Aline Piva and Lilliana Muscarella Research Associates at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs’ Brazil Unit

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