BRAZIL — In a bid to solve the nation’s economic crisis, Brazil’s Senate voted in mid December to amend its 1988 Constitution, as proposed by President Michel Temer. The amendment, PEC 55, aims to freeze state expenditure on health, education and social security, which are perceived by the government to be a major contributing factor to Brazil’s debt.
The 1988 Constitution is known for being one of the more globally progressive, and it was drafted at the end of Brazil’s 20-year military dictatorship. Its Constituent Assembly was representative of diverse sectors of society, and included the participation of social organizations such as public forums and unions.
Health and education have always been considered by these organizations as primary investments that should be prioritized. However, with the introduction of PEC 55 — referred to by several social organizations as the “end of the world” — paying off state debts will become the state’s primary concern.
Several Brazilian economists have spoken out against the constitutional changes. Laura Carvalho, economics professor at the University of São Paulo, attributed Brazilian state debt to high interest rates and low tax revenues in a public address to the Senate’s Commission of Economic Affairs. Social organizations that are against the austerity measures, such as students’ and teachers’ unions and movements, blame Brazil’s regressive taxation system, which they say privileges the rich, with tax breaks for corporations and multinational companies.
PEC 55 threatens Brazil’s already weak public sector, making people reliant on public education and healthcare, which according to the Health Ministry is up to 70 percent of the population, even more vulnerable. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, the amendment is a breach of human rights. Tereza Campello, former minister of Social Development, says it could bring Brazil back onto the UN’s Hunger Map, which the country left in 2014.
With a corrupt and conservative Congress and a Senate that impeached President Dilma Rousseff in August, in what her supporters claim was a coup d’etat, the new government has taken just four months to approve ultra neoliberal economic measures.
Rousseff’s government was part of a popular progressive era in Brazilian politics, started by former President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva in 2002. These 14 years were marked by substantial investments in social services, such as education, health, culture and fighting historical racial and social inequalities, including strong moves towards ending hunger in the country.
In the last presidential election, in 2014, Rousseff, from Partido dos Trabalhadores (the Workers’ Party or PT), was re-elected by a small margin over Aécio Neves, from Partido Social Democrata Brasileiro (Brazilian Social Democracy Party or PSDB). A request for Rousseff’s impeachment was subsequently submitted to Congress, based on accusations she illegally manipulated finances to hide the growing budget deficit ahead of the 2014 elections.
The candidates represent the two different projects for the country since 1990: Neves belongs to the same party as Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who was president from 1995 to 2002. His presidency is remembered for several neoliberal projects, including the privatization of many companies. Partido dos Trabalhadores (of former presidents Rousseff and Lula) is based on a developmental economic strategy that benefits social programs, but also having strong alliances with the agricultural and industrial private sector.
This political polarization has increased in Brazil since mass public demonstrations in 2013, which began in reaction to high prices for public transport, and ended with abstract claims against corruption — mostly right-wing oriented and inflated by the Brazilian media. The standoff ended with more mass demonstrations in 2016, in which people either supported Rousseff’s impeachment or her remaining in post, a matter that still divides the population.
The subsequent unpopular neoliberal measures taken quickly by new President Michel Temer (Dilma’s vice president and active participant in the coup to remove her from office) came as a surprise for most Brazilians, including supporters of Rousseff’s impeachment.
Brazil has witnessed strong resistance from civil society in the past two months, with many social organizations trying to stop the amendment and maintain the universal health and educational system guaranteed by the 1988 Constitution.
Since October, several high schools and universities have been occupied by students, and several teachers’ unions are on strike. According to the National Student’s Union, more than 1,000 public schools and 220 universities have been occupied, including private institutes whose students lost their public financing. On November 29, the date of the first Senate vote, a huge demonstration in Brasilia, the country’s capital, was heavily repressed by police.
Not only was the impeachment process undemocratic, the new government remains blind and deaf to the people’s will for the country.