Thirty-seven-year-old former journalist and communist militant Manuela D’Ávila might just be the next vice president of Brazil. The ex-journalist and student leader forms a vital part of the Workers Party (PT) slate along with their presidential candidate Fernando Haddad, the political successor to former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, currently in prison.
Despite D’Ávila’s relative youth, she already boasts an impressive political career as a former city councilor in Porto Alegre, state deputy, and federal deputy for Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state in Brazil. She has won every election she’s taken part in for her party, The Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB), since 2005. Her rise to the leadership of the PCdoB could represent something of a left turn for the party, as it seeks to channel the energies of a new political generation.
In November 2017, the PCdoB nominated D’Ávila as their presidential candidate, but in August 2018 she dropped her candidacy after formalizing an alliance with the PT.
Manuela was originally meant to be the vice-presidential candidate for former president Lula’s slate. However, despite leading all the polls, Lula was blocked by an electoral court from running in August and replaced by Fernando Haddad, former mayor of São Paulo.
Despite having backed PT in every election since 1989, the PCdoB’s alliance with the PT was not guaranteed this time around. In the months leading up to the campaign, the PCdoB had been flirting with the other major center-left candidate, the Democratic Labor Party’s (PDT) Ciro Gomes. Gomes’s national developmentalist vision in many respects is closer to the PCdoB’s politics than the PT’s particular form of social democracy.
However, Lula — even behind bars — remains the one true political maestro in Brazil and was able to coordinate a series of political maneuvers that undermined Gomes’s candidacy. One of these was to secure an alliance with the PCdoB.
D’Ávila is one of the youngest leaders of the PCdoB, whose origins can be traced back to 1922. The PCdoB is one of Brazil’s two Communist parties — the other being the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB) which is backing PSOL’s presidential candidate Guilherme Boulos. The PCdoB and the PCB split in 1962 after the Sino-Soviet Split, with the PCB representing the pro-Moscow faction and the PCdoB being closer to Beijing (the adoption of Maoism by the party was formalized in 1966).
After the 1964 military coup, divisions within Brazil’s communist movement were further accentuated by the debate about armed struggle. After the dictatorship entered a newly repressive phase in 1968, the PCdoB attempted to launch armed insurgency in the Amazon in 1969. The insurgency was ill-fated and brutally crushed by the military with ample usage of torture, mass killing, napalm, and numerous other human rights abuses. The defeat and the loss of almost a whole generation of key leaders forced the party to reorient their strategy.
Due to this experience, and the rapprochement between China and the United States, the PCdoB broke with China in 1978. It adopted instead the line of Albanian leader Enver Hoxha (until 1992) and began to organize within the trade union and student movements following the onset of the democratization process in the 1980s.
Initially, the PCdoB along with the PCB were hostile to the new trade union leadership and supported the official opposition party, the Movement for Brazilian Democracy (MDB). But this changed by the 1989 elections after the PCdoB aligned itself with the PT and its trade union allies. With the fall of the Soviet bloc, the PCdoB moved towards an internally oriented strategy and by 1992 had aligned itself internationally once again to China.
The party has come to dominate the National Student Union (UNE) through its youth wing Socialist Youth Union (UJS), where Manuela got her political start. Critics of the PCdoB accuse UJS of using authoritarian and opportunistic methods to maintain a stranglehold on UNE.
The party and its youth played a key role in the Fora Collor (“Collor out”) movement that saw former president Fernando Collor de Mello impeached in 1992 following economic crisis and a major corruption scandal. It’s the largest of the two Communist parties and is the most influential heir to Brazil’s communist tradition. It’s also the only one with governance experience, following its historic victory in the 2014 gubernatorial elections in Brazil’s poorest state, Maranhão. In the process, they broke the hold of the Sarneys –– one of Brazil’s most backwards, depraved, and powerful oligarchical clans–– over the state’s politics.
The PCdoB forms part of the so-called governista bloc: the coalition of parties and movements that has strongly backed the PT governments since 2002. However, it differs from the PT and other forces on the radical left in several respects; in particular through its embrace of nationalism and developmentalism. Its version of communism sees the national development of Brazil as the primary struggle for the Left.
However, the party has many critics on the left who accuse the party of supporting the more right-wing elements of the PT’s governance, especially its use of “anti-imperialist” rhetoric to justify — in the name of national development — the exploitation of the Amazon at the expense of local peasant and indigenous communities.
Furthermore, the party’s former leader Aldo Rebelo (who briefly acted as president in 2005), a former government minister and principal author of the changes to forest code which favored the interests of agribusiness, betrayed Dilma Rousseff in 2015 by aligning himself to Temer and the coup. Rebelo left the party in 2017, leaving behind a crisis that D’Ávila’s candidacy is a direct response to.
In the wake of this disaster, D’Ávila’s strong feminist rhetoric and embrace of elements of the Brazilian youth movement could mark a left turn from the party’s nationalist and conservative elements.
Her candidacy comes at a tense time in Brazilian history, with Lula’s exclusion from the presidential race and the far-right Jair Bolsonaro leading in the polls.
In this interview conducted shortly before giving up her presidential candidacy to run with Haddad, D’Ávila talks about the Brazilian crisis, misogyny and the issues facing women in politics, how she sees the reconstruction of the Left, and other issues.
What is it like to be a female candidate in Brazil? For instance, many noted that you were treated especially harshly on Roda Viva [a TV program in which candidates are interviewed by a panel of journalists].
The Roda Viva episode was an interesting one, both publicly and for me, politically. I came out of Roda Viva with the feeling that, okay, I took on a very difficult TV program — as are many of the programs I take part in — and I did well. Then, I noticed that people didn’t realize what I go through every day. It actually made people realize what I go through; and what other women go through, every day, who are on the left like me. But not only in politics, in any place of public visibility. It revealed for me that people don’t know what our reality is like.
I think this was the major philosophical lesson and critical reflection on the program: to see how people have no idea what political violence in Brazil is really like. The program was a one-hour version of what was, for example, a long process of high intensity like Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016. The narrative that gave social legitimacy to the impeachment was based in part on misogyny.
But what had the greatest impact was the reaction of people to sexist political violence, to the misogynistic practices on Roda Viva, which showed how women are much more organized, even if in diffuse ways, than until very recently.
I’m very young, and to run for president I became young again. I had stopped being young: I’m thirty-six years old, I’ve got twenty years of militancy and sixteen years of public office under my belt. In 2008, when I first ran for office in a majoritarian election [president, state governor, senator and mayor are majoritarian; federal and state deputies and city councilors are elected on a proportional basis], I was twenty-six years running for mayor of Porto Alegre. The [opposing] campaign as a whole was absolutely machista [male chauvinist or macho], but I didn’t have the space to talk about this.
In 2006, when I was elected state deputy, most newspapers ran misogynist coverage — even though I was a woman from the student movement. In Brazil, it was highly subversive: there are no young people in politics, there are no women in politics; and the young people that there are in politics are almost always direct descendants of other politicians. A not-insignificant number of the women who are in politics are also related to traditional politicians, so I became a talking point.
And what did the newspapers report? That I was the new “belle” of Congress.
For me, this election has a particular characteristic — being a woman taking part in this election — because this election is a landmark. It’s happening after a coup process that Brazil underwent and, as I said, this coup was greatly characterized by its misogynistic narrative.
If you were elected, or if you were part of a slate that were elected, what would you do to effectively change institutional machismo?
There are two distinct issues, but it is important that we talk about both.
One question which is studied around the world is related to under-representation and the low quality of democracy, when the entirety of the population isn’t represented. In Brazil, we have a problem, which is a problem related to not having women, or for that matter black people or indigenous people, be they left or right-wing, in public office and this shows the low quality of our democracy.
We need mechanisms to increase the participation of women. They are important.
But there’s another theme, which is: who are the women who really suffer with the structure of oppression in Brazilian society? Why is it that these women, who break these barriers [glass ceiling] and take part in public entrance exams, as is the case with a section of magistrates, university professors, and in general in civil service, why don’t they respond to misogyny? It’s because inequality doesn’t affect all women equally.
If you don’t have an understanding that inequality affects women workers more, that the Brazilian state is organized on the basis of gender and racial inequality combined, that in Brazil it’s black people who are the poorest in society — due to our historical inheritance — how are you going to take on real machismo?
Liberal feminism takes on that first theme, the theme of democratic quality, of us being visible. This isn’t unimportant, but my feminism sees this from a class perspective. Gender and race subordinated to a bigger question, which is the class structure of society. In this crisis-ridden Brazil, to see the labor counter-reforms or the fiscal ceiling amendment as things that affect women and men equally — even looking only at workers — is wrong.
Secondly, is it correct for the government to continue contracting services to companies who pay women and men differently? For me, the government needs to be the spokesperson for a gender-equal society. Is it right that unemployment insurance is the same for men and women in all circumstances, if Brazilian unemployment is above all female and above all linked to maternity? For me, it is not.
Therefore, we propose to double the ceiling for unemployment insurance and extend the time [during which unemployment insurance can be claimed] for women who are mothers of children under three, because it is until three years of age that children fall under public policy, including with regard to the education system. [It’s important to] understand the structures of the state that can help emancipate women isn’t it?
We also need to show to society that we are not just the violence our uteruses suffer. Brazilian inequality is female, and Brazil will only have a real developmentalist project, for everyone, when the core of this project concerns women and black people.
You spoke about the way that sexist violence is made invisible. Do you think that the situation with Lula also disguises class violence? That is to say, would Lula be in this situation if he didn’t have the [class] origins that he does?
I think this question doesn’t even need to touch on Lula’s origins, just take into account the interests he represents in an election such as this one — that is, an election that will be definitive of the path Brazil takes. They try to pretend this is an election in which there is the right, the left and the center, but in reality, the next government will only bring us one of two ways: either to reforms or counter-reforms.
The next government will either carry out pension reform that punishes workers, above all the poorest, or it will carry out progressive tax reform and take on the multimillionaires who don’t pay income tax in Brazil. In this context, [Lula] who [was] in first place in the polls and who could probably unify our political camp and win the elections isn’t free. It would only take him saying he’s not a candidate and I’m sure they would let him go free.
Of course, this also has to do with his background. Lula is a worker, who is the face of this unequal Brazil; he’s an internal migrant from the northeast, who came to São Paulo, which is a symbol of Brazilian capitalism because it’s our biggest metropolis, a temple of capitalist opportunity.
As with everything in capitalism, the brighter it shines, the darker its shadows. Lula is that, a migrant from the dry northeast who came here, was a factory worker, and became president of Brazil. The most successful journey in the history of the Brazilian left. Given the crisis, they know there is no way that everyone can be a winner, as everyone was a winner during his two administrations. The win-win [of Lulismo] has ended. To win today, for the working class to take on inequality, it is necessary to combat rentierism.
There is a grave political crisis in the Brazilian establishment — this affects the PT as much as it does PSDB. And without Lula in the race, Jair Bolsonaro is the highest polling candidate — he presents himself as an anti-establishment figure. How do you evaluate this phenomenon?
What we must do, first of all, is to try to understand the reasons behind people showing an interest in Bolsonaro. This is much more important than pointing fingers and going, “Oh look they’re a bunch of fascists.” Calling 28 percent of the population (which is what he’s polling) fascists, is to cast those people, who until very recently supported our project, as belonging to the other side of the spectrum.
I think that we need to reflect frankly on this. For me, people have legitimate concerns. Why? Because the crisis is vast. We’re talking about fourteen million unemployed, twenty-five million people unemployed and underemployed, who don’t know how they can feed their child at night. That is unemployment. There are women who raise children alone, who don’t have means to pay for school — as they had two years ago. It creates panic. Of the five million people who have been looking for work for over a year, one million are young people.
A fear of the future is a legitimate sentiment. Uncertainty and insecurity together. We come from an environment of a lot of violence between the poorest people. If we map the violence, what does it show us? It shows that despite a legitimate fear on the part of the middle class, of theft and murder, the Brazilian state is a state that increases each year the number of murdered black people.
In this moment, you have the effects of Bolsonaro inciting hate in the media throughout the PT years; there’s fascism in the streets; the army has control of two government ministries for the first time since democratization. If a center-left candidature wins, what needs to be done to contain this cauldron? And, in your view, do you think the PT governments failed to be combative enough with the right while they were in power? Did focusing on soft power within the institutions come at the cost of letting the Right cultivate this environment?
I have a lot of hope that the elections will be able to make us come to a new agreement on the important questions of our democracy. Because we need to have, between us, an intellectual coherence when we think about Brazil. If we want to say [Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment] was a coup, we need to conclude that our democracy is not the same as it was before it happened.
For me, it’s a process that is ongoing. When we decide to take part in elections, we are making a wager that this means Brazil will be able to recover democratic conditions through a clean electoral process. Hence the importance of denouncing what happened with Lula, outside electoral concerns, and the understanding that for the crisis to be overcome, we need absolutely free elections, in which the people have the right to choose.
I think that the next government will necessarily be reformist — they’ll either be popular reforms or they’ll be counter-reforms. Either it will be a continuity of the reforms of this government [under Temer] or it will be in the other direction.
I don’t treat as a monolithic bloc the interests of rentierism, those behind Bolsonaro’s candidature, and popular interests. For me, a popular reformist project can ease tensions, because in reality theirs is an anti-popular project. That tends to pale in comparison to a project that responds to the population’s real needs: employment and security — which for me is tightly linked to the daily routine of our people, and generates a much more automatic reaction. It’s these two things [employment and security] at the end of the day.
And the role of the armed forces?
I think the army will submit to the results of the elections. It has room to act this way, not due to the clamor of society which, always in very crisis-ridden episodes, seeks authoritarian solutions. And the armed forces have authority, and the army has room to act like this. We’re facing a government without legitimacy, without authority, who is subordinated, even in a military hierarchy to a traitor (Temer). The president didn’t respect the constitution. This is a government without any authority or credibility whatsoever.
You’ve had the experience of government in the state of Maranhão (Brazil’s poorest state). What does this teach you — what has the PCdoB learned from its own projects?
I think the administration of Flávio [Dino, the PCdoB governor of Maranhão] is emblematic, in Brazil. It’s a state government that sought to confront the crisis in a state that is very poor state, with high social inequality.
We, PCdoB, have a project that is different to the center-right. We know how to govern well. Maranhão is the second-best state in fiscal and accounting terms, and also the second-best place for investment. We invested in infrastructure, schools, and medical facilities. These are measures opposed to fiscal austerity, to what is done nationally, and valorizes the role of the state, which is the opposite to what is sold to the world today.
Flavio did not try to govern as a communist, he tried to create a government to develop Maranhão and combat some of the lowest human development indices in Brazil. He followed this path, it worked. It wasn’t easy. Maranhão really is emblematic: it is oligarchy, extreme poverty, fragile institutions. It’s a symbol of the Brazil we want to change.