The Guardian Weekly

Social policies scaled back in Brazil

Ministers ready to take axe to health, pensions, land reform and welfare

- Jonathan Watts Rio de Janeiro

Michel Temer has not long been interim president of Brazil, but his new centre-right administra­tion is already scaling back many of the social policies put in place by Workers’ party government­s in the previous 13 years.

Moves are under way to soften the definition of slavery, roll back demarcatio­n of indigenous land, trim housebuild­ing programmes and sell off state assets in airports, utilities and the post office. Newly appointed ministers are talking of cutting healthcare spending and reducing the cost of the bolsa

familía poverty relief system. Four thousand government jobs have been cut. The culture ministry has been subsumed into education.

For the interim government and its supporters, these austerity measures represent sound fiscal management as they try to rein in the government’s budget deficit and restore market confidence in Brazil, which has seen its sovereign debt rating downgraded to junk status over the past year. For critics, they represent a shift towards a neoliberal economic policy by the old elite that ousted President Dilma Rousseff, who is suspended pending an impeachmen­t trial in the senate.

Renato Boschi, a professor of social and political studies at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, said the new administra­tion – with no female or black senior ministers – was unrepresen­tative and its cost-cutting goals were implausibl­e. “It’s a completely rightwing government. Even [President Mauricio] Macri in Argentina is not as rightwing as Temer’s government,” he said. The changes have sparked protests in the streets and even at Cannes film festival, where Brazilian actors and film-makers said their country had suffered a coup.

Temer has said he is prepared to make unpopular decisions because he will not seek re-election in 2018. He is barred from running in any case due to electoral violations. But he is less confrontat­ional in congress, and has accepted André Moura – accused of attempted murder, criminal conspiracy and embezzleme­nt – as coalition leader in the lower house. Temer wanted a less controvers­ial figure, but had to accept the recommenda­tion of a powerful rightwing lobby controlled by suspended house speaker Eduardo Cunha, who orchestrat­ed Rousseff ’s impeachmen­t. Cunha was removed from his post by the supreme court for obstructin­g justice.

Changes are needed to drag Brazil out of its deepest recession in decades. But how to do this is the subject of fierce debate. The new finance minister, Henrique Meirelles, has said it might be necessary to temporaril­y raise taxes – already among the highest in the world – to reduce the public deficit. Other priorities are reform of the pension system and labour laws, he has said. Few question the need to amend the generous pension scheme for state employees, but adjustment­s to regulation­s risk worsening conditions for vulnerable workers, particular­ly in farming and food processing.

The new agricultur­e minister, Blairo Maggi – a soybean magnate and one of Brazil’s richest men – has proposed separating “degrading conditions” and “exhausting shifts” from the definition of slavery. The agribusine­ss lobby Maggi represents has also long been working to change land demarcatio­n policies so more territory can be opened up for crops and cattle.

In some of her last acts in office, Rousseff created 56m hectares of conservati­on land, recognised indigenous claims on other areas and acknowledg­ed several quilombolo­s (territorie­s inhabited by descendant­s of runaway slaves). Temer’s aides have said these decrees are now under review and could be revoked.

But the picture is not black and white. The new environmen­t minister, José Sarney Filho, has long committed himself to green policies. And the new foreign minister, José Serra, has stressed the importance of climate policy and protection of the Amazon. But Serra also signalled that Brazil’s alliances with leftwing Latin American nations will soon be a thing of the past.

Most controvers­ial are likely to be cuts in social spending. Health minister Ricardo Barros suggested the government could not afford public healthcare at current levels and encouraged people to take out private insurance plans. Social developmen­t minister Osmar Terra, said the poverty relief system could be “fine-combed” to reduce costs by 10%. And cities minister Bruno Araujo scrapped a plan to build 11,250 new houses under an affordable housing programme.

On the left and in social movements, there is dismay. Maynara Fanucci, a leading feminist campaigner, said: “Unfortunat­ely we will feel the effects of this government in the long term, and those that will most feel it are those that already have less rights and poorer conditions.”

 ?? Getty ?? Ideology in flux … a marred image of Michel Temer at a protest
Getty Ideology in flux … a marred image of Michel Temer at a protest

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom