On February 25, 2019, Brazil found itself with two presidents. José de Abreu, 72, an actor and minor celebrity who has long been active in left-wing politics, proclaimed himself the president of the country on Twitter. He then followed this tweet with a series of others, moving the capital of Brazil, naming his Cabinet, forming a “party,” and freeing ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, currently in jail on charges of money laundering and corruption.
To be clear, two presidents is one more than Brazil normally has, yet a constitutional crisis does not appear to be forthcoming. Abreu’s proclamation is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the political crisis in Venezuela, criticizing the opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s decision to proclaim himself interim president of Venezuela on January 23. If Guaidó could declare himself president, Abreu argued, then he could do the same in Brazil.
Yet this novelty seems to say more about the fractures within the left in Brazil — and indeed Latin America — than it presages a robust opposition to newly elected President Jair Bolsonaro. The left in Latin America, after a resurgent “pink tide” in the 2000s spearheaded by Lula, has suffered badly over the past few years. The right has racked up victories in countries previously led by the center left over the past few years, such as Argentina in 2015, Chile in 2017, and Colombia and Brazil in 2018. The left, up to now, has offered little in the way of a counterattack.
Abreu’s statement might be an elaborate satire, but it does expose some divisions in the opposition to Bolsonaro. In addition to indignation from the right, Abreu has attracted flak from the left, especially after indicating that Rio city council member Marielle Franco, who was killed by gunfire in March 2018, would be his first lady in memoriam. With characteristic tact, Abreu dismissed these criticisms by saying they were from a left with “bodies of the right,” disliking laughter and sex.
Abreu exemplifies two deep-seated problems on the Brazilian left. First, the only recognizable standard-bearer at the moment is doing it for laughs. Second, mocking the Venezuelan opposition comes off as tone-deaf in the context of Venezuela’s struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, as well as the profound humanitarian crisis that is affecting, among other countries, Brazil itself. In the end, the message Abreu propagated, albeit somewhat unintentionally, is that Brazil’s left is quite literally a joke.
For one, Abreu is gaining more media coverage than just about any other figure on the left. Real-life politicians have actually attached themselves to Abreu; one agreed to be his vice president. It is difficult to know much they are truly in on the joke. This is likely because, despite the tempestuous beginning to Bolsonaro’s term, complete with corruption scandals, complications from a surgery, and ill-considered pornographic tweets, no leader has begun to emerge from the wreckage of the 2018 election.
The left, it seems, is in disarray. The Workers’ Party (PT) won the most seats in Congress, but it is still reeling from Lula’s imprisonment. Indeed, it lost seats in Congress, and opposition to its time in power also helped propel Bolsonaro to victory. Ciro Gomes of the Democratic Labor Party (PDT) finished third in the 2018 election but flew off to Europe after the first round, upset with a perceived betrayal by Lula and the PT; since then, he has largely disappeared from the political scene. The Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), a smaller, more ideologically oriented party, did make gains in the 2018 elections but is still numerically small.
Nowhere is this lack of a standard-bearer more evident than with the crisis in Venezuela. As Bolsonaro and his government consider how to respond to the growing crisis in Venezuela, the left has sent out a divided message. Abreu’s satirical argument is typical of many within the PT, which has painted itself into a corner on Venezuela. Lula was an ally of Hugo Chávez when he was in office, and despite his imprisonment, his influence continues to be strong within the party. The president of the PT, Gleisi Hoffmann, a Lula surrogate, went to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s inauguration, and the party has sent out signals that it will continue to support him for now. Despite a turn to authoritarianism and an economic and humanitarian disaster, the PT is more fixated on opposing a possible intervention from the United States than opposing Maduro.
Supporting Maduro, however, will neither win over center-left or center parties nor be a popular option. According to the most recent wave of the Las Américas y el Mundo survey on public opinion and foreign policy in Brazil in 2014-’15, based out of the University of São Paulo and the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas in Mexico City, the US had an average thermometer score of 60 out of 100 among Brazilians as opposed to 37 for Venezuela. Given that Bolsonaro ran his campaign touting close ties to the US, and given how Venezuela has deteriorated since then, this difference is likely larger as of now. For a party looking to build an anti-Bolsonaro coalition, refusing to disavow Maduro’s regime is not a good look.
Abreu’s satire shines a light on a divide between the sensibilities of the older, more traditional left in Brazil and other elements of a possible opposition to Bolsonaro. Abreu himself is unlikely to worsen these divides, but he shows the problems that could develop for the opposition if Bolsonaro, the US, or other regional actors opt to press the issue in Venezuela, with one element supporting the Maduro administration and another rather more ambivalent. An escalation of the issue could drive a wedge between different tendencies of a fractious opposition in Brazil.
Meanwhile, Abreu seems determined to keep the joke going. A prolific tweeter, he has continued to spread serious messages about left-wing politics on his account as well as satirical messages about Bolsonaro, Guaidó, and a variety of other targets. Bolsonaro tweeted in response that he plans to sue Abreu, while some of his supporters started a hashtag calling for Abreu to be imprisoned. None of this, however, stopped Abreu from announcing his own inauguration, taking office as “president” with a speech in front of well-wishers at the airport in Rio de Janeiro.