Brazil’s Hope in the Balance

— Michael Löwy

AFTER SIX months in government, where are Lula and the Brazilian Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) going? The reform of the pensions recently approved in parliament is a negative sign: it cuts into retired workers’ benefits, particularly in the public services, and it entails paying off the system’s deficit by imposing an eleven percent surtax on retirees’ meager pensions.

Opposition to the pension reform has fuelled a demonstration of the Brazilian teachers’ union—40,000 participants—and a national strike of public employees, with fifty percent of all public employees participating. It is interesting that the leaders of these unions belong to the majority (moderate) wing of the PT.

The CUT leadership did not support the strike, but is campaigning for a substantial change of the pension reform, and the same applies to the PT’s parliamentary representation.

Not surprisingly, the right-wing neoliberal parties in parliament voted for the reform, while several representatives elected by the Workers Party protested, abstained or voted against. Some of them—Heloisa Helena and Luciana Genro, among others—are being threatened with expulsion from the party. The so-called “Ethical Committee” of the PT is meeting in September to discuss the fate of the threatened senators and deputies. There has been widespread opposition to their expulsion, coming from PT intellectuals, leaders and members of parliament, as well as from public opinion.

While Lula is still popular, this issue has created the first serious rift between him and his labor union constituency.

The victory of Lula Luis Inacio da Silva—ex-metal worker, trade unionist and founder of the PT—in the presidential elections last year was greeted by the Brazilian people with immense joy and hope. This was the hope for radical change, for a new start, for a break with the politics of the past. It’s the hope that another Brazil may be possible, a Brazil where the working classes, the landless, the homeless, women, blacks, the indigenous, the unemployed, the poor will finally be heard.

It was the hope that, for the first time, this government won’t be the instrument of the privileged, of the exploiters, of the landed proprietors, of the corrupt, of the millionaires. That this government will place more importance on the struggle against hunger, on an agrarian reform, on strengthening public services than on meeting the requirements of international financial institutions (International Monetary Fund, World Bank).

It was the hope of seeing an alternative social project and economic model come into existence—alternatives to neoliberalism—that will seek to generate jobs and redistribute income.

The obstacles to this program succeeding are many. In the first place, some institutions are beyond popular control. Lula and the PT won the presidential election with a crushing majority, but they don’t control the majority in either the Chamber of Representatives or the Senate.

International Blackmail

Lula and his government are under pressure from the classic blackmail of the financial markets: Any deviation from neoliberal orthodoxy would provoke capital flight and probably lead to the fall of the Brazilian real, followed by inflation.

They are also under enormous pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the American Federal Reserve, from the North American government itself, from “friendly” governments in Latin America and Europe, from Brazil’s ruling classes and the media they control—and even from certain “political allies.”

These forces are trying to make Lula’s government and party agree to moderate their aspirations, forget their “radicalness,” agree to a “reasonable” compromise, agree like everyone else to the accepted rules of the game; to not touch the interests of national and international capital; to respect the agreements with the IMF, however exorbitant these may be (reduction of social spending in order to assure payment of the debt); to stop opposing the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) in exchange for a few tariff concessions; to refrain from questioning the foreign debt; to postpone the agrarian reform; to repress “illegal” land occupations.

In other words, they are being asked to abandon their government program, to become a variant, a little more social, a bit more helpful, a little less corrupt, of all the previous “New Republic” governments.

In this scenario the Lula government would become “social-liberal” like so many others which have followed each other in Latin America and in Europe, satisfying capital and causing their electorate to despair.

In August 2003 it’s still too soon to judge what politics the new government will adopt. Will it be able to resist this pressure, to move forward toward putting into effect its program to redistribute income, carry out a real agrarian reform, reorient production toward the internal market, support a solidarity economy, adopt fiscal reform, prioritize investment in education and health, struggle against corruption and tax evasion?

To apply these measures will require a hard struggle against powerful adversaries who are little disposed to make concessions. Without pressure “from below” from the popular movement, from worker and peasant organizations, from the lower classes, as a counterweight to the pressure “from above” from the North American Empire and the privileged classes, the battle for a change in direction will be lost.

The Landless and Laborers

The position of the Rural Landless Workers Movement (MST, Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem-Terra) seems to me exemplary in this respect:

“Our role as a social movement is to continue to organize the poor in the countryside, to help them become conscious of their rights and to mobilize them to fight for change. We will protect our independence of government control, yet wherever possible cooperate with the new government, in order to make possible the agrarian reform of which we have dreamed for so long.” (MST Resolution of 11/8/02)

This position also seems to be adopted by the CUT (Central Unica dos Trabalhadores, United Workers Central), by the Homeless Movement (Movimento dos Sem-Teto), by the Central of Popular Movements, by the women’s movement, by the progressive part of the Catholic Church which has taken very clear positions against the FTAA and against payment of the foreign debt, and by PT militants.

All these forces have recently joined the MST in creating a Coalition of Social Movements, with the aim of mobilizing and struggling for a new social and economic policy, favoring employment and rent distribution.

The most militant sectors of the social movement do not believe it necessary to “wait” for the government to resolve problems. They take their inspiration from a Geraldo Vandre song that was very popular in the movement struggling against the dictatorship in 1968: “quem sabe faz a hora, no espera acontecer” (“those who know how do it right now, they don’t wait for things to happen”).

It’s with this outlook that the MST continues organizing land occupations and fighting for implementation of an agrarian reform, while the Homeless People’s Movement has been occupying empty lodgings. These and other social mobilizations have been denounced by right wing media and politicians as “social disorder.”

A “Prudent” Strategy?

At first glance, the new government’s strategy seems to be extremely prudent: no rupture with the former neo-liberal model, but a transition period, essentially “continuist” with past practice.

Some declarations by Finance Minister Antonio Palocci (a PT “moderate”) lead us to understand that the “transition” could last throughout Lula’s four-year presidential mandate.

This course is symbolized by the nomination of Henrique Meirelles—former director of the Boston Bank and formerly a member of parliament (deputy) representing the PSDB (the previous President Cardoso’s party)—to head the Central Bank, and by raising interest rates and increasing the budget surplus designated to pay off the foreign debt.

Even more disquieting is the government’s project of making the Central Bank autonomous and of agreeing to negotiate Brazil’s entry into the FTAA.

These steps would effectively abandon the PT’s program and align it with neoliberal dogmas.

That explains the reaction of certain well-known left personalities—like Augusto Boal, Emir Sader, Chico Buarque, Oscar Niemeyer, Leonardo Boff, as well as several progressive bishops (Dom Paulo Arns, Dom Pedro Casaldaliga, Dom Tomas Balduino, among others)—who on May 2, 2003 wrote a letter to Lula, asking him to organize a plebiscite before making a decision on the Central Bank or the FTAA.

While the general line of Lula’s government economic and social policy has been in continuity with Cardoso’s neoliberal orientation, and strictly following the IMF instructions, there have been also some contradictory signs of commitment to popular interests. For instance, a big Campaign Against Hunger was launched, but for the moment it consists mainly in distribution of food, without dealing
with the roots of poverty and unemployment.

More promising are the initiatives in relation to Agrarian Reform. Lula nominated as head of the Ministry of Agrarian Reform Miguel Rossetto, ex-vice-governor of Rio Grande do Sul and very close to the MST. Recently Lula met with a delegation of leaders from the MST, the landless peasant movement. Joao Pedro Stedile, the main spokesperson of the movement, gave a very optimistic assessment of the discussion. He said that Lula recognized, self-critically, that during the first six months the government has not given the necessary priority to the Agrarian Reform, but that this was now going to change.

Lula promised to distribute land presently in the hands of idle landowners to hundreds of thousands of peasants, organized by the MST in cooperatives. And he said he would instruct the Campaign Against Hunger to buy their food from MST cooperatives. Finally, in a strong symbolic gesture, he donned the red cap of the MST for the public photo of the meeting.

This was too much: A storm of protest arose from reactionary media, landowners’ associations and their representatives in Parliament—110 representatives, belonging to various right-wing parties—accusing Lula of fostering social unrest by supporting a unruly and “subversive” movement.

They decided to create a Parliamentary Inquiry Commission on the MST “illegal activities” and, for the first time since the election, openly confronted the new government.

The next few months will show how far Lula’s promises are beginning to translate into reality.

No one can predict what the future of the government formed by President Lula will be. The optimists are putting their confidence in the former worker and combative trade unionist to keep his promises, while the pessimists are counting the concessions made to the IMF and the economic elites.

The “peptimists,” of which the author of these lines is one, think that all bets are not in (“the dice have not been thrown”—“les jeux ne sont pas faits”) and that a number of options remain open.

In fact, forecasts can only be conditional. Here is one, which seems important to me: Only active intervention by social and political actors who think that “another Brazil is possible” will be able to ensure a change.

ATC 106, September–October 2003