A Latin American Report on the WSF (I)

Brazil: the world’s most inequitable country

It needn’t be said that Brazil is a wonderful country, with its 4,000 kilometers of beaches, its tropical forests–the Amazonian region being the largest biological reserve in the world–and a great variety of natural resources, including all kinds of minerals, oil, and farming products. It is not only the land of bananas, coffee and sugar, but also a main exporter of oleaginous products such as soy, as well as a producer of first rate beef in its Southern region. It is the 8th most industrialized country in the world, having its own nuclear and cybernetic industries, as well as a large automotive industry that exports to all of Latin America. Its surface is about half of South America, and its population–more than 160 million– also accounts for almost half the total in the region (let us keep in mind that the “other giant” in Latin America, Mexico, is geographically part of the Northern hemisphere).

 At least one third of those 160 million people live in conditions of complete marginalization: they do not even earn the minimum salary (about 80 U.S. dollars a month), and they have no access to education or health services. Furthermore, as the Brazilian press has recently reported, some 30 million people officially “do not exist,” i.e. they have no form of identification whatsoever. Their level of marginalization is higher than in any other Latin American country, with survival economies that periodically collapse against natural phenomena such as droughts or floods. Regional differences are sharp. It can be said, in more than one sense, that “there are several Brazils.” The Amazonian regions, in the North and Northeast, are the poorest, with bigger numbers of indigenous and black people. The South (home of the Forum’s host city, Porto Alegre) is the most socially integrated region, on account of its natural resources and coastal tourism (and also as a result of a different political tradition going back to Getulio Vargas). The center, where most of the Brazilian population lives, has some major urban hubs of modern economic activity, such as Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro and, mainly, Sao Paulo, which is one of the world’s largest industrial agglomerations and home to the core of Brazil’s power structure: the Sao Paulo bourgeoisie–a powerful social class, aware of its goals and persevering in its will to attain them–something quite exceptional in Latin America, where, in the words of André Gunther Frank, we generally find “proletarian bourgeoisies” that are totally dependent on the imperial US. power.

 This Sao Paulo ruling class is associated with the regional ones, but not without conflict, as the political clout of these minor ruling classes can sometimes be greater than their economic power, and they manage to get special treatment from the State in violation of the sacred tenets of capitalist efficiency: thus “Bahía” was the chosen location for a Ford assembly plant, instead of Sao Paulo, as would seem logical. All these ruling classes have been committed for several decades to an expansion model designed to turn them into the “natural center” of South America. The essential elements of this model have been supported both under previous military governments and under the current democratic one. The model relies on maintaining huge masses of people unemployed in order to keep wages down; hence the fact that the integration of the marginalized part of the population to modern life is slow and tends to be offset by population increases. In short, the size of the marginalized mass remains stable, despite some mild social policies attempted in the last few years.

 Inevitably, such a socio-economic structure generates resistance. Before we comment on the current political form of this resistance, it seems appropriate to mention the main forms it has taken in the last two decades, which the current political debate on the Brazilian media simplifies as “delinquency” or “crime.” Actually, it is a way of life into which millions of Brazilians are forced as a result of their being completely deprived of access to the “official” society. Naturally, once things reach a certain point–as is the case with the current “kidnapping industry” in Sao Paulo–the “decent” sectors of society engage in an odd commerce of mutual cooperation with the “criminal” sectors: the sums of money being dealt with in kidnappings, cocaine, marihuana and arms dealing are so large that the ruling class demands its share in exchange for legal protection, access to “friendly” parliament members and, especially, police accomplices (in Brazil there are four types of police: military, civilian, federal and investigative). The ensuing level of corruption is extremely high, and, except for the South, the large Brazilian cities nowadays are an entanglement of mafia operations that pose a risk of social disintegration, as used to be the case–and it still is to a great extent–in the main Colombian cities of Medellín, Cali and Bogotá. Whether by riverboat or by car, venturing deep into the interior of the country has become a risky enterprise, as river “pirates” and highwaymen carry out countless attacks: the image being one akin to the Robin Hood legend, only not quite as romantic. Tourists are shocked to learn that the picturesque “favelas” (shanty towns) of Rio de Janeiro–about 200 in number, housing hundreds of thousands of people–are completely controlled by various illegal “commandos” that get their resources from arms and drug dealings, and keep a pact of mutual protection with the indwellers. Normally, none of the various types of police forces dare enter the favelas, as they are greeted with gunfire (though the army has occasionally gone in, with tanks and helicopters).

 A still more dangerous form of crime for official Brazil is the one represented by the 3 million peasants organized within the Movement of Landless Peasants (MST). Those who participate in the movement of the “sem terra” (landless) demand that old promises be kept regarding land redistribution from giant estates. Brazil has the lowest ratio of land owners to agricultural land surface, and the methods used by the owners of large estates in order to acquire the land and keep it (with the complicity or open support of the Government) are truly barbaric. The mentality of large estate ownership is archaic, tending to intensive harvesting of a single crop. These are the heirs of the sugar and coffee plantations that used to depend on slave labor (slavery in Brazil was abolished only at the end of the 19th century). In contrast, the “sem terra” (landless) peasants make up a very dynamic group: on the estates they have managed to occupy and hold, they tend to keep a diversified production, mindful of the ecological conditions and the preservation of the soil. The MST is not so much a movement to participate in as one to “live” in, since the peasants, who must sometimes journey hundreds–and even thousands–of kilometers in search of lands, have established their own education and health systems thanks to their contacts with the urban world. These are nomadic communities, similar in some ways to the old “bandeiras” with which Brazilians gradually occupied the interior of their gigantic country during the colonial period.

 As we mentioned, there is a high level of corruption among the political class, and this clearly shows in the electoral campaign. Elections will be held in 2002 to choose the successor of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the reelected current president. A sociologist who attained international recognition for his “theory of dependency” of Third World countries, Cardoso decided to “forget” his past in order to become the representative of his own privileged origins: the Sao Paulo upper class. “Don’t read my books,” he once told reporters when they pointed out the contradictions between his actions in power and his previous writings as a sociologist.

Hosting the Forum: The Worker’s Party

 The “traditional parties” are all minor forces, generally dependent on a “cacique” (a local landowner or another powerful figure), and their influence is limited to one region. They are distinguished from one another only by the level of demagogy in their electoral promises (“putting an end to crime,” “protecting the family,” “turning Brazil into the best country on earth”).

 But there is a political force of a completely different nature: the Worker’s Party (abbreviated PT in Portuguese). The PT was founded about twenty years ago, in Sao Paulo, as an attempt by a union sector of the left (one of whose main leaders was Lula) to take advantage of the political opening-up process initiated by the military regime, which was then beating a retreat here (as in the rest of Latin America). Lula has run for President in three elections, increasing the number of votes with each successive attempt, and he almost certainly will run again this year. The polls show him leading by a wide margin (having a base of 30% of the votes against 15% for his two main opponents) but he is likely to be defeated in the second round by the union of all his opponents, who in the face of these kinds of crises forget all their differences (as happened during the last presidential elections in Uruguay, where the Left’s Frente Amplio won the first round only to be defeated by the traditional parties in the second).

 In any case, Brazil’s Worker’s Party is the most consolidated leftist political force in all of Latin America. Although it started out in Sao Paulo, one of its strongholds is now in the South, where it not only governs the city of Porto Alegre (hence our previous assertion that it is “hosting the Forum”) but actually the entire important state of Rio Grande do Sul. Its growth has been marked by a democratic disposition, both inwardly (where various tendencies coexist, ranging from the ‘left-left’ to the ‘center-left’) as well as externally: in Porto Alegre–to mention the most remarkable example– public money is managed through a system called “participatory budget,” whereby base assemblies determine how resources will be used. As might be expected, the wide space conquered by the Worker’s Party has attracted some opportunists who view it merely as a new means of access to power. During the last few years there have been some cases of corruption involving members of the party.

 But the biggest danger facing the organization lies in the more or less explicit mistrust it arouses among the ruling class. The last few days revealed a few cases of infiltration by Brazilian secret service agents. Many members of the Worker’s Party have received death threats, and two prominent leaders (members of municipal governments in towns near Sao Paulo) have been murdered. The lack of official interest to discover the authors of these murders–presumably members of the mafias, and certainly with some form of ties to power– is truly scandalous, and may well be part of an organized campaign designed to terrorize the party’s militants, as it’s been happening for years to the “sem terra” activists.

 Another serious problem for the Worker’s Party has to do with its growing bureaucratization, a process directly related to its gradual power gains in the form of seats in the legislative bodies (city councils, state parliaments, and the Federal Congress) as well as posts in the executive branch (in municipal and some state governments). During the 2001 party’s congress, the leaders of the party asked the Perseu Abramo Foundation to carry out a poll among the more than 500 delegates, and the results have just been disclosed. While the social structure of Brazil has not changed, the structure of the Worker’s Party has. Looking at the household income of the delegates, only 7% of them earned less than 5 times the minimum salary (while in 1997, 12% did), and 16% earned between 5 and 10 times the minimum salary (the previous figure was 14%). The most significant change occurred in the relative number of those earning between 10 and 20 times the minimum salary (which went from 20% to 31%). A similar percentage (approximately 30%) earn between 20 and 50 times the minimum, while the number of those earning more than 50 times the minimum salary has increased from 6 to 9 percent. Grating though it may be, perhaps this last figure should not be considered the most worrisome: there have always been some scattered “red counts” here and there with a strong calling toward “handling the party”, as “countess” Suplicy, the mayor of Sao Paulo, seems to be trying to do. The problem, in any case, is whether she will be allowed to fulfill such calling.

 But the real problem is that behind those well-paid middle layers (about 70% of delegates) there are many professional politicians: officers of the party, of the associated unions (the CUT), of parliamentary bodies (advisors, secretaries to members of Parliament from the party) and of municipal governments. No overly suspicious mind is required to assume that these delegates vote “with their bosses,” as the Jornal do Brasil maintains. Not to do so might lead to the loss of their lucrative posts. The loss of a direct link between many delegates and the social movements is also a source of concern: 41% of the delegates came from the unions in 1999, but only 29% did in 2001. The 23% who did not have any relation with the social movement in 1999 have increased to 31% today. The 15% who belonged to NGOs have been reduced to 11%, and the 30% who worked in urban social movements have dwindled to 18%. On the other hand, participation in ecologist movements, which in Latin America tends  to be a rather “elegant” choice (of the “save the whales” sort, while people starve) is on the rise. Only 5% participate in anti-racist movements, though in Brazil racism does exist, despite all the happy myths; and barely 4% work also in the movement of the “sem terra” (MST), with which the Worker’s Party keeps increasingly distant relations.

 Another remarkable aspect of the party’s delegates makeup is their level of education, which had always been high–in 1997, a full 73% had at least an undergraduate education–but now, with that figure at 83%, this really appears to be a party for the intellectual elite. This comes very much as a surprise for a Worker’s Party in Brazil, where the majority of the population is either illiterate or barely possesses an elementary education. The average age of the delegates is increasing, and the proportion of women among them was 25%.

 The simple fact that the Worker’s Party leadership has disclosed the results of this poll seems to reveal an unusual candor, but it is unclear if they will be able to change this tendency towards elitism, which is what turned European social democracies into tame parties, easily assimilated by the system. Let us hope that the massive presence in the WSF of radical militants from around the world, and figures of the highest order–such as Noam Chomsky–may help keep our hosts from going astray so that they can become, alongside the populous movement of the “sem terra” peasants, the true architects of the radical change that this wonderful country and its generous people deserve. If Brazil changes, Latin America will change with it, and the South will be able to speak in different terms with its masters from the North.

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