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Brazil: Between Hope and Fear


The Brazilian presidential election campaign was marked by the antagonism of center right Social Democrat José Serra’s constant red baiting on the one hand and, on the other hand, the PT, the Worker’s Party, promoting hope for real change. But should we believe the campaign propaganda from both sides and expect either that Brazil has gone communist or is starting to create real social change from the recent election of PT’s Luis Inacio da Silva?

The PT was a very interesting and quite enthusiastic experiment in party politics when it first started in the early 1980s. It was as good as a party could be. A party really built from below, with very strong links with the new union movement, the left wing of the Catholic Church, the new social movements such as the neighborhood movements and the left wing of the middle class. All that put together in one party, oriented to supporting the movements struggling outside the parliament and with a wide spectrum of leftist political trends living together in a hard-to-find internal party democracy. In those days, people were proud of being PT. Students would wear their PT buttons and T-shirts at school and one could see endless political discussions in the buses, churches and neighborhoods. During mayday, the CUT, the new leftist labor union affiliated with the PT, would bring tens of thousands of people into the streets to protest for worker’s rights. Those were the days when Brazil was leaving behind a 30-year dictatorship and where people were hopeful of building a new country with social justice and political freedom.

In 1989, Luis Inacio da Silva, or Lula, ran for the first time for president. No one really believed he could win. But something happened which surprised even the most enthusiastic militant: the PT got really close to winning. A large and unprecedented campaign commanded by the media managed to create a “red scare”. Dozens of articles in newspapers and magazines demonized the Worker’s Party and its “radicals”. People in the streets would say that if the PT got into power, they would take away people’s houses and would nationalize private companies. “Do you have a house with three rooms and only two people?” was common to hear. “So the PT will take away one room and give it to the homeless”. Newspapers’ articles and TV reports often fomented this kind of rumor. As it was getting near the elections and the PT had still over 40% of the votes, a much dirtier campaign of defamation and manipulation was brought to light. Right wing candidate Fernando Collor de Mello exposed to the public Lula’s former girlfriend who said he asked her to abort a child. Later, conservative media conglomerate TV Globo openly manipulated the presentation of the last presidential debate favoring Collor. Lula lost, but by less than 7% of the votes.

The great and sudden hope of a radical change in Brazilian society was frustrated. Collor won and was soon impeached by a mass movement against corruption in the federal government, but the PT had suffered a loss with deep consequences. Given the media and the old oligarchies that ran the country, the party’s strategy and structure had to be changed if it really wanted to get into power. So the change came.

In the 1990s, the PT centralized its structure and became much more pragmatic. It focused no longer on social movements and unions, but on parliaments and institutional politics. It had less and less real militants and much more paid staff working for deputies, mayors and other bureaucratic apparatus. The old May days with tens of thousands of militants seemed a distant memory. Mayday was now a big concert with hired celebrities who sang and played and attracted a very apathetic crowd who had come for the show. One could no longer see the traditional PT militant, enthusiastic about her/his party and with a passion for a live politics. The typical PT militant was now a bureaucrat at the service of the party.

The centralization of the party structure led to a few left wing splits (especially from trotskyist trends) and to subjugating local autonomy to the interest of the party’s central authority. Perhaps the most clear example was when the central directorate forced in 1998 Rio de Janeiro’s PT to ally itself with their long time adversary PDT for the sake of federal level alliances. Rio de Janeiro’s PT got the state government, but never managed to structure itself again.

The strategy of focusing on gaining government and parliament seats seemed to work, and the PT got the government of important cities such as Porto Alegre, São Paulo and Belém and states like Rio Grande do Sul and Mato Grosso do Sul.

The control of big cities and states gave PT the management experience right wing critics said it lacked. It also proved an opportunity for trying “a different way of doing politics”, especially by the active participation of social movements in the government and this new experiment called “participatory budget”. Participatory Budget happened by chance when PT won the election for the city of Porto Alegre. Left wing party members and activists from neighborhood movements proposed that open and democratic people’s assemblies inspired by Russian soviets decide the priorities in the city budget. After a couple of years trying to set it up and solve some of the logistic difficulties the Participatory Budget proved a relative success with good attendance and a rationalization of the employment of state resources. Nothing like a soviet, but a success nonetheless. No one better than the local citizen knew where public money should be best applied. The PT government found out that giving power to the citizen to determine where to apply the money within the framework of a budget provided by the state made allocation more efficient.

This arbitrary experiment, Participatory Budget, became PT’s most outstanding achievement and was widely applied in other cities with different degrees of success. Apparently it pointed to the big innovation the PT represented: that of the party that grew from and were indistinctly tied to social movements. But neither the movements nor the party were the same of the vigorous days of the 1980s.

When the PT opted for following an institutional path, the movements who were an undifferentiated part of the PT went the same way. The live struggles of strikes and street demonstrations occurred less often and lobbying became more usual and effective. The PT became both the institutional representative of social movements in parliament and the most usual negotiator when movements directly confronted the state. The confrontations, however, were more and more rare.

One important exception was the MST, the Landless Peasants’ Movement. The MST was born about the same time as the PT but followed a relatively independent path. It opted as a strategy to occupy unused land as a form of pressure for agrarian reform and its success with this strategy soon made it the largest direct action movement in the world with about 3 million activists. The MST, unlike the CUT, always made clear its independence with the PT but kept good relations with it and used the party as an interlocutor for negotiations with the federal government.

Not only did the PT become more institutionalized, it also made a conscious turn to the right. The PT was made, since the beginning, of a large collection of Marxist trends. Those trends coexisted alternating political control and influence in a relatively democratic internal structure. However, with the centralization of structures since 1990 the right wing of the party gained control and built a more social-democratic program. That went as far as important PT leaders proposing in 2001 that the PT should abandon the goal of building socialism.

The social democratic discourse was only totally clear in the 2002 election. Contrary to the 1994 and 1998 elections where Lula ran and lost, beaten by social democrat Fernando Henrique Cardoso, in 2002, Lula appeared as a very moderate candidate. If the allegedly social democrat PSDB of Cardoso imposed a neoliberal agenda for the country, the socialist PT would bring a social democratic one.

Lula made a large effort to calm down foreign investors, assuring that unlike the old party program, this time the PT would “respect contracts” and pay the country’s foreign debt (which takes 13% of the GDP). The PT also clearly announced that it will keep the surplus in foreign trade and will keep fiscal responsibility and a floating currency – all the key points in the so-called Second Washington Consensus. Lula said he would continue negotiations with the FTAA, an choice made clear when the PT abandoned their mass campaign: an unofficial plebiscite in which 10 million people said no to the agreement.

So, right now, people are full of hope waiting for a government that, on one hand, is supposed to represent change and, on the other, is supposed not to make a radical change.

The people who voted on Lula are not expecting serious change and frankly, the PT didn’t offer it. Again, as in any government, right or left, the burden of change is with the social movements. Its up to them to make it happen. Let us just hope that they don’t keep waiting the government to do it for them.

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