Brazil’s problem is the neoliberal model

In recent weeks, a corruption scandal has engulfed the government of Luis Ignacio ‘Lula’ da Silva in Brazil, with demonstrations from both the Left and the Right against the president and the current regime.

Joao Pedro Stedile, who spoke in Vancouver in the fall of 2003, is an economist and a central leader of the Landless Workers Movement (MST), one of the world’s largest and most dynamic social movements. On September 7, Brazil’s Independence Day, the MST is organizing mass mobilizations as part of its efforts to put forward a popular political project in opposition to neo-liberalism.

Stedile was interviewed last month on America Latina al Dia (ALAD), a programme that airs every Saturday from noon to 2p.m. on 102.7FM Cooperative Radio, about the corruption crisis and the overall state of political struggle in Brazil. The interview was conducted by ALAD host Angelica Gutierrez, with interpretation by Steve Stewart of Latin American Connexions, a bilingual, tri-annual newspaper.

Angelica Gutierrez: Good afternoon, Joao Pedro, thank you very much for being with us this afternoon.

Stedile: Greetings to all the listeners of Co-op radio in Vancouver, and all those of Latin American descent that I saw when I visited. The denunciations of corruption in the Lula government in the last while are not that much news, in that there has always been corruption in the Brazilian political system. The news is that this time they are acts of corruption practised by the Left in collusion with the politicians of the Right. This has left many people perplexed, because they were supposed to be anti-corruption.

However, it’s important to comment that for the MST and for most of the social movements, we saw this corruption coming, in a way, when the Lula government did not come through with its promises to combat neo-liberalism, or bring in policies to change neo-liberalism. They fell into the typical kind of depoliticized campaigning, marketing politics that basically led them to play the same game as any other politician, and because of this the crisis deepened. The government was elected to make changes, to confront neo-liberalism, but the Lula government in its years of office has not made any significant changes, rather it has formed alliances with the Right which has led it down this path.

So in reality what we are facing is a crisis of models of development. The neo-liberal policies that have been imposed in Brazil for so long have not resolved any of the fundamental problems. Unemployment continues to increase, people’s incomes continue to decline, and the only people that are really benefiting are some bankers, the trans-nationals that focus on exporting, and a few domestic companies.

Gutierrez: When you were here in Vancouver [in 2003], you talked about how the people around Lula were divided into three different currents: those that supported continuing with the existing neo-liberal model, those that believed that it could be recycled or recuperated, a neo-liberalism with a human face, and those that struggled for the development of a popular project for real change. Does this situation still exist, or has one come out on top? What is the opinion of the Brazilian people about the Lula government, and what are they saying about President Lula himself?

Stedile: The situation in Brazil continues, much as I had said before. Although a government with an anti neo-liberal platform was elected, it came about at a time of reduction in the activism of people, a reduction in the mass movements, which was sort of the opposite direction from the trend in Spanish speaking Latin America, countries like Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina – countries where social movements were growing and becoming more efficient in achieving their demands. Lula’s victory came at a time when social movements in Brazil were in the decline.

So, in a way, the current crisis in the government has a good side, because it shows very clearly that this attempt which Lula ended up opting for — which was a sort of recycling of neo-liberalism, creating a kinder, gentler neo-liberalism — has failed very clearly. Now it’s up to the social movement Left, or the popular movements, to try to augment an open front against neo-liberalism. Part of the problem in Brazil is that the population thought that it was enough to elect a president who was anti neo-liberal, and he would take care of things. But it has become much clearer that only powerful social movements can achieve this, and so the work of the social Left now is really training activists so that they can understand the situation and adapt to it, and to create and foment public discourse and debate around a new political project for the country that is clearly anti neo-liberal and pro-people.

Gutierrez: Do the people understand that the failure of the Lula government is due to the fact that he tried to make alliances with the neo-liberals rather than fight against them? Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, for example, has spoken quite clearly about how capitalism is the root of many of the problems faced in Latin America, and that only an open struggle to change that will resolve those problems.

Stedile: The situations are very different between Brazil and Venezuela. In Venezuela, Chavez rode to power on a wave of popular movements, and that wave of popular mobilization has kept strong, and through this mass social mobilization neo-liberalism has been clearly defeated in Venezuela and they are now in the faze of open fighting against imperialism. And that is why Chavez is able to talk of moving to the next stage of dealing with capitalism and creating alternatives. In Brazil, the government opted to make an alliance with the neo-liberals. And so in Brazil we are still in the stage of trying to defeat neo-liberalism, we are not fighting capitalism but just one form. So much of the work of the social movements now is to get alternatives and the necessity of the struggle into a general dialogue.

On September 7, which is Independence Day for Brazil, there will be large mobilizations, and in October a national assembly of organizations, aiming to bring together more than 20 000 activists, will gather to discuss what a popular political project would be and ways to bring that into the dialogue.

Gutierrez: Lula gave a speech on national television asking for forgiveness for these acts of corruption that happened in his government and promising to hunt down and punish those found to have been corrupt. At the same time, Hugo Chavez was in Brazil and publicly stated his support for the Lula government, and denounced the campaign by the corporate media against this government. What was the reaction from the public in Brazil to these statements by the two presidents, Lula and Chavez?

Stedile: Chavez’s visit was important for Brazil, because Chavez is now a leader of the Left for all of Latin America. Chavez is worried, because if this process does end up in the impeachment of Lula, it would represent a defeat for the Left in the region and will have strong repercussions for Venezuela. And so it is important to Chavez that Lula comes out of this crisis.

In terms of Lula’s speech, the activists watched the speech with some concern because, although he said that this is a terrible thing and asked forgiveness and said he would punish those responsible, he did not personally assume any responsibility for the crisis, and Lula belongs to the very same current within the Workers Party as did the leaders involved in the corruption. And we believe that he should have clearly, then, taken responsibility for that, and that he should support the call of currents further to the left which are demanding the removal of all those leaders who were involved in the corruption scandal – of buying votes of the right-wing deputies to achieve bills.

Another concern was that, in his address, Lula seemed quite weak. He recognized the crisis, and that the PT was involved in the crisis, but everyone already knows that, so there were no really new revelations or commitments made. During the speech, he was looking down and reading, and did not seem to have his usual dynamism. He seemed to be on the defensive. The president needs now, not to describe the crisis, but to look for or choose a solution, an exit from the crisis. The Right, in their many media, have outlined a number of possibilities. One is to impeach the president. Another is just to keep digging away throughout the rest of Lula’s term, demoralizing the PT and paving the way for the election, again, of a neo-liberal party to government. And then another solution that is being proposed by some is a grand ‘national salvation alliance’ that would bring together the PT and Cardoso’s social democratic party, along with other right-wing parties. In the eyes of the MST, these would not be solutions. It would be, again, an attempt to revive and continue the neo-liberal model. So the three solutions proposed by the Right would not resolve the crisis.

It won’t be enough just to punish some of the corrupt officials, because corruption in this capitalist system — where votes are bought and sold like any other commodity — will always be endemic in the parliament. So what needs to be done is not to attack the symptoms, but to attack the roots of the corruption in the political system. And so the solution has to be found on the Left, and the solution no longer depends only on President Lula, or even on Lula at all, because he’s too wrapped up in the whole political system now. The solution has to be pushed forward by the popular movements. The problem is not the president. The problem is the neo-liberal model that he has become part of and so the work of the social movements now has to be to push forward a solution that deals with the fundamental problems that the people in Brazil face. Because of this, it’s a long-term struggle, and this crisis in Brazil will go on for a long-time still.

So, thank you to the people in Canada for their interest in the situation in Brazil, and thank you to the people at Co-op Radio and America Latina al Dia for their work and for continuing the struggle to democratize the airwaves and for keeping alternative channels open.

Gutierrez: Thank you very much Joao Pedro, we wish you all the luck in the upcoming mobilizations and in the struggle for the changes that we all hope for our sister nation of Brazil.

For more information on the Landless Workers Movement, go to http://www.mst.org.br/.

-This interview was transcribed by Derrick O’Keefe of Seven Oaks (www.SevenOaksMag.com).

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