Back home though, the petistas – members of Lula’s Workers Party (PT) – are still waiting for the president to stand up to the International Monetary Fund. Despite his rhetoric, he has presided over huge cuts in public spending and worsening living conditions.
Last year average wages fell by 7 per cent. Unemployment, meanwhile, is now running as high as 28 per cent in cities such as Salvador. Yet Lula has prioritised debt repayments, which account for a colossal 10 per cent of economic output.
Inevitably, there have been protests from within the PT. They prompted the party leadership to take action in December. Three petista congressional deputies and one senator, the highly respected PT founding member Heloisa Helena, were expelled from the party. Their “crime” was opposing pension-reform legislation demanded by the IMF; the legislation was designed to open up Brazilian pension funds to privatisation and slash workers’ benefits.
Lula, who missed the meeting that voted for the expulsions, argued that the legislation provided a solid basis for the rest of his government. Helena countered that she had not spent her life working for the PT in order to cut workers’ pension rights when in power.
The government was rattled by the ensuing storm of criticism. Even Leonardo Boff, a popular, radical Franciscan friar, expressed solidarity with Helena, whom he described as “my little sister, who was not afraid”. As a result, Lula has been forced to adopt a more radical tone in public.
All over Brazil, petistas have been discussing their options, and, while most have decided to stay in the PT, they are pressing for a change in direction. “This is the year we begin to change Brazil” is the new catch phrase. There is a sense of grass-roots excitement in the air.
Forthcoming municipal elections in October give the government an incentive to act on numerous initiatives – agrarian reform, the zero-hunger programme, income support for the poorest, education. With his speech in Mexico, Lula showed that he can talk the talk. Now he must walk the walk.
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