Forget about Lula?

Brazilian president Luiz Inacio 'Lula' da Silva has failed to implement the radical reforms expected in the wake of his 2002 election victory. So what went wrong? Should Lula's Workers' Party no longer be thought of as a left-wing force? And where does Brazil go from here? Alfredo Saad-Filho and Sue Branford discuss

December 1, 2004 · 16 min read

Sue Branford: Lula was elected to government on 27 October 2002. There was a wave of celebrations all over Brazil that night. Waving red flags, thousands of supporters danced their way down the Avenida Paulista, a broad avenue in the centre of São Paulo lined with the concrete and glass towers of giant banking corporations. Finally, it seemed that the dominance of these groups was going to be challenged.

Lula had been the candidate for the progressive Workers’ Party (PT). Founded in 1978 in opposition to the military regime, the party had a promising record in local and state governments. It had been innovative, introducing new forms of popular participation such as participatory budgets, and it had been ethical.

Lula had promised change. He had told the country’s 4 million landless peasants that he would give then ‘so much land that they wouldn’t be able to occupy it’. He had asked for patience, but he also said he would deliver. ‘I cannot fail,’ he told cheering crowds in Fortaleza, capital of Ceará state in Brazil’s impoverished northeast. ‘I cannot betray the millions and millions of Brazilians who have voted for me for 10, 20 or 30 years. I am their last hope.’

But almost two years after Lula came to power, little has changed. Fearful of provoking economic meltdown, the president has cautiously stuck to orthodox neo-liberal economic policies. Although the economy has recovered somewhat and will probably grow by about 4.5 per cent this year, unemployment remains stubbornly high, at around 10 per cent officially (16 per cent if you include workers who have got so discouraged that they have given up looking for work). Far from giving the landless abundant land, the government is currently settling far fewer families than the previous Cardoso administration. Although Lula is still pleading for patience, there are signs that disillusion is setting in. In recent municipal elections in Brazil, the PT lost in two key cities that it had hoped to win: São Paulo and Pôrto Alegre.

Alfredo Saad-Filho: Lula has certainly not delivered according to the expectations of most of his voters. Even the most basic social programmes, like Zero Hunger, were mutilated by the budgetary constraints imposed by the government’s neo-liberal economic policies. Many leftists are quick to point their finger at Lula or the PT leadership around him, and claim that they have betrayed their ideals, their political programme and their voters. However, I do not think that this is a useful approach to understanding what has happened in Brazil.

The PT has shifted gradually towards the centre-left since Lula dramatically lost the presidency to Fernando Collor de Mello in 1989. That defeat triggered a shift in the party to the centre, in order to make it electable in two-round presidential elections, in which broad alliances are indispensable. But there is a lot more to the recent trajectory of the PT than the desire to win elections. This is not essentially a matter of personal ambition or treason.

The PT was created in the late 1970s through the convergence of two groups of activists. First, the democratic movement struggling against the military dictatorship, including radical left organisations, Catholic base communities, academics and social movements. They needed a broad and powerful left party to accommodate their different views, express their joint platform, and give the movement organic unity. Second, the ‘new’ trade union movement, symbolised by Lula’s metalworkers’ union, but including other segments of the working class created by Brazil’s rapid development: bank workers, public sector workers, civil servants, teachers, and so on – the skilled working class and the lower urban middle class. Their demands were often corporatist, but they were organised and vocal. The coalition between these two groups led to the emergence of the PT as a party of a new type.

However, these two pillars of the PT have collapsed. On the one hand, the restoration of democracy in 1985 was the product of an elite pact that shifted the political form of the state but brought no economic change. Civil liberties were restored, but the left was disarmed and demobilised. All political organisations were legalised; any newspaper could be published; all social movements were permitted; most political fronts and umbrella organisations collapsed; and dozens of platforms competed in the political marketplace. Paradoxically, political democracy disorganised the Brazilian left.

On the other hand, the democratic transition was followed by the transition to neo-liberalism, which disorganised the working class. Deindustrialisation led to the loss of one third of manufacturing sector jobs in Brazil, most public enterprises were privatised, the civil service suffered terribly: the social base of the PT was decimated. The party responded to these challenges by shifting to the political centre and claiming the mantle of ‘honesty’ and ‘good local administration’. The economic reforms were increasingly sidelined. Finally, in 2002, the PT leadership walked the extra mile and ditched the remainder of its reformist platform in order to seal Lula’s electoral victory. It is now clear that that victory was hollow.

SB: A lot of what you say is right, Alfredo, but the PT, like the left everywhere, has to work within the conditions it finds itself in. Outside government, it could do nothing (or very little) to prevent the loss of manufacturing jobs. If the PT had accepted that no advance was possible because the industrial working class was weakened, then it might as well have given up and disbanded. It had to adapt.

The party held a series of meetings early in 2001. Lula argued passionately that the social crisis was so dramatic that the country’s fabric was threatened with destruction. With the spread of drug trafficking into the shanty-towns, the growth in violent crime, the expansion of the media conglomerates, and the constant and relentless eviction of peasant families from the land, the situation was worsening every year. The PT needed to be in government,

Lula said, to start turning things round. Personal ambition may also have played a part: Lula was approaching 60 and he may well have been afraid that if he failed at his fourth presidential bid in 2002, he would never become president. For all these reasons Lula convinced the party in early 2001 that it should make the alliances necessary to achieve victory. He wanted to win, almost at any cost.

The left in the party went along with this strategy with considerable reluctance. It was unhappy with the alliances but convinced itself that, once in power. the PT could implement enough of its radical programme to make a real difference.

AS-F: The PT certainly had to shift its strategy, since the whole field in which it operated had changed radically. However, change did not have to take the form of pandering to the upper middle classes, domestic and international financial interests, the old oligarchs of Brazil’s northeast, and the new neo-liberal elite of the southeast.

Instead of attempting to make up for the decline of its core constituency by extending its sources of support vertically, to relatively more privileged social groups, the PT should have focused on horizontal expansion to other segments of the working class – among unorganised workers in the formal sector, informal sector workers, working class women, rural workers and the unemployed. The PT could have explored the spaces opened up by political democracy to push forward demands for economic democracy, insisting that political democracy is limited unless it is accompanied by distribution of wealth and income. It should have been less worried about winning elections in the short term, and more concerned with building alternative power structures on the ground that would challenge the monopoly of economic power in Brazil. The Landless Workers’ Movement (the MST) has done this very successfully, but the PT has increasingly distanced itself from the MST, as if it were some kind of embarrassing old relative that should be treated with respect, but which one really wishes were already dead.

Having chosen the mainstream political arena as its priority, the PT had to buy the entire package. It needed money to fight elections, and money is relatively more abundant in the pockets of the rich or in the accounts of large firms than in the hands of the poor. It needed to forge electorally viable alliances, so it was essential to moderate the party’s demands and hold its militants back from direct action.

The PT could not challenge the state it was aiming to lead. The party gradually boxed itself in and, when this strategy finally triumphed, it discovered not only that it was very difficult to come out of the box and do something radical, but also that it did not want to try.

The PT leadership is no longer in a position to rock the boat. Their jobs, reputations, personal and political prospects are all bound up with being in government. Everything hinges on their being able to manage the neo-liberal state better than the neo-liberals.

There is no question that they could help to improve the lives of the majority, but the government’s compensatory social programmes are invariably too small to counter the negative impact of neo-liberal macroeconomic policies; they will not improve significantly the lives of large numbers of people, and they will do absolutely nothing to challenge the economic policies and the power structures that have been reproducing poverty and marginality in Brazil.

Very little is going to change in what remains of Lula’s administration, and even if he is re-elected, he will not do very much. He no longer has the space to change course.

SB: What you are saying, Alfredo, is that the PT should have opted for a slower, but more solid, form of consolidation that would have permitted it to have reached power with a much stronger agenda for change. The problem with this strategy is that it would probably have failed. The groups that you say the PT needed to forge alliances with – unorganised workers in the formal sector, informal sector workers, the unemployed and so on – are notoriously difficult to reach. The PT argued that once it was in power it could use the state apparatus to organise these people and get them incorporated into the political system. It has, after all, carried out some fairly impressive experiments with direct democracy with its participatory budgets in Pôrto Alegre and other cities.

My criticism of the PT is not so much its electoral strategy but how it has used power. It is true that the party heads a coalition government, so it is constrained in the legislation it can get through Congress. But I think that, even so, it could be achieving far more.

The PT had some good plans. For instance, it originally intended to use Zero Hunger as a means of organising the poor. It was going to organise neighbourhood groups to which people would have to belong in order to qualify for the programme, and it was going to feed them with food produced in the agrarian reform settlements. It was going to implement an ambitious programme for organising socially excluded groups. This hasn’t happened; at least not to the extent the PT hoped. Even so, Zero Hunger has been relatively successful, despite efforts by the media to denigrate it. Today it is reaching more than 2 million poor families.

The party could also be doing far more to bring about agrarian reform. As PT founding member and agrarian expert Plínio de Arruda Sampaio has demonstrated, it would be possible to carry out a radical programme of agrarian reform, settling a million landless families on the land, without congressional support. But that would have cost money. Lula would have had to have taken a tougher stance with the IMF and refused to run such a high fiscal surplus. I think this would have been possible, for Lula had enormous political capital at the beginning of his government and the IMF is pretty discredited throughout Latin America.

Lula would have had to mobilise the masses, creating a new political base outside industrial workers, in order to confront the protests from the banks and the elites. I’m just back from Bolivia where an alliance of four social movements – indigenous groups, coca farmers, neighbourhood groups and anti-privatisation movements – is showing what can be achieved through organised social mobilisation.

But Lula chose not to do this. He opted for economic orthodoxy. His finance minister Antonio Palocci has tightened the purse strings. The ministry for agrarian development has completed all the procedures for expropriating land for agrarian reform, but Palocci is simply refusing to make the funds available.

Even so, the PT is making a difference in some areas. For instance, it is finally providing substantial amounts of subsidised rural credit to peasant families. This is preventing hundreds of thousands of rural families from being driven off their land through bad debts. This kind of cautious, modest reform is important. I think it is unfair (and untrue) to dismiss this and similar programmes as ‘token’.

You seem to have given up entirely with the PT, Alfredo, so where does the left in Brazil go now? Do you support Heloisa Helena, the former PT senator who has formed the Party of Socialism and Freedom (P-Sol) as an alternative?

AS-F: The reform programmes of the PT are token because they do not challenge the causes of poverty, inequality and marginalisation, and do very little to address the reproduction of these problems. In most cases they are only modest handouts, targeted to the very poor. There is no significant difference between the social programmes of the PT and those implemented by the previous administration. Of course it is better to have any social programme rather than nothing, but is this really what the PT stands for? Is this what it fought 20 years to achieve? Of course not, and in this sense the Lula administration is profoundly disappointing and does not deserve the unthinking support of the left.

It is not the case that a slower strategy might have been more successful. What was needed was a more radical strategy. The experience of the PT shows, once again, that taking over one branch of government is insufficient to transform society. What continues to be necessary in Brazil is an organised challenge from below to the way in which society reproduces itself, and the way it reproduces inequality with great efficiency. For 10 years the PT led this challenge politically. Then it decided to try to manage it and change things gradually. This may certainly be justified in some circumstances, but the PT was gobbled up by the machine.

Look at what is happening now: the federal administration has been paralysed by political disputes between the parties supporting the government. Without its allies in Congress and in the local administrations, the government cannot function. In order to secure their support, it must engage in corrupt political practices to a greater or lesser extent. All the signs indicate that the government had it easy until now, and institutional support will become more expensive in the future. And all this is for what? To better implement IMF and World Bank policies.

The left should refuse to participate in this game. It is time to take stock, ditch the illusions and stop supporting the Lula administration. To continue supporting this government is to select arbitrarily a small sample of trees, and declare that they represent the forest. The government’s progressive initiatives are mostly hollow. The left has little or no space in the administration. The government’s economic policy is wholly neo-liberal and cannot be reformed. Most of the Brazilian left has already abandoned this ship. And the left in other parts of the world should not cling to illusions that no longer make sense on the ground.

Having said this, I do not think that the P-Sol will resolve all the problems that I have outlined. The time was not right to start another party. But this is what is real – what actually exists, rather than what we may wish existed, and it deserves our support. The Brazilian left needs to be rebuilt, and the P-Sol will be one of the most important tools of this reconstruction.

SB: I don’t think it is true to say that the left has largely abandoned the PT. From what I’ve heard, most activists are demoralised but still hanging on. Indeed, there is the feeling among many that the pressure on the party to change direction is growing and will grow even more rapidly over the next two years, especially if it becomes clear that Lula, who has always taken it for granted that he will win a second term, faces the possibility of defeat in the 2006 elections.

Despite all the setbacks, the PT is still a left-wing party (far more so than today’s Labour Party) and is still the main left-wing force in Brazil. This is the paradox: there is no life for the left outside the PT, but the PT government (because its policies are under the control of financial capital) is at odds with the left. The PT has lost its way in the past but somehow, after long periods of internal agonising, got back on course. To give up on the PT now would be to throw the baby away with the bath water.

The conundrum that the PT has not solved (which party has anywhere in the world?) is how to get beyond neo-liberalism and construct peacefully a new society with greater equality and greater popular participation. Lula is not achieving this, largely because he has not dared to confront international financial capital. Perhaps we were so seduced by his charisma, his commitment, his honesty and even his life story to realise that he hadn’t got a proper strategy for doing this.

Yet the PT remains the main chance for change in Brazil. Turbulent times lie ahead. The US economy is in disarray with yawning deficits. President Bush is embroiled in an ever more disastrous war in Iraq. The IMF and the World Bank are widely discredited. Latin America, for so long the US backyard, has in the past benefited from periods of crisis for the hegemonic power. It is a moment not to give up, but to grasp the opportunities that lie ahead.

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