Stun The Right, Outrage The Left
Two Years Of Lula's Rule In Brazil
by Idelber Avelar (InfoBrazil)
ZNet, January 17, 2005
[Idelber Avelar is a Professor
at Tulane University, in New Orleans, where he teaches Latin American
literature and culture as well as Brazilian popular music. He
was a member of the Workers Party between 1981 and 2004. ]
After defeating current Brazilian president
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in his first presidential bid
in 1989, Northeastern yuppie political boss Fernando Collor de
Mello promised to run Brazil in a way that would "outrage
the Right and stun the Left". Little did Lula know that twelve
years after a historic impeachment of Collor de Mello on widespread
corruption charges, he would be the one presiding over an administration
that has done precisely the opposite: it has stunned rightist
skeptics, and outraged leftist supporters.
When boasting its successes, the Lula
administration cannot but point to everything that makes it identical
to its predecessor, the coalition led by president Fernando Henrique
Cardoso. When defending itself against its critics, it reproduces,
word for word, the traditional discourse of conservative Brazilian
The paradox of president Lula's first
24 months in power is that his greatest accomplishment has been
the implementation of the very policies against which his own
party was created. All assessments of these two years, whether
celebratory or oppositional, are prey to this paradox and respond
The pathway that led the Workers Party,
or PT, to power has been unique. Founded in February 1980 by the
new unionist leadership as a party to the left of traditional
Communist parties, the PT soon congregated ample sectors of the
progressive Catholic Church, social movements, independent intellectuals,
and the non-Communist Left.
Internal democracy made of the PT a rare
bird in Brazilian politics, as its massive congresses decided
everything from the party's program to the composition of its
directorship. All elected officials have always been required
to donate 30 percent of their income to party coffers. PT activists
are known for defending the party's program fiercely, and it is
a fact of Brazilian electoral politics that if you reach election
day tied in the polls against a PT candidate, you're almost certain
to lose. In any race that is tight enough, the PT's remarkable
militancy will decide things on election day.
Successes in mayoral races in the 1980s
and 1990s made the PT the most widely voted party in urban Brazil.
From São Paulo to Porto Alegre, from Fortaleza to Recife,
from Belo Horizonte to Santos, most important Brazilian cities
have been governed by the PT at one time or another. In some cities,
the party has managed to establish true dynasties and trademark
policies, such as participatory budgeting.
However, due to Fernando Henrique Cardoso's
macroeconomic stability recipes and skillful coalition building,
the presidency escaped Lula for a second time in 1994 and yet
again in 1998. By the time Lula's fourth chance came up in 2002,
Lula made it clear to the party: he would only run to win, whatever
By 2002, a certain "realism"
had gained footing in the PT, propelled by the group congregated
around Lula and current Chief of Staff José Dirceu. The
party's position on the foreign debt is a good indicator: in 1989
the PT proposed that Brazil's debt not be recognized as legitimate
at all; in 1994 it called for a moratorium on debt payments; and
in 1998 it spoke of conducting a public audit, to determine which
parts of the debt should be paid.
In the 2002 campaign, Lula went from
that to signing a document promising to honor all contracts -
the so-called "Letter to the Brazilian People", the
(in)famous piece that the party bureaucracy now alludes to whenever
it must defend itself from the accusation that, once in power,
the PT proceeded to betray every single one of its principles.
The Workers Party was not founded upon
a ready-made program, or the image of an ideal society like, say,
the one animating traditional Communist Parties. The basic concept
behind the PT was that politics should not be a terrain belonging
exclusively to the nation's oligarchies. Instead, the political
scene should be redrawn by the practice of workers themselves.
In addition to internal democracy, the
difference between the PT and the traditional Left resided in
the fact that the nature of that redrawing was understood not
to be given in advance. The PT was the most resilient voice against
a mediocre realism, which determines that certain social transformations
are, by definition, not possible because they do not fit the boundaries
That was the case for two decades, although
by the late 1990s the PT was showing signs of becoming a party
both bureaucratic and technocratic. Once in power it proceeded
to exceed the expectations of the most pessimistic observer of
It has reinstated the authority of a
mediocre "economics of the possible" and crowned a new
generation of apparatchiks, bureaucrats, and thugs who profoundly
despise that old thing we used to call internal party democracy.
Ethical transparency, environmentalism, commitment to social justice
and judicious use of public money, a preference for alliances
with productive rather than speculative capital, respect for the
rule of law and the non-partisan nature of public offices: every
single one of those principles has been badly treated, to put
it mildly, in the Lula administration.
"The lack of government initiatives
... accusations of corruption involving occupants of the upper
echelons of the federal administration, and constant battles within
the government's legislative base"... are words that most
independent analysts would say offer a pretty fair depiction of
the current administration. Except, of course, PT president and
former congressman José Genoíno, who wrote them
in 1999 in an InfoBrazil article to characterize Cardoso's administration.
Today, Genoino would attempt the most magical rhetorical maneuvers
to convince us that things have changed.
After two years in power:
1. The PT has produced a reform of the
pension system more draconian than anything ever devised in the
"neoliberal" 1990s. Even if one grants that inefficiencies
had to be corrected, no one dreamt that the baby of the social
safety net would be thrown away along with the dirty bathwater
of mismanaged welfare.
2. The administration voluntarily raised
from 3.75 to 4.25 percent, the share of Brazil's GDP offered as
a primary surplus and dedicated to paying down interest on the
foreign debt. To make it worse, the government did this without
receiving any significant concession in exchange.
3. It has concentrated unprecedented
powers in the hands of the Central Bank. For all intents and purposes,
the institution now runs economic policy in tandem with the Ministry
of the Economy, both with no accountability to society or to the
party. To head the Central Bank, the party that boasted a full
school of innovative new economists chose the former president
of BankBoston, Henrique Meirelles, who had been elected congressman
through the most traditionally oligarchic methods, in order to
represent a state he barely knows.
4. At the hands of minister Antonio Palocci
and Central Bank president Meirelles - now given by decree the
status of a cabinet minister, so that he can be protected from
accusations of improbity - economic policy has maintained exactly
the same monetarist orthodoxy, ruled by the obsession to control
inflation and the careful manipulation of the ghost of inflation,
to justify a series of measures that only favor speculative capital.
5. While promising to restore dialogue
with the legislature, the Lula administration never used its formidable
popular mandate to push any legislation in Congress promoting
social justice. Instead, with the goal of attaining a congressional
majority at all costs, it established a give-and-take, clientelist
policy of exchange of favors that has now backfired, turning the
Executive Branch of power into a permanent hostage of old political
bosses in the Lower House and in the Senate.
6. In order to impose its pension system
reform, its draconian economic policies, and the power of its
new allies, the PT has all but strangled its internal democracy.
Few of the party leaders today would be hypocritical enough to
claim that the resolutions of the PT congresses, and the will
of the party's majority, actually mean a whole lot or have a say
at all in how the country is being run. In that process, historic
party activists have been expelled - as was the case with Alagoas
senator Heloísa Helena and three other Congress members
- or have left, like sociologist Francisco de Oliveira or congressman
Fernando Gabeira, to mention two among thousands.
7. Chief of Staff José Dirceu's
primary political articulator, Waldomiro Diniz, was caught on
tape in an act of corruption, the investigation of which was suffocated
in order to protect Dirceu. At the time, he seemed busier threatening
a university professor and PT founder with a lawsuit for a crime
of opinion, rather than explaining his relationship with a proven
corrupt individual he had brought to Brasília, shared a
house with, and dispatched to Congress to do political bargaining
in his name.
8. In the social terrain, where the greatest
achievements were expected, the administration has repeatedly
stumbled with programs that are either anachronistic, badly managed,
or elicit corruption - or all of the above. Not a single social
indicator has significantly changed in the past two years, and
there is no indication that any of them will in the next two,
as the Lula administration is well on its way to being beaten
by Cardoso's in matters of literacy, infant mortality or poverty
9. In the cultural field, beyond the
charisma of minister Gilberto Gil, the PT administration has limited
itself to talk of "regulation" that barely masks its
true motivation: to offer the nationalistic Left a "bone"
for sticking with a government that has continued to submit the
country to international financial capital.
With such a disappointing record, the
only surprise is that the Lula government continues to boast the
levels of approval that it does. A more careful reading of the
polls suggests, however, that much of the current official euphoria
While 45 percent of the population do
characterize the Lula administration as "good" or "excellent"
in the latest Sensus poll, a hefty 40 percent regard it as just
ok - fair, or average. In addition, there are 13 percent that
give the administration a poor rating.
Lula's highest approval ratings are obtained
from the wealthiest sectors. 49 percent of Brazilians think he
has done less than expected, against 19 percent who think he has
done more. When asked to name the areas in which Lula has done
worst, "employment" comes out way ahead, 10 percentage
points ahead of "health care", in second spot.
As I write, many more of the individuals
historically associated with the PT's project of social justice
have either abandoned the government or been fired: nationalist
economist Carlos Lessa has been removed as president of BNDES,
the National Economic and Social Development Bank. Others on an
endless list include the country's greatest authority in programs
of "basic income", Ana Fonseca, the president's personal
friend and assistant Frei Betto, his secretary of communication
Bernardo Kucinski, and his press secretary Ricardo Kotscho.
The ones who remain in office - such
as the Minister of the Environment, Marina Silva - continue to
be systematically defeated in every struggle that matters, such
as the recent debate that ended with a presidential decree authorizing
the planting and trading of genetically modified soybean seeds.
The government now celebrates, however,
its achievement of "inflation goals", the maintenance
of an economic "stability" that continues to favor the
most powerful, and mediocre GDP growth in 2004, expected to total
between 4 and 5 percent - at the low end, a full 4 points behind
the very Argentina that was often brandished as the boogeyman
image of chaos. The Lula administration further celebrates the
approval of a Public-Private Partnership law that further transfers
risks to the state and profits to speculative capital.
Meanwhile, president Lula's inflated
sense of his own historical importance has made the situation
particularly hopeless. While for all who elected him, the rise
of a metal worker to power was to signal the beginning of social
change, Lula's messianic tendencies often lead him to speak as
if his election meant that things are already blessed, and that
all Brazilians need to do is raise their self-esteem, honor their
families, and trust God - a mediocre religious and conservative
message perfectly imaginable in the mouths of Bushes and Berlusconis
around the world.
While it is clearly too late to entertain
any illusions that the Lula administration will somehow change
course, progressive activists within and outside the PT continue
to hope that the last words on the dreams of social justice in
Brazil have not yet been spoken. The majority of them cannot yet
get past the bewilderment of seeing the man who is the legitimate
representative of those dreams, presiding over the greatest betrayal
ever committed by a Latin American left-wing party against its