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 elites.

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 to it.

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 it took.

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 of reality.

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 those signs.

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 rates.

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 needs correcting.

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 founding principles.

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