Maré is a favela (shanty town) perched on the hills above the city of Rio de Janeiro, and it is one of the poorest. Motorbikes race up and down the steep, pitted streets, and rap music thumps out from every corner bar; wires and cables snake over rooftops and hang above the street. Today, the square is full of the yellow flags of PSOL, the Socialism and Freedom party. They are there because Heloisa Helena, the party’s charismatic presidential candidate in last year’s elections, has come to speak. When she finishes, a crowd gathers to have their picture taken with her.
The majority of Heloisa’s unprecedented seven million votes came from places like Maré and other favelas like it all over Brazil. But she had the support of hospital workers like herself, of students, of civil servants, of teachers too. What all these groups had in common was their disillusionment with Lula, the leader of the Workers Party (PT), who became president in 2002. For trade unionists, agricultural workers and all the people who like Lula himself had grown up in poverty, his election was a moment for optimism – hope that he would represent their interests. Instead, he produced a strategy to calm the fears of international capital and to protect Brazil’s own incredibly wealthy capitalist class.
This, after all, was the world’s eighth largest economy; it could very easily have used those resources to benefit the 60 percent of Brazil’s population that lived in poverty. Instead, he rushed to reassure the IMF that Brazil would keep to the rules of the game. Heloisa and three other leading figures then left the PT in protest to found PSOL. They wanted to provide a focus for those who were moving away from Lula and looking for an alternative organisation that would speak with the voice of Brazil’s workers.
Three years later, PSOL’s first congress opens in the precinct of a university surrounded by the banners of striking workers – a nearby museum carries a huge placard announcing ’Culture on strike’. In Sao Paulo students are in the second month of a university occupation. Yesterday’s newspaper carried reports of the arrest of Lula’s own brother for influence trafficking. Barely a year into his second term, Lula has announced a freeze on wages in the public sector and cutbacks in public spending; the promised agrarian reform remains blocked to protect the interests of the big agro-export industries.
There are signs of resistance to come. In August, there will be a march on Brasilia, the capital city, from all over Brazil, in protest against Lula’s new and even harsher neo-liberal strategies. It is clear that PT, which grew out of mass struggle over 25 years ago, can no longer lay claim to that inheritance. As Heloisa put it in her opening speech to the conference, “It was not easy to leave PT, and it won’t be easy to build a socialist organization rooted in the mass social movements. But that is our historic responsibility”.