TENS OF thousands of public sector workers marched through Brasilia, the Brazilian capital, last week in the sharpest clash yet between workers and the country's president, Lula.
Lula, a former trade union leader, became president in January on the basis of massive support from the country's workers and poor. It was a historic victory for the leader of the Workers Party. Lula had helped found the party during mass strikes against a military dictatorship in the 1970s.
But since coming to office Lula has pursued neo-liberal economic and social policies increasingly indistinguishable from those of his right wing predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. On last week's demonstration protesters carried pictures of Lula and Cardoso together and the slogan 'Down with neo-liberalism'.
One marcher, civil servant Alejandra Maria Rossi, told journalists, 'I voted for Lula with the illusion that the country would change and workers would be respected. But I was deceived.' Alongside the feeling of betrayal, though, the hopes raised among ordinary Brazilians by Lula's election have begun to translate into struggles against the direction of his government.
As well as the public sector workers' protests, there has also been a new wave of struggles by the important MST landless rural labourers' movement and the MTST shanty town dwellers movement.
Last week's public sector workers' protest came as the government sought to push a 'reform' to public sector workers' pension plans through Brazil's national parliament. Up to 60,000 workers travelled from across the vast country to march through Brasilia. Hundreds of thousands had also joined strikes over the weeks leading up to the march.
The pension 'reform' closely echoes those being pushed by governments in Europe, such as that behind the mass strikes in France earlier this year. Lula's pension plan would make public sector workers work longer, and pay more for poorer pensions-and open up the way for moves to them being forced to pay into private pension schemes.
Brazil's CNUG public sector workers' union says the government's plan is to please 'financial capital, speculators, loan sharks and large estate owners.' The anger among those who had voted for Lula was clear on last week's march when some protesters invaded the parliament, smashing windows and mobbing government deputies.
Lula's response was to defend his 'reform' plan, saying, 'Brazil will be grateful for a government with a commitment to reforms.' He even attacked previous right wing governments for 'not having the courage' to stand up to protests.
No wonder US president George Bush recently said of Lula, 'I like this guy!' Increasing numbers of Brazilians share the feelings of Fatima Mesquita, a 50 year old civil servant who travelled over 1,200 miles to join last week's demonstration.
She told journalists that Lula's government represented 'the biggest treachery I have had in my life. I could never have imagined this. Lula came to my city and said he would recover the dignity of public sector workers.'
Many working class Brazilians would also have been stunned by Lula's declaration of three days of official mourning last week after the death of the head of the country's biggest media empire. Roberto Marinho was the right wing billionaire head of the Globo network, which has a vice-like grip on Brazil's media from TV to newspapers.
He was also a longtime and enthusiastic supporter of the military dictatorship against which Lula and the Workers Party battled in the 1970s and early 1980s. Lula managed to get his pension reform through the lower house of parliament last week, and it now goes to the upper house.
The plan only got enough votes to carry with the support of the parties which formed the backbone of the previous right wing government. Three Workers Party deputies voted against the pension plans. They now face expulsion from the party. This move indicates the Workers Party leadership's increasing war against those who oppose the right wing direction of the government.
Police evict the homeless
THE MST landless rural workers' movement has stepped up its campaign of land occupations in the face of the government's failure to deliver on its pledge of significant land reform.
And there has been a spate of protests demanding land and funding for decent housing by the MTST shanty town dwellers movement. Last week MTST protesters were forced by police to leave an occupation of land left vacant by the Volkswagen car multinational near Sao Paulo after it shut down some of its operations.