Socialist Worker

A continent rocked by new forces

Swiss economist and socialist Charles-André Udry looks at the significance of recent elections in three important Latin American countries

Issue No. 1929

RECENT elections reveal three main themes. Firstly, the bulk of the population, which has long been suffering from neo-liberal policies and increasing immiseration, is now open to real social and economic alternatives.

Secondly, these people are pinning their hopes on political forces that propose real change. However, their disappointment is expressed very quickly when the expected changes fail to materialise.

Thirdly, a section of the more radical and politicised workers are seeking to either deepen an ongoing process of change, as in Venezuela, or to take part in setting up another left, as in Brazil.

The Brazilian municipal elections, which take place over two rounds, have led to a political defeat for the Workers Party (PT)—the party of the president, Ignacio Lula da Silva, who was elected in 2002.

In the previous municipal elections in 2000, the PT won control of 187 municipalities out of more than 5,500.

This year 411 mayors were elected on PT lists, many of which included coalitions with bourgeois parties.

However, a closer look reveals that the PT has lost ground in 96 politically important cities—26 state capitals (Brazil is a federal state) and 70 cities with more than 150,000 inhabitants.

During the second round of the municipal elections on 31 October the PT lost the town halls of significant cities.

One of them is Sao Paulo, with 11 million inhabitants. Here the political contest had a national dimension. The two candidates were Marta Supplicy for the PT and José Serra for the Party of Brazilian Social Democracy.

The latter had lost to Lula in the presidential elections. This time, however, he beat the PT candidate, despite the strong backing she received from the president.

In the second round Marta Supplicy had no scruples about forming an alliance with the caricature of the corrupt old Brazilian right, former mayor of Sao Paulo Paulo Malof.

In Porto Alegre, the city which symbolises the World Social Forum, the PT also suffered a defeat in the city it had run for 16 years.

In 1996, Raúl Pont, a leading left winger in the PT, won the election for mayor in the first round with 52 percent of the vote. This time he lost in the second round.

The PT also lost in Rio de Janeiro, where its candidate got 6 percent in the first round.

The PT’s defeats in key cities show the beginning of the disillusionment of a part of the popular masses as a result of the hopes betrayed by Lula’s government.

Millions of poor peasants expected land. They are still waiting. Initially agrarian reform was supposed to give a million families access to land over a period of four years.

After two years less than 115,000 families have received land. This is not even expropriated land, but land bought by the state.

The economic policies of the Lula government are a continuation of the neo-liberalism of his predecessor, Fernando Enrique Cardoso.

Paying domestic and foreign debts to imperialist banks and rich Brazilians takes priority over social investment. The results of these elections signal the beginnings of disenchantment.

Worse still, the PT has depoliticised the election campaign. In the image of Britain’s New Labour, elections have become political marketing operations.

Social struggles are taking place but they are, for now, limited. They have touched the public and banking sectors.

Banking workers, under the cosh of restructuring, have seen their numbers plummet by close to 50 percent over the last ten years, and their wages have been frozen.

Government-driven trade union reforms have served to neutralise rank and file activity in the workplace.

The great hope for change that arose from the PT’s victory in 2002 risks being turned into disillusionment. The necessity of a social and political alternative is therefore all the greater.

The birth, in early 2004, of the Party of Socialism and Freedom represents an important element in regrouping the forces that have already broken with the PT and winning over others, within the PT and the social movements, who are looking for “another left”.

In Uruguay, with 3.4 million inhabitants, half of whom live in the capital Montevideo, the right and neo-liberalism suffered a defeat of historical significance on 31 October.

The Frente Amplio (Broad Front) swept aside the two bourgeois parties that had been in control of the government for more than a century.

Masses of people took to the streets to support the newly elected president, Tabaré Vazquez. The Frente Amplio took 1.125 million votes—51 percent of the total. The main bourgeois party only managed 760,000 votes.

The wider left has a majority in the senate, 17 seats out of 31, and the chamber of deputies, 52 out of 99.

Therefore in Uruguay the new president, unlike Lula, cannot invoke the lack of a majority in the legislature to slow change down.

In parallel with these elections there was a referendum over water privatisation. Some 64 percent of voters opposed privatisation.

Tabaré Vazquez has been very careful to indicate that he doesn’t wish to break with the system. What he wants is “responsible change”.

In a country that has been devastated by neo-liberal policies, hopes are very high. Workers expect a lot, whether it be in jobs, wages, health, education or housing.

Pressure from below, stimulated by the left tendencies within Frente Amplio, will be an important element in determining the social, political and economic dynamics of Uruguay.

The economics minister, like his Brazilian counterpart, is already doing everything he can to give guarantees to the international financial institutions. His name is Danilo Pastori—he will certainly get a positive mention in the Financial Times.

In Venezuela the municipal and state governorship elections on 31 October gave a fresh victory to the currents supporting the president, Hugo Chavez.

It is the ninth electoral victory for the man that the bourgeois media like to present as a dictator.

These elections were a chance to raise three questions while the right wing was down and out.

Firstly, to what extent can left wing candidates be independent of the Chavez government apparatus?

Secondly, will the process of change be deepened by workers taking direct economic control of key sectors of the economy? The government has decreed a sharp rise in taxation for the multinational oil companies. However, the workers are waiting for support in taking direct control of production and distribution.

Thirdly, how will the popular rank and file organisations serve to both address the needs of the population—health, education, controlled distribution of wealth—as well as counter corruption and bureaucracy?

Venezuela today appears as the vanguard of a deep change that is shaking up a Latin America ravaged by more than 20 years of crises and neo-liberal policies.

Translated by Andy Taylor

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Sat 27 Nov 2004, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1929
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