By Chris Harman
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Latin America swings leftward

This article is over 21 years, 3 months old
A POLITICAL earthquake shook Latin America's largest country in Brazil's presidential election last Sunday. With 61.4 percent of the vote, the Workers Party candidate, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva - or Lula, as he is usually known - crushed the old government's candidate, José Serra.
Issue 1824

A POLITICAL earthquake shook Latin America’s largest country in Brazil’s presidential election last Sunday. With 61.4 percent of the vote, the Workers Party candidate, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva – or Lula, as he is usually known – crushed the old government’s candidate, José Serra.

This is the first time a party based on workers has won national elections in Latin America since the victory of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1970. It takes place against the background of economic crisis in Argentina and Uruguay on Brazil’s southern border.

There is widespread social unrest on its western border in Paraguay, civil war on the north western border in Colombia, and there have been repeated attempts by the right wing to overthrow the Venezuelan government on the northern border. The Workers Party was formed out of the workers’ movement that played a decisive role in bringing to an end the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s.

Lula came to prominence as the leader of metal workers’ strikes in the factory belt of São Paulo. The party represented a decisive break with the tradition in Brazil, as elsewhere in Latin America, of workers voting for ‘populist’ politicians – generals or rich careerists who promised them crumbs while seeking to build up local capitalism.

The Workers Party grew until it had hundreds of thousands of active worker members, many risking their lives in order to challenge the old order. Last Sunday’s election was the fourth time Lula had stood for president. On each occasion the whole of the ruling class did its utmost to stop him. The media would print lurid stories about his personal life. Those with wealth would move it abroad, creating scares about an economic crisis and saying it was all Lula’s fault, for denouncing the gross injustices of one of the world’s most unequal societies.

During the election four years ago, the now outgoing president Cardoso said that if Lula won the currency would be devalued. After Lula had been defeated Cardoso devalued the currency with the support of international financial institutions like the IMF. This time the wealthy and multinational firms in Brazil and the US tried the same trick.

Money flooded out of the country and the value of the currency sank. Instead of panicking people into voting against Lula, it increased bitterness against Cardoso and his government. There is a feeling that Brazil’s rich and the multinationals have had it their own way for too long, and that the time for change has come. Unfortunately, it has also led to Lula and his advisers backing away from some of the far reaching measures they used to be committed to.

They have attempted to stop the flow of money abroad by making conciliatory gestures to those who speculate on financial markets. Lula has chosen as his vice-president a rich businessman belonging to a neo-liberal party. And he has said he accepts the programme which Cardoso agreed recently with the IMF.

The key figure in Lula’s election campaign says that, ‘Lula has changed. Reality has brought this about. Doors have been opened to the S‹o Paulo stock exchange because this project is for all of Brazil.’ Lula and his advisers claim that they can bridge the gap between the interests of the rich and the poor. A big section of the rich want an independent Brazilian capitalism, not one subordinated to the US.

Lula’s advisers point out that even Cardoso’s government was not keen on the US-pushed Free Trade of the Americas trading bloc. They prefer the more independent economic bloc based on big business in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.

This is to paper over the huge divide in Brazil between those who live in air-conditioned luxury flats and those in the sprawling shanty towns.

Lula’s concessions to the rich

Lula’s government will be subjected to pressure from the market and the poor| LULA’S TALK has dangerous similarities with that of Allende’s 32 years ago. Allende believed that if he promised not to touch the position of Chile’s army generals, they would allow him to carry though reforms to benefit the mass of people.

Three years later those same generals drowned his government in blood. Lula seems to believe that if he makes concessions to Brazil’s rich, somehow they will stop conspiring against his government. The centrepiece of the Workers Party policy is now a ‘social pact’ drawing together the unions, the employers’ organisations and the government.

The head of the party’s economic team, Antonio Palocci, announced last week that he was trying to work with Cardoso’s government to bring about ‘a peaceful transition’ in the two months before Lula officially becomes president. Brazil’s rich have a history of murderous behaviour towards the poor. They gave unstinting backing to the military dictatorship as it tortured left wingers and trade unionists.

Today, they back underground groups of police who run death squads that murder ‘undesirables’ in the country’s cities. They may tolerate Lula’s government for a period. But they will threaten to use their economic might to push the country into an economic crisis unless the government guarantees their profits by dropping talk of serious reforms in the interests of workers and the poor. The new government will be subject to another sort of pressure from that of the market.

Many millions of Workers Party members and supporters want there to be a fundamental change in society. Their actions can resist any backtracking by the new government. The Landless Workers Movement, for instance, has millions of supporters. It seeks to get a livelihood for people living in despair in the shanty towns by dividing up the great country estates. Its leaders are openly critical of any talk of compromise from the Workers Party.

When right wing generals and the head of the employers’ organisation attempted a coup in Venezuela in April, it was beaten by hundreds of thousands of poor people pouring into the streets of the capital, Caracas. A second attempt last week fell apart even before it started as workers refused to take part in a work stoppage called by the employers’ organisation and right wing union leaders.

The would-be coup makers were left occupying one square in Caracas’s richest district. A similar spirit can stop Brazil’s rich and the multinationals using their economic power to wreck the mass desire for change. It means people organising to take action – with the leaders of the Workers Party when they press forward for real change, and against them when they try to conciliate with the rich and the multinationals.

Brazil: a country divided between rich and poor

  • Brazil borders every South American country apart from Chile and Ecuador.
  • The population is 175 million – three quarters live in towns or cities. The national language is Portuguese.
  • São Paulo is the world’s third largest city, with 22 million inhabitants. Rio de Janeiro has ten million inhabitants.
  • The Workers Party is known as the PT.
  • Half the people of working age are workers. A third of these are in precarious jobs in the ‘informal’ sector.
  • The richest 10 percent of Brazil’s population are 78 times better off than the poorest 10 percent.
  • The richest 10 percent get 45 percent of the national income. The poorest 50 percent have only 11 percent.
  • Some 70 million people live below the poverty line. Around 32 million people are in absolute poverty.
  • The 20 biggest landowners own more land than 3.3 million small farmers.
  • Brazil’s foreign debt is over $300 billion, and it doubled between 1994 and 1999. In those years $126 billion was paid in interest.


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