The Brazilian Left
Red Pepper, August 2002
'When there is such an overwhelming disaster and you see yourself as part of this disaster, you begin to question your whole life. Why so many years of sacrifice and struggle?' Congressman Fernando Gabeira expresses the feelings of many petistas - members or supporters of the Brazilian Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) - when they heard that the party they built or supported as an instrument of democratic, ethical politics, was governing on the basis of systematic corruption.
The Brazilian left are in a state of profound shock and confusion. Over the past two decades hundreds of thousands of them have devoted their lives to creating the PT as a principled and forceful instrument of social justice against one of the most corrupt and unjust ruling elites in the world. The exact details of the corruption are still being investigated. At the same time the scandal has been exploited by right wing parties and media gleefully using the scandal to batter and demoralise the left. (Though the right-wing and centre parties are now trying to reign in the investigative process as it begins to boomerang, exposing themselves and the whole rottenness of the Brazilian state in the process.) It is generally admitted that the cupulo (group at the top) of the PT bribed political parties of the right to join their alliance in Congress (Lula himself won with a 67% of the vote but the PT only has 20% of the seats in Congress - though it is the largest party) and gave monthly payments to congressmen of the right to support their legislation.
And the legislation itself? Social reforms that the right might balk at? On the contrary, Lula's government pushed through generally neo-liberal reforms of which Tony Blair would be proud. ( These included reforms - effectively partial privatisation - of an extremely unequal public pensions system which nevertheless left the inequalities almost untouched; amending Brazil's relatively radical if contradictory 1988 constitution to enable the creation of an independent bank , giving the freedom to raise interest rates as high as it wants. There have been social reforms - for example, a basic but very low income for all poor families - though these are hardly adequate to the problems and many of them, along with the relatively progressive aspects of Lula's foreign policy, did not need Congressional approval).
It is not only a matter of corrupt foundations of the government: the PT's strategy for winning the election was, it turns out, based on `caixa dois' (literally `a second cash till' - a secret slush fund) whose sources seem to have ranged from money donated by businesses already contracted by PT municipal governments, public companies and private companies seeking government contacts. The publicist responsible for Lula 's 2002 advertising campaign admitted he had received money from these PT funds through an illegal account held by the PT in the Bahamas.
Significantly, the mastermind of all this was José Dirceu, an ex-guerrilla leader, responsible indeed for kidnapping the German ambassador and a devoted party man; Party President since 1994 and the architect of Lula's election campaigns from 1994 to the victory of 2002. There is evidence of personal corruption (the Treasurer received a land rover, the Finance Minister and Trot-turned-monetarist Antonio Palocci, made a suspiciously vast huge speculative gain on a house) but what we are dealing with here is far more important: a corruption of democracy and of political goals and values as a result of the political methodology of `any means necessary'.
The evidence of corroded ends is stark. The revelations of political corruption came after it had become clear that the government had moved from a supposedly tactical acceptance of the IMF terms to a wholehearted acceptance for neo-liberal orthodoxy. Interest rates are at 19%, amongst the highest in the world. The government continues to generate an internal surplus far high than that demanded by the IMF, who no longer feel they have to have an agreement with Brazil.
Perhaps the most crucial signal that the leadership had broken the bond at the heart of the original PT between achieving social justice and building on the power of the poor to so, was Lula's failure to turn his electoral mandate - and huge international support - into a democratic counter force to drive a hard bargain with the IMF. ` He could have got much better terms in order to pursue the social programme for which he was elected. At that point, the people would have been on the streets behind him. I'm sure,' comments Plìnio Arruda de Sampaio, a founder of the party with Lula and now, in his 70's, standing in the party's presidential election, to test `for last time' whether the party retains any integrity. It's a widely shared belief.
It's not just Brazilian leftists who are shocked and disoriented by what has been happening in the elegantly designed corridors of office - but patently not of power - in Neimeyer's Brasilia. Lula and the PT are not a `God that Failed' Soviet style. But many Western leftists saw in the PT's ability to combine in Plìnio's words: ` the building of popular movements with occupying spaces in the political system' as illustrating a strategy for socialist change more powerful than the ineffectual parliamentarism of west European social democracy yet building on struggles for the franchise and other liberal political rights in a way in which the Leninist tradition rarely did. The disaster of the Lula government is not just a repeat of the classic scenario of a social democratic party that talks left in opposition and is pressured into compliance when it gets to office. The PT's particular origins in mass movements resisting the military dictatorship of the 60's, 70's an early 80's, along with strong traditions of popular education and self-organisation produced something new. One illustration of it's innovative politics was its relation, historically, with the landless movement, (MST) a movement that occupied the land of the rich latifundii and then tried to use it for co-operative agriculture. The PT both supported this movement and was generally supported by it, while at the same time respecting its autonomy. Another illustration of the innovative traditions of the PT was the way that when it won the mayoral elections in cities such as such as Porto Alegre in Rio Grande do Sol, Acre in the Amazon, Recife in the North East, Sao Paulo and very recently Fortaleza in the North, it sought to `share power with the movements from whence we came' in the words of Celso Daniel, the mayor of Sante Andre murdered in 2001 for trying to stop corruption. It did so by opening up the finances of the municipality to a transparent process of participatory decision-making through which local people had real power. One of the main driving motives behind this experiment was to expose and eliminate corruption.
How could the party of participatory democracy become the party of corruption, following the methods of every other Brazilian party before it? I went to find out. As a reality check I began in Fortaleza where a radical PT member Luizianne Luns had stood for mayor and won against the wishes of the leadership. Jose Dirceu had flown in from Sao Paulo to campaign against her. I wondered whether the PT's participatory democracy really only a feature of the state of Rio Grande Do Sol, with it's highly developed civil society? But in Fortaleza, 2,5000 miles from Porto Alegre I found a process of participatory adminstration that had taken the process deeper than its original and world famous home. My next stop had to be Sao Paulo and then to Rio to talk with people who had sounded the alarm at an earlier stage.
I visited Chico De Oliviera, Marxist sociologist and a founder of the PT, he had recently written an excoriating letter of resignation from the PT over the government's economic policy. His analysis was comprehensive. First he stressed the context of the Brazilian state, a state which gives perhaps the greatest powers of patronage to its politicians than anywhere else in the world, offering huge opportunities for clientelism. The president has 25,000 jobs in his gift. Mitterand had 150. The electoral system in which people stand not on party lists but as individuals unless the party, as does the PT, presents a list, makes for weak parties. Patronage and bribery has been a normal way of getting measures through congress, and through the assemblies of regional and municipal government which mirror the presidential system.
It was exactly this system that the participatory budget was fashioned to attack. The idea was instead of relying on bribery and patronage to get things through the elected assemblies, the mayor or governor ( and it was imagined, eventually the president ) would rely on a process of shared decision making with process of direct and delegate democracy which built up considerable moral legitimacy so that councillors and regional deputies could not ignore because their voters were part of it. A visit to Porto Alegre confirmed this: `we ruled for 16 years without bribery ' said Uribitan De Souza, one of the archistects of the participatory budget, both in Porto Alegre and for the state of Rio Grande Do Sul.
The essential principle guiding Uribitan, Olivio Dutro and the other pioneers of participatory budgeting was the recognition that electoral success does not on its own bring sufficient power even to initiative a process of social transformation but that an electoral victory can be used to activate a deeper popular power. Such an approach, without immediately developing new institutions, would have led at least to the kind of mobilisation that petistas expected from Lula in his dealing with the IMF and a hostile Congress and Brazilian elite (indeed one government insider told me that bankers too expected it and were reconciled to some tough bargaining). But from Lula's 1994 election defeat by Fernando Henrique Cardoso (when many had been looking forward to a PT government) to the successful campaign of 2002, the leadership of the party was not in the hands of people with a deep commitment to participatory democracy. D'Oliveria stresses the emergence of a group of trade union leaders including Lula whose approach was essentially one of pragmatic negotiations. He argues that in the 80's, when the independent trade union movement was highly political as its every action however economic and sectional in intent came up against the dictatorship, they appeared as radical political leaders. But as the militant trade unions in the car industry especially, faced unemployment and decline the influence of leaders was one of caution and pragmatism. Another group in the post 1994 leadership, for example ex guerrilla José Genuino, had reacted to the fall of the Berlin Wall by dropping any belief in radical change and adopting a variant of the Third Way, weak social democracy. And finally there was Dirceu, whose break from the Communist Party in the 1970s's had been over the armed struggle not over its instrumental, ends-justify-means methodology.
Dirceu's end - shared by every petista - was `Lula Presidente'. For Dirceu, this was by any means necessary. For most petistas it was by also mobilising and educating the people to be ready to take actions themselves. But the difference in methodology was overwhelmed by the desire for a PT victory. ` We believed too much in Lula' confesses Orlando Fantasini, a Deputy for Sao Paulo, a radical Catholic, part of a `Left Bloc ' of around 20 Deputies and x Senators which was quick to demand an investigation into the corruption revelations and many of whom are now likely to join other parties, most notably the PSOL, a party form by PT deputies who split from th party over the pension reforms.
People who tried openly to warn of corrupt deals with private companies, like César Benjamin, a leading official of the party until 1994 were rebuffed as disloyal. Throughout the 90's, the Lula personified petista hopes for social justice and popular democracy. If Dirceu and the increasingly tight cuppola demanded greater autonomy, or argued for a centralisation of the party at the expense of the local nuclei in the name of a Lula victory, their demand was granted. In election campaigns, political campaigning in the market places and street corners gave way to marketing on the conventional model, activist campaigning gave way to paid leafleteers, Lula drank bottles of whisky with the bosses of Globo (Brazil's Murdoch like media monopoly) thinking he could get them on his side. The PT had established Brazil's first mass political party according to its own ethics of popular democracy; but after the disappointment of 1994 and even more so of 1998, it accepted the rules of Brazil's corrupt political system.
The PT's reputation for democracy has been based partly on the rights of different political tendencies to representation at all levels of the party. But from the mid 1990's, according to César Benjamin and others, Dirceu started to use the slush fund to strengthen the position of the `Campo Majoritário, building a network of local leaders who depended on him. This along with the autonomy demanded and granted for Lula's group meant that this mechanism for democracy become ineffectual as the majority tendency monopolised central control and no other mechanisms of accountability were put in place.
As I listened to party activists and ex activists at every level, from the organisers of Fortaleza's new born participatory democracy to a veteran leftist advising Lula in the Palàcio do Panalto, it became clear how interlinked the two scandals are: the neo-liberalism of the government and the systematic corruption in the organisation of the party. The steady strangling of democracy - which is after all what corruption is about - meant that the party lost all autonomy from the government. It also meant that all the mechanisms linking the party to the social movements and therefore acting as a political channel for their expectations, their pressure and their anger had been closed down. Even Marco Aurelio Garcia working with Lula on foreign affairs felt he had no way of calling the economic minister to account.
What now? Everyone recognises that this disaster is a huge defeat. ` Our strategies have to be for the long term,' says José Correio Leite from the now divided left tendency Democratic Socialism (DS). After the party's presidential elections, assuming the Campo Majoritário wins - and it is assumed that even now corruption is playing a part in their election campaign - he and most of those who have been supporting Plinio will leave the party, some joining PSOL but all working to create a widely based `socialist movement' which will not see electoral activity as it priority but rather will return to working with social movements. `We must find a way of consolidating and developing the real PT traditions; we cannot let the cupola destroy this,' says Luciano Brunét who is supporting fellow Porto Alegren, Raoul Pont, for Party president on a platform of political reforms of the party and the state.
All agree: `the situation is open. Very open' as a group of DSers put it. They also stressed the importance of international discussions. Across the world, there is an experimental left refusing the idea all that there is, is Blairism, or an abandonment of any engagement with electoral politics. The disaster facing the PT requires us not to turn away and search elsewhere for a political golden grail but, rather to learn with our petista or ex-petista friends from their defeat and deepen the innovative but incomplete answers they were beginning to give to questions that face us all: how to develop radical economic and political alternatives embedded amongst those organising for dignity and social justice, including below the radar of conventional politics; how to campaign in elections in a ways which challenge and open up existing political institutions rather than accepting their logic; how to build innovation and experiment into an political, social and cultural organisations that also aspire to be powerful and radical institutions …and so on. Whatever happens, we must react to this defeat as a shared challenge and use it to strengthen our common strategies for socialist change.