Brazil 2002. The Victory of the Da Silvas

31 October 2002
Article

On Monday 29 of October, the day after the victory, the leader of the Workers Party (PT) declared to the national and international press that the recent elections had meant "the triumph of Brazilian society and its democratic institutions". This is the sort of speech that every politician around the globe uses in post-electoral times, but in the case of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva it was not just meaningless rhetoric. As most biographic profiles published by the global media like to highlight, the former shoeshine boy metamorphosed into president of the world's ninth largest economy is truly a man of the people. The question is what can the most marginalised sectors of Brazilian society - including present days' shoeshine boys - expect from the new president, and what kind of democratic changes could be in place when his mandate finishes after four years.

English-language news usually refers to the president-elect as Mr. da Silva. This expression sounds awkward in Brazil, where everybody refers to him just as Lula, without any title. The incoming president has a family name so common that it could be a synonym for the country itself. Da Silva - or simply Silva - is the name of the nation, as common as Chang in China or Smith in Anglo-speaking countries. In Brazil, da Silva is the name of the anonymous, and as such is the perfect name for a leader who always claimed to represent the interests of over 50 million anonymous poor.

Despite claims by outgoing President Cardoso's economic team that "currency stabilisation was the best social policy", Brazil's high Gini remains the second most scandalous in the world, after Nicaragua and just before South Africa and Malawi. This dualistic profile is not surprising in a country where poverty is so deeply rooted in the national identity that it has assumed the character of a cultural trait, openly celebrated in Carnival, popular songs, and other manifestations of social creativity.

Although political statistics and sociological studies do not discriminate by name, it could be assumed that the majority of the da Silvas across Brazil voted for Lula. Having to choose between a doctor with many professional titles and an industrial worker with not even a primary school degree, the majority of anonymous voters elected the second option. Before the elections, opinion polls had shown that the lack of education and professional credentials never hindered Lula's chances, with both the most educated and the least educated segments of Brazilian society being the least worried about such handicap. The former trade union leader, who in the early 1980s commanded massive anti-dictatorial strikes in the industrial belt of Sao Paulo, was able to overcome the insidious media campaign mastered by the centre-right opposition to disqualify his potential as a statesman. In every public appearance, Jose Serra, the defeated heir of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (or just FHC, as Brazilians are used to refer to current president), stressed Lula's limited education and professional expertise, threatening the electorate with the ghosts of crisis-ridden Argentina, Venezuela or Colombia to be reincarnated in Brazil after the victory of the left. Despite every odd, the da Silvas supported Lula, who had been empowered by a perfect combination of three factors: personal charisma, highly competent political marketing - using the same techniques previously criticised by the left - and a left party with strong roots in civil society.

But despite the strong insertion of the PT among urban and rural social movements, Lula cannot expect a harmonious and conflict-free relationship with the impoverished urban and rural grassroots. The job of President da Silva will not be of the relaxed type. Joao Pedro Stedile, the national director of the Sem Terra - Landless Peasants Movement. (MST), had announced before the elections that the new Petista government will have to face multiple social demands and constant mobilisations pressuring for radical changes. "If Lula understands such a message his government will empower the process of change, but if he opts for cheating the people asking for patience he will end up like De la Rua", Stedile argued referring to the Argentinean president ousted last year by a spontaneous social rebellion in a context of deepening economic and political crisis. That permanent 'social watch' implemented by the movements and the more radical currents of the Workers Party could be the best way to prevent the drift of the new government towards a sort of 'humane neoliberalism'. The electoral programme of the PT and its allies included a clear commitment with orthodox economic policies based on fiscal discipline and the control of inflation, far from being a real alternative to the policies implemented by Cardoso and quite different than the radical socialist programme raised by Lula up until the early 1990s.

Most Petista activists are confident about the party's capacity to prevent such an ideological and programmatic deviation. There are a handful of experiences in Latin America and other regions that provide relevant lessons for the new leftist government, from the Chilean Socialists of the early 1970s to the Nicaraguan Sandinistas of the late 1980s. Many party cadres that I interviewed in Porto Alegre during my doctoral research fieldwork referred to the case of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa as one of the most worrisome possible comparisons for the near future: an originally left-wing government turned into a brand new advocate of neoliberalism, too concerned for economic stabilisation and detached from the objective needs and interest of the social majorities.

At least for the moment, the Brazilian social and political left can dedicate most of its time to celebration. The first signs given by Lula and the PT are hopeful. While the market operators inside and outside Brazil were demanding information that could sedate the stress of investors concerned about the country's financial stability - namely, the names of the incoming economic cabinet - in his first press conference as president-elect Lula gave other statements. His first measure as president will be the creation of a Secretaria de Emergencia Social, a new federal agency with a budget and authority to begin already in January a frontal attack against hunger. With that message, he either substantiated his alleged 'populist' identity - as claimed by the mainstream media - or openly contradicted the hegemonic assumption that economic policy should prevail over social policy. Unlike most politicians in Brazil and elsewhere, who never experienced hunger personally, Lula is referring to something he suffered during his childhood. His aspirations are simple; in the same presentation he declared, "if at the end of my presidency each Brazilian can have three meals per day, I will have realised the dream of my life".

The day after the election most Brazilian newspapers had similar headlines, referring to 'a new beginning', a 'new era' or a 'new historical cycle' for the country's democracy. The military exited power only in 1985, but even at present many Brazilian analysts are hesitant to define the country as a true democracy. The possibilities for social participation within the Brazilian state have historically been very restricted; generally open only to privileged groups. Parliamentarian democracy in Brazil failed to make politics a public realm. The hierarchical, authoritarian, and patronising set of political relationships, the extensive corruption and clientelism, the physiological linkages between the public and the private, marked the history of the country all the way through colonial times, the post-colonial imperial period, and the 'republic'. In seems that the anonymous da Silvas and all the historically marginalised citizens of Brazil have finally reacted against the elites, electing a worker as the leader of a new kind of institutional politics as a genuine res-publica. Around the world, workers ('real' and 'ordinary' workers, not just those pretending to represent the working class) have for long been excluded from government. The only precedents we could think of are few, considering the ones who seized power through armed struggles as well as through electoral means: Tito in Yugoslavia, Friedrich Ebert in the German Republic of Weimar, and Lech Wallesa in post-communist Polonia, and not many others. Let's hope that Brazil's experiment with a worker as president has a different ending than those led by the mentioned international forerunners.

For those like me and many other hopeful 'da Silvas' outside Brazil, the victory of Lula and the PT is a powerful injection of renewed enthusiasm. Too many Latin American leftists had already given up any hope that Lula could become president, after three failed attempts in two decades. We had almost assumed that the whole project of the Brazilian left was just an illusion: a worker could never be elected president, because of the power of the national elites, the opposition of international financial capital, the pressures of the American government... and a long list of other very reasonable arguments of similar type. Now that a worker has been finally elected such pessimistic approach will tend to be replaced by another kind of fatalistic assumption: "yes, Lula has won, but he will not be able of implement any real change".

Luis Fernando Verissimo, a popular social and political commentator from Porto Alegre, responded to this kind of pessimism in his daily newspaper column published last Tuesday 29 of October in Zero Hora. Verissimo wrote that the first temptation is to invoke Marx (Groucho, not Karl) and warn Lula about the risks of joining a club that would accept somebody like him as a member. But from an optimistic perspective he also argued that perhaps the club has changed, and that Lula might have won not just because his beard is no longer so threatening or because his political discourse is softer, but mainly because the Brazilian voters are aware that the hegemonic model is falling apart and that a change of direction was urgently needed. And perhaps the owners of the club reasoned that it would be worth to accept Lula as a member, being aware that he could be the best way to prevent the much worse damage that could erupt from the anger of the poor.

The defeatist voices that claim that in the context of globalisation any leftist government will have little space for autonomous policies, with so many international pressures and heavy commitments inherited from the outgoing government, might be right. Nevertheless, we have to recognise that the club that admitted a da Silva as a member is also in crisis, with internal fights within the club, and that endogenous contradictions could facilitate the survival of a dissident to the hegemonic policies of the club.

In less than a week after the victory, hundreds of pages have been already published in Brazilian and foreign newspapers pointing at the multiple blockades that Lula's government will have to overcome in order to succeed. The most optimistic analyses highlight the fact that the PT had the best electoral results in 22 years of existence. Besides the federal presidency and three state governments, the party elected the largest parliamentarian representation - 91 deputies - in the lower chamber, and jumped from a meagre representation of only four senators to a 14-strong presence in the higher chamber. Across the country, the PT elected 147 state parliamentarians, and since the year 2000 the party already governs 186 municipalities and has 2.479 local legislators. The most negative analysis stresses the limited significance of these gains, arguing that the PT was only able to elect three governors in rather marginal states (Matto Grosso do Sul, Acre and Piaui), both in economic and political terms. The largest electoral colleges, those that represent over 80 percent of the national GDP and the hard core of Brazilian politics (Sao Paulo, Minas Gerais, Ceara and Goias) remain in the hands of the PSDB, Cardoso's Social Democratic Party. The PMDB, the catch-all Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, regained control of three Southern States and the Federal District of Brasilia, including a highly symbolic victory in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, which has the famous participatory city of Porto Alegre as its capital and was until now governed by the left of the PT. The supposedly 'objective' and unaligned analysts of Brazilian politics have celebrated this particular reallocation of power as a new balance of power that will guarantee the consolidation of democratic institutions and secure the 'governance' of the country. The boldest ones dare to celebrate such limitations as institutional barriers to any radical Petista attempt to violate the sacred rules of market economics and elitist politics.

In fact, Lula's job would be much easier if the PT had won Sao Paulo and other major states, but this failure is not so dramatic. With such a limited control of state governments, Lula will have to face strong opposition to implement the much needed tax reforms and other economic measures proposed by the PT, all of which target the caudillista type authority long-established by the traditional parties at the state level. But what really matters in Brazilian politics, however, is not the colour of the party that governs the state, but the representation of parties in the federal parliament. Brazilian political scientists have published a series of studies that prove that the behaviour of the parliamentarians in decision-making concerning specific local or regional matters is guided primarily by broader party interests that often contradict positions assumed by the governors. Besides, the PT count come in the incoming legislation with the votes of parliamentarians elected by a broad range of left-of-centre parties that embraced Lula's candidacy in the second electoral round, including those of the PDT-Democratic Labour Party, the PSB-Brazilian Socialist Party, and the PPS-Popular Socialist Party.

And more important than anything else, Lula's government will have to reach agreements not only with other political parties, but primarily with the organised social movements. The anonymous da Silvas organised in a colourful rainbow of social movements across Brazil will be the ones defining the identity of the new government and guaranteeing its legitimacy. From the PT point of view, that will mean harvesting the work of 22 years building a new kind of politics from the grassroots, being since its birth a new kind of socialist party built from below. The grassroots will expect immediate responses to their many and urgent demands. The new government will have to establish a democratic and accountable system to process such demands, agreeing with the Legislative Power, with the political parties, and with organised civil society, in order to avoid that such demands mutate into terrible frustrations or even social upheavals. It will be necessary to set priorities, but for that the PT has a very rich expertise accumulated in multiple orçamento participativo (participatory budgeting) processes implemented in Porto Alegre, Santo Andre and other cities since the early 1990s, where the local population, and particularly the poor, set the priorities for public investment and establish permanent social control over public finances and development projects. Such local experiences cannot be automatically transferred to the federal level, but the original objectives and spirit will be very relevant references for the new administrators.

In his first declaration as president-elect Lula referred to a broad range of social sectors to be considered during his presidency, as well as all the political allies that supported his election. Some of his top economic advisors had previously referred to post-Franco Spain's Pacto de la Moncloa and other international experiences of truce and agreements among diverse and even contradictory interests and forces. During the past century the world experienced the failures of such all-inclusive deals and popular fronts that imply co-operation between different social classes. However, in the context of 21st century Brazil, such agreements could produce something new and substantial. The extensive Brazilian middle class has gone through a process of political radicalisation and is open to the idea of real social and political changes. On its part, since the pro-democracy struggles of the early 1980s, the urban working class has overcome the stage of tutelage and has become a real 'political' force, not just a 'social' actor. Finally, since the 1950s, experiences such as the Ligas Camponesas (Peasant Leagues) up to the strong and radicalised Sem Terra, have shown that a large portion of the rural workers have for long reacted against the subordination to the landlords to constitute a new kind of political agent highly influential in national politics.

Other kinds of blockades refer to the international opposition to progressive, counter-hegemonic processes. Practically since the beginning, the US government has perceived the PT, and Lula in particular, as a radical enemy. The image of Lula portrayed by the American media during the past elections of 1989, 1994 and 1998 is highly eloquent. The Americans dedicated a lot of efforts to prevent a leftist victory, including not-so-subtle ways to encourage panic in market circles. But not only the US governments and Wall Street are opposed to Lula. It seems that the 'magic realism' crafted by Garcia Marquez and other Latin American fiction writers have permeated the 'real world' of international finances. The most clear - and ridiculous example - has been the invention of a Lulometro by Goldman Sachs, an analytical tool widely used by American, European and Japanese investors to forecast the value of the Brazilian currency according to the position of Lula in electoral polls during the past campaign. Nobody can expect strong support from global business networks for the new leftist government, but opposition will have to find a 'reasonable' limit. The crumbling global economy cannot afford the over-reaching consequences of the collapse of a national economy such as Brazil, not so big in absolute terms, but highly tied to other much larger national economies.

The internal contradictions in the club of globalisation can be used in favour of the leftist project. It is not by chance that only a few hours after Lula's victory the European Commission offered all the assistance that the new government could need to revitalise the currently agonising Mercosur - the regional trade agreement that includes Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay as full members and Bolivia and Chile as associate members. The EU is aware of the potential role to be played by Brazil against the reinforced US hegemony in the hemisphere. It is not by chance either that the first official trip scheduled by Lula will be to Argentina and Chile. The Petista grassroots have made very clear their visceral opposition to the neo-imperialist project of the FTAA-Free Trade Area of the Americas, but Lula is aware that Brazil cannot be the only voice to cry in the desert.

Several Northern analysts have drawn a too simplistic comparison between Lula da Silva in Brazil, Chavez in Venezuela, and Castro in Cuba. They failed to recognise the much different democratic background of the new Brazilian president, with a party strongly rooted in trade unions, peasants movements, progressive Christian networks, housing rights organisations, gay and lesbian groups, intellectual circles, and the non-organised citizenry - the bulk of the anonymous da Silvas. Furthermore, they fail to understand Lula's charisma and personality, a trade unionists that always rejected delinking from his grassroots and was never interested a new kind of person-centred politics. Instead of proposing a new sudden 'revolution' Lula is prepared to lead a gradual process that could result in a fourth way kind of politics, away at the same time from the ideology and practices of the old left, from the caudillista and eclectic politics proposed by the new wave of Latin American populist leaders a la Chavez, and from the third way politics of Giddens, Blair and Cardoso.

Whatever the outcomes of the next four years of Petista government, for good or for bad they will have a profound impact at the national, regional and global levels. The da Silvas of Brazil can be hopeful, but they should remain watchful; at least until the elections of 2004, when they could revalidate or reject the politics of the PT in municipal elections. Those elections, which in the late 1980s consolidated the weight of the PT as a major player in Brazilian politics, will be a new sort of Lulometro that should be seriously considered by anybody concerned about the success or failure or Mr. da Silva.