In early August, eight months into the presidency of Brazil’s Lula da Silva, 25,000 demonstrators poured into the streets to denounce him for attacking the pensions of public workers. A former metalworker who was raised in poverty, Lula was voted in on the strength of his populist image. But rather than battling corporate powers for the sake of the needy, he has done the reverse.
“What you are seeing is a revolution, but it’s not a socialist revolution; it is a capitalist revolution,” says Congressman Fernando Gabeira, a member of Lula’s own Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), or Workers Party.
Chasm between rich and poor.Ranked eighth among the world’s industrial economies, Brazil is a huge country rich in natural resources that benefit a tiny few.
One percent of the population enjoys 50 percent of the national income. Half of Brazil’s 180 million people live in poverty, while international corporations rob the country of hundreds of millions of dollars in profits every year.
Three percent of the people own nearly two-thirds of the arable land, much of which lies idle. Approximately 25 million rural people have no property at all.
These conditions fueled da Silva’s victory. But he wants the people to wait while he prioritizes servicing the country’s $264 billion foreign debt.
Devolution of a dream. The PT began in the 1980s as a socialist, anti-imperialist party. But this legacy is now reduced to empty rhetoric, as party leaders seek leverage with corporate globalism.
Shortly before Lula’s election, the PT refused to support a referendum on the Free Trade Area of the Americas that was organized by the MST (Landless Workers Movement), left groups, and church progressives. Of the 10 million who voted, 95 percent rejected FTAA as a plan for intensifying U.S. domination.
Nevertheless, the peasant movement placed its hopes on Lula and agreed to cease land takeovers until after the elections. Da Silva repaid this sacrifice by barely moving on his promise to settle families onto unused farmland and condoning the violent eviction of squatters.
His regime is slashing the budget by $3.9 billion, as mandated by the International Monetary Fund, while increasing the amount for external debt payments by $5.4 billion. Taxes paid by workers have increased 27 percent since the PT came to power, but business taxes have been reduced.
The biggest showdown has been the fight over pensions for an estimated three million government employees. Lula’s proposed legislation revokes the current standard, which allows civil servants to retire on an income equal to their last wage. Pensions will be subject to taxes; retirement age will be raised; widows’ pensions will be reduced by 30 percent.
Predictably, Brazilian capitalists who are tied to international big business are “delighted, elated and nearly orgasmic,” according to a São Paulo columnist.
Opposition springs eternal. As public workers step up the fight for their rights, the landless peasants are resuming land occupations. There is also some opposition within the large radical wing of the PT.
One of Lula’s strongest opponents is Senator Heloísa Helena, a member of the PT’s Socialist Democracy Tendency. This tendency is allied with the Fourth International, a world organization of revolutionary socialists. Helena has criticized the government’s corporate priorities and servility toward the World Bank.
At the end of May, the national PT leadership voted to submit Senator Helena and Congressmen Luciana Genro and João Batista de Araujo to a disciplinary commission for publicly opposing government measures. Genro and Congressman João Fontes were suspended from the PT for distributing a video that shows da Silva denouncing the pension cutbacks he now champions.
In a different era, the PT might have become the combative, independent labor party dreamed of by Brazil’s slum-dwellers, unionists, landless peasants, oppressed Blacks, women, gays, and indigenous people. But with the global capitalist economy in serious, protracted trouble, reform attempts cannot be tolerated. Social change requires the will to oppose the forces of international finance and the assistance of a coordinated world movement.
Inevitably, Brazilians will explode when the depth of their betrayal hits home. The radical opposition needs to be ready to help them by building a revolutionary movement outside the PT — one with a principled program that supports the daily struggles of Brazil’s poor against both domestic and foreign predators.