Elections in Brasil:beyond Lula and Dilma

ELECTIONS IN BRAZIL: Beyond Lula and Dilma

Gerard Coffey

Quito 28 Sept

According to the latest polls, Dilma Rousseff, the Workers Party (PT) candidate in the Brazilian presidential elections scheduled for October the 3rd, has a more than twenty percent advantage over her rival, José Serra.  The election appears to be as good as over.

The reason seems to be that Rousseff, a one time member of the Brazilian guerrilla movement Vanguardia Armada Revolucionaria Palmares[i], is all about continuity; President Lula da Silva has an astounding popularity rating of more than 80% and has been campaigning tirelessly on her behalf. The reason for Lula’s popularity is primarily economic: there has been little shakeup of the economic order, yet the lower middle classes i.e. those with a family income between US $550 and US$2,400, now make up 53% of the population, up from 40% in 2002. There is more work available and people are better paid. A lot of people are content with the direction in which things are moving.

Brazil has also been much more active on the world stage, and no matter what they may think of the details – relations with Iran, the support for Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, and the brokering of a nuclear deal between Iran and Turkey – Brazilians are proud of their country’s increasingly important role. Economically the country is more powerful than ever, expanding its economic influence in South America with major investments in Argentina, Colombia, Peru and Chile. Dilma Rousseff is heir to a nation in expansion.

But there is another side to the story. The economic achievements are undeniable, but some of the impressive statistics are skewed by using the turn of the century as a baseline. At that time the country, like others in the region went through a major financial crisis and poverty levels rose dramatically[ii]. A recent review of Latin America carried out by ‘The Economist’ also quoted Ricardo Paes de Barros, of the Institute for Applied Economic Research, a government linked think tank, as saying that “If Brazil wants to achieve average social conditions for a country of its income level, it must keep up its ‘fantastic’  progress in tackling deprivation over the past 15 years for another two decades”.

And despite some improvements, Brazil is still one of the most unequal countries on the planet: it ranks tenth on the world scale of inequality according to the CIA Fact Book[iii], while Venezuela is the most equal in S. America. According to the UN Brazil also has one of the highest murders in the world; in South America it ranks behind only Venezuela and Colombia, well ahead of Mexico. The police battles with drug gangs in the favelas have been made famous by Films such as City of God, and in Rio de Janeiro the city is now building walls, ostensibly for environmental reasons, although the majority opinion seems to be that they are nothing more than barriers to keep out the poor[iv]

So despite the media attention focused almost exclusively on Lula and Dilma Rousseff and the Brazilian tale of success, there is more to the story. The major question is how to bring the tens of millions of people still living in misery in Brazil, into the political and economic process. The other question is, who will do it? It seems unlikely to be the PT, and many intellectuals are critical of the Workers Party  for not going far enough. José Arbex Jr is one of these.

In the following interview carried out by Brazil de Fato in late May of this year, Arbex suggests that it is time for a new political party in Brazil, one that represents the marginalized sectors, and that is capable of tackling a state apparatus not set up to serve the majority of people in Brazil.

Arbex was a member of the PT, and worked for ten years as a journalist for Folho, a major daily in Sao Paolo, and was the editor of Brasil de Fato, http://www.brasildefato.com.br a newspaper with strong links to social movements such as the Movemento Sem Terra (MST). He presently teaches at the Catholic University of Sao Paolo (PUC-SP).

The interview is reproduced here in order to provide some balance to the predominantly Lula /Rousseff  focus of the mainstream media.




Translated by Gerard Coffey


In the midst of a growing exclusion caused by the advance of liberal capitalism over the last few decades, the journalist Jose Arbex Jr. proposes that social movements form a new political party in Brasil. For Arbex, these organizations are the only ones on the left that have been able to dialogue with the sectors most marginalized by the capitalist economy, such as the Sem Terra (Landless) , and the Sem Teto (Homeless). These groups tend to be increasingly devastated, as Neoliberalism has proved to be incapable of incorporating them – quite the contrary – within its dynamic. And so the state then becomes increasingly repressive and segregationist in order to maintain a certain level of social stability. What Arbex proposes, therefore, is that the social movements create a political instrument that, by bringing the excluded sectors together, is based on the supposition that the Brazilian state was built in opposition to the nation, and puts into question the issue of power, making a qualitative leap in relation to its present condition. 

Brasil de Fato: In Brasil the black people, the poor and the deprived communities, principally in the large urban centres have been the victims of all types of violence, in particular that perpetrated by the police and the state. How do you evaluate the social chaos that Brazil is living through today?

José Arbex Jr. – Let´s compare the present situation with that of October 1992, when the Carandiru massacre took place (In Sao Paolo, SP). You’ll find a great deal of difference. At the time 111 prisoners were killed and the event produced a huge national debate, it was a scandal, and society in general saw what happened as unacceptable. By comparison, these days the Governor of Rio de Janeiro, (Sergio Cabral – PMDB) can state with a sense of triumph that the police are killing 1,500 people a year in the favelas of Rio: a Carandiru every month. And this doesn’t provoke much comment; it’s as if it were normal. The police, both in Rio and Sao Paolo, are using a unconstitutional measure, the collective search warrant. That is, the right to enter your house, not because you are suspected of having committed some sort of crime or that you are linked to organised crime of some sort, but simply because you happen to live in a particular place. Would it be possible to get a collective search warrant for the Jardins? I’m not even talking about the neighbourhood, I’m talking about in a block of the Jardins, or rather not in a block, but a collective search warrant for a building on Oscar Freire street? And supposing that this was possible, would everyone be happy to have the police in the apartments simply because they live there? Obviously not. So what we have, is a state that treats some Brazilians as the subject of rights and others as having none. We are in a process of terror, one directed specifically at a more numerous sector of the population, the working class.

BF: The United Nations has published data which points to Brazil as having one of the highest homicide rates in the world…

JA: The United Nations states that Brazil has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, with about 50,000 deaths per year, and that the police and the death squads are responsible for the greater part of these. In Brazil more people die as a result of guns than in Iraq, or Palestine, or in other areas of conflict on the planet. By comparison, the thirty years of civil war between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, which started in 1968 and which was considered to be extremely violent, produced less than 3,000 deaths. This is the equivalent of three normal weeks in Brazil. It’s a permanent situation, which covered up by the media, that is turning into something ‘normal’. This is very dangerous. We know what happens when massacres become normal: the segregation of the state, terror against defenceless populations… it’s enough to look at the recent history of Germany. This is really worrying.  It’s the most terrifying aspect of the national situation today.

BF: And who are the people most responsible for this situation?

JA: In the first place, the state. It’s the state that paves the way for the universality of the law. The law is valid for all citizens, independent of their religion, colour, race, or bank account. They are universal and that’s what the state – the bourgeoisie itself – is all about, making the law universal and not simply for the benefit of particular groups in society. In the second place, it’s the responsibility of a government – whether federal or local – that privileges the payment of some 200 billion Euros to the banks instead of creating a basic infrastructure – of education, health, transport, public health ….. Basic infrastructure that would improve the lives of ordinary people, assuring them of what is guaranteed to the middle class, for example in France, The United States or England.

I’m not talking about socialism here, but the rights of the middle class. Here, today, you have a government that is destroying the state bit by bit in the name of a primary surplus, with the result that the lives of millions of people living on the periphery have become a total hell. The big economic groups that are interested in property speculation, the government contractors, the agents of financial capital and the groups that control the Brazilian state are working to produce this type of social environment. Those responsible are well known. But saying this doesn’t mean that I’m absolving criminals. I’m not saying that the periphery has a lot of crime because the state is absent, and the crime is justified by the absence of the state. What I am saying is that a situation of moral degradation of the population is evidently much more propitious for the development of crime and organized crime as opposed to a situation in which people have a decent life. In a desperate situation people see a way out in the drug trade, crime, or gangs, because they can’t find other options. It’s obvious. State terror breeds crime and crime breeds state terror. 

BF: And the principal victim of this situation is youth?

JA: In the main. If you look at the murder rates that the Brazilian government itself puts out, you’re going to see that the vast majority of victims are men between 16 and 28 years of age: black people, poor people. Of course the vast majority are poor, living in areas considered to be criminal, the so called periphery. Although I don’t like the word periphery, because periphery ends up having a negative connotation, as if there were homogeneity in the life style and cultural interests etc. of the entire country. When you talk about the periphery, it would seem that the periphery in Sao Paolo is the same as that of Rio, of Recife, Salvador, Belem… It’s not true. Each one of those places has its own social, cultural, economic, and moral problems.  They’re different. It’s the same here in Sao Paolo, you can’t compare Jardim Angela for example, with Heliopolis. That is, the periphery is a word that conveys the idea of a whole, a grey whole. It’s a term  invented by the media to signify a stain, something that threatens social stability, that threatens the life of decent citizens, those of  us of the middle classes, the people that live in the urban centre, as if there were a cordon of danger surrounding those who think of themselves as the ‘good christians’. The term is also indicator that legitimises the killing of young people. So, if someone is killed by the police, then people say, but he was from the periphery…. and no problem, it’s justified.

 On the other hand, there’s a very important movement in Brazil, the Mothers of May, comprised of the mothers of the 600 people (more or less) killed by the police in May 2006, in reprisal for the attacks of the PCC[v]. Amongst those killed were a number of Pizza delivery boys whose only crime was (they were listening to music on their headsets) not hear the police and not to stop. Those young people were killed under the banner of the ‘periphery´, a banner that makes everyone a suspect. It’ s similar to what happened in Nazi Germany,  where people  would say, it’s a Jew, and then anything was justifiable.

BF: And the Government of Rio de Janeiro is building walls to isolate the poor. What’s your opinion about that?

JA: It’s a wall of segregation. Walls are multiplying all over the world, and they’re a result of the capitalist system itself, a system that no longer has a way to integrate billions of human beings into the global economy. They don’t know how to integrate them. So the only way they can find to maintain order is to build walls. You’re probably going to say to me: but isn’t it an exaggeration to talk about billions? No, not at all. All you need to do is to consult the recent statistics published by the FAO, the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization, and you’ll see that for the first time in the history of mankind the economic system has managed to produce the incredible figure of 1 billion starving people.  If we add this 1 billion people to those so called under nourished – those that are not called starving because they somehow manage to get the minimum level of calories each day to keep them alive for 24 hours – then we have 2 billion people. And then, if we add this number to the people that are forced to steal to get a litre of milk for their children, then we’re talking about half of humanity. Billions of human beings that are not, and never will be, integrated into the global economy.  The only way out for the system is to consider them disposable. And in order to isolate the disposables, they build walls.

BF: This scenario presents the left, which has shown itself incapable of mobilizing this immense majority of the population, with a huge challenge. How do you see the Brazilian left within this framework?

JA: I have a very particular point of view with regard to this. I think that the MST (Landless Movement) found a way to bring the most excluded and impoverished sectors of Brazilian society into an organised movement, one that provides its members with a sense of dignity, political awareness, and the opportunity to assume their own destiny as citizens.  This makes the MST the most important movement in the history of Brazil, certainly in the history of the Republic.  The MST and a good part of those movements that reflect its experience, (the MTST (Roofless), the MAB (people affected by Dams) and so many others) have found a formula for organising their grassroots, and if we take a look at what’s happening today in the urban barrios, in the countryside, in fact in all the sectors that are discriminated against, we’re going to see that we have a good basis for organization. So, I don’t believe there has been a total dispersion.

The problem now is that the sum of those social movements needs to make a qualitative leap and create a movement whose concrete goal is to make an issue of political power. The period that we’ re going through in Brazil has made evident the incapacity of political party such as the PT (Workers Party) to resolve the problems of the large masses of people in Brazil. The PT hasn’t been able to resolve their problems. When it came to power it didn’t carry out Land Reform and it’s macroeconomic policy was designed to please global financial capital. With the result that today a magazine such as Veja or dailies such as O Estado of Sao Paolo clearly state that both Dilma Rousseff or José Serra (the two major presidential candidates) will apply the same macroeconomic policy. There may be cosmetic differences: Dilma could be less repressive and continue with some programmes that provide social crumbs. But this won’t resolve the problems we talked about previously.

So I think the social movements need to take that qualitative leap, and create an organisation with a strategic alternative, on that puts the issue of power on the table. It’s time for a new party in Brazil: either a united front of parties or social movements. We need to think of a creative way to make that organisation a reality and how it can make that qualitative leap. In the future all the social movements will need to create and build a leadership that will be known both nationally and internationally, people identified as the transformers of society, people that won’t  let themselves be co-opted  by a lucrative participation in the neoliberal economy, that don’t agree to participate in the system, leaders identified with the daily struggle of the Brazilian workers , both in the  city and the countryside. These leaders do exist, they are known, and in my opinion, they have the responsibility to recognize this new, historic moment in the history of Brazil.

BF: You’re defending the creation of a new political mechanism. Does this mean that the old parties and left wing organisations have not been able to find the answers to the needs of the immense majority of the population? and haven’ t been able to confront the new Brazilian reality as an instrument of transformation?

 JA: Without any doubt.  Historically, the Brazilian parties  (including the PT,  of which I was a part , and I’m therefore not excluding myself from this history )  were able to bring together affiliated workers : public officials, workers from large scale metal works , the automotive industry etc. and  also a group  of small businesspeople, an impoverished middle class. These parties succeeded. But they made up only a small proportion of the population. Today, the vast majority lives on the periphery, in the countryside, in the depths of Brazil. These sectors were never structured by the parties. They were organized to a much greater extent by the Globo Television Network that reaches everywhere. In the furthest reaches of the Amazon region people have an antenna and watch the soap opera Viver a Vida. So who can reach these sectors? The answer is the MST, the MAB, and the MTST.

Today we have a situation in which the parties that claim to represent the population, don’t talk to those sectors. Or, rather, they talk to them through violence, through state terrorism. And on the other hand, the social movements that do organize these sectors are excluded from the sphere of power. This creates an absolutely intolerable situation, because it means that the Brazilian state exists for a specific sector of society, but not for the rest. Historically the parties failed in their mission and the social movements succeeded in organizing these sectors. Although when I say succeeded, that doesn’t mean that the job is finished.  There is still a great deal to be done.  But the MST did show that the path exists. That is to say, that it is possible to organise these sectors. And so, the social organisations either take on the job of making a political leap, and lead those sectors that have never formed part of Brazilian political life towards a strategic option in which they will form part – and they must do this right away – or what we are going to see is that these segments of the population will pay an increasingly high, and appalling, price for not having a political voice, and will end up being segregated by walls. 

BF: With regard to the permanent offensive by the elites to criminalise the social movements and the struggles,  do you see that a political instrument, such as the one you spoke of, would help the social organisations in that battle?  Do you think that a legal political party would be a fundamental support in this situation?   

JA: It seems obvious to me, because when the right goes on the offensive it uses the apparatus of the state. For example, it uses the CPI[vi] to paralyse the MST, which then has to put all its energy into defending itself. And when the state mounts an offensive, it can count on its armed wing, the police or the armed forces, to come down on the social movements. This creates a consensus in the middle classes by means of fear. The state apparatus is not neutral, as I said previously the law is not universal. So it’s logical that if the social movements don’t have a political instrument that can put the question of state power on the table, this situation is going to become permanent.  Those social movements will be lead into a disastrous situation, because at the moment they’re impotent. 

For example, let’s take the case of Belo Monte. Entire populations are going to be displaced from their homes because of a dam  –  a business that interests half a dozen state contractors – and they’ re defenceless. They’re willing to sacrifice themselves to keep their land; they say they will occupy the land scheduled to be inundated. These people don’t have a political instrument to defend them; they don’t have a political party to defend them in a decisive way, one that can mobilise the population, one capable of bringing all the social movements together to defend them. It doesn’t exist. The PT is not that party. And so, if it’s not possible to take that qualitative leap it obvious that Neoliberalism, with the state as its apparatus, is going to produce a massacre, and an increasing criminalization of the social movements. And in their latest declarations both Serra and Wilma are pointing to that path. E very day there are more accusations against the MST in the Tucano[vii], and when the PT candidate visits the various agricultural shows throughout Brazil, she‘s  very clearly in that she doesn’t support the invasion of land, and here the use of the term invasion is significant, because she knows that it’s not a matter of occupation. 

BF: What are the central political elements that would give direction to a new instrument of this type, including to make sure it doesn’t fall into the same mistakes that so many other Brazilian parties have made?


JA: Today, any serious political group in the country has to have as its basis a proposal; it has to have a very serious discussion about the fact that in Brazil the nation is organising against the state. This is an idea that comes from Professor Istvan Iancson – who was part of the older generation of university professors that were in fact university professors. He showed that during 400 years of slavery in Brazil, the state’s objective was to repress the vast majority of the population, composed of indigenous peoples and slaves brought from Africa. In Brazil there has never been a sector of the middle classes that was willing to support a revolutionary movement similar to that of France and other countries, a movement whose aim was to integrate the working classes into the productive process. It’s the same story in the Republican period.

The first 30 years brought the coffee and milk oligarchy. Later, Getulio Vargas’ New State did have a national project, but it worked on the basis of a union structure dominated by the state, in which the workers were never independent enough to achieve autonomy from the state. Then we had the military dictatorship that lasted more than twenty years.  So what I’m saying is that we’ve had a long history of catastrophes that demonstrate that in Brazil, the state has always operated in a way that it was considered by the elites to be a type of private property. The rise of the PT and the CUT (workers central­) produced a form of earthquake in this structure, because, for the first time, you have the formation of an independent workers’ central, i.e. the CUT, and the formation of a political party, the PT, that that were not created by the elites.

These organisations were able to provoke tremors in the state structure, something the traditional workers parties such as the PC and others had never been able to do. It’s undeniable that the rise of the CUT and the PT produced this earthquake, which was something extremely important in Brazilian history. However, neither the CUT nor the PT took to its logical conclusion the idea that the State was created in opposition to the nation. And in very simple terms, to participate in the present state structure does not resolve the problem, because it is a state built against the Brazilian nation.    


BF: The state structures are unaltered….

JA: They are still the same. For example, and to make quite clear what I’m talking about, I think it’s a mistake to say that in Brazil the health system doesn’t work, or that the public education system doesn’t work.. They work perfectly.  Or perhaps someone has established that at a particular moment in the history of the country, the elites, who control the state, intended to build a really efficient system that guarantees quality health and education for the majority of the Brazilian people?  Has someone said that?  Only if they were crazy!  And so from my point of view these systems function perfectly well, when you take into account what the Brazilian state is, and the moguls that have controlled this country for 500 years. 

So, if you build a party that doesn’t prioritise the need for an upheaval that transforms the Brazilian State and creates the conditions for integrating the state and the nation, it is going to fail, just as all the other parties have failed. I think that the only party that is in condition to do this is a party born of the grassroots. And by grassroots I mean the poorest, most marginalised, most impoverished sectors of the Brazilian population: the social movements, the campesinos, the unemployed workers, the roofless, the indigenous poor, those that have to turn themselves inside out to get the food they need for the next 24 hours. All these sectors form the mass of people that was never integrated by the Brazilian state, and that understands exactly what the Brazilian state stands for. And despite the fact that experience of the CUT and the PT has been extremely positive, because it produced cracks in the relation between the state and the nation, those organisations didn’t go all the way. In reality the PT was never constituted as an anti-capitalist party. It never had the demolition of capitalism as an objective.


BF: What will be this new party in opposition to the Brazilian state be like? Will it be a socialist party, a social development party that wants to develop internal capital?

JA: I don’t know. I´m not able to read minds.  I also think that it’s not the business of an enlightened leadership to say what this party is going to be. At the moment, what’s most important is to find a formula that allows the social movements to come together. This would establish the basis for a discussion about how are we going to unite these movements and, and on the basis of the discussions between theses social movements, to form the grass roots nuclei. A programmatic discussion will come from the grassroots. Of course we can’t have a party that integrates itself into the Brazilian state, as at present. This is the fundamental point, the rest people will discuss. We can’t put as series of pre-conditions which will only serve as obstacles to the formation of a great, really working class, grassroots party.

BF: I imagine that you, as an intellectual, will be in the party. Do you think that other intellectuals, the universities, would also join a party with those objectives? Is there moral reticence in a Brazilian left that might be able to create this type of party? 
JA: Of course there is moral reticence…. and I prefer not to cite names or be unfair…… But if the MST is really an historically important movement in Brazil, then it’s clear that the leaders and spokespeople of the MST are amongst those who can, and indeed should, support the process. I believe that given his national and international profile, João Pedro Stedile would also have a special role to play.  But there are also a lot of good people in the social movements, in the parties of the left, and within the PT itself, that would be enthusiastic about a plan to build a powerful anti-capitalist party in Brazil.  


I suspect that this party would give a fright to a large swathe of the Brazilian middle classes. Imagine what’s going to happen the moment a party is able to bring together the MST, the organised movements in the periphery, hip hop, the Mothers of May,  etc, etc. and begins to show the dark  side of Brazil. This is not going to be the Brazil that goes shopping in the shopping centre. The same thing with the Universities. People who today say they’re in favour of social transformation will get a fright when they see the real face of social transformation. On the other hand, the party will have the incredible effect of raising the self esteem and dignity of tens of millions of Brazilians who today have little of either because they can see they’ve got no future.

You can imagine what that would mean for a person that works 15 hours a day for a minimum wage and who drowns himself in drink, to suddenly realise that he can participate in something like this? It would give a tremendous boost to political organization in Brazil. It would be something much bigger than what’s happening today in Venezuela with Hugo Chavez. Bigger because of the size of the Brazilian economy, because of the number of people, and the power that these millions of organised workers would have, workers who have a tradition of struggle that is denied by the elites,  something that is completely outrageous. Think of the Quilombos dos Palmares, and the MST, together with the Ligas Camponesas, Canudos, the Revolt of the Malês, the regional revolts throughout the entire 19th century … those people have not stopped fighting for a moment.

All this means that we have a history of combat, a history of struggle. And a party of this type would have a tremendous power to galvanize the Brazilian nation. That is, presuming that the party doesn’t fall into the trap of becoming part of the Brazilian state, like the one that exists today. It is a party that has to have a commitment to rupture. Without this commitment it’s not going to able to galvanize anyone.  And I think that in this process, the people involved will end up formulating what everyone says and wants: a programme for Brazil put together on the basis of Brazilian reality, rather than some European formula. It’s not that I’m denying the validity of Karl Marx or other European thinkers, that wouldn’t make sense. What I am saying is that it’s precisely the absence of the people in politics that has produced a type of thinking that is too intellectual, too concerned with concepts of the Avant Garde that exist in Europe. These concepts were formulated in Europe, but don’t represent a dialogue with the people itself, a people that has its own history, a history that is not European. It’s another history. I think all this will produce a transformation in the universities themselves. That is, the intellectuals will have to respond to the challenge that this kind of party will represent for them as intellectuals.

[i] Arrested in 1970, Rousseff spent three years in jail. 

[ii] According to figures of the Brazilian Embassy in London, GDP per capita dropped buy almost half between 1997 and 2002, from US$ 4,932 to US$ 2,604. Of course none of this can be blamed on Lula.

[iii] According to the same publication, other South American countries such as Bolivia and Colombia are even worse, ranking 7th and 9th respectively. Above (below if you like) Bolivia all the countries are African, including South Africa, which ranks second on the inequality scale. The figures for Brazil are also from 2005, and according to other measures, inequality has decreased somewhat, although even there it has been outpaced by Ecuador (31st overall) which, according to the above mentioned report of the The Economist, decreased its inequality coefficient by 3% between 2000 and 2006.

[iv] Rio slum barrier plans spark outcry. The Guardian, Tuesday 6 January 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jan/…/brazil-rio-slum-barrier

[v] The Primeiro Comando da Capital, PCC, is a group founded in 1993 by inmates of the Taubaté prison in Rio de Janeiro. In 2006 the group launched a major surprise attack on the police. http://www.LiveLeak.com – Mafia attacks brazilian police

[vi] Comissão Parlamentar de Inquérito. Parliamentary Investigatory Commission.

[vii] The Tucano is the nickname for the right of centre Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro, PMDB. It was the party of former President Joe Sarney, but it no longer runs presidential candidates.