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Brazil: expanding citizenship


Brazil: expanding citizenship

altIn the second round of the Brazilian elections, held on 31 October, Dilma Rousseff, the candidate of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), was elected president of Brazil with 56% of the vote. During her electoral campaign, she was strongly backed by President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, who leaves office on 1 January 2011 and is remarkably popular, enjoying the support of about 80 percent of the population. Even so, Dilma did not win outright in the first round on 3 October and was forced into a second round. It was not as easy as Lula had expected to ‘transfer’ his support to another candidate.

How should the left assess Lula’s eight years in office and what can be expected from Dilma?


Six years ago Sue Branford spoke to Alfredo Saad Filho, from the Department of Development Studies, at SOAS University in London, about Brazil. At that time, he was disappointed with Lula’s achievements in his first two years of government and pessimistic about the future. He saw “no significant difference between the social programmes of the PT and those implemented by the previous administration”. Has his assessment changed?

Sue: So how today do you assess Lula’s eight years in government?

Alfredo: The left in Brazil and abroad has abundant reasons to be dissatisfied with Lula’s trajectory, his party and his government. During his first administration (2003-06), Lula maintained the macroeconomic policies introduced by the neoliberal administration led by Fernando Henrique Cardoso, based on flexible exchange rates, free capital mobility, inflation targeting, central bank independence and fiscal conservatism.. No privatisations were reversed, and there was no land reform – in fact, the government broadly continued with the agribusiness-oriented economic strategy, despite some support for family agriculture. In pursuit of the Holy Grail of Brazilian diplomacy – permanent membership in the UN Security Council – Brazil even sent soldiers to Haiti at the bidding of the US State Department.

At the same time, Lula’s electoral victory in 2002 had weakened the Brazilian left, with the incorporation of tens of thousands of its political, trade union and NGO cadres into the state apparatus: the social movements were ‘nationalised’ or, even, ‘kidnapped’ by the state, with the exception of the landless peasants’ movement (MST), which managed to preserve its independence. The PT was eviscerated; its left wing was either expelled or abandoned the party, and thousands of disillusioned supporters quit politics altogether. During Lula’s first administration, conservative fiscal and monetary policies prevented any significant improvement of the country’s social indicators, and wages and employment stagnated. To cap it all, in the run-up to the 2006 elections the administration was battered by a relentless succession of corruption scandals backed up by media and political hysteria which suggested that Lula might be impeached or, at the very least, defeated in his bid for re-election.

Sue: But this didn’t happen. Lula trounced his way back into office, though, like Dilma this time, he was forced into a second round. Did Lula adopt a different approach in his second administration?

Alfredo: Yes, he changed significantly. He recomposed his top team, decimated by the scandals. Heterodox economists and nationalist diplomats aligned with the PT were appointed to head the Ministry of Finance, the Secretariat of Strategic Affairs and the National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES), the largest development bank in the world. Even if these new appointees did not control monetary and exchange rate policy, which remained the preserve of the Central Bank, they have been able to implement activist and distributive fiscal and financial policies, and to moderate the Central Bank’s orthodoxy. The global commodities boom relieved the constraints on Brazil’s balance of payments and permitted the relaxation of monetary policy, and buoyant tax revenues allowed the government to relax its fiscal policy and to expand its transfer programmes. The administration pushed up the minimum wage gradually and consistently, and embarked in a reasonably ambitious ‘programme of growth acceleration’ focusing on investments in infrastructure, transport and energy. In the higher education sector, 14 new federal universities were created, staffed by thousands of new academics, to cater for 210,000 new students.

The government’s social programmes were also expanded, especially ‘bolsa família’ (an income support programme for poor households). The buoyant economy created 14 million new formal sector jobs (in contrast with only 5 million created during Cardoso’s government). Interestingly, the social benefits paid in the poorest regions supported local production, rather than fuelling purchases of imported durable goods. The strengthening of the domestic market, the expansion of production and careful banking regulation helped to shelter the Brazilian economy from the ravages of the global crisis: GDP is poised to grow by 7.5% in 2010. The minimum wage rose by 67 per cent between 2003 and 2010 (while GDP rose ‘only’ by 37 per cent), the Gini coefficient fell from 0.57 in 1995 to 0.52 in 2008, and salaries rose from 58% of GDP in 2004 to 62% in 2009. These achievements are significant.

Lula’s government has also played an important role in the political stabilisation of Latin America and, in particular, supporting the left-wing administrations in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay and Venezuela. Finally, Brazil has attempted to play a constructive role, together with Turkey, in defusing the standoff around the Iranian nuclear programme. None of these outcomes is revolutionary, but they are real enough.

For these reasons and, certainly, also because of his own modest origins, Lula’s popularity among the poor, and in the poorest regions, is overwhelming. Nevertheless, Lula’s popularity has become dangerously skewed since 2005. Throughout his career as a trade unionist and a political leader, Lula has been vilified by the right-wing media and the middle classes, who disparage his left-wing roots and lack of formal education. They ridicule his missing finger, lost in a work accident, and laugh at his ungrammatical Portuguese. The media use different standards to assess his government than those applied to his comfortably bourgeois predecessors. This visceral hatred against Lula and his government is not because the elite has lost out economically (Lula has insisted, probably rightly, that business has never made so much money as it has in his government). Instead, the elite has two irresolvable objections against Lula’s government..

First, the dramatic expansion of citizenship and the loss of elite privileges across several fields. Distribution of income, however marginal, has lifted millions of people out of poverty (which declined from 35 per cent of households in 2001 to 21 per cent in 2009), while 32 million individuals (out of a population of 193 million) have entered the so-called ‘middle class’. The spread of consumer credit has allowed large numbers of mostly dark-skinned, modestly dressed Brazilians to visit shopping centres, to travel by air, to frequent supermarkets and to buy cars. Brazilian roads and airports are clogged up, and their previous (generally lighter-skinned and invariably well-dressed) users complain bitterly about overcrowding.

Second, the transformation of the state. The expansionary and distributive shift in economic policy since the mid-2000s, and the incorporation of the leadership of the social movements have transformed the Brazilian state. For the first time poor citizens can recognise themselves in the state apparatus, and relate directly to friends and comrades who are now ‘important’ in Brasília. The policy shifts and the changes in personnel since 2003 have greatly increased the legitimacy of the state, and helped to affirm the right of citizens to a larger share of the benefits of their collective labour.

This process of expanding economic and political citizenship has emerged gradually, in what remains a deeply divided society. However, it is clear that the democracy movement of the 1980s, the Constitution of 1988, and the eight years of the Lula government have turned millions of subjects of the state into ‘proper citizens’, who know their rights, demand respect, and will stand their ground. This does not amount to collective action – and, in some cases, may even run counter to it – but the affirmation of citizenship is centrally important for a democracy. These transformations have been called a ‘democratic revolution’ by some left-wing analysts – this is surely an exaggeration, but it illustrates the significance of the metamorphosis in the relationship between the citizen and the state. This is clearly visible on the ground.

Sue: Do you see these social and economic achievements the most that could have been achieved?

Alfredo: Definitely not. Brazil remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, and socialism is simply not on the agenda. Much more could have been done, but it would have required mobilising the population to confront the elites, and deploying public sector resources to deliver strategic investments and greater improvements in social welfare. These options were never considered seriously by the administration. More to the point, the Lula administration remains wedded to key aspects of neoliberalism. However – and this is significant — it has a national developmentalist strand in its policies and enjoys the support of the vast majority of the poor. It has broken with the exclusionary and globally subordinate strategy of financial internationalisation perfected by the Cardoso administration.

Sue: This is the positive side of the ‘developmentalist strand’. But isn’t it also true that Lula (and even more so, Dilma, when she was energy minister) have a simplistic, 1970s-style view of ‘development’ as something that involves building massive highways and constructing large hydroelectric power stations, without any real concern for the impact on the environment? This policy is doing huge damage to the country’s ecosystems, so much so that Brazil’s climate may be irrevocably damaged.. Isn’t this part of the Lula legacy that the country will regret in the future?

Alfredo: This is correct, but there are three limitations to what the administration could achieve. First, alternative environment-friendly technologies are not always available on the scale needed to address the problems that the administration has chosen to focus on, which is poverty and the provision of basic living conditions for millions of rural and urban poor. Second, the technologies available are often not economically interesting for the large corporations which work closely together with the government and bag most construction and operation contracts. Third, the marginalised communities that are hit most directly by ‘traditional’ growth strategies are often not sufficiently articulated or vocal to demand alternative policies. These are not primarily technical issues, but political ones. And there is a long way to go before ecological concerns figure more highly in government policy decisions in Brazil.

Sue: Many analysts, both in Brazil and abroad, have been saying that, from a policy point of view, there is very little to distinguish Dilma from the other candidate in the second round, José Serra, from the PSDB party. From what you’ve been saying, this is not the case, from a left perspective?

Alfredo: Not at all. From the point of view of the left, the election is a choice between two very different alliances, and two very different political, economic, social and state projects. Neither of them is revolutionary, anti-capitalist, or even strongly anti-neoliberal. But one of them is about the expansion of citizenship, while the other is about the renewal of elitism. The claim, in marginal left circles, that these differences ‘do not matter’ shows a staggering disconnect from the country’s political reality, a startling ignorance of the circumstances in which the population actually lives, and a blinkered perception of how these conditions have changed during the last decade. It also ignores the fact that the vast majority of the country’s social movements, including the MST, support Dilma,

Sue: Now that Dilma has won, do you expect this expansion of citizenship to continue? While generally pessimistic about the future, João Pedro Stedile, one of the MST’s leaders, said recently: “we think that a Dilma victory will allow a more favourable correlation of forces [than Lula] for us to make social conquests, including changes in agricultural and agrarian policies.” Do you agree?

Alfredo: This is possible, but Dilma Roussef will face three extremely difficult challenges. First, in order to sustain her support base, she needs to keep her coalition together, while building upon the developmental and distributive policies which she has inherited. This is a difficult challenge since the global economic environment is bound to remain unstable, with volatile commodity prices and reduced opportunities for export growth. Second, Dilma must protect herself from the attacks by the country’s elite, even though she lacks Lula’s charisma, track record and popular roots. Third, Lula never attempted to dismantle the right-wing media oligopoly, because this was bound to generate severe political instability. Nevertheless, this nettle must be grasped in order to allow democracy to flourish.

The point, for the left, is that Dilma’s victory does not signal the start of a socialist transformation in Brazil. Her government is not even committed to dismantling neoliberalism and building a democratic system of accumulation, and it is supported by an unwieldy political alliance which may not withstand sustained attack. Despite these limitations, it is enormously important for the left to support her administration. Despite the ongoing neoliberal offensive in several countries, Brazil demonstrates the viability of alternative policies, and it supports more ambitious experiences elsewhere. Further advances are possible, but they depend on the capacity of the mass organisations and the popular movement to articulate a plausible alternative to neoliberalism and to push the government to deploy its legitimacy and resources in support of this project. These pressures must emerge from below. The Brazilian state lacks the instruments and the political will to go far beyond what it has already achieved: the alternative to mass mobilisation is the consolidation of a bland social democratic consensus offering diminishing returns for the majority.

One of the key drivers for the co-operation between the government and the social movements around a progressive programme can be the tension between the mildly nationalist and distributive policies which the government is likely to choose, and the demands of the constellation of forces on which it must seek support, which are currently heavily determined by the economic and social status quo. The political divide in the country has rarely been sharper: bluntly speaking, the rich stand on one side and the poor on the other. This cleavage poses clear and present dangers to Brazil’s political stability, but it also harbours the greatest potential for the advancement of a popular platform since the democratic transition, in the mid-1980s.


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