Lula Victory Opens Space for Social Movements

Roger Burbach

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s resounding electoral victory with over 60 percent of the vote places Brazilian politics on a new footing. While many on the left remain critical of Lula for the limited reforms of his first term, his victory has consolidated a shift in the country’s possibilities for deeper social transformations.

As Francisco Meneses of IBASE, the Brazilian Institute of Social Economic Analysis, says, “The country is more polarized, it can no longer move back to the old order. The economy is different and social expenditures have been augmented to a level that is important for the lower strata of society.”

A major reason for Lula’s resounding victory is due to the support of the poor and dispossessed that make up the majority of Brazil’s population. Even in the first round of the elections on October 8 when Lula fell short of an absolute majority, garnering 48 percent of the vote versus his leading opponent’s 41 percent, the poor, particularly in the country’s impoverished northeast, provided the decisive margin of support. As Darci Frigo of the Land Rights Center in the state of Paraná states, “Agrarian reform may have been limited in Lula’s first term, but thanks to the Zero Hunger program and direct income subsidies many families have more food and are better off.”

A victory by Lula’s opponent, Geraldo Alckmin, would have also reversed the increasingly independent stance that Brazil has adopted in its foreign policy. Alckmin endorsed the neoliberal free trade position advocated by the Bush administration and would have pursued the policy of privatizing the economy that has favored the multinational corporations. Regarding relations with the South, Alckmin attacked Lula for caving in to Bolivia’s efforts to gain greater control over the natural gas deposits operated by Brazil’s Petrobras. This semi-autonomous state enterprise’s natural gas operations in Bolivia supply over half of Brazil’s domestic natural gas needs.

Lula responded by insisting that he would look after Brazil’s interests while respecting Bolivia’s national autonomy. Just this weekend as Brazilian voters went to the polls, Petrobras concluded a new agreement with Bolivia that cedes formal control over natural gas reserves to Bolivia’s state-owned company and significantly increases the revenues that remain in Bolivian coffers. IBASE’s Meneses notes, “Brazil under Lula is aligning itself with the Southern bloc of nations, not subverting its interests to the United States.”


Lula on the campaign trail with Petrobras oil workers.

But many in Brazil remain skeptical of the chances for significant advances in a second Lula administration. Marcos Arruda of PACS, a research center on social and economic alternatives based in Rio de Janeiro, is highly critical of Lula. He notes that “the destruction of the environment, particularly in the Amazon basin has continued apace,” and “the government has practiced irresponsible fiscal policies that focus on repaying the international debt and keeping national interest rates high while social spending falls far short of what the county needs.”

During Lula’s first term, most of the country’s social movements felt that their agendas were largely neglected as Lula pursued economic and social stabilization policies. Darci Frigo of the Land Rights Center states, “The demands for a profound agrarian reform program advocated by the MST, the Landless Movement, were ignored. Some limited spending was directed to social and educational programs for the landless, but the large landed estates of the country were barely touched as the government encouraged agro-exports.”

Although in the runoff Lula said he supported increased social spending, Brazil’s robust social movements are not sitting idly by, waiting on Lula’s volition. Seventeen social movements lead by the MST and the Unified Workers’ Central mobilized in the major cities of Brazil during the final days of the campaign. They released an action manifesto, titled “Thirteen Points for A Social Policy for Brazil.” Committing themselves to “an intensification of the popular and democratic struggles throughout the country” during Lula’s second term, they outlined a program that called for profound changes in education, health, fiscal policies and agrarian reform, all to be carried out “with the effective participation of the people and their social organizations.”

As Frei Betto, a radical Brazilian theologian notes, “Lula owes us much based on the promises he has made during his presidential campaigns.” Even more than Lula’s first campaign in 2002, this election polarized the country’s electorate, laying out two distinct visions. Francisco Meneses says, “Perhaps Lula on his own would not change much, but the reality is that the social movements realize that this election is their victory and they intend to sharpen the agitation for real transformations from below.”


Roger Burbach is director of the Center for the Study of the Americas in Berkeley, California and a Visiting Scholar at the Institute of International Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He has written widely on Latin America, including, The Pinochet Affair: State Terrorism and Global Justice (Zed Books, 2003).

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