Brazil - "Abertura" on Trial?

September 25, 2007

In a trial that many saw as a test of Brazil's much-vaunted liberalization process, known as abertura, the Second Military Court of Sao Paulo on February 25, 1981 handed down stiff sentences to Luis InAcio da Silva (Lula) and ten other trade unionists from Sao Paulo's so-called ABC in- dustrial belt. The unionists were tried under the country's "National Security Law" for inciting to col- lective disobedience of the law in last April's metalworkers strike. (See "Brazil: Metalworkers Strike," NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol.14, No.4.) Lula and three others were sentenced to three and a half years in prison, five others received two and a half years, and two got two years. The judgement has been appealed, but the results are not yet known at the time of this writing. The trial received considerable international attention. Right before the trial, at the invitation of trade union leaders and con- federations in Western Europe and the United States, Lula, accom- panied by advisers and another union leader, Jacob Bittar, com- pleted an international tour to rally support for their case. News of the verdict produced an outpouring of telegrams of protest from all over the world. The trial's political significance was highlighted by several factors. As president of Brazil's newest, most original, and therefore, con- troversial political formation, the Workers' Party (PT), Lula's position both nationally and internationally is much more than that of an im- prisoned trade-union leader. Fur- ther, at the same time that the trial focused attention on what are still clearly authoritarian aspects of Brazil's political system-Brazil's corporatist union structure and the arbitrary National Security Law-the regime was under at- tack on two other fronts. The first was its history of human rights violations, brought to the fore as an ex-political prisoner identified the house in which she and many others had been tortured in 1971, as well as the army officers and doctors who had been involved in her ordeal (see box "Revelations Haunt Military"). These revelations produced threatening reactions from the armed forces, reminding everyone that only with their con- sent could the process of abertura continue. The second factor was the election for president of the House of Representatives, a proc- ess which took on dispropor- tionate significance because of the Figueredo government's all- out effort in favor of its candidate. The Case Against the Workers According to the government, the unionists were responsible for turning the Sao Paulo industrial belt into an "armed camp." The strikers were charged with disobeying the law in force in the country and going against the decision of the Labor Court...endangering internal security not only through their affront to the Labor Court, but NACLA Report Requests for the information packet plus endorsements of the Coalition's letter should be sent to the Center for New Creation, P.O. Box 1061, Vien- na, Va. 22180. Prepayment of $7.00 includes postage. Addi- tional signees to the Coalition letter are encouraged and desired. A copy of the letter is included in the packet. For information on "El Salvador: Another Vietnam?," contact Catalyst Media, P.O. Box 640, Canal Street Station, New York, N.Y. 10013.update * update . update . update also through the climate of in- security and chaos which reigned for a few days in that region of the country. It is in- disputable that the events went beyond a mere labor dispute and took on the characteristics of a political act which jeopar- dized National Security. If the events went beyond a labor dispute and took on the characteristics of a political act, the responsibility lies primarily with the regime. Government interven- tion in the metallurgical unions and the arrest of the union leaders in- evitably guaranteed that the trade union struggle would escalate into a larger political challenge. That those union leaders also hap- pened to constitute an important part of the leadership of the PT- in the case of Lula, the presiden- cy-further clarified the real issues involved. This is especially true in so far as, under Brazilian law, anyone found guilty of an of- fense under the National Security Law becomes ineligible to run for public office. The Workers' Party The Workers' Party (PT) is a par- ticularly important political forma- tion in Brazil right now. When at the end of 1979 it became legal to form political parties, two methods were established for their official registration. One required the sponsorhip of 48 national legislators as well as a demonstra- tion of representation at the state level. This was the route followed by all the newly legalized parties in Brazil today, with the exception of the PT. The other method, which the government did not expect any party to be able to carry out, in- volved a tedious and difficult proc- ess of winning popular support and forming recognized party commissions in at least 9 states and in 20% of all the municipal districts of each state. The PT has been officially constituted in 13 states, and thus has been provi- sionally accepted by the Board of Elections. The PT is therefore the only party in Brazil today whose legalization was produced by achieving significant grass-roots support nationally. Thus the PT represents a major challenge to the Figueredo regime's scenario of controlled liberalization from above. The abertura was designed to enlarge the political system to known political forces, and the PT, which "0 o E cr, Repression falls heavily on April 1980 metalworkers' strike. MarlApr 1981 41update update update update speaks to the discontent not only of workers but also of other sec- tors of the population seeking fur- ther democratization of Brazilian society, is a distinctly unknown force in Brazilian history. The legal actions taken against Lula and other unionists must be understood in light of this spec- tacular, but still not entirely organized, growth of the PT. Na- tional figures like Lula are symbols around which an infant party can unite, and to bar Lula and other regional leaders from running for office is calculated to deal a blow to the PT's future. Even within Brazilian elite circles, however, there is con- troversy over the regime's strategy. Prestigious papers such as the Jornal do Brasil have editorialized on the dangers of marginalizing the PT's followers. They argue that even if it is un- predictable, a legal entity such as the PT, which participates in elec- toral activity, is less dangerous to the regime than it would be if its key figures were forced into extra- legal activity. Others who see the PT bringing together diverse grass-roots movements which have grown up in opposition to the regime in recent years, are not so sure. Weaknesses in the Regime Facing challenges from all sides as to how the abertura will work in- stitutionally and the degree to which criticism will be allowed, the Figueredo regime does not seem to be in any hurry to encourage a rapid conclusion to the appeals process in the case against Lula and the other unionists. Its slim victory in the elections for presi- dent of the House of Represent- atives did not inspire confidence in the regime's ability to maintain an 42 absolute control of the process. Some commentators have speculated that, had the opposi- tion candidate won, the future of abertura would have been dubious. This impression was rein- forced by the fact that Lula and those arrested with him were held in prison until just after the elec- tions, leading Lula to comment, "The government used us as hostages for the elections in the House of Representatives. Our liberation depended on the out- come of that election." In 1971, Ines Etienne Romeu was held ad tortured for 96 days before being tried and condemned to life imprison- ment for actions taken as a militant of the Popular Revolu- tionary Vanguard (VPR), one of the left parties which carried out armed actions in the early 1970s. The house where she was held was one of an un- known number of torture cen- ters secretly maintained by the military. Ten years later, free again as a result of the 1979 amnesty, Ines Etienne Romeu used a phone number she had over- heard and memorized while im- prisoned in the torture house, to locate it and its owner. Little by little, the story of the house on Rua Arthur Barbosa in Petr6polis has been emerging. The military personnel respon- sible for the house's operation are being identified, as well as Whatever the result of the legal appeal by the 11 metalworkers, the government has one more ace up its sleeve: Lula and other PT leaders are to be tried once more under the National Security Law, this time for having spoken at a ral- ly last July in Acre, in protest against the murder of the presi- dent of the Rural Workers' Federa- tion, Wilson Pinheiro. They are be- ing held responsible for the fact that on the following day, a group of 30 rural workers killed the estate agent from the farm Nova doctors, like psychiatrist Amilcar Lobo, who were called in to cure patients up to the point where they were ready to undergo torture again. The military's reaction to the revelations has been not so much to deny their veracity, as to accuse those who insist on bringing them up of attempting to destroy the abertura by counterposing the desire for revenge to the spirit of amnes- ty. A few military leaders have insisted that despite the possi- ble disruptive effects of the revelations, the process of abertura is irreversible. But others, like First Army General Gentil Marcondes Filho, have struck a more somber note, saying that the process of polit- ical abertura could suffer if people insisted "on seeking out these things from the past, without looking forward." NACLA Report REVELATIONS HAUNT MILITARYupdate*update update update Promissao thought to be responsi- ble for Pinheiro's death. They are charged with "inciting to class struggle." There can be no question that this succession of trials is being used to attempt to eliminate Lula and the other PT leaders from political life and thereby under- mine the threat posed by the party. Whether the regime will be suc- cessful in producing more than a short-term setback to the party re- mains to be seen. As Lula said after his trial, "No one can stop new Lulas from appearing. One day there will be so many Lulas in Brazil that they won't be able to catch them all. The workers will discover today in their factories that 11 innocent people were taken prisoner and that the real criminals are still walking around free out there."

Tags: Brazil, abertura, trade unions, Lula, Workers Party

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