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
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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
o E
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
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
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
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
HAUNT MILITARYupdate*update update update
Promissao thought to be responsi-
ble for Pinheiro's death. They are
charged with "inciting to class
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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