BRAZIL The Left in City Hall

September 25, 2007

When Brazil's Left-labor Workers Party (PT) swept 35 mayoralties in November, Sao Paulo-South Amer- ica's largest city--came to be gov- erned by a radical 54-year-old single woman. Luiza Erundina de Souza is a longtime grass-roots activist and for- mer social worker who helped found the PT in 1980. More striking to her constituents is the fact that she is an immigrant from the rural famine- stricken Northeast, and thus a member of southern Brazil's underclass that faces discrimination similar to what Latin American migrants endure in the United States. Bill Hinchberger is the editor of Third World, a bimonthly magazine published in Brazil. The sixth of ten children, Mayor Erundina taught school to support her younger brothers and sisters while her father worked a parched 25-hectare plot of land and her mother sold hand- made leather goods. She put herself through college, moving to Sdo Paulo to get her masters degree in social work. There she entered the labor movement and political life, and was elected to the city council and state legislature on the PT slate. In last year's campaign, Erundina had to overcome the opposition of even her own party's leadership, mus- tering rank-and-file support to gain the PT nomination. She then trailed in the polls for months, surging ahead only in the final days to win the election with 30% of the vote over her princi- pal rival, Paulo Maluf, a supporter of the former military government. Many attribute her victory to widespread frustration with the economy and out- rage at the violent suppression of a Sdo Paulo teachers strike and the Volta Redonda steelworkers strike just days before the vote. [See Report on the Americas, March 1989] Her victory-and that of the other Left candidates throughout the country-has upgraded the candidacy of the leader of the PT, Luis Inicio "Lula" da Silva, in the November presidential elections. The new mayor inherited a set of problems that seem insurmountable. Her right-wing predecessor, Janio Quadros, left a debt equal to one-third of the city budget, as well as several unfinished public works projects. Jobs, housing, health care and schools are all in short supply in this city of 11 million where more migrants stream in every day. And the conservative politicians who control the state and federal governments-and a large part of the city's pursestrings-are loathe to cooperate with a Marxist mayor. Some observers have said that your victory was the greatest electoral ad- vance for the Latin American Left since Salvador Allende became president of Chile in 1970. I agree. First, it was a victory that involved the popular movement-the workers, the organized sectors and the labor movement. It was also a victory of a socialist party with a history of struggle in opposition to the New Re- public.* And it was a candidacy of a woman, a northeasterner, a worker. I ran a poverty-stricken campaign: I may not have spent in my entire campaign what other candidates spent in a single day. But the voters did not let them- selves be dominated by the political machine of the state, city and federal governments which backed other can- didates. There seemed to be a change in atti- tude among many people after you * The New Republic refers to the civilian government that has emerged out of the military dictatorship. REPORT ON THE AMER S z 5 z cr w z i Z ------------ 4 ------------ ---------won. Before, pessimism reigned. After the elections there was a ray of hope. It is true that the climate changed just prior to the elections and after- wards, and that climate still exists. Normally voters wait for the person elected to solve their problems. But now voters are demonstrating personally-by telephone, letter, telegram-that they support this ad- ministration and have confidence in it. They are offering their services, offer- ing to do volunteer work. So there's a great deal of hope in this administra- tion and popular support to help it suc- ceed. Your background is different than that of most politicians. How did you first get involved in politics? I'm a social worker, and I always worked in close contact with the popu- lar movement, with the workers-organizing for change, struggling for people's rights. Since I was young, I have been conscious of the need to struggle to guarantee the rights of the people. I became active in the labor movement at a time when workers, unions and grass-roots or- ganizations were reacting to the mili- tary government, resisting the dicta- torship, mobilizing and pressing for the democratization of the country. The first strikes since the beginning of the military dictatorship were being organized. Labor activists were ex- pressing themselves politically, and I participated in this. During this period, in 1980, I worked with Lula and other comrades linked to the labor move- ment who were proposing the creation of a political party, which resulted in the founding of the PT. I was a part of this process. In 1982, there were municipal elec- tions and the party nominated me for city council. I was elected and served as party leader on the Slo Paulo city council for four years. In 1986, the party nominated me for state deputy, and I was elected with the largest number of votes of any PT candidate. I served as party leader in the legisla- ture during the year and a half that I was there. Then there was a dispute for the nomination for mayor. I won in a contest between myself and the fed- eral deputy, Plinio de Arruda Sampaio. And here I am. Some people have said that the real winner in the elections was the church, that the progressive church has an ex- traordinary level of influence and par- ticipation in the PT. Leonel Brizola, the ex-governor of Rio de Janeiro and presidential candidate for the Demo- cratic Labor Party (PDT), has criti- cized this participation. What is the role of the progressive church in the PT? The party was born in the labor unions, the factories, the poor neigh- borhoods on the outskirts of town, in the struggle of landless peasants, in groups that wanted better health care, in the struggle for freedom of speech and expression. When the party was born, the church had an important pres- ence in these struggles, and many PT activists are leaders of these move- ments. As a democratic, heterogene- ous and mass-based party, the PT in- cludes different lines of thought, tac- tics and conceptions of reality which are joined by a common goal, the con- struction of socialism. I think it is natu- ral for a party, one born out of the popular movement, to have an impor- tant presence of the church. Brizola's position is one of despair because he feels threatened by the PT's candidacy, which has the support not only of the church but also of large segments of society. The polls show Lula in first place in Sao Paulo. So Brizola's strategy is to try to discredit the PT candidate and consequently deny him the right to have the support of the church. Brizola is being forced to the Right at a time when it is clear from the November elections that Bra- zilian voters want an option on the Left, one of opposition. So his com- ments are a way to attack a candidacy that is explicitly leftist. Until the November elections, Brizola seemed to feel that he had the support of the Left sewn up. He doesn't really have a political party. It is centralized in him. This makes him more fragile in relation to Lula who has a party with a clear ideo- logical position, with a structure, with activists. The PDT isn't even a party. It is a label that can be used for any- thing at any time. The PDT supported my campaign at the very end, in the final days, while in other states it was linked to the PDS.* It doesn't have a clear ideology or program. It includes people from the upper classes, capital- ists, as well as workers. The PT also has business people but they are busi- ness people from the middle class who had to renounce their class interests to join together with the working classes. How does the PT differ from the com- munist parties: the Brazilian Commu- nist Party (PCB), which comes out of the Soviet-line tradition, and the Com- munist Party of Brazil (PC do B), which split off from the PCB and is identified with the Albanian line? The PT has a clear class perspec- tive; it doesn't make concessions on this point. Last year and this year the PCB and PC do B supported the PT, and this was important. But in other contexts the PCB and PC do B have made concessions, to the point of even supporting the Sarney government. These parties made compromises with other class interests. The PCB and PC do B are Leninist parties of the most orthodox type. The PT is not. It is a novelty on the Left in Latin America-a party built from the bot- tom up, a party where the rank-and- file plays a fundamental role in politi- cal decision-making. My nomination for mayor was an imposition of the rank-and-file. I won the nomination even though the party leadership sup- ported the other candidate. This dem- onstrates the difference. A PT intellectual said after the elec- tions, "We were afraid of the disaster represented by a candidacy in Sdo Paulo of a northeasterner from the state of Paraiba, a woman, a Shi'ite** and, principally, a single woman." Even inside what you call a democratic party, there is discrimination. * The Social Democratic Party consists mainly of former supporters of the military regime. ** "Shi'ite" is the term used for those who are considered radicals within the PT. VOLUME XXIII, NO. I (MAY 1989) 5I understand that even while the party struggles to end all types of dis- crimination, we as individuals are still greatly influenced by the dominant ideology and culture. So it is not so simple for a man from the Northeast, a Brazilian man, to behave without any trace of sexism and prejudice. I under- stand this. I also catch myself some- times displaying sexist attitudes to- wards other women. I think these changes are part of an internal and external process, a permanent compe- tition. There is discrimination, sexism, etc., in my party. But there is an ex- plicit determination to struggle against discrimination. And that's why I am where I am. With all the different types of discrimination, limitations and prejudice inside the PT, it's the only party that allowed room for a woman with my profile, my characteristics. In another party this would never hap- pen. Thinking not only in terms of the party, but in society in general, have you suf- fered more discrimination as a woman or as a northeasterner? As a northeasterner. Why do you say that? Because we have always been seen in the South as second class citizens, as intruders, as people who mess up the life of the city, as people who cause problems. We are never thought of as the ones who produce wealth, who take the most difficult jobs, who are the most exploited. The northeasterner is always considered to be a marginal character, a delinquent, a criminal, a shantytown dweller. You have said several times that you consider armed struggle to be a legiti- mate means to attain power to trans- form society. At the same time, you entered the electoral process and be- came mayor of Brazil's largest city and your party's candidate has a good chance of being elected president. How do you think social struggles should be carried out? I think it can be done through the vote. It can be done through social "Who knows, maybe now there is an alternative." struggle. It can be done through the independent and autonomous organi- zation of the workers. And it can also be done through armed struggle. These are instruments which at a certain point the working classes decide to use. But it shouldn't be a party that decides. I don't discard the concept [of armed struggle], as long as it is a decision not just of a party but of the majority of the population. Like it or not, your administration is perceived as a kind of preview of how Lula would run his administration as president. How do you feel about this? I think Lula's candidacy, the PT's candidacy, has potential in and of it- self, independently. This year will be very difficult given the way in which we found the municipal govern- ment-in debt, with deteriorated serv- ices. But if we do a minimal amount of things correctly, we will pass an im- portant test, disproving the prejudice that the Left only knows how to be in opposition, that it does not offer any alternatives to solve problems. This will help Lula's candidacy. It will make things easier. It will increase his chances. I understand that this responsibility presents us with an additional chal- lenge. The major challenge for me is to prove that the Left is capable, that a woman is capable, that the people were right when they made their choice. In this way you help the [poorer] sectors of society believe in themselves. The greatest contribution of this electoral victory was to rescue the majority of the Brazilian people, particularly in Sgo Paulo, from the feeling of discour- agement, frustration, immobilization, nihilism. Nobody believed in anything or anybody. And now, who knows? Maybe there is an alternative now. Speaking of the problems you face in Sdo Paulo, the list is long: buses stalled for lack of spare parts, some 200,000 children without schools, thousands of people living in shanty- towns or substandard housing. How do you intend to address these prob- lems? And with what resources, espe- cially since the city is in debt? I have to administer this debt. I'm not going to be able to pay bills for public works that were initiated but which are unnecessary; for example, debts that have accumulated since May 1988 with construction companies on projects that are 20% finished. I'm talking to the construction companies, negotiating payment periods, recom- missioning projects and establishing a payment plan within our means. I live with a constant problem of finding funds to supply food to schools and day care centers, as well as medicine to health centers and hospitals. Some 30% of the city's hospital beds are out of service for lack of personnel, lack of equipment, lack of everything. When I took office, 30% of the bus fleet was paralyzed. By the end of February I had already put 300 buses on the road, which meant 200,000 more spaces per day for passengers. But a large number are still awaiting repairs. I have 55 schools being re- paired. We are repairing 300 school REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 5desks a day. The budget hardly allows us to maintain services, to pay some- thing on the debt and pay for the things that we order. We are beginning to be able to pay on time what we are buy- ing. We're not building public works, obviously, except for repairing schools. A problem related to the budgetary situation is that our public employees are poorly paid. We have about 140,000 employees, and their salaries are below market levels. [As a result of low salaries,] there are problems with the quality of work, so we have to make an effort to develop resources, to motivate, to improve the salary situ- ation so that these people will feel motivated and involved. The 14 to 16 hours a day that I spend in the office are taken up by administering this daily inferno, besides the political war on top of it all. Before you became mayor, you sup- ported the homeless who invaded va- cant land and were even photographed being dragged away by police during one occupation. Now, as mayor, you are faced with the problem from a dif- ferent perspective. How do you feel about this? I never incited land invasions, but I always understood that a public offi- cial should be an instrument for those who elected him or her. When I was on the city council and in the state legislature, I was always sought out by people who decided to occupy a va- cant lot. They had exhausted all means of negotiation with the government. Our presence in these struggles was to a large extent to avert police repres- sion and try to find a negotiated solution-and many times we were successful. These people know the risks of an occupation-including the risks to one's life. There have been victims in this struggle. The decision to occupy land is not simple or easy. I recognize the legitimacy of this struggle because I agree with the clause in our constitution that defends the social function of property. When there is vacant land in an urban center where half of the population is living in poor housing, in shantytowns or slums, the social function of property is not being respected. The new constitution is not being respected. Productive property is legitimate; non- productive property is not; [it] denies the basic rights of human beings. So as mayor of SAo Paulo, I recog- nize the legitimacy of these occupa- tions. I do not use repression. If I order people out who have occupied build- ings, I do so because I want to respect the rights of those who signed up many years ago and who have been waiting their turns. The administrators and politicians who preceded me did not respect the waiting list. Today this waiting list is rigorously respected. It is not fair to those who have been wait- ing for years for others who are not on the list to be given priority. But even as I force them out of the apartments, I do not deny the need to search with them for a solution. I think this is the difference. There is coherence between my behavior today and as a city coun- til person and state legislator.

Tags: Brazil, PT, Luiza Erundina, Elections

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