Brazil's Next President?

A conversation with Fernando Haddad, the Lula-backed, Workers’ Party candidate for president about the Brazilian elite’s contempt for democracy and whether his party can return to power.


October 3, 2018

Fernando Haddad in January 2018 (Sérgio Silva/Flickr)

Lula da Silva, dubbed by Perry Anderson as the most successful politician of the modern era, would have almost certainly won Brazil’s October election if he were allowed to contest.

But with Lula still in prison on trumped up corruption charges, the neo-fascist Jair Bolsonaro, who is currently recovering in hospital after a near fatal stabbing, is leading in the polls. Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT) was in dire need of an alternative to contest him in the upcoming election. They have one now in the form of Fernando Haddad, a former Lula administration education minister and São Paulo mayor.

Haddad faces the immense challenge of filling Lula’s shoes. While Lula’s endorsement proved enough to elevate Dilma Rousseff—a little known figure before the 2010 election—into the presidency, after the soft coup that removed Dilma from power, his endorsement perhaps won’t be enough to propel Haddad into the presidency.

After 14 years of uninterrupted governance, following economic crisis and corruption scandals Dilma was toppled through a soft “constitutional coup” led by her former allies in the Movement for Brazilian Democracy Party (PMDB). Dilma was meant to be the sacrifice that would save Brazil’s establishment policies from the storms created by corruption and recession, her vice-president Michel Temer was elevated to office with the mission of introducing austerity that nobody voted for and undoing the successes of the PT in government.

The same coup that was meant to destroy the PT once and for all, ended up having the significant unintentional effect of discrediting Brazil’s political center-right political establishment. That’s opened the door to furies that have propelled Bolsonaro as the leading right-wing candidate.

The PT by any standard can boast of its historic achievements in office, uplifting millions of Brazilians out poverty, seriously expanding social citizenship, and making Brazil a significant international actor. However, the party did not do enough to challenge the structures of Brazilian inequality and the type of social apartheid it has birthed. It did not break with neoliberalism, it did not break the power of Brazil’s murderous police, it did not challenge Brazil’s reactionary oligarchical media, and it failed to reform Brazil’s broken political system.

Amid political violence, a continued economic crisis, and talk of a military coup, Haddad—now second in the polls—is the center-left candidate who will likely face the forces of a right that place little value on democracy. Haddad, a former professor at the University of São Paulo and scholar of Marxist theory, has been often criticized for being aloof and lacking the popular touch. For instance, he lost to Brazil’s Trump wannabee playboy João Doria in the first round of the 2016 municipal elections.

Many on the Left, too, hold a grudge against him for his handling of June 2013 anticorruption protests. Notably, unlike Lula and the PT’s other historic leaders, Haddad does not come out of a mass movement of the working class. Haddad is a product of the PT that governed Brazil, not the party that once was the inspiration for the radical left across the world. Yet it might be up to him to preserve Brazilian democracy.

Earlier this year, Jacobin founding editor Bhaskar Sunkara traveled to São Paolo to have a wide-ranging conversation with Haddad, with contributing editor Sabrina Fernandes translating and contributing to the discussion. Haddad’s account of the PT’s time in power, the tasks of the Brazilian left today, and the threat from the Right is one that leftists across the Americas should understand and reckon with.

—Benjamin Fogel

Translation by Sabrina Fernandes (SF).

This piece was reprinted in NACLA as part of a collaboration with Jacobin Magazine.

Bhaskar Sunkara (BS): How did you come to politics?

Fernando Haddad (FH): At Largo de Francisco, a law school at the University of Sao Paulo (USP). But it was a short experience. After school, I launched into an academic career. My masters was in economics and my Ph.D. was in philosophy, and I became a professor at USP. But after three years I was invited to be secretary of finance for São Paulo mayor Marta Suplicy. They reached out to be because of my economics background.

BS: Did you expect to make this shift from academia to working full-time in politics?

FH: My father—a Lebanese-origin small businessman—had a stroke in 1997 and couldn’t work anymore. I paused my career and made sure he was taken care of by overseeing the sale of his businesses, but after that I was able to dedicate myself to politics. It’s what I had always wanted.

BS: You served in both national PT governments. How do you evaluate the party’s tenure in office?

FH: My most important experience, besides being mayor of São Paulo, was being in the ministry of education. A lot of people abroad know Lula’s campaigns against poverty and hunger, but he had a tremendous legacy in education too. He invested 2 percent of GDP, more than other administration, putting the PT’s education programs in motion. When Lula became president there were about three million people in university in Brazil—now we have eight million. In eight years, then, he did more than what happened in 500 years for university in Brazil.

With this 2 percent more—about one hundred billion reais—we were able to invest from kindergarten through to higher education. We didn’t fix all of Brazil’s education problems in those eight years. But we made strides in access to basic child education, access to postsecondary education, and requalifying people through education. We ensured spots at public universities [an affirmative action program], as well as scholarships at the private universities, and this was very important for the poor youth, especially the black poor youth.

BS: Reforms of this nature are often seen as being of broader benefit to the economy as a whole. Did business interests support the plan?

FH: Lula’s education agenda was well supported by all sectors of society. From teachers’ unions to the big corporations to students’ unions.

BS: It doesn’t seem like the Brazilian elite is as tolerant of reforms today.

FH: The first objection—which came after the Lula government not during it—was the investment in postsecondary education. Brazil was the last country in the Americas to establish universities. This happened one hundred years after Brazil’s independence and 30 years after it became a republic. This says a lot about the kind of elite we have in Brazil.

When Lula became president there were about three million people in university in Brazil—now we have eight million. In eight years, then, he did more than what happened in five hundred years for university in Brazil. Of course, compared to any other Latin American country, Brazil still has the least educated population. And now the elite is targeting Lula’s education policy through cuts at the postsecondary level.

BS: What you’re describing are broad policies, that appeal to many different sectors of society. And when Lula left office he had 80 percent approval ratings. But over time the PT seemed to evolve from a party more rooted in social movements and trade unions in particular to a party of the Brazilian nation as a whole. Was this Lula’s intent?

FH: Lula always saw that part of Brazil’s development was about including parts of the population that were never included. Those are the people that support him politically up until today. But Lula also always had the goal to project Brazil’s economy—Brazil’s capitalist economy—regionally and globally.

Lula, contrary to [former president Fernando Henrique] Cardoso, believed in the national bourgeoisie. Cardoso described the Brazilian bourgeoisie as eternally dependent on international capital and the bourgeoisie. Lula always saw more space for a certain regional autonomy when it came to them. Lula aimed to both internationalize big Brazilian capital and improve the domestic market and the condition of the poorest in Brazil.

BS: Was the idea that this “national bourgeoisie” could be managed and coerced into producing outcomes to the benefit of Brazilian workers? Or that Brazilian capital had a development program stemming from its own agency, that the government could unleash?

FH: I think the big surprise for Lula was that he seemed right about his first element about inclusion of the masses being possible, but the second one didn’t seem so right in the end. Apparently the rich in Brazil don’t actually have a national project.

SF: So you think Cardoso was right about the national bourgeoisie in this way?

FH: Yeah, maybe Lula was right about the masses and Cardoso was right about the bourgeoisie. So it’s funny, someone who represented the Right in Brazil [Cardoso] had less illusions about what could be done through the bourgeoisie. Maybe because he knew them better.

BS: Well, Marxists have often shared this overestimation of capitalism’s “historic destinies.” I want to talk now, though, about the two major corruption scandals the PT had while in office. What do you attribute this to? And how do you locate the birth of antipetismo [anti-PT sentiment] in this process? Is it the resistance of the political and economic elite, were there real problems with the party, were ordinary Brazilians just looking for a new leadership? Where did the crisis come from?

FH: The crisis can be explained by an overlay of a lot of events. Corruption is just one dimension of this process. The main tension in Brazil after Lula’s success, which only happened after the mensalão [scandal during the first PT term], was that the rich got richer and the poor got less poor. This was the result of Lula’s approach that I outlined above.

Lula aimed to both internationalize big Brazilian capital and improve the conditions of the poorest in Brazil. In the gaze of a lot of people this was a big contradiction, but for Lula this was the most natural thing in the world.

But that meant the middle class lost some status in Brazil. They lost their relative position. They looked back and saw the poor coming closer to them—they saw some of them dining in restaurants, studying in universities, and even traveling in airports for the first time. And a certain discourse developed where people were complaining about the number of cars in the streets, airports getting too crowded, black people in universities, and their domestic workers claiming new rights and dignity. They also saw the rich getting buying yachts and airplanes, getting riches they couldn’t even imagine.

BS: So you see the rise of a lot of this anticorruption politics as being a middle-class politics born of this resentment?

FH: Well, there were problems, undeniable problems, in the financing of campaigns. We didn’t meet the challenge of political reform, which was perhaps our gravest error. We imagined that we could change the material structures of society, without changing the institutional structures.

BS: Without changing the state.

FH: But it’s important to remember that all of the contemporary legislation for fighting corruption that exists was advanced by the PT. What produced a huge contradiction was to favor, from one side, the combat against corruption, but not carry out the reforms in the political sphere to enable it. Then there was the moral crisis surrounding this contradiction. So there are three elements here: resentment on one side, this other contradiction I just mentioned, and also how Dilma Rousseff conducted politics in her term. That explains the crisis.

BS: Do you think the main fault of the Dilma PT administration was being unable to rally popular support behind the government? Was it communicative, mobilizational?

FH: In the crisis of 2008, Lula was able to handle it with vigorous heterodox [economic] policies. The Brazilian economy reacted really well to these measures.

BS: Counter-cyclical policies?

FH: Yes. Brazil grew 7.5 percent in 2010, Lula’s last year in office. What happened under Dilma, she took those anticyclical policies, and made them her permanent economic program, because she assumed that the international crisis was temporary, that there had been no paradigm change in the global economy. This overloaded the public budget, and since she was losing her support base in Congress, she couldn’t secure political support for these measures. Her impeachment extended exactly from this.

SF: Could you talk more about this loss in support in Congress?

FH: For a leftist government to have a majority in Congress, that requires a lot of political skill, because the Left never had more than 20 percent of the vote. Lula achieved a majority despite this. This is why in 2014 a lot of people wanted Lula back, for his political skills. Honestly, perhaps only he has this level of political skill in Brazil. The level it takes to converge a popular government.

BS: How much of the Dilma government’s position was the result of commodity prices dropping, and other unfavorable external circumstances, as opposed to her own policies?

FH: I said before that Dilma governed from the understanding that the international crisis would be overcome. This turned out to be wrong. Even though commodity prices are recovering now, there was a change. They’ve never returned to their pre-crisis levels. That’s to say that the political-economic policies, they had to change as well. And she only did that after she got reelected. Despite saying during her campaign that she wouldn’t promote these austerity policies.

BS: So in your view, because of the realities of growth slowing, there needed to be corresponding restraint in certain government expenditure, more or less? Am I misinterpreting?

FH: She could have instead made that explicit that she was going forward with a new economic politics, explain it, and win political support for it. This was the big problem. She wanted to go around the issue.

BS: People felt betrayed or surprised when changes were made, because she promised there were no changes coming?

FH: Yeah, more or less. Nothing she did was well explained. But I’m not implying that what Dilma did [austerity measures designed to assuage creditors’ concerns] was the only way to go. There were other alternatives. But she didn’t have the political strength to do either that one or any other one.

BS: What were the more progressive alternatives? You’re dependent on growth from private industry when you’re managing the state.

FH: Let’s do an exercise. Suppose that Dilma during her campaign had said, “We’re confronting an international crisis, we’re going to have to make a lot of changes to our economic policy, we’re going to have to make some adjustments, the first two years will be hard, and then we might be able to come back to good economic times.” The Workers’ Party had enough political capital to ask for sacrifices, one or two sacrifices for those two years. As long as it had been clear to everyone, including to the business class, that there was in fact a crisis happening. But it wasn’t done that way.

It was a huge communication problem. At the end of 2014, what do you have? You have three crises overlaid on top of one another. The resentment of the middle class, a second corruption scandal after mensalão of Lava Jato, and Dilma’s mishandling of economic policy, which included her failure to communicate well. This all combined to deepen the crisis.

BS: But what changed in the ability of the Workers’ Party to mobilize its supporters? Even with all the three factors you mentioned, it seems to me that the government would still be stable if it was able to rally its base. What happened to the loyalty the party commanded in 2002, or even during its time in opposition before then?

FH: When you’re sending contradictory signals, you’re not just sending them to the business community, you’re also sending them to your base. So the government’s own support base got confused. This really hurt the mobilization against the impeachment. Because only the part of the base that was really close to the Workers’ Party could really see what was going on. The great majority of the population couldn’t comprehend what was happening. In these circumstances, the common sense of the masses will take over, in which everything is to be blamed on corruption. And that’s exactly what happened. Brazil’s biggest problem ended up being that 1 percent taken from the top of Petrobras contracts. It’s easier to think that way.

BS: Do you blame your failed reelection as São Paulo mayor mostly on the broader national context, the backlash against the PT?

FH: I have no doubts that these three crises juxtaposed affected what happened here, but not just in my administration, but with all the PT mayors in the country. We lost in over 60 cities. We didn’t get one important city in the whole state of São Paulo, when we used to govern of all the São Paulo metropolitan area. To make things in São Paulo even worse, two former mayors defected from the PT, including Marta Suplicy, and ran with other parties. But I also made mistakes.

BS: Looking forward to the next six or 12 months [this interview was conducted in late April 2018], where do you see developments going as far as the coup, Lula’s situation, etc.?

FH: As soon as the elections were announced, I gave an interview to the biggest newspaper in the country saying that there is a tendency internationally towards the right and the extreme right, for them to be competing more prominently. What happened in the United States, Brexit in the UK, in various European countries, in Eastern Europe as well, you can see this phenomenon. What I understand to differentiate Brazil in this contest was the existence of the PT and Lula.

Everything that the Right has been trying to do is destroy them both, so that the scripts that they wrote could actually be realized. If we don’t do anything, that’s exactly what’s going to happen in Brazil. But the disaster that is the Temer government gives us a chance to reintroduce ourselves. But it’s going to depend on our talent at confronting the attacks that Lula and the Workers’ Party have been suffering. I think that the unity around Lula is a crucial element in this strategy.

BS: What about the future of the PT beyond this election, what is the state of it now, and how could it be organized internally?

FH: I think the future of the PT will depend a lot on what happens this year. The situation is so polarized that if you do anything wrong, one step out of the way, could make the future very complicated. I haven’t read the script from the Right, they’re the only ones who know that script, but I don’t discard the possibility that at the end of this period they might just get rid of the PT’s party registration. It’s absolutely possible that they’d do that.

BS: That doesn’t seem logical. You have a PT government that’s overseeing growth, the elite is actually benefiting from it. It’s a party of government that’s not especially disruptive. And then the PT even agreed to leave office in a very dubious circumstance and now contest a democratic election. Why would elites pursue the very radical route of deregistering a party?

FH: I think a lot of people have dedicated the next few years to answering that question.

BS: How do you see the party relating to other forces on the left in Brazil—the social movements, PSOL [Party for Socialism and Liberation, which is to the left of the PT], and so on?

FH: Well, the right-wing threat is so concrete and that’s not just the legislature or the judiciary but more recently, the army and the church are participating in politics. So the whole of the Left is feeling threatened. This threat has made us closer and the dialogue between the parties of the left and center-left today, is a pretty open dialogue. I don’t know if we can have a consensus in terms of tactics but strategically there is space today to think in the medium and long term.

BS: You mentioned the military. Do you at least feel comfortable that the democratic revolution of the 1980s is secure?

FH: No.

Fernando Haddad is the former mayor of São Paulo and served as the education minister under the Brazilian Workers’ Party governments of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff. He is a political scientist and wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the political system of the Soviet Union.

Sabrina Fernandes has a P.hD. in sociology from Carleton University and is a collaborating researcher at the University of Brasília. She is an ecosocialist activist in the Brazilian radical left and the producer of left-wing YouTube channel À Esquerda. She is a contributing editor to Jacobin.

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