Despite Brazil’s reputation as an emerging economic powerhouse, it remains deeply troubled by challenges that threaten its long-term stability and its prospects for becoming a viable leader of the Global South. Questions of land and wealth distribution, extreme poverty, rampant violence and crime, public corruption, and environmental degradation are a few of the most pressing challenges facing the country in 2010.
With President Luiz Inácio “Lula” Da Silva finishing his last term in office, the run-up to October’s presidential election gives us a glimpse into where Brazil may be headed in its post-Lula era.
Jose Serra of the opposition Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), whom Lula defeated in the 2002 election, currently holds the edge in the polls and poses a stiff challenge to the PT’s hopes for maintaining power. An accomplished politician who defies easy categorization, Serra is the governor of the economically powerful São Paulo state and has a distinguished record as a leader on health issues.
However, Dilma Rousseff of the governing Worker’s Party (PT), Lula’s choice to succeed him, has cut the gap in recent weeks as her name has become more widely recognized and her political allies, including the influential Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, have begun assembling support behind her. Prior to her nomination, Rousseff was a high-ranking cabinet member in the Lula administration, and like Lula himself she has strong leftist roots dating back to her time spent as an activist in the resistance against the Brazilian military regime. She is seen by most as a comfortable replacement for Lula, someone who will dutifully follow in her predecessor’s footsteps.
Lula’s story is well-known. As a former union leader who helped found the left-wing PT, he has a long history of championing progressive causes, and it was his solid socialist platform that brought him to office in 2002. This has made him a controversial figure for powerful economic interests on the right, a point evidenced by the capital flight and the sharp devaluation of the currency that occurred when he took office.
Since taking office, however, Lula has also attracted a great deal of criticism from the left, with many onetime supporters expressing dismay at his, and by extension the PT’s, shift from a staunchly anti-capitalist agenda to a more conciliatory and pro-market platform. Instead of using the office of the presidency to advance a democratic-socialist alternative to the dominant neoliberal orthodoxy, these critics have argued, Lula has embraced many of the very same policies of his centrist predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, like capping private-sector pension funds and instituting tax reforms aimed at encouraging private investment.
The shift away from the PT’s core leftist values is perhaps most evident in the area of land reform, perhaps the key sticking point in one of the most staggeringly stratified countries in the world. Transforming the system of land and wealth distribution is essential for addressing the deep social problems in Brazil, and accordingly, land reform has long been at the heart of the Brazilian left, not just for the PT but also for the largest social movement in Latin America, the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST).
Until Lula took office, the PT and the MST enjoyed a close and productive relationship, and many in the landless movement were avid supporters of Lula, helping him get into office his first term. But as Lula and the national leaders of the PT have largely backed off their attempts at comprehensive land reform, and have instead fostered a close relationship with agro-business interests and the landed elites—leading to further destruction and exploitation of the Amazon rainforest and the people who live and work there—the MST has taken a much more critical stance toward its former allies, intensifying its efforts and demands. With this escalating tension between the PT-led government and the MST, conservative media and right-wing interests have seized the opportunity to ramp up their own attacks on the MST and crack down on other leftist social organizations, using both draconian legal measures and even extrajudicial violence to stamp out opposition.
The MST is not the only former political ally of Lula and the PT that has fallen out: Hundreds of former members of the PT have left the party to create the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL) under the leadership of Heloísa Helena, who was expelled from the PT for her criticism of its drift to the center. Lula’s former environmental minister, Marina Silva, also resigned because of similar frustrations, especially regarding the continued destruction of the Amazon rainforest, and is running as a presidential candidate for Brazil’s Green Party.
In spite of all of this criticism, significant progress has been made under Lula’s leadership to expand welfare programs and increase the quality of living for the poor. Over the past several years with Lula at the helm, Brazil has raised the standard of living for millions of its most destitute citizens and ranks as one of the top nations in the world in terms of reducing hunger, a goal that has been the focus of Lula’s Zero Hunger program. A key element of the anti-poverty effort has been the much-lauded Bolsa Família program, put in place by Cardoso but expanded under Lula, which has provided stipends to poor families on the condition that their children attend school. The program has helped break the cycle of poverty and child labor.
Given this background, in terms of domestic and economic policies, it is not clear that either of the two leading candidates really offer any substantial differences from one another or from the current status quo. If anything, Serra may be considered the more “neoliberal” candidate, but even that may be more of a matter of perception than reality, considering the economic policies that the PT and Lula have pursued during the past eight years. It is also highly unlikely that either candidate would be willing to jeopardize the progress in reducing poverty through tremendously popular social programs like Bolsa Família.
Neither of these two candidates appears willing to tackle the two most fundamental problems Brazil faces: the overwhelming concentration of land and wealth among the most powerful elites in the country, and the continued devastation of the world’s greatest natural resource, the Amazon rainforest.
Where the two candidates do differ is in the terrain of foreign policy, particularly regarding their willingness to maintain Brazil’s high-profile role on the international stage. Rousseff will most likely try to continue with Lula’s example by expanding Brazil’s alliances with other countries, while Serra is more likely to adopt a more reserved and cautious stance in international affairs. With both candidates lacking Lula’s charisma, however, it will be interesting to see if Brazil can maintain its role as a leading advocate for the Global South and progressive causes. Additionally, it will be important to watch how Brazil’s role in Latin America evolves as the region becomes more polarized between nations led by the hard left and the hard right. Lula’s most acute strengths have been not only his ability to be a moral advocate internationally, but also a stabilizing force when regional tensions erupt, and again it is unclear that either Rousseff or Serra will be able to effectively continue in this capacity.
The question of whether the PT will be able to stay in office depends on its ability to convince its large progressive support base that it is worth the vote. If activists on the left decide otherwise, it may mean a loss for the PT and a victory for Serra in October, much like what just recently happened in Chile. However, the PT is pursuing the opposite strategy, moderating its image and stance to minimize backlash from powerful right-wing interests. Despite the right’s general backing of Serra, the fact that there isn’t a true “conservative” in this race (at least with a reasonable chance of success) indicates that the elites will be rather content with either of the two leading candidates. This should be disconcerting to those seeking true progressive change in Brazil, but not all that surprising to those who have witnessed how events have unfolded under Lula’s administration.
As for Lula’s legacy, not only has there been poverty reduction and the creation of more equitable conditions in Brazil, but also the fact that ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya sought refuge in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa speaks volumes to Lula’s leadership role in the region and the world. At the same time the criticism of his capitulation to corporate interests and the abandonment of his core socialist values are legitimate and important, as the severity of so many of Brazil’s problems are such that incremental progress will not be satisfactory to resolving them. What may be most interesting to watch is how the PT will be able to carry on without Lula’s leadership. If Rousseff is unable to pull out a victory in October, it could easily spell the end of the PT due to its shift away from its socialist platform and the resulting alienation of so many of its core supporters.
Reed M. Kurtz is a NACLA Research Associate and blogs on U.S. and Latin American politics at Hoosier Gringo.