Brazil: Social Movement Leaders Predict Gains with Rousseff

On October 3, Worker’s Party (PT) candidate Dilma Rousseff won the first round of Brazil’s presidential election with 46.9% of the vote. Paramount to Rousseff’s victory was her ability to convince voters that she represented the continuity of the policies of popular Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. It was initially thought that for many of Brazil’s social movements Rousseff's message of “business as usual” would be received unfavorably, given the lack of structural change during Lula’s two administrations. Yet, this has not been the case, and many of Brazil's social movements see in Rouseff the potential to usher in further social change, including land reform and a shorter work week.

Sean Power

On October 3, Worker’s Party (PT) candidate Dilma Rousseff won the first round of Brazil’s presidential election with 46.9% of the vote. The final result will be determined by a runoff election on October 31 against her closest rival, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party’s (PSDB) José Serra, who obtained 32.6% of the vote. In third place was Green Party candidate Marina Silva capturing 19.3%.

Paramount to Rousseff’s victory was her ability to convince voters that she represented the continuity of the policies of popular Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

It was initially thought that for many of Brazil’s social movements Rousseff's message of “business as usual” would be received unfavorably, given the lack of structural social change during Lula’s two administrations (2002-2010). Yet, this has not been the case. For several months preceding the election, many social movements moved away from solely focusing on defeating Rousseff’s closest opponent, the PSDB’s Serra, and publicly endorsed her. Some movement leaders, such as those of the Landless Workers Movement (MST), have even suggested that they foresee greater opportunity for significant social progress under a Rousseff government.

“A worker in the face of a reactionary boss, does not mobilize. With Dilma, our social base realizes that it is worthwhile to mobilize, that we can move forward, doing more [land] occupations and [labor] strikes,” said João Pedro Stédile of the MST’s national leadership in a July interview with Reuters. Elaborating on this point in September, Stédile commented to the blog Vi O Mundo, “I believe that in the last few months that a political environment was created in Brazil that prompted 90% of the social movements to roll up their sleeves and work against Serra and in support of Dilma, with the perspective that in a Dilma government there will be a confluence of forces more conducive to social struggle and the presenting of proposals for structural changes, which is what Brazilian society needs.”

Under Lula’s presidency, social and economic conditions have improved for the majority of Brazilians. Yet social movements like the MST contend that the social structures that have made Brazil one of the world’s most unequal countries remain intact. Regarding land reform, many MST activists say that Lula’s policies have focused primarily on “assuag[ing] social pressure” through periodic settlements of landless workers on primarily state-owned land. A 2009 assessment of his Second National Plan for Agrarian Reform found that only 30% of the 550,000 landless families this program sought to settle had been served.

The MST has also been critical of Lula’s support for large agribusinesses. In a 2009 interview with Correio da Cidadania MST national coordinator Marina dos Santos stated that under Lula, “agrobusinesses produced 120 billion Reais ($75 billion) [of goods] but the government injected 97 billion [Reias] ($57 billion) in this, particularly from Brazil’s national development bank BNDES [Brazil's national development bank].”

Many of Brazil’s social movements acknowledge, however, that their lack of unity over the last decade has played a large role in the shaping of Lula’s policies. “During the Lula administration, we didn’t have the space to discuss true land reform and didn’t have the mass forces to pressure the government and society. Thus, on the one hand the current policy is insufficient, yet on the other, it is a clear expression of the social forces that exist in society,” stated Stédile to Vi o Mundo.

Stédile argues that things are different this electoral season. Not only were hundreds of races with progressive candidates up for grabs, social movements came together in a way not seen in recent years. Speaking about the organizing done to advocate for a 40-hour workweek this campaign season Stédile commented to Vi o Mundo, “In the previous situation [with Lula] we didn’t have the strength to win [a] 40 [hour work week]. I believe that we now have the unity of the central [labor federations], the social movements to make a more vigorous movement and win the workday [reduction].”

Echoing this perspective that social movement’s electoral mobilizing could result in gains to be made under a Rousseff administration is João Felício, ex-president of the Unified Workers Central (CUT), Brazil’s largest labor union. Speaking to the Brasil de Fato journal Felício predicted, “I believe that the Brazilian left has done this [in presenting a unified union agenda to Rousseff] the right way: presenting proposals that are based in reality, without losing the hope of a Brazil with more democracy and without social exclusion . . . Our documents follow this direction . . . Politically, we have to do our part and pressure in order to change this [unjust situation in Brazil].”

For last Sunday’s election, Rousseff was endorsed by the leadership of all of Brazil’s labor federations as well as many other movements such as the Brazilian Women’s Union (UBM) and the Union of Blacks for Equality (Unegro). Some organizations, such as the National Confederation of Neighborhood Associations (CONAM), the National Students Union (UNE), and the MST maintained neutrality.

The MST’s decision to remain neutral in the election was not without its difficulties. As MST national coordination member Gilmar Mauro observed to Correio da Cidadania “if we had looked to the MST’s base, we would have fallen headfirst into supporting Dilma’s candidacy, because the MST’s base today are Lulistas . . . Our leadership reflected and questioned how it would be to support Dilma in the open elections, being that Lula’s government supported agrobusiness, with large capital earning a lot of money and agrarian reform advancing so little . . . To support Plínio [of the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL)] would have been a more militant position. For the leadership [of the MST] to take a position of supporting Plínio at the same time that our base stays at the side of Dilma would create a difficult situation.”

As can be judged by Rousseff’s statements, she will not be an outright supporter of the MST’s or any other social movement’s demands. In speaking about land reform, Rousseff, in a July radio interview stated, “It’s absurd to say that in Brazil we live in a situation of war in the countryside . . . The policies of recent years are the best response to any problem related to the landless. What we are doing is doing away with the real basis for the instabilities of the landless. They are losing reasons to fight.”

Despite receiving backing from all of Brazil’s main labor movement leaders, Rousseff has not come out in support of their primary goal of reducing the work week from 44 to 40 hours. In a May radio interview she said, “I don’t believe that this [demand for a reduced work week] is a question that the federal government needs to approve, to sign below the line on. I believe that it is a process that has to be constructed by the [labor] movement and the business associations.”

It remains to be seen whether October’s elections will give Brazil’s left the allies it needs to usher in greater social reform. For now, one accomplishment has been their unifying of forces this electoral season.


Sean Power is a NACLA Research Associate.

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