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Not One More Coup in Latin America!

Honduras, Venezuela, Argentina… is Brazil next? Will the progressive policies initiated by the Workers’ Party’s mythic hero Lula, carried forward by Pres. Dilma Rousseff, end in what many left and radical activists are calling “coups” without the military? The most repeated slogan at this year’s 15th World Social Forum in Porto Alegre was: “Not another coup.”

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The right-wing has been in ascendance in Brazil as it has been in Venezuela and Argentina, not to mention the United States. Right-wing forces with strong media backing have captured majorities in national congresses where they have set out to undermine or eliminate any legislation favorable to workers, minority populations and the poor, with the goal of weakening those movements and organizations. Often they disguise their attacks under the banner of austerity. Just look at events in Greece and Spain and Portugal to assess their effectiveness.

In contrast, President Rousseff has refused to bow to neoliberal demands for austerity, even though the Brazilian economy is tanking.  Efforts to impeach her differ little from the US Congress’ less effective moves to impeach Obama.

Political scandals are nothing new in Brazil; politics has been built on elicit deals and kickbacks for decades. Most readers probably believe that Dilma Rousseff, president of Brazil, was at the center of the Petrobras scandal. Petrobras is Brazil’s largest oil company. In fact, investigations have cleared her name completely, although no foreign press seems obliged to report that.

According to the Workers’ Party, Brazil and especially left and progressive forces stand at a critical juncture. Fighting to protect the social programs and labor laws of the country, the Workers’ Party has built alliances throughout Brazil, some stronger and broader than others. While some in the Party resist the compromises necessary for effective coalitions, they still look for partners.  Others argue that no matter what happens, Dilma cannot come under criticism from her own Party, and that the Party should support its own members only as candidates for office.

Unfortunately, under all the pressure, Dilma has decided not to fight the introduction of reforms to the retirement system, which may be needed in the long run, but which target workers, the very base of the Party at the worse possible time. Currently women retire at 50, and men at 55 years of age. The system can no longer afford to pay benefits for so many years, given the changing life expectancy of Brazilians. But workers’ pensions are not at the root of the current economic crisis. It is those 62 multi-billionaires that control half of the earth’s wealth who have destabilized and robbed the economy.

In an effort to save the PT from itself, a new caucus has emerged in Brazil, known as “Forward,” Avante.  This current within the Workers’ Party argues that the danger of the left being isolated and defeated in the next round of elections would be a decisive setback for the all progressive forces in the country. This “current” strongly opposes any change in labor laws or laws affecting workers and the poor, at the same time as it denounces efforts to impeach the president.

This year’s interim elections are a test of the possibilities of solidarity among left and progressive parties and organizations around the country. During the 1980s and 1990s, the struggle against the military dictatorship and the subsequent neoliberal government united left forces. Once Lula won the presidency in 2002, assuming office for 8 years, 2003-2011, fragmentation and dissent among progressive forces increased. The CUT—Central Unica dos Trabalhadores  (United Federation of Workers) is now one of 7 or 8 federations, for example.

One outspoken leader of Forward, the Mayor of Canoas, Jairo Jorge, has made a move that fired up the debate. His government in Canoas has been in the forefront of those building new democratic forms for popular participation in government. Hailed internationally for its commitment to popular self-government, Canoas’ PT government has worked to build bridges with other parties as well.

In his second election, Jairo Jorge won with 73% of the vote, but he cannot run again. Rather than support a lesser-known Workers’ Party candidate, he has endorsed his vice-mayor from another party, much more conservative than the PT. The candidate, Beth Colombo, in fact, just switched parties to run, from one conservative party to another equally conservative one, the Republican Party.

Disagreement erupted throughout the Party, with many arguing that the PT had to put its own members into office to protect the democratic heritage being built.

Jairo has pointed out that as Vice Mayor, Beth has supported all of the social programs and democratic innovations of the PT government in Canoas. She is also well-known, and more likely to win than a less experienced and less known labor leader who had sought the endorsement. Jairo believes strongly that left and progressive forces around the world, in order to prevent a coup against the working classes, have to broaden their coalitions and expand the engagement of people in self-government.

In Porto Alegre, next door to Canoas, a PT mayor and governor, under Lula’s presidency, built the first participatory budgeting program, hosted the first World Social Forum, but subsequently got voted out, and has since suffered serious setbacks and isolation. The state president of the CUT, Claudir Nespolo, is acutely aware of the contradictions and their impact on unions and workers.

In an extended interview, Claudir explained the challenges of labor at the present moment. For the past 14 years of PT presidencies, he united workers behind the primary needs of the most impoverished people of Brazil. Putting aside some of their own important issues, he realized that in order to build the unions, Brazil’s majority first had to be lifted out of poverty. His position is similar to what John L Lewis argued back in 1937: “In order to raise the mountains (craft unions), we must first raise the valleys (industrial workforce) and then the mountains too will rise.”(NYT, 1937)

Now, however, beside the retirement reforms, the Congress is trying to change the laws of subcontracting. At present, a company cannot contract out its primary industrial /service functions. The new law would allow corporations unlimited freedom to make all jobs part of the precarious labor market (precarizar). The unions are now focused on their issues.

The danger that so many leaders spoke of is the despair and hopelessness being spread among workers, the disillusionment with politics felt by so many Brazilians. If people give up on politics, the right wing will be victorious.

The demonstrations that surged through Brazil a year or so ago were primarily a reflection of impatience and disillusionment. The right-wing and international media, of course, took advantage of the protests to focus criticism on  Dilma and the PT, and at first some on the left denounced the protests as right-wing-initiated. The protests were the result of growing right-wing attacks on popular programs and subsidies for public programs, from transportation to education. Many protestors came from a newly emerging middle-class sector, advantaged by the years of spectacular Brazilian growth, but now impatient with the lack of quality public services and educational opportunities.

In a lunch meeting during the World Social Forum, the PT’s national president and state leaders from Rio Grande do Sul (the state that includes Canoas and Porto Alegre), discussed the political situation. Congressional Representative Marco Maia supports Avante and argued that unity and solidarity of the left and progressive forces alone can defeat the threat of a right-wing coup.

And what of the national elections coming up in 2018? The word on the streets is Lula. Lula can run again in 2018 and is perhaps the only PT figure with such national and broad-based support. But that is still a long way off!

Ruth Needleman, Prof emerita, IU