• Challenges for Dilma Rousseff and the Role of the Left in Brazil

  • By Iole Iliada Lopes | 10 May 11 | Posted under: Latin America , Transformative Strategies
  • Any analysis of the political situation in Brazil cannot ignore the significance of the victory of the forces of the left and of progressives when Dilma Rousseff was elected to the presidency of the Republic in October 2010. It was an important victory because, for the first time, a woman is President of Brazil, a country with a patriarchal and male chauvinist culture. And, Dilma Rousseff is not just any woman. A former political prisoner, tortured under the dictatorship, she always has fought for the democratisation and the transformation of the country. For the Brazilian people, voting in October 2010, Dilma is the incarnation of their desire for continuity and pursuit of the policies implemented by the Lula government over the last eight years.

    With the election of Dilma Rousseff the left has won a mandate in Brazil for the third time in a row. It is essential to understand the historical dimension of this victory, which is part of a context larger than the debate between two different philosophies, two different approaches to capitalist development in Brazil: the conservative and the democratic. And, since 1989, for a series of historical reasons – including the fragmentation of the bourgeoisie itself and the growth of political participation of the popular classes –, the democratic option has been favoured by the left, which has brought a popular and socialist outlook to the debate.

    This debate has been at the centre of every election for the presidency of the Republic since the end of the dictatorship. And so, we saw the left lose in 1989, 1994 and 1998, win in 2002, 2006 and win again in 2010. Despite her relatively high electoral score, the candidacy of Marina Silva in the first round never really constituted a viable alternative. It would not be going too far to say that the rise of Marina Silva was one of the collateral effects of a campaign characterised, in the first round, by insufficient political and ideological debate, and, consequently, by the fact that the positions of the opposition programme never were publicly spelled out.

    The battle of the next few years

    In these elections the opposition tried to mobilise the country’s most reactionary, conservative and fascist forces in its favour. It could count on the tacit and explicit support of the country’s strong, traditional media. The left, on the other hand, could count on the participation of organised, militant groups, of social movements and of significant portions of the population – especially in the second round – all of which proved to be decisive. Despite the victory of the left in the 2010 presidential election, it would be a serious mistake to think that this battle is over. In fact, in Brazil the next few years will be an ongoing struggle over the choices that Dilma’s government will have to make.

    From the point of view of the left in Brazil, and as far as the interests of the working class are concerned, it is essential that we can provide a government that is even more advanced than Lula’s. This means expanding the democratic and popular character of the development plan implemented in the country, enlarging the role of the state as a promoter of economic growth and achieving structural reforms that actually can redistribute wealth, power and rights. Among other priorities, we can point to the need for fiscal, agrarian, urban, political and educational reform, as well as the need to democratise the media, consolidate our universal health system (SUS), improve Latin American integration and reinforce our sovereign place in the world.

    The right is still active

    For the right, it means blocking these advances in order to make the government of Dilma step back from the development model implemented principally during Lula’s second term. This model was the engine behind the general improvement of the country’s economic and social indicators, despite the crisis that affected capitalism beginning in 2008. Some people underestimate the capacity of the right in the years to come to affect Dilma’s government and the future of the country, imagining that it is no longer a player because of its recent electoral defeat and because the government holds a majority in Congress able to approve its plans and proposals. Nothing could be further from the truth. In this regard, careful analysis is necessary.

    First of all, the electoral defeat of the right was relative. The fact remains that it won important state governments, including São Paulo and Minas Gerais, the two largest electoral colleges. Moreover, having mobilised and used ultra conservative and reactionary thinking to win votes, the opposition has found arguments and a social base that, with neoliberal ideas, can serve as a basis for its reorganisation and reconstitution, this time with a new image that is more clearly to the right.

    And even if the right did not attain its principal objective, which was to regain the presidency of the Republic, it continues to hold other key elements of power. First of all, it controls the means of production, a good share of the wealth, major media, multiple means of cultural dissemination and important state institutions, like the judiciary. It should be emphasised that, in Brazil, the media has for some time been the main instrument that the right uses to try to influence public opinion and the political direction of the country, articulating their rightist ideas as if they were “scientific truths”, distorting facts and spreading values and opinions often under the guise of “neutrality”.

    Right now, in Brazil, the media operate on two fronts. The first tries to create a “malaise” between the governments of Lula and Dilma, criticising her predecessor and saying that Dilma is more “responsible”, administratively and fiscally; or, in the context of foreign policy, praising her “pragmatism” and criticising the more “ideological” bent of the Lula administration in terms of international affairs. The second front aims to influence the government’s programme directly by giving considerable space to neoliberal ideologues, allowing them to defend a political and economic agenda that – in direct opposition to that sanctioned by popular vote in the ballot box – advocates reduced public spending and “budget tightening”. This is why the media issue is so important. It is impossible to speak of full-fledged democracy in a country where ostensible “freedom of expression”, far from being a universal right, is the privilege only of the press barons, a very oligopolistic sector in Brazil.

    Contradictions in the coalition

    Let’s not forget that Dilma Rousseff will not only have to clash with the opposition – she also will have to face the contradictions inherent in a coalition government. One should remember that even if the government appears to hold a parliamentary majority, it is not a majority on the left. This means that a good number of deputies and senators, ideologically faithful to conservative ideas, will tend not to vote for projects that involve wider and more radical changes in favour of workers.

    The composition of Dilma Rousseff’s cabinet reflects the contradictions that result from a government coalition dominated by a left party but composed equally of parties of the centre. Besides having to face opposition from the right and contradictions from within, the Dilma government must meet a third challenge: the need to function in an unstable and hardly dynamic global economic context with, especially, the risk of higher commodity prices that will feed inflation, on the one hand, and, on the other, affect the growth of our primary production sector and our exports. In view of this situation, what can the left do to ensure that Brazil continues to advance and that the Dilma government does even better than the Lula government, to build, in this way, the forces necessary to go in the direction of a socialist project?

    Key role for the PT

    First of all, it is important to construct a common project, along with the greatest possible unity of left and progressive forces, which share the same understanding and defend the same objective. Here we refer as much to the coordinated action of political parties in the democratic and popular camp – PCdoB, PSB and PDT – as to the ties among them, and to social movements and labour movements. It is indispensable for these parties constitute themselves as the left wing of the centre-left government of Dilma Rousseff, defending the most progressive positions from within, while preserving articulated links to the aspirations and claims of social movements and the working class. The PT plays a key role in this process and has a particular responsibility since it is the largest party of the left in Brazil today, with a majority presence in the government as well as among those who belong to the social movements. In constructing the common project, the first lesson to remember concerns the different roles that the left ought to play in the government, in political parties and in social movements. Upholding a government and supporting its policies should not lead to a loss of autonomy and freedom to organise popular demands and claims, the capacity to criticise or the determination to fight necessary battles. This is critically important so that the government is not hostage to the pressure of centre and rightist forces – inside or outside the government – nor to capitalist interests.

    In practice, we know that it is not that simple. In the case of Brazil, it could be said that social movements seem to have learned the lesson – witness the recent conflict over the issue of the minimum wage, where the unions, including the CUT, fought for an increase higher than that proposed by the government. Unfortunately, a lower increase was adopted for fear that a hike in the purchasing power of a sizeable part of the population without a corresponding increase in the production of mass consumer goods would lead to inflation and “unbalanced” public budgets. The issue in this case is the choice of the old neoliberal formula: contain inflation by tamping down demand, despite all the well-known negative after-effects of such a policy. This same logic justified the recent interest hike in Brazil. To avoid this trap, the government must rapidly take steps to increase the supply of goods and services.

    In the case of the PT, the debate over autonomy is even more difficult, considering the fact that it is directly identified as being the party of government. For a sizeable portion of the population, it is difficult to imagine that the party and the government could take different positions. Still, it is always necessary to remember that governments are contingent on politics as well as history. Politically, because a government is always contingent on the correlation of specific forces; and, historically, because it always functions within a precise span of time (even if the period can vary in different ways). Consequently, the decisions of governments, especially when they are the result of the electoral process, must necessarily take tactical dimensions into consideration.

    A political party, however, must carry out a long-term strategy. It should be the expression of ideals and of a plan of action that aims to transform power relations and, in the case of the left, accomplish the deepest transformation of society. As a result, the programme of a political party cannot be subordinated to a government programme, which, in essence, tends to be more distant, more timid and more dedicated to mediation. Conversely, the most developed programme of the party and its strategic vision should provide the parameters to orient the government – even if it means, in practice, signing accords and bringing about mediations.

    In order to provide this strategic and programmatic orientation, the PT should be able to carry out an analysis of the social and class structure in Brazil, as well as of the characteristics and state of development of capitalism in the country. This aspect of political formulation is essential for a party of the left. Another challenge for the left in Brazil is to lead the ideological and cultural fight against the reactionary, sexist, homophobic and racist ideas that were forcefully expressed during the campaign, showing that – despite undeniable progress in the field of human rights, tolerance and social equality – there is still a long way to go. For the left, one of the lessons of the ballot box is that improved economic conditions for the people and the rise of what we call the middle class do not automatically guarantee improvement in the political and cultural consciousness of these same social classes. On the contrary, without a battle for hegemony and for political action around these categories, their social ascension tends to lead to a reproduction of the behaviour of higher social classes.

    These are the challenges. The historic conditions that have led to this situation continue to exist. The Dilma government can, in fact, become an even more effective and transformative experience than its predecessor, precisely because it has inherited a country that is more structured, more independent and more equitable than that inherited by Lula in 2003. Nevertheless, it is still necessary for the left in Brazil to learn from the recent and distant past, without forgetting that the government is one important element of power, but that the fight for the construction of a fair and egalitarian society – a socialist society – needs more than that. The role of governments of the left must be to contribute to the accumulation of forces leading to the reinforcement and bestowing of more wealth and real power to the working class.

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