frontline 10

Brazil: Lula Moves Against the Left

Three MPs on the left of the Brazilian Workers Party (PT), senator Heloisa Helena and deputies Luciana Genro and Joao Batista Araujo Baba, are currently threatened with expulsion for opposing the PT government's plans to cut public sector pensions. Andrew Kennedy from Socialist Resistance examines the roots and development of this confrontation and describes the campaign against the expulsions.

The pensions issue and the associated threat to expel the left MPs go right to the heart of what the Lula* government is all about. Activists around the world were looking for the government to choose the route of Porto Alegre rather than Davos, to stand up for popular democracy and against neo-liberalism. Reams had been written by left academics about the participatory budgets in PT-controlled municipalities. The PT had been founded in 1980 as a democratic, anti-Stalinist, workers' party. From much of the left came the plea to give Lula a chance.

Admittedly the government has taken some progressive measures: cancelling the purchase of jet fighters, for example, in order to redirect the money towards social programmes. The majority of Brazil's workers and poor still have expectations of Lula. He needs time, is the constant refrain, he has to sort the economy out first. Of course, this is what many Labour voters used to say about Blair. But unlike Blair, Lula comes from the working class. This makes an enormous difference to the perception of him among the PT's popular base, in a traditionally oligarchic country like Brazil, with its huge income disparities.

However, seen in context the pension reforms should not come as a surprise. Soon after the new government was formed, Heloisa Helena, one of the accused, questioned the appointment of a former director of Bank Boston, Henrique Meirelles, as head of the Central Bank. The government want, Gordon-Brown style, to give autonomy to the Central Bank. For their part, the IMF and World Bank are pleased with Lula: Brazil is paying its debts. An IMF spokesperson commented earlier this year: "It is clear this government will not default - ever". Thus in spite of its populist rhetoric, the Lula government seems to be positioned securely in a neo-liberal framework.

The roots of this adaptation go back to the demoralisation in Latin America in 1989 caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. In the 90s the Cardoso government in Brazil managed to restructure the Brazilian economy on a neo-liberal basis, closing or relocating bastions of industrial militancy, which had formed much of the PT's base.

Increasing poverty and crime in urban neighbourhoods meanwhile took its toll on some of the base of the PT. Meanwhile the PT's electoral successes, although positive in many ways, led to the focusing of the party's activity around municipal administration and a decline in its democratic internal life. Lula's 2002 electoral campaign was in the main unashamedly populist and the effect of bourgeois parties jumping on board was to dilute any radical content still further. Heloisa began her present run-in with the leadership when she refused to stand as candidate for the governorship of her state, Alagoas, because there the PT would be in alliance with the Liberal Party, a party of the landowners.

So why is pension reform so important to the Lula government? They have said they want to reduce the pensions of privileged federal civil servants and use the money for social programmes. Let us examine this argument more closely. It is true, for example, that civil servants receive a relatively generous state pension in Brazilian terms, but the majority of recipients of public pensions are former public sector workers who only receive the value of the minimum wage, or less than 60 a month. The reforms will not change this situation, nor do they include concrete proposals to extend social security to 40 million Brazilians who currently have none.

On the contrary, far from redirecting the money to the poorest, it is likely that the government will use it to service the country's debts to the bankers. And anyone with any knowledge or experience of neo-liberal economics in Britain knows that in order to privatise savings and pensions, state pensions will have to be drastically reduced or eliminated. Millions of striking French and Austrian workers understood these arguments and so do the Brazilian public sector unions. They are demanding, not the maintenance of privileges for a few, but the extension of pension rights to all.

It is precisely in this area Lula's commitment to social justice begins to look hollow. In his speech at the London School of Economics on July 14 Lula complained that only a small fraction of the pensions paid out were covered by taxes. Clearly, any extension of pension rights on this basis would be impossible. To really fight tax evasion and develop a truly redistributive system of taxation and social security Lula would have to confront the rich, and that is not something that he is prepared to do.

Furthermore, in the context of neo-liberal economics, social projects such as the Zero Hunger programme are designed merely to mitigate the worst effects of Brazil's economic dependency. Like aid to Africa, these measures complement neo-liberalism and increase dependency rather than being a counter-weight to it.

For their part, the morale of the PT left has been boosted by the public sector strike which was called against the reforms from 8 July and which has been widely if inconsistently supported. Unfortunately, the CUT, the main trade union confederation, favours dialogue with the government rather than confrontation, but several of the public sector unions have actively promoted the action. Even before that, Heloisa had been carried shoulder high on a demonstration of 30,000 public sector workers in Brasilia, although the PT leadership had tried to prevent dissident parliamentarians from joining the demonstration.

As an indication of the pressure that the government is currently under from sections of the mass movements, Lula was noticeably conciliatory in a recent meeting with the militant leaders of the Landless Workers' Movement (MST), who are concerned at the slow pace of land reform.

Moreover, the PT leadership would pay a political price for expelling someone like Heloisa. She is a member of Democracia Socialista (DS), the Brazilian section of the Fourth International, who were founder members of the PT. Unlike other Marxist currents in both Brazil and Britain, with their endemic raid-and-split mentalities, they have demonstrated their serious attitude over the years to building the PT as a mass workers' party and have some credibility in Brazilian politics.

Through comrades such as Raul Pont, former mayor of Porto Alegre, DS pioneered the participatory budget strategy and were key to the development of the World Social Forums. Their perspective has been to deepen the PT's involvement in popular struggles and sharpen the dynamic of democratic participation and mobilisation. At a certain point, they reasoned, the contradiction between the demands of the mass democracy and the limitations imposed by the Brazilian capitalist economy and state would be such that the question of a revolutionary break would be posed.

Of course, after the setbacks of the 90s, the PT is now in power with a leadership that wants to demobilise popular struggles, and much of the left may be out on its collective ear within months. The United Socialist Workers' Party (PSTU, of Morenist origin) is calling for the PT left to cut its losses and run. However, DS want to win over those in the PT and in the mass movements who still see this as "their" government.

Our intention in putting together the petition against the expulsions was to keep it broad, focusing on the twin themes of democracy and opposition to neo-liberalism and appealing to those with sympathies towards the Lula government, forces that the PT leadership would take seriously, rather than limiting it to the existing far left. We managed to get the backing of some Labour, Green and SSP parliamentarians early on, plus Ken Loach.

Trade unionists can see the link with the pensions issue in Britain - four general secretaries have now signed (Crow, Serwotka, Hayes, Mackney) and many union NEC members, particularly from public sector unions like UNISON, PCS and NATFHE. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the influence of the Marxist left in the unions and the anti-war movement in Britain is greater now than it has been for some time. We were also careful to get the blessing of Heloisa's comrades in Democracia Socialista, who distributed the petition to the Brazilian press at the meeting of the "ethics commission" on 28 and 29 June, which heard the case of the three.

On 30 June, evidently with some surprise, leading Sao Paulo dailies the Estado and the Folha cited the names of Ken Loach and Robin Blackburn on the petition as well as mentioning the signatures of English and Scottish parliamentarians. The fact that the PT government still cares about its international image on the left is obviously a major factor in giving the petition its impact. The PT leadership makes much of the influence upon them of British left intellectuals (Eric Hobsbawm, for instance, and Lula cited Ralph Miliband in his LSE speech) so to have Robin Blackburn publicly arrayed against them on this issue must have been unwelcome.

In July, Noam Chomsky's signature on the petition showed that we really had the basis for an international campaign, which could win significant support in the anti-globalisation movement. We have now created an online petition, linked to Michael Albert's ZNet site, and our supporters will be working hard over the coming weeks to get the backing of European members of parliament and social movement activists.

The final decision on whether or not to expel Heloisa, Luciana and Joao will take place in mid-September. There is a real chance that the petition could tip the balance in the MPs' favour. If so, it will also boost the Brazilian left's chances of producing a fighting alternative to Lula's policies.

To add your name to the petition, email We can also email or post extra copies of the petition to you. Alternatively, go to and click on the link which will take you to the petition website. Please do this as soon as you can - time is limited.

Thanks to Karen O'Toole, Stuart Piper, Sam Feeney and Chris Jones.

*President Luis Ignacio da Silva