Journal des Alternatives

Where is the Lula government going?

Renato MARTINS, 1 December 2003

At the end of December Lula completes a year at the head of the Brazilian government. In these dark times of international regression, a perspective of peace and social justice is coming from Brazil, the country where the World Social Forum was born. But in the end, where is the Lula government going?

The Lula government will be judged by its success in the struggle against social exclusion. This is the current government’s principal challenge. As many are aware, Brazil is not a poor country, but it is one of the world’s most unjust and unequal. The concentration of wealth is extreme, the richest 20% earning 30 times as much as the poorest 20%. Large agrarian properties prevent land ownership and thousands of rural families are forced to migrate to large cities. Unemployment in urban areas is around 20% and in cities like São Paolo, the country’s main industrial and financial centre, 4.5 million workers are engaged in informal employment. Public services are not operating properly. Hospitals are decimated and the poorest, who do not have private health insurance, are the ones who suffer. The education system is extremely perverse, as it excludes low-income people from good secondary schools, thus preventing access to universities for the poor and perpetuating the cycle of inequality. By managing to propose lasting solutions capable of changing this social reality, the Lula government will have fulfilled its mission. Failure will be a defeat for the Brazilian and international left. It is still very early to state whether it is managing to overcome this challenge or not.

Contrary to what was believed in the 1970s, Brazil is not a backward, underdeveloped country. Over the past 50 years significant economic growth transformed this immense country into one of the principal industrial and financial leaders on the periphery of international capitalism. We are talking about one of the world’s largest exporters of meat and soy, a country that produces automobiles and airplanes, manufactures satellites and is in the process of mastering the uranium enrichment cycle. This process of accelerated modernization was historically sustained by authoritarian governments, whether civil or military. To provide some idea of the significance of this experience, when a wide political, economic and social consensus was established in Quebec regarding the Quiet Revolution, Brazil began a new authoritarian cycle with the start of a military dictatorship that lasted 25 years (1964-1985).

In this historical context, recognizing the centrality of social change results in several challenges that the Lula government will have to face. Clientelism, nepotism and patronage are part of the elite’s traditional contempt for republican virtues. To cite one example: the privatization of public enterprises in the previous government was carried out indiscriminately between the State and the national and international entrepreneurs. We are talking about the largest transfer of income and public resources to the private sector ever seen in the country’s history. Privatizations of utilities, telecommunications and mineral resources represent the transfer of more than 100 billion dollars to the "modern" sectors of the South-eastern entrepreneurial class and its allies in the international financial sector. The election of Lula not only interrupted this process of unjust appropriation of pubic resources, but also created a definitive break from this traditional form of politics.


Where does the apparent disenchantment on the part of leftist sectors, both within and outside the country, come from with regard to the current government ? This disenchantment is probably associated with a given conception of social change inscribed in leftist political culture, which tends to judge the Lula government based on historical references of the struggle for socialism - the Cuban Revolution, the Chilean Road to Socialism movement, the Nicaraguan Revolution - instead of judging it for what it proposes to do and is doing to transform the aforementioned political and social situation. This critical position implies a premature condemnation of the Lula government, as it demands that it achieve goals that are not part of its agenda. In addition, it must be asked what kind of socialism we are talking about today, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, after two decades of "neoliberal counter-revolution" and with the current militaristic stance of the post-9/11 American Empire? The first factor to acknowledge is that the Lula government is a coalition government that came to power through the electoral process, not arms, and includes representatives of the centre and even the right.

What is at stake is not only a program for structural, political, economic and social reforms, which must be successful if we want to continue building alternatives to neoliberal globalization. It is the political culture of the left itself that is held in check, given the crisis of paradigms that served as our inspiration in the last century. The Brazilian left fully understands, after 25 years of military dictatorship, that democracy is more than just a useful tool for achieving our historic objectives, to be discarded later as something nonessential. If we still want to achieve those objectives, we will have to be democratic. Radically democratic... Under current conditions in Brazil, this implies building alternatives and strengthening social movements and independent civil society organizations. The World Social Forum is proof of the vitality of new social actors and their potential to sustain an alternative project. Under the current conditions in Brazil, this means supporting the Fome Zero program, encouraging the struggle of rural workers for Agrarian Reform, demanding democratization and transparency from the government at the federal, state and municipal levels, and defending a model of labour organization based on the principles of liberty and union independence.

The author is a Brazilian sociologist.