The lesson from Lula for South America

Sue Branford and Hilary Wainwright

LATIN AMERICA'S upheaval continues to transform the politics of the continent. In reaction to more than a decade of free-market reforms that failed spectacularly to end poverty but exacerbated extraordinary levels of inequality, Left-leaning governments have been elected in one country after another — this week in Bolivia. But Brazil's experience is a warning to these administrations that, if they are to achieve real change, they need to rely on their own social base as a counterweight to the powers-that-be.

Three years ago, as the former industrial worker, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, prepared to take over as President of Brazil, many Latin Americans hoped he would show a radical, non-violent path out of centuries of poverty and exclusion. Lula's Workers Party (PT) grew out of the mass strikes in the 1980s against the military regime. In its emphasis on internal democracy, support for groups such as the Movimento Sem Terra (the movement of landless people) and its hosting of the World Social Forum, the PT seemed an instrument of real change in a country where a small elite controls most of the land and wealth. Its local record had been impressive, developing imaginative ways in which citizens could have power over budget decisions.

But in government, Lula has been cautious and conservative, going even further than the IMF demanded and sacrificing social reform to repay huge external and internal debts. Worse, since last May, a series of dramatic revelations has shown that the PT has been engaging in exactly the kind of corruption that activists joined the party to end. The leadership has been buying the votes of Congress members and operating a slush fund built from bribes paid by companies for government contracts. Lula denies involvement, but many are unconvinced.

Where did the PT Government go wrong? Most commentators agree that the rot set in long before Lula's victory in October 2002. The party's original base — the industrial working class — was weakened in the 1990s by rocketing unemployment as successive administrations enforced IMF edicts. Instead of trying to build a new base among the unorganised rural and urban poor, the PT increasingly used the same methods for winning elections as every other party — even hiring the same spin doctors.

This growing obsession with electoral success at any price meant that the PT failed to prepare properly for government. Remarkably, when Lula walked up the ramp to the presidential palace in January 2003, he had no clear programme for tackling the serious social problems or the anti-democratic nature of the Brazilian state. Even the flagship programme for ending hunger (which has benefited more than eight million families in extreme poverty) was thought up on the hoof without a strategy for real redistribution. The Government has been most successful in international affairs, where a coherent strategy had been prepared. As a result, Brazil has successfully challenged the EU and the U.S. at the World Trade Organisation over their huge agricultural subsidies.

Shortly before taking office, Lula said: "I cannot fail. The poor in Brazil have waited 500 years for someone like me." But real change demands confrontation, tough bargaining — and risk-taking. In his inaugural address in 1933, Franklin Roosevelt recognised this in his much-quoted comment: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." It is a lesson Lula appears not to have learned.

Despite right-wing crowing, the Left has not been destroyed in Brazil. Some activists are staying to fight for change within the PT, but many others are taking their experience elsewhere.

Most agree that the way forward is not to abandon the party's innovative experiments in participatory democracy, but to deepen them. Real change, they say, will require the incorporation of the poor within the political system so that they can provide permanent support for a radical government as it confronts powerful vested interests.

As Latin America begins a period of hectic electoral activity, which may bring more left-wing leaders to power, this is a cautionary lesson that future governments would do well to heed.

- Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

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