Centre for Research on Globalisation
Centre de recherche sur la mondialisation
Rio de Janeiro. On Sunday Brazilians appear set to elect Luis Inacio Lula da Silva of the Workers Party as their president. Of humble origins, Lula spent his early years working as a machinist in the metallurgical industry of southern Brazil. As a militant trade unionist Lula helped launch the Workers Party in 1980 when Brazil was under the thumb of a military regime. “Lula’s election will break the long strangle hold the elites and the military have held over our country” says Francisco Menezes of the Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analysis.
Lula has campaigned for the presidency three times before, only to be defeated by the entrenched ruling interests who managed to convince even many of the country’s poor majority that Lula was “uneducated” and would “ruin” the country. When Lula seized an early lead in this year’s presidential campaign, domestic and international interests once again appeared bent on undermining Lula’s candidacy. Funds were sent abroad, Brazil’s international credit rating dropped, and the country’s currency, the Real, fell in value by more than 40% against the dollar. The incumbent president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, along with his anointed successor in the presidential contest, Jose Serra, claimed that investors were simply recognizing that Lula’s economic policies would be “financially disastrous” for Brazil.
But the campaign of fear against Lula did not work this time around as his lead in the polls only widened. Angelica Viegas, a street vendor in Rio de Janeiro, reflects the shifting popular sentiment: “This year I will vote for Lula,” she says. “We need change. Under Cardoso our life has only gotten worse, there is no work, we see more crime and misery in the streets.” Official unemployment, which is pegged at around 8%, more than doubles if the underemployed and itinerant merchants like Angelica are included.
Angelica’s discontent with the dominant political order extends across class lines. Even many in Brazil’s upper middle class and some prominent business people have moved into Lula’s camp. Cardoso during his eight years in office has followed orthodox neo-liberal policies, slashing public spending on health and education, selling off state enterprises, and opening the country to speculative international capital. The result has been plummeting annual growth rates that sometimes fail to keep pace with the increase in population. As domestic markets have contracted, many local manufacturers and producers are floundering or have folded.
Emir Sader, a renown political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro declares: “The neo-liberal model has reached a dead end in Brazil. Under Cardoso our international and domestic debt has increased eleven fold. The ruling strata, and even sectors of the military are divided, opening up space for Lula to win the election. Lula offers a new set of policies that will help domestic producers and move Brazilian society along the path of social justice.”
Due in part to the severe cuts in welfare and social services under Cardoso, life in the favelas, the poor barrios surrounding Rio de Janeiro, has deteriorated noticeably. Criminal elements and drug traffickers have seized control of the favelas in recent years, displacing and murdering respected community leaders. Earlier this year, Benedita da Silva, a Black women from the Workers Party, became governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro and launched a crack down on the drug lords and criminal elements. She reduced the homicide rate by 35 percent, which meant that 500 fewer people died compared to the same period the year before.
On Monday, six days before the elections, gangs from the favelas launched a vendetta against Benedita and the authorities attempts to restore law and order. They descended on downtown Rio de Janeiro on motorbikes, terrorizing the city, burning buses and shutting down banks and major commercial centers. “We are in danger of becoming another Colombia,” says Milena Duchiade who runs a bookstore in Rio de Janeiro. Benedita has called on the Cardoso government to send federal troops into Rio de Janeiro this Sunday to prevent the gangs from disrupting the elections.
Polls show Lula enjoying more than twice as much support as his nearest rival, Jose Serra. Two other major candidates are also in the presidential contest, and one of them Anthony Garotinho, may even come in ahead of Serra. Brazilian law requires a run off election between the two leading contenders in three weeks if no one receives an absolute majority of the valid votes cast for president. In the polls Lula is just a percentage point or two shy of the needed majority with the momentum of recent days indicating he has a good shot at avoiding the second round. Even if there is a second round, all polls indicate Lula will win a resounding victory against Serra or Garotinho and be inaugurated on January 1 as Brazil’s first working class president.
Roger Burbach is co-editor, with Ben Clarke, of September 11 and the U.S. War (City Lights, 2002), and author of the forthcoming book The Pinochet Affair: Globalizing Human Rights. He is director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) in Berkeley, CA.He is also a frequent CRG contributor. Copyright Roger Burbach 2002. For fair use only/ pour usage équitable seulement .
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