SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Brazil’s left-wing launch

Brazil’s PT government led by Luis Inácio da Silva – Lula – has launched a neo-liberal offensive against the working class. Opposing this, left activists have broken away from the PT to form the Party of Socialism and Liberty, an important step towards the building of a new workers’ party. PETER TAAFFE, who recently visited Brazil, discussed with one of the new party’s leaders, JOÃO BABATISTA (widely known as Babá) one of the party’s four MPs, who recently spoke at Socialism 2004 in London.

IN APRIL, AT the same time as the onslaught against Falluja in Iraq by US forces, the Brazilian state was also laying siege to the favelas (shanty towns) of Rio de Janeiro. One thousand two hundred police officers occupied Rocinha, with suggestions that the Rio government deploy the army and that a wall be built turning the favelas into "living cemeteries [as]… a monument to segregation and inequality" (Financial Times).

These seemingly unconnected events, separated by thousands of miles, in reality point to the intractable problems on the basis of capitalism, with its spiral of ever-deepening violence and poverty, for the masses of the neo-colonial world. Brutal repression and the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians in Iraq, and a Berlin-type wall to contain the impoverished occupants of Brazil’s favelas.

In the case of Rio, the ostensible reason for police and possible military intervention was a turf war between rival drug gangs. But this itself is a product of the massive divisions between rich and poor, which ‘modern’ Brazil epitomises: "Brazil has one of the most unequal distributions of income in the world" (Financial Times). In the favelas, children can earn five or ten times the minimum wage running drugs and there are no other jobs to speak of. Some estimates say that drug gangs control 25% of total trade in the city.

The cycle of violence which results from this was revealed in the barbaric uprising and deaths in Rio’s prisons in May, denounced by a leading left revolutionary intellectual, Chico de Oliveira, as an expression of the ‘barbarism’ of capitalist society. This remark was made at the founding conference in Brasília of the Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (P-SOL – Party of Socialism and Liberty) on the weekend of 5-6 June 2004. Oliveira also stated, to approbation, at this tumultuous conference that this century "would be socialist or it would be nothing", echoing Rosa Luxemburg’s famous aphorism, "socialism or barbarism", as the ultimate choice before humankind. The creation of P-SOL arises from two sources: the blind alley of capitalism and the capitulation to capital of the leaders of the ex-workers’ parties, like Blair in Britain and Lula in Brazil.

The formation of P-SOL has developed very rapidly, barely 15 months after the coming to power of Lula’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT – Workers’ Party) government. But this in turn is a product of the speed of disillusionment, bitterness and anger at the betrayal of the working class and poor of Brazil by this government. The trigger for the formation of P-SOL, potentially of huge significance for the working class of Brazil and for Latin America as a whole, was the expulsion of four MPs opposed to the counter-reforms of the Lula government.

These MPs – Heloísa Helena, João Fontes, Luciana Genro and João Babatista (widely known as Babá) – were the catalyst for the formation of the party which has found a big echo among workers and the radicalised youth. In the regional and city meetings leading up to the formation of this party, 20,000 people participated.

Latin America for sale

ON A RECENT visit to London – where he spoke to a very successful Socialism 2004 conference organised by the Socialist Party of England and Wales – Babá explained the background to the formation of P-SOL: "There are 40 million people living in poverty, some of it of the most degrading kind, and 20 million are on less than $20 a month. The PT came from the depths of the working class. It was formed out of huge industrial struggles – Lula was a leading metalworkers’ trade union leader – and, symbolically, it was founded in the solid working-class area of São Paulo. Reflecting how the PT and its leadership have moved away from these roots I and other MPs were expelled in a plush hotel in Brasília.

"Following the setting up of the PT, the landless workers’ Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) was formed in 1984. An indication of what it took to build the PT and the MST is that in my region alone 800 activists were killed in their struggle to build these organisations.

"After the defeat of the PT in the 1989 elections and the change in the world political situation, however, this first heroic period of involvement in the social struggles, gave way to a more cautious approach by the leadership and a turn primarily towards the electoral plane. We had to endure seven years of the neo-liberal policies of the Cardoso government. There was more resistance to privatisation for quite a long time in Brazil compared to Argentina. There, the right-wing trade union leaders supported privatisation and 60% of industries were handed over to the private sector. But eventually Cardoso privatised 70% of state-owned companies in Brazil as well".

The whole of Latin America was subjected to the selling off, often to foreign imperialist firms, of its precious natural resources. Newsweek magazine recently commented: "Energy is an emotional issue in Latin America, where oil and gas reserves are as much a part of the national patrimony as pre-Columbian artefacts". Historically, this has meant huge resistance to the selling off of these natural resources and the granting of favourable opportunities to super-exploit the workers and peasants of the continent.

This resulted in the past in the nationalisation of vital energy and other industries. Mexico, for instance, which nationalised its oil industry by expropriating US and British companies in 1938, still forbids in its constitution any foreign investment in oil and gas production. This has not stopped the right-wing president, Vicente Fox, from attempting to open up the electrical power and petrochemical industries to private investment. This, however, was blocked by the Mexican congress. Fox is still attempting to sidestep this by involving private imperialist firms in ‘exploration and production’, and then reimbursing them from the state. In other countries, it went much further.

In Bolivia, for instance, in 1996, a 51% share in the gas sector was sold to foreign corporations like Royal Dutch Shell and Spain’s Repsol-YPF. Despite promises, this did not benefit the Bolivian state or the masses. In 2003, the attempt of the Bolivian president to steer the export of natural gas to California and Mexico triggered a mass uprising that led to his resignation barely 14 months into his term of office. Now, there is the country’s first-ever referendum on natural gas policy, with one labour leader declaring: ‘The people demand the recovery of the gas from the transnational corporations’.

Privatisation probably went much further in Argentina, which now faces gas shortages as winter approaches. This has had a knock-on effect on Chile and Uruguay which receive energy exports from Argentina. Little wonder then that Newsweek ruefully comments on the "growing disenchantment across Latin America with the privatisation of energy resources". But this mood exists not just on energy but on privatisation and neo-liberalism in general, which is now widely perceived, certainly amongst the masses, as a disaster.

PT betrayal

AS BABÁ COMMENTS, the Lula government has, if anything, reinforced the neo-liberal programme of his predecessor Cardoso: "Instead of satisfying the aroused political and social expectations of the masses, Lula has moved in the opposite direction. He has surrounded himself with the pillars of international capitalism. The president of the Brazilian bank is the former head of the Bank of Boston, and is now the right-hand man of Lula.

"Before he came to power, he promised to create ten million new jobs but there has been a catastrophic loss of one million jobs in the last year and a half. In São Paolo, for instance, the unemployment rate is 20% and the scarcity of jobs is such that 60% of the Brazilian labour force now works in the ‘informal sector’. Lula has completely accepted the dictates of the IMF, as is shown by his willingness to pay the debt and $50 billion interest charges to imperialist banks and firms. In 2003, the government allocated 54.61% of its budget to repay debt and interest charges. Not even Cardoso spent so much on this. And this is at a time when president Kirchner in Argentina carried out a partial repudiation of debt in 2003".

The burden of foreign debt and its effect on living standards in Brazil is widely recognised by workers. For instance, for the World Social Forum in Mumbai the Union of Tax and Fiscal Workers of the Brazilian federal government presented a document which was a detailed account and searing denunciation of the massive burden which the debt imposes on the working class and poor of Brazil.

Babá explains how the mood has changed since the election of Lula: "When Lula was elected he received an unprecedented reception from the masses. In the election of 2002 (he took office in early 2003) the PT and Lula received more votes than Bush did when he was elected – 52 million votes. The approval ratings were upwards of 80%. They have now sharply declined, with the government’s popularity ratings falling to its lowest level ever of 29.4% in June – not surprising, given the retreats and betrayals of the government.

"None feel this more than the millions of landless. Lula promised to meet the demands of the MST for one million settlements by 2006 but this will remain a distant dream if left to the government. By the end of 2003, only 13,000 families had been settled – a far cry from the 60,000 settlements promised by the government. This is even further away from the 120,000 settlements demanded by the MST for 2003. This has not stopped the landless, often organised by the MST but also by others, from seeking to occupy the land, which has brought them into collision with the landowners and their armed forces, resulting in workers being killed and activists imprisoned under a PT-led government.

"This goes on while Lula seeks to mollify the 5,000 richest families in the country, whose wealth is equal to 45% of the gross national product. One of the most significant recent clashes – which were a crucial factor in the forming of the new party – was Lula’s attack on the 600,000 federal employees. He vilified them as ‘privileged’ as he raised the age of retirement and sought to undermine all their conquests of the past. Yet these workers historically played a crucial, perhaps the most important, role in the actual formation of the PT. The very force that they had helped to create – the PT and Lula’s government – had turned on them viciously. Subsequently, many of them have become an important base for the new party.

"This ‘reform’, was originally proposed by the previous president Cardoso and opposed by the PT, which has now done a complete about turn on this and on many other issues touching on the day-to-day existence of working-class people. Average wages have fallen, the economy contracted by 0.2% last year, and although there has been a certain growth in the first part of this year, this has been cancelled out by the growth in population".

Abject poverty, obscene wealth

EVEN THE JOURNALS of international big business like the Financial Times can occasionally give vivid examples of the searing poverty affecting the masses in Brazil: "Using an old paint can, Maria do Carman fetches drinking water from a muddy well in Acaua, a remote, dusty town in Brazil’s north-eastern Piaui state. Her four children have dysentery; they eat one meal a day of rice and beans. They help their father take care of a herd of goats, half of which died in the last drought". Millions lack the basic human needs of a minimum nutrition, a roof over their head, yet, "in contrast, wealthy families in São Paolo pay the equivalent of three months of Mrs do Carman’s income to have their pets groomed".

While lamenting these conditions, the journals of capitalism, in effect, adopt the standpoint of the Bible: ‘The poor will always be with us’. What matters to them are the interests of the so-called ‘wealth creators’, the capitalists who, in modern conditions, particularly in the neo-colonial world, lead a completely parasitic existence, presiding over an actual contraction of production while they grow fat and the poor sink into an abyss.

This spiral of descent, in its turn, has brought in its wake a shocking social crisis reflected in an 11% increase in robberies, and the killing of young black people at a higher rate in Brazil than in Colombia. Homicides are the fifth highest in the world and, as Babá pointed out, "two thousand young people have been murdered in the last two years". At the same time, hospitals are registering more incidents of burns due to workers being forced to economise and resorting to cheap energy sources such as alcohol.

Babá commented further: "Against this background, Lula has carried out the dictates of capital, both international and domestic. He is adored by Bush and Blair, even offering the use of Brazilian troops in Haiti to replace US forces which can then be deployed against the Iraqi workers and peasants. Moreover, the PT government has now been involved in three corruption scandals, which have sullied its once clean banner. One example of corruption involved what has been called the ‘Vampire Scandal’, the buying and selling of blood involving PT representatives. Lula himself has obscenely purchased a new presidential jet at the cost of $70 million, with a special wood-lined bathroom. At the same time, the monthly minimum wage has been increased by a paltry $6. The bitterness and anger at this betrayal by the Lula government led us, the four MPs, to vote against the government, which led to our expulsion from the PT. This in turn led to the creation of the new party, for which we have great hopes".

The new party

WHO IS INVOLVED in forming the party? "The four MPs, of course, played a key role", Babá explains, "particularly Heloísa Helena, who is a very popular mass figure. She took a particularly courageous stand in supporting the new party, for which she has been a catalyst, and in opposition to her own organisation, the Democracia Socialista (DS) tendency, the majority of whom have remained within the PT. They opposed the expulsions but up to now have not supported the formation of the new party. Moreover, they have ten deputies who still remain in the PT supporting the government. And, as it is well known, one of their members, Miguel Rossetto, is the minister of agricultural development, with responsibility for agricultural reform in the pro-capitalist Lula government, which is presiding over attacks on the landless who have tried to occupy land.

"A number of Trotskyist organisations have been involved in setting up the party. These include my own organisation, the Corrente Socialista dos Trabalhadores (CST – Socialist Current of the Workers), the Movimento Esquerda Socialista (MES – Left Socialist Movement), Socialismo Revolucinário (Revolutionary Socialism – CWI Brazil), Pólo de Resistência Socialista (PRS – Pole of Socialist Resistance), the Movimento Terra, Trabalho e Liberdade (MTL – Movement for Land, Labour and Liberty), and Liberdade Vermelha (LV – Red Liberty). There are some very important left and revolutionary intellectuals and a significant layer of workers not aligned to any organisation".

What is P-SOL’s programme? "The programme of the party is extremely radical and revolutionary. It calls for a ‘revolutionary break with capitalism’, attacks capitalism and imperialism, which is leading humanity into a global crisis. It also proclaims the need for the new party to link socialism and democracy as a strategic principle, and must be built on a new basis, with a ‘strategy for socialism’ as a fundamental aspect of the programme.

"Importantly it ‘attacks the experiences of the totalitarian and Stalinist regimes’ and rejects the ‘capitulation to the existing order in the style of the third way of the social democracy’. In one point about democracy it states specifically: ‘Socialism cannot be decoupled from democracy and liberty – we must have broad liberty of expression, and reject the one-party model’. Correctly reflecting the mood of the Brazilian people, it also stands for a break with imperialism and maintains there can be no ‘independence or sovereignty without a break from imperialist domination, which in turn means a break from capitalism’."

Towards a mass workers’ party

THIS PROGRAMME IS to the left of other left parties which have been formed in the past decade or so, even to the left of Rifondazione Comunista in Italy when it was first formed in 1991. At the same time, the party is not a rounded-out, revolutionary Trotskyist party, including as it does those from a centrist or even left-reformist background. It nevertheless provides a huge step forward for the more advanced layers of the working class at this stage, with every prospect, if it evolves further in a clear direction, of becoming a significant weapon for the Brazilian working class in their struggles.

Vital in achieving this will be the organisation of the considerable Trotskyist and Marxist forces within the party. Their task is to help the party to link up the general programme with specific demands – transitional in character – on day-to-day demands of the working class with the idea of the socialist transformation of society. Chico de Oliveira, mentioned earlier, while declaring he was a revolutionary, nevertheless, demanded soon after P-SOL’s founding conference that Lula should immediately institute a spending programme, even to ‘build pyramids’, in order to create jobs and alleviate the terrible suffering arising from unemployment. There is nothing wrong with such a demand. The Socialist Party demands a programme of public works, but we put it forward in a socialist and transitional fashion. Keynesian economists also suggest increased state expenditure in a recession. However, the Achilles heel of Keynesianism, which does not go beyond the framework of capitalism, is that ultimately it has to be financed either by considerable growth, which is unlikely in Brazil given the domestic and world situation, or by taxation on the bourgeoisie, risking a strike of capital. On the other hand, if taxes are imposed on the working class, this would cut the market and thereby create unemployment in other areas, thus defeating the whole object of the exercise.

It is issues like this – how to take up demands on the question of the debt and linking them to the day-to-day problems of the working class – which will be a source of debate and discussion in the new party.

How does Babá view P-SOL’s internal organisation? "The statutes make it quite clear that there is the full right of tendencies and groups – as well as those who belong to no tendency – to express their full position within the party and even, of course, to explain their position publicly, within the framework of the statutes. There are many issues which have not yet been decided, such as how the parliamentary candidates are chosen, the wages of MPs and how this will be approached, etc. There is full democracy within the party but also we have to be prepared to take decisions and act on them. In the beginning, decisions were arrived at through consensus and agreement between all the parties and tendencies but we have to prepare to take decisions on the basis of majority voting".

What are Babá’s hopes for the future of this party and the Brazilian working class? "I believe we have made a breakthrough in Brazil in establishing this party. It has come very quickly because of the rapidly changing situation. One example of this: at the beginning of 2003, just after Lula was elected, 40,000 turned up to greet him in Brasília, indicating the great enthusiasm and expectations of the masses. When, however, he attended the recent funeral in Rio of Leonel Brizola (leader of the PDT – Partido Democrático Trabalhista) 10,000 people were there and most of them booed Lula. But when Heloísa Helena attended, the crowd cheered her to the echo.

"Clearly, the explosive economic and social situation in Brazil can lead to a growth of the new party. There will be many problems, debates and discussions but this party already starts on a higher political level than the PT when it was founded. Moreover, it can offer a beacon to the workers throughout Latin America and perhaps Europe and the rest of the world. If it builds a mass base and comes to power it will break with the IMF and capitalism, refuse to pay the debt and lead a struggle for socialist change.

"Capitalism means not just weapons of mass destruction but also launches ‘economic bombs’ against the masses, recessions and slumps which devastate their lives. We must put an end to it – and the first task is the creation of a mass workers’ party. The formation of P-SOL is a big step towards this".

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