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New Leftist Government in Brazil Faces Multiple Challenges

New Leftist Government in Brazil Faces Multiple Challenges

The inauguration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as president of Brazil on New Year’s Day, 2003, signaled an unprecedented personal journey from abject poverty to the presidency of Brazil. In a seminar on the implications, prospects, and possibilities of the new Lula presidency, a panel of experts discussed Brazilian politics, social movements, and the inner workings of the Workers' Party.

By Octavio Pescador

The inauguration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, head of the Workers’ Party, as president of Brazil on New Year’s Day, 2003, signaled an unprecedented personal journey from abject poverty to the presidency of Brazil. Lula’s convincing victory puts a left-wing government in power in Brazil for the first time.

The Latin American Center, in its ongoing effort to keep the UCLA academic community informed on the state of democratic development in Latin America, presented on Tuesday, February 18, a seminar on Brazil’s new presidency. Professors Pablo Gentili and António Teodoro, of the University of the State of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the Universidade Lusófona, Lisbon, Portugal, respectively, offered an assessment of the political and educational dilemmas faced by the new administration.

The View from Brazil

Dr. Gentili described how the Workers’ Party (PT) does not constitute a cohesive organization but is a highly problematic coalition of social movements and labor organizations. He explained that a group of educational researchers with no formal ties to the masses represented by the PT elaborated Lula’s educational proposal. Though the document they created, “A School the Size of Brazil,” generated heated debates among the PT’s membership, it focused the public’s attention on the shortcomings of the educational program of former President Cardoso’s neoliberal regime. Lula’s campaign educational platform called for a rupture with the previous system: universal access to democratically run quality schools would become a reality, not simply an aspiration. Unfortunately, now that Lula has been elected, education has taken second place to other issues; in fact, not a single member of the panel of experts who wrote the educational proposal was invited to participate in Lula’s government.

The principal contradiction faced by Lula’s government stems from the undeniable fact that it must incorporate the “enemy” and its institutions/programs into the construction of a new national project. As the new minister of education put it in his inaugural speech, “We need to continue with the (extant) educational reform policies but make a turn to the left.” In education this contradiction is expressed in the fact that it was the left that rendered educational segregation, exclusion, and discrimination national issues, making the government and the public conscious of the need to remedy such disparities. Yet now that the left is in power, it has not found the way to solve these problems. Nor has the government found a strategy to remedy the teacher deficit (over one million new teachers are needed in Brazil) or the structural problems involved in financing education. Gentili voiced some disappointment with the first forty-five days of Lula’s regime: “. . . they have been much less ‘heroic’ than we all expected.” The government, he said, knows that it must not destabilize Brazil’s relationship with domestic and international markets, and is behaving accordingly.

The View from Portugal

Dr. Teodoro described his view of Brazilian politics as that of an alert European observer who also teaches sociology in São Paulo three months a year. His discussion focused on the symbolic value of Lula’s election, suggesting that on the domestic front the victory of the PT was well defined by the headline of a well-known Brazilian political magazine: “The people to power!” From the external perspective, on the other hand, Lula’s victory can signify a rupture with the neoliberal world order. He mentioned that an international loss of momentum in the neoliberal agenda has been clearly manifest recently by the contrast between the lackluster World Economic Forum of Davos and a burgeoning of the World Social Forum of São Paulo. Teodoro explained that each of the past four administrations in Brazil has had its own mandate: Color de Mello’s was modernization; Cardoso’s first was the end of hyperinflation and his second the regionalization of Brazil; and now that of Lula is social power, a goal that can be accomplished only through the establishment of a compromise—which began to gel during the campaign—between labor (the CUT, the Laborers’ Central Union) and capital (the FIET, the Federation of Industrial Leaders). The former will strive to gain social redistribution, poverty abatement, and full employment, while the latter will seek financial stability, domestic market expansion, and lower taxes.

Teodoro described Lula as a revolutionary more like Mandela than like Castro, in that his long history of struggle will help him analyze, understand, and create coalitions to avoid ruptures and divisions. Yet Lula’s government will face serious challenges in the months to come: (1) how will it articulate participatory and representative democracy, overcoming the Marxist-Leninist vision of representative democracy and a bourgeois system?, (2) how will the PT define itself and assist the government to articulate its policies?, (3) how will the government establish a “republican ethic of public service” (i.e., combat corruption), (4) how will it cope with the severe educational disparities in Brazil that support a system where public (lower quality) schools are for the poor and private schools are for the rich while public (high-quality) universities are for the rich and private universities for the poor?, and (5) how can access to schooling be increased while educational excellence is simultaneously promoted?

Dr. Carlos Alberto Torres closed the session with two brief comments, one on Lula’s ascent to power and the other on the potential contribution of his regime to Brazilian and Latin American politics. First, Torres explained that Lula’s victory was the result of three decades of struggle by social movements in Brazil (for example, that of the landless), for which the most important ideologue and coalescing figure was Paulo Freire, who furnished a philosophical, political, and moral agenda for the masses and whose life work provided a methodology/system to free people for transforming the world. Torres then affirmed that the triumph of Lula signifies an opportunity for the left to offer the best political contribution it can make—that of bringing honest individuals to public office.

Nina Moss contributed to this story.

Latin American Institute