Can Lula get Brazil back on track?

Much has changed since Lula’s first presidency. While the economic situation is far more difficult, international shifts could work in the country’s favour.

In another victory for the ‘pink tide’ of leftist election victories once more sweeping Latin America, Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva has been re-elected as President in Brazil, ousting the extreme-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro.

Lula won by a narrow margin of 50.9 percent to 49.1 percent, ahead by only 2 million out of the total 118 million votes that were cast – a reflection of the fact that a prolonged and persistent media and lawfare campaign by imperialist-backed right-wing oligarchs has branded him a ‘criminal’ in the eyes of significant numbers of Brazilians.

Lula’s victory was greeted with an outpouring of joy by the masses of poor who supported him, on the other hand, many of whom remember the great gains they made when he was president 20 years ago. But there are serious question marks over his ability to repeat those achievements this time around, when he faces conditions that are markedly different from those of two decades ago.

Then and now

During his first term in office (2003-10), Lula oversaw what was undoubtedly Brazil’s most positive moment to date, during which a world commodity boom and a massive oil discovery provided funds for social programmes that reduced inequality and lifted 20 million people out of extreme poverty, allowing Brazil to assert a strong and independent position on the world stage and become a centre for a rising Latin America.

Today, by contrast, the new government faces an enormous task in trying to rejuvenate a devastated nation. At least 33 million Brazilians are mired in hunger, another 115 million are fighting ‘food insecurity’, and no fewer than 79 percent of families are hostage to high levels of personal debt – at a time when the global demand for Brazil’s commodities has been falling rather than growing and the country’s exports are steadily shifting towards a dependency on agricultural produce from highly-mechanised mega-farms that provide relatively few jobs to local workers and very little wealth to anyone other than their owners.

Moreover, Lula’s Workers Party does not hold a majority of seats in the Brazilian congress, which is controlled instead by his political opponents.

In fact, in another indicator of how polarised Brazilian society has become under Bolsonaro’s rule, the country has just elected its most conservative Congress since the end of the military dictatorship in the late 1980s. Bolsonaro’s Liberal party won the largest number of seats, holding nearly one-fifth of the two chambers, and the party’s chief has said it plans to oppose Lula’s government.

The centrist Centrão coalition, which has historically tended to hold the balance of power in Brazilian politics, looks unlikely to fulfil this habitual role without the participation of Bolsonaro’s party’s 99 deputies.

“’There will be no peace if you try to isolate 99 federal representatives. This doesn’t happen,’ Liberal party chief Valdemar Costa Neto told reporters recently. ‘It’ll be hell’” (Jack Nicas and André Spigariol, ‘In Brazil, Lula beat Bolsonaro. Now comes the hard part’, New York Times, 15 November 2022).

The presidency, meanwhile, has had its power steadily reduced over the last decade, with powers handed instead to the country’s Congress and to the Supreme Court. With Congress now controlling a large chunk of the federal budget, Lula will have to make deals.

As economist Alexandre Schwartsman, who was director of the Central Bank during Lula’s first administration, put it: “Politically speaking, he has much less power than he did, and he’s facing a much tougher challenge economically.”

Clearly, under continued conditions of capitalist democracy, it will take all the veteran campaigner’s experience and expertise to navigate the passage of any of the progressive measures so desperately needed by Brazil.

Aspiration and pressure

Amongst other aims, Lula’s election programme promised:

• To resume stopped infrastructure works in order of priority. To find funding and investment for developing trade, services, food, agriculture and industry. To invest in public and social services, economic infrastructure and strategic natural resources.

• To build a more egalitarian Brazil without hunger and poverty, with good jobs and wages, prioritising the people who need most help.

• To treat education and science, which have been abandoned and neglected, as an investment and not an expense.

• To reduce waiting time for healthcare consultations and bring down post-Covid surgical waiting lists.

• To guarantee employment and housing for millions of Brazilians, with universal access to electricity and water.

• To reactivate civil construction and heavy engineering, guiding investment towards sections that meet social demands such as housing, transport, energy, water and sanitation.

• To resume the programmes for culture, arts, sports and leisure, instituted under previous Workers Party governments and destroyed under Bolsonaro.

• To recreate the ministry of racial equality and ensure equal opportunities and freedom of religion and worship.

• To ensure that food production is compatible with the preservation of natural resources.

• To break Brazil’s current isolationism and resume a foreign policy aimed at expanding trade and technological cooperation on terms of mutual respect with all countries.

• To take Brazil out of the hands of those who admire the military dictatorship and idolise murderous torturers, try to overturn elections, and seek to create conditions for coups and totalitarianism.

It is to be hoped that the new President is able to pull together the support he needs to implement the above.

Despite the many progressive policies Lula has proposed, his election was greeted with relief by some in the imperialist countries, who had been finding Jair Bolsonaro an increasingly unreliable conduit and are clearly hoping that the new realities in Brazil will help them persuade Lula to drop the interests of the masses in favour of a ‘sensible’ [anti-worker] compromise.

The neoliberal Economist magazine was one of several imperialist mouthpieces warning Lula to shift to the centre – that is, to make sure his government is run in the interests of monopoly capital.

On Lula’s side, however, is the drive towards a multipolar world, institutionally represented by a congregation of bodies from Brics+, of which Brazil was a founder member, to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the Eurasian Economic Union, Alba and others. The rise of these institutions will benefit immensely from having Lula back on board, a Latin-American leader whose record in this field has left him with extremely high prestige amongst oppressed peoples globally.

The rise of the Russia, China, the Brics et al may offer Lula’s Brazil the lifeline it needs to climb out from under the various pressures brought about by rising debt and inflation, the global economic crisis, and four years of polarising far-right demagogic rule.

Saving the Amazon

Meanwhile, there is one area in which the new government looks likely to make early and important changes: the protection of the Amazon rainforest, whose health is crucial to the fight against climate change.

Bolsonaro’s regime not only cut funding and staffing for the agencies that protect the forest and the indigenous groups who live there, but declared open season for loggers and agribusinesses to grab tracts of the forest and exploit them with little or no consequences.

The new administration plans to immediately reconstruct the government’s presence in the Amazon and deconstruct Bolsonaro’s rapine free-for-all. Lula wants to add around $200m to the government’s environment budget next year.

To this end, he is expected to work in close cooperation with Presidents Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and Gustavo Petro of Colombia, both of whom attended the Cop27 climate summit and welcomed the news that a new Lula government would soon be replacing the catastrophic destructiveness of Bolsonaro’s regime.

Announcing their countries’ joint intention to form an alliance to protect the Amazon, President Petro called Brazil’s entry into the agreement “fundamental and strategic”, saying: “We [now] have enough strength to propose to the world something positive, not a failure” (Laura Gamba, ‘Colombia, Venezuela pledge to save Amazon rainforest’, Anadolu Agency, 9 November 2022).

It’s going to be a big challenge for Lula and Brazil to move forward, however. The imperialist, foreign handlers of the Brazilian oligarchs and military have their own vision of the role Brazil should play in the world economic system, and they won’t give it up without a fight.

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