RIO DE JANEIRO—In dingy Brazilian offices and outdoor cafes, President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva’s disappointed supporters are huddling around their moment of truth. People are trying to figure out how to relate to a man and political party that were supposed to represent them but have failed to do so on many levels. Conversations often begin, but do not end, with the question of whether to vote for Lula again in October.
Marcus Arruda, stuffed between pamphlets and posters in the back room of the Institute for Policy Alternatives, is arriving at a decision different from that of American activists who sit out elections and sulk.
“Withholding my vote wouldn’t just be punishing Lula. It would be punishing the Brazilian poor,” he begins, unwilling, from the comfort of his middle-class life, to deny those living in the shamble of favelas the marginal ease a Lula victory would bring.
Even some who had hoped Lula’s election in 2002 would begin a major transformation of society are willing to put their disillusion on hold. Mario Goldman, an anthropologist working with a poor black community in the Northeast, says with slouched resignation, “What we have now is the Americanization of Brazilian politics. It is a choice between small differences.” But, he concedes, “I will chose the small differences.”
Those small differences could be the envy of liberals and progressives in the rest of the world. The Brazilian legislature passed a law requiring public universities to set a quota of 40 percent for students who are black, Indian or poor. All tuition is free. A new mandate requires the teaching of Afro-Brazilian history and culture even in elementary grades.
Luiz Magalhaes, an instructor at a Protestant school, waited for the first day of class with wicked glee, imagining some of his evangelical colleagues forced to explain the African gods of the Candomble religion. These gestures of Lula, along with a strong black movement, are forcing Brazil to finally face issues of race and poverty.
The debate on Lula’s accomplishments and what to do about him has taken to the newsstands. Epoca, a glossy magazine comparable to Time, rates the president on his 20 main promises and gives him a score of 57 percent on promise-keeping. Jazzy graphics show that he created 4 million new jobs instead of 10 million. He settled 235,000 landless families on farmland, not 400,000. He raised the minimum wage only 25 percent, not the 50 percent he pledged. By the end of his term, Lula was expected to provide health care for 85 million people, not his original promise of 120 million.
The most passionate and legitimate complaint of Lula’s critics on the left is his failure to challenge the economic policy demanded by Washington and foreign investors, leaving few financial resources for human equity. There’s wistful talk of the might-have-beens had Lula used his mandate and the social movements allied with his Workers’ Party to fight for better terms on debt repayment. It was a bit strange for all these grassroots organizers to have put so much faith in a leader. It seemed like a 12-step program with everyone wanting to turn their power over to a higher authority.
It is only late in conversations around draft beers and salty fried snacks that activists get past the issue of Lula to look at their own responsibility for how little basic change was made. Francisco Whitaker, a wiry founder of the World Social Forum, says loyalty restrained their criticism of the president. There was also co-option through government subsidies and jobs. “The Workers’ Party took much of the leadership of the social movements and that was a disaster for us,” he confesses. “They also tried to involve us in protecting the government by lessening pressure on it. We began to lose the power to control our movement and our way.”
To find a new direction and decide what to do about Lula’s re-election, Whitaker and 15,000 activists held a Brazilian Social Forum in the late spring. It was a ritual end to the blurred line between the social movements and the government, an untangling of identities. There will be a qualitatively different relationship with a second Lula administration, promised Jaime Amorim, a leader of the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST). This new view sees Lula as neither a brave nor a confrontational man. Instead, he always was a negotiator. They would have to assertively and publicly present their demands to force Lula to negotiate issues with them.
It was fitting that Amorim was the one to talk about taking a more rambunctious approach. After being quiescent during the first year of the administration, MST was the first to break from the role of cheerleader for Lula. It began pressing him for change by occupying farmland. The black movement also recognized that a good president caught up in the logic of elections needs organizers to push him further than he wants to go. In 2005, they ignored Lula’s pleas to stay home and brought 20,000 demonstrators to the capital. The march was ostensibly to celebrate a black hero, but the display of defiant, independent politics led to the passage of the quota bill.
For most of the other people at the forum and in the months that followed, it was catch-up time, a belated move away from their oxymoronic position as passive activists. Instead of waiting for Lula to clean up government corruption, 200 groups created the Citizens Network for Political Reform to push for public financing of elections and a reduction of the 20,000 patronage jobs the president controls. Instead of hoping he would change his economic policy, labor leaders began to develop an alternative economic plan to be presented to whoever wins the election.
In the excitement of trying to reshape the future, however, these activists never forgot the immediate question of Lula’s re-election. By the time of the forum plenary and in the months of the campaign, the consensus of the discontented was that the re-election of Lula was the best option.
It was more than the lesser of two evils. It was about consciously deromanticizing both politicians and elections. They no longer see a leader like Lula as a savior, but as just one part of the effort to alter society. The election is only a starting point, the thing that opens more hospitable political space in which independent activists can do the essential work.
Today, the Brazilian movement is becoming too sophisticated to choose between electing a perfect president or working only in protest vehicles. It is putting an end to simple absolutes and offering a new model of change to the disillusioned around the world.
Marlene Nadle is a foreign affairs journalist and an associate of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.