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BRAZIL'S 500TH anniversary celebrations by the country's ruling elite were reduced to a farce as a result of mass protests, including occupations of land, government buildings and strikes by tens of thousands of students and public sector workers. Recently returned from Brazil, TONY SAUNOIS, of the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI), reports on political developments.
Brazil's workers and poor have nothing to celebrate
IN APRIL 1500, Pedro Alvares Cabral, a Portuguese navigator, accidentally encountered the coastline of what was to become Brazil.
Cabral's "discovery" opened the way for the colonisation of what became modern Brazil and the eventual development of capitalism and landlordism.
Portuguese domination of Brazil and the eventual development of modern capitalism was accomplished in the most bloody slaughter of the indigenous peoples. In 1500, the local population was an estimated five million people who lived in 1,400 tribes, speaking approximately 1,300 languages.
Today, the indigenous peoples, although growing, number no more than 350,000 (0.2% of the population) living in just over 200 tribes speaking 175 languages. However, their plight and fight for culture recognition and land now forms a part of the struggle of all the oppressed of Brazil against capitalism and landlordism.
THE HYPOCRISY of the ruling class was fully displayed during the 500th anniversary commemorations. President, Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC), spoke of the need "to be aware of the social wounds that are part of our heritage. To celebrate our history does not mean we are idealising our past."
Such 'awareness' was demonstrated in the deployment of 5,000 riot police and 1,000 soldiers who blocked attempts by 3,000 indigenous people marching into Porto Seguro, the place where the Portuguese landed. The violent repression of this movement even forced the resignation of the head of the government's department for Indian rights, FUNAI.
The mass movement of the landless, MST, organised the seizure of more than 100 farms by more than 30,000 landless families and the occupation of government offices in 22 of Brazil's 26 states. At least one landless worker was killed during subsequent clashes.
The distribution of land reflects the inequality of Brazilian capitalism and landlordism. The richest 20% of people own more than 90% of the land while the poorest 40% are left with a mere 1%.
FHC and the ruling class have conducted a major political offensive claiming that Brazil has overcome the effects of the international economic crisis in 1997 and 1998. "The worst is over" has been the battle cry of the government promising, "Things will get better".
However, although the economy has recorded a sluggish growth in 1999, the plight of the mass of the population has only got worse. Unemployment has continued to rise, reaching ten million nationally. In Sao Paulo state, the number of unemployed has rocketed by 250% between 1990 and 1999 to reach 1,673,000.
Even this picture does not tell the whole story as the number working in the informal sector (street sellers etc) has also increased massively from 587,000 to 923,000.
Workers in the public sector have received no increase in wages since the economic crisis in 1998 and because of the massive devaluation that took place have suffered a real fall in living standards.
FACED WITH these conditions the popularity of the government has plummeted. FHC has not won the support of more than 15% of those questioned in opinion polls since the crisis in 1998.
This is a marked turn-around. Previously, Cardoso and his government enjoyed substantial support because of the hope that the introduction of the Real Plan, which brought the social cancer of hyperinflation under control, would resolve the economic plight faced by millions of Brazilians. The onset of the crisis in 1998 shattered such illusions.
The collapse in support for the government has opened rifts and divisions with the governing coalition. This has gone side by side with the exposure of corruption scandals involving all of the main capitalist parties. As a result of one such scandal the Mayor of Sao Paulo now faces impeachment proceedings.
The ruling institutions in Brazil have seen an erosion of their authority and social basis as a consequence of these developments. Brazilians now have less confidence in the courts, parliament, local councils, police, etc, then at any time since the days of the military dictatorship, which collapsed in the early 1980s.
The desperation of some sections of Brazilian society and the lack of an alternative, has driven some to seek solace in religion. Both the Evangelical and Roman Catholic churches have grown. The failure of the official workers organisations, the Workers' Party (PT) and the Trades Union Congress (CUT) to offer a revolutionary socialist alternative is the main reason for this growth.
However, even sections of the Catholic church have been affected by the pressure to fight against the effects of capitalism. The Congress of Catholic Young Workers condemned the capitalist system.
Its manifesto declared: "The unemployed men and women if the streets and all of the marginalised people are the fruit of the irresponsibility of the Brazilian elite, including its defenders, like FHC. We declare that the main cause of these facts is the capitalist system and its mechanism of exploitation that suffocates our wishes and happiness...."
The manifesto, like the National Congress of Brazilian Bishops demands an increase in the minimum wage, a reduction in the working week and non-payment of the foreign debt.
THE GOVERNMENT, despite its collapse in support, has been intent on continuing to force through a rigorous adjustment programme, including privatisations and further cuts in state expenditure in order to meet the IMF financial targets.
The loss of support and determination to implement the austerity programme has now provoked a massive strike wave in the public sector. Teachers, health workers, metro workers, bus drivers, and students from technical colleges and universities have all been involved in struggles against the government.
40,000 marched in Sao Paulo against the government on Avenida Paulista on 18 May. Mario Covas, governor of Sao Paulo, was pelted with eggs and tin cans by teachers involved in struggle. This demonstration and other protests have faced repression by the state not seen since the days of the military regime.
Students aged 15, 16 and 17 were removed from a student building and marched onto the streets by the Military Police with their hands above their heads.
This served to enrage workers and young people. This protest was followed by another on 25 May in which between 80,000 and 100,000 workers and young people took part.
THE PT in the last few years, like other former traditional parties of the working class, has taken a sharp turn towards the right. Its last congress did not support the slogan of a struggle to "force out FHC and the IMF".
In contrast to its history, it has formed pacts and agreements with small capitalist parties in the majority of the states of Brazil. Rather than a party of struggle, which it was when it was formed in the early 1980s, its leaders are now mainly concerned with increasing the electoral support of the party and not leading and participating in the mass struggles.
Despite the swing to the right by the leadership, the party is still viewed by many workers and youth as being different and as being untouched by the corruption scandals. This and opposition to the parties of the government coalition, is sure to mean that the PT will make important gains in local elections that are due to take place later this year.
The PT leadership are attempting to forge a "centre left alliance" together with some smaller populist capitalist parties such as the PDT (Democratic Workers' Party), PSB and the PPS (Brazilian Socialist Party and the Popular Socialist Party), in preparation for the presidential elections in 2002.
The impact of a renewed economic crisis and mass struggles that have begun could propel this type of multi-class coalition to adopt a radical populist programme involving other sections of the capitalist class.
The prospects for this taking place were illustrated when the capitalist state governor of Minas Gerais imposed a moratorium on payments of debt to the federal government.
However, should such a coalition (although initially having massive support), by involving representatives of a section of the ruling class and with a programme that remains within the capitalist system, would not be able to solve the crisis in Brazil.
AN INDEPENDENT socialist programme is necessary to defeat FHC and solve the problems of the working class, peasants and urban poor. It needs to include a struggle to overthrow the government of FHC and reject any idea forming alliances with sections of the ruling class.
The struggle needs to centre on the idea of forming a socialist government of workers and peasants that would:
- stop payment on the foreign debt;
- implement a programme of land reform;
- nationalise the major banks and monopolies both national and international under democratic workers control and management as the basis to implement a socialist plan of production.
A victory of the working class in Brazil poses the possibility of socialist revolution throughout Latin America and the defeat of capitalism and imperialism.
Brazil aka "Bel-India
THE UNEVEN and contradictory character of Brazilian capitalism combines the poverty and lack of economic development of India with features of the fully industrialised economies of Europe, such as Belgium. (Hence the title, 'Bel-India'.) The result is one of the most unequal distribution in wealth that exists in the world today.
The night sky in Sao Paulo is filled with private helicopters carrying executives home from the financial sector based on Avenida Paulista. These privileged passengers fly over the 20% of Sao Paulo's population who live in the squalor of the favellas [shanty towns] that punctuate the city.
The great social equaliser
OUT OF desperation and because of the lack of an alternative there are features of a social collapse in some areas of Brazil. Capitalist commentators now speak of an "undeclared civil war" reflected in the crime rates.
More than 50,000 people are killed every year because of violent homicide. On some days, 40 or 50 people are killed every day in the state of Sao Paulo. As one commentator put it: "The revolver has now become the greatest social equaliser".
Congress of Socialismo Revolucionario
TONY SAUNOIS attended the national congress of Socialismo Revolucionario, the Brazilian section of the CWI.
Socialismo Revolucionario has participated in all the recent struggles in Sao Paulo and is fighting for:
- Unification of all the struggles of workers.
- Solidarity strikes of all workers.
- Prepare for a 48-hour general strike with defence of all demonstrations and protests.
- A national conference of rank-and-file workers of all those involved in Struggle to prepare a programme of struggle to force out FHC and the IMF and non-payment of the national and foreign debt.
- A workers' and peasants' socialist government.
In The Socialist 16 June 2000: