Brazil: the Great Opportunity (July 4, 2013)

Boaventura de Sousa Santos, University of Coimbra, Portugal

History shows – and current events confirm – that periods of acute crisis or deprivation are typically not the times when citizens will rise against an unjust state of affairs, forcing institutions and those with political power to significantly change the course of government. Although comparisons are always difficult to make, one would expect young people in Greece, Portugal and Spain, ruled by conservative governments that are hijacking their future in terms of employment as well as health and education, to take to the streets and rebel more forcefully than Brazilian youth, ruled by a progressive government that has pursued social inclusion policies, even though the latter government is undermined by corruption and occasionally equivocated with regard to the relative priority of economic power and citizens rights. Given these realities, one would also expect the Brazilian left not to be caught by surprise by the outburst of accumulated discontent, just as one would expect their counterparts in Southern Europe to be bracing themselves for the impending protests. But I’m afraid that has not been, nor shall it be, the case. So we have, on one hand, a left in charge of the government of the country while dazzled by international ostentation and the boom of natural resources, and on the other a left brainlessly performing its opposition role, and in the case of Portugal, paralyzed between the Socialist Party’s stale, power-at-any-cost centrism and the Communist Party‘s mummified immobility. The Left Bloc is the only political force with an interest in more comprehensive solutions, but it knows that it will accomplish nothing by acting alone.

But the similarities between the two lefts on both sides of the Atlantic end here. In Brazil the forces on the left are now in a position to turn their failure into a great opportunity. Whether they will seize it or not is still an open question, but the signs are encouraging. I will point out just the main ones. First of all, President Dilma Rousseff acknowledged the democratic energy coming from the streets and squares. She promised to devote her full attention to the protesters’ demands, and agreed, at long last, to meet with representatives of the social movements and organizations, something she had refused to do since the beginning of her mandate. It remains to be seen whether her acknowledgment is extended to the indigenous movements that have been at the forefront of the opposition to Brazil’s development model, based on the extraction of natural resources at any price, as those movements have been the constant victims both of state and para-state violence and of gross violations of international law (including prior consultation and territorial inviolability). The second sign, a clear indication of the soundness of the MPL’s (Movimento Passe Livre – Free Pass Movement) claims regarding the cost and conditions of public transport, is the fact that the price increases were canceled in many cities and that in some instances free passes for students have been promised (state of Rio Grande do Sul). In order to address the structural problems in this particular area, the President has also promised a national, urban mobility plan. Given that the transport concession holders contribute significantly to election campaign financing, those problems will surely not go away without a profound political reform. Knowing that, and being well aware of the tentacles of corruption, President Rousseff said she intends to promote this reform, in order to strengthen citizen participation and control and to make institutions more transparent. This is the third sign. But it is my belief that unless she is pressed to do it, the President will not initiate such reform. The elections are at hand, and throughout her mandate she had a better rapport with the “ruralist bench” (its political clout far outweighing its demographic representation) and with its latifúndio and agro-industrial agendas than with those sectors favouring the household economy, fighting for agrarian reform and for indigenous land and quilombolas, campaigning against agrotoxics, etc. The reform of the political system will have to include a constitutional process engaging the political sectors of the institutional lefts and the more discerning social movements and organizations.

The fourth sign is the vehemence with which the social movements that have fought for social inclusion and were the anchor of Brazil’s World Social Forum distanced themselves from the violent, fascistoid groups that infiltrated the protests and from the conservative political forces (served by the major media) bent on reaping dividends from the popular outcry. The right’s gambit consisted of turning the popular classes against the party and the governments that, on balance, have done the most to improve their lot, but the manoeuver seems to have failed. This was also a consequence of the President’s promise to appropriate 75% of oil exploitation rights for education and 25% to health (Angola and Mozambique, wake up while there is still time!) and to bring thousands of foreign doctors into Brazil’s unified health service (SUS). In these signs there resides the great opportunity for the progressive forces both in government and in the opposition to seize the extra-institutional moment the country is currently experiencing and make it the driving force for strengthening democracy in the coming political cycle. If they fail to do that, the right will do everything in its power to make sure that the new cycle is as exclusionist as the old cycles it led for decades. And let us not forget who will then be by its side: the big brother from the North, to whom every stable leftist government in the world is unwelcome, especially if it happens to inhabit what it still views as its own backyard.

Brazil, Global Express, Portugal

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