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A Leftist Government in Capitalist Clothing
The Double-Death of Brazilian Democracy
by RAZA NAEEM

The Brazilians definitely know how to return a favour, and not just when it comes to soccer. Early last month, when protests broke out in the major cities of Turkey in response to the attempt by the Islamist government to privatize one of the last remaining green spaces in Istanbul, the former were quick to oblige with shipments of tear gas to the latter to deal with the insurrection. Whether or not the tear gas had to do with it, within weeks the infection in Turkey spread to the major cities of Brazil, in response to a ten-cent rise in bus fares. There are interesting similarities and contrasts between the Erdogan and Rousseff governments, as well as the central issues which have given rise to the uprisings in both countries, uniquely misunderstood by the mainstream media. Both the AKP and the Workers Party governments came to power in 2002, their countries ruled by military dictatorships in the first half of the 20th century, though it must be said that what the Turkish military lacked in terms of continuity (the military dictatorship in Brazil ruled uninterrupted from 1964 to 1985), it made up handsomely by intervening repeatedly (three times: 1961, 1980 and 1997). After the restoration of democracy in both countries in the late 1980s, there was a succession of corrupt civilian governments which carried on the neoliberal programs dictated by the IMF and the World Bank and put in practice albeit in a limited way under dictatorship, and which brought both countries to the brink of bankruptcy post-2000. The disillusionment with the political class handed victory to the Islamist Erdogan in Turkey (who went on to win two more elections) and the leftist Workers Party, then led by Lula da Silva. Both the governments have in their own way tried to boost social spending in health and education, not really tried to break away from the capitalist system in any serious way, and pursuing adventurous foreign policies (Turkey in Syria and Brazil in Haiti and at the UN); of course this course is set by the earnest desire of both not to stray too far from the good books of Washington. And of course, Brazil’s beloved novelist, the communist Jorge Amado, who was jailed by Getulio Vargas, Brazil’s own Ataturk, re-imagined the origins of Brazil in his witty novella The Discovery of America by the Turks – in reality Arabs – when according to Amado, “the Turks finally discovered America, landed in Brazil, and became Brazilians of the best kind.”

Indeed, the new young Turks now demonstrating on the streets of major Brazilian cities have been inspired by the best kind of model provided by their Turkish comrades. Ironically, while Erdogan’s Turkey provided an attractive if unviable model for the fellow Islamist rulers in power in Tunis and Cairo following the overthrow of dictators, Brazil’s social-democratic rulers failed to learn from the one model which has been on offer in Latin America following the disastrous failure of neoliberalism in that continent throughout the 1990s – the rise of Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarianism in Venezuela, which was adopted subsequently in Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina, and has led to a redefinition of the relationship of the people not only with their rulers, but with the regional hegemon, the United States. Though both the presidents from the Workers Party – Lula more so than Rousseff – have been occasionally prone to the odd lip-service or two to Chavez and the Bolivarian model now and then, whether out of genuine conviction or an instinct for self-preservation it is hard to tell.

Irrespective of the fact that the Brazilian soccer team won the Confederation Cup final against Spain in Rio earlier today, the model Brazil’s rulers seem to be following has been pithily summarized by Humberto Ortega, one of the leaders of the Sandinista Revolution which overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua in 1979, of “society as a soccer stadium”. According to him: “There’s a hierarchy. One hundred thousand people can squeeze into the stadium, but only 500 can sit in the boxes. No matter how much you love the people, you can’t fit them all in the boxes.” According to this recantation then, any and every inequality can be justified. This in a country which has one of the most unequal distributions of income and land in the world.

As in Turkey where the bourgeois media has produced the dominant narrative of ‘secularism vs Islam’, in Brazil too, the real context of the revolt has been hijacked by the exclusive focus on soccer and FIFA’s shenanigans. Of course, the Workers Party government first under Lula and now Dilma Rousseff has privileged the holding of the soccer World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, despite the fact that there have been noticeable improvements in hunger reduction, the minimum wage, provision of employment and health since 2002. However, between the triumphalism of Brazil as one of the members of the BRICS club and its global power pretensions marked by its attempts to secure a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, no doubt helped by its successful bidding for the World Cup and Olympics, what is missing is the explanation that it is the refusal of the Workers Party to break away more decisively from the neoliberal model in its attempts to please both the Brazilian ruling elite as well as Washington that has produced the discontent in the streets and has distanced it from some of the most powerful social movements such as the landless peasants movement, the Movimento Sem Terra (MST).

It was not always like it however. 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the military coup which ousted the regime of Joao Goulart, the radical social democrat who not unlike Lula in 2002, came to power on a radical platform of redistribution of wealth and land reform in 1961. Having worked to increase the minimum wage by 100% as the previous Minister of Labour under Vargas, Goulart moved to address the other inequalities in Brazilian society. His Basic Reforms Law attempted to institute radical reforms in education, took on the multinational corporations siphoning off Brazil’s wealth, extending voting rights to the disenfranchised and land reform, allying himself with the Communist Party. Unlike Lula, he was himself a wealthy landowner whose appeal cut across Brazil’s notoriously racist divide; he distanced the country from its quest for nuclear weapons; and only assumed far-reaching presidential powers after winning a popular plebiscite in 1963. But even these far-from-revolutionary reforms were too much for the country’s generals who overthrew his regime just a year later. Goulart’s reforms in his short-lived three years of government now appear far deeper than what the Workers Party has managed to achieve in a decade of power since 2002. And unlike the corruption and vote-buying scandals which characterized the last years of Lula’s second presidential term (but not him personally), Goulart was a remarkably honest and clean politician. It is this legacy which Rousseff and her advisers need to ponder, rather than the aftermath of the World Cup.

The protesters on the Brazilian streets so far have not come up with a political and social program; they do not belong to any political party, but their demands are firmly geared against neoliberalism. So far the notoriously-divided Brazilian left – a legacy of the Cold War and the years of the armed struggle, crushed first by Vargas and later by the military dictatorship – as well as the powerful social movements of the MST and those which produced the ubiquitous World Social Fora in Porto Alegre are not visible in these insurrections. The spontaneous movement of the youth is also in danger of being swayed by those for whom even a leftist government in however capitalist a clothing is unbearable. Dilma Rousseff, a survivor of the tortures inflicted by the military dictatorship, and her comrades need to make a quick and comprehensive post-mortem of their predicament, maybe even compare notes with Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s successor in Venezuela rather than Erdogan, who might yet crown himself the new sultan of Turkey and be thwarted by the still-powerful military. In Brazil, which like Turkey ushered in a republic by deposing a monarch and where a hopeless people might have more of a chance now than the military to deliver another come-uppance to a leftist government, Dilma Rousseff should take time out to read Amado’s popular novella The Double Death of Quincas Water-Bray, in which the protagonist’s family attempt to give him a respectable burial, having tired of his shenanigans for a whole decade.”Let everyone see to his own funeral; nothing is impossible”, says Quincas before plunging to his ‘second’ death. There might yet be enough time to save Brazilian democracy from another such death, without having to resort to dress it up in ugly second-hand clothes for a funeral like poor Quincas.

Raza Naeem is an Arabic-speaking Pakistani social scientist, literary critic, translator and political activist (of the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party) He has been trained in Political Economy from the University of Leeds in UK, and in Middle Eastern History and Anthropology from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, USA. He is presently working on a history of pos-Arab Spring Yemen. He can be reached at: razanaeem@hotmail.com