Issue 252 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

Brazilian Workers' Party

In the pink

Radical government has its limits, argues Sean Purdy, as Porto Alegre demonstrates
Anti-capitalist demonstrators in Paris Alegre this year
Anti-capitalist demonstrators in Paris Alegre this year

The Workers' Party of Brazil (PT) has gained real prominence in the new anti-capitalist movement. It is the local governing power in Porto Alegre, Brazil, which recently hosted the World Social Forum.

The PT has a mass base in the organised working class and the poor, and is committed to building a working class political alternative. Today it only works in coalitions with other left parties. It will not make coalitions with parties of business. Unlike most western reformist parties, the PT is still offering reforms when it wins office. It has also implemented a series of popular reforms at state and municipal level. In a country where corruption is institutionalised on a massive scale, the PT has distinguished itself by honest government.

Yet the reform which has gained most attention in the west is the PT's experiments in participatory democracy. In Porto Alegre, the capital of the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul (RS), a popular front government led by the PT introduced 'participatory budgeting' in 1990. It has proved to be popular and PT mayors have been re-elected four times. Each year thousands of residents participate in grassroots meetings to discuss the allocation of 50 percent of the municipal budget. Local neighbourhood issues such as roads and parks are discussed, as well as larger city-wide issues such as public transport and homelessness. Water and sewer connections have been extended from 75 percent to 98 percent of all residences. The number of schools has quadrupled since 1988. The construction of public housing units grew considerably and bus routes to poor areas were improved. Some of these decisions have been very principled.

The city turned down a five-star hotel investment on the site of an abandoned power plant, and instead built a public park and convention hall. The nearby city of Guiaba turned down a proposed new Ford auto plant, arguing that the proposed new employment would be less beneficial than the subsidies and tax breaks that Ford was demanding.

Those fighting against capitalism need to support reforms like this and continue building for more improvements in the lives of workers. But it's also necessary to put things in perspective. First, RS is one of the richest states in Brazil, with a developed economy based on small industry and family farms. It could afford to undertake some of these reforms. In addition, comparing economic trends in Porto Alegre with other Brazilian cities in the last half of the 1990s, you find few major contrasts. Industrial production stagnated, per capita incomes fell and unemployment rose as the effects of neoliberal globalisation made themselves felt in all regions of Brazil. And at the same time as increasing democratic participation, the PT government of Olivia Dutra in RS has allowed the education budget to stagnate, sparking strikes by public school teachers and protests by university students against cuts in education funding. Moreover, Dutra has increased taxes on ordinary workers and largely agreed to the structural adjustment policies decreed by the IMF, and passed down by the federal government in Brazil.

This is a contradiction at the heart of the party--it wants to make reforms but is constrained by the system it chooses to operate in. On social issues, many PT members and leaders have distinguished themselves in taking progressive stands on questions such as abortion, racism and homophobia. Yet in the last round of municipal elections in October 2000 PT mayor of São Paulo Marta Suplicy chose to completely avoid discussing these ideas, even refusing to defend herself from bigoted attacks by the right. Concerned solely with being 'respectable' and winning the middle sectors of the population, the PT has been rightly criticised as being 'pink' rather than the 'red' of its rhetoric and history.

While the PT formally supports the MST--the movement of the landless peasants, Latin America's largest and most powerful social movement--it does little to build concrete solidarity. The PT of Mato Grosso do Sul has even used the police to brutally break up MST occupations in the state. As a result, the MST accepts the support of the PT when it's offered, but organises completely separately and refuses to give in to the notion of respectability that the PT looks for.

A plebiscite organised by the Conference of Catholic Bishops and the MST in September 2000 saw over 90 percent of 5 million voters say that Brazil should refuse to pay its external debt. Yet the national PT refuses to call for the abolition of the external debt. It only wants to renegotiate Brazil's debt with the IMF. Unlike western reformist parties, the PT has still not chosen the 'Third Way' of Tony Blair. But it is still trapped by the same practice as all other social democratic parties, even left ones. It is based on the organised working class but fundamentally accepts the capitalist system .

Any left winger or activist worth their salt in Brazil votes for the PT and works with the party. It is necessary to support the reforms of the PT. But we also need to continue the fight for more reforms, and ultimately understand that if we want fundamental change we need to build a revolutionary alternative. To not challenge the system as a whole is to consent to being a prisoner of that system when its terrible crises, such as the one we are entering on a global scale, demand huge sacrifices from the poor and the working class to boost profits and reignite investment.


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