Brazil’s First Female President Expected to Carry on Lula’s Work — for Better or Worse

President Dilma RouseffWhile the election of a former Marxist guerrilla has captured attention, prospects for further advances in Brazilian democracy largely lie outside of the electoral arena.

As expected, Dilma Rousseff won the Oct 31st runoff to become the next president of Brazil. Lula’s chosen successor has captured attention abroad for her past as a Marxist guerrilla and torture victim during the years of the dictatorship.

Her former life as a militant advocate for societal change and democracy may mislead as to her contemporary political positions. No radical, she downplays her early years and is expected to continue Lula’s center-left policies.

For many Brazilians, that was reason enough to vote for her. Certainly, the election of the first female president in the world’s fourth largest democracy, and one with her past, is indicative of the progress Brazil has made since military rule.

However, one should not judge Rousseff by the standards of the United States. As Greg Grandin has noted, the entire spectrum of political discussion in Brazil is well to the left of the U.S. The leading opposition candidate, the nominee of the Social Democratic Party, and standard-bearer for the right, nonetheless made a name for himself as health minister for promoting cheap generic medicines and, during the campaign, favored lowering interest rates – a position to the left of Rousseff. And the Green Party candidate (though not as consistently left-leaning as might be supposed) secured 19% of the vote in the first round. In some respects, the country is also more democratic: social movements are vast – the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) has, adjusting for U.S. population size, the equivalent of 2.3 million members; the homeless are organized (for instance, in preparing for the wave of evictions predicted in the wake of the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympics); labor is stronger – and the candidates are more interesting. In sharp contrast to the Ivy League pedigrees of most U.S. presidents, Dilma’s predecessor never went beyond the 4th grade and began his career as a shoeshine boy-turned-factory worker and union organizer.

Her agenda inevitably reflects the balance of power within Brazilian society. She plans to continue with the massive Belo Monte hydroelectric dam construction project opposed by many indigenous populations and environmentalists. Further, she is expected to maintain the neoliberal policies of Lula. In her acceptance speech on Monday, she uttered the proper words to soothe international financial markets and appointed a “market friendly” team of advisors. Nor is she likely to undertake comprehensive land reform of the sort demanded by the 1.5 million strong MST, or discontinue Lula’s favoritism towards multinational agribusinesses. Brazil’s highly inequitable land holdings, now more concentrated than in 1920, have not seen a serious governmental effort at redistribution since João Goulart was overthrown in 1964.

As João Pedro Stédile, a leading member of the MST and Via Campesina, put it:

“During the Lula administration, we didn’t have the space to discuss true land reform and didn’t have the mass forces to pressure the government and society. Thus, on the one hand the current policy is insufficient, yet on the other, it is a clear expression of the social forces that exist in society.”

Yet Stédile is clear about the value of the Lula-Dilma administrations:

“The Lula government carried out a progressive foreign policy on the level of State policies. And on the economic level, it carried out a policy in the interests of Brazilian companies. Compared to the neoliberal policies of Cardoso, who were totally subservient to the interests of imperialism, this is a huge advance.”

Certainly, on the level of electoral politics, a continuation of the Lula agenda under Rousseff’s helm is a good thing, approximately the best outcome that could be expected. The handover of power cements the developing norms of parliamentary democracy. The economic realities facing laborers saw modest but real improvements under Lula. Inequality declined. The social safety net was extended. Twenty-one million people rose out of official poverty. Lula also guided Brazil on an independent trajectory, loosening the strictures of United States hegemony in the region.

However, if we permit ourselves to depart from the demarcated boundaries of polite discourse and cast a glance outside of the electoral arena, Rousseff’s presidency represents little forward momentum for the left and in fact poses the significant danger that her administration will facilitate the assimilation and neutering of the social movements. It is the expectation of leaders within the MST that Dilma will create a political environment “more conducive to social struggle.” Yet, much as the election of Obama in the U.S. potentially opened up space for the further expansion of left movements but has heretofore had the effect of demobilizing the left, Rousseff’s election and strong coalition of legislators creates both opportunities and threats for the left.

There is reason for optimism, however, as Brazilian people’s movements are not only larger than those in the U.S., but more politically sophisticated. Stédile observes that, “Brazilian society is not democratic…. So even when we elect governments with progressive proposals, they lack sufficient strength to change the laws of the market and the nature of the bourgeois state.”

As in most contemporary democracies, the elections present sharply constrained choices for voters, leading the prominent Indian journalist and agricultural policy analyst Devinder Sharma to remark: “Today, the so-called democracies across the globe, including India, Brazil and the United States, have turned into ‘of the industry, by the industry, for the industry.’” Rousseff’s ascension to power should not obscure the reality that, for the people of Brazil, the future will be determined more by the path chosen by social movements than by the outcome of Sunday’s election.

Steven Fake is coauthor with Kevin Funk of The Scramble for Africa: Darfur — Intervention and the USA, Black Rose Books (2009).