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Don't Despair: Consider Some Radical Approaches That Have Worked in a Country Almost the Size of Ours

Learning from Brazil, our author shows we can grow stronger, more creative, and help people trapped in unhealthy relationships free themselves from those who have power over them.

Photo Credit: Sindicato dos Bancários SP


I was raised in a country where tradition, custom, and economics often define who is on top, who is in charge and who is powerless. My world was turned upside down in a recent trip to Brazil. Maybe it was the all-night plane flight, and the late nights driven by that powerful Brazilian drink Cachaca. Maybe it was the heat and the passionate people from CONTRAF and the Sindicato dos Bancários de São Paulo (more on who they are later) who taught me so much.

They shared something with me that could alter the lives of Americans who aren't afraid to have their system and world rocked. I witnessed and experienced role reversals, energy and passion that would shock most people in the United States. Through their experiences and vision they convinced me a better world is possible.

I am going to share lessons from Brazil that could change our futures, that, once learned, can bring new meaning to our lives. And techniques that, when practiced over time, can increase our strength, improve our creativity and help hundreds of thousands of people trapped in unhealthy relationships free themselves from those who have power over them. Who knows--maybe one day crazy bank executives will be reined in by bank workers sick and tired of their bosses getting rich crashing the global economy. 

To understand the context for these lessons, a little background on Brazil is useful. Until 1986 it was ruled by a military dictatorship. Now, Brazil, with 300 million inhabitants, has just passed the United Kingdom to become the 6th largest economy in the world. It is governed by the Workers Party and its immediate past president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, was a former metal worker and union leader. Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s current and first woman president, was part of the student movement that opposed the military dictatorship and had been jailed and tortured by the military in her youth.

How is it that Brazil has moved from a military dictatorship to a vibrant democracy where jobs are being created, wages are rising and bold action has been taken to combat poverty? How did Brazil go from a country were demonstrations were suppressed, and protesters arrested, tortured and murdered to a country were a former autoworker could become president? Rita Berlofa, a leader of the Brazilian bank workers union, described the change this way at the recent SEIU convention in Denver:

“From 1964 to 1985, we fought against the military regime, and for free elections and democracy. During this time we brought together many social movements, and together we gave strength to social movements to organize. We organized students and workers, from the countryside and the cities….

In 1978, a young man named Lula, who was a migrant from the Northeast of Brazil, the poorest part of Brazil, who worked as a shoeshine boy when he was a child, and later became an autoworker, and then a leader of the auto workers union...

Lula dared to do something bold, to organize a strike of autoworkers to confront the military dictatorship.

This was something that was unimaginable under the dictatorship. Because of the boldness of the strike, and the courage demonstrated by the workers, it inspired people throughout society. Union leaders, intellectuals, politicians, and representatives of social movements.

And we all came together to discuss the need for a social movement for workers.

A social movement that would allow workers to lead, to make decisions about the political and social life of the country, and to change Brazil.

This social movement was born out of the dream of workers to have freedom."

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