The Most Important Election of 2002?
Yes, the US Senate races this November are critical to maintain or expand Tom Daschle's one-seat margin over Trent Lott. Yes, it would be useful to replace Dennis Hastert and Tom DeLay with Dick Gephardt and Nancy Pelosi. And it certainly would be satisfying to gain a small portion of justice by retiring Jeb Bush, for aiding and abetting the theft of an election.
Hands down, though, the most important election this fall for progressives, for those who worry about the growing divide between rich and poor, for those who oppose unfettered corporate trade, is the October 6 presidential election in Brazil.
The current front-runner is "Lula," Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the head of the Workers Party in Brazil (the PT) and the former head of the Metalworkers Union. Lula has run for president three times before; he has even been ahead in the polls before; but each time, he was defeated by the opposition's money, personal smears, scare tactics and the open blackmail of international banking, which, in effect, says to Brazil, If you elect Lula, we'll pull your loans, downgrade your credit ratings and throw your economy into turmoil. (See Chile, 1971-73, for further details.)
Wall Street is already banging the downgrade drum. However, one big problem that Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch and the rest have is that the Brazilian economy is already in serious straits, and the Workers Party can't be blamed for it.
A second problem Wall Street has -- though for Wall Street it's probably just a minor inconvenience -- is that it is illegal for Brazilian candidates to accept US money for their campaigns. Thus the time-honored free-enterprise approach of buying the election will be somewhat harder in Brazil this year, and may require more "creative" interventions.
This is where the US progressive community comes in. Since we cannot vote in Brazil, since we cannot give money to Brazilian candidates and since we have no international television stations to use to influence their campaign (Why is that? With all the foundation/Hollywood/labor/women's/environmental money we have, why do we not have our own FOX TV? Our own CNN?), it seems to me that our job is to make every effort to keep the corporate boys from intervening.
Outside intervention in Brazil could take several forms:
-- Wall Street will no doubt continue to use its financial mechanisms to favor Lula's opponents, by attempting to panic Brazilian voters. Individual corporate actors, of course, could also decide to ignore the rules, as they have done in the past. (See ITT in Chile, United Fruit in Guatemala, Enron in India.)
-- George W. Bush may feel inspired to issue one of his hypocritical, nagging lectures to other nations about freedom and democracy, while telling them they have to pick the leader he wants. Lately, of course, Bush's lectures have been notorious flops, especially with the rest of the world. The problem for Brazilians is that Shrub is backed by big private money, big international funds, hemispheric allies looking for help with their own debts and, ultimately, a big army. (See Florida, Cuba, Palestine and Iraq for further details.)
-- The so-called National Endowment for Democracy (NED) may use our tax dollars to subvert and undermine fair and democratic elections in Brazil, as they have just been caught doing in Venezuela. The NED has done some useful projects around the globe, but far too often it has been tempted to remake other countries in its own image, at the expense of free and fair elections. The NED operates largely below the radar of the US media, through publicly and privately funded centers connected to the two major political parties. The International Republican Institute in particular is an aggressive actor in foreign affairs, with lots of money to spend, professional right-wing organizers to drum up support or cause trouble and wide latitude to assist elite foreign policy objectives with little or no public scrutiny. (See Nicaragua 1990, Venezuela 2002 for further details.)
What should the progressive community be doing?
(1) We should be using our resources to examine what the corporate world is doing in Brazil during this election season. Progressive foundations should immediately make available funding to public policy organizations that are skilled at following the money, generating publicity, conducting power-structure research and in general finding out what US foreign policy and corporate entities are secretly up to.
(2) We should make every effort to publicize US interventions, bringing any behind-the-scenes manipulation to light. Since regular Brazilian voters will resent US interference with their free elections, such publicity could well "blow back" to the corporate free traders' detriment.
(3) We should put our research and information in the hands of the US media, the Latin American media, the European media, our Internet press allies and prominent American leaders who can help make a larger scandal out of any clandestine interventions.
One such person is the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., who has been to Brazil several times in the past, has had Lula and other top Workers Party leaders at Rainbow/PUSH gatherings, is popular in Brazil (a nation with more voters of African descent than any nation besides Nigeria) and whose Wall Street Project could even help locate financial experts who could blunt the usual Wall Street attacks.
Another such progressive leader is AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, who could help confront those on Wall Street and in the Bush Administration who would subvert free and fair Brazilian elections. Think about the international trade landscape after a successful Lula campaign -- John Sweeney's hand would be greatly strengthened next year when he stood up for fair trade against more unfettered globalization/NAFTA for South America/fast track. After all, Brazil has one of the largest economies in the world (and certainly in the global South), along with an almost mythical cultural stature. Steadfast Brazilian opposition to unfettered corporate trade, combined with current US corporate problems, would slow down the rush to a hemispheric NAFTA. Plus, any trade agreements reached would be much more likely to include serious worker and environmental agreements. Lula's election would be the single strongest blow on behalf of fair trade and equalizing the poor/rich divide that we could imagine this year.
And the time to act is now. Any foundation that sees itself as part of the overall movement against corporate-led globalization, that works on North/South issues, that funds fair-trade or pro-democracy work, should be considering how quickly it can move money to progressive research and activist groups that can help make sure that the United States does not besmirch the good name of democracy in Brazil this year, as was just done in Venezuela.
Our goal is not to intervene in Brazilian elections; it is to keep powerful corporate actors and their allies from intervening to subvert Brazilian democracy this fall. We have a small role to play in this drama; but if we act quickly, we may be able to prevent some big "ugly Americans" from causing a large injustice. This is not only the year of the World Cup for Brazil. This is the year that the Brazilian people could change the direction of the Western hemisphere.
Steve Cobble, a longtime political analyst, is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.