Brazil: Notes on a Democracy Rising

It’s September 29, Sao Paulo. One week before the election. A political junkie’s dream.

I’ve come to Brazil with Rev. Jesse Jackson, SEIU Vice-President Dennis Rivera, and AFL-CIO International Affairs Assistant Director Stan Gacek, to meet with the labor, church and community groups that are serving as the building blocks of Brazil’s “bottom up” change, and now to watch the last big pre-election rally of the Workers Party (PT).

The open field is filled with a sea of flags. One hundred fifty thousand Workers Party faithful, an incredible human rainbow, sing and cheer and chant for Lula. That’s Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, former head of the famous Sao Bernardo Metalworkers Union, four-time Presidential candidate, and currently the frontrunner to become Brazil’s next president. The Democratic National Convention is nothing like this.

One of the dozens of rousing speeches comes from Marta Suplicy, a Workers Party star, the female mayor of Sao Paulo, the third-largest city in the world. Just that morning, in a meeting with Jackson, she told him that fully 13 percent of her city’s budget, off the top, goes to service old debt.

The PT faithful, who speak Portugese, then sing along with Suplicy’s ex-husband (and still friend), a long-time senator, as he launches into a full chorus of Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” -- in English! (To make this family even more interesting, their son is a popular punk rocker named Supla.)

The first slave was brought to Brazil’s shores in 1532, a full 87 years prior to the 1619 date when the slave trade reached Jamestown. Today there is a growing consciousness of the gaps between the 45 percent of Brazil that is Afro-Brazilian, and the Brazilian elites, even in this incredibly multi-cultural society.

A high point comes at a meeting with “evangelicals” (which in heavily Catholic Brazil means Protestants in general, rather than Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell types). Jackson talks about Lula’s struggles on behalf of Brazil’s 60 percent poor, his refusal to give up after defeat, his dedication to change and his commitment to nonviolent reform using the ballot box.

I was fortunate enough to have been in South Africa in the early 1990s. I was invited by the African National Congress (ANC) to conduct get-out-the-vote workshops in several cities, at a time when Mandela was out of jail, but prior to his election as President. Jackson and I talked about the “special spirit” in the air in Brazil, so similar to the feeling one got in South Africa a decade ago. A tangible spirit among the people, of hope and change and optimism. Brazil’s time has come.

Now it’s October 6. I’m back in the U.S., but it’s election day in Brazil. A huge day in the history of this hemisphere. Brazil is pretty good at voting; they could teach us a lot. They have multiple parties, free TV time, voting with party symbols, and they vote on Sundays. Much of the voting takes place in schools, but they use every classroom, not just the gym; and different neighborhoods vote in separate classrooms, which speeds up the process considerably.

Brazil also has “mandatory” voting, which means that turnout is high. In 2000, 280 million Americans cast about 105 million votes. In 2002, 175 million Brazilians cast 94 million votes. In a country with more than 100 million fewer people, and in a serious multiple-party race (the fourth-place finisher gets more than 10 million votes), Lula carries 25 out of 28 states, takes more than 46 percent nationwide and collects 39 million votes, almost as many as George W. Bush got.

And they seem to have counted them all.

It’s the day after the election. Lula has won a smashing first-round victory, the biggest victory for a lefty since Mandela. His 46 percent is twice that of Jose Serra, the candidate of the current administration, who finishes second. In addition, the 30 percent of the vote that goes to the third and fourth place candidates is mostly to the left of Serra, who is tarred by the economic failures of the current government.

Now it’s a week later, and a second-round poll is out. Lula has maintained his 2-1 lead, but has increased his percentage to 66.5 percent. This has the makings of a blowout. Perhaps that will make it clear to U.S. foreign policy elites that Brazilians are really not too impressed with the free trade experiment. They want a change -- and it’s looking more and more like much of Latin America wants one, too.

Given that Lula strongly opposes the Free Trade for the Americas agreement, got his start as a militant union leader, and champions “Brazilian dignity” as his alternative to U.S. dominance in the hemisphere, the Bush Administration has been surprisingly quiet with regard to the pending change in Brazil.

No doubt Karl Rove could see the handwriting on the wall that the current administration was doomed to defeat. Perhaps the forces of reaction were also hemmed in by their overreaching in Venezuela earlier this year, where they got caught on the wrong side of a failed coup. Or most likely, everyone in Washington is just distracted by the current “wag the dog” diversion on Iraq.

In any case, the silence is unlikely to last long. No doubt W, as an expert on democratic elections, will soon be lecturing Lula publicly about appropriate behavior for a leader of a modern nation-state. (Best recent example: Gerhard Schroeder, publicly berated by U.S. officials for having the nerve to win re-election by campaigning against our war with Iraq.)

If there is one area where Lula knows he has the full support of the Brazilian people, however, it is in renegotiating the rules of free trade in the hemisphere. There is room for compromise, but neither W nor his Wall Street buddies are going to like them, since they involve labor rights, environmental protections and ending a lot of U.S. subsidies for agriculture. And a big victory for Lula should strengthen the hands of the AFL-CIO and the anti-globalization movement here at home.

Of course, we don’t have to argue with Brazil. We could surprise everyone and embark on a new relationship with the South. We could begin a partnership with Brazil, aimed at bridging the rich/poor gap, bridging the North/South gap, and investing in a stable, growing democracy. We could, for instance, agree to invest in sewers for the two-fifths of the Brazilian population that currently goes without. We could send our doctors and scientists to meet with the Brazilians and the Cubans to try to figure out a cure for dengue fever. Either one would cost a lot less -- and do a lot more good -- than invading and occupying Iraq for a generation.

And who knows? Maybe Brazil would send observers to Florida in 2004, to help monitor our vote count.

Steve Cobble is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy.

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