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The Rise and Fall of the Workers’ Party


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This article was written a few hours before the Chamber of Deputies of Brazil voted to open the impeachment process against President Dilma Rousseff on Sunday, April 17.

The next few hours are going to define how Dilma Rousseff will leave office (the later vote in the Senate, if called upon, will be pro forma), but the rule of the Workers’ Party in Brazil undoubtedly has come to an end. The result of impeachment vote is of little importance: we already know that Dilma doesn’t have any legitimacy to stay President and that the nationalist project of the Workers’ Party (PT) is over.

There’s the temptation to ascribe the administration’s meltdown to contingencies such as Rousseff’s political inability — a carreer bureaucrat, lacking connection with grassroots social movements, unable to articulate the simplest negotiations. But PT’s failure was built over more than a decade, going back to the period before 2001’s electoral victory by Lula.

Despite being popularly seen as a primarily socialist party, PT was a patchwork of so-called “tendencies” and social movements stitched together. By the early 1990s, these tendencies and movements (led by the Articulation caucus) had come to the consensus that they should attempt to establish a “disciplined” capitalism. In 1993, large construction company Odebrecht began supporting the Workers’ Party, opening the floodgates for alliances with Brazilian businesses. By the end of the 1990s, the labor unions that made up PT’s grassroots had already occupied management spots in large pension funds, which were used to “privatize” state companies during Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s tenure. By 2001, these had become very important players in Brazil’s economy, controlling large state companies and private monopolies that were created in the late 1990s.

When Lula was elected, PT’s project was essentially a fascist alliance between the Brazilian business elite, the labor union bureaucrats, and old political chieftains. It was a corporate Leninism, where the state controlled the largest chunk of available resources, distributed it among the elites, and kept any dissent on a tight leash. China was the model petistas dreamed of.

Until the end of Lula’s second term, the arrangement seemed to work. Brazil reversed the 1990s policies, closed off the economy to imports and placed heavy subsidies on national companies (especially through the state development bank BNDES). Low interest loans were granted to finance large scale mergers, creating monopolies in the country (so-called “national champions,” such as BRF, Fibria, Oi, JBS Friboi, among others). Agribusiness also became a loyal friend of the government, which protected the latifundistas from outside competition while propping them up inside the country via subsidized loans and price floors. Land reform had also become an afterthought for the left party. The high commodity prices in the 2000s sustained a large part of the Brazilian growth during Lula’s administration. Movements that had some voice within PT (such as the Landless Workers’ Movement and the Unified Workers’ Central) worked diligently to appease discontent.

Much like John Kenneth Galbraith, the Workers’ Party concluded that only an economy of large conglomerates controlled partially by each social stratum (workers, businesspeople, politicians) would be able to bring about growth and benefits to all.

That’s fascism in operation: it attempts to unite the national fabric under one umbrella, but it can only do so by smashing dissent. The idea of a nation justifies the coming together of all classes, which are, by their turn, represented by their elite only. In the Brazilian case, the workers were heard through labor union bureaucrats — who, under PT’s rule, were free to deal with large businesspeople and old politicians.

When the state’s bloatedness began to weigh on the country’s shoulders, public debt exploded, and growth faded away, PT’s authoritarian streak showed itself nakedly. We saw the violent removal of favelas for World Cup and Olympics public works; the military was sent to repress with protesters; the army occupied poor communities; the Brazilian police state started growing uncontrollably — the country’s prison population increased 7% each year from 2002 on, incarcerating primarily poor, black people.

Policies employed during the 14 years of PT in Brazil weren’t accident: they weren’t deviations, they weren’t a right turn after gaining power. The project was that. Lula worked diligently to solidify Brazil’s corporate state. Dilma Rousseff followed in his steps. Today, it’s a failed program — it’s unable to generate growth and allowed the gargantuan corruption schemes investigated by Operation Car Wash, which threaten to throw Lula in jail.

The greatest symbol of the PT years in Brazil is the Belo Monte Dam. Its construction, by a consortium composed of Odebrecht, Camargo Corrêa, and Andrade Gutierrez, placed workers in precarious as well as unhealthy work conditions for a long time. Workers were not represented in the labor union, which was controlled by the government. When they went on strike for better work conditions, the union promptly cut a deal to resume activities. It’s a perfect picture: actual workers against the unions, businesses, and government tag team.

Before Belo Monte, when Dilma was one of Lula’s ministers, popular leaders of the Xingu River Basin communities were welcomed in Brasilia to lay out their concerns about the dam construction. Annoyed by the objections she heard, Dilma Rousseff ended the argument punching the table and shouting, “Belo Monte is going to happen!

Today, when deputies vote for the impeachment, remember that Workers’ Party didn’t come to this by accident. Their dream amounted to Dilma Rousseff punching a table and repeating “Belo Monte is going to happen!” forever.



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