26 May 2005 Edition

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Left feel let down by Lula

Three years ago, Luis Inacio 'Lula' da Silva and the Brazilian Workers' Party (PT) were elected to power promising broad-based agrarian reform. Lula's rags to riches past was seen as a guarantee that he would keep his word, and when he was inaugurated as Brazilian President in 2003, the powerful Movement of Landless Workers (MST) declared a truce with the government, pledging to give it time to fulfil its promises.

The MST provided much of the PT's support base for the 2002 election, and many viewed Lula's success as a step towards breaking with neo-liberalism and the old political order. However, three years letter, the MST was forced to organise its biggest march ever, and called on their supporters to meet in Brazilia to show Lula's government that they have not forgotten his promises.

On 2 May 2005, around 13,000 peasants, accompanied by workers from occupied factories, indigenous peoples and others, marched to the capital Brazilia. After a three-hour meeting with Lula, the MST leaders came out with a promise from the president that he will speed up the pace of agrarian reform and that as he promised in 2003, 430,000 families will be settled on expropriated land.

This renewed commitment brings some hope to what seemed a repeated history of broken promises and disappointment, of renewed injustice and economic oppression. Brazil's government may have changed, but people feel that policies have remained mostly the same.

The march began only days after the Indigenous Rights Defence Forum (FDDI), which unites seven indigenous organisations and involves representatives from 89 different indigenous peoples, organised a 700-strong camp in the capital on 26 April.

The FDDI had released a statement on 31 March declaring the government "anti-Indian", because it had failed to meet its pledge to officially recognise a number of new indigenous reserves.

The declaration and the protest are both signs of the growing discontent against the current government. In the last two years, just 13 indigenous territories have been demarcated, an annual average lower than that under the previous government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

The same applies to the MST, which signed a deal with Lula in November 2003, in which he pledged to settle 430,000 families during his three-year mandate. To date, the Lula government has settled significantly fewer families than its conservative predecessor. Just 55,000 families have been settled in the last two years.

This is particularly worrying given that, according to MST leader Jose Pedro Stedile, if every family that needed land was settled on 15 hectares, they would still only occupy only half of the agricultural land currently unused in the country. This would not touch the ever shrinking Amazonian rain forest, which since Lula got into power has been deforested at a greater rate that before, something that has prompted the departure of the Green Party from his coalition government.

After finishing the 210-kilometre march and meeting Lula, one of the MST leaders, Roberto Baggio, confirmed that Lula agreed to honour his promises, and to show his goodwill, the president announced that the government will provide $270 million to immediately settle 115,000 families before the end of the year.

Lula also promised that nearly 2,000 landless farmers will be directly employed in the process of facilitating the resettlement of families and that there will be legislative changes to facilitate the expropriation of idle land from big landowners. However, there was no agreement on the creation of state loans to facilitate the creation of settlements.

Stedile argues that the three obstacles to moving forward with agrarian reform are: state structures that are organised to respond to the interests of the rich; the influence of agribusiness; and economic policies that continue the trend towards the concentration of wealth, such as high interest rates, fiscal adjustment and priority on the export sector.

While the demonstrators waited for the result of the negotiations between the government and MST leaders, they used their time to demand an end to US intervention in Iraq, Cuba, Venezuela and Haiti. There was solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and a call for an Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories.

However, for many the problem is not foreign intervention in Brazilian politics, but that the PT hasn't changed the state; instead, the state is changing the PT. At its national assembly meeting on 11 April, the PT leadership voted in favour of the "Basis for a Project for Brazil" platform, which entrenched the government's neo-liberal policies in the party's policy platform.

The platform argues that "fiscal equilibrium" and "economic stability" are essential pillars for Brazil's economic development. This replaces the last party platform adopted in 2001, before the elections, which talked of a "rupture" with neo-liberalism. Approved by 60% of the vote, the new platform will have to go to a December national party congress to be ratified.

A minority of social organisations, unions and other progressive activists have already decided that the PT is not worth working within. This minority is significant: more than 100 PT militants, including leading trade union members, intellectuals, liberation theologians, social movement activists and even founders of the party, signed a "Time for a Break" statement at the World Social Forum (WSF) in January this year, calling for a split.

Explaining the reasons for the call, Jorge Martins, one of the promoters of the statement and a national executive member of the national trade union federation, CUT, said that the left had fought for the last two years, thinking it could turn the government to the left, "but we lost every battle".

A number of the signatories have joined the Party for Socialism and Liberty (PSOL), formed in June of last year, following the expulsion of three PT parliamentarians for their public opposition to government cuts to public sector pensions.

At the World Social Forum, more than 350 activists declared themselves to be a public faction of PT "dissidents", noting that although they would no longer accept party discipline, they believed there was still space for a showdown. The party's December national congress could be the site for this battle.

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