Friday April 18th, 2014, 9:53 pm (EDT)

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Maurice Bazin is a radical physicist living in Brazil. His activism developed while working with Science for the People in the United States and while teaching in Chile during the Allende years. In 1982 he created Espaço Ciência Viva (A Space for Living Science) an interactive science center in Rio de Janeiro. He now does systematic ethnomathematics with indigenous teachers in indigenous territories of the Amazon region.

Many friends have written to me since the victory of “Lula” da Silva, elected as Brazil’s president. I thank you all. We need your good wishes, and especially we need your continuing vital opposition to the U.S. government’s aggression.

As many of you noted, it is potentially a new era. It smells of Chile in 1970. However, it is important to put Lula’s victory in the proper context. Many problems confront the new government. Unlike the relatively open and honest (although, of course, class-biased) political culture of Chile in 1970, the political culture here today is one of falsehood and personal enrichment. Personal privileges and advantages are simply part of daily official political life, and scandals end up in congressional ethics committees. But the day before a committee is to propose the expulsion of a congressman or a senator, that individual resigns so as not to lose his right to active political life, and he gets re-elected in the next election. This happened with two major crooks just a few months before this last election, and they were both re-elected! It is also true that others of the same ilk did not win again. This is a good sign, but the re-election of the two crooks is part of a reality that is entrenched at all levels of politics.

As Paulo Freire said, “the present is influenced by the past and the future is built up from the present.” The principled behavior of the Workers’ Party while governing municipalities during the past decade represents an exception in Brazil’s history, a hopeful and inspiring one. It contributed to the growth in votes for the party and for Lula its emblematic figure.

However, we must consider carefully this simple conclusion by examining the case of the state of Rio Grande do Sul and its capital, the municipality of Porto Alegre (of Social Forum fame). The Workers’ Party has governed Porto Alegre for the past ten years, with two more to go until the next municipal election. The party succeeded in winning the state government four years ago but lost it in this last election. The serious problem here is the ease with which this loss is taken as an example of the beauty of formal liberalism, or the fairness of electoral democracy, and certainly not as representing any diametrical opposition of interests. All sectors of the political spectrum play softly. At one end, Lula himself, in his first pronouncement, talked of “benefiting the whole of the population. We shall create a National Pact within Brazil.” This notion of a “National Pact” has historically tended to quiet those who push for an immediate correction of the country’s “social debts,” of which Lula speaks only generally. Somehow, the Landless Peasant Movement, quiet during the electoral campaign so as not to embarrass Lula, is not mentioned in Lula’s four-page pronouncement. At the other end of Brazil’s social structure, we find the editorialists of conventional provincial newspapers quoting Peter Flynn, a “Brazilianist” from the University of Glasgow. Flynn was “happy with the marketing style of the free electoral slots” on the dominant TV channel, and declared the election “a show of massive expression of citizenship through the vote.” They want it to remain just a show. And they are proud of the approval of the foreign scholar who does not look at the social forces involved.

In the days of Chile and Allende, the option was clear-cut: it was called the “road to socialism.” Here I have not heard the word pronounced once today. Just twenty years ago, the first intellectual to sign up as a member of the Workers Party said that he wanted “socialism, without any adjective attached.”

Today, the left in Brazil is headed by Lula’s allies who have lived within the reality of Brazilian politics for many years. When Lula announced that his first act would be to fight hunger by creating a Commission on Social Emergencies, I felt that this is not the way Fidel went about solving the problem. Lula’s promise to “combat hunger” reminds me of the “war on poverty.”

Instead of causes, Lula talks of the need, the duty, to remedy the “social debt” accumulated over centuries. Everyone saw the price of bread rise 25 percent during the week preceding the election. The owners of bakeries put up hand-written apologies to their customers, explaining that they had to follow the “absurd increase in the price of flour.” I found myself waiting in vain for a Fidel-type didactic speech explaining the real reasons for this state of affairs. Who would explain that 80 percent of Brazil’s flour is imported, paid for in U.S. dollars whose value, relative to the real, rose 50 percent in the last six months due to financial manipulations? If the people knew all this, they might demand some specifics about Lula’s “capacity to guarantee the restart of growth, of economic development with creation of jobs and distribution of income,” and, as he promises, “already in 2003, to put exports on the offensive,” especially in the agricultural domain. Some more precise words could have been used considering that the major export is soy, which has displaced wheat in many fields in recent years. Or is “a selective program of competitive substitution of imports” going to solve all this?

Obviously, internal problems are linked to international economic relations. But here again the party’s program and Lula’s pronouncement accept and replay standard concepts and values of the liberal credo, “to constitute a broad mass consumer market that will give security to the investments of companies, attract productive international investments and represent a new model of development and make compatible income distribution and economic growth.”

At his inauguration, Lula confirmed his will to care for the hungry right away, to carry out the agrarian reform, to support strengthening the role of the UN’s Security Council. We can see these as positive steps and have confidence that this is no Tony Blair-like farce. We can assume that he is avoiding any identifiably leftist pronouncements out of political astuteness. He simply will not give detractors an opportunity to brand him as dangerous. This is how we should interpret his not mentioning the presence of two allies, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, at his inauguration. However, while there are no official political pronouncements, Petrobras is sending gasoline to Venezuela to break the Venezuelan bureaucrats’ strike, and technicians to replace those who sabotaged the Venezuelan petroleum industry.

As I write, the price of gasoline just went up 20 percent, and the middle class is starting to blame Lula. A newspaper editorial asks, how long can trucking companies keep narrowing their margins of profit?

Am I dreaming about Chile?