Brazil’s social movements face the core challenge of mobilizing the working class to build a new progressive democracy, because former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s candidacy — however iconic — won’t be enough to tackle the country’s political crisis without a powerful grassroots left-wing movement, argued Joao Pedro Stedile, leader and founder of Brazil’s Landless Worker Movement or MST, in an interview with Resumen Latinoamericano.
Stedile, whose 1.5 million-strong MST has championed the fight for agrarian reform and wealth redistribution in Brazil for over three decades, stressed the need for organizing efforts to focus on discussing a “new project” for the country that the left is lacking.
“We have a lot of challenges in the short term to be able to confront the coup-mongers,” said Stedile in reference to the impeachment bid against suspended President Dilma Rousseff, widely condemned as a parliamentary coup. “The working class remains at home, they have not mobilized. The one who mobilized were the militants, the most organized sectors.”
“That’s why we have to redouble our efforts as popular movements to reach the working class, to show the serious risks that we face, and stimulate their participation in the streets,” he continued, adding that movements have considered the possibility of a general strike against the coup, but worry that a generation of the working class has not been brought up with a strong political culture of participating in such actions.
Amid right-wing efforts to oust Rousseff — the pinnacle of opposition attempts to discredit and destabilize the Workers Party or PT government since the president was re-elected in 2014 — many analysts have also argued that if the PT wants to survive as a major political force, it will have to focus on solidifying the labor and social movement support base that brought it to power in the first place.
Stedile similarly argued that the future of Brazil’s left and the PT depend on deepened political organizing, not the icon of the party establishment, former labor leader and Rousseff's predecessor Lula da Silva, who currently leads in the polls for the 2018 presidential election.
“Other than the fact that the right will do everything possible to derail Lula’s candidacy, his presence alone will not be enough,” he argued. “We have to present to the country a new project that goes beyond what was neo-developmentalism, which has already been exhausted.”
While attacks from the right wing on the PT’s economic and social policies abound, the party has also been criticized from the left for neglecting its grassroots foundations to focus on the PT as an establishment and betraying progressive priorities by pursuing controversial austerity measures.
However, Stedile also stressed that — although Rousseff’s return to power may be possible — immediate-term movement organizing will be crucial if the coup is completed at the end of the month, installing “interim” unelected President Michel Temer’s neoliberal government permanently. One of the priorities would be to demand a popular referendum on whether to hold early elections, an option Rousseff also backs.
If the Temer government — which despite being “interim” has already moved swiftly to roll back social programs and implement neoliberal reforms in just three months holding unelected office — is imposed for the rest of Rousseff’s term, the consequences would be palpable.
“He has implemented typically neoliberal economic policy,” said Stedile, noting that the rapid and major changes, including closing key ministries and scrapping resource regulations en route to privatizing oil reserves and the pre-salt layer off the coast of Brazil, are ones that “no government with an electoral base would do.”
Stedile predicted that even if Rousseff’s rivals manage to oust her with the Senate vote on Aug. 29 despite the lack of criminal charges the justify impeachment, the country’s conservative forces won’t be able to prop up Temer and his corruption-riddled government until 2018.
And despite the challenges for the left both in social movements and party politics – and the setback for democracy posed by the coup – Stedile said he remained optimistic about the future.
“The crisis opens a new era of change,” he said. “And that’s why popular forces need to redouble their efforts to reclaim the popular work and discuss a new project for the country that represents structural changes in society.”