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The Latin American Revolution (Part 8): Former Guerrilla Fighter Rousseff Elected President of Brazil: New President Pledges to Continue Lula’s Progressive Policies

By Asad Ismi

Brazilians elected Dilma Rousseff the country’s first woman President on October 31. Rousseff, 63, was the Chief of Staff of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the very popular incumbent President and leader of the social democratic Workers’ Party, who had been in power since 2003. Having been elected twice (the legal limit in Brazil), Lula chose Rousseff as his successor. Her election makes Rousseff ‘‘the world’s most powerful woman,’’ according to the U.K. newspaper The Independent.

Rousseff, an economist, is a mother, grandmother, and wife who has overcome lymphatic cancer. She is also a former revolutionary urban guerrilla who belonged to the group Palmares Armed Revolutionary Vanguard (inspired by the Cuban Revolution) that fought the U.S.-backed military dictatorship that took over Brazil in 1964. This dictatorship, led by General Humberto Branco, overthrew the elected populist government of President Joao Goulart. Goulart was a millionaire land owner and no radical, but he did restrict the amount of money that multinational corporations could take out of Brazil. He also supported labour unions.

These steps were enough to incur the wrath of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, whose government arranged and facilitated Goulart’s overthrow by the Brazilian military. For the next 20 years, Brazil suffered ‘‘one of the most brutal dictatorships in all of South America.’’ Thousands of Brazilians, including children, were arrested and tortured by the military and police; death squads and the practice of ‘‘systematic disappearances’’ were introduced to Latin America; labour unions and political opposition parties were banned, and the press suppressed. According to Amnesty International, ‘‘Children have been tortured in front of their parents, and vice versa. At least one child, the three-month old baby of Virgilio Gomes da Silva, was reported to have died under police torture… Wives have been hung naked beside their husbands and given electric shocks.’’

It was this vicious dictatorship that Dilma Rousseff bravely fought against as a revolutionary guerrilla. Revolutionary groups such as the one she joined ‘‘shot foreign torture experts sent to train the generals’ death squads.’’ When she was 21 (in 1969), Rousseff was the only woman among the five commanders of Palmares. Rousseff says she never used weapons, but she was imprisoned by the Junta in 1970 for three years and tortured continuously for 22 days. Her ability to withstand this ordeal has given her the Brazilian public’s respect and affection today. According to Rousseff, she was ‘‘beaten with a paddle, jolted with electric shocks, and hung from a pole, her arms and legs bound, for long periods.’’

After release from prison, in 1973, Rousseff moved to Rio Grande do Sul state and started working for the state government in 1975. In 1986, she became finance head of Porto Alegre, the state capital, and in 1993 was appointed secretary of energy for the state. She greatly increased power production by building new electric power lines and dams. In 2000, Rousseff joined Lula’s Workers’ Party, becoming his energy minister in 2003 and Chief of Staff in 2005.

Rousseff pledges to continue Lula’s domestic economic policies that had given him a phenomenal popularity rating of 81%. As Rousseff says, “We are only going to do it with the path that President Lula has opened. I do not believe in a developed nation that has a part of its population marginalized. My goal is to continue President Lula’s work at eradicating poverty.”

Lula’s popular economic policies include increasing the minimum wage by 54%, raising pensions, as well as monthly payments to poor families (50 million people out of a population of 190 million). These initiatives have lifted 25 million people out of poverty and into the middle class, progressively transforming Brazil. The number of poor people has been reduced by half from 50 million to 25 million in seven years.

As Lula explains, ‘‘From our perspective as emerging economies, the resources that are needed to overcome hunger and poverty may be considerable, but are quite modest when compared with the cost of rescuing failed banks and financial institutions that are victims of their own speculative greed.’’

Inequality in Brazil, which had long been one of the world’s most inequitable countries, has also been reduced significantly under Lula. During 2003-2008, the top 10% of Brazilians saw their income rise by 11%, while that of the bottom 10% increased by 72%, lowering nation-wide inequality by 5.5%. [In January 2003, when Lula first came to power, I did not put much hope in him in an article in these pages; however, I am glad to see that he has achieved much more than I expected.]

Lula is also the name of a woman raised in a slum in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil’s second largest city), who described the changes in Brazil’s poorest areas under President Lula. “[As a child],’’ she said, ‘‘I didn’t have water. I didn’t have electricity. I didn’t have a comfortable brick home. Today, these projects are arriving in the communities.”

The source of Lula’s success has been his emphasis on a state-directed economy in which much-improved welfare programs have been accompanied by massive spending on infrastructure projects. Both have been used to redistribute income from the rich to the poor. Such redistribution has expanded the domestic market, which in turn has made Brazil less dependent on exports, thereby allowing it to escape the worst effects of the global economic crisis. Exports account for only 10% of Brazil’s GDP. As one observer put it, ‘‘The global economic crisis caused only ripples here. Jobs disappeared and sales dropped, but Brazil did not suffer the home repossessions, failing businesses, and redundancies that demoralized much of Europe and North America.‘‘

According to Lula, ‘‘The collapse of financial markets revealed the failure of paradigms previously considered to be unquestionable. Truths about market deregulation collapsed. The ideal of a minimal state also collapsed. The curbing of labour rights is no longer a mantra to fight unemployment. When all these orthodoxies collapsed, the visible hand of the state protected the economic system from the failure created by the invisible hand of the market.’’

The recent discovery in Brazil of one of the world’s largest oil deposits has also helped Lula. The offshore Sugar Loaf field could produce 40 billion barrels of oil and give Brazil the world’s eighth largest oil and gas reserves. This is the biggest discovery of oil in the world during the last 30 years. As Lula explained in a speech, ‘‘The state should take responsibility for investments. It’s time to invest in the productive sector. Here in Brazil, we will soon start the construction of major housing projects… Petrobras [the national oil company] has discovered a lot of oil, but we do not want to make our country just an exporter of oil; we want to use a part of this wealth to resolve the problem of poverty in Brazil. Petrobras will invest $174 billion until 2013 to create jobs and raise the standard of living.’’

Similarly, Rousseff has pledged to create millions of jobs, improve infrastructure, and use Brazil’s new wealth to support social welfare schemes. One of Rousseff’s campaign promises is to build 6,000 day care centres, a crucial need, particularly for poor women. Nearly one-third of Brazilian households are headed by women, and 52% of the population is made up of women and girls.

Rousseff’s victory also ensures the continuation of Lula’s international policies, most importantly his strong support for the Latin American Revolution. Not only has Lula moved Brazil to the left, but he has also strongly backed the other nine left-wing governments in Latin America. Brazil has been a steadfast friend, especially to the most left-wing South American regimes, those of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia. This has helped Chavez and Morales substantially in countering U.S. attempts to oust them through coups, destabilization, and assassinations. Brazil’s backing for Venezuela and Bolivia has undermined the U.S. strategy of pitting Latin American countries against each other as a way of crushing progressive governments. This has considerably weakened U.S. imperialism’s power in South America and significantly helped in moving the Latin American Revolution forward.

Brazil’s anti-imperialist role is bolstered by its economic power. With a population of 190 million, Brazil has Latin America’s biggest economy and the eighth largest in the world; it is set to become the fifth largest economy in 10 years. With a 7% annual growth rate, Brazil is seen as one of the world’s four most dynamic developing economies, along with India, China, and Russia. Under Lula, the Brazilian economy has experienced a massive boom. The economy includes significant high technology and heavy industry sectors, with the latter expanding vastly under Lula. This is the kind of ally that smaller Latin American countries need to resist U.S. domination. When the U.S. cut off Bolivia’s preferential access to its textile market to punish President Morales for his socialist policies, Brazil stepped in to buy Bolivia’s textiles.

Lula has also been a leader in advancing progressive Latin American integration, which is crucial to the spread of the Latin American Revolution and to undercutting Washington’s influence. He has made regional integration a foreign policy priority, saying, “I’d do everything possible [to achieve the union of South American countries].’’ Brazil was a major force behind the formation of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), a regional integration initiative which includes a parliament, a presidential forum, and a secretariat. UNASUR was formed at a summit in Brasilia, (capital of Brazil), in May 2008, and its main tasks are eliminating poverty and illiteracy. The countries in UNASUR are Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Surinam, and Uruguay. UNASUR institutionalizes a revolutionary process of South American integration that is becoming a model for the world.

A second important Brazilian integration initiative is the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CLACS), which includes 38 countries. This organization was founded in Cancún, Mexico, in February 2010, and excludes the U.S. and Canada. CLACS is meant to replace the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States (OAS). “We believe,’’ said Lula, ‘‘that integration must extend to include Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. South America’s integration is a strong tool for Latin American and Caribbean integration, to help us overcome the burdensome legacy of inequalities.”

Rousseff also backs the Chavez and Morales governments, and Latin American integration. For her, Brazil should “strengthen ties with all our South American neighbours… through solidarity and not imperialism.”

Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, December 2010/ January 2011

Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent. He is author of the radio documentary The Latin American Revolution which has been aired on 40 radio stations in Canada, the U.S., and Europe reaching about 33 million people. He is also the author of the anthology with the same title which is published by the CCPA and can be ordered from it. This article is the eighth in a series on the Latin American Revolution.