The Brazilian Dream

Wall Street is in a tizzy over the October presidential elections in Brazil. When a corruption scandal involving several prominent members of the ruling Social Democratic (PSDB) Party broke in the spring, support for centrist PSDB Party candidate Jose Serra plummeted, while the stock of leftist Workers Party (PT) candidate Luis Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva soared. A summer opinion poll showed Lula, a machinist and labor leader before he entered politics, in the lead with 39 percent, compared to 18 percent each for Serra and another left-leaning candidate, Ciro Gomes.

Nervous about Lula’s opposition to the policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and the PT’s past threats to default on Brazil’s foreign debt if the party came to power, Wall Street investment banks jumped into the fray, warning clients to limit their exposure in Latin America’s largest economy and touching off a run on Brazil’s currency. Billionaire currency speculator George Soros went so far as to warn the São Paulo newspaper Folha in June that if Brazilians don’t vote for Serra, their economy is doomed to go the chaotic way of neighboring Argentina.

The PT called the banks’ actions ‘financial terrorism,’ and several prominent conservative Brazilian economists defended the party, saying that while it may be difficult to pay for Lula’s ambitious social agenda, his fiscal policies are sound. Even London’s conservative Financial Times cried foul, castigating Wall Street bankers in an editorial for meddling in the election and pointing out that the PT has a far better record than the Social Democrats at managing public finances and fighting corruption in the dozens of municipal governments where it has held power.

The Workers Party is not just a quixotic band of idealists, but a potent and rapidly growing political force. Founded by trade unionists in 1985 after Brazil’s dictatorship ended, the PT has built a solid base of support in urban and industrial centers and among rural peasants. The party now runs city hall in many of Brazil’s largest cities, including São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Porto Alegre, Belo Horizonte, and Recife, and PT governors preside in 4 of Brazil’s 26 states. The PT is also the main opposition party in Congress.

The Workers Party has shown itself to be one of the more innovative political forces in the Western Hemisphere. Here’s a look at some of the ideas the PT has pioneered at the local level or had a hand in implementing nationally:

Participatory Budget. Since 1989 the 1.4 million citizens of Porto Alegre have had a chance to plan and manage city spending through a broad experiment in direct democracy. Neighborhood assemblies open to all residents decide each year how to spend funds for citywide programs. In 2000, the man who founded the process, longtime mayor and PT member Olivio Dutra, was elected governor of the state of Rio Grande do Sul and has begun implementing the participatory budget process statewide.

AIDS Prevention and Treatment. With PT Party encouragement, the city of Santos, in São Paulo state, was the first in Brazil to address the alarming spread of AIDS-primarily through its pioneering needle-exchange program for IV drug users-and was the first to offer free ‘AIDS cocktails’ to patients when generic versions of patented AIDS drugs became available.

Food as a Human Right. The PT-controlled city government of Belo Horizonte has declared food a basic right of citizenship. A comprehensive system of food production and distribution aims to end hunger by providing nutritious organic food to schoolchildren and poor residents.

Extractive Reserves. By protecting land and creating opportunities for local peasants to harvest sustainable products like rubber, Brazil nuts, and medicinal herbs, extractive reserves create a human shield against illegal logging and cattle ranching. PT Senator Marina Silva from the western Amazon state of Acre won a 1996 Goldman Environmental Prize for advocating this innovative approach, which has preserved hundreds of thousands of acres in the Amazon forest.

World Social Forum. In response to the World Economic Forum, an annual gathering of corporate CEOs and trade ministers who go to the Swiss resort town of Davos to plot the future of globalization, the PT mayor of Porto Alegre decided to host an alternative gathering. In 2001, the first World Social Forum, held the same late-January weekend as the Davos affair, drew 10,000 people, including activists, academics, and progressive politicians from around the world, to talk about creating ‘globalization from below,’ putting human rights, social justice, and ecological sustainability before profits. The second World Social Forum, held in January 2002, drew more than 60,000 participants.

With the PT’s record of innovative programs like these, maybe it’s not so hard to understand why Lula and his allies make Wall Street nervous.

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