/ 2 November 2022

Lula’s return to power should inspire the left

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Recent and past successes of the Workers’ Party in Brazil shows that self-emancipation of the oppressed is possible. (Photo by Pedro Vilela/Getty Images)

Brazilian society suffered a seismic political shock in 1964 when, acting with US support, the military staged a coup and imposed a ruthless dictatorship that would hold power until 1984. 

But 1964 was also the year in which an all too ordinary event began a personal political awakening that would generate the most significant challenge from the left to the political logic of the dictatorship — established to protect the existing order, with its roots in slavery.

In 1964, at the age of 19, Luiz Inácio da Silva, known to his friends as “Lula”, lost his little finger. He was working a night shift in a factory when, a little after three in the morning, a fellow worker made a mistake, and Lula’s finger was crushed in a machine. By the time he was able to see a doctor, which was four hours after the accident, it was too late to save his finger and it was amputated.

Lula was the seventh son born to Aristides Inácio da Silva and Eurídice Ferreira de Melo, illiterate farmworkers who lived in a shack, on 27 October 1945. They had no access to running water, electricity or formal education. When he was seven his mother moved her family to a shack in Sao Paulo to join her husband. As so often happens with migrant labour she arrived to find that her husband, who later collapsed into alcoholism, had a second family in the city.

Lula began working at the age of eight, initially as a delivery boy on the docks. A year later he took up his now-famous job as a shoe-shine vendor. At 14 he was formally employed as a metalworker in a factory assembling car parts. 

At this point, his life was much like that of millions of other Brazilians from poor families. But the experience of losing his finger, including the lax safety standards in the factory and the difficulty in getting medical attention, sparked his interest in the labour movement. At the same time, the military coup led to the end of democratic freedoms and the beginning of censorship, repression and a contraction of the Brazilian economy leading to worsening unemployment and exploitation of labour. This quickly radicalised Lula and he became an active member of the Communist Party of Brazil.

Lula’s charisma and skilful negotiating skills meant that he soon gained popularity within the labour movement and by 1975, at the age of 30, he was president of the Steel Workers’ Union.

This set Lula on a path that took him into direct confrontation with the dictatorship as he led a set of important strikes between 1978 and 1980 and then became a leading participant in the building of a flourishing labour movement that, not unlike South Africa during the period, built a mass organisation under conditions of repression. 

Following this, Lula was instrumental in the formation of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) or Workers’ Party in 1980 along with the labour movement, social movement leaders and a group of left academics and other intellectuals. Alongside this popular mobilisation, Brazil took another important step forward with the formation of the Landless Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra) widely known as the MST in 1984. 

It took the PT two decades to emerge as the most important oppositional organisation embedded within the daily class struggle and the union movement. It also came to attract the support of many from the thriving student movement, intellectuals, artists and church leaders animated by liberation theology.  

Brazil’s agony under the dictatorship was far from unique. Much of Latin America was governed by US-backed dictatorships in the 70s and 80s, including, of course, the Augusto Pinochet regime in Chile. But beginning in 1998 with the inauguration of Hugo Chavez as president of Venezuela, and continuing with the election of Lula in 2002, and then Evo Morales in 2006 the left became increasingly successful across Latin America, often winning decisive support in the urban peripheries. 

In several countries, people who had historically been excluded from participation in political life – the poor, the working class, and Black and indigenous people – built significant power. The US became increasingly rattled as leaders like Lula, Chavez and Morales, openly aligned with Fidel Castro in Cuba, and worked to build a new bloc that could contest US domination of the region. 

There were significant gains for the poor and the working class. In Bolivia, there was a decisive change in racial power relations, massive land reform and an impressive drop in poverty from 60.6% to 38.6%.

Under Lula’s presidency more than 40 million Brazilians were lifted out of poverty and millions of jobs were created. With the “Zero Hunger” project more than 12 million families had three meals a day. Under Lula’s stewardship Brazil created millions of jobs and unemployment fell from 12% to less than 6%. Poverty fell by 27% due to pro-working-class reforms, including a raise in the minimum wage. 

The successful implementation of programmes such as Bolsa Familia, which was a basic income grant to the poorest in society, meant that families could get out of immediate poverty and begin to build longer-term access to financial security. 

Tying the implementation of the Bolsa Familia programme to education, as families only received the grant if children attended school, meant that there was also a massive increase in the number of children that went to school. Lula also invested heavily in education more generally.  

The “Programa Universidade Para Todos” (University for All Programme) was created in 2005. Under the programme, Brazil experienced the highest levels of participation in tertiary education in its history. Lula built 214 new technical schools, while another 140 were upgraded and 126 new university campuses were built alongside 14 entirely new universities. In addition, he put in place badly needed affirmative action policies that finally allowed Black Brazilians to have a chance to access quality education, including at private institutions.

Brazil has the second largest population of Africans in the world after Nigeria and, since the end of slavery in 1888, a deeply entrenched system of racial subordination has subjected Black Brazilians to widespread impoverishment, poor healthcare, a broken education system and ruthless police violence. Under Lula there was significant progress on the question of race.

Just as the presence of a Black family in the White House incited a grotesque right-wing reaction that culminated in the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the empowerment of poor, working class and Black people in Brazil also generated a vicious right-wing reaction that led to a judicial coup against Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s successor as president and leader of the PT, in 2016. 

This was followed by the jailing of Lula after a bogus conviction in which the prosecutor and judge conspired to pervert the judicial process. As the right-wing assault on the country continued, Jair Bolsonaro, an open supporter of the dictatorship, came to power in 2019. Lula spent 580 days in prison before his conviction was finally annulled. 

Lula famously remarked that “I never thought that putting a plate of food on a poor man’s table would generate so much hatred from an elite that never tires of throwing food away every day.”

Now, in a remarkable story, almost made for a cinematic epic, he has, a little less than 60 years after the accident in the factory, returned to the presidency of Brazil. 

The story of Lula, of the PT and of Brazil stands as a stark reminder of the failures of the ANC, which could have made similar gains but squandered a once-off moment of historical opportunity. But it also stands as a window into political and social hope.

As we know very well from our experience of the Jacob Zuma years, the fact that a political leader is born into a subordinated class does not automatically signify a true commitment to liberatory politics for the working class and poor. The lived experience of capitalist exploitation, racial and patriarchal discrimination and oppression is no guarantee that a person will automatically develop and remain committed to a politics that seeks to redress this in society. 

But Lula stands as an inspiring example of the hope that progressive leadership can arise from within the ranks of the working class, leadership that seeks to overthrow the oppression and exploitation of capitalism, racism and patriarchy. 

Lula’s life shows us that this is not easy. It comes with great difficulty. The right and capital are constantly in a position of structural dominance and able to use their power to slander, undermine, delegitimise and defeat the left. 

And as the idea of the left, which always meant the self-emancipation of the oppressed, has been increasingly appropriated by middle-class people in universities and NGOs, many leaders who emerge from poor and working-class organisations have often been undermined and expected to accept middle-class paternalism, and at times even racism, or face slander in a toxic “rule it or ruin it” culture. 

It took PT two decades, and the day-to-day commitment of many thousands of organisers, to win state power. We will need the same commitment, and the same commitment to the self-emancipation of the oppressed, if we are to build a path out of the crushing crisis faced by our country. 

Dr Vashna Jagarnath is a director of Pan Africa Today and Friends of the Workers. She is also deputy general secretary of the Socialists Revolutionary Workers’ Party and senior research associate at the Centre for Social Change at the University of Johannesburg.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.