Coverage of the Brazilian election on Democracy Now! yesterday highlighted the fact that Brazil no longer has a true rightwing party at the presidential level. And being in Latin America, it's not even that surprising that two of the top three presidential candidates in Sunday's first round of presidential elections were women--accounting for almost 70 percent of the vote. Dilma Rousseff of the Workers Party fell just a few percentage points short of 50 percent, necessitating a run-off, while Marina Silva, a former high Workers Party official lead the Green Party to its strongest showing ever, roughly 20 percent. She did not make the run-off, but the Social Democratic Party candidate, José Serra, himself with some progressive credentials, can't realistically run right and gain much support from Silva's backers in the run-off.
Although I've long been accustomed to thinking of Lula's Worker's Party government as a disappointing sell-out for its acceptance of neoliberal international finance & trade relations, it has still made dramatic progress towards improving the lives of the poor, and raising record numbers out of poverty. My perspective is still much more closely aligned with the social movements out of which he originally emerged, and he has moved away from them in a trajectory somewhat similar to that of Barack Obama moving away from his early community organizer roots, though not as extreme. So I'm glad that the Workers Party has opposition on the left. But even what passes for its opposition on the right this time around is more properly described as modestly center-left on domestic policy, while supporting the US line in foreign affairs. This came into focus though the comments of one guest, Greg Grandin, author of Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism and Fordlandia presented a very different slant on things, one in which Brazilian elections this time were a three-way race between different center-leftish parties, all somewhat pressured by more militant social movements. Here's what he said:
GREG GRANDIN: Yeah, it's remarkable. Here's a country, the most populous country in Latin America, the largest economy, by far, in the Americas, short of the United States and Canada, you know, one of the most strongest growing economies in the world, and 70 percent of the population voted either for an ex-Marxist urban guerrilla [Rousseff] or an Afro-Brazilian rubber tapper [Silva] who broke with the Workers' Party to run on the Green Party ticket. The Green Party got 20 percent of the vote. It would be interesting to know if that's the highest-compare it with Germany, for instance-if a Green Party won 20 percent of the vote, that's a remarkable-that's a remarkable turnout....
GREG GRANDIN: Well, what's remarkable is that Serra and Dilma share a remarkable overlap of agendas. I think that this speaks to the success of Lula, both for Brazil, leaving Brazil a much stronger country, but also leaving Latin America a much stronger country. I think, you know, not only were these two women of the left women of the left, the opposition candidate was not a man of the right. I mean, he was a Social Democrat. In some ways--
AMY GOODMAN: José Serra.
GREG GRANDIN: You mentioned in your introduction his contribution to challenging the international pharmaceutical regime, and in a lot of ways the Social Democratic party--government before Lula put into place a lot of--increased social spending that Lula was able to capitalize on. Serra agreed, and he actually tried to run in the shadow of Lula, you know, as the true heir of Lula. But that obviously didn't work to a large degree.
What's interesting is that Serra is actually more progressive on one issue, and that's finance interest rates. He wants--Lula has actually kept interest rates fairly high, lowered them a little bit during the recession as a way of a kind of stimulus. But for the most part, he's been quite orthodox, keeping the bond markets and the international bankers happy. Serra represents, I think, a certain kind of industrial sector within Brazil that wants lower interest rates. I think domestically what he would do, he'd probably be more willing to also to try to impose some kind of neoliberal reform on labor law, which Dilma won't do. I think, you know, part of the Workers' Party will not--they won't go for that kind of structural reform.
So none of these is a real left party, both the Workers Party and the Social Democrats have elements of conformity to neo-liberalism, as well as divergences, and the Greens represent more pressure on the left But there is no traditional right, at least not now at the presidential level. The Social Democratic candidate has taken positions friendly to Washington on foreign affairs, but even these have been somewhat muted.
It's in foreign policy that I think that you do see the biggest difference. And this comes back to something that just happened last week with the attempted coup in Ecuador. Lula, as I said, left not just Brazil stronger, but Latin America stronger. He's led a remarkable project of Latin American solidarity, or more specifically, South American solidarity. And Dilma promises to carry on with that. Lula has protected Bolivia, Ecuador against Brazilian economic interests, where I think Serra may be a little bit more willing to go after some of those smaller countries in Brazil's periphery than Dilma would.
One can get a more nuanced feel by looking back at a couple of UK Guardian columns written by Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic Policy Research. The first from mid-June began thus:
Brazil's Presidential Election: Opposition Tries "Republican Strategy" On Foreign Policy
The Guardian Unlimited, June 17, 2010
Four years ago, when the government of Evo Morales re-nationalized its hydrocarbon industry, the Brazilian media was spoiling for a fight. After all, Petrobras, the Brazilian oil and gas company, had major interests there. But President Lula Da Silva was calm. "I haven't had a fight with George W. Bush," he told the press. "Why should I fight with Evo?"
In four months Brazil will elect a new president, and the main opposition candidate, Jose Serra of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), has shown more interest in this kind of a fight. Last month he declared: "Eighty to ninety percent of the cocaine [here] comes from Bolivia . . . Do you think that Bolivia could export 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in Brazil without the government being an accomplice? Impossible. The Bolivian government is complicit in this."
He has also attacked Brazil's mediation efforts and relations with Iran and indicated he would weaken MERCOSUR, the South American regional trading block. Serra is running against Workers' Party candidate Dilma Rousseff, a former Energy Minister and Chief of Staff for President Lula, who strongly defends the government's foreign policy.
The Brazilian right has also been hostile to Venezuela, with right-wing Senators holding up its membership in MERCOSUR for more than three years and joining U.S.-led propaganda campaigns against President Hugo Chávez. Much as in the United States, the major media has presented a caricature of Venezuela and the Chávez government, with some influence on public opinion. Serra has so far avoided attacking Venezuela, perhaps because he knows that Chávez could hit back hard and push these foreign policy issues to a higher profile than he may want for the campaign. In elections over the last few years in Peru, Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua and other countries, the right-wing candidates - successfully in the first two contests - literally ran against Chávez as if he were their opponent. It is unlikely that the PSDB would want this to be the center of their campaign; it would not sway many Brazilian voters.
Indeed, the PSDB may be treading a fine line. There has been a huge historic transformation in Latin America, and especially South America, over the past decade. The region has become vastly more independent of the United States, and has clearly benefited from this enormous, epoch-making change. Although there is a powerful part of the Brazilian political and media elite that is uncomfortable with these changes, and would prefer to roll things back to a cozier relationship with Washington, this is risky. The PSDB would not want to be perceived as being on the wrong side of this historic transition.
Even with respect to Bolivia, most of the voters that the PSDB is trying to reach would probably understand that it makes no sense to attack Bolivia for the illegal drug trade in Brazil. The government of Evo Morales has fought against drug trafficking with more effort and less corruption than predecessors; there is a clear distinction for the Morales government between coca, which is a legal, mild stimulant that has been part of Bolivia's culture for centuries, and cocaine. Try telling Americans to give up their coffee. If Brazil wants to reduce drug trafficking it will find in Bolivia a willing partner. If the decades-long failure of Washington's so-called "war on drugs" has proven anything, it's that drug trafficking is overwhelmingly a demand-side problem, and eradication of one source of raw materials leads to geographical shifts in production....
As the campaign wore on, Sera did move closer to the US, as Weisbrot pointed out in an op-ed for a Brazilian paper:
Is José Serra Campaigning in Washington or in Brazil?
Folha de Sao Paulo (Brazil), August 6, 2010
What is José Serra trying to do? In his campaign for president of Brazil he has accused Bolivia of complicity in drug trafficking and criticized Lula for trying to mediate in Washington's fight with Iran and for refusing (along with the most of the rest of South America) to recognize the government of Honduras, which was "elected" under a dictatorship. For a while he stayed away from joining Washington's international campaign against Venezuela, but now he and his vice-presidential candidate Indio da Costa have waded into that putrid swamp as well, saying that Venezuela is "sheltering" the FARC (the main guerrilla group fighting the Colombian government).
For the record: Despite a decade of allegations, Washington has yet to publicly present one shred of evidence that the Chávez government actually supports the FARC....
Does Serra really want Brazil to pick fights with all of its neighbors in order to place itself defiantly on the wrong side of history? And this just to become Washington's biggest right-wing ally? Yes, in case Serra has not noticed, the United States under President Obama, as under Bush, has only right-wing governments as allies in this hemisphere: Canada, Panama, Colombia, Chile, Mexico. There is a reason for that: U.S. policy towards Latin America hasn't changed under Obama....
It is not just in Venezuela and Bolivia that the United States spends tens of millions of dollars to influence politics. In 2005, as this newspaper reported, the U.S. funded an effort to change Brazilian law so as to strengthen the opposition to the Workers' Party. Washington has a big stake in this election, as it seeks to reverse the changes that have made Latin America - formerly the United States' "backyard" -- more independent than it has ever been in its history. José Serra is making that stake bigger every day.
For all that, however, as Grandin said, Serra "actually tried to run in the shadow of Lula, you know, as the true heir of Lula," which necessarily limited how aggressively he could push these Bush-Obama themes. In the end, this campaign dynamic probably said more about the Obama Administration's autopilot continuation of Bush's failed Latin American policies.
Particularly now that it's down to a two-party run-off, there would seem to be no way that Serra could gain any significant Green Party support by doubling down on these foreign policy proposals. Instead, it's much more likely that Serra will focus attention on competing over how to better improve the lives of average Brazilians. In other words, he's more likely to run to the left, even though Brazil, too, has an elite media that promulgates its fair share of rightwing propaganda.
Now, more than ever, if Americans want inspiration for what their democracy could aspire to, we would do well to look to the south, where this one-time dictatorship appears to have firmly turned its back on that past once and for good, and different parties primarily vie over which has the better path toward a more equitable future for all.