17 February 2005

Lula: Losing Track

By Gwynne Dyer

Brazil is a rough place even for ordinary citizens; it is hell on wheels for social and political reformers. Even when the reformers win power there, they can’t protect their own. That is why Sister Dorothy Stang was murdered on 12 February.

In the late 70s and early 80s I got to know two groups of especially interesting and admirable people: the generation of dissidents who would go on to free Eastern Europe from Communist rule, and some of the radicals who were committed to protecting the poor, the Indians and the environment (especially the Amazon) from the depredations of the Brazilian military regime and its cronies.

Well, the Communists are now gone, and the Eastern European revolutionaries who helped to overthrow them are national heroes. Some are retired, a couple are ex-presidents who now make their living on the talk circuit, and some are still active in politics or business. But I can’t think of one who has died violently

The Brazilian generals are long gone, too, replaced by democratically elected governments — but a lot of the dedicated reformers I first met in Brazil in those years have been killed, mostly by hired guns working for local landowners or large, often multinational agribusiness, logging or mining interests. Brazilian governments seemed incapable of protecting them, and Lula’s government has not been an exception.

Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva became Brazil’s first left-wing president in January 2003. There was the usual foreign investor panic at the prospect of a “socialist” president in Brazil (though Lula never actually uttered that fatal word in his election campaign), so he has had to be ultra-orthodox financially to keep them on board. It worked: Brazil’s budget deficit, foreign trade balance and even its currency are now all in better shape than those of the United States.

The price, however, was neglect of Lula’s domestic agenda, and the problem wasn’t just the austerity measures that have cut real wages in Brazil by 6.1 percent since he took office two years ago. On key issues like land use, peasant rights and environmental protection, he has often lost track of the policies he was elected to support, and the political damage has been growing fast. Take the question of logging permits in the state of Para, in the eastern Amazon.

The initial idea, sensibly enough, was to end the system that had long allowed logging companies, ranchers and others to take illegal possession of publicly owned forest, exploit it ruthlessly, and even buy and sell leases for these illegally held lands among themselves. So last year Brasilia declared all these informal claims and leases for large tracts of public land invalid. After 31 January, only claimants who could produce a proper legal title could go on using the land freely; everybody else would have to apply for fixed-period government leases that would only allow logging, ranching or mining under strict rules for environmental impact and working conditions.

Great — except that the bill to govern these new leases was only going to go to Congress this month, and the logging season starts in June, so there was no time to set all this up and create legal forest jobs this year. Many of Para’s forest workers therefore joined in protests against the new rules even though their working conditions often come close to slave labour. The poor always need money today, not in some ideal future.

Protests organised by the logging companiers blocked roads and river transport, and the leader of the loggers’ association warned that “blood will flow” if the group’s demands were not met. On 11 February Lula’s government backed down, reinstating all the existing logging licenses as a “transitional measure.” It was getting to be a pattern (last year he gave in to similar protests against creating an Indian reservation in the northern Amazon), but this time his enemies overplayed their hand.

On the same day that Lula caved in to the logging companies, Sister Dorothy Stang, a 74-year-old American nun who had been fighting for workers’ rights and environmental protection in the Amazon since the 1970s, was gunned down in Para by hired killers. The Pastoral Land Commission of the Roman Catholic Church had no doubt about who had ordered her death: “The hatred of ranchers and loggers respects nothing,” it said.

Lula finally had to react: allowing American nuns to be murdered with impunity is never good politics. He has now proclaimed a forest reserve of 12,650 sq. mi. (34,150 sq. km.) and a national park of 1,750 sq. mi. (4,725 sq. km.) in Para state, and sent 2,000 troops in to enforce the law.

What happened to Lula is not unusual. He had to impose austerity measures to keep nervous foreign investors and the International Monetary Fund happy, and then, in order to keep his supporters distracted while their living standards took a beating, he engaged in a lot of symbolic foreign activity. He visited foreign leaders who have defied American power (Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Libya’s Muammar Gadafy), he helped found the South American Union last December, he mediated an end to the military confrontation between Colombia and Venezuela last month — and he put Brazil’s own problems a distant second.

It took Sister Dorothy Stang’s murder to force Lula’s attention back to his domestic priorities. Halfway through his four-year term, he would be well advised to keep it there.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 12. (“Great…future”; and”What…second”)