The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Democracy at a Snail’s Pace

Apr 30, 1986

By the beginning of 1986 the transition in Brazil from military dictatorship to formal democracy seems almost to be achieved. It was not achieved overnight. The process has taken 12 years since the military initiated it. In that time, the military has discarded the most repressive legal aspects of its rule. It has allowed the establishment of 30 legal parties running the spectrum from left to right. It has tolerated direct elections that are relatively open and uncensored. It has also permitted the development of two national union federations replacing the total domination of state-run unions established in the 1930s.

In allowing such a democracy to be established, the military regime has set in motion two processes going on at the same time which interact with each other: first the initiation by the military, under pressure from a part of the bourgeoisie, of a democratic opening, but from above, the abetura; and second, the entrance into the opening by the working class to demand and conquer new rights for itself.

Why did the military decide to initiate such a shift in the first place? It came in part as a response to the contradictions engendered by rapid economic growth, the so-called “economic miracle,” and the resulting shift in weight of class forces. During the preceding decades, Brazilian society saw a growth in the industrial bourgeoisie, the urban middle classes, and the industrial working class; at the same time the number of peasants and the social weight of the landlords was reduced. The military dictatorship corresponded to the situation of an underdeveloped country, in which the weak bourgeoisie was not able to give birth to democracy, even for the ruling classes, and at the same time keep the poor workers and peasants in line. But that dictatorship seemed increasingly less efficient in meeting the demands of the somewhat more modern and industrialized Brazil of the middle 1970s.

A section of the bourgeoisie began to express the desire for democracy for its own representatives. This section saw in democracy a more efficient way to run its own affairs, to make its own economic decisions. It wished to choose its own government. Moreover, it anticipated the need for a new means to control the population, at a time when the need to enforce new austerity could be predicted for the immediate future, and at a time when there were already stirrings of opposition among the rural population, the urban middle classes, and in the working class centers. Opposition to the military regime was also expressed by the Catholic Church, and by the success of the only legal opposition party, the MDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement) in the 1974 elections.

The regime also felt a pressure from imperialism to put on a democratic mask to better ensure social stability.

In response to all these pressures, and developments, the military was willing to relinquish some of its powers. When Geisel took over the presidency in 1974, he held meetings with civilian groups to discuss how to engage in a process of “decompression.” He began to loosen up censorship slightly.

But the military did not trust a civilian government to take over either completely or quickly. Instead it strove to maintain its control not only of the state repressive apparatus, but also of a big share of the executive and legislative organs. In 1977, Geisel closed down the Congress and decreed a series of new electoral measures to guarantee the victory of ARENA (National Renewal Alliance), the military party. In the same period a movement began to grow in the middle class around amnesty. The military tried to avoid a development of any such movement by sponsoring its own amnesty proposal. Behind the question of amnesty was the real problem of how and when to legalize the opposition forces, and it was this the military began to address. In June 1977 the government eliminated an article of the constitution which forbade those removed from public office from returning to these positions. Brazil inched towards democracy, but always with its democratic collar attached to the military leash.

The Working Class Steps In and Pushes On the Democratic Door

In this period the working class began to move. It was a working class that was young and powerful, whose entrance on the scene changed the equation of abetura, on the one hand forcing the military to grant it certain rights, and reinforcing the idea held by a part of the bourgeoisie that a new regime was necessary to maintain order in the country. And on the other hand, at the same time, frightening the bourgeoisie and reinforcing its conviction that the only safe road to democracy was one traveled at a snail’s pace.

Thanks to the economic miracle, the working class had seen a big growth. Between 1960-70 the number of people employed in industry grew by 52 per cent. And it grew again by another 38 per cent between 1970-74. This growth was very concentrated, and for the most part in the Sao Paulo region, in Sao Paulo itself, and in the three industrial cities that surround it, Santo Andre, Sao Bernardo do Campo, Sao Caetano do Sol, known as the ABC complex. By 1974 a big part of the industrial workers worked in huge factories of tens of thousands of workers.

In 1974 inflation was running at more than 30 per cent, and the government indexing of wages kept them way behind the cost of living. The workers had no job security and unsafe and repressive conditions. Many of the workers lived in overcrowded, polluted favelas or slum towns, with no sanitation or running water. There were epidemics of polio and meningitis. Conditions were ripe for revolt.

In the early ’70s, a clandestine union structure was formed with the help of church activists. Luis Inacio da Silva, or Lula as he is popularly called, was the most well-known of these militants. He is the son of poor peasants from the Northeast who became a toolmaker. In Sao Bernardo he became active in the unions; along with other militants he broke with the existing leadership of the unions and took over the leadership of the metalworkers in Sao Bernardo. In 1976, he negotiated a contract with the employers association. In 1977, a number of militants around Lula launched a campaign to recover lost wages, which struck a responsive chord in the working class.

In the middle of May 1978, this opposition launched a strike wave which began with a strike of 2500 workers at a Saab-Scania plant in Sao Bernardo, over wages and recognition of their own union representatives. On May 17, they were joined by 14,500 workers from Mercedes Benz. This was followed by strikes at Chrysler, Kharmann-Ghia, Perkins Motors, GE, Otis Elevators, Firestone, Pirelli and others. The strikes were spearheaded by the most well-off section of the working class. They involved hundreds of thousands of workers, cutting across industry and company lines. Later the strikes spread to some salaried workers.

The strikes were conducted by the workers going into work but refusing to do their jobs, without outside picketing. The government tolerated negotiations at Saab, but then on May 19th declared the strikes illegal: however, it didn’t move against them. The strike ended with the first collective agreement in auto.

If initially the regime, the state-controlled union apparatus, the bourgeois opposition, and even the Communist Party (CP) were taken by surprise by these strikes, when they recovered they moved to prepare themselves to deal with future ones. In August, Geisel signed a decree outlawing all strikes in sectors of “interest to national security” which covered anywhere he wanted. The CP and the traditional union leaders tried to catch up, to put themselves at the head of the movement. More strikes erupted in September: metalworkers in the Minas-Gerais region, Fiat in Belem, and finally a massive metalworkers’ strike in Sao Paulo itself. These strikes were led more often by the CP and the traditional union leaders.

The strikes put a new pressure on the military regime, and they also challenged the political hegemony of the MDB leadership as the sole representative of the opposition. Spokesmen like Lula began to enunciate political as well as economic demands for the working class and poor, and to talk of the need to leave the MDB and form a new party. In June, no doubt in part in response to this challenge, a group of business leaders issued a statement calling for the restoration of democracy and criticizing the military’s limited reform.

1979: A New Test of Forces

In January 1979, the regime abolished the Institutional Acts of 1968, the major repressive legislation of the dictatorship, replacing them with a new National Security Law which still left the regime plenty of leeway legally to do what it wanted. In March of 1979, General Figueirido, Geisel’s hand-picked successor, and former head of military intelligence, took office as president with the public promise to restore democracy. The working class was quick to test his promise. He was greeted by a new strike wave in ABC from March 13th to 28th, demanding a 78 per cent wage increase, a shorter work week, job security, recognition of union reps in the plants, an end to government intervention in the unions, and full pay for strike days. Some of these strikes were organized by general strike committees. This time there was mass picketing, and sometimes daily mass strike meetings with up to tens of thousands of workers participating. The strike also spread to other regions and industries.

This time the government moved against the strikers, arresting and removing the leaders and arresting 1600 pickets. Two workers were killed, dozens injured and pickets were attacked by the military police. The strike was ended when the workers agreed to go back to work but to keep negotiating. After 45 days they agreed to a 63 per cent wage increase, time lost made up by prorated overtime pay. Big mass protests continued by the workers over the removal of their leaders, and the government eventually backed down and the leaders were reinstated.

Altogether in the first five months of the new presidency, one and a half million workers were out on strike for a total of 200 strikes in at least half of Brazil’s states.

During this same period there was a pressure also from the middle class and the bourgeois opposition. It took the form of a congressional debate on amnesty, and finally a bill was passed. In fact from 1977 onwards, the regime had been quietly releasing certain political prisoners on its own, and at the same time it had allowed the return of some opposition leaders from exile, including the leaders of the CP.

In November, the law of Party Reform was passed, scrapping the two party system. This was an attempt to focus the attention of the militants and political organizations on the electoral field and away from social struggle. It put the focus for the whole population on the upcoming elections set for 1980, and the preparatory period of constituting new parties and selecting candidates. The military may have hoped coincidentally to use this process to split the MDB’s forces and thus to weaken it.

When the law took effect there was a quick realignment of forces. ARENA dissolved itself and was reconstituted as the PDS (Social Democratic Party) which had been a legal party before the coup. It held a majority in the Senate and Chamber of Deputies. A major section of the MDB reformed as the PMDB with a dominant moderate wing, but also with a left which included the CP, and other groups. Another section of the MDB formed a new bourgeois party, the PP (Popular Party) led by Tancredo Neves, an industrialist who had been prime minister under Goulart. Leonel Brizola, a former populist leader who had been active in the Labor Party and had organized some opposition to the 1964 coup, returned hoping to revive the Labor Party that had existed before. But the regime was far less anxious to give him recognition and through a legal maneuver gave the Labor Party ticket to another. Brizola then organized a new party, the PDT (Democratic Labor Party) which has connections to the Second International. Finally completing the political spectrum was the PT (Workers Party) based on the unions and social activists coming from the Catholic Church.

Thus the stage was set for the next period of abetura – the electoral game.

1980-82: Focus On the Electoral and Organizational Level and Away from Social Struggles

Nonetheless, the workers’ movement continued. A new strike wave began in March of 1980, with a dockers’ strike which the government declared illegal. In April there was a new

41-day strike by the metalworkers in ABC. It too was declared illegal, and the military occupied ABC: union leaders were arrested, national security charges were even brought against an opposition deputy, thousands of workers were locked out. At the same time there were protests in the rural areas which saw a demonstration of 500,000 farmers and rural workers against a soya export tax.

In this period the movement of the working class was consolidated in new organizations: a new political party was formed and the unions met to form a national federation.

In May of 1980 the PT convened its first national conference. In 1979 a smaller body had met and drawn up an initial platform taking a more militant and leftist stance calling itself a party seeking to establish a workers’ government, with vague references to socialism. At the 1980 conference, however, it had already changed such earlier positions. The call for a workers’ government was modified and the central objective put forth was the winning of democracy. The conference had 400 delegates representing 26,000 members, almost a quarter of whom were from Sao Paulo. It included tenants, students, poor peasants, church activists, small revolutionary groups as well as the workers. It also began to attract some politicians and elected officials from the PMDB.

In August 1981, a national trade union conference was called, attended by 5,000 delegates from around the country. A Commission was set up to establish a new national central union federation. Both main factions were represented on it, but the movement remained divided with PT supporters grouped around the CUT (United Workers Confederation) and the CP and a section of the leadership from the old bureaucracy around CONCLAT (National Conference of the Working Classes).

Meanwhile the maneuvers continued from above. In June the government restored new powers to Congress, but fearing once again the electoral clout of the opposition, in September the military retreated, postponing the municipal elections from 1980 to 1982 under the pretext that the new parties had not had sufficient time to prepare.

In June of 1981 again there were new electoral reforms which gave new advantages to the PDS. In November there was a new election package which set more obstacles in front of the political parties: voters would only be allowed to vote for candidates of one party; parties must contest in every locality where they have branches; parties must present candidates for governor of every state; and finally no coalitions are allowed.

In response to this the PP of Neves in December dissolved itself and joined the PMDB. On the other hand, the PT announced that it would put up candidates at all levels. In June of 1982, there was yet another electoral package designed to curb the opposition and limit its future congressional powers.

Finally on November 15th, elections were held. The votes represented a shift away from the military’s domination and in favor of the opposition. This time the PDS got only 30 per cent of the vote, while the PMDB and the PDT combined got two thirds. The PT scored around three to four per cent nationally, but got around ten per cent in Sao Paulo with Lula as its candidate. Nonetheless the military accepted the results of the elections and proceeded with the democratization.

If the elections provided a certain distraction for a while, it didn’t last; the worsening of the economy helped see to this. In 1983, industrial production dropped to 1977 levels. Prices soared at 211 per cent annually, and unemployment was officially 14 per cent. This time, however, the confrontation was also between the population and some of the newly elected governors. In April there were food riots in Sao Paulo and 200 stores were looted. When the palace of one of the new governors was surrounded, he too called out the police. Demonstrations by the unemployed were attacked by 10,000 military police. In July, when there were some more strikes including a general strike of 3,000,000 workers in Sao Paulo, the government mobilized 18,000 police and put the army in the area on alert. They evacuated the churches, arrested strike leaders, occupied union headquarters. Again in September there was a wave of food riots in response to new government austerity measures.

Culmination of the Democratic Opening 1984-85

In 1984 and 1985 the opposition parties mobilized the population around the demand for a constitutional amendment for the direct election of the president, a position that the military had refused to cede. In January, there was a demonstration of a quarter of a million in Sao Paulo, and the mobilization continued with demonstrations of up to 1.8 million people in the streets at one time. In response the government declared a state of emergency in the capital and surrounding areas, and surrounded the Congress with the army as it went to vote on the amendment – which failed.

The opposition accepted this decision by the military, as it had accepted all along the pace of democratization that the military had set for it. The opposition quickly shifted its own preoccupation and now tried to focus the attention of the population on the selection of a unity candidate. Tancredo Neves stepped forward as the man of the hour. In January, Neves was elected president with Jose Sarney as his vice president. They took office in March.

The elections of 1985 seemed to crown the process of the democratic opening. Finally a new regime was in place, with a civilian at its head, the representative of the opposition.

In November of 1985 in the next round of elections the PMDB forces won a majority of the municipalities. The PT won around ten per cent of the vote nationally and 20 per cent in Sao Paulo, and elected a mayor in a large town. Thirty parties took part in a relatively open and uncensored campaign.

The only fly in the ointment was that Neves became sick almost as soon as he took office. He died in April and was replaced by Sarney. This transition took place without calling anything in question either by the opposition or by the military.

In this period seasonal farmworkers went out and so did workers at Ford and GM. In March metalworkers from Sao Paulo went out, and by May 43 unions were out in the Sao Paulo region. This time, however, the unions followed a different strategy; rather than generalizing the movement they alternated the plants being struck. It seemed a much less effective strategy. The strike wave continued in September with a giant bank strike in Rio which was joined by thousands of metalworkers and bus drivers. In November there was a two-day strike in Sao Paulo. While some workers won the shorter work week, and wage increases and cost of living, thousands of workers were fired.

So for the working class the elections and the new regime had not changed its situation a lot. Even now with a formal democracy, it still had to initiate its own struggles to defend its interests, and the strikes of this period seemed to indicate that on some level at least the workers understood this.

A Fragile Democracy

Democracy is fragile in a country like Brazil. The formal democratic rights that exist today were given by the military in cooperation with the representatives of the bourgeoisie. And they were given how, when, in what form, and at the pace that the military chose to give them. These rights could also be taken away. The democratic regime could be quickly and brutally suppressed if the bourgeoisie fears the democratic regime is unable to impose austerity and guarantee the social peace the bourgeoisie needs, or even if it fears that the continuing democratic opening could set off a political crisis. Once more the bourgeoisie could turn to the direct club of military rule. Many of the same generals are in power today who ruled under the dictatorship, and there are among them no doubt those ready to act again if they judge that such action is needed. This isn’t to say that we are on the verge of a coup and new dictatorship in Brazil, but only to say that this possibility has certainly not been eliminated.

What was really won by the working class, the recognition of its unions, the right to choose its own leaders, the right to strike, to hold meetings, the improvements in its wages and working conditions – these rights were imposed through its own fights and struggles – fights that it has engaged in now for almost eight years.

But now because of the new regime, because of the granting of formal democracy, the organizations and parties which claim to represent the working class give the working class illusions on what this democracy can mean. They ask the workers to put their hopes in elections and their trust in bourgeois governments, and not only in their own struggles. Thus in the elections the CP supported Neves, while the PT more generally accepted to run many candidates who are politicians coming from different bourgeois backgrounds, like the son of a well-known bourgeois family who was their candidate in Sao Paulo, and gave less and less importance to the role of the working class and the workers themselves. When Neves died the unions called on the workers to interrupt their strikes to show respect for the President.

Thus these organizations ask the working class to look to others in place of pushing the working class to organize its own forces. They don’t say clearly that whether it is under a bourgeois democracy or under a dictatorship, the prospects for the working class lie only in its own organizations and its own struggles.

This is not a way to prepare the working class to defend its own situation or the conquests it has already made. Nor is it a means for the working class to defend itself against the new attacks that will surely come in the future. With Brazil’s 100 billion dollar debt, the IMF is certainly going to demand a new austerity which the Brazilian bourgeoisie will try to impose on the population. Finally, such a policy is not even a way to defend the formal democratic rights that exist today.

The real policy that could defend the interests of the working class would be one that proposes to the workers to rely on their own struggles, to become aware of their own strength. This would be a revolutionary policy.

If the Brazilian working class was won to such a revolutionary policy at this point with its strength, and its position in Brazilian society, it could have the possibility to lead all the oppressed layers of the Brazilian population – the urban and rural poor, the peasants. But at this moment perhaps the working class could also see the possibility to use its power to go beyond a simple defense of democracy and towards the construction of a new society.