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As South America Drifts Left, Wither Brazil?: Paulo Fontes with Nikolas Kozloff

Recently, Nikolas Kozloff, author of Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (St. Martin’s Press, 2006), sat down with Paulo Fontes, a Brazilian and visiting professor at the Program in Latin American Studies at Princeton University. Kozloff is currently working on another book, South America’s New Direction (also with St. Martin’s Press), about the geopolitical realignment in South America and its implications for the U.S. Fontes, a native of Sao Paulo, is a labor historian who worked as a history teacher and researcher at the Cajamar Institute, a labor center in Sao Paulo during the late 80s and 90s. During the interview, Fontes touched on the current state of organized labor in Brazil, the role of social movements, race relations in Brazilian society, the relationship between President Lula and civil society, and U.S.-Brazilian relations.

Nikolas Kozloff (Rail): Why did you start working with the labor movement in Sao Paulo?

Paulo Fontes: In part, I think it was a generational thing. I was a teenager in the 1980s, and this was a period of re-democratization in Brazil and the end of the military dictatorship. It was a period of great social ferment when labor played a big role. Lula was involved in strikes during this period, marginalized people from the outskirts of Sao Paulo took on a more public role, and the Church was active and espoused liberation theology. My generation, let’s say people who are now between 35 and 45 years old, got involved in politics within this type of environment. I went to college to study history and social history specifically. I got employment working at a trade union school, and I also pursued an academic career.

Rail: Historically, a lot of poor migrants from the northeast went to Sao Paulo and found jobs in heavy industry. What was it like working with those kinds of people?

Fontes: I worked as a labor educator. The work of Paulo Freire was very influential at this time, and there were a lot of educational initiatives. I worked in educational projects at the labor school, teaching history, collective bargaining, sociology, and economics. It was one of the most important experiences of my life; I learned more than I taught.

Rail: Did you grow up in Sao Paulo?

Fontes: My parents were northeastern migrants. My family moved to Rio de Janeiro and then later Sao Paulo. Within the wider society there was a perception that migrants were passive, that they were not politicized and were not prepared for political struggle. In the late 1970s and early 1980s this was disproved. Having day to day contact with these people opened my eyes to the many different ways one can oppose or react to oppression.

Rail: And people in the labor center came from different racial backgrounds? Were people of certain racial backgrounds more militant ? What was your take on the Afro-Brazilian component?

Fontes: There were a lot of different racial groups within the labor movement. I wouldn’t say that the Afro Brazilians were more militant than others. We were aware of racial differences, and there were courses on black history at the labor center. The racial issue became more and more important inside the labor movement throughout the 1990s.

Rail: How so?

Fontes: Well, first of all, in 1988 the country celebrated the first centenary of the emancipation of slavery in Brazil. The black movement at that time tried to take advantage of this anniversary to become more visible in the public sphere. Racial differences within the working class were becoming more apparent. The labor confederation elected a president who was black, named Vicentino. He pushed a lot for the black agenda.

Rail: What is the “black agenda”?

Fontes: Well, first of all he acknowledged that there was a separate black issue. There was an effort to acknowledge discrimination in the labor market, separate wage scales, and wide disparities in job opportunities and education. It was even difficult for black activists to get good positions within the labor movement. The labor movement tried to air these concerns but by doing so raised tensions: there was a reaction.

Rail: What kind of reaction, from white workers?

Fontes: To an extent, but not just whites. That’s what’s peculiar about Brazil. Unlike the U.S., racial consciousness in Brazil is different. Even Afro-Brazilian workers reacted against these kinds of initiatives, saying this is Ok but it’s not the most important issue. People thought the labor movement should be united, not divided. Racial issues are controversial in Brazil, and after Lula took office this matter became even more controversial. Lula created a ministry dealing with racial relations.

Rail: In the United States, organized labor has been on a steep decline as jobs are moved overseas and we have a growth in the service sector. How strong a force is organized labor in Brazil right now and how relevant is it politically?

Fontes: In the 1990s there was a decline in labor militancy. This was the result of globalization, opening up of the economy, changes in the industrial sector, and a process of decentralizing industries so that they were relocated to other regions of the country where the labor movement was weaker. In a sense, it was a very similar process to Europe or the U.S. or other countries of Latin America. There is therefore a paradox when we consider Lula’s election in 2002: he won precisely at a time when labor and social movements were on the decline.

Rail: Are you saying that if labor had been stronger, then Lula would have had different policies?

Fontes: Probably. But, the paradox is that labor is very influential in government. Certainly, there are a lot of officials in the government who came out of the labor movement. As a movement, labor is now weaker. But now, these people are running things, they have power.

Rail: What is the social and racial composition of organized labor? Is it viewed as relatively privileged by other social movements and the informal sector?

Fontes: Almost half of the labor force works in the informal sector. There have been some attempts to organize informal sector workers. Some social movements have had some success in this area, for example the urban landless movement. We also need to consider the issue of popular culture on the outskirts of large cities, hip hop and capoeira for example and its relation to politics. Culturally, I think there has been a kind of pride in the idea of living on the poor outskirts of large cities. A whole culture has sprung up, in opposition to rich neighborhoods. The landless movement has tried to organize amongst youth and emphasizes hip hop and empowerment of Afro-Brazilian culture.

Rail: What kind of concrete role has popular culture played in politics?

Fontes: In the last election, Lula surprisingly won in a landslide in the second round. It’s clear that there was overwhelming support of Lula from the poor. This support is related to this popular culture that I’m talking about. In spite of all Lula’s failures and his problems, there is an attitude of “he is one of ours.” People think that the opposition wants to get rid of him not because of his failures but because of his ties to the poor. So obviously there are material reasons for the poor’s support but there is a strong symbolic component.

Rail: Can you give me an example of the cultural and symbolic style that Lula pursues?

Fontes: There is a strong prejudice against northeasterners in places like Sao Paulo. This prejudice, like all prejudices in Brazil, is not so openly visible; people never directly say that they are against northeasterners. The perception of northeasterners in Sao Paulo is similar to the English perception of the Irish. Northeasterners are perceived as hard working but kind of backward. Lula, as a northeasterner himself, stresses his accent. He also emphasizes other characteristics that are not just particular to the northeast but the poor in general—for example, his very informal behavior, such as holding soccer games in the gardens of government installations. The point is, it’s not just Lula’s political strategy; this is also a part of him. People don’t feel as if he is pretending. The opposition by contrast comes off as very posh and upper class.

Rail: What does organized labor think of Lula, who is now in his second term? Is labor disillusioned? Are they willing to give him more time?

Fontes: I would say it’s a mixture of both sentiments. Let’s be honest: Lula’s first term was very conservative in economic terms. It was clear that the government on a whole was very careful not to openly confront international market forces. On the other hand, one must also consider important social programs such as the Bolsa Familia, a social safety net which provides money to the poor to keep kids in schools. The program was initiated under the previous Cardoso regime but Lula improved a lot upon it. There are around 11 million families who receive some sort of monetary support from the government; it’s a huge program of social inclusion. But the program is controversial. Some people on the left say it’s not really designed to combat poverty, that it’s just a band aid. Others however argue that it’s important and that it’s paving the way for improvements. The program also undermines the power of local bosses because the aid is provided directly to families. So, some people have claimed that it is a very clever move because within ten years we’ll be able to get rid of these political bosses. Meanwhile if we look at the macroeconomic picture Brazil has seen some economic growth in recent years. It’s been much less than Lula expected, but still there has been some improvement in job creation. Within the labor movement, there have been huge debates surrounding the Lula administration. Some argue that there wasn’t much advancement in terms of formal labor rights. On the other hand people recognize that there was a lot of improvement for the working class in general.

Rail: When we look at Brazil, do you think that it will be the informal sector and other social movements that stand a greater chance of advancing a progressive agenda?

Fontes: I wouldn’t say the informal sector is the key to a new progressive agenda. In fact, I’m not sure we need a new progressive agenda in the first place. All these movements are much more connected than they seem to be. In reality they have been together for twenty years. When I was working in the labor movement, I remember the Landless Movement asked us for a truck and material things. I would say that many of these alliances are still in place within Lula’s popular government. Many people who worked in social movements previously now occupy positions within the administration.

Rail: So far, the Bush administration has not been nearly as critical of Lula as it has of Chavez in Venezuela. What would Lula have to do to arouse the ire of the U.S. at this point?

Fontes: Brazil has played an important role in blocking the FTAA [Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, spearheaded by the Bush administration]. Certainly FTAA was a sensitive issue. Perhaps, if the Iraq war did not absorb so much attention domestically in the United States, the Bush administration would have been tougher towards Brazil over the FTAA. Still, Brazil has played the role of moderation, the country that can create a bridge, while Hugo Chavez has played the role of bad boy. If things should change, however, the situation might radicalize. Brazil is making a huge effort to revitalize Mercosur [a South American trade bloc], but it hasn’t worked out as some would have liked. Right now, there are tensions with Argentina and even Chavez in Venezuela. If Mercosur irons out these problems and we have more South American unity, then U.S.-Brazilian relations could become more combative.

Rail: In Bolivia, you have indigenous movements that are quite culturally nationalistic. In Brazil do you find that kind of combativeness towards the U.S.?

Fontes: I wouldn’t say Brazilians are particularly anti-American, though Bush has done a lot to increase hostility of the U.S. Certainly, a president like Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama would elicit a lot of curiosity in Brazil. And, in a certain sense there would be some sympathy within the wider society and on the left if either of these two would win. Actually, on the whole I think Brazil and the United States are very similar societies in a lot of ways.

Rail: How so?

Fontes: They are both very diverse ethnically and socially. Brazil is much more traditional and less individualistic than the U.S. On a relative scale, however, we are much more individualistic than, say, Bolivia. And obviously Brazil’s economy is smaller than America’s, but it’s still very large. Culturally, American influence is quite strong although we have redefined U.S. culture on our own terms, for example by creating bossa nova and our own forms of jazz. The Brazilian left meanwhile is anti-American but this is not always so strongly pronounced. The U.S. never invaded Brazil. You can’t compare the Brazilian experience to Nicaragua, Guatemala, or Cuba. Fundamentally, I don’t think the Brazilian people buy into a purely anti-American agenda. Halloween and Halloween parties have become more and more popular in recent years. There was a public outcry that America was destroying our culture, and that we should celebrate Saci, a one legged black African Brazilian boy who smokes a pipe. The pagan Saci, who comes from a childhood fairytale, has the power to give you what you wish. But Halloween hasn’t disappeared, and now, in many places in Brazil, we have a compromise: two parties, one for Saci and one for Halloween!


Nikolas Kozloff

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-MacMillan, 2008).


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2007

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