Trying to Halt Brazil

Trying to Halt Brazil

Let us hope this display of bullying by the joint blue and white
collar sectors continues. This will
show the lengths to which some
people will go to look after themselves, regardless of the
good. The judges threat to strike is a serious challenge
to democracy and an intolerable abuse of power.


John Fitzpatrick


It has been quite a week. The pension reform proposals were given a symbolic nod of approval by a Congressional
committee in the face of the juggernaut of vested interests determined to protect their privileges. The vote was clear—30 to 8—but,
at the same time, the governing allies took pains to weed out most, but not all, the opponents from its own side.

This does not mean the proposals will be approved since there are many amendments and plenty of disgruntled
representatives just waiting to tear the bill to shreds. Government leaders are talking of having a first vote on August 5, so
lots of backroom meetings are going on as the administration tries to cater to the special interests without gutting the bill.

The reform-minded Congressmen are facing intense pressure, bordering on intimidation, from the forces which want
to maintain the status quo in an unusual alliance of striking civil servants and members of the judiciary. The unhappy
so-called civil servants who taunted Congressmen and accused them of being traitors and worse, met their match when the
military police cleared them out of the House of Representatives.

The decision to bring in the police was criticized in some quarters as being anti-democratic but, since the
demonstrators were virtually threatening elected representatives, it is hard to feel much sympathy for them. This rougher element has
been joined by the nation’s judges and prosecutors who are threatening to go on strike on August 5. Is it just coincidence that
this is the day when the first vote may be held?

Let us hope this display of bullying by the joint blue and white collar sectors continues because it shows the people
the lengths to which some people will go to look after themselves, regardless of the common good.

Without excusing the civil servants, their behavior is less serious than that of the judges and prosecutors whose
threat to strike is a serious challenge to a democratic state and an intolerable abuse of power. It is the first time in Brazilian
history that such a threat has come from this quarter. One PT member remarked bitterly that it was a pity the judges had not
gone on strike when the rule of law had been broken during the military dictatorship years (1964-1985). The president of the
Supreme Court claimed that back then, judges and prosecutors were not entitled to strike.

Despite this unprecedented militancy by these members of the judiciary, many people are remarkable blasé about the
whole affair. Since justice does not really exist in Brazil and the legal system moves so slowly, the effects of any strike are
unlikely to be immediate. In any case, the lawyers and judges will lose what little respect they have and, unless they change their
approach, will crash lemming-like over the cliff edge.

The government acted swiftly and broke off negotiations with them. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has
kept an unusually low profile over the last week, chose the occasion to surface once and wasted no time in castigating them.
Without actually naming the judiciary he said: "90 percent of the public sector gets paid badly and lives badly when they retire
but there is a privileged sector which does not agree with the pension reform… In a country where there are 40 million
hungry people and the minimum salary is R$ 240 (US$ 85 a month) there are people who think that retiring on R$ 17,000, R$
19,000, R$ 20,000 or R$ 30,000 (from roughly US$ 6,000 to US$ 10,000) is not enough." There are times when Lula says the
wrong things and times when he says the right things and this was one of the times when he got it right.

It is too early to say whether this strike will really come about. The judges have been universally slammed and know
deep down that they have no genuine grievance, despite their pompous claims to be the sole power which can control the
Executive and legislative branch of government in support of the common citizen. They have no public or political support, nor
any dynamic leadership.

Since they earn good salaries and the average pension comes to around R$ 8,000 (US$ 2,700) a month they will start
thinking again when they realize what they have to lose. Unlike striking car workers or even lower level civil servants, this kind
of person is not used to surviving without his perks and any prolonged strike is unlikely.

Meanwhile, Lula’s priority is to get enough support for the proposals to be passed on the first vote. For this reason,
he is trying to create a kind of "political committee" made up of party leaders to try and reach some kind of agreement. At
the same time, he has to sort out the so-called "Group of 30" dissidents within the PT and also ensure the backing of the
PMDB (Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro—Brazilian Democratic Movement Party). Although the PMDB is
now officially an ally of the government it has still not yet been given a high level ministerial appointment. The other parties,
including the PL (Partido Liberal—Liberal Party) of vice president José Alencar, will also need some sweeteners.

Lula is also under pressure to back up with facts his recent statement that in July there would be signs of growth.
With only a few days of the month left at the time of writing, these signs have still not appeared. However, there was good
news of a sort this week for the government when the Central Bank’s monetary policy committee, the Copom, cut base
interest rates by 1.5 percent to 24.5 percent.

Despite this fairly large cut the Central Bank came in for criticism from all quarters. It was accused of being too
timid and acting too late. Let us await the publication of the official minute of the Copom meeting to see why the committee
reached this decision. Not only was the decision unanimous but the Copom did not set a bias which would have allowed the
Central Bank President, Henrique Meirelles, to act on his own to cut rates before the next meeting in a month’s time. Maybe the
Central Bank knows something which the rest of us do not.


John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish journalist who first visited Brazil in 1987 and has lived in São Paulo since 1995.
He writes on politics and finance and runs his own company, Celtic Comunicações—, which specializes in editorial and translation services for Brazilian and foreign clients. You can reach him at

© John Fitzpatrick 2003

This article appeared originally in
Infobrazil, at


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