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Disunity Rally

Disunity
      Rally

President Fernando Henrique Cardoso called the march undemocratic
since one of its objectives was to oust him. But more than a thousand buses brought in
participants from all over Brazil, and they arrived, protested, and left without incident
and without compromising the republic. The demonstration also showed that Brazil has no
genuine opposition.
By Adhemar Altieri

It was dubbed the "March of 100-thousand", and although the turnout didn’t
match the title, it was, by far, the largest anti-government demonstration since president
Fernando Henrique Cardoso was first elected in 1994. Even as it fell short, last
Thursday’s event organized by a hodge-podge of leftwing political parties, labor unions
and religious organizations captured the public’s attention in Brazil at the end of
August, and delivered important messages—to the government, its opponents, and
Brazilian society. 

Certainly the orderly way in which it all happened is a positive sign. More than a
thousand buses brought in participants from all over Brazil, and they arrived, protested,
and left without incident. Police reported one arrest for drunkenness. Market reaction, or
the lack of it, is also worth noting. While speakers railed against the government in
Brasília, it was business as usual throughout the day—no noticeable effects on key
indicators. 

This is not what some in government seemed to expect. Cabinet members, and the
president himself, dubbed the march "undemocratic" even before it took place. A
protest march, however large, is not in itself undemocratic, but had critics been more
specific and focused their remarks on some of the movement’s stated aims, the argument
would have made sense. 

One such aim was president Cardoso’s resignation, proposed by one of the organizing
parties. In light of recent events in neighboring Venezuela, where general Hugo Chavez is
in the process of dismantling his country’s institutions, the resignation demand and what
it really implied came across as annoying to people on all sides of the issue. And it
didn’t help that former presidential candidate and the left’s inspirational leader, Luiz
Inácio Lula da Silva, went public with his admiration for what Chavez is doing. 

At best though, this led to a bit of discomfort and a lot of verbal jousting, but no
real threat or surprise. After all, Lula has said many times before he considers Fidel
Castro "the greatest statesman in the Americas". It seems that the authoritarian
approach is not an option Lula fully rejects.  And while Venezuela borders on Brazil,
the two countries are oceans apart in terms of institutional stability, so the threat of a
repeat in Brazil of what’s happening there is remote, if it exists at all. 

From the government’s perspective, a large protest, even if smaller than promised, is
not something to be shoved aside and ignored. In the past, we’ve described president
Cardoso’s government as lethargic, and that may be the nicest thing one could say about
its lack of initiative and leadership on vital issues—particularly the all-important
constitutional reforms that don’t seem to go anywhere. If a few thousand shouting
protestors in Brasília help to shake out a few cobwebs, they will have served a useful
purpose. 

Lost Left

Already there are signs this might be happening. The week ended with the announcement
that a series of measures, most aimed at launching or enhancing social assistance
programs, will be introduced by the government in the next few days. It is still not clear
if this is a bona-fide attempt to move on key issues, or a knee-jerk reaction to the
march. 

Looking at the organizers, the march made it clear there is not much glue between the
parties and factions that currently oppose the government. Even as busloads of protestors
arrived, party leaders couldn’t agree on common goals for their movement. The biggest
hitch was the demand for Cardoso’s resignation, something most parties and organizations
refused to officially support. 

The rift  became obvious and public when a document unifying all demands could not
be delivered at the end of the protest. The government, of course, cashed in on this lack
of cohesiveness, and often described the movement as the "march of the
aimless"—a bit heavy handed as an overall assessment, but not entirely
false. 

What the opposition did deliver was a petition with over one million signatures,
calling for a congressional inquiry on the privatization of Telebrás, the State
telecommunications monopoly dismantled a year ago. As a driving cause for the protest
march, this was a very poor choice, bordering on silliness.

The basis for the petition was a series of illegally taped conversations between
government officials, discussing ways to assist one bidder in the privatization process to
obtain financing from a government source. In one exchange, president Cardoso himself is
heard agreeing with the approach. The help did not materialize, the bidder did not win a
chunk of Telebrás, and dozens of taped conversations could only show the government’s
intent was ensuring that qualified bidders entered the newly-created, privatized telecoms
market. 

The fact is that the opposition’s rejection of privatization is strictly dogmatic. The
numbers simply demolish any argument against privatizing the phone system in Brazil.
Against a million or so signatures on that petition, there are over 15 million new phone
users in Brazil in the first year of privatized telecommunications alone—all
benefiting from improved access to both cellular and fixed phone lines, not to mention
lower prices. None of this would have happened under a State monopoly, which never managed
more than a million new phone lines per year before privatization, and always at extremely
high cost. 

In high unemployment days, the newly-privatized telecommunications sector is one of the
biggest job creators in Brazil today, which makes it even more difficult to accept the
opposition’s rejection. On the other hand, this is not entirely out of line with the way
the Brazilian left has carried on for several years now. Relevance and timeliness have not
been the buzzwords of opposition initiatives. 

Even in organizing this march, the amount of political opportunism at play was obvious
from the start. In another gem, during a speech to promote the march, Lula described the
current government as "the worst in Brazil’s history". Interesting that he would
find this government, even with all its problems, worse than Fernando Collor’s
administration, so rife with corruption it led to that president’s resignation to avoid
impeachment. Or worse than José Sarney’s, which chalked up galloping inflation levels of
up to 90 percent per month. Or worse than the 21 years of military rule that ended in
1985. 

Strange
Bedfellows

The lack of unity so visible in Brasília at the end of the march, when organizers
couldn’t subscribe to a common set of demands, has really been the norm among the
government’s opponents, and this is no small problem. It means there is no constructive
opposition at work in Brazil today. Opponents can put together a protest march, but come
up empty handed when asked just how they would do things differently. This was the case in
the past two presidential election campaigns, which saw Lula suffer resounding first-round
defeats to Cardoso. 

If there’s an objective at all, it seems to be cashing in on any opportunity to bash
the government, without necessarily offering an alternative. This "anything
goes" attitude was clear during a recent farmers’ protest, when Lula’s left-wing
Workers’ Party (PT) joined hands with extreme rightwing members of Congress to defend a
costly debt pardon for wealthy landowners. 

A prominent voice from the Brazilian left summed it all up in a recent television
interview. Harvard professor Roberto Mangabeira Unger said the left needs to "stop
campaigning and realize the election is over, and they lost". Unger’s conclusion,
five days before the march even happened: Brazil currently has no practical, functioning
opposition. 

Respected Brown University Brazilianist Thomas Skidmore, in a radio interview following
the march, agreed with Unger and added: "The Brazilian left no longer has a point of
reference. Regimes it once looked to as ideal to pursue no longer exist". 

As things stand, the leftwing opposition led by the PT is doing little more than
keeping an eye out for opportunities to be critical, which is part of its role. But in the
process, it is making no discernible contribution to improve things. It is certainly not
spelling out just what it would do differently if it held power. There’s no lack of catchy
slogans and dogmatic phrases. Unfortunately for the Brazilian left, these tend to
represent ideas which the rest of the world abandoned several years ago. 

Adhemar Altieri is a 21-year veteran with major news outlets in Brazil,
Canada and the United States. He holds a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Northwestern
University in Evanston, Illinois, and spent ten years with CBS News reporting from Canada
and Brazil. Altieri is a member of the Virtual Intelligence Community, formed by The
Greenfield Consulting Group to identify future trends for Latin America. He is also the
editor of InfoBrazil (http://www.infobrazil.com
), an English-language weekly e-zine with analysis and opinions on Brazilian politics and
economy. You can reach the author at editors@infobrazil.com

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