Exclusive interview with Brazilian trade unionist

Peter Taaffe, general secretary of the Socialist Party, reports from his recent visit to Brazil, when he attended the conference of the new Brazilian party, the Party of Socialism and Liberty (SOL). socialistworld.net.

"Fight for a socialist society"

cwi No sooner had we arrived at the small boarding house where we were staying for the conference, we met a fellow guest, Comrade Durval, from the city of São Louis (population one million) in the state of Muranhão in the north of Brazil.

Durval told us: "This is fantastico comrades, by attacking workers, Lula [Brazilian president], has brought us all together here in opposition, for this great conference!"

I subsequently interviewed Durval, helped by Marcus who translated.

The interview gives a little glimpse of the heroic struggles of the Brazilian workers over the last ten years, their expectations and subsequent disappointment in the PT government - which was elected at the end of 2002 and has been in power now for 18 months.

Peter Taaffe: Could you tell the readers of the socialist about your experiences?

Durval: I am now a retired teacher but I was teaching for a long time. I have never been a passive citizen, I have always been prepared to act on behalf of working-class people and the poor. I tried to make a difference by being involved in the social movement. Even as a pensioner, I went on a hunger strike against the conditions imposed upon my profession and the workers in it.

What hunger strike?

This was against Cardoso’s government in 1998, which had imposed a policy of ’wage restraint’, in effect, no wage increases for teachers. Therefore, 17 teachers including me decided to stage a 12-day hunger strike in Brasilia.

What was the reaction?

The federal university teachers were solidly behind us, as were the members of the unions and teachers in general. There was real desperation amongst teachers because of the terrible conditions. We got great support and by the stand that we took we ’demystified’ the idea that, in some way, Brazilian teachers were privileged. In fact their conditions and wages mean they are poor.

(Later Miguel Leme, a leading trade union activist, and member of Socialismo Revolutionario, the Socialist Party’s counterpart in Brazil, spelt out just how bad conditions had been for teachers: "We teach in three shifts: usually from 8am to 12 noon, 1pm to 5pm and 6pm to 10pm. We have to work 40 hours per week - one hour for each lesson. This results in great stress on the teachers and serious strains on the voice, which in turn affects our health.")

What were and are the wages like, and how do teachers survive?

Today, they are about the same as they were under Cardoso (the president before Lula), in other words teachers’ wages have stood still. That is why teachers are striking against the PT government today.

How do you and other teachers survive?

By ’magic’, by taking out loans, by constantly going into debt and worrying all the time about our financial position.

What was the outcome of the hunger strike?

There was a very good political outcome. We really embarrassed the government because of the campaign that we conducted in Brazil and internationally. As a result of our stand, we got a very small bonus increase.

What was the position of Lula’s PT when they were in opposition, in relation to your stand? Did they support you?

Not as such. Of course, the ranks of the PT gave great sympathy but even then Lula, who had the opportunity, did not visit us on our hunger strike.

Were you a member of the PT?

No, but I’ve always been involved in struggles, social struggles of the trade unions and the poor, at local level and sometimes on a national scale. For instance, I was involved in a very important march to Brasilia, the capital, in 1999.

Could you give us an idea of the reasons why you marched?

Our trade union always supported strikes; for instance, we were on the march last year against the pension reform, really the counter-reform, which this government has carried out. This has taken away some of our pension rights, upped the retirement date for pensions, etc. Our march began in 1999 against the Cardoso government. It started in the south on 26 July, from Niterói (in the state of Rio de Janeiro) and we took 74 days to reach Brasilia. We arrived in the capital on 7 October.

What were the aims of the march?

Quite simply, we wanted Cardoso out, and we also wanted the IMF out of our country; we wanted land for the landless, and we wanted the government to stop paying the imperialist debt, which results in hunger and the loss of jobs.

What was the reaction to the march? Were you welcomed?

Mostly, yes, but there was some hostility because of adverse publicity with, for instance, the shopkeepers closing up, frightened that we would plunder their premises. But we got a very good response from the ordinary workers and the poor.

What was the response when you got to Brasilia?

Well, we were given an audience with the Brazilian central bank, where we argued that the government should stop paying the debt, and naturally they didn’t agree with us. There was also a big demonstration on the debt and we protested outside the US embassy.

Did the PT deputies greet the demonstration?

Not really, it was more from the social movements. The march had grown to 5,000 by the time we arrived in Brasilia, with smaller, shorter marches joining us.

What was your attitude to the election of the PT? Did you look forward to its election and what is your reaction to the government now?

From 1961 up until the last election, I’d only voted for one president. With the rise of the PT and the prospects of Lula winning, however, there was a real expectation. We had been waiting 20 years for this moment and there was great expectation he would carry out our demands - land to the landless, jobs for everybody, cancel the debt, etc.

But now, there is great disillusionment, bitter disappointment, that when he came to power instead of stopping the debt he’s paid it and he’s given the capitalists everything. There is also corruption - which we also saw in previous capitalist governments - and new scandals involving at least some individuals in the Lula government.

Durval, why are you attending this conference?

Because I still have hope that we can make a decisive change, that we can end inequality and this inhuman society. However, there are no illusions by people like me in the PT.

Only the MPs associated with the new party have stuck to their principles for socialism and equality, and have been prepared to fight the government, which is now completely subservient to capital. The party is however, just a beginning. The bigger task is to convince the workers and the poor of Brazil that we can redistribute the wealth, by changing society.

Finally, Durval, what is your message to young people in Britain and the world about the future?

They must practise solidarity and see that the capitalist-imperialist system is a system of world wide terrorism against the working class and the poor.

They must fight for a socialist society, which can bring real equality, jobs and abolish hunger from countries like mine, Brazil, and the rest of the world.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

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