Speaking as someone who has lived in Brazil for nearly 20 years, who has worked with the Landless Peasants’ Movement (MST) and has been a member of the Brazilian National Urban Reform Forum for the last 8 years, this book is full of exaggerations and outright lies about Brazil, the center-left PT party and ex-President Lula. Zirin, who normally gets it right, apparently came down here for a few weeks, talked to many of the wrong people - mostly from the upper middle class - in the most politically unusual big city in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, where the tiny PSOL party has several elected officials and neither PT nor PSDB are a major factor in local politics. In his zeal to accuse the Brazilian government of being “neoliberal”, he failed to ask any representatives of the organized left why they still support PT, despite their frustration with the World Cup.
I could list over a dozen things that are completely incorrect in this book, but here are a few examples of misinformation on important points: 1) President Lula did not ever implement austerity measures. To the contrary, he raised retirement pension funding, health and education spending and more than doubled the size and budget of the welfare system; 2) In the half-truths department, he calls PT’s 190% real term minimum wage increase 50%; and 3) He mischaracterizes the relationship between the PT government, the unions and the poor people’s social movements, omitting the fact that, despite vocal criticism, the vast majority of these organizations still support Dilma Rouseff for re-election.
To illustrate why most of the poor and working class left still support PT, despite their many, vocal criticisms, I will give a few examples of how the roughly 1.2 million small farmers in the Landless Peasants’ Movement (MST) have benefited from 12 years of PT government. Zirin rightfully points out that the granting of land titles for squatting farmers has slowed down during PT’s 12 years in office, compared to the neoliberal predecessors. He omits mentioning, however, that PT set up a program called PAA, in which all school lunch and hospital food in rural areas is now purchased by the government directly from family farmers. This is one reason 70% of the food consumed in Brazil still comes, in a very non-neoliberal fashion, from small farmers. He omits mentioning that the PT administration turned over control of the public school management in agrarian reform settlement villages to the MST. He omits that, thanks to a federal university outreach program, thousands of MST members are now studying in public universities.
The fact is that, although it is possible to cherry-pick examples of neoliberal policies that have been implemented by the PT-led coalition government over the past 12 years to build an argument that Lula, the most loved president in Brazilian history, was a neoliberal, Darth Vader style bogeyman who “dances with the devil”, the reality of the Brazilian context is more complex. As I wrote in a recent blog at the Center for Economic and Policy Research:
“João Pedro Stedile, one of the national leaders of the Landless Peasants’ Movement (MST), breaks down the choices that voters have this October in the following manner: “Dilma Rousseff and (third-most-popular candidate) Eduardo Campos represent neo-developmentalism, and Aécio Neves represents neoliberalism.” Neo-developmentalism is a term that people on the Brazilian left use to describe the PT’s modern version of developmentalism. Developmentalism is a Keynesian-influenced economic strategy first developed in the 1940s in the Third World by economists like Raúl Prebisch and Celso Furtado based on income redistribution through social welfare initiatives, government stimulus for national industrial production and consumption, maintaining key sectors of the economy under control of state companies, and a high minimum wage. It was employed at varying levels by Brazilian president João (Jango) Goulart before the U.S.-supported military coup of 1964. Many people on the Brazilian left apply the “neo” prefix to the 12 years of PT government due to the neoliberal policies initiated in the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration, such as an independent and monetarist Central Bank , that the PT has done little to revert and that blend with traditional developmentalist policies such as large minimum wage hikes, high social spending on welfare programs, maintaining state control over the petroleum industry and mortgage market and subsidizing the construction and manufacturing industries.”
In “Dance with the Devil”, Zirin did not give the right to response to the historic actors on the Brazilian left who he attacked. In leaving that huge, gaping hole in the book, he loses the opportunity to explain how, while inequality increased and millions of people lost their jobs in the northern capitalist countries, Brazil gained 19.5 million jobs, lowered its GINI coefficient significantly, eradicated hunger and lifted 36 million people above the poverty line. The largest study of its kind on the causes of this poverty reduction was conducted by IPEA, the Brazilian Applied Economic Research Institute, covering the years 2005-2009. It built a linear regression model establishing causality levels for over a dozen indicators. The two biggest causes, by far, were the huge and very non-neoliberal minimum wage increases and the locking of the federal pension program into this, increased minimum wage. One of the most misleading things about “Dance with the Devil” is that the reader could easily put down the book thinking that it was Lula’s “diabolical” neoliberalism, and not the creation of a developmentalist social democracy that caused this to happen.