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Brazilian labor leader fights global oppression

By Jim Genova, People's Weekly World, 4 February 1995

UNITED NATIONS -- Antonio Neto is not one who minces words. His frankness denotes the experience of years of struggle for justice and equality.

Only 42, Neto has already become one of the most prominent labor leaders in Brazil and the world. He is currently president of the CGT (General Workers' Central), Brazil's second largest labor federation with over 8 million members in 811 local unions, and president of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), whose 13th congress in Damascus, Syria last October was attended by representatives of 300 million workers in 84 countries.

Neto was in New York last week heading up the WFTU delegation to a meeting of the Preparatory Committee for the World Summit for Social Development (WSSD). The results of the WSSD, set for March 6-12 in Copenhagen, Denmark, will have a direct effect on the plight of millions of Brazilian workers and workers around the world, Neto told the World.

Because of this, the WFTU has called an International Day of Action for Social Development to coincide with the WSSD's opening on March 6. Millions of workers around the world will participate in various forms of protest to raise the demand for swift action to deal with the crisis.

Neto said, It is time to change the world. It is time for technology to work for the people, instead of people being victimized by technology. Scientific and technical advances should not be confined to the wealthy few for their benefit, it belongs to all the people and should be used for the common benefit. That is at the heart of the WSSD.

Neto pointed to the shocking disparity between the haves and have-nots as indicative of the control exercised by the wealthy few over the world's resources. There are fewer than 500 billionaires in the world while over 1.3 billion people live in absolute poverty. This is wrong -- it needs to be changed, he said.

Everyone is trying to help Japan [in the wake of the Kobe earthquake], and they should. But what about Africa? What help is offered to the millions of people who live a daily disaster in Africa? asked Neto.

He continued, There are children living in the streets, in the worst houses, not only in Brazil but here in the U.S. also. The summit will take up exactly these questions so it is imperative that labor be heard.

Neto has witnessed the devastating effects of the global socioeconomic crisis first hand. Brazil is rich in natural and human resources. Yet, a large percentage of the population lives in misery. This results from the increasing dominance of U.S., European and Japanese finance capital over Brazil's -- and the world's -- economy.

Neto said Brazil's biggest problem today is its enormous debt and the high interest attached to that debt. Brazil's debt is estimated at $116.5 billion -- about 33 percent of the country's Gross Domestic Product (the amount of goods and services produced).

Servicing this debt diverts money from production which leads to plant closings, higher unemployment and poverty, and lower tax revenues and consumer spending. The government then borrows more money to finance the debt and pay for necessary government functions. It is a vicious cycle from which Brazil has been unable to escape.

As a result, over eight million Brazilian workers are unemployed and millions more are underemployed, reducing a vast section of the population to extreme poverty.

Neto said the CGT's solution is to cancel the debt. The banks have already been paid many times over. Now Brazil is paying accumulated interest, and even that has been paid many times over. Last year, 67 percent of the budget went to pay the debt while only 3 percent went to education and 3 percent to health, said Neto.

Exacerbating the problem, according to Neto, is the neo-liberalist ideology currently in vogue among the capitalist class the world over. Neoliberal policies are vigorously promoted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank and are routinely foisted upon needful countries as a condition of loan packages.

These policies have exposed Brazil to the full weight of the transnational corporations which have wasted no time in flooding Brazil with cheap products, undercutting Brazil's domestic manufacturers. As a result, factories close and jobs disappear.

In addition, Neto said President Fernando Henrique Cardoso's government will consider constitutional changes next month which would lay bare Brazil's economy to total domination by the transnationals. (Cardoso took office on Jan. 1 after winning election last Oct. 3.)

The 'reforms' will give more rights to international companies. They will allow for the privatization of public industry, Neto said, adding, The constitution clearly defines what is public and what is private -- telecommunications, petroleum, transportation, social insurance are defined as public.

The most notorious example of the havoc already wreaked by the transnationals is the destruction of the Amazon rain forest. Neto said the transnational corporations want the rain forest for themselves. The forest is being raped for its medicinal wealth (many herbs and plants in the rain forest are used to treat diseases and some researchers believe a treatment for cancer could be developed from rain forest plants). This was accelerated when Vice President Dan Quayle went to Brazil and ordered the congress to approve new patent laws giving exclusive ownership of products developed from the rain forest to transnationals. The same laws were forced on Argentina and other Latin American countries.

Neto said, The CGT's position is that the rain forest is our business. It belongs to the Brazilian people, and they should have the right to control what is taken from the rain forest and for what purpose, not the transnationals.

If Cardoso pushes the reform, the Brazilian workers will go into the streets to defend the constitution and our resources, Neto said defiantly.

Street heat has been a successful and important weapon in the Brazilian workers' arsenal. Just two years ago, mass protests, led by the unions, forced the ouster of the corrupt President Fernando Collor de Mello.

Neto related the story of how one member of Brazil's congress had a plane turned around in mid-flight so he could vote to impeach Collor when he learned, via radio, that hundreds of thousands of anti-Collor demonstrators had gathered outside congress in Brazil's biggest demonstration ever. Up to then, that congress member had never expressed any sympathy for impeachment.

Learning the lessons of that struggle, Neto said the workers are going to take the offensive against Cardoso. Our next demonstration will be Jan. 29, National Pensioners' Day, because Cardoso is trying to cut social security. This will be the first demonstration this year, but likely not the last, he added.

Already a warning campaign has begun against the government's inflationary policies. Recently, the bus drivers union in S o Paulo conducted a warning strike in which buses lined up for 6 kilometers, blocking traffic, to demand that the employers open negotiations on a new contract. It showed that if they won't negotiate with us, we will put people in the street. It is the only way to change the world -- to put people in the street.

Neto said little had changed with Cardoso's election. Cardoso was in the last government (he is a former foreign minister and finance minister). He continues many of the same policies [as Collor]. These are the ones imposed by the IMF and World Bank -- the same as in many Latin American countries.

For many Brazilians life is difficult at best, and often impossible. With the lowest minimum guaranteed salary in the world ($85 a month) the average Brazilian cannot afford the basic necessities. Food, housing, clothing and other basics cost about $115 a month -- $30 over the minimum wage. About 52 percent of Brazilian workers make the minimum wage.

Congress was forced to approve a new minimum wage, said Neto. They raised it to $115. But Cardoso vetoed the bill. While he did this, Cardoso approved big raises for government officials (157 percent). This he didn't veto, Neto said angrily.

Flushed with emotion, Neto described the absolute poverty in which many Brazilians live. He said Brazil has a deficit of 14 million homes. Because of this, many families double up and thousands are homeless.

About 40 million people are illiterate, ie., they have received less than four years of education.

Neto said Brazil's crisis is caused by those who benefit from it -- the transnationals and banks. They don't invest in production, they engage in speculation. The result is declining production, increased capital flight and deteriorating social conditions.

This leaves Brazil vulnerable to the Mexico effect. The base is the same, Neto said, the economic plans are based on dollar reserves. The commercial balance shows these reserves dwindling. Since July, the Brazilian real has depreciated 40 percent and there has been a 22 percent inflation [since the Mexican crisis in December] which means the country's exports lose value. All of this causes a decline in production, higher unemployment.

The auto industry exemplifies the increasing dominance of Brazil's economy by the trans-nationals. Neto said that this year GMC, Volkswagen and Ford will import 33 percent of Brazil's automobiles, shifting production from their Brazil-based plants.

If the financial policies of the government aren't changed, the crisis will deepen, Neto said.

If the crisis deepens, the door opens for political instability. It was only recently that parliamentary government returned to Brazil. From 1964 to 1985 a succession of military dictators held sway over Latin America's most populous and richest country. Until recently, an enormous percentage of Brazil's national budget was earmarked for the military -- making it one of the most powerful military forces in the world.

Neto has vivid recollections of the junta. His father spent two years in prison under the dictatorship. The labor movement was forced underground. Political parties were banned. Thousands were arrested, tortured, killed or disappeared.

With the return of civilian rule, military spending has dropped to just 5 percent of the budget. However, in the back of everyone's mind is the memory of the brutal dictatorship and the possibility of its return.

Neto said there were concerns recently when the government, while raising all other government officials' salaries, forgot about the military. Low pay, or failure to pay wages, has frequently been a convenient excuse for a military coup, but it appears that for now civilian rule is strong enough to weather the crisis.

Another factor mitigating against a return to military rule is U.S. imperialism. The new liberalism doesn't need the army to protect it, it has the U.S., Neto said. The transnationals prefer to do their business under the guise of democracy rather than maintaining control by force. However, there are still times when imperialism will resort to dictatorship.

With the reemergence of the people's forces after the dictatorship's fall, Neto said, The task is to reorganize the movement. We have to find ways to move forward. We (the trade union movement) see 1995 as a big year, in Brazil and the world.

The WSSD is a key event in this big year. The WFTU came to the Preparatory Committee meeting armed with a series of proposals which point to a realistic way out of the devastating socioeconomic crisis. The WFTU proposed levying a 0.25 percent tax on financial transactions. This is similar to the U.S. Congressional Progressive Caucus' call for a penny tax on all transactions on Wall Street to finance a public works job creation program.

This is an important proposal because the main cause of the crisis is financial speculation, said Neto, adding, There is 400 times more investment in speculation than in production. Over 75 percent of the U.S. investment in Mexico is speculation. It is time to take that money and invest it in production.

Neto continued, If we stop speculation, employment will increase, which increases purchasing power, fueling trade and economic growth. Right now only 50 million Brazilians are 'in the market,' while 100 million are outside.

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) is not the answer, in fact it makes things worse. GATT is paternalistic, Neto began, adding, Who decides what is good for one's economy? GATT will impose penalties on countries because they cannot restructure their economies according to GATT's rules.

This does not create a 'free market,' Neto said. It is a closed market. It is the ultimate monopoly. The World Trade Organization (WTO -- established by GATT to monitor international trade) will determine what countries produce which products. Everything is under the control of the trans-nationals. They will force countries to cease producing some products and begin importing them.

Neto said the path was cleared for GATT by the transnational corporations' aggressive attacks on workers' rights. They want to smash the workers, that is their real goal. It is time to change all this -- to turn the tables.

It is time to pull all the workers of the world together to fight against these attacks. We have to show what can be done if we all work together against the trans-nationals. Workers must become transnational too, he said.

One major step toward building a transnational labor movement is the International Day of Action on March 6.

In Brazil, we are going to demonstrate in front of the Congress. The union will also send faxes and cable messages to the summit expressing our demands for immediate action to solve the crisis, said Neto.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the WFTU's founding. Neto explained, The WFTU has been an important force in the last 50 years as a counterbalance to capital. And we will continue to be a force defending workers and fighting the trans-nationals. Wherever there is a demonstration in defense of workers' rights, the WFTU will be there, he said assuredly.