Sunday's strong presidential victory for Dilma Rousseff confirms Brazil's unique trajectory from military dictatorship in the 1970s to thriving democracy today.
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Sunday's strong Presidential victory for Dilma Rousseff confirms Brazil's unique trajectory from military dictatorship in the 1970s to thriving democracy today. With booming exports, competitive and transparent elections, and diminishing poverty rates, Brazil appears well on the path to world power status. That Brazil's new president is a woman, ex-guerrilla, and leader of the leftist Worker's Party makes Brazil's success story of development in the age of globalization rich in political inspiration and compelling historical lessons.

A hemisphere with more countries like Brazil would change the geopolitical map of the world. If Latin America were to demonstrate that democracy and deepening respect for human rights produced growing economies that included poor people and minorities, then the project of development, in its more secular and non-violent form, would gain renewed traction globally.

And if this were to occur without US dominance, but rather with a complementary base of political power and economic cooperation south of the Panama Canal, then the project of secular modernity might be rescued from its association primarily with the US and Europe. And indeed, in his promotion of Unasur, the Union of South American Nations, and his economic support for neighboring Bolivia and Paraguay, Rousseff's predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has taken impressive steps in this direction, including laying the groundwork for a Brazilian seat on the UN Security Council.

Yet as President Rousseff looks ahead to booming trade with China, the World Cup in 2014, and the Olympics in 2016, she also looks out on one of the most unequal societies in the world. In Brazil's major cities, including Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, drug gangs rule sprawling and violent shantytowns with sky-high homicide rates. Daily life in Brazil's impoverished Northeast, where growing GNP does not translate into well-being, has been improved by small income transfers in the form of the popular bolsa familia, or family grants, but not by land reform, sustainable agriculture, or innovative regional industry.

Brazil's Amazon continues to disappear at lightning speed, with agribusiness gaining land and profits at the expense of indigenous groups and sustainable agriculture, while a tipping point of destruction may produce unstoppable dry-out, fires, and declines in rainfall. Education, a mere half day of schooling for Brazil's burgeoning student population, does not meet the private sector's needs for skilled workers or contribute to the development of an engaged citizenry to face democracy's twenty-first century challenges.

Many veteran democracy-watchers rightly say it takes time to produce reforms that lesson inequality, improve education, and grapple with environmental destruction. Economic growth, meanwhile, has contributed to improving living standards and bolstering the capacity of government to address key problems. As a result, economists, politicians, and policy experts in Brazil and the US tend to extrapolate today's successes into the future. They take from Brazil's experience the reassuring lesson that globalization can be steered -- by sensitive technocrats in democracies -- to produce measurable gains in export revenue and electoral stability.

But it is naïve to assume that any economy has long to grow before the next economic crisis. And it is equally misguided to imagine that any newly democratic system has decades to alleviate deprivation and violence before the next popular uprising, wave of violence, or need for military intervention to quell unrest. That's why understanding the origins of Brazil's success is key to forging policies that will enable the country's economic and political reforms to endure.

Brazil stands out as a Latin American success story for reasons that are often overlooked. First, Brazil's transition to democracy was accompanied by a broad and long-lasting surge of radical grassroots activism. This activism shaped the writing of Brazil's new constitution in 1988, providing for both decentralization of resources and for grassroots participation in policymaking. The broad range of feminist, environmental, land, agricultural, gay and lesbian, and urban shantytown movements that spread across Brazil in the 1980s and 1990s also shaped profoundly the way Brazilians became democratic citizens, making clear that politics occurred in the streets as well as in formal institutions and that to be a citizen was to act in both locations.

Second, Brazil's transition was shaped from the get-go, even while the military still held power, by the emergency of a new political party, the Workers Party (PT). Significantly, the PT defined itself as a radical leftist party but squarely rejected the Leninism and vanguardism of the Soviet Union and Cuba . Since it's inception, the PT has emphasized democratic procedures - debate followed by voting - in its internal affairs and municipal policies, as well as in Brazil's multi-level electoral arena.

Third, in the economic realm, Brazil's democracy has been strengthened by the government's role in promoting infrastructure, industry, and agricultural commodities, as well as in fostering the ethanol and oil production that have made the country energy self-sufficient. In fact, the Brazilian government has consistently played a central role in economic planning and investment since the 1930s, when Brazilians jump-started industrialization and sought economic autonomy in response to worldwide depression.

This state role in the economy has repeatedly produced far-sighted benefits, albeit with some wrong turns. Under military rule, the generals at the top promoted both the construction of infrastructure and industrial partnerships between government, private sector, and foreign investors. These active interventions in Brazil's economy brought the boom years of the so-called "Brazilian miracle," but also the pitfalls inherent in basing grandeza, or visions of greatness, on imported oil and foreign loans. In turn, recent Presidents have responded by forging energy independence and bringing the foreign debt to near zero.

Thus supporters of democracy might note that in Brazil's success story, widespread grassroots mobilizations and the prominence of a radical leftist party played key roles, from the years preceding democratic transition though nearly three decades of elections. Equally noteworthy, the path of local grassroots activism and political party development moved from the streets to the institutions and from anti-capitalist positions to acceptance of markets without insisting that everyone assume this stance. Brazil's democracy is marked by ongoing tension over where to do politics and how to balance economic and social welfare goals.

Supporters of democracy might similarly note that government economic planning, with a key role for the state in investment and ownership, produced benefits in both economy and politics in Brazil. Long-range commitment and expertise in state planning laid the groundwork for and continue to undergird today's economic boom. This stance shifted to a degree under President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, an ex-Marxist professor who in the 1990s embraced free markets and privatized many sectors of the Brazilian economy. And it may shift again as President Rousseff seeks energy partnerships to fund ambitious education or environmental programs. As with grassroots mobilization and political party radicalism, Brazilians are likely to pursue a changing mixture of economic polices, maintaining the tension between private sector and government initiative.

It is this tension that makes democracy strong. It also provides lessons for the future. The inclusion of ordinary citizens -- poor, female, Afro-Brazilian, indigenous, middle class, private sector -- in multiple forms of political participation and economic production has deepened Brazilian democracy. These citizens, in turn, expect the kind of reform that improves their lives in the short run, but does not come from elections or markets alone.

Enduring reform in the developing world needs active social movements and adherence to democratic procedures, state economic planning and investment and commitment to markets. President Rousseff would be wise to continue to challenge political and economic orthodoxies as she promotes equality and inclusion in what could continue to be a pioneering global success story.

Jeffrey W. Rubin is Professor of Latin American History and Research Associate at the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at Boston University, where he directs the Enduring Reform Project.

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