Latin America

Brazil: Lula Takes the Helm

The landslide victory of  Workers’ Party leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the October 2002 presidential election was widely regarded in Brazil as a historic event that confirms the country’s full transition to democracy.

“In less than two decades, Brazil made a phenomenal transition from a dictatorship to a left-wing government,” wrote Alexandre Oltramari and Maurício Lima in Veja (Oct. 28). And from Veja’s editorial: “Lula as president shows the world that democracy in Brazil, and in Latin America by association, is not merely exercised for the sake of appearances by elites who only seek to perpetuate their own power.”

In 1952, at the age of 7, Luiz Inácio (he later officially added “Lula” to his name) da Silva, his seven siblings, and their mother, Euridice, traveled 13 days on the back of a truck to São Paulo in search of their father, Aristides, and a better life. Aristides Inácio da Silva, meanwhile, had started another family, leaving Euridice alone to raise her children.

Commentators were struck by the improbability that a man of such humble origins, who never finished high school, let alone earned a university degree, would become the democratically elected president of one of the world’s largest countries and the premier economy of South America. “Brazilian democracy was not only closed off to left-wing politicians like Lula, but also to the bearded frogs of the lower classes who did not possess university degrees,” wrote Antônio Gonçalves Filho and Guilherme Evelin in Epoca (Nov. 4). “Lula was only allowed to come into the parlors of the great houses after it became clear, in the 2002 campaign, that no other would-be prince was capable of taking the daughter of the house out to the dance and seeing the waltz through without tripping.”

Earning 55 million votes, Lula won a clear mandate from an overwhelming number of Brazilians. Brazil has been in a recession, worsened by the “crisis of confidence” brought about by a flight of foreign capital as Lula began to rise in the polls over the summer. Lula has set himself the perhaps impossible task of reconciling the needs of the people with the disparate and contradictory needs of  “the market”—balancing budgets, making loan payments on schedule, and keeping inflation down (as demanded by the International Monetary Fund and the United States). So far, his program includes bringing back growth, strengthening Brazil’s economic independence, and feeding the hungry.

In an Oct. 29 article, O Estado de São Paulo’s Vera Rosa and Wilson Tosta remarked, “Lula struck a note of caution, recognizing that problems could not be resolved overnight, and speaking of ‘austerity.’ He cited the severity of the country’s problems, but made it clear that he would invest vigorously in social programs.”

A Fôlha de São Paulo editorial (Oct. 29) suggested that the government must “reduce Brazil’s dependency on increasingly meager foreign investments,...guarantee the revalorization and/or stability of the currency, which in turn would help fight against inflation, and help bring back growth.”

The Bush administration, through its ambassador, Donna Hrinak, is counting on a good working relationship with Lula’s Brazil. Speaking to Veja (Nov. 6), Inter-American Dialogue’s Michael Shifter urged both Lula and Bush to keep the radicals in check. “In Brazil,” he added, “there are PT [Workers’ Party] members who hate the idea of having waited 20 years to govern, and now have to be the United States’ little friend.”

But only weeks before the first round of the election, Lula made several publicized overtures to the IMF and to Brazil’s business community, assuring them that in the event of his victory, Brazil would stand firm by its commitments and that no massive communist-style nationalizations were at hand. This paid off. Panic did not strike the market, as had been expected when Lula won.

“The focus of our foreign policy will be economic pragmatism. We have markets to conquer and tough negotiations ahead concerning the FTAA [Free Trade Area of the Americas],” a top Lula adviser said to Veja (Oct. 28). “We are not going to create unnecessary ideological conflicts.” José Luis Fiori, writing in Carta Capital (Oct. 30) dared to dream: “Who knows, perhaps the time has come for Brazil to pursue national development along with a more democratic and inclusive society...that will come progressively closer to the welfare state of the Europeans.”