Brazil’s Lula continues to be the president
The 2002 election of Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva to the presidency was a momentous occasion. He was a veteran, the candidate who refused to give up despite failing in three consecutive elections in 1989, 1994 and 1998.
We say that Lula continues to be the president. We hear he’s still got an office next to Dilma
Rafaela Albuquerque, a university student in Recife, north-eastern Brazil, remembers her grandparents crying at the news of his win.
“It was a dream come true,” she says. “Everyone was so emotional.” Lula’s trade union background – he was elected president of the metalworkers’ trade union in 1975 – suggested he would combine being a champion of the bottom millions with a left-wing distrust of the rich and privileged.
Albuquerque says only one of those assumptions turned out to be true: the devotion to the poor.
Billions of dollars in state funding went to national development programmes that focused on industry, agriculture, infrastructure and slum reform, with particular emphasis on the country’s blighted north-east region, where Lula is from.
“In the north of Brazil, Lula is like a god,” hotel porter Romualdo Andrade says. “If you say something bad about him, beware.”
Much like Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, Lula grabbed the political centre of a country – yet crucially yanking it to the left rather than the right in his case.
The effect of lifting millions out of poverty has totally changed the game for any future opposition to the ruling Parti de Trabalhadores.
Rich got richer
But in his relations with the rich, however, Albuquerque says the president surprised everyone, pushing policies that supported big business and “helped the rich get richer”.
She concedes that economic pragmatism may have been at work.
Lula stood on the side of big business so it could create more jobs for the poor, she says.
Which, of course, had its downsides: “In between, the middle class got squeezed.” Brazil’s upper classes do not hold him in affection. Jokes about his bad grammar abounded.
Lula was also eager to leave his mark beyond the shores of Brazil.
To him, there was little difference between Brazilian poverty and poverty in the rest of the develop- ing world: both causes deserved to be championed.
His actions went beyond rhetoric. Under Lula, Brazil was the only major power to recognise Palestine as a state, it refused to isolate Iran for developing its nuclear energy programme and promoted Mercosur, the Latin American alternative to United States (US)-backed free trade zones.
At the Cancún conference of the World Trade Organisation in 2003, Brazil helped prevent attempts by the European Union and the US to push through greater free trade agreements that would have benefited the rich countries most.
These concrete actions for other countries contrast with those of other ‘populist’ leaders in Latin America, such as in Venezuela and Bolivia, who sometimes fail to practise what they preach.
“If we want to give a signal to the poorest countries that they will have a chance in the 21st century, the US, the United Kingdom, France and Germany must make concessions,” he told the World Economic Forum in 2007.
Lula’s international outlook – unprecedented in Brazilian history – paid off. “Now everyone talks about Brazil,” says Romualdo Andrade .
There may be no greater evidence of that than the feat, accomplished towards the end of Lula’s presidency, of winning the rights to host both the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Out of office, he continues to exercise influence on the presidency of Dilma Rousseff, who succeeded him in 2011 after serving as his chief of staff.
When he is not making headlines at home, he is globetrotting as the latest member of a club of former heads of state once exclusively peopled by the Tony Blairs and Bill Clintons.
“We say that Lula continues to be the president,” says Andrade. “We hear he’s still got an office next to Dilma.” ●