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Lula's Moment | The Nation

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Lula's Moment

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Porto Alegre, Brazil

About the Author

Tim Frasca
Tim Frasca is a US journalist based in Santiago, Chile. He has lived and worked in South America for twenty years.
Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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"We cannot have some eating five times a day while others go five days without eating," Brazil's newly installed president, Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva, told an appreciative crowd here on January 24. But what would be boilerplate in another context, tossed out by one more off-the-shelf Latin American populist to generate de rigueur roars from the faithful, was, in this context, strangely and quietly moving.

For starters, Lula--whose January 1 inauguration was dubbed the "first high point of the international left since the fall of the Berlin wall" by his adviser and renowned radical Catholic theologian Frei Betto--isn't your everyday populist. All Brazil knows how Lula was born in poverty and how his major campaign promise was to wipe out hunger. So when he spoke at the third annual World Social Forum, many of the 75,000 listeners at the Pôr-do-Sol outdoor amphitheater looked down and shook their heads; some wept. None left charged up and ready to chant party slogans or shake their fists in the air. Instead, the mostly Brazilian crowd melted away in a pensive mood, aware that this historic presidency and the entrance of the Brazilian Workers' Party (PT) into the government may be their last chance to make a humane country out of their grotesquely unfair society.

Brazil has the ninth-largest economy in the world but ranks fourth-worst on the globe in the gap between rich and poor--right behind Sierra Leone, the Central African Republic and Swaziland. Ten million citizens live chronically undernourished, while the Brazilian elite ring their highrises and helipads with razor wire and commute to Miami for weekend shopping binges. Today's Brazil, said Frei Betto, represents nothing less than "an offense to God."

President Lula attracted only two rounds of boos during his address: once when he outlined his plans for the next four years ("EIGHT! EIGHT!" the crowd insisted) and again when he mentioned his imminent trip to the rival World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to plead for the poor before the assembled planetary plutocracy ("DON'T GO! STAY!"). Everyone acknowledges that the PT administration faces vast difficulties, but disagreements are quickly emerging about the proper course for it to take: how far to negotiate with Brazil's adversaries in the wealthy North, and the precise location of the slippery slope where principles are abandoned and Lula, as one insider critic quipped, molts "from president into chief bookkeeper for the International Monetary Fund."

So while the debate thirty years ago around a similar leftist Latin American president--Chile's Salvador Allende--focused on the broad philosophical question of whether a peaceful transition to socialism was possible, today's interrogatives are more immediate, more pragmatic, more concrete: What is the likelihood of even minimal reform within the margins of the international financial architecture? What alternatives to the neoliberal "Washington Consensus" are possible? Can Brazil take regional leadership in fighting for fairer trade relationships with the United States? In short, how practical is a peaceful transition to anything beyond the unacceptable status quo? And, most important, how can Lula balance the pressing needs of a desperate Brazil with the intransigencies of the global market? "Expectations have never been higher," said Kjeld Jakobsen, until recently international relations secretary of Brazil's Central Labor Federation and an ardent Lula partisan. "Everyone knows that change is going to be slow and difficult--Lula said so in his campaign. But you never know just how long this expectation can be delayed before it all collapses."

Lula won the presidency in October with an unprecedented 61 percent of the popular vote, after nearly copping an outright majority in the first round. It was his fourth attempt as the standard-bearer of the PT, an amalgam of liberation Catholics, trade unionists and assorted leftist intellectuals that emerged from the long struggle against Brazil's vicious military dictatorship (1964-85). At age 57, short and paunchy with a whitening beard, Lula is nevertheless an extraordinary, Lincolnesque figure. One of eight siblings from an impoverished town in the arid northeast, his family migrated to gritty São Paulo, where he left grade school to shine shoes, and apprenticed as a metalworker at 14. He entered politics through trade-union activities, which also landed him in jail for a brief stint. In the shadow of Brazil's military dictatorship, Lula led the rejuvenation of the national labor movement and engineered the building of the PT--a sui generis mass leftist party that is neither orthodox Marxist nor social democratic but somewhere in between.

Although now more polished and groomed, Lula is not considered a great orator and was often belittled by his enemies over his struggles with Portuguese grammar. In fact, he belongs to another century, before the advent of the Bob Forehead-type politician, the golem hatched and shepherded by imagemakers and nurtured with cash channeled from on high. As he phrases it, "I wasn't elected by a TV network or because of my intelligence or personality but through the high level of political awareness of the Brazilian people." And unstated, but always present, is the fact that Lula isn't just the first president to be for the Brazilian poor, but to actually be one of them.

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