I arrived back in the US from Brazil on election day, Sunday, October 27, when 115 million voters peacefully went to the polls, pressed the keys on their compact electronic voting machines, and by a huge margin elected a former factory worker, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, universally known as Lula, to be president of one of the world’s largest democracies. Lula won by 61 percent of the popular vote, a full 22.5 percentage points more than José Serra, former health minister and the candidate of the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and his victory from all accounts was being accepted calmly throughout Brazil.
Lula’s triumph seemed like the realization of an American dream, a rise from the backlands of northern Brazil to the presidency; from log cabin to head of state. But two days later, in Washington, D.C., I was not sure I was on the same planet, let alone in the same hemisphere. The United States was not celebrating this remarkable demonstration of democratic civility in a region where neither civility nor democracy is well entrenched and in a country that until not so long ago was ruled by a military dictatorship that lasted twenty-one years.
Instead, Henry J. Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, had just written to President Bush warning him that the president-elect of Brazil was a dangerous “pro-Castro radical who for electoral purposes had posed as a moderate.” Lula, moreover, Chairman Hyde wrote, might well form with Fidel Castro and Comandante Hugo Chávez of Venezuela “an axis of evil in the Americas,” which could potentially have at its disposal a Brazilian “30-kiloton nuclear bomb” as well as the Brazilian “ballistic missiles” to deliver it.
No one I met in Brazil thinks that Lula would see Cuba, let alone Venezuela, as a model. Brazil in any case is far too complex, diverse, and sophisticated a society to take such a direction: standing alone the economy of São Paulo state, where Lula made his name, is larger than Argentina or Colombia. And the charge about nuclear weapons is absurd on its face. Both Argentina and Brazil after their return to democracy closed down their nuclear programs and signed an international treaty making Latin America a nuclear- free zone. But Constantine Menges of the Hudson Institute, a former official in the Reagan administration, has been warning of a Brazilian nuclear threat in the Washington Times since early October, as have the Cuban-Americans in the US Congress and some resuscitated scaremongers from the Jurassic right. Lula, they claim, is a member of a society, the São Paulo Forum, which encourages terrorism.
Even the best-informed experts I talked to in Brazil had never heard of the São Paulo Forum. It is in fact the name for an international agglomeration of left-wing parties and Lula did attend its last meeting in Havana, which is doubtless why he came onto the screen of the Cuban-Americans in the US Congress. But the charge that …