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Brazil: Lula’s Prospects


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.1

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.2 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 it is a secret “Castroist” cabal aimed at promoting international terrorism is exaggerated to say the least. Jorge Castañeda, the current Mexican foreign minister, attended meetings of the São Paulo Forum some years ago, but today he is one of Castro’s least favorite people. Yet accusations of this sort can take on a life of their own, and already have, turning up in recycled form in The New York Times on October 31.3 Checking back to find the origins of this anti-Lula campaign, I find it begins with no less an “authority” than Lyndon LaRouche, whose Web page asserted in 1995,

The narco-terrorist insurgency known as the São Paulo Forum (SPF) has very high-level sponsors inside the financial and political establishment of the Americas, in the form of a Washington-based think-tank founded in 1982 by David Rockefeller, McGeorge Bundy and others, known as the Inter-American Dialogue (IAD).4

After the Brazilian election, Constantine Menges was back at it again: Lula’s election, he said, “represents the largest intelligence failure since the end of World War II.” If Lula is left unfettered, “George W. Bush will have lost South America.”5 The far-right-wing Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has already called CIA Director George Tenet “Lula’s greatest benefactor” because of his “neglect and perfidy [which] have enabled Lula to be so near to the presidency.”6 The garrulous US secretary of the treasury, Paul O’Neill, never at a loss for inappropriate words at an inappropriate moment, concluded that the markets now needed to wait for President-elect Lula “to assure them he is not a crazy person.” Brazilians would be justified in thinking that the crazies in fact are to be found in Washington.

No one doubts that the stakes involved in the election of a candidate of the left in Brazil are high and the risks great, or that Lula and the Workers Party have longstanding socialist credentials, or that he has met with Castro, or received a victory “Bolivarian saber” from Venezuelan president Chávez, or that his closest adviser, José Dirceu, was trained as a guerrilla in Cuba and returned to Brazil decades ago with a face altered by plastic surgery to disguise him. Nor can anyone deny that Brazil is facing a major domestic financial crisis occurring within an international environment in which the US economy is in recession, unable and unwilling to revive the scale of investments to which Brazil had grown accustomed during the boom years of the 1990s. The prospect of war in Iraq, moreover, could send petroleum prices skyrocketing, adding to already growing inflationary pressures. These are not ideal conditions for a historic transition of power and would be a challenge to any untested leader and political party in a country like Brazil, excessively vulnerable as it is to external financial shocks.

But few of these factors are Lula’s creation, and it is absurd to denigrate the remarkable democratic triumph that Lula’s election represents, or to recognize the fact that had he been “Castroist” or “Chavista” he would never have been elected president of Brazil. The achievement of the election is threefold: for Lula himself, for the Workers Party (PT) he founded, as well as for Brazil. Lula began his life in extreme poverty in the drought-stricken Northeast. He and his mother were abandoned by his father, who migrated south, as did millions of others, to find work in the rapidly industrializing state of São Paulo. Later Lula and his mother also made the more-than-1,000-mile journey to São Paulo, joining the so-called paus-de-araras, literally “parrot perchers” (so named after the rickety wooden trucks they traveled on), who flocked into São Paulo in the 1950s and 1960s.

Lula’s remarried father was unwilling to accept either of them back into the family. Rising from shoeshine boy to lathe operator to organizer for the metalworkers union to party leader, he was elected on his fourth attempt to the presidency by more than 50 million votes. As the campaign posters put it, “Lula’s time has arrived.” Only one other presidential candidate in the Western Hemisphere has gained more votes in a presidential contest, and that was Ronald Reagan, another union organizer, no less persistent in his presidential ambitions.

The achievement was also for Lula’s party. For many years social scientists have argued that part of the problem of emerging democracies is that they lack strongly institutionalized political parties. For twenty years the Brazilian Workers Party has built itself up from a grass-roots organization into a national organization and has gained experience in government at the municipal and state levels. During the past decade the party, now numbering more than 300,000, moved to the center ideologically, much as the Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) did during the democratization of Spain in the 1970s, when it shook off its Marxist past and moved to the European political mainstream in the process, as a result gaining power under Felipe Gonzalez, one of the models for the Brazilian PT. As in Spain, this shift enabled the PT to expand beyond its initial base, which was formed by Catholic activists inspired by liberation theology, the industrial unions which emerged in the 1970s in São Paulo, members of nongovernment organizations, as well as the landless rural workers movement (MST) which became a force in the 1980s organizing sharecroppers as they were being displaced in the countryside by the rapid mechanization of Brazilian agriculture.

Both the unions and the MST grew out of a militant past—in the 1970s a series of major strikes consolidated the industrial unions, and the MST, quiet during the presidential campaign doubtless as part of a pact with Lula, has specialized in lightning land invasions and takeovers, often with strong political overtones; the fazenda, or country estate, of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s family, for example, was subjected to several sieges and one invasion during his two terms in office.

Overall, however, the PT has been able to bring into the Brazilian political system many marginalized people who elsewhere in Latin America remain without institutionalized representation or voice. Today perhaps 30 percent of the PT call themselves radicals, among them a hard-line faction known in the ever-inventive Brazilian political lexicon as Shiite; but most of the party members have learned to play the democratic game. It is precisely this type of modern political party that much of Latin America now lacks, making many societies dangerously polarized between the state on one hand and the masses on the other without effective mediating institutions to channel their aspirations into effective nonviolent policies.

As the trade unions and the Workers Party grew in Brazil over the past twenty years, they developed international connections on the left within Latin America and beyond. But it should also be noted that the São Paulo unions, especially the metalworkers union of which Lula was president, received in the late 1970s and early 1980s very strong support and encouragement from US unions. This came in particular from the United Auto Workers as part of an effort to respond to the transfer overseas by American multinationals of auto manufacturing plants, and from the AFL–CIO, which was trying to encourage the formation of non-Communist unions on the US model in Latin America. The paranoid left could just as easily attack Lula for being a stooge of Walter Reuther’s UAW as of being a stooge of Fidel Castro.

But to understand Lula it is essential to realize that he is at the core a union man, a tough labor negotiator, a deep believer in the power of listening to different sectors of opinion and conciliating divergent interests through debate, a formidable forger of consensus, and a leader with a charismatic ability thereafter to mobilize the crowds in the direction chosen. All this, with nearly two thirds of the Brazilian popular vote, makes Lula a powerful political figure who has not lost touch with his origins. It is not surprising that he speaks of forging a “social pact” in Brazil, or that his first priority is to declare a war on hunger.

  1. 1

    Letter to President George W. Bush from Representative Henry J. Hyde, Chairman, International Relations Committee, US House of Representatives, October 24, 2002.

  2. 2

    Constantine C. Menges, “Blocking a New Axis of Evil,” Washington Times, August 7, 2002; Letter to President George W. Bush from Representatives Cass Ballenger (R–North Carolina), Dan Burton (R–Indiana), Jim Gibbons (R–Nevada), Benjamin Gilman (R– New York), Wally Herger (R–California), Darrell Issa (R–California), Walter Jones (R–North Carolina), Brian Kerns (R–Indiana), Dana Rohrabacher (R–California), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R–Florida), Ed Royce (R–California), Christopher Smith (R–New Jersey), October 3, 2002.

  3. 3

    Larry Rohter, “Relations with US a Challenge for Leftist Elected in Brazil,” The New York Times, October 31, 2002, p. A10.

  4. 4

    Valerie Rush, “Inter-American Dialogue: Sponsors for São Paulo Forum in Washington,” Executive Intelligence Review (November 10, 1995), available at www.larouchepub.com/other/1995 /2245_iad.html.

  5. 5

    Dave Eberhart, “Expert Laments US Failure in Brazil,” NewsMax.com, October 30, 2002.

  6. 6

    Dateline D.C., “Tenet Is ‘Lula’s‘ Greatest Benefactor,” Pittsburgh Tribune- Review, October 20, 2002.

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