Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva; drawing by David Levine


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.

The achievement of the election for Brazil is no less remarkable. Stubbornly Brazil remains among the least egalitarian countries in the less developed world. According to Dr. Roberto Borges Martins, president of the government statistical institute in Brasília (IPEA), with whom I spoke during the week before the elections, the richest 10 percent of the population controls 50 percent of the national wealth, whereas the bottom 50 percent have only 10 percent. Nevertheless, as we have also known from academic studies for some time, and as Lula’s own career suggests, there is also great social mobility within Brazil despite these inequalities. Brazil has a very large, articulate, and well-informed middle class and a strong division of powers at the federal level between the executive, Congress, and the judiciary. The elections themselves, for example, were conducted with exemplary efficiency, and the returns were available from across the nation by the evening of the day of the election. (Florida could do well to look to Brazil.) The results were clear. There were no indications of fraud. And much of this is owing to the judicial electoral court system in Brazil, which is responsible for overseeing the balloting and acting on complaints. While traveling in different regions of the country before the election, I was impressed by the quality and clarity of the television “infomercials” which the electoral court put out to instruct the population on how to use the electronic voting machines.

I was also impressed by the opening and closing debates between the candidates, particularly during the last debate between Lula and Serra on the eve of second-round elections, when Brazilians from all parts of the country and social sectors posed carefully thought out questions to both of them. And once the returns were in that night, it was evident also that the voters had acted with considerable skill, balancing their votes between the federal and state candidates, in effect saying “yes” to Lula for the presidency, “yes” to the PT by increasing its congressional representation by 57 percent in the lower house and by 75 percent in the Senate, but also electing only one out of seven PT candidates for governor in the second round. This was therefore no “red tide.” It was a vote that was split in order to assure the constraint of one part of the government on the other.

In fact the parallels between Brazil and the United States should always be kept in mind when one looks at Brazilian politics. Both are large complex federal systems. In both the role of the states and state governors are important. Both have large markets for TV, radio, and newspapers, and the roles of pollsters and media advisers are strong in electoral campaigns. Significantly, therefore, the Brazilian voters selected governors who ran on the tickets of parties that had opposed Lula and had supported the outgoing president’s coalition, especially in the powerful developed states of the center and south, São Paulo, Minas Gerais, and Rio Grande do Sul.

The results were particularly significant in the case of Rio Grande do Sul, a state that was a longtime bastion of the PT and one of its main showcases, as well as in São Paulo, where one of Lula’s close associates, José Genoino, was running for the governorship but failed to win even though in the first round in São Paulo Aloízio Mercadante, another of the “cardinals” of the PT (that is the group of powerful advisers who surround Lula and are entirely in his confidence), was elected senator with more than ten million votes, a record in the history of the Brazilian Senate.

In the state of Rio de Janeiro, meanwhile, the wife of Anthony Garotinho, another unsuccessful presidential candidate, was elected governor, not the PT candidate, even though in the federal elections the state went for Lula. Garotinho, moreover, is a Presbyterian and represents the increasingly important political role played by Protestant evangelicals in Brazilian politics (estimated now to provide approximately sixty congressmen, more than 10 percent of the lower house). This new force in Brazil, not unlike the Christian fundamentalists in the United States, defend conservative moral and social positions, and criticize the liberal stands of the PT on abortion, gays, and religious education.

In a federal system such as Brazil’s, the power of the states and the role of the governors have always provided an important balance to the central government. As in the US, the passage of legislation in the Brazilian Congress depends on cross-party alliances, deal making, and horse trading. The PT knows this and such pragmatic calculations led to the choice of a non-PT industrialist as vice-president on Lula’s winning ticket. Lula’s expensive television campaign advertising was not bankrolled by the poorly paid schoolteachers who make up one of the PT’s staunchest support groups: many entrepreneurs had jumped in to help. As one put it to me graphically: “It is better to lose your fingernails than your arm.”

So while the overall results represent a significant and important shift to the center-left, the major party of the right, the PFL, also remains a powerful force in the Congress after the elections. Many of the leaders of the PFL have never been out of power since 1964, when a military coup took place. They remained to help negotiate the transition to democracy, and then went on to form a key part of the coalition that supported the election of the sociologist Fernando Henrique Cardoso to the presidency in 1994, as well as his reelection in 1998. But they now find themselves in opposition for the first time in recent history. This could well have a positive effect by clarifying the PFL’s position on such issues as free trade, market reform, and privatization, and creating a more coherently organized democratic conservative party of the center-right as an alternative to the PT. That would be healthy for the development of Brazilian democracy.


Surprisingly, the election results came as a considerable shock to the Wall Street analysts who have dominated the way Brazil has been seen in the United States over the past nine months. Despite the continuously good showing of Lula in the polls, the analysts from major US banks and investment firms persisted in believing that the Cardoso government’s candidate, José Serra, would win. And they talked themselves into hysteria over the prospects of a Lula victory. Goldman Sachs even invented a “Lula-meter” to predict the rise of investment risk against the performance of Lula in the polls. But their position was usually based on unreliable information about Serra’s strength and about what had and had not been achieved by way of reform during the past eight years under Fernando Henrique Cardoso. In fact, Serra’s position was weak from the beginning. Cardoso’s coalition had already disintegrated before the campaign began. The PFL never supported Serra’s candidacy. And there were serious frictions within President Cardoso’s own Social Democratic Party about Serra’s candidacy, which several of the party founders opposed.

Moreover, in his second term Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s program for reform had stalled. Brazil relied on borrowing from abroad to cover its huge public deficits, while increasingly linking both public and private debt to the dollar and to the exchange rate, thereby making Brazil vulnerable, both to the perceptions of risk in the international financial markets and to any negative changes in the international economy. In addition, after eight years of rule by a cosmopolitan, multilingual, well-connected president and a financial team well known to Wall Street, it was inevitable that as the 2002 elections approached, uncertainty about the future would be troubling to investors.

Wall Street’s blind faith that Serra represented “continuity” was always misplaced. Within Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s government he had been a voice of loyal opposition. He was a critic of Wall Street’s favorite sons, Finance Minister Pedro Malan and Central Bank President Arminio Fraga. As minister of health he gained international fame by fighting multinational pharmaceutical companies over generic drugs. And Serra had a “Gore problem”—he did not know how to deal with the legacy of the Cardoso government of which he was a part; he upset the President by failing to vigorously defend his record when attacked, and his campaign, unlike Lula’s, was almost relentlessly negative.

Lula on the other hand had the aid of one of Brazil’s most successful political advisers, Duda Mendonça. Under Mendonça’s tutelage, he trimmed his beard, tamed his street-corner rhetoric, put away his jeans and T-shirts, wore sober business suits, shirts, and ties, and with newly capped teeth smiled relentlessly in the face of all difficulties, sticking to his line of “peace and love” and putting himself across to the public as the avuncular grandfather figure. To reassure women voters, where he began with a very low acceptance rate, Lula appeared more and more with his wife, Marisa Letícia da Silva, at campaign stops, US style.

The scrappy, uncharismatic Serra, however, ambitious son of an Italian immigrant, student leader, and exile, Cornell-educated Ph.D. in economics, a man of decidedly sharp critical views, concentrated on “deconstructing” his early challengers. Governor Roseana Sarney of the state of Maranhão, who had risen high in the polls in the early stages of the campaign, found her candidacy destroyed by a surprise raid by federal police of the office of her husband, a businessman, and by the widely publicized pictures of the wads of unexplained cash found there. This succeeded in removing Roseana Sarney from the contest, but at the very high cost of estranging the powerful Sarney dynasty, headed by Roseana’s father, José Sarney, the former president of Brazil and now an influential senator, who believed the government of Cardoso and Serra were behind this unprecedented action. Not long thereafter, José Sarney threw his consid- erable support behind Lula.

With Roseana Sarney out of the contest, Serra then concentrated his attention on Ciro Gomes, governor of the state of Ceará, who had also begun to rise high in the polls and was a protégé of the Harvard guru Professor Mangabeira Unger. A negative television campaign emphasized Ciro Gomes’s volatile character and his faux pas (for example, when asked what the role in his campaign of his girlfriend, a famous Brazilian actress, was, he said it was “to sleep with me”). As a result Ciro Gomes fell precipitously in the polls. But this too was another pyrrhic victory for Serra. In the second round of the elections, Ciro Gomes also threw his support behind Lula. Serra thus barely made it into the second round, and started a full 25 percentage points behind Lula, a gap almost impossible to make up in the time available.

So political performance, skillful public relations, and the complexities of the Brazilian political system do much to explain Lula’s victory. And while it is an exaggeration to say that the elections were a rejection of the “Washington Consensus” on economic development and the so-called “neoliberal” model, as many outsiders claim, it did result in the capture by the PT of a large group of middle-class voters who were disillusioned with the Cardoso government. Cardoso brought much to his presidency—style, compromise, civility, international praise. He tamed inflation, made a significant dent in extreme poverty, lowered rates of infant mortality, conducted an aggressive and relatively successful policy against the spread of AIDS, and improved primary education. But cor- ruption continued; justice remained slow, and for many unobtainable. He cut back the excessive spending of states and municipalities and did much to shore up the banking system, and segments of society benefited and continue to benefit from the profits to be made from investing in government bonds. Yet most of the middle class suffered the perverse effects of excessive interest rates, inflation crept up as the value of the real plunged (by 40 percent over the past year), and unemployment and underemployment increased dramatically. Crime and insecurity made life intolerable in many urban areas for even the most modest households.

When they visit Brazil, Wall Street investors sometimes fly from building top to building top in São Paulo by helicopter. If they observed what is happening on the ground, they might have a better understanding of why the government lost. Brazil has always been a country of active life on the streets, of small businesses, bars, and factories. Yet in the weeks prior to the election, driving around São Paulo, a city of more than 15 million people and the industrial and financial heartland of Brazil, I was shocked to see street after street of closed buildings, closed shops, closed factories, and deserted street corners. Even in the core of the city huge old apartment buildings were empty, boarded up, and covered with graffiti.

On the swanky Avenida Paulista, buildings were surrounded by twelve-foot fences topped by several strands of electrified wire. It was the basically conservative middle class of Brazil that did not see Fernando Henrique Cardoso and his economic team with the same rosy spectacles as those on the outside. It was this middle class—not the very rich and not the very poor, but those who earn salaries or are small entrepreneurs—that the PT realized it had to capture if it was ever to reach power. And it was a decisive shift in the votes of this class that brought about the defeat of Serra.

In Brazil there is a two-month hiatus between the election and the inauguration of the new president on January 1, 2003. This will be a period of potential risk. The deep economic problems that have made Brazil vulnerable to the whims of foreign investors have not gone away despite the temporary post-election euphoria. Private investors remain skittish and the risk of a speculative attack on the Brazilian currency remains high. Many foreign economists fear that capital flight, blocked credit lines, and a renewed free fall in the value of the real could easily provoke a self-fulfilling prophecy and force Brazil to default on its debt.

Brazilian economists argue that the fears are exaggerated and that the servicing and rollover of debt can be managed. They point out that Brazil has already received the first $3 billion of the IMF’s package to “bail out” Brazil that was negotiated last August, and that $3 billion more is due from the IMF before the end of the year. They argue that Brazil’s reserves can sustain and cover all its obligations. Less hysterical voices have now emerged to argue against panic, among them the chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, William McDonough. And one can expect that large US interests with major fixed investments and a major long-term stake in Brazil will also seek to calm the hysteria. After all, US investment in Brazil in recent years has been five times as high as in China. Among the US companies that have major investments in Brazil are General Motors, Ford, Texaco, Exxon, General Electric, Citibank, McDonald’s, Cargill, Philip Morris, Goodyear, and not least Alcoa, where Secretary O’Neill was formerly the boss.

But the demands of Wall Street, the IMF, and the United States that “market friendly” officials be appointed to the key positions of finance minister and central bank president will be relentless since they believe that the “right” appointees will guarantee the compliance of Brazil with the conditions imposed by the IMF in the bailout deal, which entail keeping interest rates high, budget surpluses high, and debt payments on schedule. This of course flies in the face of the expectations of most Brazilian voters, who want lower interest rates, more growth, and the creation of jobs. But default is not the only risk Brazil faces in this period. In addition to Wall Street’s fears there is a pressure of utopian visions.


Many on the left see Lula’s election as, in effect, a rejection of the 1990s policies that promoted open markets, free trade, and privatization; they hope that Brazil under a Lula presidency will take the lead in the fight against globalization. Since 2001, encouraged by the PT administration in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre in Brazil has been the meeting place for the World Social Forum, a vast gathering of anti-globalization activists who see themselves as the counterpoint to the World Economic Forum at Davos. Brazil under Lula will, undoubtedly, inevitably galvanize the hopes and presence of many anti-globalization activists seeking their own utopias. Their expectations will likely stimulate the fears of the far right that Lula and Brazil will become what the far left wants it to be.

Domestically the great dilemma will turn on the conflict between expectations and constraints. The governors and mayors want to break out of the financial straitjacket that the outgoing administration imposed on them and renegotiate their debts to the central government. Workers and civil servants, strong PT supporters, want pay increases to keep up with inflation. The landless want land and their reward for being quiet during the campaign. And those at the bottom of the economic pile want the minimum wage raised. All such demands will run headlong against the constraints imposed on the future government by the $30 billion IMF package.

The third great problem for the PT is its lack of experience in administering a complex government such as Brazil’s. The new government needs trusted advisers to lead it through the labyrinth of the federal bureaucracy. And the PT has limited international expertise, though here it will be able to count on Brazil’s widely recognized, highly skilled diplomatic service. But it will have to learn fast. The new government will face urgent decisions on such issues as trade, compliance with the IMF deal, and the escalating crises along its borders in South America from Argentina to Colombia and Vene-zuela. And the PT will need Duda Mendonça to help it manage its image, because images at times can be as important as realities and one of the images the moderate elements in the PT most fear is that in Brasília, on January 1, the newly elected President Lula will appear with Presidents Castro and Chávez, while a low-level American delegation, for reasons of protocol, is hidden away from public view somewhere in the back row.

Fortuitously for the United States the current ambassador, Donna Hrinak, is a highly competent professional with service in Bolivia and Venezuela; as she proudly tells the Brazilians, and particularly the PT, she is the daughter of a steelworker. She is already widely respected in Brazil among both politicians and the press. The problem therefore is less the quality of the reporting from Brasília to Washington than the lack of coherence in Washington’s response to the challenges a Lula presidency will inevitably bring.

Even before September 11, when Afghanistan and Iraq pushed Latin America out of the headlines and onto the sidelines as far as Washington was concerned, US policy toward the region was dominated by domestic politics. And with Constantine Menges, Chairman Hyde, and the Cuban-American congressional delegation denouncing Lula, his victory, far from being received as a confirmation of a functioning democracy and political inclusion, something the United States claims it wishes to see accomplished in its democracy-building efforts around the world, threatens to be interpreted once again through the narrow perspectives of Little Havana. It is as though the United States spent the entire cold war looking at Russia through the prism of Albania and China through the prism of Macao, or explained India by examining the domestic politics of the Maldives.

For a country of its size and importance, Brazil has little support in the US Congress. Nor do the US press and television take much interest in it. News from Brazil is mainly about samba, sex, and soccer, and economic reporting is confined to the financial pages. It is time Washington realized that loose talk in the Treasury, hysteria on Wall Street, and foolish fears about a new axis of evil can hurt US interests. Brazil’s election must be seen against the backdrop of the Argentine crisis, the imminent possibility of a bloody coup in Venezuela, and the escalating conflict in Colombia.

If Brazil fails, as it could, this will have major implications not only for the international financial system but for the prospects of democracy in the region. How ironic that while the United States is now talking about how to “build” a democracy after a war in Iraq, it risks, by inattention and misplaced priorities, aggravating the problems that could undermine the largest and most successful democracy in what it likes to think of as its own “neighborhood.”

—November 6, 2002

This Issue

December 5, 2002