Brazil in the Shadow of Lula

Lula and Dilma Rousseff.jpg

Ricardo Stuckert/PR

Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, left, kisses newly elected leader Dilma Rousseff at the Alvorada palace, Brasília, November 1, 2010

On October 31, a former bureaucrat named Dilma Rousseff became the first female president of Brazil after easily winning a runoff election with 56 percent of the vote. Yet this outcome—in which she defeated Jose Serra, the candidate of the Social Democratic Party—had very little to do with Rousseff’s appeal among the Brazilian public or any distinct political platform of her own. Instead, it reflected the overwhelming popularity of outgoing president Luís Inácio Lula da Silva, Rousseff’s “godfather” and mentor in the Worker’s Party (PT); no one disputes the fact that this was above all his victory. Thanks to his seductive rhetoric, his command of populist language and his personal charisma, Lula—who continues to have an 83 percent approval rating—is sometimes compared to saints and miracle-workers, who are becoming increasingly rare in Brazil. His ubiquitous presence was the one constant throughout Dilma’s campaign: smiling on TV, embracing her in billboard campaign ads, talking with her and sometimes for her in public events. What will this mean for the woman who must now attempt to govern in his shadow? What is the meaning of having a woman president in a country known for its patriarchal structure and system of power?

The Brazil that Dilma has inherited from Lula is, in some ways, remarkably successful. During the eight years of Lula’s presidency (and even before, during his predecessor Fernando Henrique’s administration), the country pursued moderate economic policies, while benefiting from large inflows of foreign investment and a boom in commodities. At the same time, policies aimed at relieving poverty, reducing inequality, and promoting social inclusion have been widely popular among the electorate. Yet, in other respects, it faces looming challenges, including rising inflation, lagging education reform, pervasive corruption, and a lack of infrastructure.

All of which raises the urgent question of just how the little-known Dilma will establish herself in power, and what direction she might take. Lula, through his long involvement in the political life of Brazil and his appeal among workers, was able to achieve an unusual following not just among poor people but also within a number of the country’s social movements such as Sem Terra (Landless Workers Movement), a strong social and political group that used to invade farms in the Brazilian countryside. His character, his story, and his charisma have been his greatest assets. But this very personal power was always a problem as well as an advantage. And the question in everyone’s mind during this transitional moment is: Can Dilma just inherit such power—can she became the “mother of the poor,” as Lula used to be called together with another very popular president and leader, Getúlio Vargas (1951–54)? This is, in fact, a very old story. As historian Sérgio Buarque de Holanda wrote in his classic book Raizes do Brasil (The Roots of Brazil), in a country that lacks strong institutions, people put their trust in their leaders. That is why Lula could stay very strong, even after some of his close political associates lost their positions in an embarrassing corruption scandal.

No one really knows who Dilma is and what her own political views are. An economist who grew up in the southeast of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff has spent much of her career in government, but only in various unelected positions culminating in her becoming Lula’s chief of staff in 2005. The popular vote in her favor plainly rewarded the Worker’s Party’s policies under Lula; it was no accident that Dilma’s advantage was greater among voters with only basic education levels, people who earn only twice the minimum wage, and who come from the poorer regions of Northeast Brazil, where a good part of the “Bolsa Família” (Family Allowance) welfare program, introduced by the Lula government in 2003, is distributed. It gives poor families a stipend on the condition they keep their kids in school and have them vaccinated, and has had enormous impact on poorer areas.

In contrast, her opponent, José Serra, was dominant in big cities and was backed by the affluent, the urban population, and most of the educated classes. But the situation is not entirely black and white. Lula and Dilma, for example, were able to get the backing of people in the financial sector who seek a continuation of Lula’s moderate economic policies. On the other hand, these same bankers are very much against what they regard as “populist” measures such as the Bolsa Família.

In a country widely known for its dramatic social inequities, however, fighting poverty and creating education programs for poor children remain very worthy—and popular —goals. Its no coincidence that since the election, Dilma has emphasized that her main priorities include extending Lula’s welfare programs and securing a minimum wage hike. In fact, Dilma’s views and policies seem nearly indistinguishable from Lula’s, and the effort to give her a political identity of her own—transforming her into a woman who is supposed to have strong family values and solid leadership experience—has not been entirely successful.


For example, Dilma tried to change her image among women voters, who had not swung behind her. In the midst of the campaign she stopped for a photography session with her grandson on the day he was born. But inviting additional attention to her personal life and biography also backfired: she would come to regret her claim to have a (non-existent) masters degree or a doctorate from the University of Campinas and her involvement in militant socialist groups and subversive activities during the years of the military dictatorship. As a result of those activities she spent three years in jail (1970–72), an experience her handlers tried to keep in the shadows by denying access to the documents, kept in public archives, relating to those years.

Dilma, who is quite secular, also made awkward attempts to court the Catholic and Evangelical votes—in a country that after the United States has the world’s largest population of Christians. Although her campaign had begun with a declaration in support of legalizing abortion (a way of presenting herself as a modern person engaged in important social issues), by the end it had become a carnival of deplorable demonstrations of religious fervor. At one point, she was even photographed during Mass making a clumsy and belated sign of the cross. (Worse still, three days before the election, Pope Benedict XVI informed the Brazilian clergy that they had “a duty to give a moral judgment, even in politics, when the fundamental rights of the person or the salvation of souls is at stake.” Ratzinger was referring to the abortion question and was implicitly endorsing the rival candidate, Serra, who declared—for political reasons—he was against the legalization of abortion despite being quite secular himself.) As a result, we Brazilians lost an opportunity to debate democracy rather than religion.

In addition to his constant involvement in her campaign, Lula also stepped in forcefully to protect Dilma when several of her advisors were implicated in corruption scandals. The most important involved Erenice Guerra, a close friend of Dilma’s, who succeeded her as Lula’s Chief of Staff when Dilma began her campaign earlier this year: Guerra was forced to resign after a magazine alleged her involvement in a kickback scheme for public works contracts that was run by her son. Lula was there, like a warrior, dealing with the opposition and acting the same way: this is not “our problem” it is “their” problem. Some commentators argue that Dilma’s ability to stay unscathed was even more important than the religious debate, accounting for her comfortable margin of victory in the second round election.

Lula aside, in the end, neither of the two finalists managed to excite the electorate. Indeed, for a country where voting is compulsory, the number of invalid or blank votes, as well as the high number of abstentions (a voter is permitted an abstention if he or she was travelling or out of the country) totalled 28 percent of the electorate. This, in many ways, seems to have been a protest against the kind of campaign Brazilians experienced in 2010. The larger question, though, is whether Dilma will have any more success in defining herself independent of Lula once she is in office.

Opinions are divided over this. Many analysts believe Dilma will continue to act in Lula’s shadow and will be under his tutelage. If this is the case, the ex-president will remain in the headlines and can return for the 2012 elections—because in Brazil, one can run for a third term, if non-consecutive—which would allow him to preside over the 2016 Olympic Games on Brazilian soil. Others, though, expect that the contradictions of this power-sharing arrangement will soon emerge. After a necessary quarantine period that could help establish her own control of the situation, Dilma may well wield power more fully. If she succeeds in doing so, there are concerns about her capacity to deal with international markets, keep down inflation, and retain moderate economic policies. It is also possible that, without Lula, social movements, such as the Landless Workers Movement, might become stronger and turn against the government. Even the opposition could become more organized and forceful if Dilma fails to show the same caliber of leadership that Lula had.

This is a remote possibility however, at least for the immediate future. Dilma is known as a technocrat, very efficient in her areas of expertise such as energy policy and public finance. But until now, she has yet to demonstrate she can achieve the popularity and the control Lula exercises both within and outside the Worker’s Party: she doesn’t even have her own base of supporters, having never run for office until now. It is more logical for her to find herself sharing power and continuing to submit to the demands of the former president, who has showed no qualms about making requests, issuing directives, or speaking in her name (and place).


According to a Brazilian proverb, “the future belongs only to God”; but in this case it might be better to use the maxim followed by Counsellor Ayres, a character in the novels of the great writer Machado de Assis (1839–1908). He always said that, “things are only foreseeable once they have happened.”

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