He’s the shoeshine boy who became a man of the people, a market-friendly socialist who has earned international acclaim. But is president Lula the architect of Brazil’s boom, or simply a symbol of its success?
A the age of seven, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s mother packed him and his siblings and their meagre possessions into the back of a truck for a long journey in search of a better future.
A roll of the dice, but there was little to lose. Dirt poor, one of the millions of illiterate peasant families in Brazil’s north-east, they rode for 13 days to join his father in the south. Lula, as he was called, became a shoeshine boy, buffing and polishing until the leather gleamed.
Fast forward half a century and the former peasant migrant can still see his reflection while at work but the image is sharper: it comes from the reflecting pool at the Palácio do Planalto, the presidential office in Brasilia. Lula, as in President Lula, has found his better future.
The view from his office is of a modernist utopia. The floating gardens and towering arches of the foreign ministry, the swooping dishes and twin towers of the national congress, the geometric lawns and monuments and museums, all beneath huge, clear skies.
It has been a remarkable journey. From the humblest of origins Lula has hop-scotched his way to the very top of Latin America’s powerhouse, a vast, populous landmass which is more a continent than a country.
“Our president has had an extraordinary life story. It is very emblematic of the history of our people,” says Dilma Rousseff, his chief of staff and cabinet enforcer.
It is a seductive notion given the economic and social progress since he took office. Inflation and extreme poverty have fallen, investment and exports have risen and there is giddy talk of a new Brazil. No wonder the president is popular at home and feted abroad.
The question is whether he is the architect or merely the figurehead of these changes. Some say Brazil is virtually ungovernable, that all a president can do is ride the waves and hope for the best.
So has the former shoeshine boy dragged the country up along with him, or is it a coincidence of timing? Has Lula, in other words, just been lucky?
He inherited a relatively healthy country. After the grim dictatorship of the 1980s and hyperinflation of the 1990s Brazil had found its footing by the late 1990s. A new currency, the real, stabilised the economy and there were modest improvements in living standards.
Lula’s election victory in 2002 frightened Wall Street investors, who saw in him a socialist radical. Worse, a bearded socialist radical. He would ruin the fragile recovery with populist splurges and mass nationalisations.
They were wrong. After working in a factory (where he lost a finger) Lula had risen up through the trade union movement and stood for the Workers’ Party, known by its Portuguese initials PT, promising left-wing policies. But three failed bids for the presidency had changed that by the time he won on his fourth attempt.
In contrast to the revolutionary rhetoric of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez he struck a cautious, reformist tone. “Each day, even if we advance a centimetre, we are going forward – without any miracles, without breaking away from our international commitments, simply doing what needs to be done.”
Lucia Hippolito, a prominent political analyst, said it was an error to describe him as a man of the left. “He is a conservative with social concerns,” he says. Far from being a socialist hero, Lula continued the orthodox policies of Cardoso’s government. Traditional PT supporters who expected aggressive social policies to tackle massive inequality were disappointed, at least initially. Lula’s team bent over backwards to appease investors.
“They didn’t understand anything about the markets – zero – and that was an advantage because we could explain things to them,” recalls Gilberto Mifano, the chief executive of Bovespa, the main stock exchange. “This left-wing party supported us like no other government had in 170 years.”
That endorsement may make left-wingers cringe but five years later Lula can claim vindication. Fiscal prudence and market-friendly policies have delivered economic stability and solid, if unspectacular, growth. The rich are richer, but more importantly the poor are less poor. Real incomes are rising across the board and the Bolsa Familia, a monthly stipend to 11m families, a quarter of the population, is being imitated around the world.
That is why the likes of Fernando Ermiro, a young community activist in a Rio slum, Rocinha, inadvertently echoes the stock exchange’s praise. “What Lula has done in six years the republic did not do in 100.”
From his studio overlooking Ipanema beach, Brazil’s most famous communist, Oscar Niemeyer, 100 years old and still sharp as a tack, nods in agreement. Better known as the architect and high priest of modernism who designed much of Brasilia, Niemeyer finds the enrichment of capitalist fat cats galling but acceptable, as ordinary people are also better off. “Lula is smarter than everyone thought,” he says.
Politically there is no doubting that. Senior aides have been mired in financial scandals that have tarnished the PT, but not the president; somehow the muck slides off his teflon persona. Just as impressive, he has forged useful friendships with Hugo Chavez and George Bush, a tribute to his pragmatism and schmoozing skills. Aides say Lula is quick to master a brief and tailor his spiel for the audience.
Economically, however, it is unclear if he has been more lucky than smart. Global conditions have favoured Brazil, not least the export boom driven by Chinese and Indian appetites for soy, iron and other commodities. Decades of investment in biofuels and Petrobras, the state energy company, are now bearing fruit.
Critics say the president is drifting, that he is ducking painful but necessary tax, pension and labour market reforms. “Lula has demonstrated that he will not do this, he prefers to enjoy the good times without risking himself,” says Cardoso, the former president. “I think he is more of a symbol than a leader.”
Even some supporters complain that power has been centralised without coherent leadership. “There is no strategic nucleus that really thinks collectively or in the medium or long term,” says Joao Pedro Stedile, a leader of the landless movement. “Because of his electoral prestige and charisma he ends up muffling his aides, who behave much more like suck-ups than as the driving unit of a government.”
Stedile believes his friend is better at empathising than governing. “He is still very sensitive to the problems of the people. He is easily moved and always acts more because of his heart than of reason. His best performances are when he is with the people or with popular leaderships.”
Lula’s international image remains golden. The compelling life-story, the bear-hugs, the charisma: he is viewed as a cuddly yet pragmatic social progressive at the helm of a nation finally realising its potential.
A politician at the peak of his powers, you would think he is aloof to opinion. You would be wrong, says political analyst Lúcia Hippolito. “He deals very badly with criticism. Like all governors he likes to be praised. He has an almost childish necessity to always compare himself to others. It is a kind of inferiority complex.” Behind the public face of affability Lula is a loner, she says. “He listens very little to his aides. He is very isolated.”
That is possible. But that does not change the fact that Lula is adored by many ordinary Brazilians. They have found, or expect to find, the better future he embodies. To what extent he is responsible for that progress is an abstraction. Let the historians argue over luck. What matters is that the country is shining.
Written by Rory Carroll