Monday, 27 September 2010

The Shadow of Lula over the Future of Brazil

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Next weekend, Brazilians will go to the polls to elect a successor to President Luis Ignácio da Silva, popularly known as Lula. He has been the dominant political figure of the last 20 years of Brazilian political life, contesting five elections, three of which he lost.

Two unattractive and uncharismatic candidates, Dilma Rouseff of the Wokers Party (PT) and José Serra representing the Social Democratic Party (PSDB), are struggling to fill this vacuum. A third candidate from the Green Party, Marina Silva, will likely attain 10-15% of the vote.

Dilma Roussef, Lula’s former chief of staff, and his hand-picked candidate, lacks Lula’s communicative abilities and has never been elected to any office. In case of Dilma’s victory, which all the polls are predicting, Lula is very unlikely to disengage.

José Serra, the former governor of São Paulo, the opposition candidate, is a bland yet competent technocrat whose résumé includes a plethora of executive positions he is generally deemed to have performed well. Yet his failure to ignite interest in anyone but the 30% of the Brazilians who dislike Lula with considerable vigor points to two things. His weakness as a candidate that easily empathizes with people, and the difficulty of convincing poorer Brazilians, still the majority here, to abandon Lula by voting against his candidate.

Such is Lula’s aura here that Serra hasn’t dared criticize him too vociferously nor defend Lula’s predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who many credit for Brazil’s path to political stability and progress. This has resulted in Lula assuming all the credit for Brazil’s recent achievements and convincing the majority of Brazilians of his side of the story. Lula’s speeches, especially the impromptu ones, can become messianic perorations about how Brazil is a role model to the world thanks to Papa Lula, the father of the poor. “Never before in the history of this country” is one of his main mantras.

Despite initial fears when first elected in 2002, Lula did not tinker with the essential economic model bequeathed to him, much to the relief of the domestic and international business interests. But in many ways, Lula also arrived at a fortuitous moment.

Brazil has benefitted greatly from China’s voracious appetite for raw materials and agricultural products, and remained largely unscathed from the global economic financial meltdown suffered by the developed countries because of this new trading relationship which totals over 8 billion dollars annually. Brazil’s massive mineral wealth and agricultural capacity seems as last to be wielding the benefits so long promised for the country of the future.

As a result, the middle class has expanded, creating a construction boom and increased consumption of almost everything. Poverty rates have been reduced, in large part due to direct cash transfers in the government program known as Bolsa Escola and Bolsa Familia, programs started by Lula’s predecessor but for which he claims as 100% his. Brazil will host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, another sign of global preeminence and consideration.

So though it is indisputable that Brazil has advanced, huge problems persist that will continue to impede Brazil’s development into the kind of society to which its citizens and political leadership aspire.

Violence plagues the daily lives of most Brazilians, and criminality is brazen in its challenges to the state. Every year, according to United Nation’s figures, around 45,000 people are murdered (official and many believe undercounted figure) and around 30,000 more die in car accidents. Since 1980, over two million people have been violently killed. Huge income disparities explain some of the violence, but a lack of respect for the law is a persistent phenomenon of Brazilian society. The fact that a first degree murdered can be out of jail in less than 10 years illustrates a situation where impunity is the rule and crime can indeed pay.

Infrastructure development is lacerated by corruption, still widespread at all levels of society. Combined with an archaic bureaucracy, which strangles pragmatism and invites bribery, and law system in which the Supreme Court hears thousands of cases a year, (the US Supreme Court hears 100 or so), Brazil is burdened with massive challenges that are in need of profound reform.

Under Lula and the PT, the Brazilian state, already bloated, inefficient and corrupt, has expanded considerably. Party faithful have infiltrated the bureaucracy and thousands of jobs depend on Lula’s victory. Repeated scandals have plagued Lula’s administration, most of them swept under the carpet with little political consequence for Lula, despite people extremely close to him being tarnished and driven from office.

That Brazil shirked the global financial crisis is explained by Lula and his followers as proof that a state active in the economy prevents the kind of catastrophes that befell countries with more liberal economies. In a glib remark, Lula insisted the crisis was the fault of blue-eyed white men in the West, as if Brazil were some kind of paradise for brown and black people. A perfunctory examination of who has power in Brazil, i.e. captains of industry and political offices, reveals it to be almost entirely in the hands of white Brazilian men.

While the PT seems to be perfectly happy for its upper echelons and those that contribute to its coffers to enrich themselves, it still preaches a tired socialist rhetoric, with it at the helm of saving the ‘people’ form the pernicious elite. That it has embraced many in the once excoriated elite’ seems not to faze a party that formerly railed against injustice, impunity, and advocated clean and transparent government.

On the international front, Lula has lost a good deal of the admiration he once garnered (Barack Obama referred to him as ‘the man’) after his disastrous forays into the Iranian nuclear debate. Declaring friendship with Ahmadenijad has brought little benefit to Brazil and former admirers surely wondered what Lula really wants. He labeled a political dissident on a hunger striker in Cuba a common criminal, and forcibly sent back Cuban athletes who wanted to defect in Rio after the Pan American games there in 2007. He has great affection for the Castro brothers and Hugo Chavez’s efforts to silence his opponents fail to elicit any kind of indignation or indeed acknowledgement on Lula’s part.

Even though it looks very likely Dilma will become president, we can expect to see a whole lot more of Lula around. As he himself said if he feels she is straying from her (or his) mission, he will call her up and say, “My daughter, it’s not like that, you have to do this.”

Presidents tend to surround themselves with sycophants and Lula is no exception. Polls show an almost 80% approval rate of his performance in office, enough to go to anybody’s head. This success has made it impossible for right wing political parties to participate in any kind of debate about the direction Brazil should take. The suffocating tax burden, (especially felt by the middle class who despite paying high taxes, still have to resort to private medicine and education, the public ones being of poor quality), will likely not be reversed given how many people directly and indirectly benefit from the state.

If Lula is sensible and properly advised, he should stand back and let the country takes its course under new leadership. The danger, significant and one that has plagued Latin America in the past, is that Lula and the PT will mistake his overwhelming popularity as a sign that only they are capable of saving Brazil. And that could be disastrous.

Richard Hartley is a writer and translator who has lived in Brazil for the past fifteen years.

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