SAO PAULO — Here is what Barack Obama had to say about second-term Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva at the April G20 summit in London:
“This is my man right here. I love this guy ... He’s the most popular politician on earth.”
It would sure seem so. Lula — who like Brazilian soccer stars, Madonna and many Afghanis, usually goes by just one name — has recently emerged as an international political superstar. Recent highlights include: a starring role at the G8 and emerging nations summit in Aquila, Italy; a swing through Paris to accept UNESCO’s Felix Houphouet-Boigny peace prize, special guest status at the African Union summit in Libya, op-eds in England’s The Guardian (March, solo) and The New York Times (July, with Nicolas Sarkozy); a shout-out as a potential future World Bank president; and not least, near-beatification for ushering the Brazilian economy through the financial crisis with only a mild scalding.
Brazil’s geopolitical star is on the rise, and though the stage may have been set by his predecessor, the polished intellectual Fernando Henrique Cardoso, it is the rough-edged but undeniably cuddly former labor leader who has collected the accolades.
So with the political, financial and intellectual elites of the world singing his praises, why is it that solid chunks of similarly positioned Brazilians are solidly opposed to, and sometimes downright embarrassed about, having him as president?
Though Lula has extraordinary approval ratings overall — 69 percent, in a recent poll — those numbers sink reliably as income and education level go up. The leftist nightmare many conservative elite feared when Lula was first elected in 2002 did not come to pass, but the man himself still makes many shudder. Ask a well educated, cosmopolitan Brazilian — say, the kind who hangs out in Livraria Cultura, a bustling bookstore in sophisticated Sao Paulo — what they think of Lula, and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get a look that says “ugh."
The credit for any success, for example, often goes to his advisers, “Somebody speaks for him,” said Luciana Berghe, a 33-year-old attorney who considers Lula a “marionette.” “He doesn’t think for himself. When he is taken by surprise, he says something foolish.”
“He doesn’t even speak Portuguese,” said 22-year-old Bruna Solar, striking a common theme referring to his often creative grammar and pronunciation. “He is not an educated person.”
Those are common raps, from his frequent pearls that have a style uniquely their own, but might be vaguely approximated by combining the gaffe styles of off-message Joe Biden with deer-in-headlights George W. Bush, funnelled through the over-the-top folksiness of Sarah Palin.
Oh yeah, and an occasional dose of George Carlin.
Last December, Lula shocked many when he used the f-word (which is also an f-word in Portuguese) to explain to a crowd in Rio de Janeiro why he continued to downplay the oncoming financial crisis. He asked audience members to imagine they were a doctor rendering a prognosis to a very sick man. He asked the audience to imagine they were a doctor rendering a prognosis to a very sick man. “Would you say ‘You have a problem, but medicine has advanced a lot ... we’re going to give you this medicine and you’ll recover.' Or would you say, 'Wow. You’re f*cked.'"
Still, in the official transcript of the Rio speech, someone in the press office was obviously embarrassed: it originally showed the president’s key words as “inaudible.”
A presidential aide who spoke on condition of anonymity said Lula’s speaking style “is not a weakness, it’s a strength. That’s why he communicates so easily to so many people.” He further noted what he considered an irony: during his first term, Lula was criticized for speaking too little to the press; now that he gives constant interviews, he is criticized for what he says.
Still, there are countless other moments many consider cringeworthy. In 2007, Lula stood next to then-President George W. Bush and said he was hopeful they would find the “G-spot” in trade negotiations. In 2008, soon after an Iraqi journalist had thrown a shoe at Bush, he told a crowd of journalists not to try the same, since their foot odor would give them away. And, in one of the few episodes that got international media play, he stood with British prime minister Gordon Brown and blamed the crisis on “irrational decisions by white bankers with blue eyes.”
Of course, this kind of thing plays well with the masses, and Lula is not prone to apologize. In fact, he would repeat the white banker statement days later to a different crowd. David Fleischer, a professor of political science at the University of Brasilia, noted that part of the upper classes’ shock at Lula’s speaking style is its contrast with that of the previous president, Cardoso. “It’s the stark comparison between a Ph.D. sociologist and world renowned intellectual being succeeded by a labor union leader” who didn’t go to high school, he said. “Brazil is a very elitist society and there are people who have a college education who are very disdainful of those who have the equivalent of an eighth grade education.”
But Lula’s detractors in Brazil also have more substantive beefs. There was the famous “Mensalao,” a 2005 scandal during which Lula’s party made monthly payments to opposition legislators to vote with them. Lula was never tied directly to the web of corruption and money laundering in any way, but his detractors — and even some supporters — believe it is impossible he did not at least tacitly support it. More recently, he has irked many Brazilians by failing to condemn Sudanese president and accused war-criminal Omar al-Bashir, and buddying up with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Brazilian-Iranian ties came into the domestic spotlight after the recent Iranian election, in which suspicion of fraud led to protests and violence that the world followed closely. Lula’s original comment was he “didn’t know anyone who disagreed with the election” and that the 60 percent-plus tally for Ahmadinejad was “too many votes to imagine that there was fraud.” He compared election to a soccer match, and supporters of the defeated side to sore loser fans. He and aides would later temper his remarks, but the Iranian government continues to praise him for his support and announced this week that Ahmadinejad’s first post-election trip abroad would be to Brazil.
Despite domestic controversy, most of Lula’s detractors credit him for success on diplomatic fronts, even if it was with a helping hand from the respected Brazilian foreign service led by formidable diplomat Celso Amorim. “Lula is a intuitive, political guy,” said Sergio Fausto, who is in charge of research and outreach at the Fernando Henrique Cardoso Institute — named after and run by the former president — and is thus by default generally critical of the president. “The machine knows how to do the rest. Amorim and Lula understand each other. Amorim knows how to translate Lula.”
Most feel it has worked. “The main thrust of Lula’s international forays is to put Brazil in the forefront as a world power,” and especially to land a seat at the United Nations Security Council, said Fleischer, the political science professor. “Lula’s star is rising in the world, no question about it.”
Others are less positive, believing that popularity is not only insufficient, but counterproductive. “Lula has the tendency to measure success in terms of popularity instead of accomplishment,” said Luiz Felipe D’Avila, the managing director of the Center of Public Leadership, a Sao Paulo organization that trains Brazilian political officeholders. D’Avila notes that he has accomplished little in crucial areas like trade reform, for example, or getting Brazil on the United Nations Security Council, instead seeking to have everyone like him. “[World leaders] understand that very well,” he said. “They just have to please him and compliment him and he will give things away in exchange for applause.”
But the most common criticism is Lula’s failure to translate his record popularity and immense political capital into reform of at least one area, such as the Brazilian tax, labor or political systems.
“If you have 70 percent popularity but you don’t want to create discomfort in society, you cannot push reform forward,” D’Avila said.
The Planalto counters by noting that Lula has made efforts in all those areas, and has even made moderate reforms in some, despite coming up against massive institutional opposition.
But either way, those are internal complaints that outsiders are rarely exposed to. “You only know what a person is like if you live within the same four walls,” said Bruna Solar, the 22-year-old Sao Paulo resident at Livraria Cultura. “To know Lula, you have to know him intimately.”
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