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A tale of two Lulas

International rock star or illiterate hick? You decide.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva wears a pair of 3D glasses during his visit at Petrobas oil company in Rio de Janeiro, Oct. 26, 2007. (Bruno Domingos/Reuters)

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.”