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A tale of two Lulas

International rock star or illiterate hick? You decide.

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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