Lula – Brazil’s Lost Leader

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For many Brazilians, the October 2002 election of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva symbolized the ascendance to power of a leftist prodigal son. But impoverished Brazilians, initially attracted by Lula’s radical past and his passionate pledge to transform Brazil’s highly unequal society, could sense his potential for leading a social and political revolution that would bring justice to the ignored lower tier of the population. As the standard bearer for the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) party, with links to militant labor movements and the left both in Brazil and throughout the world, Lula advocated expanding education; the seizure and later distribution of inefficiently used land; and agricultural policies – all in the name of the landless.

The Candidate and the Man

As was occurring in neighboring Argentina, the newly elected Brazilian president intended to finance his social reform by redirecting funds earmarked for debt repayment. He promised to invest more money in social welfare programs, as well as eliminate the corruption debauching the political process and the daily efficient functioning of the bureaucracy. Meanwhile, he would simultaneously play hardball with neoliberal international organizations like the IMF, WTO and World Bank.

It has to be said that Lula failed to follow through on most of his campaign promises, although on the surface it remains difficult to refute some of his early positive successes. His tight fiscal policies have successfully regulated inflation rates and stimulated the Brazilian economy. Yet, behind its glossy exterior, Brazil’s economy has remained a house of cards, constructed through hasty, inept and corrupt bureaucratic institutions. Over the past four years, Lula has embraced the policies of economic orthodoxy that once caused him to shudder, he has been implicated in the stygian Brazilian political corruption that he once decried, and he has roundly failed to achieve anything resembling a radical reformation of Brazilian society. Recent murderous events in the São Paulo prison system underscore the ineffectuality of Lula’s government. These off-course political failings have marked Lula as a lost leader.

In truth, the decent part of Lula is still there. An energetic man without pretense, of hearty gesture and general good will, Lula was supposed to bring on a fun presidency that would carry in its wake a sense of fair play, shared equity, and a nation that would be fit for all Brazilians. Rather than that, Brazilians were treated with warmed-over Cardoso policies and a sanitized left. As for Hugo Chávez, perhaps Lula never realized that he needed him as much as Chávez needed Lula. Chávez may have been tiresome, but for the streets of Latin America, it is Chávez and not Lula who is their hero.

Lula as a Foreign Policy Leader

Upon taking office Lula became almost the ex cathedra leader of the “Pink Tide” of left-leaning, reform minded, South American nations that gave the appearance of waiting to strike out on their own on trade and foreign policy issues. Unofficial in opposition to the Iraq war and a refusal to accept an FTA based on a subsidized U.S. agriculture, Lula projected a posture of integrated regional leadership along with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. In fact, this turned out to largely be chimerical, as was shown when Bolivia’s Morales nationalized the country’s natural gas, producing a crisis with such user nations like Brazil. Today sullied by the big scandal, and some what annoyed over Chávez’s larger than life standing, Lula has largely abandoned his regimes leadership and is expected to re-harmonize his country’s regional trade policies with those of the U.S.

Decaying from within

While Lula has been brokering trade deals around the globe, desperate local politicians have been forced to deal with the realities of a country decaying from within. The sheer scale of recent violence in São Paulo, as well as other Brazilian states, is staggering. Rio de Janeiro averages over 4,000 murders per year; 3,000 of which are carried out by young and heavily armed teenaged narco-traffickers. City residents are routinely subject to horrific atrocities such as police and gang violence; discrimination; abuse; prostitution and often slavery; and ubiquitous corruption. A society ravaged by poverty and brutal violence, which has not improved under his rule, has been a shameful blot on Lula’s record. However, perhaps more alarming has been his inability to effectively respond to recurrent crises.

The remaining 1,000 annual murders in Rio de Janeiro are the result of brutal police repression. Persistent reliable reports have insisted that Brazilian prison officials frequently torture and beat inmates, and have ranked its jails as being among the most inhumane in the world. The Lula administration is well aware of the growing security issues in many cities around Brazil, but it has done almost nothing to reform them. The government’s lack of leadership and the rapidly dissolving social order frequently found in urban areas, has galvanized the use of extreme, often grotesque, practices by local officials. For example, Operation Cleansing, developed by São Paulo mayor Jose Serra, a ranking social democratic political figure who has been connected to corrupt practices, has targeted the ‘removal’ of homeless residents from poor inner city neighborhoods to make way for urban development in an area of São Paulo known as Cracolandia (Crackland). Furthermore, increasingly feral police officers routinely participate in unofficial faxinas (social cleansings), such as vigilante operations and death squad raids, to relieve neighborhoods of undesirables.

Conflict in São Paulo

The appalling binge of violence unleashed on May 13 by the First Capital Command (P.C.C.) gang was partially in response to such provocative government-sponsored or sanctioned practices as cited above. The PCC, formed after a 1993 massacre of inmates in a São Paulo prison, operates a surprisingly efficient and powerful criminal organization from inside the prison system, and recently was able to orchestrate an estimated 150 attacks against police stations, military facilities, banks and subway stations over a four-day period. A total of 161 people died in the resulting violence. Of that total, it is estimated that 107 deaths were casualties at the hands of the police. Astonishingly, the São Paulo government chose to formally negotiate with the criminals to end the violence and refused to accept federal assistance. Authorities made a deal with gang leader Marcus “Marcola” Camacho, a man idolized by Brazil’s criminal underground, rather than accept assistance from President Lula. Marcola attributed the uprising to excessive police brutality and promised to end violence in exchange for access to TVs and humane treatment.

Common Problem

The horrendous violence in São Paulo was another blow on the Lula government, which was only haltingly recovering from a highly embarrassing corruption scandal. In May 2005, reports began to surface of widespread political corruption, principally a system referred to mensalão, whereby opposition legislators were bribed by PT party leaders to informally join their alliance in Congress, and were paid in monthly allotments for their votes. Since that time, the Lula administration has come under constant fire from investigators and opposition party leaders. President Lula’s PT party repeatedly has now been linked to bribing scandals and many backdoor deals. Lula’s own presidential election is being called into question through reports of a caixa dois (secret slush fund) in the Bahamas that supplied un-audited funds to his campaign. José Dirceu, Lula’s own right hand man, is under investigation for his possible involvement in the murder of Celso Daniel, former mayor of Santo André. Even Fabio Luiz Lula da Silva, the president’s son, is being investigated for his alleged role in a scandal, involving suspicious investments in his computer game business by companies holding contracts with the government. President Lula has effectively maneuvered around this tsunami of allegations by immediately dismissing accused confidantes and avoiding investigation by oversight committees. As a result of such tactics, he gingerly has tossed off any suggestion that he was personally implicated in any of the scandals. Sadly, when the charges eventually engulfed him, Lula resorted to shrugging them off as nothing more than “politics as usual” in Brazil.

Egotism Sublime

The sickening thought comes to mind that his Forrest Gump persona may be part of an act in which his supporters are made to be the fall guys. The lack of environmental protection and failure in the job creation field, combined with a number of unmet social justice needs, lead one to the sound conclusion that Lula is now with the bankers and that the poor must understand that their poverty will only worsen. Tragically, Lula cannot even offset such failings with a meaningful decision pointing to construction in other areas. Having roundly failed to produce significant social change in Brazil, he asks for more time, perhaps another term to accomplish this. But based on his record, he doesn’t deserve any leap of faith. In a speech after the São Paulo attacks, the President blamed the violence on the actions of previous governments. He stated that, “If they (his predecessors) had invested in education in the decades of 70, 80 and 90, many of these young prisoners would be working, giving lessons and studying.” By shuffling responsibility to his predecessors, Lula managed to skirt the reality that his social reforms have only made scattered improvements in the lives of Brazil’s impoverished population. Figures from the World Bank show that despite the government’s growing investments, there has been no substantial improvement in the country’s education system. Lula’s education programs have only further marginalized low-income students by diverting funds from primary and secondary programs to large elite universities. Although low-income students receive tuition waivers under the university program, they remain dissuaded from applying due to difficult entrance exams.

Education is not the only area of social change where Lula has fallen short of expectations. From 1995 to 2004, the federal government spent R$1.07 trillion on bureaucratic salaries and R$1.2 trillion on pensions. In that same time period, the government invested only R$884 billion in health, education, social security and infrastructure combined. The handful of social programs that have been ratified are perpetually under-funded, with dire consequences.

In 2003, President Lula launched his flagship social program, Fome Zero, which involves nearly every social ministry at every level of local and national government. The program’s goal is to satisfy the nutritional needs of the entire Brazilian population by attacking the structural causes of poverty. Fome Zero has been designed to increase the purchasing power of Brazilians through many facets, most importantly job creation, land reform and increasing the minimum wage. Unfortunately, in all three of these vital areas, the Lula administration has fallen far short of its stated mark.

Job development is one of the most important pillars of the Fome Zero program, which promised ten million new jobs in four years and a two-fold increase in the minimum wage. Characteristically, Lula has yet again failed to live up to his promises. In the past four years, the Lula administration has only delivered 3.7 million jobs and a meager 42 percent increase in the minimum wage, ignoring the clear fact that without adequate job growth, millions of Brazilians will never be able to move from the shadows of poverty.

The Bolsa Familia project, also a part of Fome Zero, is designed to aid the 44 million Brazilians who are unable to provide adequate nutrition for themselves. This program provides cash transfers to families for food, based on their current income level. Although highly touted as a success reaching eight million people, Bolsa Familia has suffered from a constant lack of funds. Furthermore, the program advocates unsustainable cash transfers as a solution to poverty, which simply creates a cycle of dependency on the state, rather than substantial and predictable growth. The Brazilian government recently announced that it would expand the Bolsa Familia project to the landless, an insufficient swap considering the Lula administration’s complete failure to provide property for the 120,000 landless that occupy makeshift tents along the roadsides of Brazil.

According to recent figures released by the Agricultural Development Ministry, the number of landless Brazilians has dramatically increased in the last three years, going from 60,000 in 2003 to 230,000 in 2006. The Fome Zero project promised expansive land reform, however, it has only delivered 117,000 family parcels out of a promised 400,000. Lula’s marginalization of the landless movement is by far his most grievous misstep, especially considering the fact that his presidential campaign was based heavily on the support of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), the largest special interest organization in Brazil. Once in office, Lula proceeded to turn his back on many of the people who elected him, including the MST, favoring a more middle-class oriented agenda.

Political Reorientation

Considering the lackluster performance of his social reform efforts, it is obvious that Lula’s social agenda has taken a back seat to his dramatic reorientation towards orthodox economics. Since his election, Lula has behaved not as a populist or even a left-leaning leader, but as a neoliberal pragmatist, interested only in economic return. Rather than immediately postponing debt payments so that he would be able to fund his social service budget, Lula has fought hard to eradicate all of Brazil’s dollar-linked debt (although interest rate-based debt remains high) through high interest rates, taxes, and tight fiscal policy. The President has also prioritized Brazil’s export market, by legalizing genetically modified crops, privatizing state-owned industries, and increasing the number of low-wage factory zones. Prior to assuming office, exports comprised 10.7 percent of the GDP; in 2004 that number had almost doubled to 18 percent. While some analysts may see these numbers as being impressive statistics that convey an indication of Lula’s real accomplishments, in this instance, numbers may belie the fact that the net result of these activities has been less than fully beneficial for Brazil. Wealth distribution in the country is still among the most skewed in the world, and the booming export market is returning little wealth to the country’s lower economic strata.

Furthermore, recent months have shown that the Brazilian economy is hardly stable enough to stand up against both international and domestic crises. Following the nationalization of Bolivian oil and natural gas, as well as prison riots in São Paulo, Brazilian currency and foreign investment dropped dramatically. Richard Lapper, of the Financial Times, reported that the Ministry of Finance was forced to skew its method of calculating its budgetary surplus in order to compensate for less than positive market forecasts.

Finding the Lost Leader

The election of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2002 was supposed to be a pivotal point in Brazilian political history. The man the Brazilians had elected embodied fresh, innovative ideas that so many countries in Latin America have lacked. Although initial prospects were good, the Lula administration has failed to produce many substantial returns. Once in office, President Lula effortlessly accepted the neoliberal plans of the presidents before him. He tightened the budget to a point that it restricted the social rehabilitation Brazil desperately needed. Corruption charges have also damaged Lula’s reputation to, perhaps, a point of no return. The idealistic movement behind the PT party, which led to President Lula’s election, has now been discarded as a populist façade. All the while, President Lula has lost his virtue in the horrifically complicated game of Brazilian politics, a process in which he also lost the support of many of his own people. His presidency was never declared to be about money, now it is awash in it.

Further information on the subject:

Cooper, Marc, and Tim Frasca. “Lula’s Moment.”
Lula and the WSF
Lula and Brazil: newbeginning or dead? Arthor Ituassu
Upsurge in violence against landless
Lula’s Lament, Hilary Wainwright