Lula, the fiery trade union leader, berating free-market reforms of President Cardoso, Brasilia, circa 1999 (File photo)
The former president of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, popularly known as Lula, has won the country’s presidential election by an incredibly narrow margin of 50.90% of the vote against his right-wing rival and incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro’s 49.10%.
When Lula stepped down as president in 2010, he was enjoying the approval of 80% of the Brazilian people. How Lula came to lose his carisma makes a complicated story. He attributed it entirely to the ground reality that he was fighting not an individual but the Brazilian state apparatus. Clearly, Lula’s strongest support base — over two-thirds of the vote — among poor, rural voters in the northeast part of Brazil held firm.
Lula is anything but a one-dimensional man. Not many would know that he was the first Latin American leader to be invited to Camp David — by none other than President George W. Bush in 2007. Bush said, “You come as a friend, we welcome you as a friend, and our discussions were very friendly.”
In March 2009, after receiving Lula at the Oval Office in the White House, Bush’s successor President Barack Obama said that he was “a great admirer of Brazil and a great admirer of the progressive, forward-looking leadership that President Lula has shown throughout Latin America and throughout the world.”
The accolades were improbably similar. There are several reasons why Lula’s victory matters a great deal to the US — trade, democracy, Donald Trump and climate change. Lula’s new greener stance pleases the US. The Amazon rainforest may stop burning. Washington has been enthusiastic about Lula’s business-friendly economic policies, too.
Lula could be a friend of right-wingers and yet be an iconic progressive leader. His magnetism attracts diverse minds. Lula’s immediate successor as president who was part of a revolutionary underground at one time, Dilma Rousseff, would attribute it to his “rational assessment and emotional intelligence” — a gifted politician’s secret weapon to connect him with human minds across vast political space.
There is record trade between the US and Brazil — aircraft, petroleum, iron and steel — and they also make similar commodities. Brazil is the largest producer of soy and orange, followed by the US, while the Americans are ahead in corn, beef, turkey and chicken production, with Brazil just behind. At a time of recession, there’ll be competition for market share.
The best piece I read on Lula over the years was an incisive essay dating back to 2011 by Professor and author Perry Anderson (who sits on the editorial board of New Left Review, alongside Tariq Ali) in the London Review of Books. In that 22000-word essay titled Lula’s Brazil, Anderson deftly navigated Lula’s sharply contrasting and yet mutually complementing facets of his two full terms in office as president from 2003 to 2010.
The broad hinterland of corruption behind Lula’s conquest of power in his first term almost cost him a second term in 2006. But Lula had two assets in reserve. First, his neoliberal economic policies led to sustained economic growth, and, second, as business and jobs picked up, not only the mood in the country changed, but the government’s coffers were filled with larger revenues.
Succinctly put, although Lula had been committed to helping the poor, he realised early enough in power that accommodation of the rich and powerful would be necessary, and only with the larger revenues, could he launch the programme that is now indelibly associated with him, the Bolsa Família, a monthly cash transfer to mothers in the lowest income strata, against proof that they are sending their children to school and getting their health checked.
The transfers reached more than 12 million households, a quarter of the population, messaging that Lula cared for the lot of the wretched or downtrodden, as citizens with social rights. “Popular identification of Lula with this change became his most unshakeable political asset,” Anderson wrote.
A succession of increases in the minimum wage followed. These conditional cash transfers, higher minimum wages and the novel access to credit set off popular consumption leading to an expansion of the domestic market that finally began creating more jobs.
To quote Anderson, “In combination, faster economic growth and broader social transfers have achieved the greatest reduction in poverty in Brazilian history. By some estimates, the number of the poor dropped from around 50 to 30 million in the space of six years, and the number of the destitute by 50 per cent.” Since 2005, government spending on education trebled and the hope of betterment was a great popular success.
Lula’s foreign laurels were no less impressive. Lula took care not to confront Washington, but gave greater priority to regional solidarity, promoting Mercosur with neighbours to the south, and refused to cold-shoulder Cuba and Venezuela to the north. Lula recognised Palestine as a state and opposed the sanctions against Iran. No doubt, the increasing weight of Brazil as an economic power and his own aura as the most popular ruler of the age enabled Lula to pull it off. The new position he had won for Brazil came with the formation of the BRIC quartet in 2009, which was virtually a declaration of diplomatic independence from the West.
These paradoxes get reflected today in the complimentary messages flowing in from the collective West and Moscow and Beijing alike wishing Lula success. The Chinese President Xi Jinping’s message of greetings underscores how Brazil has become a high-stakes turf in geopolitics. Indeed, China’s ascent as a countervailing economic power in Brazil is a compelling reality. In 2021, China was the number one investor in Brazil.
Latin America is hurtling to the left. Taken together, this group is extremely mixed, differing on economic policy and commitment to democratic principles but they are in unison in their resistance to US hegemony. The ensuing solidarities among governments of the left, cradle Lula’s Brazil within a hospitable environment. In turn, Lula will extend a mantle of protective friendship to regimes –- Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador –- more radical than his own, while at the same time remaining a moderating influence on them.
To be sure, Lula brings gravitas to the BRICS agenda. Democratisation of the international political and economic order is very much to his heart. He is the one BRICS leader who can galvanise the grouping as a “counterpoint” to G7 in international politics.
However, world politics has changed phenomenally in the past 12 year period. The BRICS itself is on the cusp of change. During his two terms as president, the international context was benign for Brazil as Washington lost concentration as continental overlord in the hemisphere and the War on Terror became the front lines of American global strategy.
But in the new cold war conditions, Washington’s traditional mechanisms of hegemony will almost certainly return in Latin America in one form or the other, especially as President Biden is going to have to take some difficult decisions over Ukraine, with a major collapse of the NATO project eastwards coming.
This is where Lula’s margin in the presidential election is worryingly thin in a political economy with persistently high unemployment, high inflation, and staggering wealth inequality and extreme polarisation. Washington is very good at exploiting such contradictions.
However, the one factor that can restrain the Biden Administration would be the big picture in the hemisphere, which is that there is no nuance whatsoever today in the left versus right map for Latin America.
Biden’s call with Lula on Monday is an extraordinary gesture underscoring the high importance of Brazil both in the US regional strategy and domestic politics where Latino voters matter profoundly, and affirming strong interest in a cooperative relationship with the towering, charismatic Brazilian leader. Biden must be thrilled to have Lula on his side as he prepares to combat Trumpism.