The Partido dos Trabalhadores
After competing (and being narrowly defeated) in every presidential election since 1990, in 2001 the charismatic leader of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), Luís Inácio (“Lula”) da Silva, finally triumphed on his fourth attempt. Lula’s victory was truly a watershed moment in Brazil’s turbulent, and often tragic, political history.
In a country that for 500 years had been ruled by members of the wealthy elite, it was nothing short of miraculous that a poor boy from the drought-ridden Sertão of Pernambuco, without a university education, should rise to the nation’s most powerful position. As a boy, Lula had escaped poverty by traveling to São Paulo crammed into the back of a truck. Arriving in the big city, he rose from a shoeshine boy to factory worker to union leader and champion of workers’ rights to leader of the PT. But nobody ever thought he’d wind up president.
Excluding conservatives made nervous by his Marxist rants of the past, Brazil’s masses, along with its intellectual and artistic classes, went wild over Lula’s triumph. In the heady early months of his mandate, the popular and populist soccer-playing and churrasco-eating president was greeted as something of a messiah. However, his common touch aside, the apprehensive rich and right-wingers needn’t have worried.
Over the years, Lula had toned down his firebrand rhetoric substantially (becoming known as “Lula Light”). Aside from awarding top government ministries to radical leftist dissidents of the dictatorship years and making no secret of his friendships with Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Lula (much to the dismay of more hard-core members of the PT) stayed the central course mapped out by his predecessor, FHC.
Economically, he continued to steer Brazil on the road to increasing globalization, which has resulted in a booming Brazilian economy. More importantly, his government has made headway in addressing some of the glaring social disparities that have always led Brazil to being compared to an uneasy fusion of Belgium and Bangladesh.
Increasing numbers of children are attending school (with the aid of subsidies paid to parents). And for the first time in history, the standard of living of Brazil’s poor is finally on the upswing as minimum salaries rise, interest rates fall, and credit has become easily available to people who want to buy homes or start small businesses. The situation has improved the most in the Northeast and North, which were traditionally the most neglected of Brazil’s regions.
On the downside, while the PT was revered for its socialist ideals and integrity during its 20-year role as the main opposition party to successive governments, once the party came to power, it wasn’t long before the “power corrupts” adage kicked in. By 2005, scams and scandals began to erupt on a massive scale, and many idealists and die-hard supporters of the Workers’ Party felt incredibly betrayed that the PT of all parties should prove as immoral as all the rest.
Amid flying accusations, rather than face interminable investigations that would bring government reforms to a standstill, many of Lula’s scandal-tainted ministers chose to resign. Through it all, Lula claimed to know nothing about anything. While the PT’s reputation was severely tarnished, Lula himself emerged unscathed (with the nickname the “Teflon president” since nothing bad “stuck” to him). Despite the damage done to the party, Lula was elected to a second presidential term in November 2006.
To date, Brazil has come a long way towards becoming a mature and stable democracy with a robust economy. Within Latin America, Brazil has emerged as a regional leader and an inspiration to other nations. Meanwhile, its self-sufficiency in oil, its vanguard position in terms of biodiesels, and its increasingly important role as a supplier of raw and finished products have propelled Brazil onto the world stage, where it is routinely compared with other emerging powers such as China and India. At home, major problems still exist, particularly in terms of public safety, quality of public health and education, corruption, and poverty.
Despite some improvements, much-needed reforms to the justice and political systems are needed to end the culture of impunity that reigns at all levels, and which prevents Brazil from living up to its potential and evolving into a truly significant global player. However, obstacles aside, it can safely be said that at no other time in history have the reality of Brazil’s present and the promise of this país do futuro appeared so closely aligned.
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition