Brazil’s Experience with Lula Offers Lessons for Obama Supporters

We arrived early, but the field was already packed with an ecstatic crowd waiting to hear the one man who they believed could actually turn the country around. Nearly three months before he had won the presidency with the promise of change, and now more than a hundred thousand had descended on this grassy hillside to listen to him speak. Chants echoed from the nearby road, all the way down to the waterfront and back. Banners waved. People cheered. Hope was in the air.

And suddenly the crowd erupted. He had arrived.

There was little said that hadn’t been said before, but the energy was euphoric. He spoke of agrarian reform, quality education, university access to all, universal health care, and building "a just, solidarity-based, fraternal society where the wealth produced in the country is distributed more equally for all of the country’s children."

He spoke of reaching across the aisle. He spoke of his family. He spoke of the expectations, of the responsibilities and the joy of finally being able to "finish an election and yell loudly: Hope finally beat out fear."

He spoke of his dream, "everyone’s dream." He told the crowd that this dream, one day, would be fulfilled. It just "depends on our courage, it depends on our willingness," he said.

He spoke and the crowd listened. Here before us was one of us. Someone you could actually trust to do the right thing.

Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva was raised in a poor family by a single mother in the interior of Brazil’s Northeastern Pernambuco state. His family moved to Sao Paulo as a child and he got a job at a metal plant at the age of 14. A few years passed, he joined the union. They liked him. He ran for office and won. He was soon President of the Steelworker’s Union and within three years he was leading hundreds of thousands of Brazilian workers in the first major strikes in more than 14 years of the repressive military dictatorship. The workers won, then lost, then won again. Lula and thousands more formed the Brazilian Worker’s Party (PT) in 1980. Within five years the dictatorship was over, and when open elections were held for the first time in more than two decades, Lula and his Worker’s Party ran, and lost narrowly to Brazilian playboy, Fernando Collor de Mello.

Fourteen years later, on Oct. 27, 2002, in his fourth and final run at the presidency, Lula was finally victorious. On his shoulders he carried the hope of millions who had suffered through the long 20-year dictatorship, and had lived through the subsequent governments of corruption, lies, privatizations and political handouts. Lula – they knew – was different.

On this hot sunny day, speaking to more than a hundred thousand at the third World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Lula described his first steps as President: "Cautious, calm… solid."

That’s exactly what they were. He attended the World Economic Forum in Davos after his stop in Porto Alegre, and promised to continue paying Brazil’s international debt. His appointments to the Ministries of Economics and Finance treaded on neoliberal, and he selected the former director of the Bank of Boston to head up the central bank.

Progressive Lula supporters were willing to give him time. After all, he had to start off "cautiously" in order to avoid scaring away investment. He had to build a solid economy first, and then he could focus on the issues he had been championing for decades.

But only a year and a half later, progressives had had enough. A block split from the PT and formed the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL). When I returned to Porto Alegre for the 2005 World Social Forum, instead of being received with euphoria, Lula was heckled. To be honest, it was a mixed crowd. Some were satisfied with the minor gains they had achieved in his first two years as President. But the jeers droned through the entirety of Lula’s speech, reminding everyone in attendance that he had failed to live up to many expectations.

This is not to say that Lula’s presidency has not been a success. He was reelected in the fall of 2006 with more than 60% of the vote, and with more support than in 2002. He now has an impressive approval rating of 70%, and most Brazilians will tell you that he’s the best President they’ve ever had. He has lowered unemployment, made gains with social policies, and decreased poverty and malnutrition with programs like Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) and Bolsa-Família (Family Stipend).

Nevertheless, most of these improvements have been made through reforms and welfare-style programs, and not the transformative social change that many expected of a Lula presidency. The Landless Worker’s Movement (MST) continues to battle daily for the agrarian reform they had hoped would be quickly forthcoming, while genetically-modified crops are legalized and the powerful US-backed Brazilian agro-industry only continues to grow.

In many ways, this reality was destined. After seventeen years and three previous runs for President, Lula had to make some concessions and shake hands with more conservative sectors in order to take the helm. Once there, his hands were tied. The story is the same across the hemisphere.

Barack Obama’s win was a landmark victory. Joining the leftward shift across the Americas, it symbolized great change and broke with the status quo, as did Lula’s in 2002, or Frente Amplio’s 2004 triumph in Uruguay, or Michelle Bachelet’s 2006 win in Chile, or Fernando Lugo’s victory this year in Paraguay. But, like Lula, that alone does not ensure that the Obama administration will be able to embody the "change" the president-elect so enthusiastically espoused on the campaign trail.

There are great expectations. Obama has the potential to be one of the most transformative presidents in United States history, but if his countless Clinton-era cabinet picks are an indication of what is to come, we have reason to be nervous.

As the Christian Science Monitor pointed out in November, the parallels with Brazil run deep. "Like Barack Obama, Brazil’s president rose to power from poverty and the political left. But during six years in office, he has ruled from the center, tapping Brazil’s market strengths, earning him world respect. When the two men finally meet, it may be President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – or "Lula" – who teaches Mr. Obama a thing or two."

Obama might not be the only one that has much to learn from our Southern neighbors. As Brasil de Fato reported shortly after Lula’s reelection, it is sometimes difficult to balance "pressuring the government without playing the game of the opposition." But that’s what many Brazilian social movements decided it was time to do, and progressives in the U.S. need to catch on quickly.

When Obama took to the stage on election night, before a hundred thousand supporters amassed in Grant Park, hope was in the air.

There was little said that hadn’t been said before, but the energy was euphoric.

He spoke of reaching across the aisle. He spoke of his family. He spoke of the expectations, of the responsibilities. He spoke and the crowd listened. Here before us was one of us. Someone you could actually trust to do the right thing.

But no one can do it alone. "This is your victory." He said, "I need your help."

"Obama energized a great many people," wrote Noam Chomsky a few weeks ago. "If they fade away, or simply take instructions, we can expect little from his administration. If they become organized and active, and undertake to be independent voices in policy formation and implementation, a great deal can be achieved — as in the past, and elsewhere today, notably South America."


Michael Fox is a producer, with Sílvia Leindecker, of the new documentary, Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas.