September 23, 2010
On October 3rd, Brazilians will go to the polls to elect a new president, after the hugely popular presidency of Mr Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. During his two terms in office, Brazil has become a dynamic and widely respected – by friends and foes alike – economic power, as well as Latin America’s diplomatic leader and protector.
Brazil experienced the hardships of the neoliberal revolution in the last two decades of the 20th century. After 1990, the country was affected by a serious monetary crisis that necessitated the intervention of the IMF, whose recommendations at the time sent many a Brazilian into destitution. According to Le Monde diplomatique, between 1980 and 2001, the first two decades of the neoliberal revolution, the number of people living below the poverty level almost doubled in latin America, from 120 million to 220 million (“Bourses et favelas plébiscitent “Lula”, September 2010).
During that period, a majority of the world’s political leaders were mesmerised by the Washington Consensus, which “despised any consideration having to do with fairness and tried to avoid any measure of redistribution [of wealth]” (Nancy Birdsall, Augusto de la Torre and Felipe Valencia Caicedo, “The Washington Consensus: Assessing a damaged brand”, Center for Global Development, Washington D.C.,May 2010).
Lula da Silva’s political genius consisted in the fact that he bucked this trend – a lesson in political savvy that might be of use to many European leaders, especially those still worshipping neoliberal orthodoxy. His poverty reduction programme has brought him the title of World Champion in the fight against hunger, as, during his first mandate, it reduced infant malnutrition in Brazil by half. His Hunger Zero initiative also guaranteed indigenous families access to staple foods, via government grants of between 18 and 90 euros per month. The minimum salary rose by 53.6 percent in real terms; the revenues of the poorest 10 percent of Brazilian citizens rose by 10 percent per annum, faster than the rate of economic growth and the rise in the revenue of the richest citizens (the incomes of the rich rose by 1.5 percent per annum). If one adds to that the state’s support for students coming from modest families and the family allowances awarded to 12.4 million families, or some 40 million citizens, living under the poverty line, we can better gauge the magnitude of Lula da Silva’s achievements on the social front (Le Monde diplomatique, idem).
Da Silva’s political regime is so widely popular because it benefitted not only the poor, but all Brazilians. The ranks of the middle classes swelled from 37 percent to more than half of the population ; the number of millionaires rose by 19.1 percent between 2006-2007 alone. No wonder, therefore, that at the end of his two terms in office, Lula da Silva is regretted by rich and poor alike…
Brazil’s standing, influence and reputation in international affairs has tremendously increased during the same period. “Lula” kept a good working relationship with Washington and European capitals, but also with China and the Arab world. Last but not least, he protected his much smaller and poorer neighbours like Paraguay and Bolivia, whose leaders he helped economically and diplomatically. He refused the American request for operating two military bases in Brazil and created, together with his Latin American counterparts, Unasur in 2008 – a collective security and defence organisation which shuns Washington’s tutelage. He also lent Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez political support and greatly encouraged the latter’s poverty reduction initiatives there.
The next Brazilian president might, for example, also try to rid the country of systemic corruption which, according to experts, costs some 30 billion euros per annum, or about 5 times more than the social aid destined for Brazilian families. The political élite is in dire need of attracting more ethical characters, too, and of getting rid of its transformistas – politicians who change party allegiance at least once during a parliamentary mandate. When such changes will take effect, Brazil’s prominent place on the world scene will become even more firmly established. As president, da Silva certainly did his bit towards this goal and deserves, more than Tony Blair, for example, to continue his involvement in global affairs.