'The most popular politician on Earth'

Brian Stewart on the phenomenal success of Brazil's Lula.

The night's events had that peculiar mixture of dread and farce common to Brazil in the past, particularly when it was living under one of its periodic military governments.

It was the late 1970s. Our CBC crew had landed in Sao Paulo where a huge union walkout that day had shut down Brazil's auto industry, throwing the giant city into chaos.

A rally of 30,000 angry autoworkers had poured onto a sports field on an appropriately stormy evening to hear from their local union boss. Given police repression at the time, the crowd did not expect media and was surprised when a lone TV crew showed up from Canada of all places.

Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva gestures during a press conference in January 2009 while urging Washington to act more quickly on the global economic crisis. (Juan Karita/Associated Press)

Given the risks, many in the crowd assumed we were either lost or nuts or police spies. But their night was not going well either. The small, muscular union leader was standing mute in frustration as the tension rose. His microphone was bust.

After many minutes of delay an organizer had a brainwave and raced over to us to ask, forcefully would be the word, for use of the CBC mike. The protest of my producer Tony Burman was unavailing and my own was a little on the weak side, I confess.  

But with this bizarre mike-jacking the night was saved and history served. The firebrand union leader gave a rip-roaring speech of political defiance that was later seen as yet another momentous step towards restoring democracy in Brazil. That he did so holding a microphone with a CBC sticker on it did not endear us to Brazilian security, but it mercifully escaped attention back in Canada.  

Later the union boss, gruffly ungrateful, only rewarded us with the shortest of interviews. Though he was clearly popular, I thought him a rumpled mediocrity unlikely to rise far even in opposition leftist circles.

I even thought his nickname lacked promise: Lula. How would I know he would become the most popular national leader in all of the Americas.

Lula of Brazil

He is still called Lula today, of course, although more officially the name is President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil. With an approval rating of between 70 and 80 per cent, he is one of the world's most popular — and arguably successful — leaders.

Despite that success, Lula remains a scarcely known figure in Canada and our government pays surprisingly little attention to him or Brazil.

But Lula is a sensation in Latin America and throughout the emerging world. What's more, President Barak Obama at the recent G20 meeting in London gave him the most ringing of endorsements while pumping his hand: "Here's my man, right here," Obama said. "I love this guy. He's the most popular politician on Earth."  

Popular, for sure, and not overly modest about himself or his country.

"God is a Brazilian," he has declared as yet another oil find is made in his resource-rich nation.

Before the G20 in March, he insisted that Brazil is now emerging as a significant power in the world, a profound moment, he felt, that was being spoiled only by the current recession and "the irrational behaviour of white people with blue eyes, who before seemed to know everything and now have shown they know nothing." 

Stepping up in the world, Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva greets French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in Rio de Janeiro, in December 2008. Sarkozy was there to sign an arms deal to help Brazil build Latin America's first nuclear-propelled submarine. (Ricardo Moraes/Associated Press)

His own immodesty can be forgiven. The rumpled union leader I retrieved my mike from long ago in Sao Paulo was a part-time mechanic and former shoe-shine boy with a grade 4 education. Lula has had a lifetime of being underestimated by people like me.

More than a survivor

Lula is a survivor, of not only repression but also three defeats in presidential races before he won the first of two terms in 2003, in the process launching one of the more remarkable social and economic reform movements of the past decade.  


Even the pinnacle of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, notes Lula was justified in his G20 frustrations because the economic meltdown had put a damper on "an enormously successful two-term presidency." (Lula's second term ends next year and, despite much popular demand that he change the Constitution to allow for a third, he is so far refusing to run again.)  

Brazil is now seen by many economists as a model of balanced development, all the more remarkable as it has flourished under a left-of-centre government — a coalition no less — that many Western governments all expected to flop.  

Even more than Canada, Brazil avoided the toxic pit that befell international banking in the past year. Because of its strong banking regulations, it now has sound and very profitable banks as well as a buzzing investment sector.

Unlike so many oil rich nations, Brazil has not squandered its windfalls. It has used its petrodollars to bring down inflation, build up foreign currency reserves and increase domestic demand for its own products.

It has also invested massively in energy efficient biofuels, improved farming methods and a startling array of infrastructure improvements. While Canada still dithers about a future high-speed rail link between Montreal and Toronto, for example, Lula's government has now started on a "bullet train" between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the first in the entire Western hemisphere.

The future is now

Brazil, it's important to note, still has a great many serious weaknesses, enough to fill a whole column.

It has excessive government bureaucracy and corruption, ongoing deforestation and lawlessness in the Amazon, a generally poor education system and alarming urban violence.  

But, despite the recession, economic and social progress is so impressive that emerging countries around the world are studying one particular aspect of its success — the combination of economic liberalism with aggressive empowerment of the poor.  

By offering Brazil's poor property rights, small loans, increased state support and subsidies to those struggling to get by, Brazil, in just six years, has lifted 20 million people out of poverty and into the middle class.

Throughout this period, it has increased the minimum wage annually and brought electricity into 10 million new homes, all the while driving the economy forward and keeping the country politically stable.

Its recent average annual growth rate of five per cent is behind that of China and India, but the gap between the haves and have-nots is closing faster in Brazil.  

At the same time, Brazil has just knocked Canada out of the top 10 list of ranked economics. It soared to seventh place, while we've been bumped down to 11th.

Internationally, it is also playing the role Canada once saw for it self. Brazilian troops head the UN mission in Haiti and its advisers are a noted force in helping emerging African nations with development assistance, especially in agriculture reform and infrastructure.

Brazilian diplomats are highly regarded at the UN, where they're campaigning insistently for one of the seats on the Security Council, a race Canada now seems to have abandoned.  

Acknowledging the phenomenon of Lula and Brazil, I cringe all the more when I recall my lines in the closing standup all those years ago in Sao Paulo: "There's a saying about this country 'Brazil is the country of the Future. And always will be.'"

Yes, well, here we are.