[shniad at sfu.ca: [R-G] The Real Thing (Lula)]
ehrbar at econ.utah.edu
Mon Feb 3 18:20:28 MST 2003
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Los Angeles Weekly January 31, 2003
The Real Thing
By Marc Cooper LA Weekly Writer
PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil -- It's hard not to be moved -- deeply moved -- when
you hear Brazil's new president speak. And even harder not to be downright
jarred by the realization -- by comparison -- of how very hollow, how very
dead-ended, our own national politics have become. I can't think of two
countries today more politically divergent than the U.S. and Brazil, or two
presidents who reveal more startlingly opposite political possibilities than
George W. Bush and the newly inaugurated Luis Ignacio "Lula" da Silva.
I stood last Friday afternoon, along with 75,000 others, surrounded by a sea
of flapping flags, in the riverside Por do Sol amphitheater to hear
President Lula speak to the third annual World Social Forum, the "people's
alternative" to the elite World Economic Forum (news - web sites) in Davos,
Switzerland. This year's international powwow of the anti-globalization
movement drew more than 100,000 participants to 1,500 panels and seminars,
featuring A-list lefties ranging from Noam Chomsky to Danielle Mitterand to
Arundhati Roy to Che Guevara's daughter to Danny Glover.
But it was Lula who towered above all.
There he stood diminutively on the stage, short and pudgy, 57 years old, and
bearded. He spoke softly and calmly, with a conversational tone, and with
none of the rehearsed trademark theatrics of a trained pol. As the man who
now presides over this country of 175 million, with the eighth biggest
economy in the world, but with wealth so radically ill-distributed that as
many as 30 million live at sub-Saharan levels of poverty, Lula focused his
talk on the injustices of the global economy. "There are those who eat five
times a day," he said. "And those who eat maybe once in five days."
And then, his soft voice hesitating and catching with emotion, Lula
continued, "African babies have the same right to eat as a blond, blue-eyed
baby born in Scandinavia."
When Bush utters similar phrases about "leaving no child behind," you can as
much as see the smirk behind it all, the cold political calculations of his
chuckling speechwriters and pollsters.
With Lula, you feel the resonance deep in your gut. His sincerity is
undoubted because you know his own personal story is so real. Born to an
impoverished farm family, Lula dropped out of school at age 12 and moved to
the city. Carving out a meager existence on the mean streets of São Paulo
(where today the murder rate is five times that of Washington, D.C.), Lula
worked as a bootblack.
He never returned to school, and during the 21 years of Brazilian military
dictatorship, Lula toiled as a metalworker. He courageously defied the
regime and helped rebuild a powerful national trade-union movement. Since
1980 he has been leading another of his creations, the idiosyncratic Workers
Party, an amalgam of Marxists, liberals and Christians.
After three earlier failed attempts, Lula swept to a 61 percent landslide
presidential victory, propelled by an electorate fed up with the "Washington
consensus" -- the dogmatic and disastrous application of free-market recipes
that in this country has led to mounting unemployment and inflation, a
consuming debt and shaky currency. And now Brazil calls on a metalworker and
his party to solve the crisis.
Yet we're told by imbecilic pundits that Bush, son of a former CIA director,
vice president and president, a lazy layabout admitted into Yale on the
"legacy" affirmative-action program, with his Texas twang and scrambled
syntax, should be venerated as a Regular Guy. Or that Bill Clinton's Cabinet
"looked like America" because it vaguely conformed to the politically
correct racial quotas of some university administrator's spreadsheet.
Compare all of that with Lula's Cabinet: seven trade unionists, a former
rubber cutter and maid as environmental minister, a black shantytown dweller
and feminist as social-welfare minister, a Green Party activist and popular
musician as cultural minister, and a chief of staff who spent 10 years in
hiding for his armed resistance to the former dictatorship.
Bush barreled into office rewarding the wealthiest elite with a double
serving of juicy and fattening tax cuts. Lula's first acts were to fire the
gourmet chef from the presidential staff and then to cancel the $700 million
purchase of 12 new air-force fighter jets, redirecting the funding to his
new "Zero Hunger" program.
Most of the trips taken by Bush's Cabinet members have been to high-ticket
fund-raisers or -- frankly -- to their brokers, to check on their tenuous
multimillion-dollar portfolios. Two weeks ago, Lula took his entire Cabinet
to the drought-stricken Northeast for a two-day "reality tour," tramping
them through and bunking them down into the slums of Recife. Imagine the
political theater -- if you can -- of Don Rumsfeld and CSX
CEO-turned-Treasury Secretary John Snow spending a cozy weekend with
immigrant janitors, say, in downtown Chula Vista, California. I can just
hear Snow, whose CSX received $167 million in tax rebates, lecturing poor
Jose and Guadalupe over an albondigas-soup dinner to start being more
self-reliant and to stop expecting so much from government.
Which takes us to the nub of this meditation -- our expectations. One
adviser to Lula joked to me this week, if you will excuse the crudeness,
that "Lula is like a Tampax. He's in the best place at the worst time."
These are certainly the worst economic times for Brazil. Its debt accounts
for 80 percent of its GDP (compared to 52 percent for Argentina, which has
already collapsed). The gnomes at the International Monetary Fund have
imposed a fiscal straitjacket putting crucial social spending at risk.
But it is precisely now that Lula, and Brazil, have chosen to respond by
acting on their dreams, not their fears. Yes, they say, to eliminating
hunger. Yes, to doubling the minimum wage. Yes, to expanding health care.
Yes, to more schools. And yes, to a more equitable trading position with the
richer countries of the world.
And what do we hear? We who live in the richest corner of the Earth, after a
decade of the richest times? Only a thundering cascade of no, no, no. No tax
relief for the poor -- for that would be "class warfare." No new money for
public schools, for that would be "throwing good money after bad." No rise
in the minimum wage because that would be unfair to business. No national
solution to the crisis of 50 million without health care because that would
be "like going to the post office to see a doctor."
Brazilians live precariously with the greatest of hopes. And we live with
fabulous potential that is the legitimate envy of the globe, and we have,
seemingly, no hope.
Or at least none that we are willing to seriously fight for. For in all
this, George W. Bush carries no blame. He is merely the product of our
congealed aspirations -- or lack of them. Just as in Brazil Lula is but a
symbol of something much larger. "I wasn't elected by a TV commercial, or by
a collection of powerful interests," he said humbly to the crowd in front of
him. "Nor was I elected because of my intelligence or personality. I was
elected by the intelligence and political consciousness of the Brazilian
people, who have fought for 40 years for what they have wanted.
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