With one more year to go, Brazil’s president has already made his mark on Latin America’s political history.
BY GABRIELA PERDOMO
Few Latin American presidents manage to end their terms on a high note—let alone on a higher note than they began with. But Brazil’s Luis Inacio Lula da Silva will likely manage to do just that when his successor is picked next year. At home, Lula will leave behind big shoes to fill. Abroad, he will bestow an important legacy for governance in Latin America.
The charismatic former union leader’s victory in the 2002 presidential election as the candidate of the Worker’s Party (PT) was a historic event. Lula, a former blue-collar worker with a past marked by poverty and no university education, garnered more votes than any other candidate in the nation’s history. His clear ideas and his remarkable intelligence were enough for a country of over 196 million people fed up with political corruption, widespread poverty and rising crime.
Brazil is by no means free from all of the above problems now. But Lula’s two terms in office—the second of which he earned in 2006 with a new record number of votes—have definitely made improvements in all areas. By all accounts, social programs and economic policy combined have reduced poverty in Brazil. Access to education has increased in all age brackets, along with health care coverage. Crime is also down, despite Lula’s failed efforts at introducing a national ban on small weapons through a referendum in 2005.
Massive public spending in infrastructure has assured that life in Brazil will continue its dynamic pace in the future. In all, quality of life has improved for all Brazilians under Lula’s watch, even if there is still much room for improvement. In the area of political corruption, however, Lula’s own party has a long way to go. PT legislators were involved in a major scandal in 2006 for allegedly receiving money in exchange for approving congressional bills.
What Lula has done in Brazil over the past seven years is of major importance in Latin America. He is not the only left-wing president to govern in the region successfully—see his neighbours Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay and Michelle Bachelet in Chile—but he is arguably the most influential.
Lula came to power with strong socialist credentials but managed to lead a pragmatic administration that was friendly enough to businesses and foreign investors while at the same time delivering on his commitment of tackling poverty from all possible fronts. Lula has become the face of what some have called "the new left" in Latin America: the left that renounces violence, embraces individual freedoms, understands the role of private capital and allows the state to play a role in re-integrating the poorest brackets of the population into the mainstream.
Latin American governments have as much to learn from the Brazilian president’s domestic policies as from his aggressive international agenda. Lula made a point in bringing the continent’s nations closer together and improving their standing as a regional power. He was keen on strengthening Mercosur, an economic alliance of the southernmost states plus Venezuela, and paved the way for the continent’s stronger relations with Asian and Arab countries. He has been vocal about the need to allow emerging economies to have a say in international affairs, and today continues to push for a permanent seat for Brazil in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).
First seen as a populist, Lula quickly gained the respect of the region’s political leaders. He earned a spot in the group of so-called responsible leftist presidents, along with Vázquez and Bachelet, by distancing himself from the more radical Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.
LULA'S KEY LEGACY
In Latin America, from Mexico to Nicaragua to Chile, the word "left" still makes millions cringe. It still bears the burden of the words "communist", "guerrilla", "revolution" and "class war". A successful eight-year-long government standing on the left side of the political spectrum seems more plausible in the Spain of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero than in the south of the Americas.
President Lula’s main legacy will be the proof that a responsible left is possible in the continent. In many ways, his administration is a step towards political maturity in Latin America. Left-leaning political parties across the land, from the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador, to the Democratic Independent Pole (PDI) in Colombia, to the Movement to Socialism (MAS) in Bolivia must feel both inspired and challenged by the PT’s success under Lula’s headship.
Lula has over a year left to complete his legacy. With his popularity hovering around the 80 per cent mark, he still has much political capital to push for further reforms and introduce new policy. His successor will either be the PT’s Dilma Rousseff, his current chief of staff, or Jose Serra of the opposition Brazilian Party of Social Democracy (PSDB). As Lula said in a recent interview, either one of them will have a high standard to maintain, and hopefully to rise even further. That, he says, makes him feel that he has done a good job.
Gabriela Perdomo is research associate for global studies at Angus Reid Global Monitor. Republished with permission from the author.