Brazil reflects on Lula's last year

Gary Duffy
Monday, January 11, 2010

In his last full year as Brazilian leader President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva still commands the political stage here, his popularity at levels most other world leaders would envy.

Now a sympathetic portrayal of his early life is showing in cinemas across the country, although not without creating considerable controversy.

Lula, Son of Brazil, tells how the president was born into poverty in the north east of the country, and how like millions of Brazilians his family headed to the more prosperous south in search of a better life.

It ends as his political career begins as a union activist, arrested during the period of Brazil's military dictatorship and only able to attend his mother's funeral under police guard.

Critics say it should not have been launched in an election year, even if President Lula cannot run again for a third consecutive term, and that it ignores later less flattering aspects of his career.

The fact that some commercial sponsors of the film also had major contracts with the government angered opposition politicians.

Because while President Lula may not be standing, he is keen to get his influential chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff, elected in his place.

'Cheated over corruption'

Some are concerned that the screen portrayal only serves to help that effort, giving her an unfair advantage over the man likely to be the main opposition candidate, Jose Serra, the current governor of Sao Paulo.

It may show the president in a favourable light but among members of the public emerging from a screening in Sao Paulo there were mixed views on what he has meant for the country.

"I thought it was an injection of self-esteem for us Brazilians, mainly the lower middle class," says Magali Xavier.

"We had no hope, and then suddenly he was elected and that was a boost for us."

But Ricardo de Almeida says he feels "cheated", especially in the fight against corruption.

"On a daily basis it has become normal to see politicians getting money illegally, and nothing happens to them, and our president does nothing about this."

Brazil in the limelight

While many Brazilians still live in poverty, President Lula says the lives of millions have been improved under his government's family income support scheme known as Bolsa Familia.

Newly discovered oil fields promise extra revenues to tackle the country's social problems, such as failings in its education system, and the economy is recovering well from the economic crisis.

Brazil's profile has never been higher on the international stage where some say it appears no world summit on key issues such as climate change or energy is complete without President Lula.

The country has also secured the rights to stage both the Olympics and the World Cup in the near future, putting it in the limelight as never before.

Marta Suplicy, the former tourism minister in the Lula government and ex-Mayor of Sao Paulo, is clear about his achievements.

"Besides the minimum wage increases, the 12 million new jobs, and inflation controlled, I would say self-esteem," she told BBC News.

"Twenty one million Brazilians getting out of poverty is something. People being able to eat much better, to live in better conditions and have hope.

"I would say one of the most important things is the hope and self-esteem that President Lula brought to the Brazilian people."

Symbol of change

However the opposition says much of the groundwork for Brazil's recent economic success was carried out under Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who was president from 1995 to 2003.

Critics on the left also claim President Lula abandoned his socialist principles and never fully addressed fundamental issues like inequality of land distribution.

But Mr Cardoso says President Lula has built on what he achieved, although he worries that his successor's dominant position may amount to a mixed blessing.

"As a symbol, the fact that a poor man, a migrant, became president, I think it was very positive," he told BBC News.

"On the other hand, not because of Lula, but in general terms, I think it is not good for the formation of a democratic country to rely too much on one person.

"At one point, it can be said now that the party system is being undermined because of that.

"Look how Lula made his choice of the lady who is supposed to be his candidate for the presidency. I say 'supposed' because she never said yes, and no-one said yes and the party never said anything about it - it was Lula's decision.

"I don't think this is a democratic process - it is not good for the nation."

Legacy

Some analysts agree that it is the collective effort of recent administrations which has helped to put the country in a better place.

"I don't believe that Lula's administration invented the good things that are occurring in Brazil today," says Claudio Couto, a political scientist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Sao Paulo, and the Getulio Vargas Foundation.

"I believe Brazil is better today than it used to be before not only because this administration made good choices, and they did make good choices, but because previous administrations and this one kept things that were working, working."

The screen version of President Lula's life story is prompting Brazilians to reflect on the impact of a man who has been a leading political figure here for more than three decades.

But for the first time in 21 years he will not be standing as a candidate for president.

It seems only now, in this election year, is South America's largest nation starting to consider his legacy, and where the country goes from here.

Source URL: 
news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8451472.stm