Viewpoint by Jonathan Power
LUND, Sweden (IDN) — Brazil has long lived out its personal fantasy as the archetypal relaxed, tolerant and gregarious country with Copacabana beach, the samba, the carnival and a great deal of sexual freedom. But, as it was often said when Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva came to power in 2003, it had yet to live its societal dream, an economic-cum-social revolution.
When “Lula” retired after two terms, he bequeathed his nation a vibrant capitalist economy with a human face—an economy that had raised income per head quite substantially had almost abolished daily hunger, doubled the minimum wage, reduced infant mortality by nearly 50% and given the large majority of the poor an income supplement in return for families sending their children to school.
Lula also worked hard to save the Amazon rainforest and protect its hidden tribes. Now he is running again for a third term, and with a record like this, it is no great surprise that he is the favourite to win in the general election on October 6.
Still, despite eight years of Lula, the country struggles to stay ahead of its burgeoning population. Old problems remain the inequities of the feudal land system that cast millions into shanty towns and a murder rate in the slum favelas that is more akin to a war zone than a normal society. It was Charles de Gaulle who once said, “Brazil has a great future. But it always will have.”
When Lula’s handpicked successor Dilma Roussef came adrift, forced to resign because of a massive corruption scandal in Brazil’s national oil company while presiding over an economy eaten away by mismanaged inflation, a widening budget deficit and accounting manoeuvres, the government of the Workers Party, the socialist movement founded by Lula, hit the rocks and seemed to prove de Gaulle right.
Jair Bolsanaro, a conservative congressman, came to power in 2019. For most of his time in office, he has favoured the well-to-do, has let the private enterprise run amok in the Amazon, has scoffed at global warming and Covid, has presided over a lacklustre economy and, until he got desperate about winning re-election, ignored the poor. Donald Trump, he has said, is his role model.
Lula, in political terms, has been, in part, a lucky man. His predecessor, the right of centre, two-term president between 1983 and 1992, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, laid many foundations for future progress. Now, thirty years later, the big question is can Brazil move from Third World to First World? Can Brazil, the world’s most successful country in terms of growth in the twentieth century, repeat this achievement in the twenty-first?
Many, viewing the dismal inflation-consumed performance of the 1970s and 80s, with a currency adding zeros faster than the printing presses could turn, believed Brazil could never make it, especially with a former Marxist sociology professor, Cardoso, becoming president. But Cardoso practised fiscal prudence, stabilised the currency and initiated the first real reforms of Brazil’s bloated bureaucracy and feudal inefficiencies.
Lula continued where Cardoso left off. Brazil under Lula repaid its debts to the International Monetary Fund and the Paris Club well ahead of schedule. Brazil ran a growing surplus on its trade account, its exports boomed, growing at a faster rate than China’s—in a range of products from soya to aircraft from mining to computers. Its economy grew steadily at over 5% per annum. (It had been 1.9% when he came into office.)
Lula will now inherit in his third term (in all probability) a country that is the eleventh biggest economy in the world. Brazil is home to the world’s largest tropical forest, and Brazil has the world’s largest reservoirs of freshwater and ample hydroelectric power. It is self-sufficient in oil and gas, and the recent deepwater finds make it likely that it will continue as a major oil and gas exporter. Its large-scale agriculture is stunningly productive with an agricultural scientific research effort second to no other country.
Brazil appears to have everything—a nation of vast dimensions, the size of Europe, bounded by the steamy tropical rain forests of the Amazon to the north and the cool, temperate, munificent prairies to the south. No other country in the world offers such geographic contrasts or probably such an abundance of raw materials and raw opportunities. But for the best part of four centuries, too much of this had been squandered- the Amazon raped, the poor exploited, and the rich indulged.
If this doesn’t give Brazil’s economy with its 212 million people and its fifth largest land area quite the clout of India and China with their billion-plus people each, it certainly will give it a base to stand eye to eye with them in, say ten years’ time if Brazil can cruise at a GNP growth rate of 5% or more from its much higher base. At the very least, Brazil will outgrow Canada and Russia and leave Mexico way behind.
Brazil still has many reforms yet to make—to give the tens of millions of poor more opportunities to haul themselves out of poverty, to recast the impenetrable, misused, tax code, to make serious inroads on the corruption that riddles the society, to reform the bureaucratic culture that limits Brazil’s potential, to save the Amazon and its peoples, to end the violence of the favelas, to de-brutalise the police and to further modify the maldistribution of incomes.
Lula has his own problems and failings. He spent 580 days in prison for alleged corruption before being exonerated. When in office, he indulged the military, buying new very expensive state-of-the-art warplanes from the US when second-hand ones would have been sufficient for a country that never goes to war. His land reform program was lethargic, despite grand promises to liberate the downtrodden peasantry. Middle-class university students continued to be favoured over those coming from poor backgrounds. The police were allowed to continue with their violent ways.
Indeed, he will be much better than Bolsonaro, who in too many ways has taken the country backwards. But Lula still has to deliver many of the promises he made at the onset of his first and second terms. He is more experienced now. Let’s hope he can do it.
About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com [IDN-InDepthNews — 27 September 2022]
Photo: Former President Lula at a campaign rally in Nova Iguaçu on September 8, 2022. Ricardo Stuckert/Reproduction, Lula campaign website. Source: Americas Quarterly.
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