Fri, 09 Aug 2002

Let Brazil elect Lula if it still desires to

Jonathan Power, Columnist, London

Twenty years ago when Luiz Inacio da Silva, "Lula" as everyone calls him, first started to make a splash in Brazilian politics both the West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt and the Spanish prime minister Adolfo Suarez took time out on one of their Latin American trips to seek out the young trade union leader and talk over his political philosophy and how he saw the future of Brazil. They made it clear to journalists that they were impressed. So was I. I spent four hours in face to face conversation with Lula and we ranged far and wide.

Uneducated in a formal sense, his facility for answering a difficult question well was awe-inspiring. "I think it is better just go forward one millimeter", he told me, " but one down to earth millimeter, knowing that we won't have to go two millimeters backwards later on".

That was two decades ago when he was 36. Since then I've watched him brick by brick build up his Worker's party to the powerhouse it is today. Now he is within reach of winning the presidency, a development that has sent the markets into a spin. It has not helped, as the Economist put it recently, that "markets have a habit of getting their way even when they are wrong. Predictions of financial collapse are notoriously self- fulfilling".

But that is why we have the International Monetary Fund, or at least that is how it should be -- to control the tendencies to rout of the over simplistic market place and to purvey information that takes the long view rather than the misleading ones of the moment.

The truth is that Brazil is more than ripe for change. It is a country seized with a social crisis of staggering proportions, with tens of thousands of street children whom an out of control police have often hunted down as if they were rabid dogs, with the second unfairest distribution of income in the world, with an upper business clique that is manifestly corrupt, with a crime rate that has climbed through the stratosphere, with a land distribution system that gives the 20 largest landowners more land than the 3.3 million smallest farmers.

Yet Brazil in its way has everything. It is a mighty nation of vast dimensions. It is bounded by the steamy tropical rain forests to the north and cool, temperate, munificent prairies to the south. No other country in the world offers such an abundance of raw materials and raw opportunities. Brazil, moreover, has always lived its fantasy. Copacabaqa beach, the carnival and the samba are not just the tourist brochure's concoction. They are as Brazil really is -- the archetypal, relaxed, tolerant and gregarious society. A country that has not gone to war since 1870. A country that abolished executions in 1855. A country that although its black population was poor and undereducated never had Jim Crow laws.

In the first 60 years of the last century it looked as if Brazil was preparing for a fabulous lift-off. Taiwan and Brazil shared the honors of being the fastest growing economies in the world.

In the 1960s it started to come apart. The military that had taken control began well but lost their way. Bad economic management, the inequalities of the system and the greed of the elite undermined the reach for growth. Painfully, but carefully, democratically elected President Fernando Henrique Cardosa, himself a one time left winger, has put the pieces back together again.

The economy, until this manufactured crisis, was back on its feet, disparities were diminishing, out of control police were being disciplined and punished and land reform was achieving some success. At this stage it would be natural for any developed country -- and Brazil is now as developed as was Spain, Greece and Portugal when they entered the European Community -- to have a left of center government. Brazil, unlike many of its neighbors, has neither radicals of the left nor the right. Its politics in that sense is surprisingly mature.

Brazil is fortunate in having a candidate of the political experience of Lula, who was saying so many sensible things while today's currency traders were still in short pants. This man, by no stretch of the imagination is a Carlos Menem or Hugo Chavez. He is a cool, level headed, exceptional clever and wise working man who has not been afraid to surround himself with sophisticated advisers, from the universities, the Church and even industry.

Brazil, if it chooses, has every right to elect this man. And the currency traders, bankers and their "sympathizers" in the U.S. Treasury and the IMF have no right to demand a quid pro quo for giving well run Brazil the financial support it now needs to resist the markets. It is they who could run Brazil into the sand. I'm pretty sure that Lula, left to his own devises, would only make the country richer, stronger and fairer.