The article below from NYTimes.com
Poor Man's Burden
June 27, 2004
By BARRY BEARAK
Lula, his speech over, waded into the embrace of the
masses. It was the opposite of most crowd scenes. Here the
president was pushing through the ropes to get at the
people. He was tired and sweaty, his face infused with
crimson. But the swarm of bodies, pressing his way,
energized him. He seemed propelled by the heat of their
Most of the throng -- like most of Brazil -- was throttled
by poverty. These thousands in the city of Sobral were
dressed in threadbare clothes and mud-covered sandals. Some
stood on tiptoes, hoisting small children who squirmed in
their arms. Others held tightly to the bicycles they had
ridden across the rain-drenched roads. ''Lula, Lula!'' they
shouted, relentlessly pushing forward, those closest
grasping for the president's sleeve. A small bear of a man,
Lula is bearded and round-shouldered with a wide neck and a
thick middle. He moved from one person to the next, hugging
some and pausing to hear what they had to say, patting the
palm of his hand against the side of their faces. ''O-lé,
o-la, Lu-la, Lu-la!'' the crowd began to sing, as if roused
to a chant at a soccer game. ''You are a saint!'' cried one
barefoot old woman. Her eyes were desperate and bloodshot.
She was clutching Lula and wouldn't let go. ''You will help
us,'' she said, and as the president bent closer to hear,
she bestowed the accolade of the people: ''You are one of
What she, like the others, wanted was a little attention, a
little empathy, a little money. Brazil is a rich nation
full of poor people, its distribution of income nearly the
most unequal in the world. The next night, in another city,
a young girl mistook me and my translator for members of
Lula's staff. She handed us a note, begging us to pass it
on. Many words were misspelled; there was a name but no
address. It said: ''Lula, I have six brothers and sisters
and my mother doesn't work and we don't have a father to
help us. Please, my mother cries because we don't have
anything to eat. My name is Adriene.''
Lula, of all people, would understand, the little girl must
And this would have been right. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva,
58, is the genuine article, a walking fable, democracy's
classic story, the poor boy who grew up to be president.
He, too, had a mother who cried and no father to raise him.
He, too, had nothing to eat. He, too, suffered all the
indignities of privation. But from destitution Lula would
become a metalworker and then a union leader and then the
nation's most celebrated firebrand, the man who took tens
of thousands out on strike in defiance of a military
government, opening the body politic to some of the first
cross-breezes of democracy. He then led the creation of the
Partido dos Trabalhadores, the Workers' Party, an amalgam
of the Brazilian left, including trade unionists, radical
intellectuals and progressive Catholics. He won Brazil's
presidency on his fourth try, in October 2002, getting an
overwhelming 61 percent of the vote.
''In a country where the elite have always held a
stranglehold, it was never written anywhere that someone
like me could become president,'' Lula told me as we sat
aboard the Brazilian equivalent of Air Force One. There was
a dining table between us. He stabbed at a piece of meat
with his fork and nodded at a handful of eavesdropping
cronies who savored his words. ''With me being president,
the history of Brazil begins to change because someone from
the humble people, the lowest classes, has risen to the
Lula allowed me to join his entourage in mid-March during a
three-day swing of meetings, speeches and ribbon-cuttings.
Adoring crowds greeted him at every stop, but there were
also notable gaps in the adulation. He had been in office
for 15 months, and the expectation was that this very
different president would somehow bring about a very
different Brazil. But the masses, born poor, have remained
poor, with no end in sight to their reiterating misery.
''Lula, give us jobs!'' were words one man had written on a
placard. ''We are still hungry,'' read another. The federal
police had gone on strike, and some police officers
occasionally heckled as the president spoke, shouting out
their union's demand for an 83 percent raise. Instead of
instigating labor protests, Lula was now their target,
recast as the villainous gatekeeper of the status quo.
There are many numbers between 1 and 83, he reminded the
On the airplane, his exasperation showed. He had also
expected social change to move with more velocity.
''Creating jobs and distributing money to the poor is not
easy,'' he said as if sharing the nugget of some great
revelation. This pronouncement, however obvious to others,
struck him as profound enough to merit repetition. He
leaned forward. He raised his right index finger. ''If
creating jobs and distributing money were easy, someone
else would have done it, and I wouldn't have gotten to the
For many Brazilians, Lula's election seemed like
deliverance. Here was someone pitched forth from poverty's
maelstrom, who had forfeited a finger to a factory accident
and now spoke eloquently of class struggle. He was no
populist held aloft by charisma and a cult following.
Rather, he had spent two decades building a disciplined
political movement that fielded candidates and won
elections. The noted sociologist Francisco de Oliveira, one
of the earliest members of the Workers' Party, likened
Lula's victory to Brazil's greatest historic milestones,
calling it as important as the abolition of slavery.
Other people, while agreeing on the event's momentousness,
disagreed on the nature of its tidings. To them, Lula was a
dangerous lout who spoke too breezily about the
redistribution of income and land. His competence seemed as
questionable as his politics. He had only a few years of
formal schooling. His speech lacked syntax; he cut off the
S's on his plurals like a peasant. Except for one term in
the federal congress -- about which he professed boredom --
Lula had never held a government post. Traders in the
international financial markets nervously followed his
career. Many considered him anti-American and, worse,
anticapitalist. What would such a man do when placed at the
head of one of the world's 10 largest economies? Each time
Lula's political star went into ascent, so did Brazil's
''risk factor'' on the bond market. Weeks before the
election, the nation's bonds were trading at a pitiful 48
cents on the dollar.
But Lula has proved a curious surprise to most everyone,
taking only small, measured steps toward domestic reform
and staying well within the accepted covenants of global
capitalism. For an idealist, perhaps the ideal is to be in
the opposition. Lula, finally in power, now has to contend
with the many forbidding obstacles in the sightline of a
genuinely egalitarian vision. Brazil, doubled over with
debt, is beholden to lenders. The Workers' Party, with only
a minority in both houses of Congress, is not a complete
master of the public agenda. The apparatus of government,
besotted with inefficiency and corruption, resists change.
''I don't have the power of God to do miracles,'' Lula says
these days with unmasked frustration. He has become the
lead character in another common fable: the dreamer who
runs headlong into the cul-de-sacs of reality.
This is not an unfamiliar problem for leftist leaders
throughout the world. Lula views Fidel Castro as an iconic
presence; he dined with him in Brasilia on Inauguration
Day. But in Latin America, exhortations to a people's
revolution today seem as out of fashion as the
red-and-black flag of the Sandinistas. Leftists in
developing nations find themselves working within the
margins of the global financial schematic. Their urge for
reform is most often constrained by a dependence on
international creditors. Default would be a debacle.
Investor confidence would plummet, capital would flee, the
poor would take an abrupt beating. The left may criticize
the so-called Washington consensus, an economic model that
largely leaves the fight against poverty to the efficiency
of free markets, but it is hard pressed to veer off the
trodden course without facing uncontrollable consequences.
Extremism is out; pragmatism is in.
While Lula continues to talk passionately of feeding
Brazil's poor and filling their pockets, his overall
strategy has been one of hidebound austerity, cutting back
on spending. ''We can't take steps too big for our legs,''
he has said repeatedly. He blames the cursed inheritance of
a vulnerable economy and insists he must at last lay the
foundation for long-term prosperity. His storied zeal has
now been redirected toward this newfound restraint. In the
past, Brazil had borrowed its way out of one crisis after
another. Not long before Lula was elected, the government
negotiated a bailout deal with the International Monetary
Fund, agreeing to maintain a budget surplus of 3.75 percent
of the nation's gross domestic product. Lula cinched the
belt tighter yet, increasing the target to 4.25 percent, in
effect making a decision to spend more on servicing the
debt and less on directly assisting the people. This was
done to calm the markets and yank back the reins on
galloping inflation, he said.
But whatever the long-term benefits may be, Lula's austere
approach was accompanied by the penetrating gloom of a
recession. In 2003, the president's first year in office,
the economy slipped backward, with negative growth of 0.2
percent, the worst performance in a decade. Wages dipped.
Jobs were lost.
Under the Workers' Party, the workers took a punch in the
And yet while Lula the politician has chosen to be cautious
at home, Lula the statesman has moved quite boldly abroad,
challenging international trade regimens that favor rich
countries over poor ones. On the global stage, he is still
able to situate himself as the outsider, agitating to
transform reality rather than merely succumbing to it. Lula
-- restless with administrative tasks in the modern,
whitewashed buildings of the capital -- has traveled abroad
at a pace of more than one trip per month, including jaunts
to Luanda, Tripoli and Shanghai. On these excursions, he
often finds himself greeted as a heroic new voice for the
downtrodden. One of his main efforts has been to try to
cobble together trading blocs of emerging nations,
attempting to find strength in numbers. He has also
crusaded against the extravagant agricultural subsidies
given to farmers in wealthy countries. In this battle, he
has successfully played by the international rule book. Two
months ago, Brazil won a preliminary judgment against the
United States at the World Trade Organization in a case
involving subsidies to American cotton growers; another
pending claim, against the European Union, concerns sugar.
These proceedings, seemingly arcane, are vital to
agriculture in poor countries. If price-distorting
subsidies were wiped away, farmers would suddenly have a
fair shot at being competitive in lucrative foreign
markets. Tens of millions could be lifted out of poverty.
This independent streak concerning global commerce has of
course irked many of the powerful in Washington, as did
Lula's opposition to what he once called President Bush's
''private war with Saddam Hussein.'' Still, as men of the
people go, Brazil's leader has struck most of the world's
establishment as a praiseworthy fellow, certainly no
apostle of class warfare like Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.
Last summer, Lula was warmly received in the White House,
where President Bush praised his counterpart's social
vision and ''tremendous heart.'' Several times, James
Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, has gushingly
commended Lula as ''an extraordinary figure'' who has
emerged as ''one of the great world leaders.'' Lula was
selected to be the keynote speaker at last week's United
Nations summit meeting on corporate responsibility.
But back home, the patience of the people has dwindled,
however much faith they retain in their president's good
intentions. Fifteen months ago, a reliable poll showed that
80 percent of the nation had confidence in Lula's
government. Steadily, that number has fallen. It is now at
São Paulo, the largest city in South America, has a
concentration of skyscrapers to rival Manhattan's. Its
enormous wealth is reflected in neighborhoods with walled
mansions and long promenades of designer boutiques. But the
looping tentacles of the city's superhighways also lead to
some of the continent's more abysmal slums. The
unemployment rate in São Paulo recently rose above 20
percent. ''We put a lot of faith in Lula, but he has done
nothing for us yet,'' Cristiana Arruda, a 21-year-old
woman, told me. She and her two sisters work as unlicensed
street vendors, illegally selling discounted goods from the
impromptu display case of a cardboard box. As we talked,
someone nearby shouted ''ice,'' the code word for the
police. Dozens of peddlers snatched up their merchandise
and ran off. ''Is this any way to live?'' Cristiana asked.
''But there are no jobs.''
One Sunday, I wandered around the A.B.C. Region, the huge
industrial cities near São Paulo where Lula transformed
himself from a lathe operator to a labor leader. These
days, most of the work in the mammoth auto factories --
Ford, Fiat, Volkswagen and the rest -- is done by
computer-guided robots. Decent-paying jobs, like the one
Lula had three decades ago, are hard to find. ''For sure,
Lula is trying to do a good job,'' a poor man named Jo-o
Sousa da Silva told me, ''but he's trying to please
everybody, and not even Jesus could do that.'' He was
standing in a bar beside a pool table, its surface
temporarily covered with empty cups, chicken bones and a
jar of peppers. Conversation had to vie with samba music
pulsing from a radio. ''The house was already in shambles
before Lula walked through the door,'' said another man,
defending the president. ''Everybody points their finger at
Lula. It's not fair.''
The press has certainly relished Lula's distress. During
the five weeks I spent in Brazil, he took a daily flogging
in the headlines. Lula's own allies were among those who
applied the lash. The Workers' Party issued a written
critique of the government. Lula's own vice president
mocked the economic policies. Perhaps worst of all, a close
associate of Lula's chief of staff was tied to a kickback
scandal; the president chose to use hardball politics to
ward off the nosiness of a Senate inquest. Before coming to
national power, the Workers' Party overindulged in
sanctimony; suddenly, it was looking as corruptible and
unethical as the rest.
In reaction, Lula often apologizes or broods or simply
loses his cool. Last month, he revoked the visa of a New
York Times correspondent who wrote that the president's
consumption of alcohol had become a national concern, a
story broadly disputed in Brazil. Only later did Lula
change course, apparently realizing the offending newspaper
article was not as damaging to his reputation as his
display of pique afterward. He is alternately defiant and
remorseful, wistfully explaining that he has been busy
bringing a distressed economy out of intensive care. ''When
the conservative right governed the nation for 10, 15, 20
or 30 years, no one demanded results. But when it's us who
have won, people want us to do in one year what they
haven't done in 50.''
The harshest rebukes come from what might be called the
utopian left. They may not have anticipated a miracle, but
they did expect tempestuous shifts in the political winds.
Some speak as if the hopes of a lifetime have been swept to
sea. De Oliveira, the sociologist who so hailed the
significance of Lula's election, now dismissively
concludes, ''The country is apparently more complicated
than the Workers' Party thought, and if you don't know what
to do, you repeat what others have done.''
Some wonder: Has Lula left the left?
One evening, I
watched the president wade into yet another rapturous
crowd. This time, it was at the grand opening of a soup
kitchen subsidized by the Coca-Cola Company in Belo
Horizonte. Lula stepped to the podium. His distinctive deep
voice emotes with both a rasp and lisp. It is something an
animator might give to a bullfrog. His hands cut angular
patches of air while he talks. As usual, he meandered from
the prepared text.
''When I was younger, being anti-American meant you didn't
drink Coca-Cola,'' he reflected. ''But now that I am more
mature, I've discovered that there's nothing better than
drinking an ice-cold Coke when you wake up early in the
In his office, Lula was getting his caffeine from strong
coffee rather than from Coke, one demitasse after another,
in the Brazilian fashion. He was also smoking cigarillos, a
habit he forgoes in public. I asked about his childhood.
''In primary school, I only had one pair of pants and one
suspender, not even a second suspender, only one,'' he
said. ''I wore those pants all week and then I would wash
them on Saturday and begin to use them again.'' He finished
his smoke and went to work on a granola bar. ''Once, I was
very much ashamed because my sister had pneumonia and the
doctor came to the house. My sister was lying on the bed
and the doctor asked for a chair. But we had no chair.''
These stories from his destitute youth had the aspect of a
happy ending, since we were at ease on fine leather
furniture in a huge room with a wonderful view of Brasilia,
the capital. I was seated to the president's left, his
personal translator to his right. Behind Lula was a
beautiful 16th-century carving of a crucified Jesus, a gift
he had had restored. In another part of the room were a
hand-carved desk and tables recovered from the grandeur of
a palace in Rio.
Brazil, so goes a common gibe, is the country of the future
-- and always will be. With 175 million people, it is the
world's fifth most populous nation, and its territory is
slightly larger than the continental United States. In the
16th century, Portugal claimed this immensity as a colony,
and the crown soon divided 2,500 miles of coastline into a
dozen captaincies, some of them larger than the mother
country itself. Sugarcane was introduced, and Brazil today
still lives with the legacy of a plantation culture that
consumed four million African slaves and left land
ownership hideously askew. An elite 1.7 percent of the
landowners continue to own nearly half the arable land; the
top 10 percent of the nation earns half the income.
In Rio de Janeiro, the poor have ended up with the
breathtaking vistas of the ocean, having clustered their
hovels onto the unstable terrain of the cliffsides. The
value of swanky apartments down below often depends on
whether a window faces these elevated slums, exposing the
occupants to stray gunfire from warring drug gangs. Crime
is rampant in Brazil's cities. During my stay, an
out-of-work pauper in Brasilia climbed onto the ledge of
the Senate's balcony, threatening a suicidal leap to
punctuate his misery. After security guards wrestled the
man down, tenderhearted legislators gave him some spare
cash and wished him godspeed. He was robbed on the way
''The Brazilian elite never had a vision for the whole
society; they never wanted to share even a little bit of
the money,'' Lula told me, answering a question about how
he might redress the disparities in wealth. ''Remember,
Brazil is a country that had slavery until almost the end
of the 19th century. Even then, the end of slavery was only
a law written on a piece of paper. The mind-set continued
for many years. Income concentration is a disease, and it's
much stronger in South America and the third world.''
But he knew of no swift cures, he said. Brazil has a
history of major economic schemes that woefully failed.
''What is new here about what we are doing?'' he asked
rhetorically. ''The novelty is that we do not want to --
and we will not -- introduce a Lula Plan. Brazil cannot
have another president who invents a new plan, achieves a
certain amount of success for the first year and then
leaves us paying the bill for 10 years after.'' The
bankruptcy of neighboring Argentina served as a warning
about defaulting on debt, he said. ''What we want is to do
things in a sustainable fashion. Each day, even if we
advance a centimeter, we are going forward -- without any
miracles, without breaking away from our international
commitments, simply doing what needs to be done.''
Brazil allocates a reasonable share of its revenues to
social spending, but more than half the disbursements go
toward public pensions, which are spread widely among
income groups, with very little reaching the poorest of the
poor. Lula managed to push a reform of the pension system
through Congress, but the payments still favor people in
the higher income brackets. At his inauguration, he
declared a national war on hunger, and he has since
consolidated some existing welfare programs, increasing the
average monthly stipends to about $25 per family, according
to government figures. This amount, seemingly tiny, is no
small thing for the desperate. And Lula says he hopes to
extend the program -- known as bolsa familia -- to 50
million people by the end of his term in 2006.
But an enhanced dole is far from the income redistribution
that some had breathlessly anticipated. Lula's main
antipoverty plan is actually a conservative standby:
economic growth and jobs, the rising tide that lifts all
boats. Contrary to expectations, he has fought hard to
restrain increases in the minimum wage, concerned about the
effect of enhanced salaries on the public coffers.
''I was expecting a much more dramatic set of social
programs,'' said Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who was Lula's
far more conservative predecessor. The former president
claimed to be hesitant about criticizing ''a man of good
will.'' Instead he dispensed halfhearted praise, commending
Lula's wisdom in imitating Cardoso's own policies, even if
the new government's neophyte ministries struck him as
beset by ''a lack of coordination.''
I had the chance to meet most of Lula's closest advisers, a
collection heavy on onetime communists and ex-union
leaders. They had been ruefully discovering the limitations
of high office. ''We've gotten the government, but we don't
have the power,'' lamented Frei Betto, a Dominican friar
who has been close to Lula for 24 years. ''Our Legislature
has a conservative profile. So has the judiciary. And we're
mired in external debt.''
The petistas, as Workers' Party members are known, proudly
cite the government's accomplishments, things like food
distributions, loans to small farmers and a network of
dental clinics. And yet even they seem stunned by the
brittleness of what had once seemed bedrock ideals. More
than a year into a petista government, the pace of land
transfers to peasants has been slack. Amazon rain forest
continues to disappear at breakneck speed. Genetically
modified soybean seeds have been loosed in the soil. ''It's
difficult to find the right path,'' said Gilberto Carvalho,
the ex-seminarian who directs the president's scheduling.
''You have to make concessions, yes, but you can't let them
betray your principles. It's a daily battle.''
The government's top positions are meted out to an
ecumenical mix, some appointments based on ability, others
on the settlement of political obligations. Most have
arrived from the left. Chief of Staff Jose Dirceu once went
into exile in Cuba, where he underwent both guerrilla
training and the facial camouflage of plastic surgery; he
has hung a photo of Fidel and himself behind his desk.
Marina Silva, the environment minister, grew up in a family
of Amazon rubber tappers; her nearest neighbors were a
two-hour walk away, and she saw her first electric light at
age 5 during a trip downriver for medical care. But on the
economic side, Lula's choices have been decidedly more
conservative. Henrique Meirelles, president of the central
bank, used to be the head of global banking at FleetBoston
Financial. Luiz Furlan, the minister of development,
industry and commerce, was a millionaire poultry exporter.
Finance Minister Antonio Palocci, while a petista and an
ex-Trotskyite, is a dedicated convert to fiscal orthodoxy.
Lula himself disdains political labels and has always
resisted being pinned to a point along the ideological
gamut. The political isms and wasms of other countries
seemed irrelevant to him. He preferred his own intuition
and common sense. While still a young union leader, he was
frequently asked to define himself as a communist, a
socialist or a social democrat. ''I am a lathe operator,''
he would reply.
But this was not some dodge. Lula was left, but it was a
labor-movement left. He didn't care if it was called
socialism or Christianity or simply ethics. To him, class
struggle was about democratic elections and bigger
salaries. He wanted workers to own houses and
refrigerators, not the means of production. In a 1978
television appearance, a reporter chided him for showing up
in a three-piece suit rather than dungarees. He answered,
''I pray to God that in the near future all workers can not
only have three-piece suits but everything else they
produce, even cars.'' In 1979, he was asked which
historical figures he most admired. Gandhi, Che Guevara and
Mao Zedong were names he gave at first. When asked for more
examples, he added Hitler, Castro and Ayatollah Khomeini.
''I admire in a man the fire to want to do something and
then his going out to try to do it,'' he explained.
Twenty-five years later, Gandhi, Che and Castro would
surely still make the list. As the president and I sat
together, there seemed clear enough lines between the Lula
of the 70's and the Lula of today. On one hand, he remained
the pragmatic union negotiator, going after what he thought
the best obtainable deal. So far, that's what his
government had been about, political give-and-take within
the parameters of the possible. On the other hand, he still
dreamed of unlikely twists of fate. For this, he had only
to look in the mirror.
Stymied by the economic realities of a debt-ridden nation,
Lula has diverted some of his dreaming to humanity in
general. Since last year, he has been proposing a global
tax to feed the world's hungry. The mechanics of the idea
remain extremely vague, but he seems determined to mention
it at every conceivable forum. ''Maybe we can tax the arms
trade, for example,'' he told me. ''Or maybe we could tax
the tax havens. Or we could tax world trade. Something has
to be done so we get beyond just making speeches.''
Lula began thinking about this at the meeting of the G-8
last June in Evian, France, he said. ''I discovered a very
interesting thing. I was there with the major world
leaders, people I never imagined I'd be anywhere near.
Suddenly, I started to think: These men are very important
in their countries, very important in the world. But none
of them understand the poor -- especially the issue of
hunger -- in quite the way I do. Why? It's not because they
are insensitive. It's because they never experienced it.''
But he had.
Lula was the seventh child born to Euridice
Ferreira de Mello. A month before the birth, his father,
Aristides Inacio da Silva, left the family and their sandy
patch of farmland in the state of Pernambuco. His
departure, however untimely, was not so unusual. For years,
the sky had been miserly with rain. The dry soil, never
very obliging, was rendering pitifully little corn, beans
and manioc. Men from all over Brazil's northeast were
hoping to find work in the factories of São Paulo. The
women they left behind were known as widows of the drought.
Aristides's departure was not entirely noble. Unknown to
his wife, her husband was accompanied south by another
woman -- her younger cousin, actually -- with whom he
started a second family. Euridice would learn of this only
when Aristides came back for a visit five years later. He
had three new children in tow when he finally met his young
son Luiz, affectionately known as Lula.
Much of what is known of Lula's childhood comes from an
oral history done in the early 90's by Denise Parana, who
was then his aide. She interviewed not only her boss but
also most of his siblings. Their lives in Pernambuco, as
they recalled them, were ones of lingering want. Their
house was tiny. Meals were often no more than manioc flour
and beans. Water was frequently scooped from a ditch and
drunk after the dirt had settled.
Aristides fared somewhat better in Santos, the port near
São Paulo where he found work unloading cargo. After his
return visit to Pernambuco, Aristides brought Lula's older
brother Jaime back with him to Santos. But the boy became
lonely, and after two years away, the 15-year-old sent his
mother a letter supposedly dictated by his illiterate
father, beckoning her and the rest of the family to join
them. Euridice, eager to escape the wretchedness of the
northeastern bush, sold her watch, a donkey and her
portraits of the saints to buy space on a pau de arara, a
rickety open-ended truck with boards for seating. The trip
took 13 days. Passengers slept along the dirt roads and
huddled beneath the vehicle when it rained.
Unexpectedly saddled with both families, Aristides settled
them in separate homes and laid his head each night
wherever his mood suggested. His parenting habits were
stern: everyone worked, no one went to school. ''My father
used to beat us with something like a rubber hose,'' Jose,
one of Lula's brothers, told me. Then, one fateful day,
Jose said, ''my father, ignorant as always, threatened to
hit my mother, and that was it.''
Euridice left for good. Over the years, she and the
children lived in some awful places, including space behind
a São Paulo bar where they shared a toilet with the
hard-drinking patrons. Her daughters were hired out as
maids; Lula, her youngest son, shined shoes and delivered
laundry. Then, at age 15, he had the good luck to find work
at a factory that made screws. Through this job he managed
to enter a program in a public trade school and became a
In 1969, Lula married a slender, dark-haired woman named
Lourdes, the younger sister of his best friend, Lambari.
For years, Lula had been too shy to date her, but now they
were living the full measure of small dreams, able to buy a
house near a bakery and a bus stop. Lourdes became
pregnant, but in her seventh month she developed hepatitis,
something her doctors at first failed to diagnose. The baby
died inside her, and when Lula came to the hospital with
clothes for the child's burial, he was told his wife was
dead as well.
Lambari was with his friend when he received the crushing
news. ''Lula began walking in a spin,'' he told me and then
demonstrated what he meant by whirling against a wall,
careening shoulder to shoulder. The two men were later
taken to the hospital morgue where the covered bodies --
one long, one tiny -- were laid out with tags strung to
their toes. The words ''Born Dead'' were written on the
baby's tag instead of a name.
In his grief, Lula went through ''three years of
craziness,'' as he once described it, wanting ''to be with
a woman Monday through Sunday.'' For companionship, he also
began to spend more time at the union. There, he found not
only a calling but a second wife, Marisa Leticia Casa dos
Santos, who was newly widowed. Her husband had been
murdered in a robbery. She had come to the union hall to
ask about survivors' benefits.
During the mid- and late 70's, Lula would gradually
transmute into a labor militant. This was a particularly
strange turn. The metalworkers union of São Bernardo do
Campo, like most unions at the time, was controlled by
conservatives who worked hand-in-glove with the companies
and government. Lula was welcomed into the hierarchy
because he was deemed easy to control. The bosses backed
his candidacy for president in 1975.
But Lula proved anything but pliant. Brazil was astir with
wafts of rebellion, and soon he was riding the storm of an
unprecedented labor struggle. One morning in 1978, workers
from Lula's union sat down in front of their machines at
the Saab-Scania truck factory. The strike was unlawful, but
within days the tactic spread to other automotive plants.
Some 80,000 workers refused to move the vehicles up the
production line. The companies, forced to negotiate,
yielded to union wage demands, and a landmark victory was
Lula found himself becoming famous: a blunt man in
bell-bottom pants with a recognizable crown of curly black
hair. In 1979, the union called a general strike. The only
place large enough for a rally was the soccer stadium, but
when the meeting began, the sound system failed. There was
Lula on the platform, a single voice shouting to an
encompassing horde of distant faces. For four hours, even
as rain dampened their clothes, 90,000 metalworkers passed
his words in a relay back through the crowd.
Marxist intellectuals had always thought to send their
educated cadres to toil in the factories, insinuating the
seeds of class struggle on the shop floor. In Brazil, the
workers themselves led the way, with the intelligentsia
traipsing behind. By 1980, the labor unrest had already
reached far beyond São Paulo and the metalworkers,
spreading to bank workers, teachers, miners and others. But
to fully challenge the repressive regime, many, including
Lula, thought the labor movement needed a political
component, and the Workers' Party was begun.
The party began fielding candidates in 1982, the first time
since 1964 that the military permitted relatively free
local and state elections. Lula ran for the governorship of
São Paulo. His slogan was ''A Brazilian Like You.'' He
finished fourth with a dismal 10 percent in that race, but
slowly the Workers' Party came into its own, initially
electing mayors and congressmen, then governors and
senators. In 1989, the first time in nearly three decades
that Brazilians were allowed to directly elect a president,
Lula advanced into a runoff before finally losing. He would
lose twice more before deciding a fourth attempt was futile
unless the party agreed to changes making him more
electable. Though it was certain to offend purists, he
wanted to choose someone from outside the party as his
running mate, even someone from the right. And he wanted
Brazil's top political hired gun as his strategist. Duda
Mendonca, a devilish svengali to some petistas, described
his own politics as leftist, but he also saw himself as a
''technician'' who ran campaigns for high pay without
letting ideology interfere with his choices.
I met Mendonca at his headquarters in São Paulo. He was
wearing a well-cut black blazer over a snug-fitting black
T-shirt. For the 2002 campaign, he had also smartened up
Lula's look. ''It was important to show Lula had evolved,''
he said. ''So we took a little bit better care of him. The
beard was trim, the clothes finer. He was groomed. On TV,
instead of being sweaty, he was carefully made up.'' A
dentist improved his smile, a tailor provided genteel
suits. Lula, the lathe operator, now looked presidential.
His running mate was the textile magnate Jose Alencar.
The slogan of this campaign was Lulinha, paz e amor --
''Little Lula, peace and love.'' Not all of this was a
publicist's artifice. Lula in fact is a warm, engaging sort
whose abounding sentimentality habitually opens the valves
of his tear ducts. Still, the overall goal was to bury the
earlier portrait of an angry, unkempt union leader. Lula
was pictured with the pope and with Nelson Mandela. He
stood beside some of Brazil's top intellectuals, who posed
as if determined to tap into his wisdom.
''I changed; Brazil changed,'' Lula said in his speeches.
This, too, was true. Lula, like much of the party, had
moderated his views. Lessons had been absorbed while
running city and state governments. Lula had already agreed
to honor the bailout deal with the I.M.F.
This time, Lula's rival in the runoff was Jose Serra, a
bland academic who had served with distinction as Cardoso's
health minister. But Brazil's economy was again in awful
straits. People wanted change, and Lula's hour was finally
In the month before the election, he allowed Jo-o Salles, a
documentary filmmaker, to follow him behind usually closed
doors. Often, Lula seemed to forget the camera's presence.
Salles showed me some of the footage he was editing and
translated from the Portuguese.
In one harangue, Lula spoke of the man with whom he is most
often compared, the Polish union leader-turned-president,
Lech Walesa. Both led a wave of strikes in 1980. ''I had
far more members in my rank-and-file than Walesa, but he
was wined and dined all over the world because he was
fighting against communism,'' Lula complained. But when it
was Walesa's turn to run the country, what did he achieve?
Lula answered his own question. ''The rest is history,
because he didn't do diddly-squat in office.''
Yet he, too, was worried about failure. With the election
just days away, he fretted that the ''machinery'' of
government would define his presidency and not the other
way around. He wasn't sure what he'd be able to do for
Brazil's poor, but he did understand the expectations. ''I
don't know how I'll react. But I do know that this coming
Monday people will start demanding me to deliver everything
I've said for the past 20 years.''
I told Lula that I would be traveling to Pernambuco to
better understand his early years. ''You must eat buchada,
which are dried goat intestines,'' he insisted, grasping my
hand. He was emphatic, staring me in the eye. This regional
delicacy was too delectable to be missed, he said. ''We'll
call my cousin, and he'll kill a goat.''
The centerpiece of the meal was actually the goat's
stomach. It was a soft grayish oval about the size of a
small baked potato. Stuffed inside was rice that had been
steeped in blood and mixed with spices and minced pieces of
the animal's heart and liver. On a side plate was a goat
hoof partially wrapped with intestines. ''How do you like
it?'' asked Lula's amiable cousin Moura. ''It's better than
I had expected,'' I replied.
The capital of Pernambuco is the seaside city of Recife,
where high-rises hover over the beaches. But much of the
state's interior is backward, with tiny farms along sandy
and narrow roads; adolescents can remember the arrival of
I had gone there for more than a peek into Lula's distant
past. The Movement of Landless Workers, the M.S.T., was
planning to again take up the tactic of ''occupations,''
sending peasants onto unused private farmland so they could
claim it as their own. Gunmen working for the latifúndios,
the large landowners, sometimes attacked these intruders,
so the times and places for these peasant sieges were kept
secret until the last minute. I had been given only a
contact number in Recife and a range of possible dates.
The M.S.T., along with the Workers' Party and the Central
Unica dos Trabalhadores -- a federation of trade unions --
are something of a holy trinity to the Brazilian left. The
peasants' group claims to have settled 250,000 families on
''occupied'' land in the past 20 years. During that time,
Lula always had been a dependable ally. Even as president,
he could be counted on to attend an occasional rally and
don a red M.S.T. cap. The peasants' group had largely
stopped doing occupations, allowing their companeiro to
spearhead land reform.
But by this spring, the M.S.T.'s leaders were fed up with
the government's sluggish pace. Lula had promised to settle
530,000 families by 2006 -- only half of what the M.S.T.
wanted in the first place. So far, only 49,000 families had
been given land by the government. The M.S.T. decided to
return to their confrontational tactics.
''Lula is being dominated by the state apparatus,'' said
Alexandre Conceição, one of two eager young men assigned to
escort me to the occupation at the appropriate time. In
their eyes, Lula had fallen into the clutches of the
capitalists. ''We could compare him to Queen Elizabeth,''
Conceição continued. ''She is the government but she does
not really rule. Who runs things are the agricultural
bourgeoisie and the businessmen.''
Lula's withering relationship with the M.S.T. was another
product of his collision with ornery realities. The
government can legally claim unused arable land, of which
Brazil has an overabundance. But the property's owners have
to be paid with bonds or cash, and the remuneration adds
up. Then there is the matter of whether people can make a
go of it on the land they are given. A half million farmers
already were in precarious shape because they badly needed
roads and electricity and technical help, none of which the
financially depleted government could easily afford, Miguel
Rossetto, the minister of agrarian development, told me. He
spoke of the necessity of taking ''a strategic view.'' Why
buy land for peasants who will just have to sell it?
One Sunday, soon after dawn, I was taken to São Lourenco da
Mata, where families were arriving to cast their fate with
the M.S.T. The gathering point in the town was a small
cement building. Inside hung posters of Lula, Che Guevara
and Conan the Barbarian. Outside stood more than 100
anxious men, women and children, carrying both the tools of
agriculture (hoes and shovels) and the requirements of
camping (food, water and blankets). Music blared from a
parked sound truck. It was intended to steel the
participants' courage with sambas. The lyrics yearned for a
During the march up the highway to the targeted land, I for
a time walked with a 61-year-old farm laborer named Neiapo
Feliciano. His story was a common one. He had always worked
for others, but now he was thought old and dispensable.
Divested of prospects, he was ripe for recruitment by the
M.S.T. ''Every man has a right to live on his own land,''
he told me firmly. ''To survive, we have to take back what
is naturally ours.''
The entrance to the land was protected by a strand of
barbed wire, which succumbed easily to four whacks from a
machete. People then charged purposefully into the hilly
green expanse. Some went right to work gathering branches
to be used as tent posts. Neiapo began scraping at a patch
of ground with his hoe. ''I know this red clay,'' he said,
fingering the soil like gold dust. ''This is good for
These occupations -- or at least the ones that don't end in
violence -- usually follow a pattern. The property's owner
goes to court; the M.S.T. then insists the land is unused.
While a federal agency conducts an investigation, the
peasants relocate their tents to the roadside. They wait
months -- or years -- for an official decision.
''We're going to construct a new socialist society!''
Conceic-o, my escort, shouted into a microphone as the
peasants worked. ''Viva the Brazilian people!''
I would meet several other peasants while in Pernambuco;
most were Lula's aunts, uncles and cousins. Their
weather-beaten faces gave me some idea of what his future
would have been like had his mother not loaded him onto
that rickety pau de arara in 1952. Instead he ended up in
the midst of democracy's great folk dance and somehow
emerged as a vessel for the hopes of the country.
This was inspiring -- and yet also worrying. I thought of
Fitzgerald's line: ''Show me a hero and I will write you a
tragedy.'' Lula has sincerity and natural intelligence
going for him, and Brazil's economy has lately shown some
promising signs of a rebound. But it remains too hard to
calculate his chances at success, especially with the
public's impatience with their president overtaking their
affection. His life will inevitably serve as a wonderful
fable; it's just too soon to know the instructive moral.
The windowless one-room home where Lula was born no longer
exists. Another family lives on the property now. Their
house is a bit larger, though most everything else is the
same. Corn and manioc still struggle to thrive in the dry
The property is slightly elevated, and from the front door
the view is pleasant, the houses and the cacti and the palm
trees unfolding as a tapestry of greens and browns.
The lady of the house is Anilda Suarez dos Santos. She
stood in the doorway in the late afternoon, a tired-looking
woman in a denim skirt. Like Lula's mother, she has eight
children. Like Lula's family, they are paupers. They
transport their water across the distance in jugs. They
plant, they tend, they harvest. Sometimes they go hungry.
Lula's bolsa familia program has reached their district.
That $25 a month would be a great help to a family like
this, but a local official found a way to swindle the poor
out of the cash. No money from the government had come
their way in months.
I asked Anilda if she had voted for Lula. Her answer was so
forceful a ''yes'' that I wondered if the question had been
impertinent, like asking her if she believed in God.
I was satisfied with her simple, emphatic response, but as
I turned to leave, she felt compelled to add something else
a foreigner needed to understand.
''Of course,'' she informed me, ''nothing has changed.''
Barry Bearak is a staff writer for The New York Times
Magazine. His last article was about Pakistan.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company