Brazilians voting for new president, leader Silva hoping to elect successor for victory lap

By Bradley Brooks, AP
Saturday, October 2, 2010

In election, Brazil’s Silva hopes for victory lap

SAO PAULO — The emcee’s voice begins rising to a crescendo rivaling that of any Las Vegas ring announcer, a yell driving through a dense tropical rain that concisely explains what Brazil’s adored president means to his nation.

“He is the man who turned our dreams into reality!” the man screams into the night, his words ringing in the ears of 10,000 people at the last election rally the leader would attend. “President. Luiz. Inacio. Lula. Da Silvaaaaaaaaaa!”

The crowd goes wild on cue, like they always do when Silva takes center stage.

“My beloved comrades …” Silva begins, but his raspy voice is drowned out by cheers.

Silva’s eight-year rule begins its end Sunday, when Brazilians vote for a new president. Over that time, a nation forever seen as not living up to its potential and suffering from serial self-doubt has evolved into a country of 190 million people with immense economic might, rapidly growing political clout and model programs for social transformation.

“Historically, he will be considered one of the most important leaders of the 21st century,” said Peter Hakim, with the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, who first met Silva in the 1980s. “He will walk away as being one of the great Brazilian heroes.”

Silva, armed with a near-80 percent domestic approval rating, is one of the loudest moral voices of the developing world, boldly lashing out at what he considers economic and political injustices rich nations hand down to the developing world. He hammers away at what he says is a global trade system favoring wealthy nations and invokes the responsibilities former colonial powers have toward impoverished nations they once ruled.

Despite fears that the leftist leader would turn Brazil socialist, Lula has fought off the more radical wings of his Workers Party and used orthodox economic policies to lead the country to unprecedented growth. Brazil is now forecast to be the world’s fifth-largest economy by the time it hosts the Olympics in 2016, the first time the Games will be held in South America. His programs are credited with lifting 20.5 million people from poverty since 2003 and boosting another 29 million into the middle class — creating new consumers who help drive the economy.

“Lula has given great benefits to the poor, but the greatest one was dignity,” said Silvia Silveira, a 53-year-old woman at the rally who scratches out a living by selling water and soda out of a cooler in central Sao Paulo. “He has given the poor like me a sense we have a voice in the government, something that has not happened since Brazil was discovered 500 years ago.”

Silva’s ascension to power did not come easy. He was only successful on his fourth run at the presidency, when in 2002 voters decided to give him a shot. It was a watershed moment in Brazilian politics, handing the office to a one-time shoeshine boy with a fifth-grade education, making him the first working-class leader ever elected.

He cried upon taking office on Jan. 1, 2003, and paid homage to the legions of poor Brazilians who saw their own reflections in him, in his rough, grammatically challenged speech, his inability to speak a foreign language, his lack of education.

“Hope, finally, overcame fear and Brazilian society decided it was time to follow new paths,” he said at his first inauguration. “I’m not the result of an election. I’m the result of history. I’m realizing the dreams of generations and generations who, before me, have tried and failed.”

Short, pudgy and bearded, Silva is seen by analysts and politicians around the globe as the one guy in a room who can routinely get away with bluntly telling everyone what they are doing wrong and how they should fix it — and have them admire him in return.

Early last year, President Obama was still riding a wave of global popularity but said the title of the “world’s most popular politician” belonged to Silva. “This is my man, right here. I love this guy,” Obama said during a lunch at a Group of 20 summit in London.

Just a week before Obama made those comments, Silva sharply criticized the U.S. and other rich nations for the financial crisis that was unfolding. With no small dose of aplomb, Silva said the meltdown was caused by “white people with blue eyes” — a phrase uttered as he stood next to then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at a news conference in Brasilia.

He was cheered for months across the developing world for the pointed remark.

Silva, 64, is not without his critics, particularly when it comes to Brazil’s foreign policy. In his eight years, the nation that historically tacked well toward meeting Washington’s suggestions embraced Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Cuba’s leadership and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Brazil, along with Turkey, in May brokered a nuclear-fuel swap deal with Iran — which was labeled as a naive intervention in some foreign policy circles.

The bravado Silva shows was steeled as a metalworkers union leader in the 1980s, orchestrating massive illegal strikes that many credit with helping bring an end to Brazil’s long military dictatorship. In those days, he sported a woolly beard and delivered a socialist fire-and-brimstone message to workers, discourses that frightened the affluent and largely kept him from winning the presidency.

Now, Silva will leave office as the most popular leader in Brazilian history. And the long road from radical to respected president began where Silva’s final rainy rally ended — in Sao Paulo, where he grew up and founded the Workers Party three decades ago.

The purpose of the rally is to help complete the one task that remains to Silva, which just months ago seemed impossible: Getting his hand-chosen successor Dilma Rousseff, a virtual unknown until recently, into the presidency, despite her lack of his charisma.

In June of last year, polls had Rousseff, a career technocrat who has never held an elected office, at 16 percent and her opposition rival Jose Serra at 38 percent. By May, the pair were in a technical tie. This week, polls indicate Rousseff is on the cusp of winning a majority of ballots and taking the presidency in a first-round vote, something even Silva never managed to do.

During his half hour speech at the rally, Silva was in classic form. Thousands of supporters at the city’s samba parade grounds waved endless banners attached to bamboo poles that bent in gusty winds. Fat drops of rain momentarily scattered the crowd, but they held their ground and wrapped themselves in the campaign flags, many of which bore Silva’s smiling face.

After being handed the microphone, Silva is utterly at ease, pacing the stage like a champion prizefighter, teasing the crowd with jabs about soccer, about standing in the rain. He turns his back to the supporters, thanking the dozens of other politicians and aides behind him for their attendance, before pivoting back to the faithful with tales of his government’s accomplishments, reeling off examples with the cadence of an Army drill sergeant.

The continuation of his political project, he says, lies in the hands of Rousseff, and getting her elected will be his crowning achievement.

“It’s not only electing a woman. It’s electing a comrade who has history. It’s electing a comrade who has commitment,” Silva said. “It’s electing a comrade who knows the joy and pain of having fought against an authoritarian regime, to give us this day.”

He mops rain from his face and beams at the crowd and at Rousseff. He is filled with an electric optimism he transfers to the crowd, like he always does, this time with the hope that the masses will bestow on Rousseff the belief and trust they gave to him.

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