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Fresh hope for Brazil

The recent election of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as Brazilian president represents a moment of fresh hope for that nation’s estimated 54 million who live on a dollar a day or less. Lula came into office on the pledge to fight hunger and work on behalf of Brazil’s poor. His election is also part of a backlash growing in Latin America to tough economic austerity measures forced on local governments by foreign economists.

Lula understands poverty and its hardships. He was born in one of the poorest areas in northeastern Brazil. At 3, his mother took him and his brothers and sisters to São Paulo on the back of an open truck with other migrants. By then his father had abandoned the family. His mother earned income by washing clothes. The family lived in a hut until it fell down on top of them.

As a young man he entered an automobile factory as a steelworker and eventually came to prominence by organizing strikes against the country’s 1964-85 military regime. During the dictatorship he was persecuted and jailed.

Earlier this month, in his inauguration speech, he named the three things he most wants to fight: hunger, unemployment and economic stagnation. He didn’t waste much time getting started. On his second day as president he suspended a $760 million purchase of a dozen new jet fighter planes, saying the money could be better used to relieve hunger. He also ordered his minister of the treasury to work closely with the secretary responsible for his “Zero Hunger” campaign.

Among the first dignitaries he invited to dine with him was beleaguered Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and Cuban president Fidel Castro.

U.S. papers have called him a leftist, but, according to a Brazilian church official, a Lula enthusiast, the new president is “not a Marxist or any other ‘ist.’ He is a very intelligent man who remembers how hungry he was as a child and how hard his mother worked to raise all the children. He doesn’t want other children to go through the same thing.” Lula is collaborating with a number of Brazilian liberation theologians.

But for all the hopes associated with his election, Lula inherits an economy hobbled by low growth, rising inflation, high interest rates and investor concerns over Brazil’s $260 billion debt burden.

Antonio Palocci, who took up his post as Lula’s finance minister, promised there would be no surprises in economic policy, but that the government would maintain tight spending, low inflation policies and a floating exchange rate.

“We are not going to reinvent the basic principles of economic policy,” he said. “In a country like Brazil, lasting stability only comes with … sustained growth and social stability.”

Given internal and external social and economic pressures no president, whatever his predilections, for now, seems to have much wiggle room.

National Catholic Reporter, January 24, 2003