His life story sounds like a rags-to-riches Hollywood movie: Born into abject poverty, Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — known simply as Lula — has risen from shining shoes to the nation's highest office.
The miracle of Lula's incredible success is not lost on his fellow citizens, who love him with a passion usually reserved for religious leaders or rock stars. Even before he was officially declared the winner of the country's presidential election on Oct. 27, the streets of Brazil's largest city, São Paulo, were crowded with pro-Lula revelers.
Lula did not disappoint his supporters, winning more than 60 percent of the vote against his government-supported opponent. Indeed, the landslide marked another chapter in his remarkable life: The triumph came after four previous unsuccessful runs for the presidency.
“This is a historic victory because, finally, it represents the will of the people,” said Gabriel Brasileiro, a São Paulo social worker. “People want wealth distributed more fairly, and I'm sure Lula will adopt a more social stance right from the start.”
But restoring the country's sagging economy while eliminating its crushing poverty will be no easy task for the 56-year-old former factory worker.
Born the son of impoverished farm workers, he dropped out of school after the fifth grade to help support his family. For the next decade, Lula did factory work, often as a lathe operator.
At 22, Lula joined a union and quickly became a labor activist. He was elected president of a metalworkers' union when he was 30, and by 1980 he had come to national attention after leading several successful strikes. The following year, he formed the Workers Party, bringing together several leftist groups under one banner.
In 1985, Brazil's military dictatorship ended, and Lula ran for president. He lost the first election, as well as the next three, but on each try his share of the vote rose. Still, few believed he would ever get more than 35 or 40 percent of the vote because of his leftist ideology.
Indeed, in his first four campaigns, Lula unabashedly espoused large increases in social spending while criticizing big business, free trade, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the United States. He even dressed like the workingman that he was, in casual clothes instead of the business suits most political leaders wear.
For the 2002 election campaign though, Lula changed his stripes — literally. In addition to donning pinstripe suits, candidate Lula moderated his positions, sounding less like the fiery populist of yore and more like the kind of calm, left-of-center democrat one might find in Europe. During the campaign, he reversed his earlier opposition to the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas and even supported the strict conditions for a new $30 billion IMF loan negotiated by then-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
The move won him new support from the country's political center, which had feared the former union leader would lead Brazil to economic ruin. Still, bankers and business leaders were less convinced, leading to a 35 percent drop in the value of the country's currency, the real, and a drop in Brazil's stock market as it became clear Lula would win.
But Lula has surprised the doubters so far. He has stayed within budgetary constraints imposed by the IMF deal and journeyed to Washington even before he was inaugurated to discuss free trade with President Bush. He also picked an economic team known for its commitment to fiscal responsibility. Consequently, the stock market has fully recovered and the real has regained about half its lost ground.
At the same time, the new president has not forgotten his leftist supporters, announcing a new campaign, Zero Hunger, to help Brazil's poorest. The food-assistance proposal would spend nearly $1.5 billion over the next four years to help 46 million of the country's 176 million citizens.
“He's really trying to take the middle road of economic and fiscal stability on one side and poverty reduction on the other,” says Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank.
So far, the balancing act seems to be working, Shifter and others say. Certainly everywhere the new president goes, crowds cheer him.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil's populist president in pinstripes, moderated his leftist positions — and his attire — after his victory. (AFP Photo/Evaristo Sa)
But huge challenges remain. Brazil faces a crippling public debt of more than a half-trillion dollars — about 42 percent of the country's $1.2 trillion gross domestic product (GDP). At 12 percent, inflation is also creeping up too high, economists say. In addition, the public pension system is running huge deficits, and the tax system is not taking in enough revenue.
Lula has pledged to reform pensions and taxes, but that may be difficult given that his Workers Party has only 18 percent of the seats in parliament. He also wants Brazil's economy to grow at 5 percent this year, (more than twice last year's increase) — a tall order considering the sputtering global economy.
Still, Brazil's new president has been underestimated his whole life. And supporters and foes alike acknowledge his unique ability to work with different groups.
“All his political life, he's been a good negotiator,” says John Welch, chief Latin American economist at the New York branch of WestLB, a German bank. “Maybe he can pull this one off, too.”