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 need.
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-le, 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
us."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 have
And this would have been right. Luiz Inacio 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 unruly
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
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 inflat!
ion, 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 gut.
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
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 Chavez 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
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 53 percent.
S-o 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 S-o 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
One Sunday, I wandered around the A.B.C. Region, the huge industrial
cities near S-o 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
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 morning."
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
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
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 home.
"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
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 d!
edicated 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 S-o 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 S-o 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 S-o 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 skilled machinist.
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 S-o 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 won.
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 S-o 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
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 S-o 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 lef!
tist, but he also saw himself as a "technician" who ran
campaigns for high pay without letting ideology interfere with his
I met Mendonca at his headquarters in S-o 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
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 arriving.
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
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 electricity.
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 latifundios, 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
"Lula is being dominated by the state apparatus," said
Alexandre Conceic-o, 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," Conceic-o 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 S-o 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 people's revolution.
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 potatoes."
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 ground.
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
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
"Of course," she informed me, "nothing has