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Lula: Savior or Sell-Out?

Lula

by JENNIFER C. BERKSHIRE

When Brazil’s new president, Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva, or “Lula” to friend and foe alike, took the stage at the Porto Alegre amphitheater this week, the mostly Brazilian crowd welcomed him like a rock star. Teenage girls in midriff bearing t-shirts sporting the Workers’ Party insignia screamed Lula’s name, while families waved small PT flags in the air. One gentleman came in a gaucho costume, the baggy pants and tall leather boots of the Pampas, along with a homemade sign proclaiming: “Lula ? You Are My President.” I couldn’t help wishing that he were mine as well.

The sense of hope that fills the air here is almost tangible. Lula’s victory last fall means more than merely a new government; it is seen as a chance to try something different. And if poor and working class Brazilians are rushing to embrace the new president–they poured into the amphitheater by the thousands, long after he had finished speaking–the Americans who are here in Porto Alegre embrace him too. “Lula can represent the interest of workers in Brazil and in the US,” said a labor activist from the US. “There is no one in power in the US that you can say that about.”

But while optimism abounds, there are plenty of skeptics too. When Lula left the amphitheater, he exited stage right: to Davos, off to attend the World Economic Forum. His decision to forego the people’s forum for the annual ruling class reunion has been a source of bitter divisiveness here. Those representing the social movements–from Brazil and elsewhere–view Lula as the anti-globalization president, and expect him to act accordingly. “He’s making a terrible mistake by going to Davos,” said Chris Nineham from Globalize Resistance, the UK-based anti-war coalition. “It will lead to disappointment and to the kind of compromises that let people down.”

Another compromise certain to disappoint lurks in the not-so-distant future when Lula’s administration resumes negotiations over the Free Trade Area of the Americas, known here by its Portuguese acronym ALCA. And activists in North and South America who hope that Lula will simply kill the deal are likely to be very unhappy. “We will sit down to negotiate the FTAA with determination,” said candidate Lula on the campaign trail.

Not if the Brazilian far left can help it. While the unions that are Lula’s base take a rather more measured approach to the question of FTAA negotiations, the extreme left parties want none of it. Signs reading “Nao A Alca” are everywhere around the city, and during the Social Forum opening march, members of the PSTU, a left-wing split off from the PT, loudly demanded a national plebiscite on the hemispheric trade deal.

Meanwhile, many of the US activists present here have expressed disbelief that “their” president is likely to sell-them out on the FTAA. “I keep hearing talk that ‘another FTAA is possible,'” said Canadian labor activist Michelle Robidoux. “If that’s where things are headed, people are going to be devastated. Canadians have seen what has happened as a result of NAFTA. We know what this is going to mean.”

But Lula is not the anti-globalization president; he is the leader of sovereign Brazil. And for his anti-poverty agenda to have any chance of success–he has declared, famously, that his goal is for every Brazilian to have three meals a day–he has to take on a larger opponent than either Brazil’s far left, or the very rich in his own country. Lula must go up against the global economy.

When Lula announced from the stage that he would not be attending the World Social Forum, but was going to Davos instead, the crowd fell silent. The PT flags stilled, and the soccer chants, “Lula, Lula le-oh-le-oh-le,” stopped as well. In his trademark baritone, Lula explained to the crowd why he felt that he had to make the trip. All my life, he said, people have told me what I shouldn’t do. When I told them that I wanted to join a union, they told me not to, that unions were corrupt and antiquated. In three years, we had the strongest union in Sao Paolo. I’m going to Davos to tell them the truth about Porto Alegre, he said.

Among some leftist commentators in the US, it is already fashionable to write off the new president. “Is it right to scream ‘sellout’?” asked one such commentator. Like the Brazilians, I think I’ll wait and see. For now, he’s all they and we have.

Jennifer Berkshire can be reached at: jenniferberkshire@hotmail.com.