Eyewitness in Brasilia

BRASILIA. On the incredibly long road from Rio we passed lots of cars with Lula bumper stickers and license plates from far away. There seemed to be caravans of lefties from all over. At one point we were going slowly enough to roll down the windows and give the Lula hand-sign?which consists of using your thumb and forefinger to make the “L” that means “loser” in the U.S and honk the horn. More than 500 kilometers out of Brasilia it seemed like everyone on the highway was headed to the same place. I thought a lot about why we decided to make the 16-hour drive and why so many others came so far. I realized that this is truly a huge and historic moment. I spent twenty-eight years in the U.S. and two here and I don’t remember ever having the chance to be at this kind of a positive historic event before.

The day before New Year’ we ran across a graduate student from Porto Seguro, Bahia. He was arriving in Brasilia for the inauguration after a 45 day, 1764 km walk. Later we went to the local Partido dos Trabalhadores, or Worker’ Party headquarters to get our stickers and t-shirts. The building is huge sort of shopping mall, fairly luxurious, home to many sex shops and union offices. Walking in, we got lost but since we were wearing PT buttons and I carried a red purse someone noticed right away we were heading in the wrong direction and showed us to where we wanted to go. Within the building, strangers were talking to strangers in a way I have only seen before during disasters. We got offers to show us around some of the outlying areas of Brasilia and people, strangers with similar interests, were exchanging phone numbers and email addresses. We met a man on the PT staff who moved to Brasilia 12 years ago to work on Lula’s first presidential campaign and who has been here ever since. In a crowd outside the office, just hanging out and looking pretty much like anybody else, was a just-elected senator who represents the federal district, which includes Brasilia, and was about to go into office.

Considering that Lula has had about 45% of the vote for 12 years now, I had expected to see more of a divide between the old-timers who always supported him and those who changed their minds over the years, but you don’t sense a lot of that. We’ve heard of some grumbling along the lines of how folks who were never leftist before are now pretending they1ve been big fans of Lula all along, but overall this has been pretty muted. The campaign slogan of a esperanca venceu o medo or hope winning over fear was on banners all over town. About the town: Brasilia seemed much wealthier than most other cities I have been to in Brazil. The garbage is picked up, the traffic is controlled, people complain about the high crime rate but it does not look anything like Rio. Today we saw what appeared to be a child juggling flares at an intersection. We see this all the time in Rio?but when we got closer we saw that, based on her dress, she was more like a middle- class young woman. Our friend Ladario guessed that she might be a theater student. It turned out that the poverty is here though, that Brasilia is just much more economically segregated than Rio and we1d simply not left the ritzy part.

The party started New Year’s Eve with people setting up their informal refreshment stands along the esplanade you saw in all the pictures and footage. When we arrived about an hour and a half after the New Year’ countdown the roads were impassable. The esplanade was covered with celebrators dressed in PT shirts. People were screaming and waving flags and small musical groups were performing everywhere with people dancing all around. Interestingly, the conservative governor of the Federal District decided not to hold any municipal New Year’ Eve festivities or fireworks. He claimed that he did not want to overshadow the inauguration. Could it be that he did not feel like celebrating, himself?

In addition to being the first leftist elected in many years, Lula is the first leader (apart from members of the military dictatorship, who is not descended from European nobility. In a sense you could look at his election as the end of the last vestige of Portuguese colonization. The day had very much the spirit of an independence day. PT was formed 22 years ago, with some members abandoning armed struggle to participate in a political process. Many of the party’s formers leaders have served time in prison (during the dictatorship, it was illegal for workers to organize.) Many of their co-workers simply disappeared. The progress is amazing.

It’s hard to see from the footage how big the crowd was. Brasilia’s architecture is on a mammoth scale. The official estimates were 200,000 people, which is larger than any previous Brazilian inauguration. We got a good spot on the side of the Congress building lawn that was not closed off and waited for Lula’ arrival. Much of the crowd could not really get a view of the red-carpet ramp leading up to the Congress or the driveway in the foreground that the Congress used to enter the building.

Every once in a while people near the front would cheer for an entering VIP?usually barely visible inside a car ?and those behind us would ask “Who is it?” Soon if one person started cheering or screaming everyone would follow their lead. At one point a janitor walked up the driveway carrying a very important bag of garbage and a roar came from the crowd. Someone had mistaken him for a congressman and one thing led to another. He stood on the ramp playing along and waving to the crowd, and even had the good humor to come back when the crowd demanded an encore. Someone near me said “Who knows, next time around it really could be his inauguration.” It was an absurd remark in one way, since Lula has 22 years of political leadership behind him, but the idea that the world is not divided between VIPs and the “povo” (regular people) was very much in the spirit of the day.

The lawn area surrounding the Congressional building was closed off by lines of police but after a small group broke through, a number of others started to swarm into the area. The crowds from the esplanade descended upon the closed area with only shallow reflecting pools separating them from the president’ entrance place. Then people started to jump into the reflecting pools and eventually the entire lawn was full, including most of the pools. Understandably the security situation was a bit out of control at this point, with the crowds much closer to the president than had been planned. And a further security challenge was that the few who did break through the police and mounted police to reach Lula were greeted with big hugs. At one point a woman broke through and rushed to Lula on the veranda of the presidential palace. He gave her a hug, agreed to take a photo with her and then he actually apologized that he could not stick around and chat. Seems that Lula has no intention of helping his security forces in keeping the people away from him.

After being sworn in by Congress Lula gave a speech which basically reviewed the main points of his campaign. This speech, like the one he gave immediately after his victory was important, in terms of showing that his plans have not changed and that what he said during the campaign is exactly what he plans to do. As one local television commentator put it, “It has been a long time since PT surprised us.” He started by reiterating his plans to implement the national anti-hunger campaign that he announced shortly after his victory, saying he would consider his presidency a success if all Brazilians have breakfast, lunch, and dinner by the end of his term. He repeated his plans to make employment his “obsession,” as he put it, to grow Mercosul (Mercosud), support political stability in South America, support investment in education, growth in the productive sector, and increase agricultural production and exports.

I suppose goals like industrial and agricultural growth may not sound like particularly leftist ideas from an American perspective but unemployment is a huge problem here, in the past year the economy has stagnated dramatically, and Brazil’s productivity is nowhere near where it should be. You can drive for hours through fertile, unused lands where the forests are cut but the planting never happens. Meanwhile people are going hungry all over the country. Lula’ choice of Vice President, Jose Alencar, reflects his emphasis on economic growth?Alencar is the founder of Coteminas, the largest textile group in Brazil.

After the ceremonial exchanging of the presidential sash, where the former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso removed the sash and gave it to Lula, it was time for another speech. In this one Lula said that the victory was not just his, that many Brazilians had fought for years, for longer than the PTs existence for this chance. He said that he was aware of the challenges before him but that “there is nobody on earth more optimistic” than he is and he reminded everyone that he had lost four elections before becoming president. The overall message was that perseverance and patience are needed along with everyone’ contribution. Lula gave the entire speech without any notes. It made me think that during the setbacks along the way he had probably imagined that speech so many times he already knew it by heart.

Besides “hope over fear” the slogans of the day were pretty much the same slogans as the campaign. “Agora e Lula”, or “Now it’s Lula,” ?meaning pretty much that current policies have only made things worse, and now it is time for a change. Another slogan was “Without fear of being happy,” meaning that voters in Brazil were willing to take a risk for a better future. I only hope that next time around voters in the U.S. will have the opportunity to do the same.

Julie Remold is a doctoral student in anthropology at the Federal University in Rio de Janeiro.

Eva Neuberg is a freelance writer and editor in New York City.