Fighting for the Soul of Brazil : In a Country Plagued by Scandal and Ruled by the Elite, an Honest Common Man Threatens to Turn Politics Inside Out

Contributing editor John Powers writes regularly for New York magazine and is a frequent commentator on American culture for the BBC

There are places you only visit when you're running for office or writing about someone who is. Such a place is Roraima (pronounced Roe-RYE-mah ), the Brazilian state known to the outside world, if it is known at all, for being home to the last of the Stone Age tribes, most famously the Yanomani. Although its capital, Boa Vista, affects an elegant modernity--wide, untrafficked boulevards shoot like rays from an arch-shaped city center--it's still a rambunctious gold-boom town filled with bars, brothels and starving children whom the authorities don't bother their heads about. Boa Vista is so far off the beaten track that even people who live a thousand miles up the Amazon think of this city as the middle of nowhere. On a clear day, you can see Guyana.

During the flight in, I'd been talking about the city with an affable professor of tropical diseases, who said, "Its name means 'beautiful view.' "

"And is it beautiful?"

He laughed sadly. "If you don't look at the city."

A photographer broke in, shaking his head. "Roraima is a place for garimpeiros --prospectors. There are hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of minerals here. Everybody who comes here is digging for something."

He smiled, proud of his own little joke; just a few rows behind us sat Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, known by everyone simply as Lula, the charismatic socialist who's favored to become Brazil's next president when the two-round elections begin in the fall. Lula was heading to Roraima as part of his nationwide Caravana da Cidadania, or Citizenship Caravan, a euphemistic term for pre-campaign swing; he was prospecting for votes.

And what was I looking for in following him to a backwater where miners still massacre Indians? Nothing less than the future of Latin American politics. Lula's rise from a peasant's shack to the threshold of the presidential palace is one of the great political stories of our time--a personal odyssey every bit as brave and historic as those made by Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel.

It was coming up on midnight when we finally saw lights, gaudy as Vegas after the black canopy of rain forest that had stretched below us for the last hour. The landing gear touched down, and before the door swung open, a lovely, eerie singing rose from the night:



It was Lula's theme song, a musical phrase as famous in Brazil as any bossa nova. The second-floor observation deck was filled with hundreds of Lula supporters, nearly all of them under 25, singing and laughing, draped over the parapet, waving every kind of banner and sign. Four-letter placards exclaiming "Lula!" Red-and-white banners bearing the initials PT, for Partido dos Trabalhadores, the Workers' Party. And, of course, signs reading "Feliz 1994"--happy, because 1994 is the year they will get to elect Lula.

When Lula emerged from the plane, he raised his fist and the crowd roared--they smelled a winner. As the PT vans drove us to the hotel, the kids hot-rodded alongside, honking and waving banners and shrieking into the night. The air was thick with the scent of burning rubber, soon to be replaced by the scent of gunpowder as people set off one Roman candle after another, tinting the treetops pink. Lula shook dozens of hands, laughing and calling his admirers campanheiro before finally going inside. The petistas (as the PT's followers are known) lingered in the driveway, setting off firecrackers and periodically breaking into a chant: " Ole, ole, ole, ola, Lu-la, Lu-LAH! "

And in the exhausting heat, which even after midnight wrapped itself around us like a barber's towel, I marveled at the passions raised by this short, hairy 48-year-old man whose thick neck, powerful torso and spindly legs give him the physique of a cartoon bull. Squeezed into a cheap tan sport coat that would be fashionable nowhere, he had none of the shimmering charisma of JFK or Gorby. But the crowd didn't mind his lack of patrician style. That's part of what they loved about him.

He is one of them, a son of the peasantry poised to become a new kind of president: a socialist, a democrat and a worker. If he wins, Lula will be South America's first elected president to come from the dispossessed classes. Like the Chiapas uprising or the voting-out of the neo-liberals in Venezuela, Lula's ascent challenges the official post-Cold War story line in which everyone is rushing to embrace free-market capitalism. ("I defend private property," he says, "'but for everybody. We cannot allow one man to own 25 million acres when others are starving.") Old-school communism may be dead, but the conditions that fostered it are still thriving, especially in Brazil, a country permanently on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

The prototype of the new Latin American leftist, Lula shatters all the cliches about wild-eyed revolutionaries. He's not a caudillo. He's not a guerrilla with bandoleers crisscrossing his chest. He's not even reflexively anti-American. (He has always opposed Soviet-style communism.) His party boasts some of Brazil's leading congressmen and mayors. It brings together tens of millions of supporters in a coalition of unionists, peasant farmers, rubber tappers, intellectuals, progressive priests, left-wing millionaires, activists and militants.

"The more democracy there is in Brazil," Lula says, "the better our chances of winning." That's why, the morning after our arrival in Boa Vista, the Citizenship Caravan drove two hours through dusty savannah punctuated by cashew trees and cracking, gray termite hills that resemble avant-garde sculptures. Our destination was the Maloca do Bismarck, central meeting place for the Macuxi tribe, whose members have no idea how such a Teutonic name was applied to this collection of open-air huts roofed with leaves from the naja plant.

Outside the main hut, scabby-kneed kids ran around in T-shirts adorned with peculiar misspellings ("Vacatign Time!") and sneaker logos unknown to the industrialized West. Inside, the village elders reported on the state of the tribe, then turned the rally over to Lula, who rose and talked about the things he always talks about--better health care and education, the social cost of corruption, the egregiously unfair distribution of wealth, the absolute need for land reform. But all politics is local politics, and the Macuxi were listening for what he said about Indians. They unleashed their most vigorous nods when Lula said that he would support their right to their lands "without vacillation."

It was a good speech, and Lula held his audience easily, flaunting all the charisma I'd missed the previous night. Using no notes, he started softly, his gravelly bass voice working against his deliberateness, a slight lisp comporting oddly with his coiled physicality. As he went on, his tempo quickened, and he worked himself up, not hammy but focused, like Brando burrowing into an especially tasty scene. His finger jabbed, his hand made small circles (you noticed the missing little finger of his left hand, lost in a machine press) and, as a flush brightened his skin, his eyes became the smoldering black coals of a thousand romance novels--he's not a person you want glaring at you. Lula spoke with the angry, barrelhouse directness of one who cut his teeth addressing the hard men in Sao Paulo union halls. By the end of the speech, he had reached the point I recognized from the television clips, when his impatience for change surrounds him like a white-hot aura.

Angry, impatient, direct--was this the way to win an election in a country that prides itself on tropical good humor? I mentioned this to the professor on the airplane, Marcus Barros, who is also president of the Amazonian chapter of the PT. His eyes lost their smile, and he put his hand on my shoulder. "You have to understand. We've been waiting all our lives for this election. Now is the chance to change the history of this country. The same people have been running Brazil for the last 500 years. It finally has to stop."

THE WORLD'S FIFTH LARGEST COUNTRY IN POPULATION (152 MILLION) AND AREA (slightly smaller than the United States), Brazil has the surreal expansiveness of a country that embraces the Amazon rain forest and the hardscrabble northeastern sertao , the Girl from Ipanema and the ugly sprawl of Sao Paulo with its umpteen million people. Such a vast, swirling country is impossible to get a handle on--there are just too many stories. Small wonder that many commentators fall into the cliche of treating Brazil as the real-life version of its telenovelas, the nighttime soaps watched by everyone from millionaires to slum dwellers in the favelas.

Of course, there is something delirious about the place. In Sao Paulo, people were laughing at the black-comic refinements of the latest corruption scandal. Explaining how he'd made $51 million from an $80,000-a-year job, Congressman Joao Alves got on the tube, clasped his hands and insisted he'd done nothing wrong--God had helped him win the lottery 24,000 times. After a few days of such hijinks, I began to understand Charles de Gaulle's remark: "Brazil is not a serious country."

It all depends on what you mean by serious. There are 40 million Brazilians in absolute poverty, another 60 million living in squalor, many of them with jobs. There are millions of homeless children, the abandonados, and they are routinely murdered in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, often by policemen and paramilitary thugs paid by local businessmen. The minimum wage buys less than it did in 1940, and the distribution of income is far worse than India's. The inflation rate--currently 2,751% a year--makes simply buying one's groceries a brainteaser, and crime has reached the point where the middle-class sequesters itself in bunker-like enclaves, protected by armed sentries, while the poor crowd into some of the world's most dangerous slums. Even the legendary beaches are being destroyed. The vast majority of Brazilians live from hand to mouth, without money or power or hope.

The seeds of this catastrophe were planted centuries ago: Since the days of Portuguese control, Brazil's ruling elite has been notorious for its cruelty and greed. But the current mess has its immediate roots in the 1964 coup d'etat, when President Joao Goulart, a moderate reformer, was ousted by the military in the name of "order" and anti-communism, with the support of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Administration. For the first 15 years of the ditadura, the dictatorship, the Brazilian economy expanded by leaps and bounds, but most of the new wealth went to the elite and the emerging middle class. Brazil was becoming what they call "Belindia": a prosperous population the size of Belgium's surrounded by masses living in the misery one associates with India. In 1972, President General Emilio Garrastazu Medici described the situation memorably: "The economy is going well, the people not so well."

Although many brave souls stood up to the dictatorship, the military cracked down brutally; even today, everyone you meet knows someone who was bullied, jailed, tortured or driven into exile. As happened in the communist bloc, the Brazilian generals lost their grip when the economy began collapsing, and people began publicly challenging their authority. Perhaps the boldest of these challenges came in the late 1970s, from the Sao Paulo auto workers, whose union was led by the fiery young Lula.

Under duress, the generals announced the abertura , a gradual political opening, and in 1989, Brazil had its first direct presidential elections in a quarter of a century. But in the absence of a sturdy democratic tradition, the 1989 campaign had a frantic, almost demented quality. Months into the campaign, the country was shaken by the entry of a new candidate, Silvio Santos, a TV variety-show host whose sweaty hucksterism made one yearn for the self-effacing sincerity of Jerry Lewis in mid-telethon. Santos promptly shot to the top of the polls and might well have won, had the courts not ruled that he'd filed improperly for the race. "After the dictatorship, we did not know how to have a politics," explains Andri Petry, a senior political editor at Veja, the Brazilian equivalent of Time magazine. "There were too many parties. Sometimes one man was a party. The people did not know how to understand a campaign, and the press did not know how to report it. That is how Collor won."

Petry is referring to Fernando Collor de Mello, the little-known governor of Alagoas who narrowly defeated Lula for the presidency. Collor's campaign cast him as a young, handsome outsider who wanted to go to Brasilia to fire overpaid bureaucrats ("maharajahs") and clean up corruption; a famous photo showed him with his pockets pulled out, demonstrating their honest emptiness. In fact, the crazy-eyed governor was a multimillionaire scion of the ruling class (his father once shot a man to death on the Senate floor but was never charged) and ran for president as the Menendez boys might buy a car. After taking office, Collor spent a year dazzling everyone with his vigor; he did karate, drove racing cars, jogged in T-shirts emblazoned with catch phrases about the Amazon. President George Bush compared him to Indiana Jones--an embarrassing move, as it turned out. Enraged by a family squabble, Fernando's own brother Pedro went to the press and announced that President Collor had been peddling influence to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. Collor was impeached in 1992 but, true to the traditions of Brazilian justice, has never been charged with any crime.

Collor's dishonesty left the public shocked. The cynicism kicked in last October when it was revealed that nearly 20 members of the congressional budget committee had used their positions to make themselves rich. They stole $200 million of federal money earmarked for charities. They pocketed millions in kickbacks from construction projects. They siphoned off millions meant for health care and education--this in a land where most adults have only a grade-school education, and schoolteachers make barely $100 a month.

These high-octane scandals, plus scores of routine ones, have shaken public faith in politicians; a few idiots have begun making pleas for the good old days of the dictatorship. But according to Veja's Petry, such scandals have a positive side: "It is good for us to get over our illusions. Before, we thought it was only the generals who were the problem. Then we thought it was only Collor. Now we see that the corruption is all through the elite. We see the connections between the business elite and the political elite that we did not know before. We are no longer naive, and this is a good thing."

It's certainly good for the PT, which has been at the forefront of investigating the congressional scandal--none of its 37 members were accused. It has been even better for Lula himself. Before the scandal broke, he had been assailed for claiming that the Congress was filled with picaretas, chiselers. Now, Lula's claims as a truth teller are stronger than ever and his personal honesty even more of an asset. He's a worker who's never moved in the circles where big deals are cut and million-dollar bribes exchange hands. The PT pays him a salary of $24,000 a year; he lives in Sao Bernardo do Corpo, an industrial suburb of Sao Paulo.

"Lula's a known quantity," says Petry. "He's been famous since the late '70s, and everybody knows he hasn't become rich. Even people who hate him know he is not a thief."

"HERE'S A CLASSIC STORY FOR YOU." THE SPEAKER IS ADRIAN COOPER, AN expatriate documentary filmmaker who's been filming Lula on and off since the late 1970s. "A couple of months ago, I was flying back from Belo Horizonte (Brazil's fourth-largest city), and I ran into Lula in the airport. He was all alone in a coffee-stained white suit, carrying his battered old bag, waiting for his flight home on Tam, a domestic airline with mostly prop planes. We went for a drink in the bar, and I remember thinking how amazing it was that this guy was probably going to be the president of Brazil next year, and here he was flying in his stained suit in an economy seat on a second-rate airline. It's so extraordinary, the difference that separates him from a man like Paulo Maluf (the mayor of Sao Paulo), who would always take a Lear jet or fly first-class--he'd never rub shoulders with the masses. But then, that's Lula."

It's certainly the Lula of the public image, a man invariably described by his supporters as um brasileiro tipico , an ordinary Brazilian man. Of course, such a characterization is more than a little disingenuous: How many perfectly ordinary men have the talent and drive to approach the presidency of the world's fifth biggest country? Still, it's true that, like a much greater Jesse Jackson--greater because he is less vain and more accomplished--Lula is as much a metaphor as a man. He's lived a life that encapsulates the mythic trajectory of his whole country. To understand his rise is to understand Brazil.

Luis Inacio da Silva was born in 1945 in the farming town of Garanhuns, in the perpetually poor northeastern state of Pernambuco; the youngest of nine children, he was given the nickname Lula (which was later officially added to his name for electoral purposes). Shortly after his birth, his father, Aristide, moved to the southern city of Santos, where jobs were more plentiful. When Lula was 7, Aristide returned to Pernambuco, put his family on the back of a truck and took them down south, a 13-day journey of 1,800 miles. In making this journey from the rural north to the urban south--the great symbolic journey of modern Brazil--Lula joined in a migration made by 30 million of his compatriots since the end of World War II.

The family lived in a shantytown where Lula sold peanuts on the street and dreamed, like all Brazilian boys, of becoming a soccer star; at 11, he quit school to work in a laundry. When he was 13, he landed a job in a factory that made nuts and bolts, working a machine press from 7 in the morning to 7 at night. It may sound dreadful, but for a boy of Lula's background, this entry into the labor elite was an achievement comparable to a Kentucky coal miner's son getting a degree from Harvard.

At the time of the 1964 coup, Lula was working for Industrias Villares, a heavy-goods producer in Sao Bernardo do Campo. And despite the heated protestations of his brother Jose, a militant Communist, he was vehemently anti-union. Lula didn't so much as enter the union hall until 1967. Once he did go inside, however, he quickly became one of the union's leaders. By 1972, the year he married his current wife, Marisa Leticia (his first wife died of hepatitis), he was elected to the governing board of the Sao Bernardo Metalworkers Union. Within three years, he'd been elected union president, winning more than 90% of the votes from its 140,000 members. At 30, Lula already led the largest union in South America.

Despite his position, he remained largely apolitical--"a common union leader," he now says. All this changed when, in 1975, the military arrested his brother for being a "subversive." Rather than backing off, Lula was galvanized. By 1978, he was leading the Metalworkers Union in a labor action against the Scania truck company, the first full-fledged Brazilian strike in 10 years. Scania was forced to negotiate a pay raise for the workers, who at the time were making 60 cents an hour (compared to $8.65 in the United States). This success led to a series of more ambitious strikes that became a test of the government's authority. Lula become a household name, famous for his skill at rallying his troops, less known for softening their militant stridency.

Cooper remembers "going to a football stadium filled with 80,000 metalworkers, all of whom desperately wanted to keep on with the action. Lula got up before them and explained why they shouldn't--how it would be pushing beyond their strength and lead to disaster. Nobody in the stadium wanted to hear that--they all wanted to keep striking--but he eventually persuaded them with the clarity of his logic and the passion of his speech. By the end, the whole stadium was chanting 'Lu-lah, Lu-lah, Lu-lah.' I've never seen anything like it."

Unwilling to negotiate with Lula, the government sentenced him to 3 1/2 years in prison on trumped-up "national security" charges. But the political winds had changed, and Lula's conviction was overturned on appeal. Back in the streets, he was free to take his next step--the creation of a workers party, the PT.

"I realized it was necessary in 1978," Lula says, "when I went to Congress to talk to the representatives. And I learned that of 480 representatives, only two were from trade unions. I asked myself, 'How can the Congress approve laws for the workers if all the representatives there represent the businessmen?' So we decided to create our own political organization." He snorts a laugh. "If I'd known that doing it would be so difficult, I possibly never would have tried."

It is always difficult to know exactly when something new has entered the world, but the creation of the Workers' Party on Feb. 10, 1980, may have been one of those moments. "The PT established itself as the first political party in the country's history that was not formed at the behest of the elite." So say Ken Silverstein and Emir Sader in "Without Fear of Being Happy," the best book in English on Lula and the PT. Their words are echoed by professor Jorge G. Castaneda, whose "Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left After the Cold War" sees the PT in an even larger context. "Lula's PT is a harbinger," he tells me from his office in Mexico City. "It may well be the new Latin American populism--in the good sense of the term."

It took the PT years to expand its influence. In 1982, Lula ran for the governership of Sao Paulo state with the slogan "A Brazilian Like You"--a phrase designed to attack the traditional authority of the elites. But at this point, the ordinary Brazilian was still so filled with a sense of inferiority that the slogan backfired: It was taken to mean, "A loser like you." Paunchy, kinky-haired and ungrammatical, Lula lacked the sable elegance that the masses associated with a real governor. Despite such setbacks, the party continued to water the grass roots, winning important mayorships and enlisting the fervent support of top agrarian reformers, prominent Roman Catholic priests (including the famous liberation theologian Leonardo Boff) and rain-forest activists such as the late Chico Mendes.

By the presidential election of 1989, the PT was ready to explode. After months of campaigning, the election came down to two men: the underdog, Lula, and the overwhelming favorite, Collor. It was a campaign to make the Clinton-Bush contest seem dignified. Although Collor, as a governor, had ended taxes on sugar companies that then backed his candidacy to the tune of $12 million, the campaign centered on increasingly shrill charges against the PT's candidate. Lula, it was claimed, owned a JVC stereo; this proved he wasn't really a worker. Lula, it was claimed, would force middle-class families to give rooms in their homes to PT workers. Lula, it was claimed, was anti-democratic--this despite his leading role in the democracy movement and Collor's own voluminous silence during the dictatorship.

Still, Lula whittled away at his opponent's lead, promising land reform and a higher minimum wage and calling down wrath on the corrupt elite. The race was a dead heat when Collor pulled a stunt that could have come from a telenovela. Days before the election, he arranged for Lula's ex-mistress, Miriam Cordeiro, to hold a press conference and accuse Lula of offering her money to abort the fetus that was to become their daughter Lurian (he has four children with his wife). All the evidence rebuts these charges--Lula acknowledges paternity, Lurian's a PT activist, Cordeiro suddenly came into a lot of money-- but the attack threw Lula into a funk. He performed feebly in the last presidential debate, and specially edited lowlights of his performance were replayed over and over by TV Globo, the pro-Collor network watched by 70% of the population.

In the end, Collor won, 35 million votes to 31 million--a triumph soon to be sullied by the man who enjoyed it. Yet even as the election showed that the PT had not fully arrived, it established Lula, only 44 years old, as the national alternative to the traditional political elite. The past 4 1/2 years have diminished neither his stature nor his savvy at wooing the middle class: His grammar is better, his beard more neatly trimmed, his suits more likely to be Italian. In recent polls that have him running against every possible candidate at once, Lula invariably receives 30% to 32% of the vote, more than twice the nearest opponent. He is, if anything, more popular than ever, both personally and as the embodiment of his party.

"He's an ordinary Brazilian guy, and that's his appeal," said Ricardo Kotscho, a shrewd, witty ex-journalist whose official title of press secretary masks a more profound role as Lula's buddy, confidant and jester. "Usually your Brazilian politicians are from the elite, the political elite or the cultural elite. Lula's the first one who comes from the people, and he already has much more than he ever dreamed of. So now he feels responsibility to do something about the injustice in Brazil. It's not that he's a saint. He's not. He's a man, um brasileiro tipico. If Lula was free to do whatever he wanted, it would be fishing, soccer, women and parties. And that's why people like him."

OF COURSE, NOT EVERYONE LIKES LULA, OR HE WOULDN'T HAVE LOST THE 1989 election. Late one smoggy afternoon, I stopped by Sao Paulo's City Hall to talk to the mayor, Paulo Maluf, who has twice run for president as the candidate of the Social Democratic Party, which was created by the dictatorship. Maluf is a dapper, funny man whose penchant for deliberate, cheerful buffoonishness--his hoarse voice and full cheeks recall a thousand sendups of Don Vito Corleone--can't hide his enormous shrewdness. Although coy about whether he would again seek the presidency, he was straightforward when it came to Lula and the PT. He couldn't imagine why anyone would vote for them.

"Lula's probably good at many things, but for being president"--he wrinkled his brow ironically--"he has no more experience than the average people. He never worked in business, private or public. He never was a director of a free enterprise or public enterprise. He never was a mayor. He never was on a city council. He never was a secretary of transportation or anything else. He never was a minister." Maluf rubbed his thumb along a desk the length of a shuffleboard court and gazed happily around his huge office with its scale-model version of a new public-works project. The problem, he said, isn't merely Lula himself: It's the limitations of his ideology.

"The ideas of the left are old-fashioned. Don't pay the public debt, don't pay the national debt, complete control of the banks--this was a speech that was good 50 years ago. That's the reason they're not going to win the election. The PT was the government for four years in the city of Sao Paulo, and they lost the next election because of mismanagement."

This view of Lula is shared by the elite and much of the middle class. Some of their disdain is mere snobbery toward any man with a working-class style and little formal education. But their main objection is economic. The PT wants to limit the size of landholdings, stop privatization of state industries, maintain trade barriers and find ways to redistribute wealth. These economic proposals will cost his opponents money and diminish their power. They also run counter to the neo-liberal orthodoxies of the West. There's considerable off-the-record nervousness about what a leftist government in Brasilia might do to the spread of free-market policies in South America. At the same time, most international financiers and U.S. State Department experts think that it's too early to be sure how radically Lula would actually govern. As one Latin American financial expert told me, "Reform governments have a way of coming back toward the middle."

Brazil's economic elite isn't nearly so sanguine. The daily papers are filled with business leaders arguing that a Lula presidency will lead to stagnation, the ruination of trade, the end of luxury imports, capital fleeing the country. To reassure them, Lula has had 54 meetings with businessmen's groups to let them see firsthand that he's not o bicho-papao , the bogyman. In Boa Vista, I sat in on one such session with the Commercial Association of Roraima (located over a bridal shop) and was startled at how well he eventually got along with these small-city entrepreneurs, who clearly couldn't stand his economic plan. "I liked him," a store-owner said afterward. "I'm against him, but I liked him."

This seems to be the general attitude, whether in Roraima or Sao Paulo. The businessmen he meets plan to oppose him tooth and claw, but they respect his personal honesty and willingness to negotiate: They think he's a man you can do business with. What scares them is that Lula, who stands at both the figurative and ideological center of the PT, often cannot control his party's radical left wing, whose dogmatic zeal has gotten them dubbed "Shiites." It's this group that leads many middle-class Brazilians to fear that Lula's election will destroy the country's cruel but functioning balance, unloosing an even crueler chaos onto the land.

Although the presidential campaign won't hit its stride for several more months, Lula and the PT are expecting nonstop attacks between now and October, especially because the political right is floundering. All its potential candidates of national stature have been discredited; the right can't even field a dazzling unknown because Collor discredited that kind of dark horse.

Their opponents' current disarray hasn't lulled the PT into a false sense of confidence. Its leaders know that anything is possible in Brazilian politics and that it would not be easy to defeat another left-of-center candidate, such as Finance Minister Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Whoever Lula's opponent, he will be backed by the most powerful men in Brazil. Baronial landowners who buy the votes of their peasant workers with shoes or food. Right-wing politicians such as Bahia's Gov. Antonio Carlos Magalhaes, who are expert at manipulating the government bureaucracy. Corporate magnates like Roberto Marinho, owner of the Globo media empire, whose support of Collor is widely believed to have swung the last election.

Every politician in the world gripes about the media, but in Lula's case the complaints are often justified. Headlines accuse Lula of crimes that the stories beneath them do not mention, much less justify. News programs trumpet every charge against him, even unsubstantiated smears by his political enemies. Last November, a small-time union boss named Oswaldo Cruz Jr. accused the PT of taking illegal campaign contributions from the Central Workers Union; over the next weeks, the papers never stopped implying that Lula was just as corrupt as any other politician. The story eventually petered out. Then in early January, Oswaldo was murdered. For the next week, the media were filled with insinuations that Lula had ordered him assassinated. TV Globo's nightly news show devoted seven or eight minutes each night to the crime and its possible links to Lula. Wishful thinking, as it turned out: The confessed murderer had killed Oswaldo in the course of a personal argument.

Lula has no illusion that he can win over the media, and it's unlikely that he would want to even if he could: He has a bracing blue-collar contempt for politicians who tart up their images for television. Yet virtues have a way of becoming vices, and Lula's hostility to image making might hurt his electoral chances in a country that gets its news from TV.

Nothing captures the ambiguities of his relationship to the image-making process better than a brief exchange that occurred at Roraima's Lake Caracarana, where the Citizenship Caravan stopped for a few minutes after meeting the Macuxi tribe. Relaxed for the first time that day, Lula rolled up his blue jeans and walked into the lake. Roberto, the photographer from Veja, was snapping away, happy to catch Lula in his red T-shirt against a picturesque background--the big-city socialist grooving on nature. Noticing a woman doing her wash in the water, he suggested that Lula go over and help her. Lula shook his head.

"Go on," said Roberto. "It will make a great shot."

"No," Lula said. "I don't want to bother her. I don't want to turn everybody I meet into part of my campaign."

Back in the van, Roberto couldn't stop talking about the strangeness of a politician who would pass up a photo op. "As a man, I respect him for not wanting to bother the woman. He's a good guy. I voted for him. But as a photographer"--he shook his head sadly--"he just doesn't know how to give you any good pictures."

IN THE 30 YEARS SINCE THEODORE WHITE AND NORMAN MAILER TRANSFORMED how journalists write about politicians, it's become impossible to cover any presidential hopeful without asking, "What's driving this man to seek the big prize? What gives him the fire in his belly?"

Unable to get these answers while talking to him on the fly, I waited around Sao Paulo for days, hoping for the in-depth personal interview that would show me the real Lula. I finally got my audience with the candidate in his airy office atop a small office building off the Rua Pousa Alegre.

From the moment he stood to greet me, his body tight as a cramped muscle, I knew he was in a black mood. He'd been fighting with a Sao Paulo newspaper and obviously didn't care what somebody would write about him in Los Angeles.

When I began by saying I wanted to ask about the past, he glowered at his press secretary. He'd answered these questions a thousand times before. I persevered, but his eyes took on the half-vacant look I recognized from American politicians--he was talking by rote. He listened to my questions as if they contained fishhooks. Lula may be an unconventional politician, but he's still a politician, and he used my questions to score his own points--parrying perceived criticisms, attacking the media, insisting that the campaign was completely under control.

His impatience filled the room, and I suddenly got the slightest whiff of something I've seen in Jesse Jackson: a sense of entitlement, as though the world owes him the presidency because he's come so much further than the other candidates and cares so much more deeply than they do. In that moment, I felt sure I understood what was driving Lula to seek office: the rage of a man who was raised hungry, faced the humiliations of powerlessness, battled for everything he'd gotten and now feels that he spends his life being slandered by the very men who grew rich from the fruits of his labor.

Yet even as I was struck by his ill temper, I knew better than to think it was the whole story. It's one of the small-minded habits of our time that we are always looking for unsavory private motives to explain compassionate political behavior, as if a consuming desire for justice or passionate solidarity with the poor couldn't possibly be enough to make anybody do anything except write a small, tax-exempt check. To say that Lula is driven simply by anger is to diminish the man by mistaking moral indignation for personal resentment; if anger is his goad, it is not his goal. I remembered how, during the Roraima caravan, he'd been mauled by his public: strangers wanting a handshake, reporters asking about allegations from his political enemies, PT workers vying for his gaze, seeking the benediction of one whose potential power makes him a source of good luck. I could see in his eyes that he wanted to flee--he was beat--but he kept right on with his task.

His situation reminded me of something I'd heard about the Amazon. It seems that when you need to lead cattle across a river where there may be piranha, you always throw in one ox first so that the fish will attack it and the others can cross safely. The term for this first ox is boi da piranha , and in an odd way, that's how Lula struck me on that trip to Roraima: a man who was letting himself be devoured to help his comrades get across.

Of course, there are those who say that the piranha won't really start biting until Lula wins the Oct. 3 election. That's when he will learn what Solidarity learned in Poland and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua: Nothing can destroy you more exquisitely than the expectations you create. In fact, a small version of this has already happened to the PT: When Luiza Erundina was elected mayor of Sao Paulo in 1988, her achievement fell so far below the dreams she had excited that the PT's next candidate for mayor was defeated.

"Luiza Erundina did not satisfy the expectations that were created," says "Utopia Unarmed's" Castaneda. "She didn't make a revolution. All she was, in a sense, was a good, honest, decent, somewhat progressive mayor. That doesn't sound like much. On the other hand, having honest, decent, somewhat progressive mayors in countries like ours is not something we're used to.

"And the same will probably be true if Lula is president. The expectations will be too high. The best that can be hoped is that he be honest, decent and somewhat progressive in the face of so many problems that no one president could solve them. That would be enough."

But his defeat would be a crushing disappointment for the Latin American left and, in particular, his followers in Brazil. It wouldn't be enough for them that Lula had proven to be their Jesse Jackson, the underclass hero who gives the best speeches but never wins the top prize.

One Saturday, I had lunch with Luis Tenorio de Oliveira Lima, a prominent Sao Paulo psychoanalyst, and asked him if he could explain Lula's place in the national psyche. He smiled, perhaps at my curious American way of putting the question.

"I would answer this way. There have always been two Brazils--a Brazil where people have many things, and a Brazil where people have nothing. For a long time, these two Brazils looked at one another through a pane of glass. They did not really touch, but they saw each other, and they could communicate. Over the last 30 years or so, the country has grown more fragmented, and the glass has grown much darker. When the haves and have-nots look at each other now, they see only their own reflections and their own dark fantasies of the other. They can no longer communicate but only know fear and hatred. The country functions, but it is . . ."


He nodded: "Lula is the one man who can stand where the glass has always been and communicate with both sides. He can talk to both the poor and the powerful as their equal. He is the only politician since the 1920s with the potential to start the two Brazils talking again."

"And do you think he'll be able to do it?"

"I'm too old to have hope in anything." He cocked his head. "Of course, that doesn't mean I wouldn't vote for him."

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