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Brazil’s President Flies Into Controversy Over New Plane

Times Staff Writer

What has two wings, flies at hundreds of miles per hour and has sent Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva headlong into a political hurricane?

As Brazilians can tell you -- often with a bit of a sneer -- it’s Lula’s new presidential plane. The craft cost taxpayers $57 million and Lula’s advisors hours spent defending such a lavish expense on the part of Brazil’s first working-class president.

Built by the European consortium Airbus, the plane is better-appointed than the homes of most people in this country. For those long flights he takes as a globe-trotting world leader, Lula now has access to a comfortable bedroom suite, shower, meeting room, flat-screen TV, DVD player, top-of-the-line computers and an intensive-care unit in case of injury.

Lula’s advisors insist that the purchase was both necessary and long overdue. Delivered Saturday, the plane replaces a presidential Boeing 707 in use for more than 30 years, a model so obsolete it was retired for commercial flights in the U.S. in the early ‘80s. (A Boeing 707 that served as a backup to Air Force One was put out to pasture by President Bush four years ago.) Brazilian officials say the old aircraft had become an embarrassment, so loud that it contravened noise regulations at airports around the world.

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But the high price tag has outraged critics at a time when Lula’s administration is under increasing pressure to do more to improve the lot of Brazil’s poor and unemployed, whom Lula championed during his presidential campaign.

Many of the government’s social policies have crashed or run into major turbulence, such as a much-vaunted subsidy system for needy families that has been dogged by accusations of corruption and inefficiency. The Folha de Sao Paulo, Brazil’s top-selling newspaper, published an article this month alleging that “Aero- Lula” cost more than twice what the government spent on public sanitation in 2004.

“This reveals the extent of the ineptitude of [Lula’s] administration,” Elio Gaspari, one of Brazil’s most respected political commentators, wrote in the daily O Globo. “Buying a plane is easy. You just issue an edict ... and sign the checks. Finding jobs for workers is another story; fulfilling the pledge of sanitation, yet another.”

One O Globo reader pointedly noted in a letter that the ubiquitous logo “Brazil, a Country for Everyone,” which pops up at government public works sites all over the country, did not appear anywhere on the presidential airliner.

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Another reader defended the plane’s purchase, saying that Lula deserved an aircraft commensurate with his status, capable of commanding respect on his voyages abroad as Brazil’s head of state.

The jet is reportedly equipped with secure communications systems and radars able to detect incoming missiles. The Santos Dumont, named after the local inventor Brazilians believe beat the Wright brothers to the punch in human flight, can make long hauls to foreign capitals such as Washington and Paris without a stop.

Even those who support Lula acknowledge that the furor over the plane could dent the popularity of a president who likes to remind Brazilians of his impoverished boyhood.

Officials hope to limit the political fallout by making the Santos Dumont’s maiden voyage an internal one, up to the Amazon basin, where Lula is to revive a program designed to bring social services to remote areas. Later this month, the aircraft is slated to make its international debut by ferrying Lula to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, a yearly gathering of the political and financial elite.

As of yet, the commotion shows few signs of fading. Critics have gone on to point out other expenditures by the presidential palace, such as its decision to update its fleet of vehicles at a cost of more than $800,000 and its purchase of two ambulances with intensive-care units.


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