Brazil’s Leftists No Longer See President as Their Champion

Times Staff Writer

Shortly after his inauguration as this nation’s first left-leaning president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva garnered rapturous applause from a massive convocation of international social activists here when he promised to take on the capitalist world order and strive to end hunger in poor countries.

What a difference two years makes. This week, the leader of Latin America’s largest country is again scheduled to address the World Social Forum, which opens today. But this time, jeering may replace cheering as many of his once-ardent supporters accuse him of betraying the pledges of his campaign.

From environmentalists to human-rights advocates, urban workers to the rural poor, left-wing activists are disappointed or downright furious with the man they believed would finally put their causes high on Brazil’s agenda.

Instead, they say, the former labor leader and leftist firebrand has pursued policies identical to those of the center-right administration that preceded him. Disaffected supporters are upset about his moves to maintain a more austere budget than even the International Monetary Fund had demanded, to expel radicals from his Workers’ Party, to allow deforestation in the Amazon and to only marginally increase the minimum wage.


“You could use the phrase that [Fernando] Gabeira coined in late 2003: ‘I was dreaming the wrong dream,’ ” David Fleischer, a political scientist in Brasilia, said, referring to a left-wing politician who abandoned the Workers’ Party in disgust. “A whole lot of movements felt their time had come, but it hadn’t.”

Lula’s aides insist that their boss remains committed to reducing Brazil’s social inequality, where 1% of the population owns about half the land. But structural changes require more than the two years he has been in office governing through an often-fractious coalition, they say.

The president and his advisors say Lula has had to act pragmatically to keep foreign investors from fleeing Brazil and to ensure that the country remains competitive through a series of tax and pension reforms. Those policies are bearing fruit, they say, noting that the economy recently posted its fastest third-quarter growth rate in eight years. Overall growth in 2004 could be the highest in a decade.

But some critics wonder at what cost the economic recovery has been achieved and which sectors of society have benefited.


Despite the country having one of the world’s most unequal distributions of land, the government has yet to tackle agrarian reform or strengthen the rights of indigenous, rural people.

Detractors also say that Lula has favored developers over the environment, leading to the destruction of vast tracts of rain forest. Last year’s loss alone amounted to an area the size of New Jersey.

To create more efficient distribution routes, the government has decided to pave a highway through the heart of the Amazon basin. Lula’s environment minister, a committed conservationist, has been defeated or overruled so often that many see her as a figurehead.

“There is also the housing shortage. The country has a deficit of 6 million homes,” said Maria Luisa Mendonca, director of the Social Network of Justice and Human Rights. “The government has focused its attention on the Zero Hunger project and limited its action to assistance programs, rather than structural changes.”


Brazil’s many favelas -- slums where millions of people live without reliable access to clean water, basic sanitation or electricity -- continue to expand. Violence is endemic.

Some of the harshest denunciations of Lula come from members of Brazil’s Landless Movement, which has staged property invasions, takeovers and other protests to draw attention to the plight of the rural dispossessed.

Lula wooed their votes with promises to find homes for hundreds of thousands of families but is nowhere near being on track to fulfill that pledge.

“The elected government promised to settle 430,000 families in four years and have only settled 60,000 in two,” said Valquimar Reis, one of the movement’s national coordinators. “It is a moral debt Lula’s government owes the landless workers.


“We believed in Lula’s presidency because of his history of struggle,” Reis said, adding that they had been disappointed. “Lula lacked the courage to confront the economic interests of the bankers, industrialists and exporters. We have waited very calmly for two years, but now our patience is exhausted.”

With the movement threatening more protests and land occupations, Lula paid a visit Friday to one of their encampments, in northern Brazil, for the first time since taking office.

He reminded listeners of his humble origins and exerted the force of his charisma, which can still convince ordinary folk that he’s one of them.

“I know where I came from, who my true friends are from yesterday, from today,” he said. “I have a vivid awareness that, in life as in death, we always return to the place from where we came.”


From the beginning of his presidency, Lula has invoked his charm to help him walk a political tightrope, gingerly balancing the demands of former comrades, Wall Street investors and the various political parties he has had to cut deals with to push legislation through.

In some ways, Lula has succeeded in differentiating his administration from that of his more conservative predecessor, in areas such as foreign policy. Lula is turning out to be one of Brazil’s most widely traveled presidents, jetting around the Third World to assemble a bloc of poor nations capable of standing up to the developed world.

Supporters note that Brazil successfully led opposition to the demands of rich nations in global trade talks, lambasting countries such as the United States whose subsidies for farmers give their crops an advantage over those of developing nations in the global market. The informal alliance of poor countries, including Brazil, China and India, helped precipitate the collapse of World Trade Organization negotiations in fall 2003 in Mexico.

From the World Social Forum here in Porto Alegre, Lula will fly to Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum to hobnob with the international political and financial elite, an event that he once shunned as a rich man’s club but embraces now as a place where he can try to sow progressive ideals.


But Lula’s decision to attend the Davos conference rankled the left in Brazil, as did his plans to make the journey in a new $57-million luxury plane.

The price tag outraged workers and public employees who have been lobbying for pay raises and another boost to the minimum wage, which is less than $100 a month. Last year’s increase was about $7 per month.

“He is not fulfilling his campaign promises,” said Otto Pereira Neves of Sindicep, a union of federal employees. “We need to pressure him to tend to the people and not just to bankers.”

Despite all the dissatisfaction, no other left-leaning candidate has a chance of winning next year’s election, polls show.


Environmentalist Adriana Ramos and others have learned that having a supposed friend in the nation’s top office is no guarantee of success for their causes.

“Now we see that the onset of power by a political [ally] is not enough,” she said ruefully. “We have to find ways for civil society to contribute to improvement.”

Times staff writer Paula Gobbi contributed to this report.