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Book Review
May 2003

The Making of Lula of Brazil

A new book on Lula explores the Brazilian President's private
and emotional life in detail and even draws explicitly on
psychoanalytic concepts to probe his unconscious mind. Lula's
saga is Brazil's version of a Horatio Alger story. He channeled
his anger into a struggle to do better than his father.

Ted Goertzel

Lula: o filho do Brasil (Lula: Brazil's Son) by Denise Paraná. São Paulo: Editora Fundação Perseu Abramo, 2002.

Brazilians are not accustomed to books that reveal intimate details of the lives of their political leaders. This is too bad because Brazilian political history is full of colorful personalities and dramatic events that cry out for psychological interpretation. Luis Carlos Prestes' quixotic march into the jungle at the head of a column of Communist revolutionaries inspired a generation of would-be revolutionaries, but no psychobiographer has probed his martyr complex.

Nor have depth psychologists dissected Jânio Quadros' surprise resignation from the Presidency in 1961 or the bizarre family conflicts that sabotaged the Collor de Mello administration in the early 1990s. Although he is a psychiatrist, Eduardo Mascarenhas managed to write 125 pages about former President Getúlio Vargas without analyzing his personality or exploring the reasons for his suicide.

Denise Paraná's study of Brazil's new President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, may shatter the Brazilian proscription against serious biographical inquiry. Written originally as a doctoral dissertation at the University of São Paulo, it had modest impact when it was first published by Xamã in 1996. But Lula has been elected president and a new edition is prominently displayed in all the bookstores.

In it, Paraná explores Lula's private and emotional life in detail and even draws explicitly on psychoanalytic concepts to probe his unconscious mind. Paraná is well prepared for the task, having done post-graduate study at Cambridge University in England after her doctoral work in Brazil. She draws widely on American and European psychological and anthropological theories.

Lula: Brazil's Son is modeled on Oscar Lewis's classic The Children of Sanchez: Autobiography of a Mexican Family. It could have been titled Dona Lindu's Children: Autobiography of a Brazilian Family. It qualifies as autobiography because much of the book consists of transcriptions of interviews with Lula and several of his siblings. The leading figure in the family is Dona Lindu, Lula's mother, not his father, who abandoned the family soon after Lula was born. Denise Paraná conducted extensive interviews in early 1990s, and Lula and his family were very cooperative because Paraná had served as an advisor in Lula's political campaigns.

Oscar Lewis's concept of the culture of poverty has been criticized by American scholars for "blaming the victim," but Paraná found that it fit the Silva family well. The Silvas lived in terrible poverty in the Brazilian northeast, buying rice only when they were too sick to digest manioc flour, walking to the river to wash their clothes, having no shoes, electricity or household appliances other than a wood stove. Lula's father had eight children with his mother, then ran off to São Paulo to start another large family with his wife's cousin.

The Brazilian poor know that Lula understands them because he was one of them. They are inspired by the fact that he overcame terrible obstacles to become the leader of the nation. Although Lula is the leader of a leftist party that focuses on the social forces that oppress the poor, his life story is that of a self-made man who rose above poverty through individual initiative. His saga is Brazil's version of a Horatio Alger story.

Transformation Culture

This tension between individual achievement and social change is an important theme of Denise Paraná's remarkable book. To solve it, she develops the concept of the culture of transformation as the alternative to the culture of poverty. The culture of poverty is characterized by fatalism and hopelessness, by a focus on immediate gratification instead of on plans for the future, by a profound feeling of alienation from society. Growing up impoverished in the northeast, Lula's family experienced all of these feelings. But they were able to transform their alienation into a struggle for personal improvement and social change. That is what makes Lula's presidency so inspiring.

Lula's escape from poverty began when his mother made a courageous decision to sell her meager belongings, load her children on the back of a truck, and move from the impoverished northeast to the southern state of São Paulo. The 13 day journey was an adventure for Lula and the other children, but a daring plunge into the unknown for a mother with limited education and almost no resources. Lula's father was already is São Paulo, but she knew he was living with her cousin and a new family. Working as a longshoreman, he had barely enough income to help both families. All of the children had to work.

São Paulo beckoned because Brazilian capitalism was booming there and workers could get much higher wages than in the northeast. By working very hard, Lula could afford to go to school and get trained as a lathe mechanic. This got him skilled jobs in the auto industry, an industry that had been built by multinational corporations. Skilled labor was scarce, and the multinationals preferred to negotiate with the labor unions rather than asking the military government to repress their own workers. Lula succeeded as a labor leader because he put aside leftist ideology, which he knew well from an older brother who was a Communist Party militant. Instead, Lula focused on bread-and-butter unionism, an approach that the establishment in São Paulo was willing to accept.

The growth of Brazilian capitalism gave Lula the opportunity to break from the culture of poverty. But how did he get the psychological strength? Here is where Denise Paraná turns to psychoanalytical theory. She does so apologetically, repeatedly warning the reader that her psychohistorical speculations are just hypotheses that cannot be proven. This may be true, but no more so than any other psychohistorical analyses. Indeed, hers are better grounded than many because of her extensive interviews with Lula and his family. Often different family members tell the same stories, but with variations in emphasis and interpretation that provide insight into their psychological meaning.

When Lula was five, his father returned to the northeast for a brief reconciliation with his mother, a visit that left her pregnant once again. Lula and his brothers remember an incident when the father was beating one of Lula's older brothers, as he frequently did. He then started to beat Lula, the baby of the family, but Lula's mother intervened to protect him. Shortly thereafter, his mother moved out taking the children with her. This greatly aggravated the father who stalked the neighborhood around the new house.

In Lula's recollection, his mother left in order to protect him. He felt that he was the most favored, most loved of his mother's children, if only because he was the smallest. From a Freudian perspective, Paraná observes, he triumphed in the Oedipal struggle with his father for his mother's love. This, she observes, might account for the remarkable self-esteem that enabled him to triumph over the culture of poverty.

This may be true in Lula's case, although there are certainly other and better ways for a boy to develop self-esteem. At least the story serves to reassure mothers that their boys may do well even if it is necessary to leave an abusive father. Perhaps more interesting are Paraná's observations about Lula's ways of coping with the situation. He denies having any anger or resentment against his father for mistreating him or his siblings or for abandoning the family. Paraná is understandably skeptical, how could a boy not resent such treatment? Lula concedes he is angry at his father, but for his ignorance, not for his treatment of the family. His father's illiteracy was his Achilles Heel. He bought a newspaper every day to "read" on the way to work, sometimes attracting attention by holding it upside down.

Lula channeled his anger into a struggle to do better than his father. He resolved never to fall into the "well of ignorance" that his father represented. He admired his father for his physical strength, his sexual prowess, and his ability to earn enough to support two families and various girlfriends (albeit inadequately). Challenging his father in these areas would have been difficult, and disloyal to his mother. So Lula threw himself into studying, something that his father had always opposed.

His father insisted that all his children work as early and as much as possible. He apparently feared that his authority would be undermined if his children learned to read while he could not. He also humiliated Lula and his siblings, in comparison to his other children. In an anecdote that several mention, he refused to buy them ice cream when he bought it for their half-siblings because, he said, they didn't know how to lick it.

Lula channeled his rage into a drive to prove himself more successful than his father in the area where his father was weakest: education. Paraná conjectures that denying that he was angry at his father, other than for his ignorance, was part an important part of this process.

Idealized Past

Another use of denial, she observes, was common among emigrants from the northeast. Instead of complaining about the conditions they left, and giving thanks for their new opportunities, they idealized the past. They remembered the positive values of life in the rural northeast, minimizing the hardships. This idealization, Paraná observes, helped them be more assertive in demanding better wages and working conditions in São Paulo. They were not mere supplicants grateful for the crumbs offered them, they were proud sons and daughters of the northeast who had sacrificed much to help build a new Brazil.

Although Paraná does not make this point, it can be argued that Lula's use of socialist ideology is a similar idealization. Because they are socialists, he and his supporters are not mere supplicants seeking a larger slice of the capitalist pie. No, they are partisans of a much purer, more noble ideal. Theirs is a vision of a world where human need, not capitalist greed, reigns supreme. This vision has important psychological functions, it raises the self esteem of its adherents and gives meaning to their suffering. But it has absolutely nothing to do with the real world economic policies that they advocate.

This psychological use of ideology may explain the odd ideological composition of the coalition that elected Lula president. His supporters included not only his own Workers Party (itself a coalition of conflicting ideological tendencies), but also the Liberal Party and one of Brazil's Communist Parties. His vice presidential running mate was a Liberal.

Brazilians use the term "liberal" in its classic European sense, as a belief in free markets, not in its American sense. Therefore, if ideologies were taken literally, Liberalism (free markets) and Communism (command economics) would be opposites and could never be on the same ticket. But this doesn't matter if everyone (except a few true believers) realizes that they are idealizations not to be taken at face value.

Oddly, in Brazil, "neoliberalism" is the whipping boy of the Left, but "liberalism" per se, without the "neo," is perfectly acceptable. Lula could never take a "neoliberal" running mate, but a "liberal" was just fine. The objection is not to liberal economic ideas, but to the alleged insensitivity of the "neoliberals" to the feelings and aspirations of the poor. As president, Lula's economic and social policies are virtually indistinguishable from those of his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

When Cardoso followed these policies Lula denounced them as "neoliberal," yet he feels no apparent embarrassment in adopting them as the core of his program to build a world without hunger or poverty. This socialist vision may help him build a stronger Brazilian capitalism, just as the vision of the idyllic northeast helped build a stronger urban industrial labor movement.

If Lula's leadership succeeds it will be more for who he is than for any new ideas or programs. His life is a just-so story of how a culture of poverty can be replaced with a culture of transformation. Anti-globalization rhetoric and socialist visions may play a useful psychological role in Brazil's transition to mature capitalism, so long as they are kept quite separate from the actual economic policies.

Ted Goertzel, Ph.D. is Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. He is the author of a biography of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, available in English and in Portuguese. He can be contacted at goertzel@camden.rutgers.edu and his WEB page can be found at http://goertzel.org/ted


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