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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
and his WEB page can be found at http://goertzel.org/ted