Brazil’s Lula Meets Obama with an Eye on His Own Legacy

Presidents Lula and Obama The visit of Brazil’s president to the White House on March 14, 2009, is full of symbolism on both sides. For the young United States administration of Barack Obama, the welcome to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is an indication both of the importance of Brazil as a trading partner (and in certain sectors competitor) and of the kind of Latin American leadership it is likely to favor and seek to encourage.

For the Brazilian leader, it is an opportunity to affirm the increasing importance of his country on the regional and global stage, and directly to voice its priorities on important bilateral concerns at the start of a new phase in the relationship between Brazil and the US.

For both sides, the immediate context – a severe global economic downturn with grave domestic repercussions in both countries, and less than three weeks before the G20 summit in London on April 2 – is part of an intensive pre-positioning that will test how far these two giants of the Americas will be able to collaborate in the global arena too.

But all politics is local – even if everywhere an intertwining with the global is becoming unavoidable. Barack Obama’s focus on revivifying the American economy reflects this, for all the responsibilities and expectations from the rest of the world this particular United States leader carries.

For his part, Lula is moving towards the later stages of his second term in office with his popularity at home extraordinarily high; but his efforts to secure his political legacy are in a delicate phase, as Brazil enters a fluid period in advance of the presidential elections in October 2010.

A Pre-election Storm

What is happening in Brazilian politics can be illustrated by looking at the maneuvers of one man in particular: Jarbas Vasconcelos. This senator from the Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement / PMDB) gave a bombastic interview to Veja – Brazil’s most popular weekly magazine, and a harsh critic of Lula – in which he strongly criticized the structure of its own organization.

The PMDB, which is in coalition with President Lula’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party / PT) at the federal level, can be described as a gigantic political conglomerate. It has 2 million registered members; is the largest party in both houses of the Brazilian congress; its figures control six government ministries; and it has a host of elected representatives (governors, senators, mayors, municipal leaders) across the country.

The interview is a major event at a time when the run-up to Brazil’s own presidential race in 2010 is starting to get serious. Jarbas Vasconcelos, in attacking the PMDB, claimed he was targeting the problems of Brazilian politics itself; and that the PMDB’s practices are in fact emblematic of these. It should be recalled that the PMDB has in a way or another been part of the “government” of all presidencies since democracy returned to Brazil after the period of military rule from 1964-85 (which the party long tried to oppose by legal means).

“The party chose the pragmatic strategy of getting benefits from the government without winning the elections,” said Vasconcelos . “Two years from now, the PMDB will be in the government – be it José Serra’s or Dilma Rousseff’s,” he declared.

The choice of names is significant. These are the two strongest runners in the early part of the campaign for 2010 (though Aécio Neves, the governor of Minas Gerais, will also be a candidate). José Serra is the governor of São Paulo state, and is campaigning hard to be the PSDB’s candidate for the second time (he lost to Lula in the historic election of 2002 which brought the former metal-worker to power).

Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s chief-of-staff in succession to José Dirceu, is the minister in charge of the Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento (Growth Acceleration Program / PAC) – a series of loosely connected infrastructure programs – and Lula’s own favored candidate for the succession.

In the interview, Vasconcelos refocused on an issue that had been forgotten since the epic mensalão scandals of Lula’s first term from 2002-06. “Corruption is what a good part of the PMDB wants,” the senator declared; and his swinging attack was extended to most Brazilian politicians, who he said care only for clientelismo (where the only winners of public and ostensibly open negotiations are the negotiators themselves).

The PMDB leaders responded coldly, reiterating the charge that Jarbas Vasconcelos was both a renegade and notorious as an ally of Serra. The last part at least is true: Vasconcelos’s interview was clearly a move in Serra’s favor. “I believe very much in José Serra and will put my efforts behind his presidential candidacy,” he told Veja. The endorsement comes at a time when the governor is ahead of Rousseff in some opinion-polls by a considerable margin.

A Problem Party 

But Jarbas Vasconcelos’s words are significant in two other ways. They signal the current process of polarization in Brazilian politics; and they highlight the sclerosis of Brazil’s political agenda since the start of the Nova República (the period that began after the years of military rule, 1964-85).

In relation to the first point, some would contest the very idea of “polarization,” given that this is no easy thing to find in Brazilian politics. Its parties are not very well defined. Yet the underlying trend is that the political liberty established at the end of the 1980s has – albeit slowly – been generating more professional parties that are also seeking a clearer ideological and policy focus, and thus a new relationship with voters.

With this longer-term shift in mind, I have argued that a new constellation of four parties is evolving in Brazilian politics: Lula’s PT, the PMDB, Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Serra’s PSDB and the farmers’ DEM (the former PFL), with the smaller parties gravitating around these. This pattern has policy and ideological aspects too in which the parties cluster into pairs.

* the PT and the PMDB: both favor more intervention in the economy, though the PT’s socially progressive attitudes contrast with the PMDB’s socially conservative and nationalist leanings (which reflect its links to the state-owned companies, the Estatais)

* the PSDB and DEM: both are less interventionist, though the more socially progressive PSDB differs in orientation from the socially conservative (and agrarian) DEM.

But in presenting this case, the same problem always appears: the PMDB itself. How can you ascribe an ideology to such a party, people rightly ask. The answer is, in part, time: for the approach of the 2010 election will make greater definition a necessity. Vasconcelos himself is skeptical that the PMDB will support Dilma Rousseff’s candidacy as part of a much-touted (and Lula-mediated) alliance between the Workers’ Party and the PMDB. In any case “the PMDB will split,” the senator predicts.

If he is right, a possible scenario is that one section of the party will line up behind Serra (or Aécio Neves – who is closer to the PMDB than Serra), and another (probably larger) supporting Dilma Rousseff. The pro-Serra wing would be followed by the DEM, while the pro-Rousseff one would be reinforced by President Lula (and thus probably – if reluctantly – the PT too). This outcome would confirm the trend towards polarization. The 2010 elections will be the crucial test of the evolving shape of Brazilian politics.

A New Agenda?

In relation to the second point highlighted by Jarbas Vasconcelos, the Brazilian state’s ability to move beyond the issues that have been on the country’s political agenda since 1989 is equally open to question. The problems raised in Vasconcelos’s interview – among them “corruption,” “modernization of the state,” “political reform,” “judicial reform” – have indeed been present since the beginning of the Nova República; successive presidents have addressed them, with different priorities and levels of success, but they remain unresolved.

The prospect of a reconfiguring of Brazil’s political-party framework might be good news in this context, in part as new lines of division would bring more definition to their language and policy, and offer clearer choices to Brazilian voters. The bad news is that one result of a more radical political division could be to put Lula on the conservative side.

The Brazilian president will have other things on his mind in Washington, but he and his advisors will be acutely aware that a statesman’s influence on the global stage can often be a hostage to domestic politics. 

Arthur Ituassu is professor of international relations at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. You can read more from him at his website: This article appeared originally in Open Democracy –


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