The Lula Paradox

Lula in the arms of the people Eight years ago, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was inaugurated president of Brazil with a dramatic pronouncement that “change … is the dramatic message from Brazilian society… hope has finally conquered fear and Brazilian society has decided it is time to blaze a new path.” (1)

Lula has just retired with record popularity. The vast majority of Brazilians are happy with the path he blazed. But, paradoxically, the changes he brought about were modest. Lula seems to have understood that the change Brazilians wanted most was relief from change.

They wanted economic prosperity and were happy to share a bit of it with the poor. Beyond that, there was little demand for the reforms that both the Workers’ Party and the Social Democrats had been advocating for decades.

On Sunday, December 19, 2010, the influential newspaper O Globo published a special section called “The Construction of the Lula Myth.” (2) Its argument was summarized by one of the writers:

“President Lula ends his eight year mandate with popularity never before obtained by a president of this country despite a contradictory legacy. We did not have advances or improvements in education, health, public security, basic sanitation, infrastructure and reforms. What leaves me incredulous is that the people of a giant nation such as Brazil, the majority of whom are poor, would give up all these improvements in exchange for a basic food basket called the Bolsa Família.

“A government with 37 ministries and various secretariats did not succeed in advancing in anything. If it was a right-wing party that was leaving office, and a left-wing party was taking power, surely they would say that they had received a cursed inheritance…” (3)

O Globo’s analysts relentlessly probed the flaws in Lula’s claimed accomplishments. If the economy grew phenomenally in 2010, that was only because it had crashed in 2009. If Brazil grew an average of 4% a year during Lula’s term, that was less than the average for Latin America during the same economic cycle, 4.64%. Despite his promises, the agrarian reform limped along slowly as it had before. Conflict in the countryside increased.

Lula formed political alliances with oligarchs such as José Sarney, the kind of leader the Workers’ Party had always denounced. Despite his talk of building infrastructure, he left the highways, ports and airports close to chaos.

His Zero Hunger program degenerated into a permanent dole leaving the poor no escape from dependence on welfare. Worst of all, O Globo insisted, Lula maintained high interest rates and high taxes that would continue to burden the country for years to come since there was no social security or tax reform.

The Blog do Planalto fired back:

“Anyone who read the special section of the journal O Globo on the Lula Era will have no doubt; the management of the journal, its editors and analysts, are among the 3% to 4% of Brazilians who rate the Lula government as poor or awful.

“For them the approval of more than 80% achieved by president Lula and his government at the end of eight years in office is a mystery. Perhaps an illusion or a collective hypnosis which is keeping the public from perceiving reality. For O Globo and its analysts, Brazil advanced very little in the Lula Era, and the few advances have been in spite of the government and not because of its actions.

“As the president said on the day when he released the documents on his legacy, the press has no interest in the government’s constructive actions, preferring to focus on the destructive. It falls to the government to document the positive. (4)

And document it they did. Lula’s secretariat of communication released a massive six-volume collection called the Balanço do Governo 2003-2010 and Lula bragged about their accomplishments in a retirement speech on national radio and television. (5)

The list was long. The minimum wage increased 67%. Hydroelectric dams, petroleum refineries and new railway lines were built. Two million people got electricity, one million got new homes. New health programs were established, as were 14 new universities and 126 technical schools. Brazil paid off its debt to the International Monetary Fund and is now lending the fund money.

It was a fine list, but no more impressive than those listed in the similar volume the same bureaucracy prepared at the end of Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s eight years in office. (6) Most of the accomplishments were continuous with programs the government had been working on before Lula took office. There was much steady progress, little dramatic change.

It is not only right-wing critics who are surprised by the lack of major structural reform by the Lula government. Leftist scholar Fernando J. Cardin de Carvalho argues that both Lula and former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso were weak leaders:

“There is a significant leadership deficit with respect to both the ability to formulate clear strategies and, consequently, to commit to them. In the case of Cardoso, this anomie seemed to be rooted in his theory of dependence…. In the case of Lula and the Workers’ Party, the reasons for the absence of strategic thought are unclear… In the absence of clearly defined strategies, Lula’s policies seem to have consisted mostly of surfing on the favorable winds of the international economy…” (7)

Carvalho is right that neither Lula nor Cardoso were the kind of “strong” leader who imposes radical changes on society. But his explanation for their supposed weakness is wrong. Cardoso’s academic writings were about how countries could overcome dependency, not apologies for it.

Once in office, Cardoso formulated a clear strategy to end hyperinflation and stuck to it. Lula is a brilliant political strategist and organizer. His Letter to the Brazilian People made his political strategy in 2002 clear and he carried it out brilliantly. It is hard to think of two leaders better able to formulate a strategy and carry it out.

Why then the failure to implement the social security and tax reforms that both Cardoso and Lula believed the country needed? The weakness is not in the leaders but in the democratic system itself. Cardoso and Lula are very different personalities, but they both entered politics as part of a democracy movement and are committed democrats. A democratic leader cannot simply impose dramatic changes.

Cardoso was often stymied by opposition from the Workers’ Party and others. Lula tried to implement many of the same reforms in his first two years, but he ran into opposition from public employees and from the left-wing of his own party, among others. He tried to get around legislative roadblocks by buying votes from his so-called allies. After the vote-buying scandal, he largely retreated from controversial reform efforts.

Critics are understandably disappointed that Lula and Cardoso didn’t realize their visions. Carvalho is explicit about his expectations from a left-of-center government:

“Even a nominally left-wing government in a developing country should pursue at least four goals: full employment of labor; economic growth; income and wealth redistribution; and the empowerment of dispossessed groups, spreading out citizenship rights. A left-wing administration should not be ‘generous’. On the contrary, it should advance a redefinition of duties and rights, redistributing power away from those used to rule towards those in position of subordination.” (8)

Lula shares these four goals and made progress on all of them. The progress was not as rapid as he would have liked, but it compares respectably to that made by more dictatorial left-wing governments. The problem seems to be with what Cardin de Carvalho’s calls Lula’s “generosity.” Lula’s impulse is to get along with everybody. The radical left wanted him to berate the wealthy and powerful, as Hugo Chávez does. Lula preferred to cajole and persuade them, as Cardoso did.

For Lula, getting along with people from all walks of life is a matter of personality and philosophy of life, not political ideology. Lula’s worldview is fundamentally Christian, not Marxist. This is obscured by the fact that he keeps his religious life private and respects the separation of church and state.

A Roman Catholic, he repeatedly emphasizes his appreciation of all Brazil’s religious groups, including the evangelicals and the Jews. He chose an evangelical Protestant as his running mate. His is not a narrow, sectarian Christianity; it is a theology of compassion for other human beings. It is a philosophy that resonates strongly with the Brazilian people, and contributes much to his popularity.

Perhaps just as important as Lula’s class or religious background is the fact that he was a mother’s boy. He refused to model himself on his father who he viewed as a failure. Having a father who is a failure can have advantages in life; research shows that father failure is common in the childhoods of eminent people. (9)

Two American presidents, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, were also angry and resentful of their fathers (or stepfathers) and had very close relationships with their mothers. Juscelino Kubitschek’s father died when he was two, and he was raised by his mother.

Successful mother’s boys learn to share their feelings and empathize with others, and develop practical skills in human relations and problem solving. Not having to compete with their fathers for their mothers’ attention in childhood may help them build self-confidence. Not having to submit to their fathers’ authority, or rebelling against it, may help them to move quickly through adolescence into career paths that suit their own talents and inclinations.

In Lula’s case, his father returned to his life when he was nine and he had to deliberately rebel against him, with his mother’s support. Lula is quite explicit about adopting a maternal model of leadership. In a 2010 campaign speech he said:

“The best example I can give of the art of governing is the art of being a mother. Governing is nothing more than acting like a mother taking care of her family, assuring everyone the right to have opportunities. Incidentally, the word “govern” is really wrong. I don’t know which philosopher invented the word “govern,” it should be “to care for” [cuidar].” (10)

According to the dictionaries, the word “govern” implies exercising authority and enforcing rules. This is a stereotypically masculine approach to life, ingrained in the legal and military training of most of Brazil’s past presidents. Lula’s style is the opposite of the “macho” style. He is a feminist, not just in ideology but in his personal style.

He freely shares tender feelings and is uninhibited about breaking into tears on public occasions. Lula did not get this style from his regional or social class background or from being raised in Brazil. He got it from his mother. He is not so much the son of Brazil as the son of a Brazilian single mother.

Lula promised “change” but he knew that the change Brazilians were tired of being told their institutions needed to be reformed, tired of losing the security of government jobs and early retirements, tired of hectoring from environmentalists and other activists. They wanted a president who was a cheerleader, not a critic.

They liked being paid in money that held its value and they wanted to enjoy spending it. It was Lula’s good fortune to be elected at a point in time when the Brazilian economy could provide economic growth with some redistribution of income and without reigniting inflation. He seized the opportunity and took full credit for giving Brazilians what they wanted.

Far from being an agent of radical change, Lula was an agent of continuity with past presidents. As commentator Cesar Sanson observed:

“Lula is a mixture of policies that go from Getúlio Vargas, passing through Juscelino Kubitschek and the military presidents, until arriving at Fernando Henrique Cardoso. His government has developmentalist policies which remind us of Vargas, policies of favoring transnational capital that remind us of Kubitschek, policies that please the military such as rearmament, and the maintenance of Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s macroeconomic orthodoxy. What we see are happy businessmen, even happier transnational capital, and the military the same. All of this is viewed by a perplexed political right and a national left without direction. (11)

Sanson was too kind to mention the corruption scandals, but these also remind us of past presidents, especially Collor and Kubitschek.

Almost two decades of effective presidential leadership have made Brazil a much better place, and the overwhelming popular sentiment is for continuity. But politics tends to be cyclical, and Brazil may be approaching a cyclical turning point.

Cristóvam Buarque, one of Brazil’s most imaginative left-of-center politicians, believes that Brazil is finishing a cycle and poised to begin another. (12)

He calls the current cycle, which began with the transition to democracy and the stabilization of the currency, one of “timid social democracy.”

He argues that the next cycle should be one of more aggressive social democracy to make politics less corrupt, build a high technology economy, promote equality of opportunity, and make the cities safer. If social democracy cannot do this, he believes, the next cycle could be either a swing to the right or a swing to populism.

Brazil has two strong social democratic parties still largely led by a generation of leaders who understand and share these goals. Rather than joining forces, however, these two parties, the Social Democrats and the Workers’ Party, have allied with more traditional parties and retreated into what Marina Silva, the Green Party environmentalist, calls “unlimited pragmatism.” She argues that:

“It is an irony of history. Two parties born to affirm the diversity of Brazilian society, to break the social duality existing at the time of their formation, have allowed themselves to be captured by the logic of the struggle between themselves…

“By leaving the umbrella of the Brazilian Democratic Movement, these parties enriched the Brazilian political universe by creating democratic alternatives based on strong personal histories [of the leaders] and collective political struggles and public ethics.

“Today, the subversion of these parties in the pragmatism of the old political logic makes it less likely that the country will be able to make the essential policy changes the country demands. (13)

Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, has expressed her commitment to leading a more active reform process to make the lasting changes that she agrees Brazil needs. Her party’s dependence on the alliance with the Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement, however, may make this difficult. The Social Democratic Party is reconsidering its strategies after losing the presidential election in 2010, and is also well aware of the needs for reforms.

It may be too much to hope that these two progressive, social democratic parties could join forces, but the Social Democrats in Congress cooperated with the Lula government on many issues, putting the needs of the country ahead of short-term partisan advantage.

Dilma Rousseff was part of this process when she was chief-of-staff, and she should be ready to continue to work with the Social Democrats and other progressive forces.

Oddly enough, it may be the editorial writers from O Globo, who, after reconsidering their own analysis, came up with the best summary of Lula’s legacy:

President Lula should leave office satisfied with his legacy. In fact, he may not have done everything he should have done, but what he did qualifies him to enter into history as the president who raised the self-esteem of the Brazilian people. This says it all!…

It is clear that Brazilians of all income and educational levels and age groups massively approved of this government and its president. Considering that the mainstream press was consistently and strongly against him, a question cannot be ignored: can it be that these people have all been fooled and only the 3% or 4% who disagree have a monopoly on the truth? That is very pretentious. (14)

Lula chose to go into retirement with popularity ratings in the 80’s rather than use his popularity to pressure for controversial reforms. He chose not to use his popularity to try to get the constitution amended so he could become one of Latin America’s “presidents for life.”

He realized that his policy legacy was one of continuity more than of change. He observed, realistically, that “the legacy of our government is the consolidation of social policies with economic growth in a solid macroeconomic situation.” (15)

He was especially pleased that the country would be hosting both the Olympic Games and the soccer World Cup, and observed that Brazil had discovered that “there is no greater conquest than to recuperate the self-esteem of its people.” (16)


(1) “Discurso do Senhor Presidente da República, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, na cerimônia de posse,” Congresso Nacional, 1 January 2003.

(2) “A Construção do Mito Lula,” O Globo, Sunday, December 19.

(3) O Globo, “Era Lula,” O Globo (Kindle edition), December 22, 2010.

(4) “Balanço da Era Lula no Globo: Olho torto entorta a vista, Blog do Planalto, December 21, 2010.

(5) Balanço do Governo 2003|2010. Secretaria de Comunicação Social da Presidência da República, 2010. Lula da Silva, Pronunciamento à nação em cadeia nacional de rádio e TV, por ocasião do final de ano,” December 23, 2010.

(6) Presidency of the Federal Republic of Brazil, Brazil: 1994-2002: The Era of the Real. Secretaria de Estado de Comunicação do Governo, Brasília, 2002.

(7) Fernando J. Cardim de Carvalho, “Lula’s Government in Brazil: A New Left or the Old Populism?” in Arestis and Saad-Filho, op cit, p. 33.

(8) Fernando J. Cardim de Carvalho, “Lula’s Government in Brazil: A New Left or the Old Populism?” in Arestis and Saad-Filho, op cit, p. 30.

(9) Victor, Mildred and Ted Goertzel and Ariel Hansen, Cradles of Eminence: Second Edition. Scottsdale, Arizona: Great Potential Press, 2003.

(10) Malá Menezes, “Lula fala em Deus e vingança no Piauí,” O Globo, October 15, 2010.

(11) Cesar Sanson, “Governo Lula, de Vargas a FHC,” Radioagência Notícias do Planalto, November 19, 2007.

(12) Cristóvam Buarque, “O Ciclo Dilma,” Blog do Noblat, O Globo, December 23, 2010.

(13) Bernardo Mello Franco, “Em carta, Marina acusa PT e PSDB de ‘pragmatismo sem limites’,”, October 17, 2010.

(14) O Globo, “Era Lula,” December 22, 2010 (Kindle edition).

(15) Tiago Pariz and Alexandro Martello, “Só vou ser comparado a Vargas, diz Lula,”, August 30, 2007.,,MUL96520-5601,00.html.

(16) Lula da Silva, Pronunciamento à nação em cadeia nacional de rádio e TV, por ocasião do final de ano,” December 23, 2010.

Ted G. Goertzel, Ph.D. is Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey. He published a biography of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and is collaborating with Denise Paraná on a biography of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. His web page is at He can be reached at


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