The Brazilian Two-Step: Strategic Politics in the Lula Administration

In March, Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva controversially called for an end to the hunger strike by Cuban dissident and political prisoner Guillermo Fariñas, asking him and other prisoners to respect the course of justice in Cuba. Lula's detractors decry his comments as proof of a weak commitment to human rights and promotion of democracy abroad. But despite the clumsy public justification, Lula’s position on the Fariñas affair is underpinned by a no-nonsense pragmatism that has converted Brazil into Latin America’s new heavyweight.

Samantha Eyler Reid

In an interview with the Associated Press in March, Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva called for an end to the hunger strike by Cuban political prisoner Guillermo Fariñas, begun February 24, one day after fellow dissident Orlando Zapata died of starvation. Lula called for all prisoners to respect the course of justice in Cuba, likening the Fariñas affair to imprisoned Brazilian gangsters going on a hunger strike to bargain for their release.

Zapata died during Lula’s final state visit to Cuba, when he reunited with the Castros and lambasted the U.S. embargo. Critics, including Lula’s political opposition in Brazil, decry his comments as proof of a weak commitment to human rights and promotion of democracy abroad. Fariñas accused the Brazilian president of being an “accomplice to tyranny.”

Lula established his leftist credentials in the 1970s as the fiery frontman of Brazil’s steelworkers’ union. His socialist rhetoric so alarmed the country’s business interests that his 2002 presidential campaign sparked massive capital flight that stopped only after he published his “Letter to the Brazilian People” pledging to leave intact the market-friendly policies of his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. But since his election he has dismayed much of his core support base with his willingness to compromise on issues that progressives hold dear, ranging from the liberalization of Brazil’s financial markets to his lukewarm treatment of the Landless Workers Movement (MST), which has long pushed for agrarian reform. The U.S. State Department has implied that his warm relations with Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, the Castros in Cuba, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran prop up regimes hostile to liberal democracy. Some left-of-center Brazilians and international observers charge him with selling out.

The reality is more nuanced. In a March interview with an Israeli newspaper ahead of his landmark Middle East tour, Lula called himself “a negotiator, not an ideologue.” His economic and foreign policies reveal a careful dance of pragmatism, with little tolerance for vitriol or win-lose situations. His policies tend to avoid solutions in which any party will walk away with nothing, and instead focus on incorporating dissenting viewpoints to forge more durable arrangements.

In economic policy, this approach has consisted of a stop-and-go liberalization of Brazilian markets coupled with social-democratic measures like the popular Bolsa Família program. As a measure of Lula’s success in the area, none of the candidates to replace him after the October election proposes major modifications to his economic or social-welfare policies. In fact, these policies have become so entrenched that The Economist recently complained about how “ideologically skewed” Brazilian political culture has become against neoliberals who fight for “the almost-lost cause of freedom.”

In foreign policy, Lula’s knack for realpolitik sometimes overpowers his ideological consistency. He touts South-South and South American solidarity, often subverting U.S. hegemony in the region, sometimes glossing over the misconduct of key geopolitical partners. Thus Lula received Ahmadinejad at Itamaraty, the office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and refused to support a stepped-up sanctions program against Tehran. He allowed ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya to bivouac in the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa and refused to recognize Honduras’s new elected government, then criticized the U.S. embargo against Cuba. And he has often vouched for Latin America’s various “Bolivarian” socialist governments, to the dismay of Washington. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can do little except publicly air her disappointment.

Many now consider Brazil one of the developing world’s economic superstars, and Lula’s conciliatory statesmanship has increased the country’s international heft. This month Lula flew to the Middle East hoping to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In an embarrassing setback for Washington, talks froze during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit earlier in March when Israeli officials suddenly announced the construction of new homes in East Jerusalem, defying a key precondition for peace talks. In his address to the Knesset, Lula avoided discussing Ahmadinejad, instead lecturing against states using nuclear technology for military ends—thereby referring to Israel as well as Iran. Analysts conclude that Brazil’s involvement brings a “new element” to Middle Eastern dilemmas, and the Israeli press hailed Lula as a “prophet of dialogue.” Meanwhile U.S. congressman Eliot Engel (D-NY) opined, against much evidence to the contrary, that Brazil’s refusal to rally against Iran would hinder its bid to become a global leader.

All of this indicates that Lula’s strategic leadership has benefited both Brazil and Latin America, although it has occasionally led him to waffle between ideologies or to flatter unsavory characters. By showing sensitivity to the interests of capital as well as his supporters, the trade unionist–turned-negotiator has managed to institutionalize key elements of social democracy. His diminished legitimacy among some leftists has been matched by the boost to Brazil’s credibility in international affairs. The main question now is whether October’s election will deliver a president that can negotiate with equal finesse. Lula’s recent comments in Israel offer a prescription for his successor: “Nobody can administer a country with his liver. You have to administer a country with your head and with your heart. If not, better to stay out of politics.”

Samantha Eyler Reid is a NACLA Research Associate.


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