Lula Hoop

Standing in the lobby of the National Press Club around noon yesterday, one could hear the standard quantity of rapid-fire chatter and Capitol Hill buzz. Everyone wore suits, yammered into cell phones and smoked cigarettes with an impatience specific to Washington. The only deviation from the norm was that most of the people were speaking Portuguese: Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was about to arrive for his first visit to the United States since being elected president of Brazil, and everyone was waiting to hear what the newly minted leader of Latin America's largest economy would say. This was an unprecedented visit -- never before had a Brazilian president-elect visited the United States.

Lula, as the socialist-cum-populist-nationalist is widely known, is perhaps the only president in the Americas receiving as much attention these days as George W. Bush. Many see him as the harbinger of a leftist resurgence in Latin America. He was introduced Lula yesterday as a representative figure of "new populism." To others, he embodies all the discontent with free markets and corrupt states that has bubbled up in the wake of recent economic crises in Latin America. But whatever the reason, Lula is very popular. He received more votes -- 52 million -- in his Oct. 27 victory than any other democratically elected president anywhere save one: Ronald Reagan in 1984.

And so U.S.-based supporters of the ruddy faced ex-steelworker came out enthusiastically yesterday to hear him give a speech he has given many times before. "This is a mixture of press conference and political rally," said one longtime petista, a member of Lula's Worker's Party (PT). "There are other non-journalists like myself here who want to see him." At another table sat a woman wearing a PT button and holding a large green and white PT placard with the party symbol -- a red star -- on the front. Other attendees were a bit more measured. "The general feeling is immediate suspicion because of past efforts," a businessman said referring to the perception that Lula comes from a radical background. The fact is, however, that though Lula came out of the post-authoritarian Brazilian labor movement -- which had contact with a few small communist parties -- he was truly only driven by his struggle against the then-incumbent military dictatorship.

The real suspicions are not, in fact, that Lula is a communist but that he might stick it to the International Monetary Fund and to foreign investors if he is forced to choose between staying current on Brazil's massive debt payments and paying for domestic social programs. There have also been worries that he might throw a wrench into regional trade negotiations. But as most acknowledge, Lula has given little cause for concern. He has repeatedly agreed to abide by the IMF's conditions, to maintain a fiscal surplus and to respect debt obligations. Indeed, recently Lula has been such a model student of the Washington Consensus that he has even been drawing praise from the IMF. "I was particularly impressed with Lula's dedication to fight corruption," Horst Kohler, the IMF's managing director, said recently after meeting with the president-elect, "and thus create a good investment climate in Brazil."

Yesterday, Lula's speech itself was more of the same. He reiterated his pledges on fiscal discipline, debt servicing and inflation fighting. He said little about the contentious Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), which he had at one point called an American plan to annex the Brazilian economy. If anything, he hinted at further moderation even there, saying, "We should not become prisoners of fruitless ideological confrontations." While of course directed at Bush and the IMF, that statement signaled that Lula himself will most likely take a pragmatic rather than principled position on the FTAA and other economic matters.

The rest of the speech sounded like something lifted from a 1992 Bill Clinton stump script. Beyond fiscal discipline and economic pragmatism, Lula emphasized many other New Democratic nostrums: getting tough on crime while fighting poverty, affirming human rights and United Nations multilateralism, and promoting sustainable development with a special emphasis on protecting the environment. He made a special point of saying he would lead a "relentless fight" against corruption, and pointed to the desperate need for a program of "social inclusion." Though there was a touch of straightforward economic leftism -- with Lula citing the need to "eliminate tax havens" and for global regulation of "volatile capital flows" -- it was buried late in the speech. Perhaps his most combative point was citing a need for reforming the UN Security Council's rules so that it includes permanent representatives from Latin America and Africa.

Lula was the recipient of tough questions, and he gave crowd-pleasing answers. When asked how he was going to fight his war against hunger and fulfill his commitment to social justice while at the same time maintaining fiscal discipline and staying on schedule with debt repayments, Lula sounded a lot like Clinton: He dodged the question with a reference to personal biography. Reminiscent of Clinton's famous "man from Hope" storyline, Lula spoke of his rise from the extreme poverty of Brazil's northeast into which he was born. He spoke of how he went from job to job, lost a finger as a steelworker, struggled against dictatorship, lost a presidential campaign three times before finally winning and continues to be the subject of false accusations. All of which, he says, has him convinced that if he surmounted these obstacles, a few economic challenges can't be so hard. Lula often speaks of hope, and yesterday the audience loved it. In practical terms, however, invoking "hope" can merely serve to translate an economic policy into the personalistic injunction, "Trust me, believe in me; I'm a good guy." Or, as Lula said later yesterday in a brief, less guarded, appearance at AFL-CIO headquarters, "Pray for me."

Prayer may be what it takes. Various economists have said that Lula inherited such a bad situation there is simply no way he will be ably to meet all of his obligations. When that question came up yesterday, Lula demurred and then inveighed against the pessimism of the market and economists who concoct doomsday scenarios. Be that as it may, Lula himself spent more time emphasizing the limits to growth -- fiscal discipline, debt repayments, investor confidence, environmental sustainability -- than articulating any developmentalist agenda.

In fact, overall, Lula did not seize on this unprecedented moment to do anything unprecedented at all. He did not challenge the United States to explain the spectacular failure of neoliberalism in Latin America. He did not detail his own grand project for Brazilian economic development. He would not even announce the new members of his economic team. The most he would say was that he and Bush had agreed to form a group -- composed of representatives from both countries -- to promote a "common agenda" between the United States and Brazil.

Lula may have reassured investors and the IMF with this visit, but it's hard to imagine how the Brazilians who passionately supported him -- who invested in him their own, long-unfulfilled hopes -- would have felt inspired by what he said. They may have drawn some comfort from his warm reception at the AFL-CIO building later in the afternoon, where he was greeted with union claps and lusty cheers of "O-lei O-lei-o-lei-olaaa Lulaaa, Lulaaa." At this stop he reiterated his promise to fight hunger and to establish more contacts between unions and other groups such as women's nongovernmental organizations, church associations and serious intellectuals, not to mention friendly captains of industry. But his performance still left one feeling a bit hollow. Perhaps it is unfair to judge Lula by his words when he has yet to act -- especially when he is giving a canned speech to a foreign audience. And perhaps he should be given a chance to bask in the glory of his victory before returning to work. Nevertheless, one has to wonder: Is the introduction of Third Way politics to Brazil really the best that Lula can do?

Alex Gourevitch is a Prospect writing fellow.