Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva

A former shoeshine boy, street vendor, metalworker, and longtime labor leader, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (universally known as "Lula") was elected president of Brazil in 2002 with some 61 percent of the popular vote; four years later, despite an unfolding corruption scandal, he was reelected for a second term.

His rise to political power represented a key element in a broader shift in Latin American politics in the 1990s and 2000s toward a pragmatic and democratic left-populism that viewed the neoliberal economic policies espoused by the United States and international financial institutions (particularly the International Monetary Fund and World Bank) as antithetical to the interests of their nations’ citizens and of Latin America’s and the world’s poor.

Along with Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and other political leaders swept into office in the post–cold war era, President Lula has worked to deepen democratic institutions and improve the living standards of the majority, while at the same time working within the structures of global capitalism dominated by the more advanced industrial countries of Europe and North America.

Born in October 1945 to a poor peasant family in the state of Pernambuco in Brazil’s impoverished northeast, as a small child Lula moved with his mother and seven siblings to the coastal city of Guarujá in São Paulo state. Like many poor working-class children, he received a spotty education, instead working in the city’s informal economy to help his family make ends meet.

When he was 11, his family moved to São Paulo, where he worked in a number of factories, including a copper processing facility and an automobile plant. As a young man he became increasingly involved in union politics; this was during the period of military dictatorship (1964–85), when state authorities violently suppressed militant labor activism.

Lula’s involvement in the labor movement deepened through the 1970s and 1980s. In 1978, following an AFL-CIO-sponsored tour of the United States earlier in the decade, he was elected president of a local steel-worker’s union.

After being arrested and jailed for illegal union and strike activities, in 1980 he helped found the Worker’s Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT); three years later he was a founding member of the Central Worker’s Union (Central Única dos Trabalhadores, or CUT). In 1982, in the midst of these union and political activities, and with the country still in the grip of military dictatorship, he ran for office in the São Paulo state assembly.

He was defeated, but four years later, following the democratic opening after 1985, won a seat in the National Congress as a Worker’s Party member. Using his congressional seat as a platform, he ran for president in 1989, losing the election but gaining national attention for his plainspoken left-populism.

He ran again in 1994 and 1998 and, after softening his party’s platform to ease the jitters of the investment and financial sectors, captured the presidency in 2002. His administration’s policies can be described as moderately left-reformist, with an expansion of public sector spending in health care, education, social security, energy, and related arenas, coupled with careful debt and monetary management.

The response of the international financial community, and of the Brazilian electorate, has been mostly positive, though many of his erstwhile supporters have expressed disappointment at what they see as excessive compromise and dilution of his socialist vision. Whether his administration will be able to maintain the delicate balance between meeting the needs and aspirations of transnational capital and of the country’s laboring classes remains to be seen.