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“God is Brazilian,” a local expression goes, and during the first decade of this century, there were reasons to believe it might actually be true. In 2001, Goldman Sachs labeled Brazil—along with China, India, and Russia—as the BRICs, the emerging markets that would supposedly fuel global growth for many years to come. In the case of the South American giant, the prognosis appeared accurate, at least for a while. By the end of the decade, the Brazilian stock market’s value had quintupled. Wealth didn’t accrue exclusively to the upper class: Brazil’s middle class expanded by some 30 million people, and the country’s notorious gap between rich and poor narrowed, if just a bit. Airplanes were full of first-time flyers, and microwaves and TVs flew off the shelves. Even as the economy boomed, the rate of deforestation in the Amazon jungle fell sharply as the government invested in stronger enforcement against illegal farming and mining. Preparations to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics seemed to guarantee a long building boom and an even more prominent role for Brazil on the world stage.
Today, the man who oversaw most of that euphoric era as president from 2003 to 2010, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, is leading the polls for presidential elections scheduled in October 2022. Although no one expects a divine miracle, many Brazilians hope the longtime metalworkers’ union leader—now 76, his trademark beard gone fully gray—can recapture at least some of the magic. After more than a decade of economic turmoil and political instability, Brazil is now about 20 percent poorer on a per-person basis than it was during Lula’s final year in office. Under the leadership of the country’s right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, who is running for reelection, Brazil has lost more than 660,000 people to COVID-19, second only to the United States in the Western Hemisphere. Its four-decade-old democracy is under severe stress. And, in a reversal of the Lula-era progress in protecting the Amazon, deforestation has increased dramatically, leading some scientists to warn that the forest, often referred to as “the world’s lungs,” is on the verge of collapse.
With a life story that reads like an epic novel and a charisma that led U.S. President Barack Obama to call him “the most popular politician on earth,” Lula may well have the talent and experience to put Brazil back on the right path. But it is also possible that Brazilians are falling into a classic recurring trap of Latin American politics: hoping that an aging leader who presided over a long-ago commodities export boom can somehow turn back the clock. Repeatedly over the past century, leaders who presided over periods of unusual prosperity, such as Juan Perón in Argentina in the late 1940s, Carlos Andrés Pérez during Venezuela’s oil boom of the 1970s, and Colombia’s Álvaro Uribe during the first decade of this century, have either returned to power themselves or helped protégés get elected. But almost without exception, these comebacks have ended in disappointment or disaster, in part because the world had changed and prices for crucial exports such as crude oil, iron ore, and soybeans had fallen.
Today’s Latin America is struggling to emerge from an especially troubled period that saw some of the world’s highest death rates from COVID-19, its worst rates of homicide and inequality, and a lost decade of lackluster economic growth and social unrest. Given the scale of these challenges, it is fair to worry that Lula’s rise may be symbolic of what the Venezuelan intellectual Moisés Naím calls “ideological necrophilia,” a historical preference during times of crisis for nostalgia and shopworn ideas instead of fresh leadership and forward-looking policy. As the 2022 presidential campaign in Brazil has progressed, Lula’s team has been characterized by a glaring shortage of new faces, relying instead on the principal players from his previous term to advise him. He told one interviewer: “You have to understand that, instead of asking what I’m going to do, you just have to look at what I did.” But for Lula to come even close to replicating his past record, he will have to overcome a much more adverse external context—and the outsize expectations that have ultimately sunk most others who attempted similar comebacks.
Aware that his age could be perceived as a liability in this presidential campaign, his sixth (he lost the first three), Lula has somewhat belatedly embraced Twitter and TikTok, where he posts videos of himself lifting weights at regular 5:30 AM workouts, bragging, “I have the energy of a 30-year-old and the virility of a 20-year-old. . . . I want to live until I’m 120, and that’s why I take care of myself.” Meanwhile, his campaign has sought to remind voters of Lula’s celebrated past. Born to two illiterate subsistence farmers, he dropped out of school after fifth grade to help support his family as a shoe shiner and peanut seller. He didn’t learn to read until the age of ten and went to work as a teenager in an auto parts factory. After suffering an accident there that cost him his left pinky finger, he emerged as a labor leader in the industrial suburbs of São Paulo. His courageous role in the grassroots trade union movement helped bring Brazil’s 1964–85 dictatorship to an end. While Brazilians of a certain age can recite these biographical details almost by heart, they are new to many voters in a country where the average person was just 21 years old when Lula’s presidency ended.
Indeed, much of Brazil’s 2022 presidential campaign has been a debate about the past, revolving around two hotly contested questions: How much credit does Lula deserve for the boom years, and how much blame should he get for the collapse that followed? On the first question, it is clear that Lula and Brazil’s 210 million people had the wind strongly at their backs during his presidency. The first decade of the twenty-first century was a period of exceptional growth and social progress throughout most of Latin America, primarily because of soaring demand for the region’s commodities from China. Latin America’s exports to China grew from less than $6.5 billion in 2002 to $67.8 billion in 2010, providing a windfall of hard currency that many governments, including Lula’s, used to finance social welfare programs and other public spending. Brazil also benefited from a wave of free-market reforms made under Lula’s immediate predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who served from 1995 to 2002. Those measures ended years of runaway inflation and stabilized the financial system, making the consumer credit boom of later years possible.
Much of Brazil’s 2022 presidential campaign has been a debate about the past.
Lula’s critics still argue that he was extraordinarily lucky and did little more in office than maintain the macroeconomic framework he inherited from Cardoso. It is also true that in a regional context, Brazil’s performance in the first decade of this century was not spectacular: the GDPs of Chile, Colombia, and Peru grew significantly faster. Where Brazil did excel, at least at first, was in making sure the bonanza was widely shared by all segments of society. Lula’s vaunted Bolsa Familia initiative paid a stipend of about $35 a month to poorer Brazilians who met certain conditions, such as keeping their children in school. It helped poverty fall from 40 percent to 25 percent by the end of his term, cut infant mortality rates, and became a widely copied model as far away as South Africa and Indonesia. Lula’s government also aggressively pushed increases in the minimum wage, which rose almost 50 percent above inflation during his eight years in power. That allowed millions of Brazilians to buy cars, air conditioners, and other middle-class accoutrements for the first time.
These achievements would not have been possible without Lula’s embrace of a trait rarely associated with the Latin American left: fiscal discipline. Fending off constant pressure from his base to spend more, Lula’s government met ambitious budget targets year after year, allowing Brazil to win the confidence of investors and pay off billions of dollars in loans to the International Monetary Fund years ahead of schedule. Unlike many of his contemporaries, including Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Lula built a broad coalition that included the working class as well as industrialists and bankers, who saw profits soar thanks to the inclusion of millions of new customers. This pragmatism has led to enduring confusion over the years about what Lula really believes—an ambiguity he has often embraced, referring to himself as a “walking metamorphosis,” after a Brazilian pop song from the 1970s.
It was always clear that China was a major reason for Brazil’s success. Explosive Chinese growth led to insatiable demand for beef, iron ore, petroleum, soybeans, sugar, and their derivatives—commodities that account for about half of Brazil’s overall exports. But there was a point near the end of Lula’s time in office when it seemed that the country had achieved a kind of exit velocity allowing it to break free from its volatile past, with Lula as its wizened, magnanimous leader. When Rio de Janeiro was selected to host the 2016 Olympic Games, Lula broke down in tears and bear-hugged Pelé, the Brazilian soccer legend. When the state-run oil company Petrobras discovered unexpectedly vast new reserves of offshore oil, he declared it “proof that God is Brazilian after all.” By the time Lula left office at the end of 2010, he boasted an approval rating above 80 percent and had become one of the most recognizable leaders of the global South. He seemed emblematic of what many believed was a new world order in which power and economic dynamism were shifting inexorably away from an aging, crisis-torn West.
Latin America has always been a region of dramatic booms and busts. Still, even by its historical standards, what happened next was stunning. In the early 2010s, China began rebalancing its economy away from investment and toward greater domestic consumption, leading some global commodities prices to fall from their heady levels. Almost in unison, economies throughout Latin America suffered a deterioration in their terms of trade. As oil prices dropped, Venezuela suffered a deep depression that, combined with an increasingly repressive dictatorship, created a humanitarian crisis that sent six million of its people seeking refuge abroad. Argentina, whose farm exports had enabled robust growth from 2003 to 2010, was by 2014 again in default on its debts. Colombia saw its overall export revenue plunge by a third in just one year. Even Chile, the world’s largest producer of copper and the region’s erstwhile poster child of stability, entered a period of social unrest and economic volatility from which it has still not fully emerged. Throughout the 2010s, Latin America as a whole averaged economic growth of just 2.2 percent a year—below the 3.1 percent global average, and the lowest of any major group of countries tracked by the World Bank.
The imagery of Lula locked in a 10-by-16-foot cell certainly seemed to foretell a tragic end.
Even so, arguably no collapse was more surprising than Brazil’s. Lula’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, also of the Workers’ Party, at first enjoyed an approval rating almost as high as his. But when the economy started to sour, she tried to keep the good times rolling by resorting to heavy-handed state intervention in the economy and accounting trickery to meet the rigorous budget targets that had served Lula so well. Resisting the inevitable slowdown only made matters worse, scaring investors and consumers alike. By 2013, inflation was on the rise, and more than one million Brazilians took to the streets to protest higher bus fares and other frustrations. Rousseff, a career public servant who had never run for public office until Lula plucked her from relative obscurity, possessed neither the charisma nor the ideological flexibility of her mentor. Lula, sidelined for part of this period by throat cancer, was unable to help right the ship. Brazil’s spiral deepened, and by 2015, the country was mired in its worst recession in more than a century.
Meanwhile, prosecutors were digging into a chronic problem for Lula’s Workers’ Party: corruption. A money-for-votes scandal came close to resulting in impeachment proceedings during Lula’s first term in office. But in 2014, a team of prosecutors began uncovering evidence of a much larger corruption scheme involving Petrobras, a case that came to be known as “the Operation Car Wash scandal” in a nod to its origin as a small-scale probe into a gas service station in Brasilia that was being used to launder money. Before long, they found proof that companies were overcharging for contracts for building oil rigs, refineries, and other projects and then routing money back to a long list of politicians in multiple parties. The network of bribes and kickbacks extended into several countries and would send dozens of Latin America’s most powerful politicians and business leaders, including two former presidents of Peru, to jail. The U.S. Department of Justice at the time called it the “largest foreign bribery case in history.” In fact, it is unclear how unusual the scheme was in the arc of Brazilian political history. As the Brazilian journalist Malu Gaspar documented in a recent book, one of the main companies involved, the construction giant Odebrecht, had engaged in similar graft with previous Brazilian governments going back at least to the 1970s. Other political observers pointed out that without the steps Lula and Rousseff allowed to strengthen Brazil’s judicial system, such as permitting the use of plea-bargain testimony in trials and appointing independent attorneys general, the Car Wash case probably would never have come to light, much less been prosecuted. The novelty may not have been the corruption itself, but the fact that it was detected and punished.
But with the economy in free fall and new revelations about the scandal in the press almost every day, Brazilians were in no mood for such nuance. With overwhelming support from the general public, Congress voted to impeach Rousseff in 2016. Two years later, Lula was sentenced to 12 years in prison on charges that he had accepted a beachfront apartment in return for helping one of the companies involved in the Car Wash case, completing a vertiginous fall from grace. The conventional wisdom was that his storied political career was over and that he might spend the rest of his life in jail.
The imagery of the iconic leader locked in a 10-by-16-foot cell certainly seemed to foretell a tragic end. In a symbolic twist, Lula was locked up inside a police building he had inaugurated himself as president in Curitiba, the dreary capital of the state of Paraná. Only Lula and his most die-hard supporters believed he would get another chance at vindication. “I’m going to prove that the thieves are the ones who arrested me,” Lula declared, comparing himself to the South African hero Nelson Mandela. “I want to walk out of here the same way I came in: with my head held high.”
Indeed, there was one more major plot twist left, made possible by the failures of Lula’s successors. Michel Temer, who became president after Rousseff’s ouster in 2016, was a figure so grave in appearance and manner that an ally once compared him to “a butler in a horror movie.” By the end of his term, his approval rating had plummeted to just four percent. In the 2018 election, which Lula was barred from running in because he was in jail, Bolsonaro won a strong mandate to pursue a pro-business agenda and crack down on corruption. But he, too, proved unable to live up to expectations. His divisive style, which included hurling insults at journalists, women, and leftists, earned him the moniker “the Trump of the tropics.” Like the U.S. president he admired, Bolsonaro downplayed the threat of COVID-19, an approach that contributed to Brazil’s registering one of the highest mortality rates from the virus in the world. He warred with Congress and the Supreme Court instead of focusing on the economy. Through it all, a plurality of Brazilians continued to say in polls that Lula was the best president in their country’s history, even as he was locked up.
As the political winds shifted once again, Brazil’s Supreme Court voted in 2019 to overturn its own three-year-old ruling requiring prisoners to remain confined while they awaited appeal. The decision benefited an estimated 5,000 people, but one in particular who had a chance to reassert his dominance over Brazilian politics. Lula walked out of jail hours later, after 580 days behind bars, into the arms of an ecstatic crowd of supporters waving red Workers’ Party flags emblazoned with his image. A year later, the court ruled that the main judge in the Car Wash case had been biased in his rulings against Lula, after leaked text messages showed him coaching prosecutors on how to pursue the case, among other violations. One by one, all the pending charges against Lula were dropped or thrown out. Finally, in early 2021, a judge restored his political rights. Lula’s friends say that even he was surprised to find himself a candidate for president once again, and with a lead in polls for the 2022 race.
Latin America’s most famous, and arguably ill-fated, political comeback involved Juan Perón, who presided over a period of such extraordinary wealth from 1946 to 1955 that he once boasted that Argentina’s central bank had to store piles of gold in the hallways. With Europe devastated by World War II, Argentina was for a time able to export not only agricultural produce but also industrial goods to a rebuilding world. Alongside his wife, Eva Perón, known as “Evita,” Perón generously distributed the windfall to the country’s working class. After the boom faded and Evita died of cancer, Perón was toppled in a coup and sent into exile. The country’s military rulers even banned the use of his name in certain contexts. Nevertheless, no one could match his legacy. He would continue to torment his successors for the next 18 years, until finally the generals relented and allowed Perón, then in his 70s and in ill health, to come home and attempt to restore Argentina’s lost prosperity.
It was a disaster from the very beginning. On June 20, 1973, while awaiting Perón’s arrival from Spain, competing crowds of leftist and rightist supporters, all of whom claimed to be the general’s true heirs, clashed at the airport in Buenos Aires. At least 13 people died. Once in office, Perón proved unable to handle a more adverse domestic and external environment, failing to stabilize the economy during the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and ensuing rise in global inflation. He died of heart disease at age 78 after less than a year in office. A period of intense violence and chaos followed, culminating in one of South America’s most brutal dictatorships. The movement he inspired, Peronism, remains the most dominant force in Argentine politics today, less a rigid ideology than a memory of past wealth.
There are other examples of failed second acts, less dramatic perhaps but similar in trajectory. Carlos Andrés Pérez, who as Venezuela’s president from 1974 to 1979 benefited from the same oil shock that felled Perón, returned to office in 1989 in a vastly different global context. He endured riots and coup attempts, was impeached four years later for embezzlement, and soon found himself in prison. More recently, a host of leaders from the boom at the beginning of this century have attempted comebacks. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who led Argentina from 2007 to 2015, is currently the vice president of a Peronist government struggling with sinking approval and an inflation rate over 50 percent, one of the highest in the world. Two Chilean presidents, Michelle Bachelet on the left and Sebastián Piñera on the right, returned in the late 2010s for far less successful second terms. Álvaro Uribe, who governed Colombia from 2002 to 2010 and left office with Lula-like approval ratings, helped two Uribista successors get elected, only to break with one of them and see the other, Iván Duque, finish his term in 2022 with an approval rating in the 30s. Finally, the dictator of today’s Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, bases whatever legitimacy he has on Chavismo, the memory of his predecessor Chávez, who died of cancer in 2013 before the bottom truly fell out of the economy.
As the campaign entered its home stretch, Lula sounded like a candidate content to play his greatest hits.
Why does this keep happening? Some point to Latin America’s long tradition of strong, personalistic leaders, caudillos such as Simón Bolívar and Juan Manuel de Rosas who presided after the region’s wars for independence in the nineteenth century. Others highlight the “resource curse,” which, over the years, has afflicted commodities-producing nations as diverse as Angola, the Netherlands, and Saudi Arabia. Still others see a broader decline of Western democracies, noting that U.S. politics, too, has become more dominated in recent years by dynastic names such as Bush, Clinton, and perhaps now Trump, politicians who promise to restore an era of supposed past greatness. But Latin America does seem to be in a league of its own.
One plausible explanation is that productivity in Latin America has been stagnant or shrinking since the late 1960s. This affliction has a variety of causes, including low investment, insufficient infrastructure, and a private sector that has been crowded out of some countries by a bloated state. But the net result is that Latin America’s economies have been operating without what should be a major engine of growth, leaving them reliant on two other main drivers over the last 60 years. The first has been the expansion of the labor force. But that engine may soon fade as well, with the region’s falling birthrates beginning to approach levels seen in western Europe, and Latin America’s population is expected to start aging rapidly by around 2030. The second has been commodities exports, a factor beyond anyone’s control but one that may become even more important to the region’s fate in the years to come.
None of this is a reason to lose hope in Latin America or conclude that the region is forever destined to be a passive bystander to global cycles. Past decades have seen clear progress: the great re-democratization wave of the 1980s, the stabilizing economic reforms of the 1990s, and the redistributive efforts of the first decade of this century were all milestones. Today, many positive trends are underway. Latin America is now the world’s fastest-growing market for venture capital. Women and historically marginalized minority groups are finally rising to leadership positions in government and business. Some countries, such as Panama and Uruguay, have outperformed others, and their example offers hope for what greater trade and efforts at social inclusion can accomplish. But if the region’s goal is to converge with the living standards of western Europe and the United States, as Lula and other politicians from his generation long said was their mission, the status quo won’t suffice. Today’s Latin America needs leaders who can not only distribute wealth but also help create it. That will involve ambitious reforms in areas from education to green energy and bold new thinking on trade alliances and the region’s role in global supply chains. It is unclear whether any of the region’s presidents, past or present, have the vision, discipline, or political mandate to get it done.
As the campaign entered its home stretch, Lula sounded like a candidate mostly content to play his greatest hits. He spoke of old ideas, such as creating a common currency for South America, dismissed by most economists as unworkable, and a significant increase in public spending, even though Brazil already has the second-largest public sector among major Latin American economies, behind only Argentina. A photo of Lula at a meeting in April with 19 of his closest supporters drew strong criticism from fellow progressives because just two were women (one was his fiancée) and none were Black—striking omissions in a country where more than half the population is made up of people of color. Most of his closest aides were familiar faces from his first presidency. For his vice president, he selected Geraldo Alckmin, a 69-year-old former governor of São Paulo whom he had defeated to win the presidency in 2006. Younger Brazilians voiced disappointment that he was not focusing more on renewable energy and gender equality.
In foreign policy, Lula seemed likely to pursue a reprise of the South-South ties he emphasized during his first presidency, when Brazil expanded diplomatic and investment ties with countries in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and elsewhere in Latin America. Celso Amorim, who was Lula’s foreign minister during his first presidency and is expected by some to hold that position again if Lula is elected, said closer relations with China were “inevitable,” although he added that Brazil would cultivate a positive relationship with the United States, as well. But on other key issues, including the economy, Lula repeatedly refused to share details of his plans, saying his record should speak for itself.
After a decade of turmoil, that might be enough for most Brazilians. In São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in March, some people told me they have no illusions about Lula’s recapturing the dynamism of his first presidency. Instead, they just want a leader who is better than Bolsonaro at protecting them from pandemics, preserving Brazil’s democracy, and bringing down inflation—which has soared again amid the war in Ukraine, putting the economy at risk of yet another year of very slow growth. Many express fears that Bolsonaro would try to subvert the October election if he lost, following the example of former U.S. President Donald Trump. “We just want a normal president,” said Marcos Daniel, a factory worker in Osasco, just outside São Paulo. If Brazilians don’t expect a savior, much less a god, they might just get what they want.