Rebellion in the Backlands

Back in the waning days of the Brazilian dictatorship, hundreds of thousands of citizens, including some of my friends, attended a huge pro-democracy demonstration in Sao Paulo. On that night’s national newscasts, one major network ignored the rally completely while another broadcast footage suggesting it had attracted only a meager, pathetic crowd. Handsomely rewarded for backing the military junta, the media barons essentially had the protests “disappeared.”

It‘s getting to be almost that bad here. Last Saturday’s marches against war in Iraq drew 100,000 in Washington, D.C., and another 40,000 in San Francisco -- enormous numbers for a war that hasn‘t even started. Yet flipping among local and national newscasts that night, I found maybe two minutes of coverage, total. And the Sunday papers did little better: The demonstrations showed up on Page 17 of the Los Angeles Times, Page 8 of The New York Times (which suggested the turnout was disappointing) and in the unloved Metro section of the Washington Post. Sure, such protests have their silly side (did you hear Patti Smith’s caterwauling?), but when masses of people organize to protest an upcoming war, isn‘t that supposed to be news? Or is even covering demonstrations now thought to be somehow unpatriotic?

The protests were overshadowed by stories considered juicier: the question over which state would first bring the D.C. snipers to trial (Virginia has the edge because it can fry the kid), the Moscow hostage debacle (which got CNN’s attention only when people started dying) and the death of Minnesota‘s Paul Wellstone, the U.S. Senate’s most honorable progressive (not a tough contest, but still). From the moment his small plane went down on Friday, the airwaves were filled with statements by everyone from Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who wept over losing his best friend, to President Bush, whose grave words about Wellstone didn‘t stop everyone I know from paranoiacally wondering aloud if the demonic right hadn’t somehow, Seven Days in May--ishly, arranged the crash. (Is it “coincidence” that the last Democratic candidate to die in a small plane was running against John Ashcroft?) Media types, even those at The Wall Street Journal, genuinely respected Wellstone‘s willingness to risk losing his seat rather than waste it by voting for something he thought was wrong.

Missing from all the nonpartisan praise for Wellstone’s character was the slightest concern with the ideas he believed in -- why, for instance, he voted against giving Bush carte blanche to invade Iraq. In fact, after tedious hours of Wellstone coverage on Saturday, most of it devoted to speculations about the crash and his successor on the ballot -- would Jor-El Mondale be released from suspended animation back on Krypton? -- it was finally left to Jesse Jackson to point out a forgotten political truth: The late senator would‘ve been an avid supporter of that day’s (ignored) march on Washington. Predictably, CNN‘s interviewer didn’t exactly run with that thought. After all, it‘s one thing to lionize the bravery of a dead dissenter, quite another to display even the slightest interest in actual living dissent.

This year marks the centenary of one of the 20th century’s strangest masterpieces, Euclides da Cunha‘s Rebellion in the Backlands, the Brazilian national epic. It chronicles the bloody, enthralling true story of Canudos, a millenarian commune in the barren northeast that was besieged and destroyed by the Brazilian army. Although the book was once reckoned a tale of government success in routing subversives, it’s now seen as the story of how the national elite violently crushed any attempt by the poor to seize any kind of power. Which is to say, it‘s the story of Brazil.

Until now. Last Sunday, Brazil overwhelmingly elected as its new president the Workers’ Party candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known universally as Lula. His election is not only a profound breakthrough for his country -- for the first time in 500 years, Brazil is ruled by someone outside the elite -- but a badly needed infusion of hope for the left. Lula‘s rise from a peasant’s shack to a metalworkers union to the presidential palace is one of the great political stories of our time -- a personal odyssey every bit as gallant and historic as those of Lech Walesa or Nelson Mandela. Imagine a far more progressive Jesse Jackson who actually managed to win.

I‘ve followed Lula’s career since 1989, when I stumbled across one of his campaign rallies in the fine Amazonian city of Belem and was swept away by the incandescent passion of his oratory. A few weeks later in Sao Paulo, on the night Lula, a working-class socialist, made it into the election‘s final round, I thrilled to the sight of trucks driving along the Avenida Paulista filled with supporters waving the red-and-white flags of the Workers Party (PT). Lula lost that runoff to a telegenic crook, backed by the country’s elite, who was later impeached for corruption (and notorious for preferring his cocaine in suppository form).

Four years later, I covered Lula‘s campaign swing through Roraima, a northern state so bleak that even those in the Amazon think it the boondocks. I remember sitting in a small Indian village and writing in my notebook, “Lula will NEVER win” -- not because he didn’t deserve to but because his style seemed too raw. With his powerful upper body and spindly legs, Lula looked like a cartoon bull, and he spoke with the angry, gutbucket directness of one who cut his teeth addressing the hard men in Sao Paulo union halls. He didn‘t grasp that while political candidates often draw on anger, they shouldn’t seem angry themselves -- it fills listeners with fear.

He lost that election and the next one to Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a onetime leftist favored by the powerful, who won popular favor by diminishing the dizzy inflation that had made daily life hellish. After his third defeat, I assumed Lula was finished, but then he did something wholly unexpected: He changed. He donned an expensive suit, softened the PT‘s hard socialist line (which scared the uneducated poor even more than the rich), and offered what the Brazilian press called “peace and love” and “Lula Light”; he made jokes about “Comrade Bush.” Such a make-over would have been for naught had Cardoso’s neo-liberal policies delivered the goods. But after eight years of promises, Brazil remains what‘s known as “Belindia” -- a well-off population the size of Belgium surrounded by masses living in the poverty one associates with India. The average Brazilian looks at the IMF with all the affection Angels fans felt for creepy Michael Eisner when he glommed onto the World Series trophy.

Lula’s victory matters to us because the election was a referendum on runaway globalization, and over 60 percent of the people in the world‘s fifth largest country (in both population and size) voted to reject the social and economic orthodoxy of our time. The first freely elected socialist leader in Latin America since Chile’s Salvador Allende in 1970, Lula ran against the neo-liberal doctrines so happily preached by U.S. leaders but so unhappily lived by tens of millions of Latin Americans who watch the rich grow more prosperous while they fight just to keep afloat. “The financial markets,” Lula told the daily O Globo, “must know that people need to eat.”

Of course, now that he‘s finally won, I fear he’s been handed the poisoned chalice. President Lula inherits a country in wretched financial shape -- it owes more than $250 billion in foreign debt -- and the moment he tries to implement the social programs his millions of poor supporters quite reasonably expect, he‘ll surely face the wrath of the markets. (The Wall Street Journal is already lecturing him.) Where the CIA once toppled left-leaning governments, disruptive power today lies with the spooks in high finance, who punish leaders who disobey. Then again, so does the famously ruthless Brazilian ruling class, of whom it is said that they would rather cut off their hands than give you a single ring from their fingers. Lula would be wise not to board any small planes between now and inauguration day.

A few months ago, the world snickered at reports that Fund-Raiser in Chief George Bush had asked Brazil’s President Cardoso if they had black people in that country, too. Alas, that story may well be an urban legend. If only the same could be said of the Bush administration‘s 12,500-word policy paper, “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” which lays out a vision of an imperial America so unopposable that, were General Charles de Gaulle alive today, he’d instantly declare war against the U.S. as a matter of honor. To be fair, such hubris didn‘t begin with Bush; the notion of an inviolably pre-eminent America has been the government’s de facto attitude since the end of the Cold War. Still, the document is unnervingly naked in its declaration that the U.S. will allow no other country to rival, let alone equal, our power. Indeed, beneath its bureaucratic gobbledygook, the Bush team‘s paper sounds suspiciously like the program for intergalactic domination one might find aboard a Romulan spaceship in Star Trek (“Fascinating, Captain”), and it breaks my heart that I’ll never get to hear the incomparable Shatner lecturing Bones and Mr. Spock on its horrors.


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