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The Real Thing

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil -- It‘s hard not to be moved -- deeply moved -- when you hear Brazil’s new president speak. And even harder not to be downright jarred by the realization -- by comparison -- of how very hollow, how very dead-ended, our own national politics have become. I can‘t think of two countries today more politically divergent than the U.S. and Brazil, or two presidents who reveal more startlingly opposite political possibilities than George W. Bush and the newly inaugurated Luis Ignacio “Lula” da Silva.

I stood last Friday afternoon, along with 75,000 others, surrounded by a sea of flapping flags, in the riverside Por do Sol amphitheater to hear President Lula speak to the third annual World Social Forum, the “people’s alternative” to the elite World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. This year‘s international powwow of the anti-globalization movement drew more than 100,000 participants to 1,500 panels and seminars, featuring A-list lefties ranging from Noam Chomsky to Danielle Mitterand to Arundhati Roy to Che Guevara’s daughter to Danny Glover.

But it was Lula who towered above all.

There he stood diminutively on the stage, short and pudgy, 57 years old, and bearded. He spoke softly and calmly, with a conversational tone, and with none of the rehearsed trademark theatrics of a trained pol. As the man who now presides over this country of 175 million, with the eighth biggest economy in the world, but with wealth so radically ill-distributed that as many as 30 million live at sub-Saharan levels of poverty, Lula focused his talk on the injustices of the global economy. “There are those who eat five times a day,” he said. “And those who eat maybe once in five days.”

And then, his soft voice hesitating and catching with emotion, Lula continued, “African babies have the same right to eat as a blond, blue-eyed baby born in Scandinavia.”

When Bush utters similar phrases about “leaving no child behind,” you can as much as see the smirk behind it all, the cold political calculations of his chuckling speechwriters and pollsters.

With Lula, you feel the resonance deep in your gut. His sincerity is undoubted because you know his own personal story is so real. Born to an impoverished farm family, Lula dropped out of school at age 12 and moved to the city. Carving out a meager existence on the mean streets of Sao Paulo (where today the murder rate is five times that of Washington, D.C.), Lula worked as a bootblack.

He never returned to school, and during the 21 years of Brazilian military dictatorship, Lula toiled as a metalworker. He courageously defied the regime and helped rebuild a powerful national trade-union movement. Since 1980 he has been leading another of his creations, the idiosyncratic Workers Party, an amalgam of Marxists, liberals and Christians.

After three earlier failed attempts, Lula swept to a 61 percent landslide presidential victory, propelled by an electorate fed up with the “Washington consensus” -- the dogmatic and disastrous application of free-market recipes that in this country has led to mounting unemployment and inflation, a consuming debt and shaky currency. And now Brazil calls on a metalworker and his party to solve the crisis.

Yet we‘re told by imbecilic pundits that Bush, son of a former CIA director, vice president and president, a lazy layabout admitted into Yale on the “legacy” affirmative-action program, with his Texas twang and scrambled syntax, should be venerated as a Regular Guy. Or that Bill Clinton’s Cabinet “looked like America” because it vaguely conformed to the politically correct racial quotas of some university administrator‘s spreadsheet.

Compare all of that with Lula’s Cabinet: seven trade unionists, a former rubber cutter and maid as environmental minister, a black shantytown dweller and feminist as social-welfare minister, a Green Party activist and popular musician as cultural minister, and a chief of staff who spent 10 years in hiding for his armed resistance to the former dictatorship.

Bush barreled into office rewarding the wealthiest elite with a double serving of juicy and fattening tax cuts. Lula‘s first acts were to fire the gourmet chef from the presidential staff and then to cancel the $700 million purchase of 12 new air-force fighter jets, redirecting the funding to his new “Zero Hunger” program.

Most of the trips taken by Bush’s Cabinet members have been to high-ticket fund-raisers or -- frankly -- to their brokers, to check on their tenuous multimillion-dollar portfolios. Two weeks ago, Lula took his entire Cabinet to the drought-stricken Northeast for a two-day “reality tour,” tramping them through and bunking them down into the slums of Recife. Imagine the political theater -- if you can -- of Don Rumsfeld and CSX CEO--turned--Treasury Secretary John Snow spending a cozy weekend with immigrant janitors, say, in downtown Chula Vista, California. I can just hear Snow, whose CSX received $167 million in tax rebates, lecturing poor Jose and Guadalupe over an albondigas-soup dinner to start being more self-reliant and to stop expecting so much from government.

Which takes us to the nub of this meditation -- our expectations. One adviser to Lula joked to me this week, if you will excuse the crudeness, that “Lula is like a Tampax. He‘s in the best place at the worst time.” These are certainly the worst economic times for Brazil. Its debt accounts for 80 percent of its GDP (compared to 52 percent for Argentina, which has already collapsed). The gnomes at the International Monetary Fund have imposed a fiscal straitjacket putting crucial social spending at risk.

But it is precisely now that Lula, and Brazil, have chosen to respond by acting on their dreams, not their fears. Yes, they say, to eliminating hunger. Yes, to doubling the minimum wage. Yes, to expanding health care. Yes, to more schools. And yes, to a more equitable trading position with the richer countries of the world.

And what do we hear? We who live in the richest corner of the Earth, after a decade of the richest times? Only a thundering cascade of no, no, no. No tax relief for the poor -- for that would be “class warfare.” No new money for public schools, for that would be “throwing good money after bad.” No rise in the minimum wage because that would be unfair to business. No national solution to the crisis of 50 million without health care because that would be “like going to the post office to see a doctor.”

Brazilians live precariously with the greatest of hopes. And we live with fabulous potential that is the legitimate envy of the globe, and we have, seemingly, no hope.

Or at least none that we are willing to seriously fight for. For in all this, George W. Bush carries no blame. He is merely the product of our congealed aspirations -- or lack of them. Just as in Brazil Lula is but a symbol of something much larger. “I wasn’t elected by a TV commercial, or by a collection of powerful interests,” he said humbly to the crowd in front of him. “Nor was I elected because of my intelligence or personality. I was elected by the intelligence and political consciousness of the Brazilian people, who have fought for 40 years for what they have wanted.”

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