Brazil's 'Most Popular Politician On Earth' Prepares Exit

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva cannot seek another term. He's been dubbed "the most popular politician on Earth." Since Silva took office in 2003 through the end of last year, 20.5 million Brazilians escaped poverty and 29 million entered the middle class, according to the private Getulio Vargas Foundation economic think tank. Host Michel Martin talks with NPR's Juan Forero, and Larry Rohter, author of "Brazil on the Rise," about who in the crowded field is likely to succeed Silva and what impact the outcome of the election will have on the United States.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Coming up, we'll hear about why Meg Whitman's housekeeper has suddenly become a factor in Whitman's campaign to become the next Republican governor of California.

But today, we begin our program by heading to Brazil. For decades, it has been labeled the country of the future. Well, no longer. The rapidly growing economic and diplomatic power is very much the country of the present.

This Sunday, Brazilians head to the polls to replace the popular incumbent President Luiz Inacio da Silva, known throughout Brazil as simply Lula.

The leading candidate in the polls is Lula's hand-picked successor. She is Dilma Rousseff, and she is running on the Workers Party ticket, and she's poised to become the first female president of Brazil.

She does face opposition, of course. Jose Serra is the center-right candidate. And there's also a Green Party candidate named Marina Silva, who has some minority support.

But we want to do more than just talk about the ins and outs of the presidential race. We want to give you a sense of how and why Brazil matters to us here in the U.S., and everywhere else in the world for that matter.

To do that, I'm joined by NPR correspondent Juan Forero. He's in Rio de Janeiro covering the elections. And from our bureau in New York, we're joined by Larry Rohter. He is a long-time New York Times correspondent and bureau chief in Brazil, and he's the author of "Brazil on the Rise: The Story of a Country Transformed." Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

JUAN FORERO: My pleasure.

Mr. LARRY ROHTER (Author, "Brazil on the Rise: The Story of a Country Transformed"): Thank you.

MARTIN: So, Larry, let's just answer the question we just asked, why should Americans be interested in these elections? Why do we care about Brazil?

Mr. ROHTER: Well, for starters, Brazil has become the eighth-largest economy in the world. They're likely, in the next few years, to overtake the United States as the leading exporter worldwide of foodstuffs. So there's a practical interest.

Politically, you know, it's 200 million people in our own hemisphere, a country that would like to play a role on the world diplomatic stage, has attempted to this year with the joint initiative with the Turks to try to resolve the Iranian nuclear impasse. That failed, but it was a demonstration or a statement that Brazil intends to be a world actor.

So we're really forced to pay more attention to Brazil, not just because of its size but because of its increased activism.

MARTIN: So, Juan, tell us about President da Silva or Lula. Tell us about him, and tell us about his legacy.

FORERO: Well, Lula's a fascinating figure in Latin America. He grew up in northeastern Brazil and then moved to the south when he was a boy. But he'd come from poverty-stricken background. He had been a union leader, and he had run for elections several times before he finally won the presidency eight years ago.

And he came into Latin America at an interesting time in Latin America, as more progressive movements were rising up in Latin America, and some left-of-center leaders came into the presidencies of several countries.

But, of course, Lula became the president of the biggest country and the country that always was seen as the country of the future. And so that was very significant.

Brazil has actually done quite well, economically speaking, and it's gotten top grading from Wall Street. But Lula is beloved here. He's beloved because he pushed a lot of social programs, some of which were started in the previous administration but he expanded on. And so, the poor in Brazil, who are tens of millions of people, love Lula.

A lot of them saw their lives improve, and more than 30 million people went into the lower-middle class, what here is known as Class C. And so they're seeing the bounties of a lot of these different programs.

MARTIN: So one would assume then that his say over his successor carries some weight, or his preference in his successor carries some weight. Would that be fair?

FORERO: Oh, it would be more than fair. Lula basically hand-picked Dilma Rousseff. There was no primary. And he is such a powerful figure in the Workers Party. I mean, he is the Workers Party.

MARTIN: Okay, well, hold on. Let me just play a short clip from an ad promoting Dilma Rousseff's candidacy. Here it is.

(Soundbite of political ad)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified People: (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: Can you translate a little bit for us, Larry, can you?

Mr. ROHTER: Yeah, sure. They're singing Lula's with her, and so I am, too. Look how Brazil has gotten better, but we want more. That's the theme of it.

MARTIN: Well, there you go.

Mr. ROHTER: It's spoken with a particular kind of accent that's really popular.

MARTIN: Oh, okay. Well, tell us a little bit more, Larry. Tell us a little bit more about Dilma Rousseff, if you could. And a usual it's a Bulgarian name, right?

Mr. ROHTER: Right, and her father was a refugee from Europe, came to Brazil in 1939 fleeing the rise of fascism. But he became a successful businessman. She was raised in a middle class environment, but during her university studies got involved in the armed revolutionary left that led to her being arrested, held for three years, tortured.

After that, she went into conventional politics, studied to become an economist. This is the first time she's ever run for public office. So she's starting at the very top. She's not really very charismatic. But, as Juan said, the key thing is she's got the blessing of Lula, and that counts for an awful lot.

MARTIN: Juan, why don't you tell us about the other candidates in the race, Jose Serra and Marina Silva?

FORERO: Sure. The main candidate is Jose Serra, who was the governor of Sao Paulo State, and he's a very capable administrator, and he had been very popular in this area.

Earlier in the year, he was doing very well in the polls. In February, he was 10 points ahead of Dilma Rousseff, and there were some who felt that he might be able to capture the presidency. But then he began to fall quite precipitously as Dilma Rousseff began to gain and as her campaign really began to gather steam, which really meant Dilma Rousseff going out with Lula campaigning because Lula basically has been with her constantly.

So that's been crucial in biting into Serra's one-time lead. And so he's fallen quite a bit. He's now down by more than 20 points.

Now, the other candidate, Silva, is a former environmental minister in Lula's government. And she had broken with the government some time back.

She's done very poorly in the polls. I mean, she's down at about 12 or 14. She's gained a little bit lately, at Serra's expense. But she really has no chance to win the presidency.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'm speaking with NPR correspondent Juan Forero and author Larry Rohter about Brazil and the upcoming presidential election.

Larry, what since you've met Dilma, and since you know Lula, why did Lula tap her as his successor? And I do want to ask if gender plays any role in this, this desire to be a groundbreaker, to be a first.

Mr. ROHTER: The short answer is she picked her because the two obvious choices were both disqualified because they were involved in corruption scandals, his former chief of staff and the finance minister.

Dilma was very, very close to Lula as his chief of staff. And as Juan said, she's a terrific administrator. She brought discipline in there, into the presidential palace, which had been very disorganized and messy.

Lula likes and admires her and, you know, has really anointed her. As far as the gender factor goes, you know, this is one more step in the democratization of Brazil, 25 years after the fall of military dictatorship.

Lula's becoming president represented the first time in Brazilian history that a member of the working class or the peasantry had come to the presidency. Now, you're expanding the base of people who can lead the country even further. So it's an important step in that sense.

MARTIN: And about what Juan, I'm going to give you a final thought, but Larry, I'm going to ask you, what role does race play, if any, in this election? I mean, Brazil is famous for its racial and ethnic diversity. But, of course, once again, you know, we see that many of the leaders who are most visible outside of the country tend to be more European-looking. And so, talk to me, does race play a role in this?

Mr. ROHTER: Overtly only peripherally. Of the three candidates we've been discussing, only Marina Silva would be considered non-white. She is what Brazilians call a kabokla(ph), a mixture of African, Indian and European background.

And she hasn't really played that card very much, but we have to remember that even today, Brazil, you know, is a majority non-white country. I think the real issue here is not race or gender, it's Brazilians voting with their pocketbooks as people around the world tend to do.

MARTIN: Juan, give us a sense of just, are people excited about the election? Is there a sense of excitement, anticipation? Are people sick of it? You know how we get around election time in the U.S.

FORERO: Yeah, well, I get the sense that a lot of people aren't paying that much attention to it, in part because it's a foregone conclusion that Dilma Rousseff is going to win the presidency.

She might not do it in this first round on Sunday. But if she doesn't, she'll do it in the next round. So that's taken away a bit from the surprise that you might have in an election, like the one in the United States or in other countries.

MARTIN: And finally, Juan, is there any sense from Dilma Rousseff of how, what her posture toward the United States would be as the next leader of Brazil? Has that been a factor in the campaign at all? Has she made any statements to that effect? Or would it be the continuation of the, you know, ongoing relationship continued?

FORERO: Well, one of the criticisms of the campaign has been that it's been short on details. And I think it's been particularly short on details when it comes to foreign policy.

Lula has tried to give Brazil more weight in terms of global matters. And, as Larry pointed out, Brazil is becoming increasingly important on the world stage. But it has faltered on some of its plans like trying to broker some kind of deal with the Iranians, which didn't pan out.

So we would suspect that Rousseff would move in the same direction as Lula, although some analysts here are saying that she's going to be more focused on the economy, on domestic matters.

Unlike Lula, she is an economist. She is somebody who's worked on these issues for years and years. She was a finance minister for an important city here, and she was energy minister in Lula's government and ran his Cabinet, which is a very, very powerful post.

So she's a bureaucrat. She's an administrator. And she might be expected to be much more focused on internal matters and not so much on external matters.

Having said that, though, I think that Brazil's probably going to go pretty much in the same direction, but she is she doesn't have the charisma of Lula, and so she may not be so active personally on some of these issues.

We might not see her so much in the news on international issues, though Brazil might certainly try to exert itself and continue to do so in the coming years.

MARTIN: NPR correspondent Juan Forero is in Rio de Janeiro covering the elections. Larry Rohter is author of "Brazil on the Rise: The Story of a Country Transformed." He's also, of course, a long-time correspondent for the New York Times in Brazil. And he was with us from our bureau in New York. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. ROHTER: My pleasure.

FORERO: Thank you very much.

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