Lula and Brazil’s descent from grace goes a lot beyond country and personality
The great, now sadly late, rocker Prince will be remembered for many things, from musical genius to edgy sexuality and the shock of the new back in 1978.
Back then he burst onto the musical scene with his debut album For You.
But, unlike some of the lip synchers, boy bands and hip-hop maestros and mistresses of pop today, Prince was a real musician. He could do it all. He wrote lyrics, composed music, orchestrated and played a dizzying array of instruments. He could also act, and turned his hand to movie directing as well.
There seems little connection between being an all-round musical sensation and directing the affairs of a modern state.
But both have, or should have, this in common: effective political leaders and icons like Prince need to be almost infinitely adaptive. They should have a range of instruments to play when times and circumstances, whether the economic weather or popular culture, change.
Very few political leaders seemed to possess such durable adaptiveness as former president of Brazil Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
It is indeed noteworthy that Prince sold more than 100 million records in his life and with the posthumous bounce now likely he will no doubt sell even more.
But what of the Brazilian politician Lula? He seemed set for top billing in the political equivalent of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. When he left office in 2010 he had a record 87% approval rating, which in populous Brazil means about 165million Brazilians liked him. And it went beyond South America. US President Barack Obama dubbed him “the most popular politician on earth” and told the press “I love that guy.”
Little wonder that, two years later, in late 2012, Lula arrived in South Africa heralded by his hosts Cosatu as the pioneer of the “Lula Model”, which could couple economic growth with rights for workers and massive upliftment programmes for the poor.
Such were Lula’s political gifts that he could hand-pick his successor, Dilma Rouseff, who, despite lacking Lula’s popular touch, managed to win two consecutive presidential elections.
All seemed set fair for Brazil. Two years ago it hosted the soccer World Cup and this week the Olympic flame arrives in the country ahead of the Olympics.
But the lights are going out.
Only two weekends ago Rousseff was impeached by the lower house of congress and is en route to a likely forced exit.
As for Lula? He is being processed through the criminal justice system, accused of corruption and illicit acquisition of riches due to the political system being underpinned by “political leaders trading bribes, padding contracts and political support in a vast mutually beneficial scheme (for the politicians and the tenderers)”, to quote one report.
But although this fall of a giant is perhaps a morality lesson with a lot of local application for the usual suspects in our country, Lula and Brazil’s descent from grace goes a lot beyond country and personality.
Lula’s Brazil, which he governed between 2002 and 2010 was the sort of rock star of emerging markets everywhere; it provided a real example and universal hope of the arrival of a new economic era underpinned by democratic government.
In short, the decade of Lula, coinciding with the first decade of this century, suggested that unprecedented economic growth meant not only the rich world staying rich but the developing world racing ahead of it in due course.
Brazil by 2007 was surging at over 8% GDP growth and emerging markets on average were at 8.7%. But given Brazil’s sheer size the effect was enormous. It also gave hope to the developing world since Brazil was the B in BRICS, the ambitiously conceived global club which Jacob Zuma was happy to join.
Brazil hit the jackpot from the global commodities boom – a big ticket for Brazil which has endless farmlands and mines, and sits on a sea of oil, riches all of which China greedily consumed.
Because Lula had political smarts – he managed to impress the markets and equally uplift an estimated 30million poor Brazilians whom he placed on the lower rungs of the middle-class ladder for the first time.
But he had barely left office when the global recession hit and the Brazilian model of growth was revealed, like the famous Copacabana beach, to be built on a foundation of sand.
This was well summarised by the Washington Post which noted: “The riches flowing from Brazil’s mines and farms fuelled a consumer spending binge, but they patched over the structural problems that made Brazil a creaky, onerous place in which to do business.”
Today’s Brazil, political scandals based on corrupt enrichment aside, is by many measures in a dreadful condition.
Its once-admired economy is struggling with the deepest economic recession since the 1930s, rising unemployment, a credit rating downgrade and a budget deficit of nearly 11%, nearly three times South Africa’s.
Meanwhile, the former economic outlaw, neighbouring Argentina, for so long the growth laggard compared to Brazil, made last week a triumphant return to the international capital markets. The former basket-case country, under new and business-friendly President Mauricio Macri, managed in record time to raise $16.5-billion in international bonds and on Friday pay its creditors $93-billion that had been owing for over 15 years.
I am off this week to revisit both those countries after an absence of some years.
The reversal of fortune between them is stunning and there is much to learn from it for our own struggling economy. Or as Prince titled one of his albums, Sign o’ the Times.
This article first appeared in The Times