Lula da Silva is an international superstar. Foreign journalists and politicians have fawned over his accomplishments and hailed his “transformation” of Brazil into an economic powerhouse. Barack Obama calls him “the most popular politician on earth.” A recent poll found that his approval rating is an incredible 83 percent. As he prepares to leave office, the Brazilian president can take great pride in the progress his country has made.
But let’s not forget that Brazil’s transformation began long before Lula was elected. His predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, was the one who truly launched the process of reforming the Brazilian state and implementing orthodox economic policies. For the most part, Lula has followed these same pragmatic policies, even though he spent his career as a labor leader championing radical leftism. He has also expanded Bolsa Família, a successful anti-poverty program begun under Cardoso. Both Lula and Cardoso have shown that a market-based economic agenda is not incompatible with generous social spending and poverty reduction. The World Bank reports that overall Brazilian inequality fell by nearly 4.6 percent between 1995 and 2004.
If the next Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, a former Marxist guerrilla who was elected on October 31, wants to be successful, she will embrace the Cardoso-Lula approach to economic management. That’s what most analysts expect her to do. After all, she was Lula’s hand-picked successor, and she served as his chief of staff from 2005 to 2010. Reuters notes that Rousseff has “struck an investor-friendly tone” in her initial interviews since winning the presidency. As Lula and Cardoso demonstrated, being friendly to investors and corporations does not preclude making strong efforts to curb poverty and reduce inequality.
While Rousseff should emulate her predecessor’s strategy on the domestic side, she should also reject certain aspects of his foreign policy. In his attempt to make Brazil a global power, Lula has warmed to anti-American dictatorships and neglected to support those struggling for democracy in his own region. As Newsweek reported in April 2009: “Brasília has been mostly silent as Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez threatens foreign companies, intimidates the opposition and bullies its courts and Congress. ‘No one can claim that democracy doesn’t exist in Venezuela’ is Lula’s canned defense of companheiro Chávez. Citing the catchall rule of sovereignty, Brazil also roundly condemned Colombia, the U.S.’s closest ally in the region, for attacking a guerrilla encampment in the Ecuadoran jungle last year, and routinely abstains on U.N. resolutions condemning human-rights violations in Cuba.”
It gets worse: Speaking to the German weekly Der Spiegel, Lula praised Chávez as “the best president of Venezuela in the last 100 years.” Earlier this year, when a Cuban political prisoner named Orlando Zapata Tamayo died from a hunger strike, the Brazilian leader declared his opposition to hunger strikes and implicitly likened Zapata to an ordinary criminal. “Imagine if all the criminals in São Paulo went on hunger strike to demand freedom,” Lula told the AP, saying he felt an obligation to “respect the decisions of the Cuban legal system and the government to arrest people on the laws of Cuba.”
That surely must be his most shameful comment as president. Lula was once a hunger-striking dissident himself, protesting against the Brazilian military regime. Yet in 2010, his loyalty to the octogenarian dictator Fidel Castro (Lula and Fidel have a famously warm relationship) prevented him from speaking out in support of Zapata and Cuban democracy.
Lula received plenty of well-justified criticism for his Cuba remarks. Then came his clumsy intervention in the Iranian nuclear standoff. In May, Lula traveled to Tehran, where he helped broker a meaningless uranium-swap deal with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This agreement served to hinder America’s push for tougher sanctions against Iran; indeed, Lula appeared to be siding with the mullahs against the Obama administration. The entire world soon saw a picture of Lula, Ahmadinejad, and Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan raising arms triumphantly. “Is there anything uglier than watching democrats sell out other democrats to a Holocaust-denying, vote-stealing Iranian thug just to tweak the U.S. and show that they, too, can play at the big power table?” asked New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. “No, that’s about as ugly as it gets.”
With a fast-growing, resource-rich economy—one that will soon be larger than Italy’s, according to analysis from the Latin Business Chronicle—Brazil faces a choice: Does it want to use its newfound influence to facilitate constructive multilateral cooperation, or does it want to harm its reputation by aiding and apologizing for autocratic regimes? It will be difficult to take Brazil seriously as a “world leader” if it continues defending the likes of Ahmadinejad, Castro, and Chávez. Hopefully Rousseff, despite her radical past, will learn from Lula’s mistakes and guide her country toward a more responsible foreign policy.
Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.