For the second consecutive election in Venezuela, former Brazilian president Luis Ignácio Lula da Silva has filmed an ad in support of the PSUV (chavista) candidate for president. Setting aside the gross hypocrisy of Nicolás Maduro constantly assailing the opposition for being foreign agents while prominently displaying a foreign leader’s endorsement on his campaign website, I think it casts into relief the degree to which Lula the president and Lula the person are different, and how both get way more credit than they deserve.
Lula is often depicted as the face of a sort of moderate left which governs democratically and within a market framework, but still with a strong sense of social justice. This sits in opposition to both the traditional Latin American left and the populist left typified by Hugo Chávez, which were distrustful of democracy and antagonistic to market-based economics. Despite initial fears by many, Lula, who had previously run for president on a much more radical platform, did govern in a democratic way and largely sought to improve on the reforms implemented by his successor, most notably with Bolsa Familia, a conditional cash transfer program credited with reducing poverty dramatically. During his presidency, the economy grew rapidly and the country’s democratic institutions grew stronger. All of that said, Lula’s economic performance is often exaggerated and his commitment to democracy and human rights abroad has not been robust.
During Lula’s time in office, the Brazilian economy did grow rapidly, even weathering the global financial crisis. However, much of that was due to factors outside of his control, and it may have served to prevent necessary reforms which are hampering growth now under his successor. Specifically, the period after 2003 was a good time for nearly every economy in Latin America, mainly as a result of the rapid growth in China. Chinese demand for resources pushed up commodity prices, delivering a boom for producer countries. For Brazil, this was particularly the case with soy beans and iron ore. This all happened after a decade of significant, if incomplete, pro-market reforms under Fernando Henrique Cardoso. During his presidency, Lula failed to make any significant reforms to improve Brazil’s notoriously sclerotic labor markets or significantly improve investment in infrastructure and education, creating severe bottlenecks in the economy which are even threatening Brazil’s preparations to host the 2014 World Cup. Growth under Lula was impressive, but much of it was due not to his policies but to solid pro-growth policies in China.
On human rights abroad, Lula has been too willing to let ideology determine his response. For instance, in 2010, imprisoned Cuban dissident Oswaldo Zapata Tamayo died as a result of a hunger strike while Lula was in the country. Rather than condemn Cuba’s treatment or even (understandably) simply refuse to comment, Lula instead compared Zapata Tamayo to a common criminal in Brazil. This was particularly galling because of the time Lula himself spent as a political prisoner during Brazil’s last military dictatorship.
Similarly, on democracy, Lula has been quick to step to the defense of leftist presidents while seemingly oblivious to eroding democratic norms by those same presidents. For instance, when Manuel Zelaya was overthrown in a coup by the legislature, judiciary and military, Zelaya ended up taking refuge for month in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa after sneaking back into the country, and Brazil refused to recognize the newly elected president. This is not to say that the Brazilian government was wrong to support Zelaya (the US and every other country in the hemisphere did as well), simply that their support was overwhelming and unequivocal. This stands in contrast to Lula’s decisions to endorse Chávez and now Maduro. The Venezuelan constitution (whose convention was convened by Chávez and was written overwhelmingly by chavistas) is worth less than the paper it’s printed on, Maduro is acting president despite the fact that the constitution explicitly says someone else should be, and the institutions of the state are openly being used in the campaign while the opposition is limited to a handful of minutes of airtime per day. Despite all this, Lula felt it his duty to express his support for a de facto president running in a free, but certainly not fair election.
Lula, without a doubt, deserves the popularity he enjoys in his native country. Saying he could have done better does not change the fact that millions left poverty during his presidency. Sadly though, in supporting first Chávez and now Maduro, Lula seems determined to ensure that his pretty successful model is not replicated elsewhere.