Advertisement

Fighting for the Soul of Brazil : In a Country Plagued by Scandal and Ruled by the Elite, an Honest Common Man Threatens to Turn Politics Inside Out

March 27, 1994|John Powers | Contributing editor John Powers writes regularly for New York magazine and is a frequent commentator on American culture for the BBC

There are places you only visit when you're running for office or writing about someone who is. Such a place is Roraima (pronounced Roe-RYE-mah ), the Brazilian state known to the outside world, if it is known at all, for being home to the last of the Stone Age tribes, most famously the Yanomani. Although its capital, Boa Vista, affects an elegant modernity--wide, untrafficked boulevards shoot like rays from an arch-shaped city center--it's still a rambunctious gold-boom town filled with bars, brothels and starving children whom the authorities don't bother their heads about. Boa Vista is so far off the beaten track that even people who live a thousand miles up the Amazon think of this city as the middle of nowhere. On a clear day, you can see Guyana.

During the flight in, I'd been talking about the city with an affable professor of tropical diseases, who said, "Its name means 'beautiful view.' "

"And is it beautiful?"

He laughed sadly. "If you don't look at the city."

A photographer broke in, shaking his head. "Roraima is a place for garimpeiros --prospectors. There are hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of minerals here. Everybody who comes here is digging for something."

He smiled, proud of his own little joke; just a few rows behind us sat Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, known by everyone simply as Lula, the charismatic socialist who's favored to become Brazil's next president when the two-round elections begin in the fall. Lula was heading to Roraima as part of his nationwide Caravana da Cidadania, or Citizenship Caravan, a euphemistic term for pre-campaign swing; he was prospecting for votes.

And what was I looking for in following him to a backwater where miners still massacre Indians? Nothing less than the future of Latin American politics. Lula's rise from a peasant's shack to the threshold of the presidential palace is one of the great political stories of our time--a personal odyssey every bit as brave and historic as those made by Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel.

It was coming up on midnight when we finally saw lights, gaudy as Vegas after the black canopy of rain forest that had stretched below us for the last hour. The landing gear touched down, and before the door swung open, a lovely, eerie singing rose from the night:

Lu-la-lahhh.

Lu-la-lahhh.

It was Lula's theme song, a musical phrase as famous in Brazil as any bossa nova. The second-floor observation deck was filled with hundreds of Lula supporters, nearly all of them under 25, singing and laughing, draped over the parapet, waving every kind of banner and sign. Four-letter placards exclaiming "Lula!" Red-and-white banners bearing the initials PT, for Partido dos Trabalhadores, the Workers' Party. And, of course, signs reading "Feliz 1994"--happy, because 1994 is the year they will get to elect Lula.

When Lula emerged from the plane, he raised his fist and the crowd roared--they smelled a winner. As the PT vans drove us to the hotel, the kids hot-rodded alongside, honking and waving banners and shrieking into the night. The air was thick with the scent of burning rubber, soon to be replaced by the scent of gunpowder as people set off one Roman candle after another, tinting the treetops pink. Lula shook dozens of hands, laughing and calling his admirers campanheiro before finally going inside. The petistas (as the PT's followers are known) lingered in the driveway, setting off firecrackers and periodically breaking into a chant: " Ole, ole, ole, ola, Lu-la, Lu-LAH! "

And in the exhausting heat, which even after midnight wrapped itself around us like a barber's towel, I marveled at the passions raised by this short, hairy 48-year-old man whose thick neck, powerful torso and spindly legs give him the physique of a cartoon bull. Squeezed into a cheap tan sport coat that would be fashionable nowhere, he had none of the shimmering charisma of JFK or Gorby. But the crowd didn't mind his lack of patrician style. That's part of what they loved about him.

He is one of them, a son of the peasantry poised to become a new kind of president: a socialist, a democrat and a worker. If he wins, Lula will be South America's first elected president to come from the dispossessed classes. Like the Chiapas uprising or the voting-out of the neo-liberals in Venezuela, Lula's ascent challenges the official post-Cold War story line in which everyone is rushing to embrace free-market capitalism. ("I defend private property," he says, "'but for everybody. We cannot allow one man to own 25 million acres when others are starving.") Old-school communism may be dead, but the conditions that fostered it are still thriving, especially in Brazil, a country permanently on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|