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Brazil Embraces Old Radical With a New Image

A landslide victory is expected for an ex-revolutionary of humble roots who now appears willing to work with the establishment.

October 27, 2002|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

OURO PRETO, Brazil — In this city, where a group of men rose up in the 18th century against Portuguese rule, about three-quarters of the electorate is expected to vote today to make an old radical Brazil's next president.

To some, the reason is obvious: "Ouro Preto has always embraced rebels," said Jaime Antonio Sardi, a campaign worker for the leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known universally in Brazil as Lula. "It's in our blood."

But talk to Lula voters in this city in the state of Minas Gerais -- in recent times a bastion of conservatism -- and the real factors behind Lula's expected landslide victory here and in the rest of Brazil become clear.

Lula has managed to convince most Brazilians that he is no longer a revolutionary who will plunge the country into the kind of class warfare that his detractors have long predicted. Instead, they see the former trade unionist as a level-headed administrator, a man of humble roots who can hold his own with the nation's elite.

"Here's a guy with no formal education," said Ledio Lopes, owner of a successful craft store catering to tourists next to one of Ouro Preto's many Baroque churches. "Now he meets with business leaders, he sits with 200 journalists from all over the world and answers all their questions.

"To get as far as Lula has, you have to be a smart guy," Lopes added. "You watch him and you get the feeling he could administer the country."

Lula's new image has been cultivated by the Workers' Party campaign in its fourth run for the presidency.

"Before, the Workers' Party would have all these militants with red flags working on street campaigns, and sometimes they would create a mess," said Fabio Faversani, a historian at the Federal University of Ouro Preto, recalling Lula's three previous runs for the presidency.

"All that conflict scared voters away because deep down people see in government the force that should guarantee public order," Faversani said. "In this election, the Workers' Party seems more methodical. They've lost that stigma of the past."

In effect, the Workers' Party has taken the enthusiasm and fervor of its first presidential campaign -- a 1989 crusade for social justice that followed almost two decades of dictatorship -- and wrapped it in a sophisticated new media package.

This year, Brazilian television viewers have been bombarded with happy jingles and upbeat commercials in which Lula delivers earnest but vague statements about issues such as poverty and education.

Dressed in tailored suits, the new Lula hardly ever thrusts his fist in the air like the Lula of old.

Instead, he appears again and again in the commercials surrounded by advisors, who are also in suits. The message is clear: Lula is now willing to work with the establishment.

"He has a good team around him, competent people who have helped him prepare his program," said Eleonice Lopes, a language teacher and Ledio Lopes' sister. "At the same time, he has all this experience from his life. He comes from a humble family that had to migrate to Sao Paulo [Brazil's industrial center] to work. He knows what poverty is."

If they vote Lula into power, millions of Brazilians may be helping to write the final chapter of a story that mimics those repeated in Latin American soap operas: A poor, ridiculed outsider, through luck and perseverance, joins the circles of the rich and powerful.

"We don't expect Lula to wave a magic wand and get rid of all our problems," Eleonice Lopes said. "But we know he won't forget us and will try to make things better."

Adriano Sergio da Gama, a pollster for Estado de Minas, a daily newspaper in Belo Horizonte, the state's largest city, says Lula has managed to dramatically change popular notions about who can and who can't be president.

"Working people in Brazil have always thought of Lula as one of them," Da Gama said. "In the past, that was a bad thing, because people thought that in order to have the job of the president of the republic, you had to be an academic."

Altino Pinheiro, who runs a CD store here, sees Lula as honest and capable. Pinheiro has few fears that a Workers' Party government will bring the economic instability that many predict.

"Lula has calmed down a lot, and he's shown himself to be a clear-thinking guy," Pinheiro said.

Hearing this, a customer interjected that he would vote for Jose Serra, the candidate of a center-right coalition, because he believes a Lula presidency would probably lead to the rampant inflation of Brazil's past.

Pinheiro disagreed.

"Brazil needs to grow; it needs jobs," he said. Lula's program, Pinheiro said, offers the best chance to develop Brazilian industry, a theme that the Workers' Party has made the centerpiece of its program -- which is highly critical of the nation's trade agreements with the United States. "We need to be more independent."

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