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Brazil leader gets down to business

Lula has evolved from a radical reformer to a Wall Street-friendly politician. He is to play host to Bush today.

March 08, 2007|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL — As Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva prepared to welcome President Bush today, militants of his Workers' Party were organizing street marches to denounce the visit.

"The fact is, the PT is against the North American government," said a spokesman for the party, known by its initials in Portuguese. "It has always been that way."

The historic election in October 2002 of the former assembly-line worker universally known as Lula was a watershed event in Latin America, the start of the so-called Pink Tide that subsequently turned much of the region to the left.

Lula even had a working-class pedigree to go with his political program, something middle-class revolutionaries such as Fidel Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara could never claim.

But the standard-bearer of the Workers' Party is today a far different figure from the radical reformer who vowed to redirect debt payments to the poor, distribute land to the destitute and stand up to the oligarchs.

That such a firebrand was elected to head Latin America's largest and most populous nation initially unsettled Washington.

"I can remember my first visit with President Lula," President Bush told Latin American reporters in Washington this week. "He wasn't sure what to expect when he came to the Oval Office. And, frankly, I wasn't sure what to expect when he came. You know, people have reputations that precede them in life."

But Bush said any doubts were soon dispelled, and he described current U.S.-Brazilian relations as "strong."

The White House appears to have concluded that Lula is a suitable counterweight to the larger-than-life presence of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, the U.S.-basher whose bombast and oil-fueled largesse have helped him eclipse the more low-key Lula as champion of the region's resurgent militant left.

Lula today is less an up-from-the-factory-floor agitator than he is a seasoned politician who has followed Wall Street-friendly economic orthodoxy and earned the epithet "sellout" from many former allies.

Today, analysts say, Lula has good reasons, both political and economic, to be seen as an ally of Washington.

"Lula is very clearly trying to differentiate himself from Chavez," said Rogerio Schmitt, a political analyst with the Tendencias consulting firm here. "His foreign policy aim is to make Brazil the leader of Latin America. And of course his main rival is Hugo Chavez."

The Lula-Chavez relationship is itself a subtle thing. The two are regularly pictured embracing each other at sundry events, but the more demure Lula inevitably comes off as a sideshow.

Last year, Lula welcomed Venezuela into the regional trading pact known as Mercosur, which Chavez promptly used as a convenient new forum from which to attack Washington.

But Chavez has helped Brazil too. Brazilian construction and oil service firms have made millions in Venezuela, and Chavez has sponsored eye surgeries for poor Brazilians and bailed out ailing co-ops. Both Lula and Chavez clearly see the virtue of mutual amity.

Still, there is considerable speculation that Lula chafes at Chavez's assumption of the regional leadership role that Lula believes should be his.

Playing host to the president of the world's superpower should buttress Lula's hemispheric leadership credentials, analysts say, even if it may further erode his image with segments of the left.

"Lula wants to present himself to the international community as a more reliable, more moderate Latin American leader than Hugo Chavez," Schmitt said.

"This is a win-win for Lula."

On the economic front too, Lula sees potential returns. As he began his second four-year term in January, Lula vowed to reverse sluggish economic growth rates of recent years that have lagged far behind those of other major developing economies such as China and India.

As questions abound about Brazil's industrial efficiency and endemic corruption, Bush has done Lula a favor by highlighting one cutting-edge growth arena -- biofuels -- in which Brazil has long been a pioneer.

"Just the fact that President Bush mentions Brazilian biofuels as he did is a great help," said Weber A.N. Amaral, president of the Brazilian Center for Biofuels, a research group.

Brazil and the United States -- which produce more than 70% of the world supply of ethanol, a gasoline substitute -- are entering a new partnership that could greatly benefit Brazil. Some have envisioned Brazil becoming a kind of "Saudi Arabia of ethanol," providing sugar cane-based ethanol fuel for the United States, Europe and Asia.

No concrete accord has yet to emerge, but the U.S. interest has spurred great hopes.

"For the first time in many decades," wrote columnist Elio Gaspari, "a great Brazilian industrial initiative has evolved with the expressed support of the government of the United States."

The calculation here is that the Bush visit, while vexing to the president's left-wing base, will yield long-term benefits that will transcend the tainting of Lula's socialist sheen.


Special correspondent Marcelo Soares contributed to this report.

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