Invigorated by the crisis, Brazil’s president says he’s praying for Obama.
From the magazine issue dated Mar 30, 2009
Once a leftist firebrand, brazil’s president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva turned to free-market liberalism and helped make his country Latin America’s biggest economic success. Earlier this month he became the first Latin leader to visit President Barack Obama at the White House, and in April he’ll head to London for the G20 summit on the global financial crisis. He met with NEWSWEEK’s Fareed Zakaria in New York. Excerpts:
Zakaria:Your meeting with President Obama went longer than expected. What did you talk about?
Da Silva: We talked a lot about the economic crisis. We also decided to create a working group between the U.S. and Brazil to participate in the G20 summit meeting. I told Obama that I’m praying more for him than I pray for myself, because he has much more delicate problems than I. He left a huge impression on me, and he has everything it takes to build a new image for the U.S. with relation to the rest of the world.
You got on pretty well with President Bush. How are they different?
Look, I did have a good relationship with President Bush, it’s true. But there are political problems, cultural problems, energy-grid problems, and I hope that President Obama will be the next step forward. I believe that Obama doesn’t have to be so concerned with the Iraq War. This will permit him to explore the possibility of building peace policies where there is no war, which is Latin America and Africa.
You are probably the most popular leader in the world, with an 80 percent approval rating. Why?
Brazil is a country that has rich people, as you have in New York City. But we also have poor people, like in Bangladesh. So we tried to prove it was possible to develop economic growth while simultaneously improving income distribution. In six years we have lifted 20 million people out of poverty and into the middle class, brought electricity into 10 million households and incr eased the minimum wage every year. All without hurting anyone, without insulting anyone, without picking fights. The poor person in Brazil is now less poor. And this is everything we want.
There are people who credit high oil, gas and agriculture prices. Can you manage with prices going down rather than up?
The recent discovery of oil is very important, because part of the oil we find will help resolve the problem of poverty and the problem of education. Brazil does not want to become an exporter of crude oil. We want to be a country that exports oil byproducts—more gasoline, high-quality oil. The investments were calculated at the price of $35 per barrel. Now, at $40, we still have enough margin.
Critics say that during this period of high commodity prices, you did not position Brazil to move economically up to the next level.
This doesn’t make sense. When I became president of Brazil, the public debt was 55 percent of GDP. Today it is 35 percent. Inflation was 12 percent, and today it’s 4.5 percent. We have economic stability. Our exports have quadrupled. The fact is that the growth of the Brazilian economy is the highest it has been in 30 years.
Will Brazil’s economy grow this year?
I’m convinced we’ll reach the end of the year with a positive growth rate. But we did not foresee that the crisis would have either the size or the depth that it has today in t he U.S. Now we need new political decisions that depend on the rich countries’ governments. How are we going to reestablish credit, reestablish the American consumer and the European consumer? Now we have to prove we are worthy.
I was even getting a little bit disappointed in political life. I’ve already had my sixth year of my term, and you start getting tired. But this crisis is almost like something—a provocative thing for us, to wake us up. It’s giving me enthusiasm. I want to fight. The more crises, the more investment you have to make. So we’re investing today in what we never invested in for the last 30 years, in railroads, highways, waterways, dams, bridges, airports, ports, housing projects, basic sanitation. We have to be bold, because in Brazil we have many things to do that in other countries were already done many years ago.
Last December you had a meeting of the 33 countries of the Americas except the United States. Why? It seemed that the United States was pointedly excluded.
We have never had such a meeting among only the Latin American and Caribbean countries. So it was necessary to have this meeting without super economic powers, a meeting of countries that face the same problems.
You’ve said you hope this crisis will change the politics of the world, to give countries like Brazil and India and China a greater say. What specifically—what power do you want that you don’t have now for Brazil?
We want to have much more influence in world politics. For example, we want that the multilateral financial institutions not be open only to the Americans and Europeans—institutions like the IMF and World Bank. We want more continents to participate in the Security Council. Brazil should have a seat, and the African continent should have one or two.
You are regarded as a great symbol of democracy in the Americas. And yet some people say you have been quiet as Hugo Chávez has destroyed democracy in Venezuela. Why not speak out? If Brazil wants a greater role in the world, wouldn’t that be one part, to stand for certain values?
Well, maybe we cannot agree with Venezuelan democracy, but no one can say that there is no democracy in Venezuela. He has been through five, six elections. I’ve only had two.
He has gangs out on the street. This is not real democracy.
Look, we have to respect the local cultures, the political traditions of each country. Given that I have 84 percent support in the public-opinion polls, I could propose an amendment to the Constitution for a third term. I don’t believe in that. But Chávez wanted to stay … I believe that changing the president is important for the strengthening of democracy itself.