Don’t let Brazil become Venezuela

Brian Winter – Americas Quarterly, 03/04/2016

The next 72 hours will be critical to the future of Brazilian democracy. The temporary detention of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for questioning related to the Petrobras probe is indeed a sign that no one in Brazil is above the law. But it also brings the risk of extreme polarization and even violence – with the leader of the Workers’ Party in Congress already calling for “war,” trade union leaders denouncing a “coup” and Lula’s supporters and opponentsplanning huge nationwide marches throughout the weekend.

Brazil is not Venezuela – it is a large country with robust and functioning democratic institutions, a strong appreciation for pluralism and little recent history of political violence. But it’s also true that Lula is no ordinary politician. He is, rather, a unique symbol in a way that is often difficult for foreigners (and some Brazilians) to appreciate.

Indeed, Lula was the first working-class president in a country where inequality is still the central fact of daily life. His election in 2002 was so poignant because it marked the first time someone from Brazil’s socioeconomic majority ascended to such a position of power. He left office in 2010 with an approval rating of nearly 90 percent, and the belief that Brazil had taken an important step toward becoming a more equal society. Today, Lula’s image has been greatly tarnished by multiple scandals and the collapse of the economy after he left office. Yet, even now, he remains the only relevant politician in the lives of many Brazilians, especially the poor and those outside major cities. They remember him, rightly or wrongly, as the leader who brought them into the mainstream economy and political life for the first time.

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