Luiz da Silva: Populist Extraordiniare

When asking a Brazilian their opinion when they first think of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, they might say “heroic” or a “man of the people”, so it may somewhat surprise you when you here he was tried and convicted of corruption only a few months back. This begs the question, “Why is a man that was convicted of stealing money from the country and the government considered a hero?”. Luiz da Silva used his humble beginnings as a way to appeal to the people and steal power for his party.

Luiz da Silva was born into extreme poverty in Pernambuco, a state bordering the Atlantic. His father worked as a farmer, and his mother a seamstress, who always needed money. It is no wonder da Silva began working at such a young age, driven to supply his family with money. He worked at small jobs, shining shoes and helping around the house. He didn’t learn to read until the age of ten. He soon completely left the thought of attending school and worked full time as a metalworker in factories near his home town, Garanhuns. When da Silva was thirty years old he was elected president of the metal workers union, a group that Luiz da Silva was proud to represent. He then transformed this group into a more political union, turning it into a political party, trying to sway Brazilians to his leftist ideas.

In the late 1970s he led large protests against the dictatorship that ruled over Brazil, and while doing so, he gained a significant amount of followers and supporters. It is no wonder, then, that he was arrested and imprisoned for a month. Due to his massive following accrued when protesting the hated government, he was elected to Congress. As his political career grew, so did his following, as millions supported his presidential bid. He won with 61 percent of the vote, and in doing so cemented himself as one of the biggest comeback stories, from being born in the slums, to achieving the greatest dream, to become president.

With all this history in mind he also became even more likable with his main political goals, social and economic reform. His social reform brought about the “Forme Zero” or zero hunger bill which brought together many bills for the overall goal of no one suffering from hunger in Brazil. He also created a program entitled the Family Allowance Bill which allowed for more food and supplies to cook for impoverished family. By creating this program he streamlined the process of families applying to get more food, and in doing so he removed administration costs and the overall hassle families had to go through. He was also reelected for a second term,and once again won by achieving  61 percent of the vote.

Not only did Luiz da Silva aim to effect social reform, he also wanted to help grow the economy. He created a program called the Growth Acceleration Program, which  was meant to grow the amount of jobs, repair roads, reduce taxes for the poorer half of the country, and lastly modernize their electricity production. This program was a big success and it seemed like the president could do nothing wrong. Luiz da Silva resigned with the International Monetary Fund and went ahead and paid the full amount owed three years ahead of the projected year. After implementing the Growth Acceleration Program, Brazil’s economy began to thrive. He shook off the classification of emerging market, which Brazil was called for many years, and turned Brazil into a developed market. This new classification led to much investment in Brazil. All this economic success propelled Brazil to new heights, and raised the present of Brazilians in the middle class from 37 to 50 percent of the population. All this work that Luiz da Silva put into his role made him Brazil’s most popular politician of all time, and getting the bid to host the 2016 summer Olympics only added to his popularity.

Back to the question at hand, “Why is he so popular if he was convicted of corruption?”. The answer to this is found in his history and in his success in office. He represented the nation, born into poverty fighting the dictatorship, leading to his presidency, where he passed bills to feed the poor and create jobs which propelled the economy upwards. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is a symbol of Brazil, a man that all Brazilians are proud to have represented their country, and all this is backed up with the simple fact that while he was in office, he enjoyed a 90 percent approval rating. No matter what this man does in the future, he will always be seen as the pride of Brazil.  

The Fraudulent Widow

Cristina Kirchner became a figurehead of feminism in the modern age, having been democratically elected president of Argentina beginning in 2007. She is no longer the president of Argentina, having served her two consecutive terms in office. Her husband Nestor, who served as president from 2003-2007, and died in 2010. The world believed Cristina Kirchner would not be able to govern the country effectively after her husband’s death. She crafted her own populist way of governing, supported by the poorer people of Argentina, beloved for her humble beginnings and her favor towards them.

Kirchner rose through the ranks in politics to reach the presidency which she held for two four year terms. She had been heavily involved in government since she was elected to the senate in 2001, helping her husband get elected in 2003 while dealing with outward pressure discriminating against her gender. In 2005 came her most important senatorial victory, which was election as the representative of Buenos Aires, where thirty-eight percent of the county of Argentina’s population resided. Once her husband completed his term, he declared he would not run again and his wife, Cristina Kirchner, would succeed him. Kirchner was believed to just be a puppet president, controlled by Nestor, continuing the policies of the previous presidency. The doubters were inevitably proved wrong as she emerged independant after her husband’s death.

Public support of Kirchner was extremely high in her first term in office. Her economic policies heavily favored the poor, impoverished majority who eagerly voted for her. Her husband, Nestor, had a similar policy and was popular with the people of Argentina. However, a female figure in power was a great invitation for change, considering her husband had decided not to run. Her critical policy of big businesses took the side of the people, which became a popular viewpoint of politicians.

Kirchner, once elected to her first term in 2007, put in place a tax on grain exports, which was meant to lower prices for goods aimed towards the poorer classes. This tax created an intense food shortage within Argentina, and it was revoked not long after it was put in place. Perhaps Kirchner’s most celebrated achievement was the signing of the document to allow same sex marriages in Argentina, becoming the first Latin-American country to do so. Kirchner began focusing on adding agricultural exports during her time in office, as well as increasing regulation on imports and encouragement of local manufacturing. Kirchner’s love for the people of poverty in Argentina stems from her ancestral ties to immigrants into the country, appealing to the lower classes as a president. “I’m a daughter of the middle class with a strong sense of social mobility and individualism, like the waves of immigrants, like my Spanish grandparents, who made Argentina”.

Although the economy appeared to be growing once again in Argentina during her first term, the wealth was not shared with the poorer classes, with the large businesses retaining most of it, which the public has come to noticed. 51 percent of the population lived below the poverty line until 2009, when Kirchner and the Argentine government created a program that gave financial incentives to children of unemployed parents to send their children to school. It spread money from the wealthier big businesses around, as to improve the general economy, though it was frowned upon by the businesses. This idea lowered poverty greatly, but created the problem of overcrowded schools, which continues to persist. Her work on the unemployment rate in Argentina kept her in favour with the people, but she had a falling out with them in her second term, not getting reelected and was charged with many political crimes.

Cristina Kirchner’s strategy to give to the poor inevitably failed, crashing the economy in Argentina, for the peso decreased in value by over 22% in her final year due to the lack of cash the bank had in its possession, as well as keeping the inflation rate artificially low, leading to the explosion of the rate after she left office. The positive outcome was only short term, the benefits of her socialist populism losing steam in her second term, resulting in long term damage to the Argentine economy.

Hugo Chavez: Venezuela’s “Savior”

In many aspects, Venezuela today is one of the worst off countries, not only in South America but around the world. This struggle inside the Latin American nation dates back decades, but there actually was a slight sign of hope around the country in the late 1990’s and into the early 2000’s, and its symbol and agenda were based solely on the then rising socialist populist politician Hugo Chavez.

Chavez came to power after a string of military coups which led to his imprisonment then release where shortly after, he boasted a leftist populism which was said to be the savior of democracy in Venezuela. Chavez won support easily due to the immense corruption and dysfunction that plagued the government as he went around the nation gaining followers and making promises of a more democratic and socialist nation. On Chavez’s journey to being elected in 1998, his party (The Movement of the Fifth Republic) made more promises to the poor such as increasing in funding to villages and reorganizing the wealth to aid them and also boasted of an increasingly socialist agenda. Chavez intended on carrying out the Bolivarian Revolution and campaigned that as he was a fan of fellow socialist Simon Bolivar who preceded him over a century before and was known as the “Liberator”.

Chavez won the 1998 election and took no time in beginning his long list of changes which he had promised repeatedly throughout his campaign. He started at the judiciary level where he promised to replace the corrupt officials under the previous administration. He replaced nearly all members of the supreme court and gained power with his new appointments. Chavez then used his overwhelming support to pass more laws and rewrite old ones in order to give him more power and more time in office, as he most notably repealed term limits so he could be elected with no end. These moves he made at the judicial level may have kept true to his idea of completely revitalizing the courts, but it also took advantage of the support he had going into his time in office as the people of Venezuela looked to him as the last chance at saving their democracy.

As Chavez’s time in office went on and he gained more power as president, the promises he was making to the poor and the working classes were unrealistic and irresponsible. He took over 90% of the assembly seats and virtually every elective office available in what was called a mega election. At this point in the early 2000’s, it was clear that he was taking on more authoritarian motives and the promises he had made to those who voted for him were merely empty promises which he never planned to fill. He monopolized the oil industry and grew Venezuela’s budget nearly eight times larger than it had been since he first took office, but the money he promised for building up the impoverished areas and aiding the working class, was going elsewhere for the benefit of him and his officials.

By Chavez’s second full term, the leftist socialism which the people voted for to save their democracy, was completely gone and Chavez had implemented an authoritarian rule as he concentrated his power, was responsible for the erosion of some human rights, and the prosecution of Venezuelans critical of his party. Chavez had made an appearance of being a “savior” to the democracy and to the people of his country, but after expanding his governmental power, the socialist democracy which made so many Venezuelans praised and supported, had turned into a just as corrupt and authoritarian rule.

Not a wall, but an echo chamber at the border

A confrontational, manipulative populist? No, I am not referring to Donald Trump. While these words certainly apply to Mr. Trump, you may be surprised to learn that they also apply to the frontrunner in the current Mexican elections, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, commonly referred to as AMLO. Many believe that Obrador’s election would create a similar effect in the Mexican system as Donald Trump’s election created in the United States. Like Donald Trump, Obrador garners very mixed reviews from the Mexican people. Some people consider him a savior and are drawn to his honest and raw oration, whereas others are offended and fearful of both him and his rhetoric, quite often comparing his narcissistic and authoritarian tendencies to Hugo Chavez.

Obrador was the former Mayor of Mexico City from 2000-2005. He proceeded to run for the presidency in 2006 and 2012. Obrador returned to the political sphere as a result of Trump’s election in 2016. Trump’s overwhelming anti-Mexican immigration plans and threat to abandon NAFTA have caused the Mexican election to turn into a contest of anti-Americanism. Realizing the threat Trump’s United States posed on Mexico, Obrador quickly began campaigning, traveling and holding rallies around Mexico and the United States. Obrador lost in his two previous campaigns for president. But this time seems different. Presenting himself as the only politician who can and will stand up to Trump, Obrador is convincing many people to buy into his plan. Trump’s threatening language towards Mexico is, ironically, empowering Obrador, another vociferous populist. Many Mexican voters are drawn to the idea of having their own alpha male on Mexico’s side of the border.

Obrador’s strategic populist rhetoric gives him an iron-grasp on Mexico’s poor. The more ignorant population is deceived by his impractical promises and view Obrador as their savior. It is simple. He makes people believe him. Obrador uses the democratic inexperience of poorer Mexicans to his advantage. His evident conviction and accommodationist language draws a huge following. His presence creates an electric pandemonium and his promises inspire excitement for the future among his followers.

To his supporters, he is eternally the hero who gave pensions to the desperate elderly and helped address Mexico City’s traffic problems as the mayor of the city. They are willing to turn a blind eye to his more questionable actions, such as refusing to accept the outcome of the 2006 election and declaring himself the “legitimate president” of Mexico.

One rally attendee stated that he rarely even voted in Mexican elections let alone participate in a rally. He further states that he firmly believes that Obrador is the only person who can protect Mexico. His belief harkens back to the “savior” element of populists. During the 2006 election, Obrador made promises to cut government waste, and expand welfare programs, promises which appealed to the millions of Mexican who live on less than $5 per day. While Obrador’s strength is definitely this connection to the poor, his weakness lies in his lofty promises and utopian plans. These could spell his downfall.

Obrador promises new schools, roads, hospitals, oil refineries, improved electricity, clean water, health subsidies for the poor, scholarships for the young and most importantly jobs. Yet Obrador is completely incapable of explaining how he will make good on his commitments. Does this remind you of a certain plan for a wall? Critics find his economic plans unrealistic as the magnitude of funds Obrador would need to finance his programs simply do not exist. To the informed eye, Obrador’s economic program is clearly too ideal and optimistic. But his millions of supporters do not all possess this “informed eye.”

Ultimately, some Mexicans are enchanted by Obrador, while others remain disillusioned and scared. While poorer Mexicans tend to be excited by Obrador’s promises to improve their lives, wealthier Mexicans hear this message as a threat to enterprise, institutions and the elite business class. To some, he is the champion of the common man. To others he is an arrogant, power-hungry threat to Mexico. Obrador is currently the favorite to win the election. If he does finally prevail, it will set up quite an interesting showdown. It all comes down to July 2018.