ON THE PHILIPPINES
AN ELECTRONIC NEWSLETTER
(FOCUSING MAINLY ON PHILIPPINE NEWS AND ISSUES)
FOCUS ON THE GLOBAL SOUTH
ISSUE # 5 FEBRUARY 14, 2003
PORTO ALEGRE, BRAZIL - Off we dash to catch a glimpse of the man everybody here calls Lula. Along the way, we run into a throng of people milling around a TV set: Lula's already at the park addressing thousands and thousands of people. We're late. Off we race towards a taxicab and slam the doors shut. "To the park, por favor," we tell the driver in broken Portuguese.
It's Lula's voice booming on the cab's AM stereo. "Is that Lula?," my companion asks. The driver nods and flashes the thumbs up. "Bom?" Is he good? "Muito bom!"
The driver pushes hard on the pedal. He swerves maniacally. It's as though he sensed how much we - a group of delegates attending the World Social Forum - want to see Lula in flesh. "The driver wants to see Lula as badly as we want to," another companion corrects me. He overtakes furiously. Lula, of course, is Luis Ignacio "Lula" da Silva, the new President of Brazil, who won a landslide 62% of the votes in Brazil's election last October - the biggest ever garnered by any presidential candidate in Brazilian political history. His name is on t shirts that are still selling like pancakes here, months after the election campaign. His face has even replaced that of Che Guevarra's in some of those most sought-after red pins.
We stop beside another taxicab at the intersection. The driver gestures towards his colleague at the other car to ask whether he's also tuned in. He gives the thumbs up. He's listening to Lula too. Then another cab. Another thumbs up.
"Did you know that one of the first things Lula did when he became President was to tour his ministers in the favelas (slum communities) to tell them, 'This is how Brazilians really live. Keep that in mind when you fulfill your duties'?," my Indian companion begins sharing our Lula stories. "Did you know that one of the first things he did when he assumed power was to cancel a contract for jet fighters in order to use the money for schools?" We listen intently to the live broadcast. Lula's speech was in Portuguese and we could barely pick out the words. Pais. Problemas. Esperenca. Ah, he was saying something about his country. He was discussing problems. And he was talking about hope.
All the other words in between I couldn't decipher. But the things that couldn't be translated I could discern: There was a raw sincerity to his words. His voice rang with a promise that even I - a foreigner, a non Brazilian - also wanted to believe in.
"Ole-ole-ole Lula, Lula!" chanted the thousands, punctuating the President's speech, as though he had just scored the winning goal in the championships of the World Cup.
I thought I had seen this before.
Back home, hundreds of thousands of unwashed and un-powdered Filipinos also gave former President Joseph "Erap" Estrada the kind of devotion that the unwashed and un-powdered of the Brazilians are now giving Lula. Like Lula, Erap rallied around the poor and vowed to fight for them against the ruling classes that have exploited them for so long. Like Lula, Erap's popularity among the masses was historically unprecedented. And for the true believer, Erap represented what Lula now symbolizes for many Brazilians: the rise of the dispossessed against a long period of oppression.
Lula, however, in hindsight and in comparison, seems to be the real thing. He's really one of them: As a boy, he almost died from starvation and had to escape a drought in his province via a long and torturous journey to the city. Erap, in contrast, having come from the old rich, has probably never experienced hunger.
Lula has really fought for them: A former metal worker, Lula spent most of his adult life as a trade union leader fighting against the Brazilian dictatorship. Erap also devoted most of his life fighting on the side of the poor - but only in the movies. And in real life, he was very cozy with Ferdinand Marcos the dictator.
The otherwise empty road was suddenly jammed. All routes seemed to lead to the park. In front of us, a man proudly waves Lula's red party flag from inside his car. Stalled, we decide to join the crowds of people still sauntering towards the park in hordes to catch a glimpse of their President - even if his speech has already ended. They were not packed up from their communities and sent there in a bus by their local political operators.
There were no goodie bags. They went there on their own, expecting nothing in return. I have not really seen this before. This was all amusingly new to me.
Where I come from, people have come to see most politicians with nothing but disdain and contempt. In just twenty years, we have twice become so disgusted with our Presidents, Marcos and Estrada, that we kicked them out of office. But here in Brazil, people seem to genuinely love their President and seem to be sincerely proud of him. In some of the conferences, just the mere mention of his name by a speaker was enough to provoke the crowd into a sudden convulsion and a rapturous cheering of "Ole ole Lula!"
In the Philippines, political leaders inspire nothing but suspicion and cynicism; here Lula seems to inspire real trust and hope. Back home, elections are often a choice among the least devious devil. Here, it appears like there could have been no better choice.
I come from a country where the youth have grown so wary of politics, most of them wouldn't want to have anything to do with it. But here, most of Lula's most ardent followers are the young: they were at Lula's rally in massive numbers - shirtless, holding their girlfriend's or their boyfriend's hands while listening raptly to Lula's every word, kissing and embracing each other after applauding him feverishly.
I come from a country where the leader of the most organized segment of the Left is daring enough to call for an overthrow of the state, but not bold enough to come home from a comfortable exile. Here in Brazil, Lula's vision is not only bold but he is here and he has won. The Left has achieved what the most organized segment of the Left back home had deemed unimaginable: It had wrested ultimate leadership of the state without having had to kill anyone - not the reactionary elements, not even former comrades in arms.
It remains to be seen, of course, whether Lula can really steer this state towards its revolutionary aims. But he has already shown that the first and most important step - to take control of it and to mobilize the masses behind it - can be done.
And here, perhaps, lies the reason why Lula arouses so much excitement even from the cynical and the hardened. He is an aberration, a freak. In today's order of things, his victory seems so much like just a happy accident, unbelievable but true.
In a world dominated by politicians out to serve the interests of the few and the powerful, in a world marked with political systems that inherently give undue advantage to these kinds of politicians, we have not expected any Lula to prevail. In a continent where the United States has routinely done everything to prevent leaders like Lula from coming to power and from doing anything but its wishes, we have not expected Lula to overcome. In a period when the establishment has in so many places successfully suppressed the opposition and elites just scramble for power among themselves, when the Left has in so many cases fragmented itself, we have not expected Lula and his party to show the way.
I stood there, along with the Brazilians lining the road, waiting for the freak's car to pass, hoping that in chanting "Ole ole Lula!", there would be more freaks to come.
The Third World Social Forum officially opened on 23 January with a march of some 70,000 people through the streets of Porto Alegre, Brazil. Marching under the slogan, "BUILDING THE 'OTHER WORLD THAT IS POSSIBLE': AGAINST MILITARISM AND WAR", the march lasted some 4 hours, filling dozens of blocks of central Porto Alegre with dancers, drummers, dancers, and large contingents from all the Latin American countries. Women's contingents challenged the dogma of the free market and religious or ethnic fundamentalisms, saying "people are fundamental." The main theme was a call for peace, particularly against intervention in Iraq, but also for Palestine, Colombia, and many other regions in conflict. Most protest targeted US policies, both military and economic. Marchers protested neo-liberal economic policies, US imperialism, and war.
Luis Ignacio "Lula" da Silva, newly inaugurated president of Brazil, addressed thousands on the evening of Friday, January 24 saying he would fulfill campaign commitments, challenge Davos to listen to the voices of the World Social Forum, and would not let the people down in his presidency.