New York is abuzz with motorcades, police presence, and hundreds of “men in black” with the telltale ear pieces synonymous with security/secret force. It is the week of the UN General Assembly and this year a pre-conference on climate change. With so many leaders expected, it is hard to get excited about hearing any one individual. Still, for the few who attended the Woodrow Wilson Award Dinner last night at the Waldorf Astoria, it was a special occasion.
It was particularly so for me, as I marveled at the difference between President Lula’s two speeches given in the very same room: the first a few months after he had won his first mandate sometime in the first quarter of 2003, the second last night. Six years ago, a defiant but folksy Lula talked about his plans and the grandness of his country, but as he described Brazil’s neighbours with whom it shared a frontier, he included Ecuador and Chile. Few noticed the slip, but I did and wondered what was to come.
Fast forward to last night and what I heard was a leader who has grown, is comfortable, and still managed to retain his “people’s touch” and sense of humour. It is a remarkable accomplishment – to be more respected at the end of a presidency than at the beginning. Perhaps this is not the general feeling in Brazil; however, the crowd last night clearly stood taller than in 2003.
Here is some of what he said:
On choosing his Vice President: He recalled that as he ran his presidential campaign in 2002, he had lost so many times, he knew exactly how to get 30% of the vote. What he didn’t know was how to get past that. Out of the blue he was invited to attend a party in Minas Gerais for 50 years of service by an industrialist and head of Coteminas. His first reaction was to say “you got to be kidding me, what am I going to do there?” But his team insisted and he went. Apparently, after hearing this man’s story he turned to his people and said: I have just found my running mate. The moral of the story: he values being honest enough to know you must change, and not being afraid to do so.
On development models: Lula shared some of his views on the failings of Brazil’s development. To him, the problem of the fast growth experienced from 1950s to the 1980s – which overall rivals that of present day China is that little was done to distribute income and educate the population. The idea expressed by economists that the pie needed to get bigger before you could share it reminded him that the pie did get bigger, and someone ate it all. He went on to say: being rich alone while your neighbours are poor won’t allow you to sustain your wealth.
On Bush and hunger: He recounted that when he met President George W. Bush in 2002, months after the horrible bombing of the twin towers, he encountered a man who was obsessed by the war on terror and his desire to wage war with Iraq. Lula explained that his response was that although he understood President Bush’s position completely, his was a very different war. My war, he declared, is to reverse the situation of 44 million Brazilians who do not have enough to eat. He thought President Bush would be upset at him; nevertheless he developed excellent relations with him. Still, he lamented, it didn’t result in concessions in reforming the UN or in concluding the Doha WTO round. But then, these changes take time, such is the nature of international politics.
On Democracy and Economic Stability: Lula cautioned the audience on the wisdom of views that left wing governments necessarily will enact policies that destabilize the economy. He told his story of living with 80 percent inflation a month and buying 3 or 4 cans of cooking oil at once in order to ensure that his salary would not be eaten up by inflation. He stressed that the poor know exactly how bad economic instability is. Happy people are the ones who can afford to eat and send their children to school. And he only managed to get there because of the democratic process. He pleaded for democracy and for a closer working relationship between Brazil and the US in ensuring that the democratic process in the Americas endures. That means that there is no space for military dictatorships – and singled out the situation in Honduras as unacceptable.
He ended his speech – more like a chat – with words on education. As he remembered his past he pointed out that few value education as much as someone who wasn’t able to get one. That is why he wants to ensure that a better educated Brazil is part of his legacy.