Olinda, Brazil - There's something about Brazilian president "Lula," responsible for the globe's 10th most powerful economy and head of the world's most successful socialist party, that makes adult eyes glisten and draws children to hug him.
The connection he forms with people isn't about charisma, unless shaggy dog/favourite uncle looks rate as charismatic. Rather, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has found the same sweet spot in the political game as South Africa's Nelson Mandela, and for the same reason. Both men came out the other end of suffering and jail with increased respect and patience for all humanity.
This transcendence, a full notch up from statesmanship, beams through their being and politics. In a country where the wealthiest 1 per cent earn more than the poorest 50 per cent, and 25 million people are classed as indigent (I saw families of sugar cane workers with nothing but garbage bags hooked around sticks for shelter), all government departments are mandated to honour his new rainbow-coloured theme: Brazil, the country where everyone belongs.
But on the ground beneath this transcendence is Brazil's workers party, the PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores), an effervescent blend of Trotsky- and Gramsci-inspired Marxism, Catholic liberation theology and grassroots take-charge community organizing. The PT walks on two legs, it is said. One is the party of government, and one is the party of the social movements. The way these two legs walk the line may set the international standard for radical democratic politics for the next generation.
Without notice, explanation or apology, Lula arrives three hours late at a 1,200-delegate conference aimed at ending hunger. This is one of several consultative councils the government has established and delegates are elected by communities, so it's by no means a Lula fan club. But he walks in to a standing ovation with outbursts of singing that lasts 10 minutes.
Wearing dress pants and a purple sweater over a red T-shirt, he sits in front at centre stage, with local mayors, food council leaders and key government ministers beside him. He applauds a series of children's choirs and poetry recitations and opens his arms as children run toward him for a hug.
He saunters over to the mike. The problem for the conference is zero hunger; my problem is zero sleep, he begins. So I'll speak without notes, he says, as he drops his prepared speech beside him and starts talking as if he were at the family dinner table. When the right-wing parties win, no one expects them to do anything. But when we win, we're expected to do everything in our first year, he says.
That's not an accurate rendition of the disappointment over his first 18 months in office. The government hasn't just failed to meet its own promises or the public's expectations. Unemployment and interest rates are higher than when Lula won the election and workers' wages lower, the result of his concessions to the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and currency speculators who started a run on Brazil's currency after the PT came to power.
In its bid to calm money markets, the government gave control of the Central Bank to bankers, cut the social budget by 45 per cent and raised interest rates to the highest in the world.
Though he's bent the historical record, Lula has read this crowd, as well as the general population, accurately. He's asked the public for a "year of toleration" as he tries to prevent a cataclysm made possible by the enormous foreign debt his government inherited. As his soaring popularity - usually polling in the 60 to 70 per cent range - indicates, people want him to be prudent and not blow this big chance.
Lula tells some stories about the hunger he faced as a child in a large single-parent family, how he became a street vendor and shoeshine boy. He talks about the tricks he played so friends wouldn't know he was hungry and he wouldn't have to feel ashamed. He urges others to go public and tell people that they are suffering so the problem can enter the political arena. To combat hunger is sacred, he says.
As the person who controls the government leg of the PT, Lula seems to have learned that he must work toward a national consensus. He grasped this lesson during the 1970s as the leader of a series of mass strikes that led to the resignation of Brazil's military dictatorship, and during the 80s and 90s as a PT activist who participated in the party's many opportunities to run model city governments.
The PT has won international recognition for involving thousands of neighbourhood delegates in city budget-making in PT-run Porte Alegre. The democratic skills that make such projects possible are evident throughout this conference. The chair frequently tells delegates debating at pro and con mikes to leave the room and come back with a resolution everyone can live with. After a pained debate resulting in defeat of a call for distinct representation of black and aboriginal communities (the kind of debate that was common 20 and 30 years ago in North America), the new minister in charge of food programs reminds all delegates that such debates have to remain open, and invites leaders of the these groups to join him onstage for the closing ceremonies.
There's nothing now-or-never about this Brazilian leftist style. Elections to government just provide new digs to continue ongoing negotiations in a never-ending process.
PT types get this relatively easily thanks to the influence of the Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, after whom so many avenues are named in northern Italy. Gramsci taught about "bourgeois" hegemony, the countless methods of influencing the thought and lifestyles of the masses so they lack confidence. So Gramscian PTers are patient about knocking down the ramparts of capitalism; they know that building the people's confidence takes time. Their campaigns require thousands of small community-scale initiatives rather than one big bang of central government action.
The big political brouhaha while I was there was not about hunger, but about bingo. Lula wants an end to the game he considers a form of organized crime. The craze for bingo and other forms of gambling comes out of the desperation of poverty, undermining the ability of the poor to focus their resources. Workers in the bingo industry made a ruckus at the anti-hunger conference, but there seemed to be little sympathy for their cause.