Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Álvaro Uribe Vélez with 80 percent and 68 percent approval ratings respectively are the two most popular presidents in the American continent, if not the whole world. Their popularity, however, stems from policies that are based on vastly different world views that tackle the same problems in distinct manners. One perspective is sustainable and socially just, while the other is not. If the former was applied in Colombia, the country’s centuries old ailments could be more directly dealt with.
Following Colombia’s news is an extremely engulfing affair that leaves virtually no time to understand more about other regional countries and their leaders – unless these other countries’ leaders have a political spat with Uribe. It was a recent interview given by the Brazilian president to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that offered a glimpse to Lula’s political philosophy; socialism. The word, however, has such a negative connotation in the U.S., that CNN felt compelled to edit out Lula’s admission in a made-for-TV version of the interview – the podcast has the unedited version.
Lula’s explanation of how his political views were formed was the highlight of the interview. The former Union leader did not learn to read until he was ten years old and had to leave school two years later in order to earn money for his mother and seven siblings. He lived in houses where he needed to fight over space with rats and cockroaches. Lula knew what it was to go hungry. He knew the feelings of being unemployed for one year and a half. But Lula also felt the satisfaction of being the first member of his family to earn a vocational training degree. These experiences were fundamental for his crusade against the status quo that had subjugated the majority of Brazilians.
When the Brazilian press asked him whether he was a Marxist-Leninist he answered that he was a letha operator (his first formal job at the age of 14 in a copper processing factory). The answer was aimed at dispelling the prejudice that political labels could have. Nevertheless, in the CNN interview he proudly attested that he was a socialist:
“I consider myself a socialist, I consider that I have a world vision, that is, I would say, more just. I want a world with more social fairness where the state should fulfill the role to encourage development, to regulate society so that the poor are not victims of the speculators or of exploitation. But these things have to be built day by day. You have to build these things as you consolidate democracy because democracy is not a minor issue. It was only because of democracy that I managed to reach the presidency of Brazil, it was only through the democratic process that Obama reached the presidency of the United States, only because of democracy that a representative of the indigenous people rules Bolivia. So I value democracy.” — Lula is not changing the constitution in order to contest a third presidential term.
Among the significant results that Lula’s policies have brought are: lifting 20 million out of poverty into the middle class, providing 10 million households with electricity and increasing the minimum wage every year (after taking into account inflation). Moreover, Brazil’s extreme inequality has been reduced by 20 percent. The fact that Lula used the word “poor” eight times while answering different questions in a 12 min long interview gives a glimpse to what his policies have been directed at.
Lula believes that inequality is the motor that keeps the wheel of social injustice spinning. The former President of the Union Workers’ Center emphasized that the role of the government is more than following the fraudulent trickle down economics where making the rich richer will eventually benefit the poorest. Lula tried a different approach. Such policies demonstrated that it was possible to stimulate economic growth while simultaneously improving income distribution. Subsidies have been at the forefront of Lula’s economic policies.
In contrast, Colombia’s remarkable macro-economic performance, fueled by unprecedented Foreign Direct Investment, has not led to poverty alleviation as the trickle down economic theory states. Pablo’s latest Colombia Reports column eloquently demonstrated the government’s economic failure. The failure is further exemplified by the USD millions in non-refundable and tax free subsidies (thanks to a senator, father of one of the beneficiaries) that were aimed at reducing the inequality in rural areas. The subsidies ended up in the hands of traditional landowners (major contributors to Uribe’s presidential campaigns) and wealthy ex-beauty queens, rather than in the hands of poor peasants who could have realized their entrepreneurial spirit. It’s not surprising that former Agricultural minister and presidential candidate Andres Felipe Arias (aka as Uribito or little Uribe) devised the scam.
Many would argue that policies implemented in Brazil cannot be introduced in Colombia given the two countries’ vastly dissimilar internal problems. But this would be taking a symptomatic perspective of Colombia’s root social, economic and political ailments. Colombia’s civil conflict with the guerrilla, and by extension with the paramilitaries, is rooted in inequality. If this inequality is not resolved with radical policies such as land re-distribution or with more pragmatic solutions such as sustainable social and educational programs then the ailments will remain. If the breeding ground for insecurity (misery) is not sanitized, nothing would have been achieved, but a militarized state with overcrowded jails and mass graves.
When official statistics indicated that inequality remained the same as in 2002 and poverty only decreased from 53.7 percent in 2002 to 46 percent in 2008 despite boom years; when three weeks later the UN stated that hunger is expanding faster than in Sub-Saharan Africa; and when one week later Colombia’s richest man, Luis Carlos Sarmiento, supported Alvaro Uribe for a third presidential term because of his policies, it is obvious the current government has ruled for the benefit of the few.
Electing a Union leader in Colombia may not be feasible; after all, they are all but exterminated extinct. Nevertheless, what Lula also demonstrates is the need for a fresher, humble and ethically impeccable figure whose political values seek to protect The People. But if the traditional elite or those representing the status quo like Alvaro Uribe (current president), Juan Manuel Santos (former Defense minister), Andres Felipe Arias (former Agriculture minister), German Vargas Lleras (an ex-president’s grandson; read more about his “merits” here), Rafael Pardo (former Defense minister) and Noemi Sanin (former ambassador under different governments) win in 2010, then Colombia’s hundred years of solitude will continue.