Accessibility links

Da Silva  Pledges Not to Forget Working-Class Roots if Elected - 2002-10-04

Left-wing candidate Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva appears set to become Brazil's first working-class president.

Mr. da Silva, commonly known by his nickname "Lula," was born in 1945 in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, the seventh of eight children. Following the pattern of many impoverished northeasterners, his father migrated south, where he found a job as a dockworker in the port of Santos, in Sao Paulo state.

At the age of seven, young Lula was selling peanuts and oranges on the streets, while also attending school. After the family moved to the city of Sao Paulo, he began working at a metal shop when he was 14. He later took a three-year technical course in metalworking. In a campaign ad, Mr. da Silva spoke about this period of his life.

"I became a metal worker. In those days it was a good profession; a metal worker earned a decent salary," he said. "So, I was the first of my mother's sons to have a profession, the first to have a house, the first to have a TV, the first to have a car. All because I had a profession, which my other brothers didn't have the opportunity to get."

It was while working in a factory that Mr. da Silva lost his left pinkie finger, when his colleague dozed off and let a metal press fall on his hand, crushing the finger.

A bigger tragedy followed. His first wife, Maria de Lourdes, died in childbirth in 1970, something Mr. da Silva still recalls with pain.

"I think it was a Saturday, when I went to the hospital, and the doctor told me to go home and get the baby clothes. So I did, and prepared the clothes that we had bought. When I returned to hospital, she was dead."

Mr. da Silva became involved with the trade union movement in the late 1960's, at a time when Brazil was under a military dictatorship. His brother, a member of the communist party, gave him pamphlets to pass around the factory floor. Mr. da Silva was first elected to a leadership position of the Metalworkers union in 1969, and was elected union president in 1975.

Even though strikes were banned under the military government, Mr. da Silva led a series of walkouts in the late 1970's to demand better wages and working conditions. His leadership brought him political renown, while his skills at negotiating agreements gave him experience when he started his political career.

Political analyst Fabiano Santos says this became Mr. da Silva's main strength. "Lula has this profile of a good negotiator. This is his political capital, his main political asset. His capacity to lead a negotiation and unite different segments around a common objective," he said.

In 1980, he left the union to become one of the founders of the leftist Workers' Party, a grouping of workers, intellectuals, politicians, students and others. Their first task was to mobilize society against Brazil's military regime. At a recent news conference, Mr. da Silva said the Workers' Party, or P.T., offered a democratic alternative to armed struggle.

"We wanted to prove that it was possible, with workers being the majority, that we could organize and win power through democratic means," he said. "I believed in this in the 1970's, when the prevailing view among many in the left was that politics was a game for elites, and that the only way to gain power was through armed revolution. But the P.T. changed this, and made many realize that it was possible to organize a political party that could compete and win elections within the democratic framework."

The P.T., with Lula da Silva at its head, launched a campaign in 1984 calling for direct presidential elections. While ultimately unsuccessful, the campaign did help bring a return to democracy in 1985, after Congress chose a new president.

The following year, Mr. da Silva was elected to the lower house of Congress.

Mr. da Silva made his first run for the presidency on a Leftist platform in 1989, but lost with 44 percent of the vote to centrist Fernando Collor, who was later impeached for corruption. Mr. da Silva ran again in 1994 and 1998, losing both times by wide margins to Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Brazil's current president, whose emphasis has been on free-market reform.

But even if he wins, Mr. da Silva says, he will not forget his roots. "Even though I left the union 22 years ago, I'm proud to say that union people still consider me a union man," he said. "And, this means that my origins are deep in my blood, and it's something I always will preserve. I will never forget where I came from, and will never be embarrassed about it. And, everything I do will reflect where I came from, and where I want to go.

His critics in Brazil fear he may take the country back to more state control of the economy and protectionism. Others wonder whether his election would empower the left in other Latin American countries, like Argentina, which has elections next year.

But analyst Fabiano Santos says, whatever the criticism, the election of Mr. da Silva will represent a significant development for Brazilian democracy.

"If he wins, it's going to be one of those instances in democracy, one of those very interesting instances of democracy, when a person comes from below and achieves this post of leader of a great nation. Like, for instance, [former U.S. President Abraham] Lincoln," he said. Mr. da Silva has been married since 1974 to Marisa Leticia, with whom he has had three children. Two other children, one from a previous relationship and one from Maria Leticia's first marriage, bear his last name.