Brazil is fast becoming a symbol of the new global economy. With a GDP of $2,500bn, it is already the world’s sixth largest economy, and by some estimates, will overtake France by the end of 2012. Its ascent has been swift. Between 2003 and 2010, the economy more than quadrupled in size. Social progress has been impressive, with poverty falling by 27.5 percent between 2003 and 2007. In the last decade an estimated 40m Brazilians have been lifted out of poverty, with the official poverty rate at just 8.5 percent in 2011.
Growth, which reached a high of 7.53 percent in 2010, has slowed recently. Latest forecasts predict expansion of as little as 1.5 percent in 2012, prompting some to doubt the sustainability of the country’s growth model. One would not know it driving through São Paulo, Brazil’s – and increasingly Latin America’s – commercial heart. Huge billboards advertising the latest LG and Samsung Smart TVs line the newly paved highways which take visitors from the airport into the centre of this sprawling metropolis of 19 million people. From its imposing skyline, reminiscent of New York, to its shopping boulevards and fine dining restaurants, it is a place brimming with confidence.
If asked, most Brazilians would point to former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – who led the country from 2003 until 2011 -as the person to thank for Brazil’s new-found fortune. Born into humble circumstances in one of Brazil’s most deprived regions, the popular former trade union leader, universally known as Lula, enjoys iconic status in Brazil. His approval ratings of 80 percent when he left office were at levels most politicians would not dare dream of.
The ruling Workers Party, which “Lula” helped found in 1980, is currently embroiled in Brazil’s largest ever bribery trial – which includes high ranking members of his government. Mr da Silva faces no charges, and for most Brazilians, he remains a political and social hero.
His time in office was also marked by the strategic realignment of Brazil’s foreign policy. An outspoken advocate of South-South cooperation, he forged closer ties with Brazil’s Latin American neighbours and other developing regions – notably Africa. In the eight years of his presidency, bilateral trade soared to $25bn, Brazil opened more than a dozen new embassies across the continent and President Lula visited some 25 countries on close to a dozen official state visits. When he gave his first major public speech since being diagnosed with throat cancer in October 2011 at a conference at the Brazilian Development Bank in May, the topic was Brazil-Africa relations.
Speaking to This Is Africa at the Instituto Lula, the foundation he now runs in São Paulo, his passion for Africa is visible. The casually dressed Mr da Silva – who has little time for the protocol that normally surrounds former heads of state – is in good spirits, having received news from his doctors earlier in the week that his cancer has gone into remission. He is sporting a West African shirt – from Benin – and one of the walls is adorned with a painting of African women walking through a Savannah landscape, the sun setting in the background.
“I would like to tell you a short story,” he says in his unmistakable, booming voice, as he explains why Africa emerged as a focal point in his government’s foreign policy. His iconic beard is gone, and there are doubts about whether it will ever grow back, but his battle with cancer has done nothing to diminish the force of his speech, which carries as much gravity as ever.
“When I won the elections for the presidency and I was inaugurated in 2003, on January 25th I participated in the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre first and then travelled to Davos on the same day. I saw what was going on at the World Social Forum and followed what was going on in Davos.”
The contrast of the two experiences, one dedicated to alternative economic and social models, the other deeply rooted in mainstream globalisation, made it clear to Mr da Silva that a 21st century foreign policy would have to be more multi-faceted than what had, until then, been the norm.
“I said to my foreign affairs minister that it was necessary to change the political geography and economic and trade geography that until then existed in Brazil. Everything went through the major superpowers and it was necessary to work to insert the emerging countries in decision-making on trade, economic and social policies.
“Brazil could not look towards the Atlantic as an obstacle to reaching Africa,” he says, pointing to the oceanic divide on a globe on a table next to him. “On the contrary it should look at it as something favourable towards integration and we could even consider Africa as sharing a border with Brazil.”
Such thinking was ahead of its time…
Read more: All Africa