He was accused of being many things in the past, including a communist, a coarse proletarian and a drinker. But those days are long gone. As Brazil ascends to become a new economic power, his reputation has experienced a meteoric rise. Many now view Brazil's president as a hero of the southern hemisphere and an important counterweight to Washington, Brussels and Beijing. The American news magazine Time took things a step further two weeks ago when it named him the "world's most influential political leader," even ahead of US President Barack Obama. In his native Brazil, there are many who see him as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Price.
And now this man, Luiz Inácio da Silva, 64, nicknamed "Lula" ("Squid"), who spent his childhood in a slum as the son of illiterate parents, has scored yet another political coup. In a marathon meeting, he negotiated a nuclear deal with the Iranian leadership. On Monday, he appeared triumphantly at the side of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The three leaders reached an agreement that they believe would take UN sanctions against Iran over its possible nuclear weapons program off the agenda. The West, which had been pushing for a tightening of international punitive measures, looked duped, even taken by surprise.
But Washington's counterattack came the next day, opening a new chapter in the simmering nuclear dispute, in which Beijing, in particular, had long resisted a tougher approach. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced: "We have reached agreement on a strong draft with the cooperation of both Russia and China." The planned sanctions resolution was sent to all members of the United Nations Security Council, including Brazil and Turkey. The two countries are both two-year elected members of the 15-member body, which must accept a resolution with at least nine votes before it can take effect.
US Adamant on Sanctions
Clinton specifically thanked Lula for his "sincere efforts." But her expression clearly suggested that she perceived his efforts as more of an impediment than anything else. "We are proceeding to rally the international community on behalf of a strong sanctions resolution that will in our view send an unmistakable message about what is expected from Iran," Clinton said.
But isn't Lula's less confrontational approach in the nuclear dispute much more promising? Will it be this easy to slow down Lula Superstar, who has the support of NATO member Turkey? Anyone who has followed his career will find it hard to believe. This man has always prevailed against all resistance, and all odds.
The father left the family when Lula was young, and the mother moved with her eight children from northeastern Brazil to the industrialized south, where she hoped to improve the family's chances. Lula didn't learn to read and write until he was 10. As a child, he helped support the family by working as a shoeshine boy and fruit seller, and toiling in a paint factory. He eventually managed to secure an apprenticeship as a toolmaker. When he was 25, his wife Maria and their unborn child died, because the family couldn't afford adequate medical care.
Lula became politically active as a young man, when he joined the union and organized illegal strikes in the days of the military dictatorship. He was arrested several times in the 1980s. Dissatisfied with the classic leftists, he founded his own workers' party, which he gradually transformed from a Marxist to a social democratic party. He made three unsuccessful bids for the presidency until, on his fourth try, he won the 2002 presidential election by a significant margin. It was the poor and the poorest who, in a country of extreme economic contrasts, placed their hopes in the charismatic labor leader. When Lula won the election, the super rich, fearing expropriation, made sure that their private jets were kept fueled up.
Hero of the Poor Refrained From Revolution
But those who had hoped for or feared a revolution in Brazil were surprised. After his inauguration, Lula took some of his cabinet members to a slum, and he launched a large-scale program called "Fome Zero" ("Zero Hunger") to alleviate the hardships of the underprivileged. But he did not frighten the markets. Increases in commodities prices and a modern economic policy that emphasized foreign investment and domestic education and training resources helped Lula gain re-election in 2006.
His term expires in December, at which point he will not be eligible to run for re-election. He has put the house in order domestically by grooming a potential successor. But the self-confident president evidently wants to leave a foreign policy legacy too: He regards it as his duty to turn Brazil, with its population of 196 million, into a major world power and to secure a permanent seat for his country on the UN Security Council.
Lula has recognized that it helps to maintain good relations with Washington, London and Moscow in pursuit of this goal. But he also knows that close ties to countries like China and India, as well as Middle Eastern and African countries, could be even more important. He sees himself as a man of the "south," and as a leader of the poor and disenfranchised. And, of course, he also recognizes the shifts that are taking place. Last year, for example, the People's Republic of China surpassed the United States as Brazil's biggest trading partner for the first time.
Lula is the only head of state who attended both the exclusive World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and the World Social Forum, which is critical of globalization, in Porto Alegre, Brazil. He is an indefatigable globetrotter, having visited 25 countries in Africa alone, many Asian countries and almost every country in Latin America -- always with an economic delegation in tow. He relentlessly preaches his creed of a multipolar world. And because Lula is a charismatic speaker and an "authentic" labor leader, crowds around the world cheer him on as if he were a pop star. At the 2009 G-20 summit in London, US President Barack Obama, apparently a fan, said: "I love this guy."
In the meantime, Obama can no longer be certain whether Lula is indeed "his man." The Brazilian is becoming more and more self-confident as he distances himself from Washington and, at times, even seeks confrontation.
Honduras is a case in point. The United States, which has always seen Central America as its back yard, was astonished when Lula gave ousted President Manual Zelaya refuge in the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa last year and demanded a voice in the solution of the conflict. By refusing to recognize the new president, Brasilia openly opposed Obama.
Things happened very quickly after that. Lula traveled to Cuba, where he met with Raul and Fidel Castro and called for an immediate end to the American economic embargo. To the delight of his hosts, he likened the regime critics suffering in Havana's prisons to common criminals. Lula also made a point of appearing with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who breathes fire and brimstone against Washington and is increasingly gagging the press in his country. Speaking to SPIEGEL, Lula characterized the autocratic leader as "the best president of Venezuela in the last 100 years."
And when he received Ahmadinejad in Brasilia a few months ago, he commended the Iranian president for his supposedly flawless election victory and likened the Iranian opposition movement to frustrated football fans. Brazil too, he said, would not allow anyone to interfere with its "obviously peaceful" nuclear program.
Despite this closing of ranks, many were skeptical when Lula headed for Tehran to negotiate a nuclear deal with the Iranian leadership, particularly after the Iranians had shown almost no willingness to compromise in recent months. At a joint press conference with Lula, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev rated the chances of an agreement brokered by Brazil at no more than 30 percent. Lula countered by saying: "I'd say they are 99 percent." There it was again, the rising political star's pronounced ego. "He thinks he's a miracle worker who can achieve things where others have failed," says Michael Shifter, an American expert on Latin America.
Breakthrough or Flop?
At this point, there is only circumstantial evidence that a "breakthrough" was truly achieved in Tehran after 17 hours of negotiation. It is also possible that the meeting was, in fact, what the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung characterized as a "flop," just another way for the Iranians, who have often been devious in the past, to stall the world once again.
Officials at the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) in Vienna cautiously said that any development in the direction of nuclear compromise is progress. The IAEA's inspectors are responsible for inspecting nuclear facilities worldwide on behalf of the UN. They have recently found more and more signs of an illegal Iranian nuclear weapons program and have urgently called on Tehran to be more cooperative. The assessment of the Vienna-based agency's experts, whose line of communication with Tehran was never severed and who never assumed anything that they couldn't prove, will now carry a lot of weight. The fact that the Iranians are only willing to make the text of the agreements available to the IAEA "in one week" has fostered doubts.
Western governments have been very skeptical, and the UN resolution Clinton made public so soon after the Tehran agreement apparently has the Israelis worried. Some members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hardline government are openly criticizing the deal as a ruse to take international pressure off Tehran. Trade Minister Benjamin Ben-Elieser says Tehran is apparently "trying to give the entire world the runaround once again."
Deal Provides Iran With Loophole
The American ISIS institute, which has always advocated a negotiated solution and feels that the "military option" for solving the Iranian nuclear issue is unthinkable, has offered an insightful assessment of the Lula-Ahmadinejad-Erdogan agreement. In the assessment, the institute's independent nuclear experts list their concerns and point out the weak points of the text of the agreement revealed to date.
The Iranians only agree to ship 1,200 kilograms (2,640 lbs.) of their low enriched uranium to Turkey, for which they want fuel for their Tehran research reactor in return. The dimensions of the agreement correspond to those of a deal proposed by the IAEA last October, under which more than three quarters of the uranium produced in Iran would have been taken out of the country, thereby making bomb construction impossible. It was meant to be a confidence-building measure to provide breathing room for negotiations.
However, the current deal ignores the fact that Iran, after having started up its centrifuges in Natanz, apparently already has more than 2,300 kilograms of uranium. In other words, the agreement would allow Tehran to keep almost half of the material, a basic ingredient in a nuclear bomb, so that it would still have enough raw material to reach nuclear weapons "breakout capability."
The agreement also offers Tehran a key loophole: It grants the Iranian leadership the right to get its uranium back from Turkey if, in its opinion, any clause of the agreement is "not upheld." Most important, the agreement does not require Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment. "We wouldn't dream of it," an official said. But this is precisely what the UN has unequivocally demanded in what have now been three rounds of sanctions.
All these objections don't worry Lula. He has shown that he can no longer be ignored on the world stage. Last Tuesday, the Brazilian president's friends lauded his peacemaking efforts at the Latin America-EU summit in Madrid . His appearance there was designed to show that the "squid" has many arms. He has proven that he can swim along with the big sharks.
Behind the scenes, Lula Superstar likes to talk about how he forced Brazil's diplomats to shed the "mongrel syndrome," his term for the deeply entrenched inferiority complex many of his fellow Brazilians had toward Americans and Europeans until recently.
It was in 2003, at Lula's first major international appearance, at the G-8 summit in Evian, France. A group of people was sitting in the lobby of the conference hotel, waiting for then US President George W. Bush. When the Americans finally walked into the room, everyone stood up -- except Lula, who ordered his foreign minister to remain seated, as well. "I will not take part in this subservience," the Brazilian president said. "After all, nobody stood up when I walked in."