It All Started in Caetés

It All Started in Caetés

    Lula journeyed from a little Ceará town to Brasília’s
    Presidential Palace,  he went from migrant to President.

    A march 500 years in the making. If Lula had a Ph.D.,
    he would be a president like all the others.
    merit is to have matured without changing sides.

    For years the Portuguese aristocracy kept hundreds of joiners, masons and other workers involved in the
    construction of their caravels; they also used farmers and merchants to prepare the supplies needed for the long voyages, during
    which thousands of lower-class men died in shipwrecks. If the adventure proved successful, it was the Portuguese noblemen
    who took charge of the new lands and the commercial profits. Brazilian history is the narrative of each era’s elite
    appropriating the product of lower-class labor.

    Over the centuries the products and the names of those profiting have changed but the anonymous producers have
    continued to be treated with disdain and left without schools, housing, leisure time, and even food. The anonymous people,
    working and excluded; the elite, controlling and enjoying the product of that work. Presidents replaced the emperors; the counts
    and barons turned into "doctors" and "Excellencies," who were still separated from the lower classes that elected them and
    waited upon them.

    Even before his government takes office, therefore, Lula’s election as President is a true symbol of change. His trip
    to the cities of Caetés and Garanhuns demonstrates this difference.

    In 1952, at the age of seven, young Lula left Garanhuns as a migrant. At the age of 57, he returned as President-elect.
    But he did not return as a different person, someone who had grown wealthy, become a doctor, and joined the elite,
    someone who was returning merely through a sort of atavistic courtesy. When he returned he was older, he was famous and
    experienced, but he was still the same Lula. This is Lula’s great victory: winning without changing. Although this is the first time a
    migrant has been elected president, there have been others who were sons of the lower middle class and even of the poor. None
    of the principal presidential candidates of 2002 was a child of the wealthy class, but all of the others had paid tribute to the
    elites. Lula paid none of the prices charged by the elite to accept and legitimize the children of the poor. He did not grow
    wealthy, did not serve the wealthy, did not graduate from a university, and did not repudiate his past as a labor organizer.

    Many people criticize Lula for not taking advantage of his enormous potential, his privileged intelligence, to study
    formally and earn a university diploma. But if Lula had a Ph.D., he would be a president like all the others. Over the years, many
    have criticized Lula’s radicalism, his attachment to a clearly leftist party. But if he had come to power through one of the
    conservative parties, Lula would be a president like any other.

    His merit is to have matured without changing sides. As he himself said in his speech in Caetés, the story of his life
    is more important than his electoral victory. And this story was the backdrop for one of the most emotional journeys ever
    made by a Brazilian in public life.

    When, a little before eight at night, we left Brasília for Recife in a small executive jet, we could see the full moon
    through the pilots’ windshield. It resembled a target awaiting the arrow transporting us. There was a strong symbolism in this: an
    airplane carrying a people’s hero in the direction of his own people. At no time during the flight did Lula resemble the person
    who a few hours later would cry twice before the assembled multitudes. He appeared to be neither worried about the
    responsibilities that awaited him nor emotional about his return to the land from which he left as a migrant and to which he was returning
    as President-elect.

    As we flew from Recife to Garanhuns early the next afternoon, he spoke a bit about his past life and the days ahead
    of us in the government but did not show any great emotion. That did not happen until, as we came in for a landing, we
    could see the enormous line of cars and the crowds of people waiting on the runway and surrounding the terminal of the tiny airport.

    When the airplane door opened, the crowd shouted as if the people were simultaneously welcoming a cousin
    returning victorious, a hero arriving in glory, and, above all, someone bearing hope.

    Along the road from the airport to downtown Garanhuns, the crowd shouted out Lula’s name, even though they did
    not know exactly in which car he was riding. Some yelled messages: "God protect you;" "Viva Lula"; "Welcome, Brother";
    "I’m your Cousin."

    As he gave his speech, his emotions came to the surface. He spoke of his memories of the short time he spent in
    those lands as a child and, above all, of his commitment to the Northeast, accusing the elite of responsibility for the drought,
    for the poverty, for abandoning the region. The people in the crowd below kept absolutely quiet, but from time to time
    would suddenly shout out their support, as if led by an invisible orchestra conductor.

    There was a clear union of the people and the speaker. Not the apparent union that is seen between the people and
    populist politicians, but the union of the people with someone who, although totally different, is one of them. That is what Lula
    is: both a leader and the people. Although as a leader he is different, at the same time he is one of the people. The President
    is the son of Dona Lindu. Many people cried; others laughed; all of them watched with affection and hope reflected in
    their faces, something never before seen in Brazilian political history.

    The big party was still to come in Caetés. This city was part of Garanhuns in 1952. Between the two cities was a
    plaque saying, "Birthplace of Lula, the President" and another indicating the way to the farm where he was born and lived until
    the age of seven. Another sign said, "Thank you, Dona Lindu, for giving birth to hope." And there were his cousins’ banners.

    These were cousins who perhaps were not blood relatives. Cousins in the sense of society’s brothers and sisters
    who were equals, companions, as each of those inhabitants of the Northeast could feel while creating a holiday and pouring
    into the streets to see their future President. A President who was one of them, like any of the other children of the Lindus
    and Marias, children of all the people.

    The short-but-slowly-moving journey down the main street of Caetés, the President-elect and some politicians upon
    a van and the people beside it, did not look like a parade. It looked like a procession of brothers and sisters, cousins,
    friends, in which one of them was the center, riding on top of the car only to be seen, not because of his difference. The people
    could see Lula and speak with him. An observer would sum it up with "You’re one of us," "Finally, Lula, you took us there to
    Brasília." It was as if the people themselves were being inaugurated as President.

    Because for the first time since the Portuguese sailors discovered our country 500 years ago, the people felt as if
    they were being inaugurated. For the first time since, almost two hundred years ago, a Portuguese proclaimed the
    independence of the country and crowned himself as our emperor; for the first time since a princess abolished Brazilian slavery but did
    not distribute land or build schools; for the first time since a marshal proclaimed the Republic but neglected to build it; for
    the first time since, 15 years ago, we redemocratized Brazil but did not change anything in our social reality.

    When he began to speak in Caetés, before a crowd greater than the city’s entire population, the sun was
    disappearing, and it appeared that a rainstorm would come to that dry northeastern backwoods. Lula spoke with even greater emotion
    than usual. None of his speeches, not even the one he gave on Paulista Avenue in São Paulo at dawn on October 28
    commemorating the victory, was so charged with emotion. Speaking of his mother, he made no attempt to hide his tears and said that, no
    matter what, she never bowed her head. His election, he stated, could serve as an example for those who should know that they
    need not and must not bow their heads before the powerful. And he said that in his government each aide will need a heart
    even larger than his or her brain.

    Brazil needs cabinet ministers and civil servants who, in the first place, have the heart to shed tears over poverty and
    the brains to transform their indignation into the driving energy to create proposals for change. It needs government aides
    who unite the capacity for indignation with the capacity for creating solutions to resolve the causes of that indignation.

    Lula delayed 500 years in arriving at the Presidential Palace. He came from Caetés, a place that could symbolize the
    hometown of every poor person in this country, each Brazilian who is unemployed, a migrant, a street child, a desperate mother. He
    will arrive in the Presidential Palace, the seat of the power that they never had.

    But, in the airplane on the return flight, we could see that Lula is aware that his journey is only beginning.

    Five hundred years had to pass prior to his arrival at the Presidential Palace, but now, in the next four years, a new,
    more difficult journey must be made under the President’s coordination in the sense of abolishing poverty, ending social
    exclusion, accomplishing a second, complete abolition, constructing a true republic and sovereignty, where all feel that they form
    part of the same country, one where the President not only has an origin in the people but also governs for them.

    If he succeeds in making this next journey, Lula will go down in history, not only as the man of the people who
    turned into the President, but also as the President who turned Brazil into a country that favors its people.

    Cristovam Buarque is a professor of economics at the Center for Sustainable Development, University of Brasília,
    and can be reached at  

    Translated by Linda Jerome

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