Enduring legacy of Brazil's Lula

File picture of President Lula Lula is leaving office as the most popular president in Brazilian history

Francisco de Souza has just got back home after 17 years away.

Returning was his plan all along since he left the small town of Tiangua, in the state of Ceara, to flee the extreme poverty of the Brazilian north-east.

Mr Souza's story echoes that of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and millions of other north-eastern migrants who had to leave in search for a better life in the much richer south - and found it.

Thanks to Brazil's economic growth during the Lula years, many have now the choice of going home with their heads held high.

President Lula da Silva, who steps down on 1 January, will leave behind a booming economy and a faith in the future unseen in Brazil for decades.

"We both started with nothing and made a lot of our lives," said Mr Souza.

"When I went to Sao Paulo, I didn't even have shoes to wear," he recalls. "Now I am back home as the owner of three houses, with my car, with money to set up a small business and a beautiful family."

The business Mr Souza is about to start is a good illustration of the changes in the once hunger-stricken region that both he and President Lula left years ago.

"I am going to open the first shop of food supplements for athletes of my town," he says.

Fast-growing region
Francisco de Souza with his family Like President Lula, Francisco de Souza started with nothing and made something of his life

The north-east remains the poorest part of Brazil, but it is now growing faster than any other region.

The city of Garanhuns - which Lula's family left back in the 1950s because of total lack of opportunities - is about to get its first shopping mall.

"The new mall is proof that our region is developing and that investors believe that economic growth is here to stay," said the development secretary of Garanhuns, Ornilo Lundgren Filho.

"All of this is only happening in Brazil thanks to a man that left our city as a poor child and, against all odds, became the best president Brazil has ever had," says Mr Lundgren.

Optimism is in the air in the Saturday market of Garanhuns where farmers and villagers gather to trade and talk.

PRESIDENT LULA

  • Born to a poor family in north-east Brazil, worked as shoe-shine boy
  • Trained as metalworker, became union leader
  • Founded Workers Party
  • Elected president in 2002 and 2006
  • Movie of his life, Lula: Son of Brazil, entered for 2011 Oscars

"I am 66 years old and I tell you that Lula's government is the best I have seen in my life, and I don't say that only because we are from the same hometown. There's been change all over the country," said rancher Luis Silva.

Mr Silva is from Caetes, which was a district of Garanhuns when Lula was born, but became an independent city years later. Now, both claim to be hometown of the most popular president in Brazilian history.

Part of Brazil's economic success under Lula's government has to do with the great number of people who managed to move up the social ladder.

The money of this new middle class helped Brazil escape the global financial crisis relatively unharmed.

Cardoso effect

The rise of 30 million people from poverty is one of Lula's undisputed legacies - and a major reason for his status as Brazil's most popular president ever.

But his critics - and even many allies - say Lula's success was built upon the economic stabilisation brought about by the highly unpopular previous government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

Children in the Xucuru community Some communities, such as the Xucurus, are still waiting to become part of Brazil's boom

"Inflation was reaching the heights of 3,000% per year in 1994 when Mr Cardoso, who was then finance minister, implemented the economic plan that beat inflation.

Because of that plan, he won the presidential elections and started a series of reforms," says political scientist Bolivar Lamounier, a close friend of former President Cardoso.

Mr Lamounier says President Lula inherited a country ready for growth and managed to make the most of it.

"Lula's legacy is certainly sizeable. The expansion of governmental social programmes was his greatest achievement."

But Mr Lamounier notes that a lot has been neglected, particularly investment in infrastructure.

"During the eight years of President Lula da Silva's government, there was almost no investment in essential areas such as transportation and energy."

Olympic ready?

The government has launched an ambitious $1.2tn (£780bn) project to revamp the infrastructure, but so far not much has happened on the ground.

Start Quote

When light gets here, it will be the first sign ever of the presence of the state in this community”

End Quote Humberto Pessoa Government engineer

There are serious concerns, for example, about the readiness of Brazilian airports for the 2014 World Cup and the Olympic Games two years later.

Brazil will need to keep growing fast over the next few years if it is to extend the benefits of development to everyone in the country.

Even though changes over the last decade have been dramatic, many pockets of poverty persist both in the big cities - the violent "favelas" - and the countryside. Brazil remains one of the most unequal societies in the world.

Only two hours' drive from President Lula's hometown, 50 families living in an indigenous Xucuru community are still waiting to be connected to the electric grid, even though they see lines passing over their heads.

Almost all adults in the village are illiterate and the only school was inaugurated only a couple of years ago by a missionary group.

"We didn't even know that these people were here until we were warned by the missionaries," says Humberto Pessoa, a government engineer locally responsible for the federal programme to connect countryside communities to the electric grid.

"When light gets here, it will be the first-ever sign of the presence of the state in this community."

Comeback?

But these are challenges for President Lula's successor, Dilma Rousseff, whose main campaign pledge was to continue his work.

Mrs Rousseff is usually described as an efficient manager who lacks the political skills of her predecessor.

There are suggestions in Brazilian media that Lula's plan would be to run for presidency again in 2014.

Polls showed he would have probably won had he entered the 2010 race, but the Brazilian constitution allows for only two consecutive terms.

He denies that this is his plan, but has refused to rule out running for office again.

In the few months after he leaves the presidency, he is expected to take a holiday while aides prepare the launch of the Lula Institute, an NGO whose role remains unclear.

So far, there are only speculations as to what Lula's actual intentions are. But it seems that one of the most popular statesmen in the world - still relatively young at 65 - will simply leave the stage while still at the top of his game.

Paulo Cabral's radio series on "Lula's Legacy" is on the BBC World Service from 27 December.

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