“He is the most popular politician on Earth.” That is how U.S. President Barack Obama called his Brazilian colleague Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva at a G20 summit in 2009. It was probably true. While all the leaders in developed countries were having a rocky ride because of the economy crisis, that man with very little formal education was enjoying an 80% approval of his job in the country he governed from 2002 to 2010. Many used to think all that popularity piled on his backyard merely because the Brazilian economy was booming in the middle of a global hangover from the subprime crisis — that is the understanding of those who only read bank reports. Those who know Brazil and Latin America a little better will see Lula is still loved for one main reason: any Brazilian can choose which kind of Lula they want to boast. That is not that different from Pope Francis, our new Latin American pop star.
If you are an old-time leftist who saw him rise against the military dictatorship as a union leader, you would be very likely to support the guy from the start. And you would keep his support at about 30% no matter how many corruption scandals and dodgy political agreements he put himself into. If you are poor and disillusioned with politicians (like most Brazilians), you could go for “this guy suffered so much, he knows what it is like for poor people.” Identification with the majority surely resonated well for Lula and it gave him communication skills like no other Brazilian politician has. If you are a middle class conservative who bought a better car or started traveling abroad during his terms in office, you probably learned how to say “he is not a radical anymore and he is doing a good job.” They said it as if politics weren’t a part of the job. If you are wealthy, you could get away with “he is a nationalist and he is talking Brazil up.” That is how they got rid of associating with a (kind of) leftist party as they netted the profits.
(A reminder: Brazilians don’t “mob” people they like, unlike many reported during Pope Francis’ visit. It is they way they cheer, regardless of security apparatus. Get used to it.)
Lula always knew who he was talking to. I covered many of his dozens of visits to São Paulo from 2004 to 2010. He could transform into the former union leader, the survivor, the common sense man and the nationalist as the crowd demanded him to. That and the economic results clearly undermined the opposition, which still struggles to find another voice to counterbalance his. Lula’s grasp of Brazilian society is so wide reaching that he is the favorite to win the presidential elections in 2014 — although he denies any intention to run again and defends his candidate is his pupil Dilma Rousseff. Since President Rousseff is more of a manager than of a politician (not exactly news in world politics), Lula fills the political void without being in the spotlight so much.
A political heavy-weight, no doubt.
Pope Francis is one of these Lulas one can find in Latin America.
Not only for warmth and charisma, but also for the fact you can have any Pope Francis you want. If you want the Catholic establishment, just see how he reveres his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict 16. If you are a social conservative, you will probably identify with what Jorge Mario Bergoglio says about abortion, homosexuality and other liberal issues (he might look liberal now, but his background is undeniable). If you want a leftist, check how he reconnected with the Marxist-oriented Theology of Liberation by putting forward the canonization of the Salvadorean cardinal Oscar Romero. If you want a man of the people, a few pictures of him taking the tube in Buenos Aires and reports on his frugal eating habits will do. If you want an intellectual, note how quickly he published his first encyclical (with the help of Pope Emeritus Joseph Ratzinger). If you want a Catholic Church CEO, take a look on how he very quickly showed the need to reform the troublesome Vatican bank and defended the reform of the Roman Curia without surrendering to it.
Both also share the lack of fear of average people. At least in Brazil, that posture has never brought too much of a risk for those who take it. Lula and Bergoglio surely gave a lot of trouble to their security personnel, but it is a fact Brazilians don’t have any tradition of attacking high-profile people. Because they understand what makes average Latin Americans tick, these two are much less worried than the media or his colleagues who can’t jeopardize the feeling they are somehow loved or respected by their people. It is not only a spontaneous move: it is also a political decision to break barriers to be closer to Joe Average.
Latin Americans do like multiple personalities in their leaders. Maybe it is part of a personality disorder. We can combine hysteria and depression, blind optimism and narrow-minded pessimism, selfless generosity and fanatical egoism. Heavy-weight politicians like Lula and Pope Francis do understand that. That is also how they take political gain of it.
Add the recent polls pointing to Lula as the favorite in the presidential elections and Bergoglio’s visit to Brazil. The result is this: managers can’t replace politicians in tune with society. Politicians can only survive, at least in Latin America, if they show they adapt to a changing environment that doesn’t accept distance from their leaders and want either engagement with the political status quo or someone who represents them properly.
Or at least someone who looks to be doing what they want to.
P.S.> After I published this post, Pope Francis gave this interview on which he talks about many issues. It is surely a good read.