Monthly Archives: July 2013

Brazilians love Pope Francis for similar reasons they still miss President Lula

“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.


Pope Francis’ Brazil is very different from Benedict’s European fantasy

Disclaimer: I am not religious, but I have always been anthropologically interested in the subject. That is why my final project at uni in 2006 is a radio documentary on Islam in my home town. I also made a big effort to cover this year’s conclave at the Vatican. I am keener on the political than on the theological side.

It was a grey and rainy afternoon at the Guarulhos air base in 2007 when elderly Pope Benedict 16 arrived in Brazil for his first trip overseas. The weather said a little about the general status of country he was visiting. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had just been reelected after a first term praised for social investments and tainted by a massive kick-backs scandal in Congress. Rio had just lost an Olympic bid without reaching the final ballot. Brazilians were far from full employment and the Latin American hype was on Chile. The country didn’t make much news internationally because major outlets were interested in Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. Any success in Brazil was credited to the booming world economy. Services were still bad, but no one took to the streets.

Who could ever believe that Pope was really coming to Brazil again?

Quite a different Brazil his Argentine successor Francis is about to find this week. It is a country which was in a big hype, seems to be leaving that status because of the recent protests and the sluggish economy, but might go back to the spotlight as the World Cup approaches and part of the economic hysteria fades. From a welcoming country to any pontiff it has become a place where his safety is a concern to President Dilma Rousseff herself. Whatever happens will be scrutinized all over as a sign on if Brazilians regrouped after the difficulties in the Confederations Cup. The World Youth Day might draw about 1,5 million people to Rio de Janeiro.

Of course that is seen as a Catholic Woodstock. But Brazil is nothing like 2007.

As a man who found quite a different Vatican from that of 2007, Jorge Mario Bergoglio could do fairly better than his predecessor in impressing the Brazilian crowds. Coming to Latin America in his first trip abroad is also a big sign of where Joseph Ratzinger failed his faithful: Roman Catholic influence is also about figures, and losing support in Latin America could cost a lot globally. After successive crisis under Benedict, Francis will have to show there is more to him than the simplicity of his gestures so he can get some fans back to the Vatican. Being Latin American is surely a plus.

But there is no guarantee he will avoid protests during his one week stay. Brazil feels different now.

Ok, somethings never change…

Not because there is anything particular against Bergoglio yet. The main reason is that of the Confederations Cup protests — there is a spotlight on Brazil and protesters want to use that. I think the protests against the Pope might make a standard for the World Cup: it is a really big event, unlike the Confederations Cup, and supporters are much more on the streets than the critics. That means smaller demonstrations, but yet present next to where all the action takes place. If it were Pope Benedict, a man of controversial opinions that took on rivals of Latin American left-leaning Theology of Liberation, that might be different.

Benedict came in 2007 to help solve a problem for the Catholic Church. The last Pope seemed to think he could tame Brazilians with a bit of conservative and gestureless European church — that coming from a man who chose to be called by the name of the saint of Europe. Brazilians didn’t relate to him at all. And I say that as a reporter who followed most of his appearances in Brazilian soil.  What could the Roman Church offer to the country with the most Catholics in the world? A country which until recently had no saints born there, fewer cardinals than in the sixties and a growing challenge by evangelist groups?

That is for Francis to answer. Answering that in such a transformative moment for Brazil is yet a bigger challenge.

Ratzinger’s visit to Brazil was so dull that the only thing many people remember, besides his giving Brazil their first saint, was the shock after President Lula shook hands with him instead of kissing his Fisherman’s ring. It took days for our press to understand Lula had welcomed Benedict as a head of State — therefore making a private Catholic gesture in public would be totally inadequate. Unlike his younger days, in which he helped fund Latin American students in Germany, he had earned the fame of religious “panzer” by silencing clerical friends of many of those on the streets. 

The now Emerit Pope never came back. Neither did many Brazilians — Roman Catholics were 65% of the population then and now they are 57% of our 200 million inhabitants, according to an important pollster.

Pope Francis already paraded through the streets of Rio with no more than the habitual (small) protections. He understands Brazilians are more about touch than listening and that is why he reduced his protections. Of course that warmth could turn against him at a moment many organizations and individuals try to get their 15 minutes for protesting it out. But Brazilians are used to carrying their icons on their shoulders and nothing bad ever happened to them.

These streets in Rio would be almost dull that six years ago.

Now they are more of an uncharted territory. But they are still closer to streets Pope Francis already knows in his Latin America than those in Europe his predecessor was keen on.