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Brazil's Lula, a high-school dropout, closes an exceptional era

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will step down tomorrow with an 87 percent approval rating, though some say he failed to make necessary long-term economic reforms.

By Andrew DownieCorrespondent / December 31, 2010

Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (r.) kisses Corina Edelvina Bento as she receives the keys to her new home at a government-built housing complex in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Oct. 25. Lula leaves a nation transformed from a perennial underachiever into one with economic and political clout, model social programs and a swagger as it prepares to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

Felipe Dana/AP/File

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São Paulo, Brazil

One of the best-selling books in Brazil this year was “Never In This Country’s History,” an acerbic but humorous look at the memorable phrases uttered by Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva during his eight years in power that will come to a close tomorrow.

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The book’s title is in reference to what has become one of Lula’s catchphrases. With characteristic hyperbole, Lula frequently boasts about his successes. No one has ever done as much to help Brazilians or transform the country as the high school drop out turned president and statesman.

Or as he said in 2003, according to one quotation from the book: “I arrived at the presidency to do the things that needed to be done and that many presidents before me were cowards and didn’t have the courage to do.”

Olympic and World Cup host

No one would argue that Lula has a high opinion of himself. But then again, he has reason to be proud of his achievements. When he took over in January 2003, Brazil’s economy was floundering, with the currency falling, interest rates rising, and the IMF standing by with a record $30 billion in bail out funds.

In spite of having little economic education, Lula used common sense to turn the country around. He stuck to his predecessor’s policies where appropriate and innovated where necessary.

Eight years on, the currency is strong (perhaps too strong), interest rates are half what they were, and direct foreign investment has tripled. In addition, Brazil has assumed a once unimaginable importance on the world stage. It won the bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics over Chicago, among other cities, and will host the 2014 World Cup as well – a nice catch for Lula, who is a big fan of football.

Rise of the middle class

Most important, Lula has done what few Brazilian presidents have managed – or even attempted – and narrowed the shocking gulf between rich and poor.

Thanks mostly to his expansion of the Bolsa Familia (or Family Aid) program, 24 million Brazilians have left absolute poverty and 31 million have progressed into the middle class.

The definition of middle class is low by US standards – a family earning between 1,115 and 4,807 reais a month ($660 and $2,844) is considered middle class – but it is enough to make them into the consumers who are driving the country’s booming economy.

Going out with approval rating of 87 percent

That said, there is still a huge amount of work to be done and one of the most salient criticisms of Lula is that he has consistently overlooked or downplayed the country’s problems.

Educational standards remain chronically low and corruption is endemic. The government machine has expanded exponentially and although Lula has a personal approval rating of 87 percent, he made no attempt to use clout to make the structural reforms that many economists say are necessary for the country’s long-term development.

Lula, like most politicians, refuses to acknowledge he has made mistakes. But one thing is for certain. Never in this country’s history has Brazil seen a president like Lula and it may never again. Which would be unfortunate for many reasons, the least of which is his ability to give a good quote.

He will be missed.

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