This year Latin Americans got mad as hell and decided not to take it anymore. Frustrated at the failure of governments to improve the lot of ordinary citizens, people took to the streets to demand change. In Argentina, protests early this year toppled provisional regimes like dominoes; in Venezuela, on any given day it seemed as if half the nation was rallying against the failed populist policies of President Hugo Chávez. But the most profound blow against politics-as-usual came in Brazil on Oct. 27, when voters chose former metal worker Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, 57, to steer the world's fifth largest country and tenth largest economy.
Da Silva, known everywhere as Lula, won by rejecting the mantra of open markets and smaller government favored by Washington, and issuing a clarion call to reduce poverty in Brazil. "If at the end of my mandate, every Brazilian can eat three times a day, I will have fulfilled my life's mission," Lula declared in his victory speech.
No one doubts that the needs of the poor are great out of 175 million Brazilians, an estimated 57 million live in poverty. But how does Lula intend to deliver on his promise? The new President inherits an economy in mid-stutter. Economic growth is expected to be a sluggish 1.2% this year; inflation may hit double digits for the first time since 1995; interest rates are running at 22%; Brazil's currency, the real, is near an all-time low against the dollar; and the country's debt has ballooned. Lula needs to hold the line on the budget to calm jittery investors. He has made a start by naming Wall Street favorite Antonio Palocci, the former mayor of Ribeirão Preto, São Paulo, as his finance minister. Lula will move while his mandate is hot to introduce reforms of the tax and social security systems that, he believes, will redistribute income, raise revenues and free up funds for the war on poverty.
Lula has seen even tougher times than this. Born in the hardscrabble rural northeast of Brazil, he was five when his mother packed up her eight children and joined the flood of migrants bound for the booming south. From the age of seven, Lula shined shoes and ran errands before landing a job in a factory in the gritty suburban belt of São Paulo. He rose through the ranks of the 100,000-man Metal Workers' Union and was elected to lead it in 1975. Lula helped found the Workers' Party in 1980, and quickly became its standard bearer. He ran for President in 1989, 1994 and 1998, only to lose as middle-class voters fearful of his fiery rhetoric flocked to his opponents. This year was different. Two years ago, Lula pulled the Workers' Party toward the political center and set out to build support within the business community, and even vowed that he would abide by the terms of a $30 billion IMF agreement concluded by the government. The Brazilian press dubbed his new image the "peace and love Lula" and it worked.
Despite his lopsided victory at the polls, his party holds only a plurality in the Congress. Lula will need every one of the negotiation skills honed as a union leader to gain approval for his programs. He also needs to manage sky-high popular expectations while he gets his team up and running after taking power on Jan. 1. A touch of negotiating magic may be called for in foreign policy as well. Brazil will aggressively push rich countries to remove their domestic subsidies and trade barriers, especially for agriculture, at upcoming talks for the Free Trade Area of the Americas and the WTO. But Lula's focus never strays far from the plight of the poor. In an interview with Time earlier this year, he declared: "I want Brazilians to have a better life." It is an obsession that resonates across a battered continent.