U.S. President Barack Obama once called Brazilian President Luiz Inacio da Silva the most popular politician on earth. In Brazil, his approval rating has reached 80 percent, and many people give him the credit for turning the country into an emerging economic powerhouse. But critics say da Silva will leave his successor with some serious problems when he steps down after two terms in office.
It is a weekday and business is brisk in Uruguayana commercial district of Rio de Janeiro. Merchants hawk sunglasses and pirated DVDs. Appliance stores open out onto a plaza with displays of large flat panel televisions.
A man in blue collar workclothes eyes one of them. Ronaldo Ormond Silva says he recently finished paying off the installments on a new refrigerator and is now in the market for a TV.
“With Lula as president, things have gotten a lot better. It’s easier to buy things,” he says, “I’m someone with a humble background and it was always a struggle to make ends meet.”
It is estimated that 30 million people have joined the middle class during the eight year presidency of President Luiz Inacio da Silva or Lula.
Brazil is now considered one of the world’s major emerging economies, along with Russia, India and China. And da Silva has been flexing Brazil’s muscle abroad with overtures to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmedinejad of Iran.
Da Silva is unlike his predecessors in many ways. He was born to a poor family in the north and shined shoes as a boy. History Professor Francisco Carlos Teixeira says many working class Brazilians feel they can identify with him.
“Instead of presenting graphs, tables and indexes, he goes and talks in the same way people would if they were having a conversation at home or in a bar,” he said.
Critics say da Silva’s popular image is the product of a sophisticated marketing campaign. They say Brazil’s economic strength is also the result of monetary stabilization policies instituted by his predecessors.
But Teixeira says previous administrations actively limited economic expansion because they feared the country could not handle too much of it.
“It was a very strange kind of capitalism — a kind of capitalism that was not allowed to grow. Because if it grew it would explode,” Teixeira said.
But the jury is still out on whether they were right. Brazil’s infrastructure is now under severe strain.
Only 62 percent of households in urban areas have running water and sewer connections. Roads and airports are unable to handle growing traffic. Illiteracy is high, and there is a nationwide shortage of engineers and other skilled workers.
Political scientist and business consultant Amoury Souza says the federal treasury is running out of funds.
“For the past eight years, we have spent on the civil service, social security and social welfare, more than the national wealth has increased,” Souza said. “We are living beyond our means.”
These are all problems for Brazil’s next leader. And that’s likely to be Dilma Roussef, whom da Silva’s chose to be his successor. She won the first round of elections last Sunday. The second and final round will be held at the end of this month.