How President Lula changed Brazil

Brazilians  walk along a main street in Sao Paulo, September 2010 Brazil has seen a huge swell in its middle class since Mr Lula came to power

I used to tell visitors to close their eyes as I drove them into Sao Paulo from the airport.

That was seven years ago, when the first impression of South America's biggest city was a pot-holed motorway running parallel to a stinking river, along whose banks economic migrants had made their homes in wooden shacks perfumed by belching exhaust fumes.

This week, I have come back to Sao Paulo to cover the election.

And while still not exactly scenic, that airport run has improved significantly.

The river bed has been dredged to stop flooding and the motorway surface is today smoother, with more lanes.

Shacks still line the road, but there are fewer of them. The eye is drawn instead to the massed ranks of cranes and tower blocks, which house the city's rapidly swelling middle class.

Five reasons why Brazil matters

1. Economy: It is set for some 7.5% growth this year. The number of Brazilians regarded as middle class is rising fast, and with it their desire and ability to buy consumer goods.

2. Resources: It is a top exporter of key foodstuffs including sugar, poultry and beef, and a major producer of iron ore and other commodities much in demand by countries such as China. The recent discovery of offshore oil fields could propel Brazil into the top league of oil producers.

3. Environment: The size of the Amazon rainforest makes Brazil an essential presence in climate talks. Deforestation has slowed. Brazil makes much use of renewable energy - for example, hydroelectricity. Development of its oilfields and use of land for agriculture could undermine its green credentials.

4. International voice: Brazil is now more visible in international diplomacy, with strengthened ties with Africa and the Middle East. Brazil is among those pushing the importance of the G20.

5. Sport: Expect plenty of stories in the next few years about Brazil's 2014 World Cup preparations and Rio's 2016 Olympic plans. They will be two huge events in a country that knows how to party.

Disposable income

Number-crunchers say rising incomes have catapulted more than 29 million Brazilians into the middle class during the eight-year presidency of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a former trade unionist elected in 2002.

Some of these people are beneficiaries of government handouts and others of a steadily improving education system.

Brazilians are staying in school longer, which secures them higher wages, which drives consumption, which in turn fuels a booming domestic economy.

The new consumer footprint is visible in the San Mateus neighbourhood in eastern Sao Paulo, where traditional hole-in-the-wall bars and tyre repair yards have been joined by more aspiring businesses.

I pass a poodle parlour, an upscale driving school, and countless beauty salons - none of which are new to Brazil but which are new to this evolving barrio, where disposable income is suddenly flowing.

"Nowadays, women who once cut their hair at home come in demanding the very latest products," explains Gilberto dos Santos, a stylist at the grandly-named Celebrity Space Salon, where Marilyn Monroe posters adorn the walls.

"As a society I think we have become more vain and more people have access to this kind of pampering," he says.

Behind him, chattering customers wait patiently for today's cut, manicure or wax.

Start Quote

Nowadays, women who once cut their hair at home come in demanding the very latest products”

End Quote Gilberto dos Santos Hair stylist

Almost everyone I spoke to gave President Lula credit for these achievements. Their tributes as he leaves office is a far cry from the cold fear that greeted his election in some quarters in 2002.

'Remarkable leader'

When I began my posting as the BBC's correspondent in Sao Paulo the following year, bankers were openly fretting that the leftist newcomer would undo a decade of economic reforms.

Erudite opinion formers warned that a former metalworker with only basic education would embarrass Brazil on the world stage.

Neither fear has been borne out.

Internationally, Lula's easy charm and heartfelt advocacy of the developing world has moved Brazil centre stage in the globalisation debate.

"I love this guy," US President Barack Obama enthused at one G20 summit, while former British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently told the BBC that Lula was "one of the more remarkable leaders of the modern age".

Women in a beauty salon, Sao Paulo Brazilians now have more disposable income

Similarly, Brazil's business community has come to appreciate its one-time bogeyman.

In the breakfast room of my Sao Paulo hotel, gaggles of Blackberry-wielding entrepreneurs begin their deals for the day - riding the wave of an economy that will grow by about 7.5% and create some 2.5 million jobs in 2010.

"We've done well by Lula, so no-one is complaining," one suited diner told me.

"And he's spread the wealth around the country, which in Brazil is good politics," he said.

Nor did my business friend seem in any way perturbed by the imminent general election to choose Lula's successor.

"We're cool about this vote," he said.

Start Quote

He's spread the wealth around the country, which in Brazil is good politics”

End Quote Diner Sao Paulo hotel

"Whether the winner is Dilma (of President Lula's Workers Party) or Serra (of the Social Democratic Party), we know economic policy will stay the same."

Teaching quality

With a grin, he expressed a slight preference for Dilma Rousseff, arguing that she would be the easier of the two potential presidents to lobby.

Not everyone shares the rosy outlook.

One Brazilian friend, a self-employed language teacher, complained that short-term economic euphoria is drowning out the debate about much-needed changes to the country's infrastructure and education system.

Although Brazilian children are staying in school longer, the quality and consistency of teaching leaves a lot to be desired.

My friend also correctly pointed out that the cornerstone of today's stability was the inflation-busting new currency introduced by Mr Lula's predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

Brazilian supporters of presidential candidate for the Green Party (PV), Marina Silva, wave green flags while supporters of the candidate for the Workers' Party (PT), Dilma Rousseff, wave red flags, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on September 29, 2010 Brazilians vote for a new president on Sunday

All the same, the departing president is rightly banging the drum for his achievements, and hoping the feel-good factor will rub off on his anointed successor, Ms Rousseff.

At a rain-sodden final rally in Sao Paulo, the technocratic Ms Rousseff struggled to fire up a scrupulously loyal crowd.

Tellingly, it was President Lula who spoke last, boasting that his 2010 Brazil enjoyed "one of the lowest unemployment rates in the history of humanity" - far lower than the USA, Germany and other first world heavyweights.

But whether it amounts to indifference, complacency, or simply confidence in Brazil's still youthful democracy, this election does not appear to have set pulses racing.

The most telling thing about Thursday evening's final presidential debate was its late time-slot, broadcast live only after the sacrosanct telenovela (soap opera).

It was well after midnight when the candidates made their closing pitches, directly into the homes of viewers - most of whom had long since switched off.

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