Brazil as beacon
Ibrahim Nafie in Brasilia interviews Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva
At a time when conventional wisdom throughout the world has it that democratic government is inseparably tied to unfettered market economies, a number of countries in Latin America, and particularly Brazil under your leadership, seem to be offering an alternative path -- one in which the social dimension is placed at the heart of both democratisation and market economy regulation. Would you comment?
Let me say to begin with that when we get to power, it frequently happens that we do not do what we want but what we can. My first challenge when I became president was that the country I was in charge of had lost all its credibility in foreign markets. There was no funding for investment, the risk rate on investment had reached 2,200 points, the national debt was extremely high and 47 per cent of that was linked to the exchange rate of the dollar. What could I do in a situation like that?
The first thing we had to do was to seriously tackle our monetary policies. We realised that as a country with limited resources we could not spend beyond our capacities. At the same time, we knew that we had to initiate some very bold social policies.
Over the past two years we succeeded in reducing the risk rate on investment and in reducing the dollar-linked portion of the national debt to between five and six per cent. We also managed to push up the national economic growth rate to 5.2 per cent, the highest growth rate Brazil has seen since 1991. During this period, too, we were able to create 2.5 million new job opportunities, which also set a record as the highest number of new job opportunities since 1992. We have also seen faster industrial growth rates than during the 18 years before this period. In addition, the overall volume of wages rose in the case of the most organised labour sector.
In tandem with these policies, we began to implement social policies never seen before in Brazil. We set up a "Zero Hunger" project, a multi- faceted programme that included agricultural reform, a small loans programme and a family financial assistance programme. All of these are interconnected. For example, by last December the family assistance programme had succeeded in covering 6.5 million families, a figure we hope will climb to eight million by the end of this year and 11 million by the end of 2006. When we get to that figure the programme will have reached all the Brazilian families that live below the poverty line, taking into account the fact that the number of families below the poverty line will be steadily declining because of the general rise in the Brazilian economic growth rate.
I would also like to add here that in order to obtain this financial assistance (which is not much -- $30 per month) families must meet certain conditions of a broader social value. Every child in the family under the age of 14 must attend school regularly. The recipients have to ensure that their children get all the stipulated vaccinations, which is their children's right. They also have to ascertain that any pregnant women in the family receives all the necessary medical checkups.
In addition to the small loans programme we also set up another one for workers. This one is run through the labour syndicates which entered into agreements with banks to grant loans to workers for one to three year periods at less than half the market interest rate. The programme was amazingly successful and we have now extended it to include retired workers as well. By the end of the year we expect that the number of pensioners who have taken out loans of this kind will have reached six or seven million.
In agricultural reform our programme for increasing production was based on the idea that the most important task in this respect was to help the millions of people living on farm land be productive. They needed more technical aid, they needed loans and they needed an insurance umbrella for their produce. These we provided and they stimulated a boom in family agriculture.
Let me give you another example. In Brazil the poor did not have a right to free dental treatment. Dental care was regarded as something of a luxury because it is so expensive, so healthcare programmes never made provisions for dental care. This meant that if the poor suffered any ailments with their teeth they would generally lose them. Our answer to this problem was to establish 400 dental care clinics, each of which covered an area with a population of half a million. The clinics offer the full range of dental care and treatment services. We hope to cover the rest of the country in the coming 15 months.
Why do we do all this? Quite simply because we want to show that you can have strict monetary policies and meet all your financial obligations and, at the same time, implement strong and very effective social policies. I still have a year and a half to prove this and to show that we can. I am highly confident that we will accomplish great achievements.
The Brazilian Workers Party seems to offer a new, and rather unique, model of the modern political party and of the principle of unity in diversity. Would you elaborate on the concept behind this model, as well as on its successes and challenges?
I am convinced that the achievements of the Workers Party are related to its exercise of democracy with diversity. The party itself was founded jointly by workers in the mining industries, leftwing intellectuals, members of the Catholic Church who espouse liberation theology, a large segment of the student movement and a large group representing other organised social movements. The party derives its strength precisely from this diversity, which had never been permitted in traditional communist parties.
This diversity, too, is what enabled the Workers Party to present itself as a new brand of political force. Nevertheless, we do not claim that the Brazilian Workers Party offers a model that can be emulated by other countries. In political matters people have to base their experiments on their own history and their own political culture. They cannot rely on models that are not of their own making. However, I still stress that open- mindedness in domestic political debate and the exercise of democracy to the fullest are what enabled the Brazilian Workers Party to become a great political party.
This has had a very positive impact on Brazil's neighbours. Our experience was highly enriching, for me personally and I believe for the Brazilian people as a whole. From the sociological standpoint, it was once inconceivable to create a party with these properties, a party in which the workers have such overwhelming influence and in which Brazil's intellectuals participate in the building process, not by competing with the workers but by adding their efforts to the efforts of the workers. I can tell you that we have often fought among ourselves, but when we reach a decision we all take it seriously. I remember a time when we had a congress of only eight members (out of an original 50) and of these we had to dismiss three.
Porto Alegre was the birthplace of the World Social Forum, as an initiative of your party and Brazilian social movements. How far, in your view, has the WSF succeeded in its objective of offering an alternative "globalisation from below", to the neo-liberal "globalisation from above" represented by Davos' World Economic Forum?
We have to understand the broader significance of the WSF. If this forum existed only as a form of protest and opposition it would not have lived long. The wisdom of the organisations that arranged the last forum (in Porto Alegre in January) evinced itself in their drive to create a new agenda that would enable them to systematically call governments to account for their behaviour. It is to be hoped that this agenda will be advanced by political parties, syndicates, churches and various social movements with the aim of compelling governments to abide by their commitments to realise the projected targets of the millennium development plan (adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2000). Without a massive grassroots mobilisation on a global scale, the rich nations will not give the millennium goals any attention because they have already achieved the targets for themselves.
The millennium goals are designed for developing and poor nations. However, if the rich nations remain reluctant to invest money in order to help in the development of the poorer countries, these goals will remain worth no more than the paper they are written on and the poor will continue to have to sustain the burden of debts they had no hand in incurring.
This was the reason behind the joint proposal put forward by French President Jacques Chirac, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Zapatero, Chilean President Ricardo Lagos and myself, calling for the creation of a new fund to help poor countries combat hunger and achieve the millennium goals. We plan to finalise this project during the UN General Assembly meeting in September.
At that time, too, thousands of people will rally outside the UN building in order to press us and the rich nations in particular to do all in their power to help the poorest countries in Africa.
I am very pleased with the WSF. I have just come from there. It is a place where I met with some lifelong friends and with many who support me as well as many who differ with me. In 2003 I participated in the WSF in Porto Alegre and then went to Davos to take part in the World Economic Forum. It was an exciting experience for met to go to Davos to say exactly the same things I had just said in Porto Alegre. And why not? If I was satisfied with only preaching to the converted the result will be zero. But to go to Davos bearing a completely new type of message then that might help bring some change in the way those people behave. That was why it was very important to me to participate in both forums and I will continue to do so as long as I am able.
I have always said that we must make "hunger" a political issue. As long as hunger remains a purely social issue nobody will give it any attention. A person who gets three square meals a day will never understand the meaning of hunger and it will never be a priority for him.
Therefore, we put this issue to the WSF and before the G8 summit in 2003, yet that did not succeed in creating an international fund to combat hunger. However we in Brazil have pioneering experience in how to fight hunger and it is a rare leader today who does not refer to this need in his speeches.
Last September during the UN General Assembly meeting in which 60 heads of state were present, 113 nations signed the pledge to fight hunger. So there has been progress, if not as fast as is needed or as we would like.
Let me return to Davos and tell you an interesting story. Even in Davos they have started to talk about hunger. But one of the most important events in last January's meeting was that Sharon Stone was there. While the president of Tanzania was speaking on how the children of Africa suffer from mosquitoes because of the lack of sufficient mosquito nets, the famous American actress stood up to announce that she would donate $10,000 to buy mosquito nets for children in Africa. She then challenged the participants to top her bid. Within ten minutes a million dollars had been collected. I deeply believe that we, as human beings, are half mind and half heart. When we address people's consciences and their hearts we stand a better chance of creating more noble and more humane human beings.
What is your position on regional integration in the Western hemisphere in general, and on the FTAA in particular? And do you view the free trade negotiations between the MERCOSUR group and the EU as an alternative to the FTAA?
One of the most important lessons of my life I learnt again during a meeting between the countries of the Iberian Peninsula -- Spain and Portugal -- and the countries of Latin America held on the fringes of the 2003 Davos conference. When poor countries go to speak with rich countries, they generally talk about the misery and wretchedness caused by poverty. We're poor. We have children sleeping in the streets. We have child commerce. We blame American imperialism. We blame the EU. We blame Japan. We are always looking for a guilty party to take the problem off our shoulders. After listening to several of my colleagues speaking in this vein, I left the meeting. I was certain that no one respected anyone else because of their poverty and wretchedness. If we do not create positive expectations and real hope no one will give us a second thought. If instead of complaints we talked solutions then there would not be all this poverty and misery in the world.
So, I left that meeting with the conviction that we have to begin by bringing together those countries that face similar conditions, have similar economies and are at similar levels of development and work to strengthen the relations among them first. Then, together we can take practical and effective steps to convince rich nations to show greater flexibility in their dealings with us.
For Egypt to go in one direction, Brazil in another, and Mexico and India each in their own directions, that will benefit no one but those who dominate the various international forums and the WTO in particular. However once we get together to defend our common interests and strengthen relations between us then everything will be easier.
Let us see what Brazil can export to Egypt and Egypt to Brazil. What can our businessmen do to build a partnership between them. If we succeed in building relations at that level we will be more and more capable of succeeding and, perhaps more importantly, we will be less dependent upon the dominant blocs. The more autonomy we have the more they will have to listen to us.
This is why we have chosen the alternative of getting all South American nations together first. In South America presidents would take hundreds of trips to Europe and hundreds more to the US, but rarely did they visit another South American country. Brazil shares borders with every other country in South America apart from Equador and Chile. So when we talk about integration we can talk about roads, communication lines, seaports and airports. If we don't build all these things then all our speeches will be no more than words in the air and we will remain prisoners of poverty for another century to come.
So we decided to bring South American countries. Then we decided to turn our attention to Africa and the Arab world. Why? Because in that part of the world too leaders generally prefer to go to the US or to Europe instead of going to another country of the South. We desperately need to realise that all of us have a lot we can offer one another. There is much that we can do to help each other. This does not come at the expense of our relations with the US or Europe. As regards Brazil, they are our biggest trade partners and it is not in our interest to create problems with them. All I want is more balanced and more equitable relations with them.
My syndicate experience has taught me the need to keep a cool head at all times. Over time I learned that good dialogue generally produces far better results than quarrels and I learned how to practise politics through dialogue. I believe it is the best way to conduct politics in this globalised world.
We have achieved important successes this way. Naturally, there are times when you have to raise your voice a bit. In the WTO for example, we had a confrontation with Europe over sugar but we won and we had a confrontation with the US and we won that too. At first we never thought we would, but we did. And neither would have been possible before we formed the G20.
In light of these experiences I can only sit and contemplate the situation of important countries of the South, such as Egypt, Brazil, Mexio, India, China and South Africa, and what it means for us to get together in the G20 and other such organisations. Won't this make us far more able to compete?
As regards the EU, the problem is that from the outset it was preoccupied by supporting the development of its poorer member nations, such as Greece and Portugal. These countries received great sums of money and now they have to support the new members that were just admitted into the EU.
This brings me back to the subject of the FTAA. The US only wants to negotiate on matters that serve its interests, such as services. It does not want to negotiate on matters that are in our interests, such as agricultural produce. We have some very destitute countries in South America. I won't name them, because no one likes to be described as destitute. These countries will never be able to move forward unless the US shows some understanding for the need to create the conditions that will enable these countries to become real players at the regional level.
Brazil is a key negotiator in the FTAA negotiations and we will continue to negotiate as long as it takes to achieve what is required. However, Brazil has its own interests. Brazilian agriculture has its own interests. Brazilian businessmen have their own interests. The same applies to all other countries in South America. None of this is directed against the US, but it certainly is meant to address the interests of Brazil and its neighbours. That is all there is to it.
While we were contending with all these problems in the FTAA negotiations everything in South America came to a standstill. But, today, within the space of only a year and a half, we have concluded free trade agreements with all countries of South America. Now we really have a free trade zone covering this entire continent. We went much further than MERCOSUR and this is very significant.
All of this had once seemed impossible. But we have actually made it come true. Now we are on the process of building what we have called a South American Nations Group. We will be much stronger for it.
In 2003 you took the initiative of calling for a South American-Arab dialogue, the first round of which is to be conducted in May at a summit level. What are your views on the scope and objectives of such a dialogue? And what do you expect from the Arab states in order to make this dialogue both fruitful and effective?
Let me show you something. (Lula rises and moves to a large map of the world hanging at the centre of the meeting room adjoining his office.) The problem is that we are still in Latin America. (He points to it on the map.) South America never used to talk to South America. Instead it would go here (he points to the United States) or there (he points to Europe). And Arabs in their turn go here (he points to Europe once again) and there (he points to the United States). We don't see the map of the world as a whole. Why doesn't our region look to yours on the opposite side of the map, and why don't you look to us? We are all developing countries, and as such there is a lot we need to do. We need to do a lot to develop agriculture here, and we need to invest a lot in the field of science and technology, and we need to contribute much to improving our industries. There is also a lot to be done in the field of social policy, and to enhance tourist exchange among our countries.
How many Brazilians know anything about the glories of Egyptian history? In order to come from Cairo to Brazil, you must first stop in Paris. And for a Brazilian to go to Cairo he must first go to Paris; very likely he will stay there. (He laughs.) Why don't we establish a direct line of flights between two countries like Egypt and Brazil, whose population amounts to 70 and 180 million respectively? Why don't we set up partnerships among our countries to enable people to enjoy their right to travel. When a Brazilian has the chance to visit the Egyptian Museum, or to go and see the Pyramids, he connects with the history of human civilisation.
We must kindle, in our peoples, the desire to find out about each other, their shared human heritage. We all talk about the United States of America, but we don't talk about each other.
This summit will provide us with an opportunity to discover the massive potential available for us together, and especially it will give us a chance to know each other better. For politics is, in the end, a human relationship; a kind of chemistry governs human interactions, and it is this that I was after when I called for the summit. We want to discuss our conditions and how we can help each other -- this is its principal objective.
What is your assessment of the current state of bilateral relations between Brazil and Egypt, and how could these ties be bolstered on all levels?
Egyptian-Brazilian relations could be incomparably more powerful, on both the commercial and cultural plane -- we need to believe in this. Relations with the United States are not everything. For example, theatre and cinema in Brazil are concerned only with what is produced in the United States, and in Europe. They say very little about what goes on in China or in Egypt. They don't talk about us.
How many years must pass before Egypt hears news of Brazil? And how many before Brazil hears news of Egypt? Who is responsible for rectifying this situation?
This is indeed what we are here for, and governments must make an effort in this direction. I believe in this, which is why I spend a considerable portion of my time on travelling not to rich countries, but to countries whose circumstances are similar to ours. In the last two years alone the number of visits I made to African countries exceeded the total number of visits made there by every Brazilian president throughout the country's history.
I had not the least idea of the greatness of Egypt. I didn't know anything about what Cairo looks like. And when we got there I found a country full of vitality, in possession of immense capabilities.
This is what makes the summit so vitally important. My hope is that all Arab leaders will come here, and that we will all work to help one another in full view of the huge possibilities the present century presents to us, and that we will make it our century. For if the last century was the century of Europe and America, let us make the next one our own. But we must believe in the possibility of achieving this, for if we fail to believe in this possibility it will never be realised.
What should Brazil and Egypt do to improve their relations with the object of achieving these goals?
In 2003 the volume of our exports to Egypt amounted to $623 million; this is a situation that must not persist, for we want more balanced commercial relations with Egypt. We want our imports to grow at the same rate as our exports -- so that our two countries will grow together. This is something we must discuss and spend more effort researching.
Egypt plays an extremely vital political role in the Middle East, and this is what gives our relations with it a special edge. This is why I'm doing all I can to develop those relations. And let me seize this opportunity to repeat my call on President Mubarak to come to Brazil to participate in the summit. I hope he will stand here among us, in Brazil, to express Egypt's power -- directly. Egypt is the beacon of the Middle East; please grant us some of your light.