Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva steps down tomorrow, handing power to an elected top aide after eight years steering his country into enviable stability and prosperity.
The legacy he leaves would be remarkable for any leader, but for the former factory metalworker and trade union leader he was, it resembles more a made-for-Hollywood story tracing a rise from poverty to power.
“The majority of the population have given me the opportunity to prove that a mechanic shift worker can do for this country what the elite never managed to do,” Lula said when he was first elected to Brazil’s highest office in October 2002.
The gruff, bearded head of state is leaving reluctantly. Brazil’s Constitution blocked him from seeking a third consecutive mandate despite a spectacular popularity rating of over 80 percent.
However, he did manage to secure his successes by making sure his former Cabinet chief, Dilma Rousseff, was elected to take over as Brazil’s first female president.
Unlike when Lula took power — to market panic at the idea of a leftist former union leader at the controls — economists are complacent at seeing Rousseff continuing what turned out to be fiscally responsible policies by the outgoing president.
Rather than implementing radical left-wing reform, as feared, Lula adopted dark suits and a calm, pragmatic approach that allowed him to become a star of global diplomacy while reinforcing cooperation between the world’s -developing nations.
The review Foreign Policy even went as far as to call him a “rock star” on the international stage who projected impressive charisma. US President Barack Obama called him “the man.”
A gifted negotiator, Lula knew how to build unlikely alliances or cast off friends who had suddenly become liabilities through political corruption scandals.
“I know how many slurs and prejudices I’ve had to overcome to get where I am. Now, my only goal is to show that I am more competent than many people who have run this country,” Lula said in 2006, as he was about to be re-elected.
The general feeling in Brazil is he achieved that aim, by maintaining an economic plan drafted by his predecessor, former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
Social programs he championed have lifted 29 million people out of poverty and into a middle class that is developing a reputation for avid consumerism.
Lula’s common touch, with a vocabulary of the street, was a comfort to a population sick of bureaucrats.
His international prestige grew when he managed not one but two hosting coups, bringing the 2014 soccer World Cup and the 2016 Olympics to Brazil.
Born on Oct. 27, 1945, as the eighth and last child of a couple of poor farmers in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, Lula was seven when his family uprooted and moved to Sao Paulo state to escape poverty.
As a metalworker at age 14, he lost a finger on his left hand in a machine accident. At 21 he joined the union, and less than a decade later, in 1975, he became its president.
He was the force behind big strikes in the 1970s that challenged the military dictatorship in power at the time. In 1980, he created the Workers Party that rules Brazil today.
Lula presented himself in presidential elections for the first time in 1989, but lost narrowly to former Brazilian president Fernando Collor de Mello, who resigned amid impeachment proceedings for corruption in 1992.