NY Times News Service, BRASILIA
In recent months the political climate in Brazil has been a boiling caldron for President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
The second deadly airplane crash in 10 months set off a crisis in Brazil's aviation industry in July, with many critics saying government inaction was at the root of the problem.
Last month the nation's Supreme Court ordered 40 members of the president's political party to stand trial on corruption charges in a scandal that has netted some of his closest advisers, including his former chief of staff.
But as Lula, now in his second term, sat down for a 75-minute interview here in the presidential palace, those worries hardly seemed to faze him. He was nothing but upbeat, with good reason.
Despite the controversies, Lula's approval rating hovers above 60 percent. Brazil, Latin America's largest economy, has grown by 3.5 percent a year, slower than fellow developing countries China and India but a marked improvement over the 1990s. Debt levels and unemployment are down. Reserves are up. Inflation is one-third what it was five years ago.
"We are experiencing an auspicious moment in Brazil right now," Lula, 61, said in his first extended discussion with a US journalist since 2004. "Brazil is experiencing its best economic period."
That boom combined with his broad popularity among Brazil's working class has provided Lula, a former metal worker with a sixth-grade education who worked in an auto plant, with remarkable political resilience.
"He is the Teflon president," said David Fleischer, a political analyst and an emeritus professor at the University of Brasilia. "Nothing sticks to Lula."
That includes the scandals that by now could have debilitated another presidency. But Lula continued to deny knowing anything about the most recent one, in which members of the governing party were accused of paying congressional deputies more than US$10,000 a month to vote for favored legislation.
He refused to say if anyone in particular had betrayed him.
"There are hundreds of employees around me that I don't have any idea what they are doing," Lula said.
One of them, apparently, was his former chief of staff, Jose Dirceu, whom many consider the architect of Lula's rise to power and who has been charged with being the mastermind of the vote-buying scheme.
"I don't believe that there is any evidence that Mr Dirceu committed the crime that he is being charged with," the president said. "He will be judged."
Fresh from a trip to Europe, where he stirred interest in Brazil's sugar-based ethanol fuel and won billions of dollars in investment pledges, Lula was instead focused on the economy.
Exports of Brazil's raw commodities like soybeans and iron ore are booming as a result of high global prices and insatiable demand from Asia. In one sign of Brazil's economic health, as the subprime credit crisis was roiling the US a few weeks ago, Brazil's bonds were raised to just below investment grade.
He said that Latin America as a whole was at a critical moment, when it needed to seize the opportunity to shore up its economies, notorious for mismanagement and corruption.
At the same time, he shrugged off suggestions that he should seek to be a hemispheric force and a stronger counterweight to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has aggressively seized the spotlight in the region with his energy deal-making and political maneuvering in favor of left-wing candidates.
"We in Latin America are not trying to look for a leader," Lula said. "We don't need a leader. What we need to do is build political harmony because South America and Latin America need to learn the lesson of the 20th century. We had the opportunity to grow, we had the opportunity to develop ourselves and we lost that opportunity. So we still continue to be poor countries. What I want is to govern my country well."
As Lula headed to New York on Sunday for a UN meeting, he was relentlessly pitching Brazil's mammoth agricultural potential and energy experience, especially in ethanol, which Brazil makes from sugar cane, a source far more efficient than corn.
With ample arable land that is the envy of the world and a 20-year head start on developing a biofuels industry, Brazil is the only country exporting ethanol in any significant quantities.
Lula predicted that within 15 years a global biofuels industry would be developed, with the commodity being shipped around the world on tankers for a global price.
"I believe that the world will yield to biofuels," he said.
He found a receptive audience on a recent visit to Sweden, where he rode around in an all-ethanol-powered bus in Stockholm, one of 600 city buses, he said, that the Swedish government had retrofitted for use with biofuels. Sweden wants every new car on the road to run on renewable fuels by 2020. The EU has recommended its countries add 5.7 percent ethanol to the gasoline supply by 2010.
"We will democratize energy access," he said. "Instead of 10 countries producing oil, we could have 120 countries producing biofuels."
So far, however, a biofuels accord Lula signed with US President George W. Bush this year has yet to yield concrete results.
An import tariff in the US, supported by the powerful farm lobby, has prevented Brazil from competing for a share of the US market.
Relations are generally warm with the US. But Brazil's relations with Venezuela have been strained at times as Brazil has appeared to shy away from some of Chavez's proposals for greater regional integration.
In the interview, however, Lula offered tacit support for the creation of a "Bank of the South," which could provide more money for development.
He also said that more than 50 experts from Petrobras, Brazil's state oil company, and officials from Petroleos de Venezuela were still discussing a US$15 billion natural gas pipeline project that would stretch 8,000km from Venezuela to Argentina.
A crucial question is whether enough gas exists to make it viable, Lula said. Chavez last Thursday again blamed Petrobras for delays in approving the project, Reuters reported.
The economic focus was consistent with Lula's move to the center since he took office in January 2003.
Since then he extended many of the economic policies of his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, while putting in place programs like Family Allowance, a welfare program devised to help the poor. Last year, the program offered monthly subsidies of about US$50 to some 11 million families, representing 40 million to 50 million voters.
Lula's personal story has inspired millions of Brazilians. He grew up dirt poor in a small town and later worked as a lathe operator at an auto plant. He found his calling as a labor leader and politician.
Despite his modest education and sometimes questionable grammar, his personal warmth and colorful references to Brazilian soccer have captivated many.
When he steps down in 2010, Lula said, he plans to head back home to Sao Bernardo do Campo, the industrial town near Sao Paulo where he got his start in politics with the metal workers' union.
"I am not going to go on a graduate study program at Harvard University," he said, in a dig at his predecessor, Cardoso, who regularly teaches at Brown University.
"When I leave the presidency, the one thing I want in life is to be treated as a friend by all of those who were my friends before I took office," he said.
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