In first 100 days, Brazil’s Lula aims to revive his legacy

The Brazilian president’s return to power has been marked by efforts to reinstate his past social policies and undo what his predecessor Jair Bolsonaro did

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva
Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva waves as he arrives for a ministerial meeting to review the first 100 days of his government at Planalto Palace, on April 10, 2023. Associated Press/LaPresse EDITORIAL USE ONLY/ONLY ITALY AND SPAINAssociated Press/LaPresse (Associated Press/LaPresse)

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva finishes the first 100 days of his third term as Brazil’s president on Monday and his return to power has been marked by efforts to reinstate his social policies and undo his predecessor’s legacy.

Lula unseated Jair Bolsonaro by a razor-thin margin last October. He and his team announced plans to hit the ground running. Then, a week after Lula’s inauguration, Bolsonaro supporters stormed government buildings in the capital Brasília, hoping military intervention would remove the leftist from power.

Quelling unrest while staving off potential coups was a challenge unseen by any president since Brazil’s return to democracy over three decades ago, and it has overshadowed the efforts of Lula’s administration since then.

Lula, who governed between 2003 and 2010, started his third term faced with the stiff challenges of achieving his goals of eradicating poverty and hunger while preventing economic slowdown.

To the extent that he has ushered in change since Jan. 1, that has entailed reactivating policies from past Workers’ Party administrations: The cash-conditional Family Grant welfare program, the My House, My Life housing program, and the More Doctors initiative to expand medical care.

“Other governments inherited an organized state; Bolsonaro disorganized the state. Everything needs to be redone,” Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper University in São Paulo, said. “Even so, the government hasn’t presented a (new) project.”

Lula has blamed Bolsonaro for the challenges faced by his government, whose official slogan includes the word “reconstruction.” Before taking power, Lula commissioned and publicized a detailed report on the government’s debilitated state. On March 17 on Twitter, Bolsonaro remarked that governing is very easy for Lula: “just undo what Bolsonaro did.”

“I am not used about talking the first 100 days of the administration,” Lula said during a ceremony at Brazil’s presidential palace on Monday to recognize a date with symbolic significance in this and many other nations. “But I think it is important to remind you that, in 2003 I took over from a democratic president, which did not happen now.”

Lula successfully rallied lawmakers and Supreme Court justices in defense of democracy and began executing a strategy to remove the armed forces from politics. Almost three months later, he has made inroads with a vastly pro-Bolsonaro military and garnered some support in Congress. He also received a nod from moderates and business leaders for his finance minister’s proposed fiscal rules to address recurring budget deficits; the government aims to zero the primary budget deficit by the end of next year.

Still, polls show Lula lacks popular support. Of 2,028 Brazilians polled by Datafolha, 38% said Lula’s administration was either good or excellent – just above Bolsonaro’s approval rating after three months in office. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points.

Some analysts say Lula likewise still lacks the congressional support to pass legislation.

In order to fund social investments and ensure job creation, Lula also needs the economy to grow. Economists surveyed weekly by the central bank forecast sub-1% growth this year, and little more in 2024, down from 2.9% last year even with a fourth-quarter contraction.

To spur activity, Lula has spent considerable time and effort pressuring the president of Brazil’s independent central bank to lower the benchmark interest rate from its highest level since 2016 – thus far to no avail.

While Lula has struggled on the economic front, he has scored wins on the environment after pledging to usher in a new era of responsible stewardship of the Amazon rainforest.

His biggest environmental win has been a humanitarian operation to rescue Yanomami people from disease and malnutrition in the Amazon. The armed forces, under the leadership of a newly appointed army commander, provided food and medical supplies, while newly empowered environmental agents destroyed illegal gold mining camps that lay waste to the rivers and forest, and expelled miners from the Indigenous territory.

This reflected a shift from the policies of Bolsonaro, who encouraged prospecting, criticized such protected lands as unproductive and systematically defanged environmental authorities.

Environmentalists, Indigenous rights activists, the media and foreign governments have cheered the Lula administration’s efforts in Yanomami land. Lula also reactivated donations to the Amazon Fund that is the most important international cooperation effort to preserve the area.

There are bigger environmental tests ahead. Lula has yet to rebuild Brazil’s environmental bodies, not only for preservation efforts, but also to demonstrate the government’s full commitment to foreign investors and governments, said Marcio Astrini, the executive-secretary of the Climate Observatory, a network of non-profits.

Bolsonaro went about “institutionally sabotaging the environment. The (Lula) government has taken important steps, but one cannot underestimate Bolsonaro’s legacy,” Astrini said.

Reasserting Brazil’s place on the international stage has also been a priority for Lula, and he has reconnected with leaders from the United States, France, China and Argentina. Bolsonaro showed little interest in foreign travel or bridgebuilding.

The Brazilian leader has also sought to project himself as a leading voice for a peaceful end to the Ukraine conflict, though some have criticized his position as unduly soft on Russia. Eduardo Grin, a public administration professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a university and think tank in São Paulo, also that Lula has voiced support for authoritarian regimes in Latin America, including Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

Speaking in Brasília on Monday, the president said that he still has a lot of time to correct his administration’s missteps. His social communications minister said Lula will host weekly broadcasts on social media to talk about his work, a strategy employed by Bolsonaro throughout his presidency to connect with ordinary people and offer accountability.

Lula also instructed his ministers to be more vocal about their achievements.

“Our task, besides governing, is to talk a lot,” Lula told them. “Brazil has a future again. And this is just the start.”

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