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Obama, The New Lula?

This essay engages a recent Christian Science Monitor article that compares Brazilian President da Silva to U.S. President-elect Obama.

by Pancho McFarland

A recent Christian Science Monitor article, “The Obama of Brazil,” hopefully compares President-elect Barack Obama to Brazilian President Ignacio Luiz da Silva. Affectionately known as Lula, da Silva had a history of energizing the Latin American left before assuming the post of Brazilian President. According to the article, da Silva has pulled Brazil out of its economic and political woes and thrust it onto the world stage as an emerging player in market and in politics. The November 12 article praises da Silva for “ruling from the center” and says that Obama might have some things to learn from da Silva’s strategy. This editor’s introduction to a series of articles on da Silva embraces da Silva’s “market-driven solutions” and his political style that “doesn’t tweak the Yankee nose.” According to the article, Da Silva’s accomodationist politics “please global investors” and U.S. elites.

I am somehow less enthusiastic about Lula’s politics and the emerging market-based politics of President-elect Obama.

During the mid-1990s many of us in the academic and activist left had high hopes for Lula. He was a leader of a powerful union and a national workers' movement in Brazil that included the Workers’ Party and the Landless Movement. For the folks I worked with in the Zapatista movement talks of his bid for the presidency of Brazil worried us. We had deep-seeded tendencies toward anti-authoritarianism and skepticism about "democratic" governments and electoral politics. We felt that Lula would be most effective at creating change in Brazil and subsequently throughout the Western Hemisphere through opposition to the state and not cooperation with it. Since he has been President of Brazil he has increasingly moved toward the right, away from radical democratic politics, and toward cooperation with the global elite who, through structural adjustment programs and support of Brazil's military governments, were the very global actors who were causing poverty, ecological destruction, and racial injustice. And Lula, err, President da Silva, further ties Brazil, its citizens and workers to transnational/global capitalism. No doubt his version of capitalism is much nicer and avoids some of the nastier aspects of capitalist violence. However, his policies remain in the confines of free market, no holds barred capitalism.

"What can Lula teach Obama?" is an interesting question. Despite the rhetoric about Obama's desire to create a massive redistribution of wealth, he is an avowed capitalist. He has voted for the redistribution of public wealth towards the wealthy with his vote on the $700 billion bailout and development of an economic advisory team filled with free marketeers. His consideration of people such as Larry Summers to head the National Economic Council and pick of the Wall Street-insider and Henry Kissinger protégé, Timothy Geithner for Secretary of the Treasury should warn us that Mr. Obama plans to engage in business as usual and not effect the kind of complete revision of economic policy which is required at this time. According to Peter Cervantes-Gautschi in a recent article, "Secretary of Greed," as under secretary of the Treasury during the Clinton Administration champion of Wall Street, Summers “engineered the destruction of Mexico’s economy by increasing interest rates to unmanageable levels.” The result has been incredible human suffering and massive Mexican immigration to the United States. Additionally, Obama’s and Geithner’s relationship to the Council on Foreign Relations whose members include all of the major candidates for President in this year's election should also be of concern to those on the Left and others who seek a dramatic overhaul of our economic system. The CFR is widely known as the principal policy cheerleaders behind the New World Economic Order.

Obama’s “peace candidate” credentials are similarly limited. He wants to increase troop levels by more than 90,000 and wants to replicate the “surge” of troops in Iraq throughout Afghanistan. Despite the rhetoric he is not interested in the United States becoming the world leader in sponsoring peace. Nowhere is this clearer than in his pick for Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel, the choice of Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Emmanuel is staunchly pro-Israel and anti-Arab. He will do much to heighten tensions in the Middle East under Obama. Clinton in 2005 praised the building of the apartheid wall separating Iraelis from Palestinians. The wall drives animosity between the groups as it limits Palestinians to resource poor bantustans. Not only does President-elect Obama surround himself with Middle East hawks like Eric Holder and Dennis Ross, he has spoken of his support of Israel during his June speech at the American Israeli Political Action Committee meeting. To the extent that much politics and conflict in the Middle East turns on whether one is pro-Israel or pro-Arab, his commitment to Israel along with his votes to fund the war in Iraq can only further the problems there ensuring that we will be embroiled in bitter and violent confrontations in this part of the world for some time to come.

No progressives in sight for the Obama team. Those of us who hope for change in U.S. foreign and domestic policy away from pro-capitalism, pro-business, and pro-war must pin our hopes on the energy of a populace that can no longer take the class wars being waged by U.S. and global elites. Hopefully, we get fed up enough with business as usual that we force change on our elected leaders and their advisors. If we rely on Obama’s picks for cabinet positions and key advising positions, we are likely to learn that change is only a campaign slogan and hope, just another four-letter word.

Pancho McFarland is assistant professor of sociology at Chicago State University. He is author of the recently published, Chicano Rap: Gender and Violence in the Postindustrial Barrio.

Copyright © Pancho McFarland. All rights reserved.