Published on: 02/01/2023 – 19:25
Back in business, President Lula wants to make the fight against poverty and hunger one of his priorities. After four years in Bolsonaro’s presidency, the leader of the Brazilian left is banking on social programs in a Brazil that has been facing an even deeper recession since the pandemic.
After four years of Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency, a page is turning for Brazil. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was sworn in as President of Brazil for a third term on Sunday January 1st. Speaking to Congress in Brasilia, Lula vowed to “rebuild the country” after his predecessor’s “disastrous” record.
In particular, he promised to fight hunger, “the gravest of all crimes,” and “to combat all forms of inequality.” These social issues, dear to the leader of the left, illustrate the post-Bolsonaro social and economic challenges.
A few days before his accession to the throne, Lula won a first battle. On December 21, the Brazilian Congress approved a constitutional amendment that allowed the government to exceed the spending limit for funding social programs. Specifically, the upper limit may be exceeded by 145 billion reais (around 26 billion euros).
This money was to be used to increase the minimum wage and maintain the monthly grant of 600 reais (110 euros) to the poorest families. This aid, which corresponds to the old “Bolsa Familia” (“Family Grant”) of the first Lula government, had been replaced by Jair Bolsonaro’s “Auxilio Brasil”, which still stands today.
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A chance for the outgoing president to “put his stamp on” the welfare mechanism, according to François-Michel Le Tourneau, geographer, director of research at the CNRS. “The amounts of the Auxilio Brasil were higher and there were fewer conditions to benefit from it than the ‘Bolsa Familia’. But the program was too broad, too much was distributed. It was very expensive and not very well suited to the niches of poverty,” explains the Brazilian specialist.
A poor kid from Nordeste who became president
Today, the Lula government wants to redesign this program. With the same goal as in the early 2000s: eradicate hunger in Brazil. A scourge that Lula, son of a poor peasant family in Nordeste, experienced in his childhood. For the geographer Martine Droulers, Emeritus Director of Research at the CNRS, this past explains, among other things, this obsession that never left the man nicknamed “the father of the poor”. “His childhood was marked by nutritional problems. In Sao Paulo, the family fortunes improved, but he always kept an eye on the north east, where there is still great poverty,” she recalls.
No wonder, then, that the Brazilian President has made it his hobby. In 2003, at the beginning of his first term in office, he promised that every Brazilian would eat three meals a day. The leader of the Brazilian left had launched the “Fome Zero” (“Zero Hunger”) plan, which included above all the “Bolsa Familia”, an increase in the minimum wage or even support programs for the development of the family in agriculture.
In 2010, Lula’s action against hunger was commended by the UN. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), by the end of Lula’s second term in office, malnutrition in Brazil had fallen by 70% and the infant mortality rate by 47%. In 2014, the UN officially removed Brazil from its world hunger map.
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“The poor have gotten a little less poor, but they didn’t move up into the middle or affluent classes overnight. These extremely poor people have risen to the upper class, but they do not live in a comfortable situation,” explains François-Michael LeTourneau.
“When Lula ended his two terms in office in 2010, that was the peak of economic growth for the country, but it didn’t last,” explains Martine Droulers. “The recession started and got worse from 2013,” continues François-Michel Le Tourneau. And Brazil never really got away from it. The Covid-19 pandemic has only made the situation worse by causing a much more intense shock. “There are fewer jobs, slower economic growth and rising prices, putting part of the population in a difficult situation,” the geographer sums up.
15% of the population is food insecure
These difficulties are illustrated in particular by the increase in hunger: 33 million Brazilians, or 15% of the population, suffer from it, according to a study by the Penssan network, which specializes in food security. The affected population has doubled since 2020 due to the pandemic.
In this context of crisis, the path for Lula and his social program will be strewn with pitfalls. The government is trying to reassure the business community, which fears the government is neglecting fiscal discipline to fund its welfare programs. The trust of the left-wing electorate is also at stake: “We will have to tell certain people who were entitled to the Auxilio Brasil that they are no longer entitled to it today. That risks making people unhappy,” explains François-Michel Le Tournament.
The same disagreements that shaped the public debate when the Fome Zero plan was launched are likely to resurface. “Fighting hunger and poverty will not endear Lula to his ideological opponents, such as conservatives and evangelists. So I don’t think the fight against poverty can unite the country behind Lula On in the short term. On the other hand, the Lula government could win a much broader electoral base if it manages to return to strong economic growth, if unemployment and poverty fall going back,” says François-Michel Le Tourneau.
“Lula will likely focus on what has been neglected in recent years, like supporting family farms or a credit policy. But he may not be able to do everything, warns Martine Droulers. And if there are ever results, we won’t look at them right now.”
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