Brazilian a critic of U.S., 'friend of Cuba'
BY ANDRES OPPENHEIMER
SAO PAULO - Luiz Inacio ''Lula'' da Silva, a longtime critic of the U.S. role in Latin America, could become Brazil's next president, but he rejects speculation that he would form a political alliance with Venezuela and Cuba to promote anti-American sentiment in the region.
Still, da Silva said, he considers himself ''a friend of Cuba'' who would demand the island's inclusion in the U.S.-proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas.
In his first public reaction to claims by U.S. conservatives that he would form an ''axis of evil'' with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, the veteran leftist leader said in written responses to questions submitted by The Herald that such forecasts see the world ``as if we were in the midst of the Cold War era.''
Last week, conservative former White House aide Constantine C.
Menges wrote in The Washington Times that ``if the pro-Castro candidate
[da Silva] is elected
president of Brazil, the results could include a radical regime . . . developing close links to state sponsors of terrorism such as Cuba, Iraq and Iran.''
Da Silva, leading in the polls for the October presidential election, rejected the suggestion as absurd. The 57-year-old former steelworker, who has already made three failed attempts to win the presidency, defined himself as a democratic fighter for social justice whose heroes are Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
''I have never been a populist, and I will never become one,'' he said.
Da Silva said that ''the real axis of evil'' was made up of the
U.S.-backed pro-free-market presidents who ruled Latin America's biggest
countries in the preceding
decade: Carlos Salinas of Mexico, Carlos Menem of Argentina, Alberto Fujimori of Peru and Fernando Collor de Mello of Brazil.
''As it became clear later,'' da Silva said, ``the four were corrupt presidents, who ruled their countries as if they were playing roulette in a Las Vegas casino.''
LEADS IN POLL
According to a poll released by the Vox Populi firm this week, da Silva is leading in voters' preferences with 34 percent, followed by left-of-center former Ceará Gov. Ciro Gomes with 29 percent and government-backed centrist Jose Serra with 12 percent. The election is Oct. 6. If no candidate wins a majority, the top two candidates will face a runoff Oct. 27.
Alternating harsh anti-American rhetoric reminiscent of the 1960s with efforts to moderate his language in pursuit of middle-class voters, the Workers' Party candidate tried to distance himself from the Forum de Sao Paulo, a group of mostly hard-line communist and leftist parties from around the world that he helped found in 1990. Its last meeting was held in Havana in December.
But, he added, ``What unites us is the rejection of the economic policies that have been imposed over the past 15 years in most countries of the hemisphere.''
Da Silva declined to explicitly criticize the absence of fundamental freedoms in Cuba, unlike other democratic left-of-center leaders around the world who have asked for more political space for the political opposition.
Asked whether, in addition to condemning the U.S. economic sanctions on Cuba, he would criticize the lack of democracy on the island, he said, ``I have been in Cuba many times over the past 20 years, and I don't hide the fact that I consider myself a friend of Cuba, and an admirer of the Cuban people. Cuba is a small country that managed to face and resist to this date the pressures from the United States, and that pays a high cost for that.
``Naturally, the fact of being a friend of Cuba doesn't mean that I or the Workers Party agree with everything they [the Cubans] do. In one of my last trips, I had the opportunity to tell Fidel Castro publicly that, for us, in Brazil, Cuba is not a model, just as the United States, France or other countries aren't our models.''
Da Silva reiterated his opposition to the U.S.-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), a plan to create a hemisphere-wide free-trade area by 2005. He described the main problem as ``North American protectionism.''
''If I'm elected, I'll do for Brazil exactly what the U.S. government
is doing for the United States: defend the interests of my country, of
my country's population,'' he
said. ``Which is exactly what the government of [Brazilian President] Fernando Henrique Cardoso has not been doing, and is not doing.''
Under the current trade calendar, Brazil and the United States
will become co-chairs of the last leg of the hemispheric free-trade negotiations
starting in January, the
very month when Brazil's next president takes over.
Asked whether he would boycott the trade talks or demand new
conditions, da Silva replied: ``We will sit down, we will try, but it should
remain clear that the FTAA proposal, as it reads now, amounts to a kind
of annexation of the Latin American economies to the U.S. economy, causing
enormous damage to our industry,
agriculture, commerce, services, and our own culture. If I become president, Brazil will not suffer any annexation process.''
In addition to requesting better access to the United States,
which recently imposed protectionist measures on steel and agricultural
products, da Silva said he will
demand that Cuba be part of any hemispheric trade agreement.
''We want a real integration, political, economic, cultural,
without exclusions, and that's why we must include Cuba. What sense does
it make to exclude Cuba? The
United States continues with its stupid and outdated embargo policy against the island, but it is increasingly isolated in that regard,'' he said.
But he later tempered the remark by saying that Cuba's possible
inclusion must be ''discussed'' in the negotiations, hinting that it would
not be a crucial issue in the
upcoming talks. The Bush administration has invited all democratic countries of the Americas to be part of the free-trade area, which automatically excludes Cuba.
Brazil's first priorities, rather than the hemisphere-wide free-trade agreement, will be to strengthen Mercosur -- the ailing South American free-trade bloc made up of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay -- and bring Andean countries into that agreement.
In addition, Brazil should improve commercial ties with the 15-member European Union, China, India and South Africa, da Silva said.
On domestic issues, the candidate said he would not roll back the economic privatizations that occurred in the preceding decade as Brazil adopted free-market policies. ``What has been privatized, is privatized: There will be no nationalization of companies.''