Behind Brazil's Leftist Leader, a Kindred Spirit Thrives
By LARRY ROHTER
BRASÍLIA — The chief of staff to President Luiz Inácio
Lula da Silva has been so close to him for so long, functioning as his
alter ego and enforcer, that he is
sometimes called "Lula's Shadow."
Much has been made of the president's rise from peasant lad to factory
worker to labor leader to head of state, but the path to power of his aide,
José Dirceu de
Oliveira e Silva, has perhaps been even more improbable.
As presidential chief of staff, Mr. Dirceu is generally regarded as
the second most powerful man in Brazil, Latin America's largest country.
But his past also includes
stints as a guerrilla trainee, an underground operative with a fabricated identity, and a political prisoner so prominent that he was exchanged for a kidnapped American ambassador.
"José Dirceu is one of the few people who can say without exaggeration that his own life could be made into a movie," the newsmagazine Veja commented in a profile of him. "You might say that José Dirceu has gotten to where he is because he made the most opportune choices — and when he didn't, destiny did that for him."
Mr. Dirceu, 56, the leader of the left-wing Workers' Party, declined
to be interviewed. "A chief of staff ought to keep a discreet profile,"
he said in January at his
swearing-in. But in just a few months, he has become a familiar and indispensable figure to the ambassadors, business executives, legislators, lobbyists, mayors and
other supplicants who regularly come knocking on his door.
"He is the point man who controls the machine, which means appropriations
and appointments," said David Fleischer, publisher of Brazil Focus, a political
"All the cabinet requests and bureaucratic procedures go through his office," he said, as well as negotiations with Congress and state governors.
Mr. da Silva's confidence in him is such that Mr. Dirceu exercises more
authority than any chief of staff since the military dictatorship from
1964 to 1985. Mr. Dirceu
balks at comparisons with the military government, noting that he has been an elected state legislator and a member of Congress and that he "lost an election for
governor" of São Paulo, the country's largest state.
But his power has also been enhanced by Mr. da Silva's governing style.
In contrast to his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, "who wanted
to be minister of
everything," but very much like Ronald Reagan, Mr. da Silva "likes to talk about the big issues, mobilizing people, rather than getting involved with the minutiae," said
Alexandre Barros, a political analyst here.
"With that, Dirceu has assumed the role of the political coordinator
and gatekeeper of the government," Mr. Barros continued. "Everything goes
Like the president, Mr. Dirceu can lay claim to an unfashionable backwoods accent and modest origins. "My father worked 47 years and retired without even owning a house of his own," he said in his swearing-in speech.
He left home at 14 to work as an office boy at a television station in São Paulo, then gained admission to college five years later.
Like most students of his generation, he opposed the right-wing military
dictatorship that seized power here in 1964, and soon was leading a double
life as a law
student and member of a Brazilian Communist Party cell. In October 1968, when he was a candidate for president of the National Student Union, he was arrested by the government's political police, who broke up the group's conference.
The next year, Mr. Dirceu was among a group exchanged for the United
States ambassador, Charles Burke Elbrick, whose kidnapping in Rio de Janeiro
was later the subject of the movie "Four Days in September." Mr. Dirceu
ended up in Cuba, where he spent nearly five years, received guerrilla
training and underwent plastic
surgery to change his features before returning clandestinely to Brazil.
With warrants still out for his arrest and stripped of his Brazilian
citizenship, he adopted the identity of a Jewish businessman, settling
in the southern state of Paraná.
He opened a men's clothing store, married and fathered a child, but he kept his distance from politics, according to people who knew him then.
"I am a Brazilian by choice," Mr. Dirceu said in an interview with the newspaper Fôlha de São Paulo. "I was deprived of my political rights and banished; I came back here and put my life at risk to live in my country because I couldn't live outside."
When a political amnesty was declared in 1979, Mr. Dirceu reclaimed
his real identity and returned to Havana for plastic surgery to restore
his features. He finished
law school, helped found the Workers' Party along with Mr. da Silva and by 1987 had advanced to become the party's secretary general.
In that role, and later as the party's president, he was at Mr. da Silva's
side during three unsuccessful campaigns for president. Considered a moderate,
was instrumental in steering the Workers' Party away from rigidly doctrinaire socialist positions after its 1998 defeat and in forging the political alliances and more
moderate image that led to victory last year.
"He has not necessarily been involved in formulating ideas and policies," Mr. Barros said.
"In that sense, he is a lot like John Spencer in `The West Wing,' " he continued, more a political operative than a deep thinker.
Though Mr. Dirceu has promised that the Workers' Party will lead a "social
revolution" now that it is in power, so far it has continued many of the
policies the party
criticized when it was in opposition. But Mr. Dirceu maintains that the party's objectives have not changed.
"We have a commitment to improve, develop and radicalize Brazilian democracy,"
he said in January as Mr. da Silva took office. "I am certain we will make
Mr. Dirceu remains suspicious of the United States. "We will not pursue
an anti-American policy, because that won't get us anywhere," he said in
an interview during
last year's campaign before justifying such sentiment within the Workers' Party by arguing that "American parties have anti-Brazilian voices too, fascists on the extreme right."
American officials say that Mr. Dirceu has been cooperative and pragmatic
in dealing with them. Judging by his remarks on moving into the presidential
January, he appreciates the symbolism of working with former adversaries.
"Protocol and destiny desired that I climb this ramp" alongside an army general, he said. But in doing so, he added, "it is evident first of all that I am ascending with my generation," particularly "those who lived, fought and could not be with us" but "remain in my heart and memory."