City of gods

A Death in Brazil

Peter Robb <em>Bloomsbury, 329pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0747573158

Flying into Sao Paulo is like seeing Manhattan stretched out in all directions. The panoramic coastline, the waterfalls and the Amazon desert are matched only by the beauty of the people. When Margaret Thatcher visited South America's largest country after leaving office, she asked the ambassador: "Why wasn't I told about Brazil?" Until Tony Blair decided in 2001 that it was time to take Latin America seriously, no serving British prime minister had visited Brazil. Both the current and the former leader would have benefited from reading Peter Robb's powerful book.

Roger Casement was consul in Rio when he first started writing the "Black Diaries" - intimate accounts of bedding boys that led indirectly to his execution in 1916. Joseph Conrad's Nostromo is set in Brazil. Like the Irishman and the Pole, Robb, an Australian who has lived much of his adult life abroad, writes superbly.

Who knows England who only England knows? London, at the start of the 21st century, is the world's most cosmopolitan city, but a visiting Brazilian would find little about his home country in British newspapers - apart, perhaps, from reports of soccer and Formula One racing.

Yet Brazil's president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is one of the world's most interesting politicians. Robb is clearly in awe of him. Running through this book is the story of Lula's rise from an impoverished upbringing in the north-east to his current position as leader of the world's third-largest democracy.

Twenty-five years ago, as a young Labour activist, I helped organise solidarity support for Lula. Magazines such as the New Statesman covered the strikes that Lula led in the Sao Paulo automobile industry, which played a part in bringing an end to military rule in Brazil in 1985. Lula emerged from the ranks of self-taught metal workers to form the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers' Party). He spoke in metaphors that could lift workers above their daily struggles, without lapsing into the cliches and cul-de-sacs of nationalism. Robb saw Lula address a rain-sodden crowd in the 1980s, and he describes the feeling of being uplifted by a public speaker who combines ideas, narrative and vision with a conversational style. Even so, some readers may find Robb's political musings less interesting than, say, his description of how to cook a good feijoada.

The period after the generals went back to the barracks was one of instability in which lawyers, guns and money were in charge. Yet things improved for the country under the social-democratic rule of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, elected in 1994. First as finance minister and then as president, Cardoso helped Brazil advance politically and economically.

Cardoso - or FHC, as he was known - began life as a Marxist sociologist in Sao Paulo university and left after the 1964 military coup to set up a labour movement observatory in Santiago, Chile. But he left Chile also after the first 9/11 (the installation of Pinochet's terror regime after the coup of 11 September 1973), and carved out a career as an academic at Cambridge, the Sorbonne and Harvard. The re-establishment of democratic politics in Brazil in the 1980s allowed his generation of reformers to return.

In the decade before Lula was elected president in 2002, annual growth averaged 4 per cent. Cardoso's reforms tripled the number of children staying on to finish secondary education. Infant mortality was halved. If Cardoso needed Lula's working-class leadership to help wean Brazil off authoritarian solutions, Lula needed the decade of Cardoso's Euro-Atlantic compromise with capitalism to help prepare Brazil for a Workers' Party government.

On the international stage, Lula is a star. He dominated the conference of centre-left world leaders organised by Blair last summer. Even through interpreters, he had his audience rolling with laughter. His appeal to allow Brazil to export its agricultural produce, however, will no doubt be resisted by both the protectionist EU-US agribusiness lobby and Jose Bove sympathisers, given that many Brazilian crops are GM. Lula pleaded with his audience not to criticise President Bush over Iraq but to encourage US firms to invest in Brazil and get the IMF and World Bank to adopt Gordon Brown's debt relief proposals.

Lula's political genius has been to spend his career standing for something positive rather than cursing the US or Europe, which is what passes for politics on both the left and right in Britain. Far from detesting globalisation, Lula believes that it is vital for Brazil finally to escape from the poverty and inequality that Robb describes in this book.

Denis MacShane is Labour MP for Rotherham and Foreign Office minister

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office

This article first appeared in the 07 June 2004 issue of the New Statesman, D-Day for British politics