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Back in business, President Lula wants to make the fight against poverty and hunger one of his priorities. After four years of Bolsonaro’s presidency, the leader of the Brazilian left is betting on social programs, in a Brazil that is facing an even stronger period of recession since the pandemic.
A page is turning for Brazil, after four years of presidency of Jair Bolsonaro. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was invested on Sunday 1er January, President of Brazil for a third term. During his speech to Congress in Brasilia, Lula pledged “to rebuild the country”, after the “disastrous” record of his predecessor.
He notably promised to fight against hunger, “the most serious of crimes”, and to “combat all forms of inequality”. These social themes, dear to the leader of the left, highlight the post-Bolsonaro social and economic challenges.
A few days before his enthronement, Lula won a first battle. On December 21, Brazil’s Congress approved an amendment to the Constitution allowing the government to exceed the spending limit to fund social programs. In concrete terms, the ceiling may be exceeded by 145 billion reais (about 26 billion euros).
This money should be used to increase the minimum wage and maintain the monthly allowance of 600 reais (110 euros) paid to the poorest families. This aid, which corresponds to the old “Bolsa Familia” (“Family scholarship”), launched during the first Lula government, had been replaced by Jair Bolsonaro’s Auxilio Brasil, which is still in force today.
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A way for the outgoing president to “impose his mark” on the social aid mechanism, according to François-Michel Le Tourneau, geographer, research director at the CNRS. “The amounts of the Auxilio Brasil were higher and there were fewer conditions to benefit from it compared to the ‘Bolsa Familia’. But the program being too broad, it distributed too much. It was very expensive and was not not very well focused on the niches of poverty”, details the specialist from Brazil.
A poor child from the Nordeste who became president
Today, the Lula government would like to redesign this program. With the same objective as in the early 2000s: to eradicate hunger in Brazil. A scourge that Lula, son of a poor farming family in the Nordeste, experienced during his childhood. For the geographer Martine Droulers, director of research emeritus at the CNRS, this past explains, among other things, this obsession which has never left the man nicknamed “the father of the poor”. “His childhood was marked by food problems. The fate of the family then improved in Sao Paulo but he always kept an eye on the Nordeste, where there is still great poverty”, she recalls. .
It is not surprising, therefore, that the Brazilian president has made it his hobbyhorse. In 2003, at the start of his first term, he promised that every Brazilian would eat three meals a day. In the process, the leader of the Brazilian left had launched the “Fome Zero” (“Zero Hunger”) plan, which notably included the “Bolsa Familia”, an increase in the minimum wage or even aid programs for the development of the family farming.
In 2010, Lula’s action against hunger was hailed by the UN. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), malnutrition in Brazil had fallen by 70% and the infant mortality rate by 47% by the end of Lula’s second term. In 2014, the UN officially removed Brazil from its global hunger map.
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“The poor have become a little less poor, but they have not risen to the middle or wealthy class overnight. These extreme poor have moved into the upper category but do not live in a comfortable situation”, explains François- Michael LeTourneau.
“When Lula finished his two terms in 2010, it was the height of economic growth for the country but it didn’t last,” explains Martine Droulers. “The recession took hold and then worsened from 2013”, continues François-Michel Le Tourneau. And Brazil never really got out of it. The Covid-19 pandemic has only aggravated the situation by causing a much more intense shock. “There are fewer jobs, a slowdown in economic growth and an increase in prices, so part of the population finds itself in a difficult situation”, sums up the geographer.
15% of the population 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 will be strewn with pitfalls for Lula and his social program. The government is trying to reassure the business community, which fears that the government is neglecting budgetary discipline to finance its social programs. The confidence of the electorate on the left 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 Tourneau.
The same disagreements that had marked the public debate at the time of the launch of the “Fome Zero” plan are also likely to reappear. “The fight against hunger and poverty is not going to make Lula popular with his ideological opponents, such as conservatives and evangelists. So I don’t think that the fight against poverty will in the short term be able to unify the country behind Lula On the other hand, the Lula government could win a much broader electoral base if it succeeds in reconnecting with strong economic growth, if unemployment falls and poverty recedes, “says François-Michel Le Tourneau.
“Lula will probably focus on what has been neglected in recent years, such as support for family farming or a credit policy. But he may not be able to do everything, warns Martine Droulers. And if ever there are results, we won’t see them right away.”