Former Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva has long been a polarizing character. His working-class background and his political successes bring out an often-irrational hatred and vituperative declarations from the urban middle- and upper-classes, who see the former-union-leader-made-successful-president as nothing but a lazy drunk, an illiterate, and a man completely uncouth and uncultured (in contrast to how many in the middle class perceive themselves). In spite of the fact that Lula ultimately became president, serving from 2003-2011 and overseeing Brazil’s economic improvement even while socioeconomic inequality dropped during Lula’s two terms (though it still remains an issue), that has not been enough to stop many middle- and upper-class Brazilians for continuing to insult his intelligence through classist stereotypes.
Case in point? Veja, one of the journalistic bastions of middle-class snobbery, addressed the recent announcement that the New York Times will publish a monthly column by Lula (English version here) with the headline, “The first columnist in the history of the press incapable of writing in any language.” That’s right – Nunes is suggesting that Lula, a man who served as president for two terms while leading a country into remarkable economic growth and stability, is illiterate (something that the commenters on the piece also regularly regurgitate – after all, stupidity and bigotry in comments threads is not limited to just one part of the world). And it’s not a subtle suggestion – Nunes even offers a ridiculous (and not even funny) parody of what he thinks Lula’s first piece will look like. [Sample: “In Brazil, o people me see as hero because I remove every miserables da shit,” pidgin for “In Brazil, the people see me as a hero because I remove the miserable ones from the shit.” And it goes downhill from there.]
Of course, this horribly classist portrayal of Lula is not new language – such characterizations have dogged him since the former union leader emerged on the national political scene in the early 1980s. In his earlier presidential campaigns in 1989, 1994, and 1998, his language was rougher and more clearly reflected his working-class background. Yet even after winning two democratic elections and eight years of policies and leadership that saw Lula leave office with an unprecedented 87% approval rating, some in the middle- and upper-classes (and their media outlets) continue to portray Lula as completely unable to write or communicate his ideas.
Of course, that such attitudes are out of touch with the lives and opinions of most Brazilians shouldn’t be surprising. Indeed, to get a sense of the anger and disconnect between Brazil’s elites and the majority of the population, one only need to look to the legal system, where the Rio de Janeiro Justice Tribunal recently approved a living allowance of around 6,000 reais (about US$3,000) per month on top of their usual salaries (which are on average around R$26,000/month, or US$13,000/month). But that’s not all – the court also made the allowance retroactive to ten years ago. That’s right – the court system just approved a US$36,000 living allowance (give or take a few thousand, depending on one’s rank) for judges, and made it applicable to the last 10 years. And in some cases, the judges aren’t even the best-paid individuals in the courtroom – court clerks can and do make more than US$200,000 a year, and some judges’ salaries are well over $350,000 per month. This, even while the the average per capita income in Brazil is only R$11,000 and where 21% of the total population was living below the poverty line in 2009.
Lula’s administration may have begun to address the socioeconomic inequalities that have plagued Brazil, but he could not eradicate them. That salaries can be so uneven, and that members of the middle- and upper-classes can and do still insult Lula on such severely classist lines, are just two reminders of the ways in which class snobbery, bigotry, and class-antagonism still operate among many of Brazil’s better-off citizens.