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Lula's Legacy: A Transformed Brazil

Plopping her swollen ankles upon a purple couch, 72-year-old Dilma de Lima exults in the new government-built apartment she now calls home after a lifetime of misery in Brazil's slums.

"Life has never been better," Lima says through the wheeze of bronchitis. "I give all my thanks to Lula, the savior of the poor."

"Lula" is what everybody calls Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil's first working-class president, and often in the same near-worshipful tone used by Lima. He ends his second four-year term as president on Saturday in triumph: He hands the office to his hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, a career technocrat elected thanks to her mentor's record popularity.

Silva, 65, leaves a nation transformed from a perennial underachiever into one with economic and political clout, model social programs and a swagger as it prepares to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

Since Silva's first election in 2002, the middle class has grown by 29 million people - more than the population of Texas - creating a powerful new domestic consumer market. Another 20 million people - as many as in New York state - were pulled from poverty. The country that received a record $30 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund as it neared economic collapse in 2002 now lends money to the IMF, making up to $5 billion available for loans to other nations.

The value of Brazil's currency has more than doubled against the U.S. dollar. Inequality has been reduced, as the income of the poorest 10 percent of the population has grown five times faster than that of the richest 10 percent. Inflation has been tamed, unemployment is at a record low and illiteracy has dropped. By the time Brazil hosts the Olympics, it is forecast to be the globe's fifth-largest economy, surpassing Italy, Britain and France.

Early fears that the leftist union leader who battled Brazil's dictatorship would turn the nation socialist proved unfounded. Silva fought off the more radical wings of his Workers Party and used orthodox economic policies to lead the country to unprecedented growth.

Economic Growth

Under Silva, the economy expanded twice as fast per year as it did in the previous two decades, growing an average of 4 percent yearly.

But Silva's legacy goes beyond figures. It's caught in the glint of an eye of a slum dweller such as Lima, who sees herself in Silva's impoverished roots, and feels pride that it was a man from the poor masses who finally delivered on the promise of Brazil.

"For decades I lived in a shack where sewage seeped in every time it rained," Lima said, as four grandchildren bounced around her new two-bedroom apartment in the Paraisopolis slum. "There were no windows, which made my bronchitis worse. Now look at this. I've got concrete floors, not sewage. Windows that let air flow through - you feel that breeze? My health is better. It's because of Lula."

That devotion is repeated across Brazil, giving Silva nearly unparalleled popularity.

According to Gallup polling, former U.S. President Harry Truman had an approval rating matching Silva's 87 percent - about three weeks after Allied forces accepted the surrender of Nazi Germany in World War II. He ended his presidency with a 32 percent rating. George W. Bush saw 90 percent approval 10 days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks - the highest recorded by Gallup for a U.S. leader. His ratings dropped quickly and he left office with 34 percent approval.

Silva's domestic success emboldened his foreign policy. Bucking Brazil's tradition of staid, low-key diplomacy, he used his charisma to forge a wide array of partnerships. He attended fire and brimstone Communist rallies with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez less than two weeks after inviting Bush to go fishing. Last year he hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, greeting him with a bear hug upon his arrival. A few months later, Israel's visiting foreign minister asked him to help contain Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"Lula's personality, his ability to communicate, has helped him leave a country that is more confident in itself than when he took over," said Peter Hakim of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, who has closely followed Brazil for 45 years. "That confidence is not only among the rich, not only among the poor, it's become something of a national quality."

It was not always a smooth road.

Brazil's economy was battered by fearful markets during his first year in office. In 2005 he was hit by a massive congressional vote-buying corruption scandal that forced top aides to resign. It severely tarnished the reputation of the Workers Party - but was never linked directly to the president.

Although Silva's farewell tour of the country has been marked by heartfelt rallies, there are signs that Brazilians are ready to turn the page on the Silva era and prove that continued success does not depend on one man - though he has recently hinted he may run again for the presidency in the future.

A document released earlier this month laying out his government's achievements - all 2,200 pages of them - was met with applause, but not a small bit of eye-rolling. An editorial cartoon in the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper portrayed Silva on a mountaintop, bathed in light and holding up his Holy Book. "It's like the Bible," he said. "It just has more miracles."

Lingering Social Ills

Silva did not accomplish all of his goals, particularly badly needed tax and social security reforms. The country's education system still lags, as does its infrastructure - which could hamper the World Cup and Olympics. Further economic advances could be threatened by bottlenecks of poor roads and railways that transport raw goods to the coast for shipment abroad.

"His legacy will have some gaps, some empty spaces where he is leaving work to be done," said David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia.

Silva's belief that dialogue is the answer to all international problems has also been criticized, especially when Brazil has moving away from the U.S. and closer to non-democratic regimes.

"The position of Brazil in relation to Iran, not just internally regarding its human rights but externally regarding the nuclear question, is a negative," said Rubens Barbosa, who served as ambassador to Britain and the U.S. under the administrations of Silva's predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

And yet, even the staunchest of critics won't go so far as to deny the advances Silva made in raising the heads and aspirations of millions.

Silva perhaps said it best himself upon at last winning the presidency on his fourth run at the office.

"Hope, finally, overcame fear, and Brazilian society decided it was time to follow new paths," he said at his 2003 inauguration. "I'm not the result of an election. I'm the result of history. I'm realizing the dreams of generations and generations who, before me, have tried and failed."

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