A Brazilian Blair?

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JEFFERSON BERNARDES/AFP

Brazilian presidential election favorite Luiz Ignacio "Lula" da Silva

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva couldn't have picked a worse time to launch a presidential campaign. That was back in 1989, his first bid for Brazil's presidency, when he was still a radical, left-wing populist yammering for Brazil to default on its foreign debt even as Brazil — and the rest of Latin America — were embarking on a decade of free-market reforms and fiscal austerity. Lula still finished second in 1989, as he would in 1994 and '98; but nightmares of the region's "Lost Decade" of the 1980s — when Latin American socialism had produced inflation rates topping 2,000 percent — ensured that Lula would always be the Brazilian Bridesmaid of the '90s.

So why is Lula, 56, still around, spooking financial markets with the very real prospect that he'll romp home to a first-round victory when Brazilians go to the polls to pick a new president on October 6? The answer may lie in the recent failure of U.S.-backed capitalist experiments all over Latin America, which have left even more of the region's 500 million people mired in poverty. That, and the fact that the erstwhile firebrand leader of Brazil's Workers Party (PT) has in some ways repackaged himself as a Blair of Brazil, moving his party and its policies toward the center as Tony Blair has done so successfully for Britain's Labor Party.

The former trade unionist who used to hit the campaign trail looking like the late Jerry Garcia (of the Grateful Dead) has even trimmed his beard and begun wearing suits. "Today I'm more aware, more prepared, more mellow," Lula said in a TIME interview. "That radical PT doesn't exist anymore."

The PT, in fact, now governs five of Brazil's states, as well as its largest city, São Paulo, which is Lula's home base — where the federal government's industrial privatization project has sent propane gas prices soaring, leaving many urban families cooking with wood. But can Lula manage Latin America's largest economy (and the world's ninth largest)? Though Wall Street's favorite sport right now is demonizing Lula — and his platform is, indeed, full of expensive, perhaps fiscally risky social programs — he insists that he's not out to wipe away the free-market reforms and fiscal discipline that won Brazil's current president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, so much international acclaim.

Instead, in a nation rife with corruption, Lula is known for his probity: The main reason he's ahead in the polls is his pledge to add a sorely lacking social-justice component to the capitalist project. He'd start, he says, with a crackdown on Brazil's epic tradition of tax evasion — especially among the nation's venal elite — a reform that Lula argues also makes good business sense. Brazil suffers from the worst concentration of wealth and governmental power on a continent whose economic and political inequality is rated the world's worst. "Every Real (Brazil's currency) in our hands will be worth more," Lula says, than public funds in the hands of Brazil's political "bandits."

A former metalworker who lost a finger to a job accident, Lula at times seems uncomfortable with the notion that he's had to move Blair-ward to make himself electable. But even though Lula's high school education doesn't match the Ph.D. milieu of Cardoso and the ruling party's smug technocrats, he seems to be aware enough of one of the root causes of Brazil's (and Latin America's) new economic crisis. The free-market reforms relied too addictively on foreign capital, which in turn kept local interest rates inordinately high — and eventually snuffed out the very economic growth that the capitalist sales pitch had so loudly promised, not to mention saddling Brazil with massive new debt. "Brazil has become stagnated because we actually became less industrially competitive," Lula insists. "The time is right for the PT because we've been warning people for a long time about the things that are happening now."

Can Lula and the U.S. ever warm to each other? "Our elites still have the mentality of colonists," Lula told TIME. "Latin America has to quit treating the U.S. as an empire." In the interview, the PT candidate made it clear that, if he's elected, George W. Bush may have to wait beyond the current 2005 deadline to achieve a hemisphere-wide free-trade pact — especially since, as he notes, Bush preaches free trade to Brazil yet still maintains high tariffs against Brazil's most competitive products, steel and frozen orange juice. Which means the only choice Washington seems to have in Brazil is to be as patient as Lula has been.

with reporting by Sol Biderman/São Paulo