By Dom Phillips
On Oct. 29, the news broke that Brazil's former president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, had throat cancer. Reaction and counter-reaction quickly roiled blogs and social networks, and it divided Brazilians to a striking degree.
The immediate, overwhelming response was one of support and sympathy. This was to be expected: Lula, as he's universally known, isn't just the most popular president, but also the most popular ex-president in Brazilian history -- a charismatic politician who served through two terms of unprecedented economic growth.
This being Brazil, there was a tribute from the players of his favorite soccer club, Corinthians, who walked onto the pitch for Sunday's championship home game carrying a banner reading "Forca Lula," or Stay Strong Lula. On the stadium's terraces, the famously fanatical Corinthians crowd unveiled another banner that depicted a younger, dark-bearded Lula, as he was in his union firebrand days when he was generally pictured with a cigarette in his mouth. Globo Sport was one of the many Brazilian media outlets to run the pictures.
But there was a darker side, as Brazilians picked up on the fact that Lula -- like his successor, Dilma Rousseff; his former vice president, Jose Alencar; Paraguay President Fernando Lugo; and even, briefly, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez -- was being treated in Sao Paulo's deluxe private hospital Sirio-Libanes, which has the best-equipped cancer unit in Latin America. He notably didn't seek treatment in the Sistema Unico de Saude, or SUS, the Brazilian public-health system whose praises Lula had so often sung as president.
Rodrigo Constantino, an economist and columnist for the O Globo newspaper, posted a typical comment on his blog Oct. 30:
Lula, go and get treated at SUS! ... After all, the ex-president deserves a decent treatment. And it was he himself who said that the public-health system in the country is almost perfect. He was also the one who recommended to President Obama that he replicate the SUS in the United States, because of the system's quality. Lula is a `man of the people,' a metalworker who always praised this proximity to the working class. ... This is a great opportunity for Lula to be coherent and seek care from public hospitals.
By Nov. 1, the wave of Internet attacks on Lula's decision to go private for his cancer treatment had itself become a news story, as the Folha de Sao Paulo pointed out:
In spite of the solidarity for Lula from voters and politicians of all parties, the news of the cancer became the motive for a wave of attacks on the former president on the Internet ... Amid the mass demonstrations of support, there are Internet users who try to blame Lula for his own cancer -- which could have been caused by smoking -- and argued that he should be treated in the SUS.
As its story revealed, Folha.com had been moved to suspend comments at the end of articles it published online over the weekend, given the aggressive tone of some readers, and it reported that Lula's assistant had even tried to spare him from the most "disrespectful" e-mails.
But the newspaper couldn't resist saying the former president had inadvertently given his critics ammunition last year, when he inaugurated an emergency public-health unit. At the time, Lula said he had a sore throat, and promised to be quick with his speech. "It is so well-organized, so well-structured, that it makes us want to get sick to be treated in the unit," Lula had said of the health center.
Lula's celebrity in Brazil remains unparalleled. Across the media, from broadsheet newspapers to tabloids, and from Facebook to political blogs, every detail of his cancer battle -- including his switch from cigarettes to cigars, and his decision to quit smoking only two years ago -- has been parsed and debated since Saturday.
Some observers detected a possible political motive when Lula allowed all the details of his illness and treatment to go public, including Jose Roberto de Toledo, a columnist and television commentator, who posted on his Vox Publica blog for the O Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper:
The cancer has a 10 percent chance against Luiz Inacio da Silva, but 0 percent against Lula. From the standpoint of public opinion, the illness tends to reinforce the myth ... It is never good to underestimate the empathy of Brazilians for those who are losing but show the stamina to turn the game around. Lula understands this intuitively by giving total transparency to the disease since the diagnosis. The New York Times compared this with the mystery with which Hugo Chavez dealt with his own cancer at the beginning. But the president of Venezuela has gained popularity since the treatment made him shave his hair and the disease became public knowledge.
The journalist Lucas Figueiredo was even quicker off the mark, tackling the political fallout the day Lula's cancer was announced:
What will be the impact on the political-electoral scene of the news that ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has cancer? We see some parallels. In recent months, two Brazilian politicians who fought publicly against cancer (Dilma Rousseff and Jose Alencar) saw their popularity ratings catapulted to the heights.
On Nov. 1, with his voice hoarse and his wife by his side, Lula released a video from the hospital. He looked haggard, but he hit optimistic notes:
I want once again to thank the Brazilian people for the care and the solidarity. What happened to me is one of those things that happen to everyone, but that we think only happen to others.
He then promised to beat the disease. Even in sickness, the populist political instincts that made Lula such a beloved president remain as sharp as ever.
(Dom Phillips is the Sao Paulo correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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-0- Nov/02/2011 15:20 GMT