Brazilian Leader's Tippling Becomes National Concern
By LARRY ROHTER
Published: May 9, 2004
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has never hidden his fondness for a glass of beer, a shot of whiskey or, even better, a slug of cachaça,
In recent months, Mr. da Silva's left-leaning government has been assailed by one crisis after another, ranging from a corruption scandal to the failure of crucial social programs. The president has often stayed out of the public eye and left his advisers to do most of the heavy lifting. That has spurred speculation that his apparent disengagement and passivity may somehow be related to his appetite for alcohol. His supporters, however, deny reports of heavy drinking.
Though political leaders and journalists are increasingly talking among themselves about Mr. da Silva's consumption of liquor, few are willing to express their misgivings in public or on the record. One exception is Leonel Brizola, the leader of the leftist Democratic Labor Party, who was Mr. da Silva's running mate in the 1998 election but now worries that the president is ''destroying the neurons in his brain.''
''When I was Lula's vice-presidential candidate, he drank a lot,'' Mr. Brizola, now a critic of the government, said in a recent speech. ''I alerted him that distilled beverages are dangerous. But he didn't listen to me, and according to what is said, continues to drink.''
During an interview in
'''No, there's no danger, I've got it under control,''' Mr. Brizola, imitating the president's gruff, raspy voice, remembers Mr. da Silva replying then. ''He resisted, and he's resistant,'' Mr. Brizola continued. ''But he had that problem. If I drank like him, I'd be fried.''
Spokesmen for Mr. da Silva declined to discuss the president's drinking habits on the record, saying they would not dignify baseless charges with a formal reply. In a brief e-mail message responding to a request for comment, they dismissed speculation that he drank to excess as ''a mixture of prejudice, misinformation and bad faith.''
Mr. da Silva, a 58-year-old former lathe operator, has shown himself to be a man of strong appetites and impulses, which contributes to his popular appeal. With a mixture of sympathy and amusement, Brazilians have watched his efforts to try not to smoke in public, his flirtations at public events with attractive actresses and his continuing battle to avoid the fatty foods that made his weight balloon shortly after he took office in January 2003.
Aside from Mr. Brizola, political leaders and the news media alike seem to prefer to deal in innuendo, but do so with relish. Whenever possible, the Brazilian press publishes photos of the president bleary-eyed or ruddy-faced, and constantly makes references both to weekend barbecues at the presidential residence at which the liquor flows freely and to state events at which Mr. da Silva never seems to be without a drink in his hand.
''I've got a piece of advice for Lula,'' the gadfly columnist Diogo Mainardi wrote in late March in Veja, the country's leading newsmagazine, reeling off a list of articles containing such references. ''Stop drinking in public,'' he counseled, adding that the president has become ''the biggest advertising spokesman for the spirits industry'' with his very conspicuous consumption of alcohol.
A week later, the same magazine printed a letter from a reader worrying about ''Lula's alcoholism'' and its effect on the president's ability to govern. Though some Web sites have been complaining for months about ''our alcoholic president,'' it was the first time the mainstream national press had referred to Mr. da Silva in that manner.
Historically, Brazilians have reason to be concerned at any sign of heavy drinking by their presidents. Jânio Quadros, elected in 1960, was a notorious tippler who once boasted, ''I drink because it's liquid''; his unexpected resignation, after less than a year in office during what was reported to be a marathon binge, initiated a period of political instability that led to a coup in 1964 and 20 years of a harsh military dictatorship.
Whether or not Mr. da Silva really has a drinking problem, the issue has seeped into the public consciousness and become the subject of gibes. When the government spent $56 million early this year to buy a new presidential plane, for instance, the columnist Claudio Humberto, a sort of Matt Drudge of Brazilian politics, sponsored a contest to give a tongue-in-cheek name to the aircraft.
One winning entry, recalling that the United States president's plane is called Air Force One, suggested that Mr. da Silva's jet should be designated ''Pirassununga 51,'' which is the name of the most popular brand of cachaça. Another suggestion was ''Powered by Alcohol,'' a pun referring to a government plan to encourage cars to use ethanol as fuel.
Speculation about the president's drinking habits has been fed by various gaffes and faux pas that he has made in public. As a candidate, he once offended residents of a city regarded as a haven for gays by calling it ''a factory that manufactures queers,'' and as president, his slips in public have continued and become part of Brazilian political folklore.
At a ceremony here in February to announce a large new investment, for example, Mr. da Silva twice referred to the president of General Motors, Richard Wagoner, as the president of Mercedes-Benz. In October, on a day honoring the nation's elderly, Mr. da Silva told them, ''when you retire, don't stay at home bothering your family, find something to do.''
Abroad, Mr. da Silva has also stumbled or spoken ill-advisedly. On a visit to the Middle East last year, he imitated an Arab accent in speaking Portuguese, mispronunciations and all; and in
Mr. da Silva's staff and supporters respond that such slips are only occasional, are to be expected from a man who likes to speak off the cuff and have nothing to do with his consumption of alcohol, which they describe as moderate in any case. As they see it, he is being held to a different and unfair standard than that of his predecessors because he is
''Anyone who has been at a formal or informal reception in Brasília has witnessed presidents sipping a shot of whiskey,'' the columnist Ali Kamel wrote in the
Mr. da Silva was born into a poor family in one of the country's poorest states and spent years leading labor unions, a famously hard-drinking environment. Brazilian press accounts have repeatedly described the president's father, Aristides, whom he barely knew and who died in 1978, as an alcoholic who abused his children.
Stories about drinking episodes involving Mr. da Silva are legion. After one night on the town when he was a member of Congress during the late 1980's, Mr. da Silva got off the elevator at the wrong floor of the building where he lived at the time and tried to batter down the door of an apartment he mistakenly thought was his own, according to politicians and journalists here, including some who are former residents of the building.
''Under Lula, the capirinha has become the national drink by presidential decree,'' the daily Fôlha de São Paulo said last month in an article about Mr. da Silva's association with alcohol and referring to a cocktail made with sugar-cane liquor.