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Sonia Verma

The other Obama Add to ...

Lula arrived at the party late that night, gliding into the chilled auditorium, rumpled, tired and glossy with sweat.

Most of the guests were somewhat drunk on champagne. The President was giddy with exhaustion. When he tossed aside a prepared script before taking the stage, his aides grew nervous. This particular party was to honour Brazil's most admired companies, which meant the crowd was obscenely rich and fancily dressed.

Attending was Jose Sergio Gabrielli, the smooth-talking president of Petrobras, the world's second-largest oil company, with a market value of $200-billion. So was Fabio Barbosa, the cherub-faced president of Banco Santander, which raised more than $8-billion through the world's biggest initial public offering this year. And Roger Agnelli, chief executive of Vale, the mining giant that had just announced it would boost its Brazilian investment by 30 per cent to $12.9-billion next year.

The sheer wealth represented in the room was staggering, proof of Brazil's galloping economy, which, fuelled by the recent commodity boom and the emergence of a new consumer class, now ranks among the world's top 10 economies. A recent World Bank report suggested it could become the fifth largest by 2016 - stunning, for a country not long ago considered a basket case.

The country's burgeoning economy, in turn, is testament to a phenomenon even more remarkable: Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a barrel-chested bullfrog of a man who was born dirt poor and, against all odds, fought his way out of destitution to become Brazil's most celebrated president.

Within his own country, Mr. da Silva's story - a rags-to-riches fairy tale that mirrors Brazil's economic transformation - resonates from the favelas of Rio to the Presidential Palace in Brasilia. (His popularity even has a name in Brazil: Lulismo.) Globally, a cult of Lula has also emerged: Economists and foreign politicians have lauded Brazil as a model of balanced development, noting the social transformation that has occurred under his tenure. U.S. President Barack Obama dubbed Mr. da Silva the "most popular politician on Earth" at April's G20 Summit in London.

The highly public tribute underscored the inherent irony of Lula: Considered an eccentric socialist by many of the G20 members when he was first elected, the man once dismissed merely as a hero to the poor has become a rising global leader. Call him the other Obama. But unlike his American counterpart, he is leading a surging economy. And he has done it by turning 21st-century economics on its head. Before, prevailing wisdom dictated that developing countries had to boost their economies before redistributing wealth to the poor. But the Brazilian President has sought to achieve both goals at the same time, and says the country's growth has been fuelled by enriching the poor.

A once-overlooked Latin American nation, Brazil now commands big clout on the international stage, and not just because the charismatic and charmingly emotional President has managed to bag the 2016 Olympics.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - who earlier this year asked Mr. da Silva to help negotiate an end to Israel's invasion of the Gaza Strip - visited Brasilia this week. Israel's Foreign Minister asked the Brazilian President to persuade Iran to halt its nuclear program. Instead, Mr. da Silva backed the country's right to develop a peaceful nuclear initiative. But moments like these convince Brazilians that their country has finally arrived as a global player.

Onstage that night in Sao Paolo, Mr. da Silva, who sold peanuts on the street as a child, peered down over a landscape of designer gowns and plastic surgery. His tone was triumphant and a little bit smug: "There has never been another moment in the history of this country where we accumulated the wealth that we have now," he said, his voice the texture of sandpaper.

"We have managed to get where we wanted. We managed to get there and we can now say that there is no way that we will step down. We can step up, but not step down."

Others aren't so sure. As Mr. da Silva approaches the end of his presidency - his second, and final, term is up in October, 2010 - many worry about the future of the country. Economists are increasingly warning that its breakneck recovery from the economic downturn - fuelled by rising commodity prices and a flood of liquidity - could fizzle.

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