2016 Olympics a crowning glory for Brazil leader

RIO DE JANEIRO – He is the Pele of politics, knighted the "most popular politician on Earth" by another contender for the title — Barack Obama.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva draws praise from Havana to Wall Street for an economic boom that has brought millions out of poverty. He has attended socialist rallies with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez less than two weeks after extending a fishing invitation to George W. Bush.

Now, after landing his continent's first Olympic Games, the former labor leader with a grade-school education is seeing his star burn hotter than ever, leaving some to wonder about Brazil's life after "Lula" — as he is known — when his term ends next year.

"Under Lula, Brazil has become the hottest brand on the world market," said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue. "This is sort of the crowning glory for his presidency and his legacy."

When Rio won the 2016 Olympics Friday, it bested the Obamas lobbying for Chicago and former Olympic committee chair Juan Antonio Samaranch pleading to see a Madrid games in his twilight years. Silva jumped into a frenzied huddle, hugged Brazilian soccer great Pele and broke into tears.

"Our time has arrived. It's arrived!" he said during Rio's final presentation in Copenhagen.

That mix of down-to-earth charm and preacher-like rhetoric brought Silva to the world stage and won over the International Olympic Committee after Brazil's three previous bids had been shot down.

But when he was first elected in 2002, Silva's ties to Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro, plus his past as a union leader jailed under a military dictatorship, spooked international investors — nearly sending Brazil's economy into a collapse.

Silva governed as a centrist, building on an economic boom helped by soaring commodity prices. And he enacted big tax breaks in the midst of the global meltdown to send Brazilians on a spending spree, helping Brazil shrug off the global financial crisis quicker than any other nation.

He has used his track record to become the moral voice for developing nations — riling many around the world by saying last March that the global financial crisis hurting the poor was caused by "white people with blue eyes." New York Post headline writers dubbed him "Brazil Nut."

But current moves by the G20, World Bank and International Monetary Fund to increase the voting power of emerging economies can be traced directly to Silva, who has seen his country surpass Russia and Canada to become the globe's eighth-largest economy.

The real "nut" in Lula is his ability to connect with anyone, supporters say, easily shifting from meeting world leaders in his smartly tailored suits to donning orange coveralls to rally roughneck oil workers.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asked Silva earlier this year to help negotiate an end to Israel's invasion of the Gaza Strip. A few months later, Israel's foreign minister asked him to persuade Iran to halt its nuclear program.

"Brazil has had this enormous good fortune of maintaining good relationships with the widest range of regimes I've ever seen," said Peter Hakim of the Inter-American Dialogue. "There's very few people who can do what Lula has done."

It's not all been smooth.

Silva survived political scandals that took down some of his closest advisers. In the largest, top aides allegedly paid senators for votes, though investigations never linked Silva to wrongdoing. Violent crime also remains brutal in Brazil, the one issue that stood to derail Rio's otherwise strong bid.

But his critics are muzzled in the face of a 77 percent approval rating at home.

Associated Press writer Alan Clendenning in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.