Brazil's president didn't accept the World Economic Forum's first-ever award for "global statesmanship" in person Friday because he was ill. But that didn't stop the one-time radical unionist from biting the hand that patted him on the back.
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's speech _ delivered by his foreign minister _ chastised wealthy nations for triggering the global financial crisis, for not doing enough to help the globe's poor and for failing to redress historic wrongs.
Silva has a history of haranguing leaders of the richest countries even as they give him glowing reviews for presiding over an unprecedented economic boom. Last year he made headlines when he blamed the global financial meltdown on "white people with blue eyes" while standing next to Britain's prime minister.
Silva's absence in Switzerland this year after an attack of hypertension is on one hand an unexpected political boon: He's trying to get his hand-picked successor elected later this year, and photos of him rubbing elbows with the world elite at a glitzy ski resort might have ruffled feathers among his leftist working-class power base.
But the World Economic Forum itself also came out a winner, by rewarding Silva's accomplishments without committing to any of the substantive reforms he is urging.
"He has tongue-lashed bankers quite badly," said David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia. "But Davos awarding Lula gives them an out on social responsibility by praising the leader of an emerging nation who got his country out of the crisis quickly yet maintained a social net for the poor."
In Porto Alegre, Brazil, this week at the World Social Forum, the annual counter-gathering to protest the economic summit, Silva won raucous applause when he promised to go to Davos and rebuke the world's haves again.
"We have seen, with alarm and fear, but without having learned the lesson properly, where financial speculation can lead us," Foreign Minister Celso Amorim read in Davos. "Many of the terrible effects of the international financial crisis have continued, and we see no concrete signs that this crisis may have served to make us rethink the world economic order, its methods, its poor ethics and its anachronistic processes."
Silva extended his critique to historical wrongs by powerful nations.
"All of us know that the tragedy in Haiti was caused by two kinds of earthquakes: the one that shook Port-au-Prince ... and the other one, slow and silent, which has been eating away its entrails for centuries," Silva's speech read. "The world has covered its eyes and ears to this other earthquake."
Silva, who cut his teeth as a negotiator while representing workers during huge strikes against Brazil's military dictatorship, has long been known for his political acumen and diplomacy.
Last year, U.S. President Barack Obama called him "the man." In November he hosted Israel's president, and 13 days later wrapped Iran's leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a bear hug on the tarmac of an airport in Brasilia. He has attended socialist rallies with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and invited George W. Bush to go fishing.
In short, Silva is the guy who can get away with telling everyone bluntly what he thinks they're doing wrong, and how they should fix it _ and have them admire him in return.
His street cred is backed up by a look at the last seven years of his presidency: Latin America's largest economy has been a darling of economists and pundits worldwide, as it has consistently seen solid growth, its international reserves have ballooned from $38 billion to $240 billion, inflation has been tamed and some 20 million people have been lifted from poverty.
Silva enjoys approval ratings near 80 percent at home for the economic boom as well as social programs. His popularity is so strong that a series of political scandals which took down high-ranking members of his party never came close to touching "Lula," as he is affectionately known.
It's all a far cry from what Silva inherited when he took office in 2003, when global markets punished Brazil for putting a leftist in power. The stock markets and currency tanked, and many speculated the country would default on its foreign debt.
Silva enjoys pointing out how he helped Brazil rise from the ashes, and he did so once again at Davos _ before many of the very people who had predicted his nation's demise.
"Brazil wishes to be and will be a permanent player in the new world scene," his speech read. "Brazil, however, does not wish to be a new force in an old world. The Brazilian voice wants to announce, loud and clear, that a new world can be built."