Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva

Lula Must Save Brazil From Savage Capitalism

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Juliana Cardoso is sitting in her office in front of a lavender, orange, and yellow mandala that was made for her. She has been a member of São Paulo’s city council since 2008. On October 2, 2022, as a candidate for the Workers Party (PT), Cardoso won a seat in Brazil’s lower house, the Federal Chamber of Deputies.

She is wearing a t-shirt that bears the powerful slogan: O Brasil é terra indígena (Brazil is Indigenous land). The slogan echoes her brave campaign against the disregard shown by Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s 38th president defeated on October 30, towards the Indigenous populations of his country. In 2020, during the height of the pandemic, Bolsonaro vetoed Law no. 14021 which would have provided drinking water and basic medical materials to Indigenous communities. Several organizations took Bolsonaro to the International Criminal Court for this action.

In April 2022, Cardoso wrote that the rights of the Indigenous “did not come from the kindness of those in power, but from the struggles of Indigenous people over the centuries. Though guaranteed in the [1988] Constitution, these rights are threatened daily.” Her political work has been defined by her commitment to her own Indigenous heritage but also by her deep antipathy to the “savage capitalism” that has cannibalized her country.

Savage Capitalism

Bolsonaro had accelerated a project that Cardoso told us was an “avalanche of savage capitalism. It is a capitalism that kills, that destroys, that makes a lot of money for a few people.” The current beneficiaries of this capitalism refuse to recognize that the days of their unlimited profits are nearly over. These people—most of whom supported Bolsonaro—“live in a bubble of their own, with lots of money, with swimming pools.” Lula’s election victory on October 30 will not immediately halt their “politics of death,” but it has certainly opened a new possibility.

New studies about poverty in Brazil reveal startling facts. An FGV Social study from July 2022 found that almost 63 million Brazilians—30% of the country’s population—live below the poverty line (10 million Brazilians slipped below that line to join those in poverty between 2019 and 2021). The World Bank documented the spatial and racial divides of Brazil’s poverty: three in ten of Brazil’s poor are Afro-Brazilian women in urban areas, while three-quarters of children in poverty live in rural areas. President Bolsonaro’s policies of upward redistribution of wealth during the pandemic and after contributed to the overall poverty in the country and exacerbated the deep social inequalities of race and region that already existed. This, Cardoso says, is evidence of the “savage capitalism” that has gripped her country and left tens of millions of Brazilians in a “hole, with no hope of living.”

To Sow Hope

“I was born and raised within the PT,” she tells us, in the Sapopemba area of São Paulo. Surrounded by the struggles against “savage capitalism,” Cardoso was raised by parents who were active in the PT. “As a girl, I walked amongst those who built the PT, such as José Dirceu, José Genoino, President Lula himself,” as well as her mother—Ana Cardoso, who was one of the founders of the PT. Her parents—Ana Cardoso and Jonas “Juruna” Cardoso—were active in the struggles of the metalworkers and for public housing in the Fazenda da Juta area of Sapopemba. A few days after he led a protest in 1985, Juruna was shot to death by mysterious gunmen. Juliana had been sitting in his lap outside their modest home in the COHAB Teotônio Vilela. Her mother was told not to insist on an investigation, since this would “bring more deaths.” This history of struggle defines Juliana.

“We are not bureaucrats,” she told us. “We are militants.” People like her who will be in the Congress will “use the instrument of the mandate to move an agenda” to better the conditions of everyday life. Pointing to the mandala in her office, Juliana says, “I think this lilac part is my shyness.” Her active life in politics, she says, “kind of changed me from being shy to being much firmer.” There is only one reason “why I am here,” she says, and that is “to sow, to have hope for seeds that will fight with me for the working class, for women, during this difficult class struggle.”

Politics in Brazil is Violent

Lula will be sworn into office on January 1, 2023. He will face a Chamber of Deputies and a Senate that are in the grip of the right-wing. This is not a new phenomenon, although the centrão (centre), the opportunistic bloc in the parliament that has run things, will now have to work alongside far-right members of Bolsonaro’s movement. Juliana and her left allies will be in a minority. The right, she says, enters politics with no desire to open a dialogue about the future of Brazil. Many right-wing politicians are harsh, formed by fake news and a suffocating attitude to money and religion. “Hate, weapons, death”—these are the words that seem to define the right-wing in Brazil. It is because of them that politics “is very violent.”

Juliana entered politics through struggles developed by the Base Ecclesiastical Communities (CEBs) of the Catholic Church, learning her ethics through Liberation Theology through the work of Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns and Paulo Freire. “You have to engage people in their struggles, dialogue with them about their struggles,” she told us. This attitude to building struggles and dialoguing with anyone defines Juliana as she prepares to go to Brasilia and take her seat in the right-wing dominated National Congress.

Lula, Juliana says, “is an ace.” Few politicians have his capacity to dialogue with and convince others about the correctness of his positions. The left is weak in the National Congress, but it has the advantage of Lula. “President Lula will need to be the big star,” said Juliana. He will have to lead the charge to save Brazil from savage capitalism.

After Victory, What Will Lula’s Foreign Policy Look Like?

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The tenure of President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil is defined by the deforestation of the Amazon, the return of 33 million Brazilians to hunger, and the terrible governance of the country during the pandemic.

But it also marked a radical turning point on a subject that receives little public attention in general: foreign policy. It’s not just that the Bolsonaro government has transformed Brazil, a giant in land area and population, into a kind of diplomatic dwarf. Nor is it just the fact that Bolsonaro turned the country’s back to Latin America and Africa. The most serious thing is that in his pursuit of aligning Brazil to the United States, Bolsonaro broke with a long tradition of Brazilian foreign policy: the respect for constitutional principles of national independence, self-determination of the peoples, non-intervention, equality between States, defense of peace, and peaceful solution of conflicts.

Despite the different foreign policies adopted by Brazilian governments over the years, no president had ever so openly broken with these principles. Never had a Brazilian president expressed such open support for a candidate in a U.S. election, as Bolsonaro did to Trump and against Biden in 2020. Never had a president so openly despised Brazil’s main trading partner, as Bolsonaro did with China on different occasions. Never had a Brazilian president offended the wife of another president as Jair Bolsonaro, his Economy Minister Paulo Guedes, and his son Representative Eduardo Bolsonaro did in relation to Emmanuel Macron’s wife, Brigitte. And never, at least since re-democratization in the 1980s, has a president talked so openly about invading a neighboring country as Bolsonaro did toward Venezuela.

This attitude has thrown Brazil into a position of unprecedented diplomatic isolation for a country recognized for its absence of conflicts with other countries and its capacity for diplomatic mediation. As a result, during the campaign for the 2022 elections—won by Lula da Silva on Sunday, October 30, by a narrow margin of 2.1 million votes, with 50.9 percent of the votes for Lula against 49.1 percent for Bolsonaro—the topic of foreign policy appeared frequently, with Lula promising to resume Brazil’s leading role in international politics.

“We are lucky that the Chinese see Brazil as a historic entity, which will exist with or without Bolsonaro. Otherwise, the possibility of having had problems of various types would be great. … [For example, China] could simply not give us vaccines,” professor of economics at Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ) Elias Jabbour tells me. “Brazil should once again play a decisive role in major international issues,” he adds.

The Return of ‘Active and Assertive’ Foreign Policy?

International relations during the first Lula administrations, from 2003 to 2011, were marked by Celso Amorim, minister of foreign affairs. He called for an “active and assertive” foreign policy. By “assertive,” Amorim meant a firmer attitude to refuse outside pressure and place Brazil’s interests on the international agenda. By “active,” he was referring to a decisive pursuit of Brazil’s interests. This view was “meant to not only defend certain positions, but also attract other countries to Brazil’s positions,” Amorim said.

This policy meant a commitment to Latin American integration, with the strengthening of Mercosur (also known as the Southern Common Market) and the creation of institutions such as Unasur, the South American Institute of Government in Health, the South American Defense Council, and CELAC. The IBSA forum (India, Brazil, and South Africa) and the BRICS bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) were also established. During this period, Brazil also advanced its relations with the European Union, Africa, and the Middle East. Due to Brazil’s size and the diplomatic weight it took on by increasing its diplomatic representation worldwide, Brazil came to be an important player in international forums, seeking to advance discussions toward multilateralism and greater democratization of these forums, effectively mediating sensitive issues such as the Iran nuclear agreement with the UN and tensions between Venezuela and the U.S. during the Bush administration.

So Far From God and So Close to the U.S.

There is a popular phrase throughout Latin America, originally said by Mexican General Porfirio Díaz, overthrown by the Mexican Revolution in 1911: “Poor Mexico! So far from God and so close to the United States.” It applies outside the bounds of its original time and place. Today’s Latin Americans could easily swap out “poor Mexico” for their own country, whether that’s Colombia, Guatemala, Argentina, or even Brazil—a country where a Christ the Redeemer statue is an international tourist attraction.

In a scenario where nations are heading toward war and confrontation, the return of a diplomatically active Brazil may be exactly what the world, and Latin America in particular, needs. “For the past 40 days, the war in Ukraine has been heading toward a point of no return. Diplomatic exits are no longer on the agenda and the use of brute military force has increased,” says Rose Martins, a doctoral candidate in international economic relations at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). “In this scenario, the BRICS and its New Development Bank offer alternatives for economic development distinct from the neoliberal terms.”

The question, perhaps, is which “world” actually looks forward to an active Brazil. This resumption may interest the Third World, for example, but there are doubts about whether it would interest the so-called Western world. “In this global situation, in which there is a dispute over ‘cosmotechnics’ and among which the exercise of force is in place, Brazil will have to play in a very balanced way, with great caution,” says Professor Héctor Luís Saint-Pierre, coordinator of the Defense and International Security Study Group (GEDES). “I can imagine two possible attitudes: from the point of view of the dispute over cosmotechnical hegemonies, it would be the pragmatic non-alignment. In other words, entering into commercial, economic, and technological relationships in a pragmatic way, non-aligned: neither with one nor with the other,” he says. “And with regard to the U.S., a certain precaution, because they are at war—we are not. We don’t need to go to war to defend U.S. interests: the right thing to do, to defend Brazilian interests, is not going to war. Sometimes national interests are defended by not going to war.”

In addition to the external challenge, Lula arrives at the presidency in a very different situation from that found in his first term. Not only will he have to deal with all the institutional destruction left by Jair Bolsonaro, but he will also have to deal with the members of his own “broad front” coalition—many of whom had been radical opponents during his previous governments. One of the most sensitive topics, however, is how the armed forces will act. Since the coup against Dilma Rousseff, in 2016, the generals have returned to the Brazilian political scene, expanding their domains to the point of conquering thousands of positions under Bolsonaro—a scenario that puts a country that only left its last military dictatorship 37 years ago on alert. “More than paradoxical, it is aporetic. It’s a dead-end situation,” says Saint-Pierre, when I ask him whether the way to disarm military power internally would be to carry out a consistent foreign policy, or if, in order to carry out a consistent foreign policy, it would first be necessary to disarm military power. He believes that Lula will have to establish some kind of pact with the military, in which their demands are respected, so that he can effectively govern. But for all the challenges, Saint-Pierre, Martins, and Jabbour all seem to agree on one point: the Lula government’s foreign policy will definitely be better for Brazil, Latin America, and the world than Bolsonaro’s. So do the Brazilian people.

This article was produced by Globetrotter in partnership with Revista Opera.

Lula never left Brazil’s centre stage

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The former president of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, popularly known as Lula, has won the country’s presidential election by an incredibly narrow margin of 50.90% of the vote against his right-wing rival and incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro’s 49.10%.

When Lula stepped down as president in 2010, he was enjoying the approval of 80% of the Brazilian people. How Lula came to lose his carisma makes a complicated story. He attributed it entirely to the ground reality that he was fighting not an individual but the Brazilian state apparatus. Clearly, Lula’s strongest support base — over two-thirds of the vote — among poor, rural voters in the northeast part of Brazil held firm. 

Lula is anything but a one-dimensional man. Not many would know that he was the first Latin American leader to be invited to Camp David — by none other than President George W. Bush in 2007. Bush said, “You come as a friend, we welcome you as a friend, and our discussions were very friendly.” 

In March 2009, after receiving Lula at the Oval Office in the White House, Bush’s successor President Barack Obama said that he was “a great admirer of Brazil and a great admirer of the progressive, forward-looking leadership that President Lula has shown throughout Latin America and throughout the world.” 

The accolades were improbably similar. There are several reasons why Lula’s victory matters a great deal to the US — trade, democracy, Donald Trump and climate change. Lula’s new greener stance pleases the US. The Amazon rainforest may stop burning. Washington has been enthusiastic about Lula’s business-friendly economic policies, too. 

Lula could be a friend of right-wingers and yet be an iconic progressive leader. His magnetism attracts diverse minds. Lula’s immediate successor as president who was part of a revolutionary underground at one time, Dilma Rousseff, would attribute it to his “rational assessment and emotional intelligence” — a gifted politician’s secret weapon to connect him with human minds across vast political space.

There is record trade between the US and Brazil — aircraft, petroleum, iron and steel — and they also make similar commodities. Brazil is the largest producer of soy and orange, followed by the US, while the Americans are ahead in corn, beef, turkey and chicken production, with Brazil just behind. At a time of recession, there’ll be competition for market share. 

The best piece I read on Lula over the years was an incisive essay dating back to 2011 by Professor and author Perry Anderson (who sits on the editorial board of New Left Review, alongside Tariq Ali) in the London Review of Books. In that 22000-word essay titled Lula’s Brazil, Anderson deftly navigated Lula’s sharply contrasting and yet mutually complementing facets of his two full terms in office as president from 2003 to 2010. 

The broad hinterland of corruption behind Lula’s conquest of power in his first term almost cost him a second term in 2006. But Lula had two assets in reserve. First, his neoliberal economic policies led to sustained economic growth, and, second, as business and jobs picked up, not only the mood in the country changed, but the government’s coffers were filled with larger revenues. 

Succinctly put, although Lula had been committed to helping the poor, he realised early enough in power that accommodation of the rich and powerful would be necessary, and only with the larger revenues, could he launch the programme that is now indelibly associated with him, the Bolsa Família, a monthly cash transfer to mothers in the lowest income strata, against proof that they are sending their children to school and getting their health checked. 

The transfers reached more than 12 million households, a quarter of the population, messaging that Lula cared for the lot of the wretched or downtrodden, as citizens with social rights. “Popular identification of Lula with this change became his most unshakeable political asset,” Anderson wrote.  

A succession of increases in the minimum wage followed. These conditional cash transfers, higher minimum wages and the novel access to credit set off popular consumption leading to an expansion of the domestic market that finally began creating more jobs. 

To quote Anderson, “In combination, faster economic growth and broader social transfers have achieved the greatest reduction in poverty in Brazilian history. By some estimates, the number of the poor dropped from around 50 to 30 million in the space of six years, and the number of the destitute by 50 per cent.” Since 2005, government spending on education trebled and the hope of betterment was a great popular success.

Lula’s foreign laurels were no less impressive. Lula took care not to confront Washington, but gave greater priority to regional solidarity, promoting Mercosur with neighbours to the south, and refused to cold-shoulder Cuba and Venezuela to the north. Lula recognised Palestine as a state and opposed the sanctions against Iran. No doubt, the increasing weight of Brazil as an economic power and his own aura as the most popular ruler of the age enabled Lula to pull it off. The new position he had won for Brazil came with the formation of the BRIC quartet in 2009, which was virtually a declaration of diplomatic independence from the West.

These paradoxes get reflected today in the complimentary messages flowing in from the collective West and Moscow and Beijing alike wishing Lula success. The Chinese President Xi Jinping’s message of greetings underscores how Brazil has become a high-stakes turf in geopolitics. Indeed, China’s ascent as a countervailing economic power in Brazil is a compelling reality. In 2021, China was the number one investor in Brazil.

Latin America is hurtling to the left. Taken together, this group is extremely mixed, differing on economic policy and commitment to democratic principles but they are in unison in their resistance to US hegemony. The ensuing solidarities among governments of the left, cradle Lula’s Brazil within a hospitable environment. In turn, Lula will extend a mantle of protective friendship to regimes –- Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador –- more radical than his own, while at the same time remaining a moderating influence on them. 

To be sure, Lula brings gravitas to the BRICS agenda. Democratisation of the international political and economic order is  very much to his heart. He is the one BRICS leader who can galvanise the grouping as a “counterpoint” to G7 in international politics. 

However, world politics has changed phenomenally in the past 12 year period. The BRICS itself is on the cusp of change. During his two terms as president, the international context was benign for Brazil as Washington lost concentration as continental overlord in the hemisphere and the War on Terror became the front lines of American global strategy.

But in the new cold war conditions, Washington’s traditional mechanisms of hegemony will almost certainly return in Latin America in one form or the other, especially as President Biden is going to have to take some difficult decisions over Ukraine, with a major collapse of the NATO project eastwards coming. 

This is where Lula’s margin in the presidential election is worryingly thin in a political economy with persistently high unemployment, high inflation, and staggering wealth inequality and extreme polarisation. Washington is very good at exploiting such contradictions.

However, the one factor that can restrain the Biden Administration would be the big picture in the hemisphere, which is that there is no nuance whatsoever today in the left versus right map for Latin America. 

Biden’s call with Lula on Monday is an extraordinary gesture underscoring the high importance of Brazil both in the US regional strategy and domestic politics where Latino voters matter profoundly, and affirming strong interest in a cooperative relationship with the towering, charismatic Brazilian leader. Biden must be thrilled to have Lula on his side as he prepares to combat Trumpism.