Brazil

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Lula never left Brazil’s centre stage

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

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Could China Help Brazil to Overcome Its Economic Crisis?

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The election victory of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as the president of Brazil for a third term on October 30 is expected to revise the relations between Brasília and Beijing. Brazil is going through a serious economic, political, social, and environmental crisis. Fighting poverty, resuming economic growth with income redistribution, reindustrializing the country, and reversing environmental abuses are urgent tasks, which will demand unprecedented national and international finesse from the new government. The economic partnership between Brazil and China, which has advanced greatly in the last two decades, may be one of the keys to reversing the crisis that Brazil faces. But some challenges will need to be faced with diplomacy and strategic planning.

Despite the “insults” directed by the government under former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro toward China, especially during the pandemic, and the inevitable distancing of diplomatic relations between the two countries, bilateral trade between Brazil and China has increased. In 2021, bilateral trade between the two countries reached $135.4 billion with Brazil recording a trade surplus of $40 billion with China, which was only surpassed by the region of Taiwan and two countries, Australia and South Korea. China has been Brazil’s largest trading partner since 2009, accounting for almost double the trade volume that Brazil imported from its second largest partner in 2021, the U.S. ($70.5 billion), with which it recorded a deficit of $8.3 billion.

A Profitable, but Unbalanced Trade Relationship

Brazil’s export mix, however, is vulnerable in the long term: it is not very diversified and based on products of low aggregate value. The four main products it exports (iron ore, soy, crude oil, and animal protein) accounted for 87.7 percent of total exports to China in 2021. Meanwhile, the imports of Chinese products to Brazil are highly diversified, with a predominance of manufactured products, and with a high technological index. For example, the main import item from China to Brazil (telecommunications equipment) accounted for only 5.9 percent of imports.

The Brazilian commodities sector, which is an important component of the economy, represented 68.3 percent of exports by Brazil in the first half of 2022 and has contributed for years to the increase in international reserves. On the other hand, the commodities sector has a high concentration of wealth, pays few taxes, generates relatively few and low-skill jobs, is subject to cyclical price changes, and, in many cases, causes environmental damage, which needs to be better controlled by the state. In this sense, the initiative announced by COFCO International—the largest buyer of Brazilian food in China—to monitor and prohibit the purchase of soybeans planted in areas of illegal deforestation in Brazil beginning from 2023 was important.

But it will also require the Brazilian state—which has become notorious in recent years for encouraging deforestation and the invasion of Indigenous reserves—to guarantee the effectiveness of the initiative. China needs Brazil’s natural resources for its development, and Brazil needs the Chinese market for its commodities. But in the medium and long term, Brazil will need to seek greater balance in its trade agenda if it wants to return to being a solid economy. Let’s remember that in 2000, the main Brazilian export product was Embraer’s jet planes, while in 2021, the main exports were iron ore and soybeans. This is just one of the many symptoms of chronic deindustrialization.

Investing Is Necessary but so Is Diversifying

Chinese investments in Brazil have a similar profile to its exports: robust, but not very diversified. In 2021, Brazil received the most Chinese investments in the world, amounting to $5.9 billion (13.6 percent of the global total). Between 2005 and 2021, Brazil was the fourth-largest global recipient of Chinese investments (4.8 percent of the total), only behind the U.S. (14.3 percent), Australia (7.8 percent), and the United Kingdom (7.4 percent). These investments by China have resulted in a fundamental contribution of resources to the Brazilian economy but have not come without its set of challenges. From 2007 to 2021, 76.4 percent of the Chinese investments were concentrated in the energy sector (electricity, and oil and gas extraction), while only 5.5 percent went to the manufacturing industry and 4.5 percent went to infrastructure works, among other greatest needs of Brazil’s economy.

The Brazilian electricity sector was the largest destination for Chinese investments (45.5 percent of the total), but part of this corresponded to the purchase of Brazilian state-owned companies by Chinese state-owned companies. In 2017, the Chinese company State Grid acquired a controlling interest in CPFL Energia, a state-owned company in the state of São Paulo, and in 2021, CPFL Energia bought control of CEEE-Transmissão, a state-owned company in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. For Brazil, these were not good deals and demonstrated the irresponsibility of neoliberal state governments of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), which privatized strategic public assets. China—which would never sell a state-owned energy company to foreigners—took care of its own interests and took advantage of a business opportunity offered by the market. It was not a privatization package imposed by the International Monetary Fund. But would Beijing be willing to accept other investment models that would bring more benefits to both countries?

The Example of the Southern Hermanos

Since 2021, Buenos Aires and Beijing have entered into a series of strategic investment agreements. In February 2022, Argentina joined the Belt and Road Initiative, which is expected to attract $23 billion in Chinese investments for Argentina. Before that, other investments and projects by Chinese companies included the reform of the Argentine railway system ($4.69 billion), and, voluminous investments in the electric sector, such as 1) the expansion of the Cauchari Park, Latin America’s largest solar power plant, which was originally a Sino-Argentinian partnership, 2) the construction of the “Kirchner-Cepernic” hydroelectric complex in Patagonia (costing more than $4 billion), and 3) the construction of the “Atucha III” nuclear plant (costing $8.3 billion), whose financing has an approximately eight-year grace period and, most importantly, it provides for the transfer of Chinese Hualong nuclear technology—mastered in 2021—to the Argentine state, which will control the plant.

Brazil can propose partnerships similar to those by Argentina that are just as or even more strategic, with mutual benefits. Why not propose to exchange commodities (oil and gas) for infrastructure and technology with China, as countries like Iran have already proposed? Or the formation of more Sino-Brazilian joint ventures—which received only 6 percent of Chinese investments (2005-2020), while mergers and acquisitions received 70 percent—that provide for technology transfer to Brazil?

Brazil will need a gigantic effort to reindustrialize its economy at several levels, such as investment in research and development, training of skilled labor, financing, and technology transfer. No other country, such as China, has the financial, industrial, and technological conditions to cooperate with Brazil in numerous promising sectors, like electric vehicles, information technology, 5G, renewable energy, aerospace, biomedicine, and semiconductors. It is up to Brazil to propose a high-level strategic dialogue with China, which reaffirmed in the report of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China that it is committed to helping to accelerate the development of Global South countries. “China is prepared to invest more resources in global development cooperation. It is committed to narrowing the North-South gap and supporting and assisting other developing countries in accelerating development,” President of China Xi Jinping said during the congress.

Ten Suggestions for Lula, New President of Brazil

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Dear President Lula,

When I visited you (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva) in prison on August 30, 2018, in the brief time that the visit lasted, I experienced a whirlwind of ideas and emotions that remain as vivid today as they were then. A short time before, we had been together at the World Social Forum in Salvador da Bahia. In the penthouse of the hotel where you were staying, we exchanged ideas with Brazilian politician Jacques Wagner about your imprisonment. You still had some hope that the judicial system would suspend the persecutory vertigo that had descended upon you. I, perhaps because I am a legal sociologist, was convinced that this would not happen, but I did not insist. At one point, I had the feeling that you and I were actually thinking and fearing the same thing. A short time later, they were arresting you with the same arrogant and compulsive indifference with which they had been treating you up to that point. Judge Sergio Moro, who had links with the U.S. (it is too late to be naive), had accomplished the first part of his mission by putting you behind bars. The second part would be to keep you locked up and isolated until “his” candidate (Jair Bolsonaro) was elected, one who would give Moro a platform to get to the presidency of the republic later on. This is the third phase of the mission, still underway.

When I entered the premises of Brazil’s federal police, I felt a chill when I read the plaque marking that President Lula da Silva had inaugurated those facilities 11 years earlier as part of his vast program to upgrade the federal police and criminal investigation system in the country. A whirlwind of questions assaulted me. Had the plaque remained there out of oblivion? Out of cruelty? Or to show that the spell had turned against the sorcerer? That a bona fide president had handed the gold to the bandit?

I was accompanied by a pleasant young federal police officer who turned to me and said, “We read your books a lot.” I was shocked. If my books were read and the message understood, neither Lula nor I would be there. I babbled something to this effect, and the answer was instantaneous: “We are following orders.” Suddenly, the Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt came to my mind. To be a sovereign is to have the prerogative to declare that something is legal even if is not, and to impose your will bureaucratically with the normality of functional obedience and the consequent trivialization of state terror.

This is how I arrived at your cell, and surely you did not even suspect the storm that was going on inside me. Upon seeing you, I calmed down. I was faced with dignity and humanity that gave me hope for mankind. Everything was normal within the totalitarian abnormality that had enclosed you there: The windows, the gym apparatus, the books, and the television. Our conversation was as normal as everything around us, including your lawyers and Gleisi Hoffmann, who was then the general secretary of the Workers’ Party. We talked about the situation in Latin America, the new (old) aggressiveness of the empire, and the judicial system that had converted into an ersatz military coup.

When the door closed behind me, the weight of the illegal will of a state held hostage by criminals armed with legal manipulations fell back on me once again. I braced myself between revolt and anger and the well-behaved performance expected of a public intellectual who on his way out has to make statements to the press. I did everything, but what I truly felt was that I had left behind Brazil’s freedom and dignity imprisoned so that the empire and the elites in its service could fulfill their objectives of guaranteeing access to Brazil’s immense natural resources, privatization of social security, and unconditional alignment with the geopolitics of rivalry with China.

The serenity and dignity with which you faced a year of confinement is proof that empires, especially decadent ones, often miscalculate, precisely because they only think in the short term. The immense and growing national and international solidarity, which would make you the most famous political prisoner in the world, showed that the Brazilian people were beginning to believe that at least part of what was destroyed in the short term might be rebuilt in the medium and long term. Your imprisonment was the price of the credibility of this conviction; your subsequent freedom was proof that the conviction has become reality.

I am writing to you today first to congratulate you on your victory in the October 30 election. It is an extraordinary achievement without precedent in the history of democracy. I often say that sociologists are good at predicting the past, not the future, but this time I was not wrong. That does not make me feel any more certain about what I must tell you today. Take these considerations as an expression of my best wishes for you personally and for the office you are about to take on as the president of Brazil.

1. It would be a serious mistake to think that with your victory in Brazil’s presidential election everything is back to normal in the country. First, the normal situation prior to former President Jair Bolsonaro was very precarious for the most vulnerable populations, even if it was less so than it is now. Second, Bolsonaro inflicted such damage on Brazilian society that is difficult to repair. He has produced a civilizational regression by rekindling the embers of violence typical of a society that was subjected to European colonialism: the idolatry of individual property and the consequent social exclusion, racism, and sexism; the privatization of the state so that the rule of law coexists with the rule of illegality; and an excluding of religion this time in the form of neo-Pentecostal evangelism. The colonial divide is reactivated in the pattern of friend/enemy, us/them polarization, typical of the extreme right. With this, Bolsonaro has created a radical rupture that makes educational and democratic mediation difficult. Recovery will take years.

2. If the previous note points to the medium term, the truth is that your presidency will be dominated by the short term. Bolsonaro has brought back hunger, broken the state financially, deindustrialized the country, let hundreds of thousands of COVID victims die needlessly, and promised to put an end to the Amazon. The emergency camp is the one in which you move best and in which I am sure you will be most successful. Just two caveats. You will no doubt return to the policies you have successfully spearheaded, but mind you, the conditions are now vastly different and more adverse. On the other hand, everything has to be done without expecting political gratitude from the social classes benefiting from the emergency measures. The impersonal way of benefiting, which is proper to the state, makes people see their personal merit or right in the benefits, and not the merit or benevolence of those who make them possible. There is only one way of showing that such measures result neither from personal merit nor from the benevolence of donors but are rather the product of political alternatives: ensuring education for citizenship.

3. One of the most harmful aspects of the backlash brought about by Bolsonaro is the anti-rights ideology ingrained in the social fabric, targeting previously marginalized social groups (poor, Black, Indigenous, Roma, and LGBTQI+ people). Holding on firmly to a policy of social, economic, and cultural rights as a guarantee of ample dignity in a very unequal society should be the basic principle of democratic governments today.

4. The international context is dominated by three mega-threats: recurring pandemics, ecological collapse, and a possible third world war. Each of these threats is global in scope, but political solutions remain predominantly limited to the national scale. Brazilian diplomacy has traditionally been exemplary in the search for agreements, whether regional (Latin American cooperation) or global (BRICS). We live in a time of interregnum between a unipolar world dominated by the United States that has not yet fully disappeared and a multipolar world that has not yet been fully born. The interregnum is seen, for example, in the deceleration of globalization and the return of protectionism, the partial replacement of free trade with trade by friendly partners. All states remain formally independent, but only a few are sovereign. And among the latter, not even the countries of the European Union are to be counted. You left the government when China was the great partner of the United States and return when China is the great rival of the United States. You have always been a supporter of the multipolar world and China cannot but be today a partner of Brazil. Given the growing cold war between the United States and China, I predict that the honeymoon period between U.S. President Joe Biden and yourself will not last long.

5. You today have a world credibility that enables you to be an effective mediator in a world mined by increasingly tense conflicts. You can be a mediator in the Russia/Ukraine conflict, two countries whose people urgently need peace, at a time when the countries of the European Union have embraced the U.S. version of the conflict without a Plan B; they have therefore condemned themselves to the same fate as the U.S.-dominated unipolar world. You will also be a credible mediator in the case of Venezuela’s isolation and in bringing the shameful embargo against Cuba to an end. To accomplish all this, you must have the internal front pacified, and here lies the greatest difficulty.

6. You will have to live with the permanent threat of destabilization. This is the mark of the extreme right. It is a global movement that corresponds to the inability of neoliberal capitalism to coexist in the next period in a minimal democratic way. Although global, it takes on specific characteristics in each country. The general aim is to convert cultural or ethnic diversity into political or religious polarization. In Brazil, as in India, there is the risk of attributing to such polarization the character of a religious war, be it between Catholics and Evangelicals, or between fundamentalist Christians and religions of African origin (Brazil), or between Hindus and Muslims (India). In religious wars, conciliation is almost impossible. The extreme right creates a parallel reality immune to any confrontation with the actual reality. On that basis, it can justify the cruelest violence. Its main objective is to prevent you, President Lula, from peacefully finishing your term.

7. You currently have the support of the United States in your favor. It is well known that all U.S. foreign policy is determined by domestic political reasons. President Biden knows that, by defending you, he is defending himself against former President Trump, his possible rival in 2024. It so happens that the United States today is the most fractured society in the world, where the democratic game coexists with a plutocratic far right strong enough to make about 25 percent of the U.S. population still believe that Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election was the result of an electoral fraud. This far right is willing to do anything. Their aggressiveness is demonstrated by the attempt by one of their followers to kidnap and torture Nancy Pelosi, leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives. Furthermore, right after the attack, a battery of fake news was put into circulation to justify the act—something that can very well happen in Brazil as well. So, today the United States is a dual country: the official country that promises to defend Brazilian democracy, and the unofficial country that promises to subvert it in order to rehearse what it wants to achieve in the United States. Let us remember that the extreme right started as the official policy of the country. Hyper-conservative evangelicalism started as an American project (see the Rockefeller report of 1969) to combat “the insurrectionary potential” of liberation theology. And let it be said, in fairness, that for a long time its main ally was former Pope John Paul II.

8. Since 2014, Brazil has been living through a continued coup process, the elites’ response to the progress that the popular classes achieved with your governments. That coup process did not end with your victory. It only changed rhythm and tactics. Throughout these years and especially in the last electoral period we have witnessed multiple illegalities and even political crimes committed with an almost naturalized impunity. Besides the many committed by the head of the government, we have seen, for example, senior members of the armed forces and security forces calling for a coup d’état and publicly siding with a presidential candidate while in office. Such behavior should be punished by the judiciary or by compulsory retirement. Any idea of amnesty, no matter how noble its motives may be, will be a trap in the path of your presidency. The consequences could be fatal.

9. It is well known that you do not place a high priority on characterizing your politics as being left or right. Curiously, shortly before being elected president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro stated that the important distinction for him was not between left and right, but between politics of life and politics of death. The politics of life today in Brazil is sincere ecological politics, the continuation and deepening of policies of racial and sexual justice, labor rights, investment in public health care and education, respect for the demarcated lands of Indigenous peoples, and the enactment of pending demarcations. A gradual but firm transition is needed from agrarian monoculture and natural resource extractivism to a diversified economy that allows respect for different socioeconomic logics and virtuous articulations between the capitalist economy and the peasant, family, cooperative, social-solidarity, Indigenous, riverine, and quilombola economies that have so much vitality in Brazil.

10. The state of grace is short. It does not even last 100 days (see President Gabriel Boric in Chile). You have to do everything not to lose the people that elected you. Symbolic politics is fundamental in the early days. One suggestion: immediately reinstate the national conferences (built on bottom-up participatory democracy) to give an unequivocal sign that there is another, more democratic, and more participative way of doing politics.

Source: Globetrotter

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.

The Most Important Election in the Americas Is in Brazil

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Former Brazilian President Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) runs about on stage at the Latin America Memorial in São Paulo. He was there on August 22, 2022, speaking at a book launch featuring photographs by Ricardo Stuckert about Lula’s trips around the world when he was the president of Brazil from 2003 to 2010. Lula is a man with a great deal of energy. He recounts the story of when he was in Iran with his Foreign Minister Celso Amorim in 2010, trying to mediate and end the conflict imposed by the United States over Iran’s nuclear energy policy. Lula managed to secure a nuclear deal in 2010 that would have prevented the ongoing pressure campaign that Washington is conducting against Tehran. There was relief in the air. Then, Lula said, “Obama pissed outside the pot.” According to Lula, then-U.S. President Barack Obama did not accept the deal and crushed the hard work of the Brazilian leadership in bringing all sides to an agreement.

Lula’s story puts two important points on the table: he was able to build on Brazil’s role in Latin America by offering leadership in far-off Iran during his previous tenure as president, and he is not afraid of expressing his antipathy for the way the United States is scuttling the possibility of peace and progress across the world for its own narrow interests.

The book release took place during Lula’s campaign for president against the current incumbent—and deeply unpopular—President Jair Bolsonaro. Lula is now in the lead in the polls ahead of the first round of Brazil’s presidential election to be held on October 2.

Fernando Haddad, who ran against Bolsonaro in 2018 and lost after receiving less than 45 percent of the vote, told me that this election remains “risky.” The polls might show that Lula is in the lead, but Bolsonaro is known to play dirty politics to secure his victory. The far right in Brazil, like the far right in many other countries, is fierce in the way it contests for state power. Bolsonaro, Haddad said, is willing to lie openly, saying offensive things to the far-right media and then when challenged about it by the mainstream media, he tends to feign ignorance. “Fake news” seems to be Bolsonaro’s best defense each time he is attacked. The left is far more sincere in its political discourse; leftists are unwilling to lie and eager to bring the issues of hunger and unemployment, social despair and social advancement to the center of the political debate. But there is less interest in these issues and less noise about them in a media landscape that thrives on the theatrics of Bolsonaro and his followers. The old traditional right is as outflanked as the far right in Brazil, which is a space that is now commanded by Bolsonaro (the old traditional right, the men in dark suits who made decisions over cigars and cachaça, are unable to supplant Bolsonaro).

Former Brazilian president Lula attracted a crowd of 50,000 people in pre-campaign act in Teresina, Piaui, Brasil, 3 August 2022. [ Photograph: Roberta Aline/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock ]

Both Bolsonaro and Lula face an electorate that either loves them or hates them. There is little room for ambiguity in this race. Bolsonaro represents not only the far right, whose opinions he openly champions, but he also represents large sections of the middle class, whose aspirations for wealth remain largely intact despite the reality that their economic situation has deteriorated over the past decade. The contrast between the behavior of Bolsonaro and Lula during their respective presidential campaigns has been stark: Bolsonaro has been boorish and vulgar, while Lula is refined and presidential. If the election goes to Lula, it is likely that he will get more votes from those who hate Bolsonaro than from those who love him.

Former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is reflective on the way forward. She told me that Lula will likely prevail in the election because the country is fed up with Bolsonaro. His horrible management of the COVID-19 pandemic and the deterioration of the economic situation in the country mark Bolsonaro as an inefficient manager of the Brazilian state. However, Rousseff pointed out that about a month before the election, Bolsonaro’s government—and the regional governments—have been rolling out policies that have started to lighten the burden on the middle class, such as the lifting of taxation on gasoline. These policies could sway some people to vote for Bolsonaro, but even that is not likely. The political situation in Brazil remains fragile for the left, with the main blocs on the right (agro-business, religion and the military) willing to use any means to maintain their hold on power; it was this right-wing coalition that conducted a “legislative coup” against Rousseff in 2016 and used “lawfare,” the use of law for political motives, against Lula in 2018 to prevent him from running against Bolsonaro. These phrases (legislative coup and lawfare) are now part of the vocabulary of the Brazilian left, which understands clearly that the right bloc (what is called centrão) will not stop pursuing their interests if they feel threatened.

João Paulo Rodrigues, a leader of the Landless Workers Movement (MST) is a close adviser to the Lula campaign. He told me that in the 2002 presidential election, Lula won against the incumbent Fernando Henrique Cardoso because of an immense hatred for the neoliberal policies that Cardoso had championed. The left was fragmented and demoralized at that time of the election. Lula’s time in office, however, helped the left mobilize and organize, although even during this period the focus of popular attention was more on Lula himself rather than the blocs that comprised the left. During Lula’s incarceration on corruption charges, which the left says are fraudulent, he became a figure that unified the left: Lula Livre, “Free Lula,” was the unifying slogan, and the letter L (for Lula) became a symbol (a symbol that continues to be used in the election campaign). While there are other candidates from Brazil’s left in the presidential race, there is no question for Rodrigues that Lula is the left’s standard-bearer and is the only hope for Brazil to oust the highly divisive and dangerous leadership of President Bolsonaro. One of the mechanisms to build the unity of popular forces around Lula’s campaign has been the creation of the Popular Committees (comités populares), which have been working to both unify the left and create an agenda for the Lula government (which will include agrarian reform and a more robust policy for the Indigenous and Afro-Brazilian communities).

The international conditions for a third Lula presidency are fortuitous, Rousseff told me. A wide range of center-left governments have come to power in Latin America (including in Chile and Colombia). While these are not socialist governments, they are nonetheless committed to building the sovereignty of their countries and to creating a dignified life for their citizens. Brazil, the third-largest country in the Americas (after Canada and the United States of America), can play a leadership role in guiding this new wave of left governments in the hemisphere, Rousseff said. Haddad told me that Brazil should lead a new regional project, which will include the creation of a regional currency (sur) that can not only be used for cross-border trade but also for holding reserves. Haddad is currently running to be the governor of São Paulo, whose main city is the financial capital of the country. Such a regional currency, Haddad believed, will settle conflicts in the hemisphere and build new trade linkages that need not rely on long supply chains that have been destabilized by the pandemic. “God willing, we will create a common currency in Latin America because we do not have to depend on the dollar,” said Lula in May 2022.

Rousseff is eager for Brazil to return to the world stage through the BRICS bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), and offer the kind of left leadership that Lula and she had given that platform a decade ago. The world, Rousseff said, needs such a platform to offer leadership that does not rely on threats, sanctions and war. Lula’s anecdote about the Iran deal is a telling one since it shows that a country like Brazil under the leadership of the left is more willing to settle conflicts rather than to exacerbate them, as the United States did. There is hope, Rousseff noted, for a Lula presidency to offer robust leadership for a world that seems to be crumbling due to the myriad challenges such as climate catastrophe, warfare and social toxicity.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.