Lula’s Comeback Campaign: The Stakes for Brazil—and Democracy

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The anticipated announcement, on July 21, of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s presidential run as the Workers’ Party candidate for the October elections in Brazil foretells a key return to the global chessboard. Lula, who currently leads incumbent Jair Bolsonaro by more than 20 points in opinion polls, consolidated the first wave of the Latin American Pink Tide after a watershed electoral win in 2003. His comeback in 2022 promises to set off a second surge on a whole new scale, with the momentum to reaffirm past gains and expand in new directions.

“When the first wave of integration happened, the Pink Tide was very pluralistic,” says Celso Amorim, Lula’s former chancellor and his closest political adviser.

“[Twelve years ago], you had Chávez on the one hand, but you had Uribe on the other,” he explains. The election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 1998 initiated the first Latin American leftward shift in this century, with Brazil (2003), Argentina (2003), Bolivia (2006), and Ecuador (2007) aligning in due course. At the time, however, several key states stood firm in their neoliberal retrenchment, particularly Colombia under Álvaro Uribe. Following a regional conservative backlash in the mid-2010s, signs of a reemerging Pink Tide started to show with the election of Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2018.

“Yes, [back then] there were some governments of a progressive nature in a certain number of countries. But I think that if Lula wins in October, it will be a big change, because now you have not only a majority [of progressive governments in the region] but also the largest countries in Latin America in general, and in South America in particular, sharing progressive views.”

After Bolsonaro’s declarations last month, when he cast doubt on the security of the country’s electronic voting process, Amorim anticipates that the Brazilian right will do as much as it can to cling to power. Lula’s return would deliver a hard blow not only to Bolsonaro’s personal ambitions but also to neoliberalism and market capitalism in the subcontinent.

If Lula wins, he will join growing progressive group of Latin American presidents that includes Alberto Fernández in Argentina (2019), Luis Arce in Bolivia (2020), Pedro Castillo in Peru (2021), Gabriel Boric in Chile (2021), Xiomara Castro in Honduras (2022), and recently Gustavo Petro, the first left-leaning president in Colombia’s history, who will take office on August 7. Lula will not only consolidate a regional mandate in favor of wealth distribution, social assistance, and climate policy above fiscal austerity and blind compliance with the IMF. He will also revive a diplomatic approach based on multilateralism and nonalignment, backed by a global heavyweight, as a counterbalance to the new cold war between the United States and China.

Pablo Calvi: Beyond gaining the electoral vote, Lula needs to buttress his potential win with support from the judicial power, the military forces, the media—the real levers of power in Brazil. If he wins the popular vote, which he is likely to do, how do you think he will garner support from the other political actors?

Celso Amorim: In relation to the judicial power, there was already a big change. Not because of Lula, but there was a change of attitude in relation to what they call Lawfare, and the perception that there was an abuse of power. We don’t want a judiciary that is pro-Lula. We want a judiciary that is fair. So I don’t think that this would be a problem. This is already happening to a large extent, and that’s why Bolsonaro is so much against the judiciary and made these incredibly ridiculous statements to the foreign ambassadors, criticizing our own judiciary and our electoral system. The other aspect that you mention are the armed forces. Bolsonaro is not really a bright guy in any sense, but he has a lot of political intuition. He was able to surround himself with—and attract—a number of generals. And these people are now out of the picture, because they are already retiring. I was minister of defense [from 2011 to 2014], and I know that the high command, the hierarchies in the armed forces, tend to think institutionally. It’s interesting to note, for instance, that in [July 19] spectacle that was offered in the [presidential] palace, the minister of defense, who was also a military man, was present. But the commanders of the three armed forces, what you would call the chiefs of staff, didn’t attend, despite the fact that they were invited. They wanted to dissociate themselves from the most exotic measures that Bolsonaro is taking. So I don’t think that the military will be a problem once the election is over and the winner is declared.

It is important that we have a fair and free election, that is resolved with a large majority difference. A simple majority will eliminate any attempts to have Capitol Hill–type actions here.

PC: How do you see a new Lula government positioning itself vis-à-vis the Biden administration?

CA: You have to sometimes distinguish between the government and the deep state. I know this is a common place that many people don’t like, but it’s true. I think that the deep state strategically—not that they are necessarily against Lula—they don’t want to have another power in the continent. That’s all. But as to the government, I think it will be possible to have good relations. Actually, Lula had good relations both with Bush and Obama.

The problem might arise if the United States doesn’t understand that Latin America wants to be independent. And that means not being anyone’s backyard. Of course, we want to have the best possible relations with the United States. On the other hand, we don’t want to be told what we should do. For instance, our trade with China now is very important. Our surplus with China—and I’m talking just about our surplus—is bigger than all of our exports to the United States. It is impossible not to have good relations with China.

If I could say something in relation to the present way of solving problems, the United States government very frequently speaks about a “rules-based system.” Well, the question is not [whether to follow or not] “a rules-based system.” We need a system that respects international law, which is something that is based on consensus, either by vote or by tradition, but not just “rules-based,” because rules-based… made by whom?

PC: The Workers’ Party has been discussing the creation of a South American currency for the Mercosur [the Latin American version of the European Union]. How do you see those discussions developing?

CA: This is still very embryonic. You know that some countries in South America simply use the dollar. Even Venezuela now has somehow dollarized its economy. But you know, in Europe the common currency only came 30 or 40 years after the start of integration. Well, we started Mercosur about 20, 25 years ago, so it’s time we begin to think about it. Still, this is a long-term goal.

PC: Why do you think that an American citizen should care for the Brazilian elections in October?

CA: The elections in Brazil are of a decisive nature—not only between left wing and right wing but actually between everything that represents democracy and everything that represents the most outrageous kind of autocracy. I can’t understand why the United States didn’t invite Bolivia—who has an elected government who has behaved well—to the Summit of the Americas, and instead invites Bolsonaro. That’s something that I don’t understand.

What is at play in Brazil now is whether or not we will have a truly democratic world. It is not me who says that these elections are very important. It was Steve Bannon, of all people, who said that the elections in Brazil are fundamental. They are second only to the ones in the United States.

Of course, everything that Bolsonaro is doing is to try to create situations that may favor some sort of turbulence, similar to what happened [in the US] on Capitol Hill.

PC: What role do you think you will play in a potential Workers’ Party government?

CA: What we are interested in now is winning the election. You know, I am an 80-year-old guy. I’ve done everything to serve my country. So I’ve done enough. But if Lula wants to offer me a small back room, and calls me to have coffee with him from time to time, that would be big. But it depends on him, not on me.