Lula made Brazil a respectable country with strong economic growth and a member of the BRICS. He left the office of the president with an approval rating of an incredible 80%.
By Matija Šerić
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was inaugurated as the new Brazilian president on the first day of the new year 2023 in Brasilia. The inauguration was accompanied by a celebration called “Lulapalooza”, which was marked by many songs, dances, carnival-style parades and rock concerts. It will be Lula’s third presidential term, since he was already president in two consecutive terms from 2003 to 2010. Then he left an indelible mark in Brazilian history. Because of his fight for the poor and disenfranchised, he won the hearts of millions of Brazilians. Many poor sections of Brazilian society see him as a national hero, which is not without reason.
Lula was the first Brazilian president from a working-class origin who helped lift millions of ordinary citizens out of the scourge of poverty. He promised big changes in the mega-country of more than 200 million people, which is known for its huge gap between rich and poor. Lula made Brazil a respectable country with strong economic growth and a member of the BRICS. He left the office of the president with an approval rating of an incredible 80%. Lula is globally praised for his achievements, and on one occasion Barack Obama called him “the most popular politician on Earth”, a statement that is not far from the truth.
The 77-year-old Lula will now (12 years after leaving the office of President of the Federal Republic of Brazil) try to continue his work in rather changed circumstances. In the meantime, he ended up in prison, and Brazil fell into an economic crisis, recession, fierce internal political struggles and lost its status as a potential superpower in international relations.
In July 2017, Lula was sentenced to nine-and-a-half years in prison on money laundering and corruption charges. Allegedly engineering firm OAS gave hime luxury beachfront apartment in exchange for his help in securing a deal with Petrobras. The federal judge in the case, Sergio Moro, later became minister of justice and public security in Bolsonaro’s government. After an unsuccessful appeal, Lula was arrested in April 2018 and spent 580 days in prison. He attempted to run in the 2018 presidential election, but was disqualified under Brazil’s Ficha Limpa law.
However, a turning point occurred in November 2019 when Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court ruled that the imprisonment was illegal and Lula was released from prison. In March 2021, Federal Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin ruled that all of Lula’s convictions must be overturned because he was tried by a court that did not have proper jurisdiction over his case. In April 2021, the Supreme Court restored Lula’s political rights, and Judge Moro, who presided over his corruption trial, was later found to be biased. All cases Moro brought against Lula were dismissed in June 2021.
Lula is legally allowed to run for president again in the 2022 election. He narrowly defeated Jair Bolsonaro in the October 30 runoff by less than 2% of the vote. This resulted in protests, riots, the setting up of barricades and explosive devices by the right wing, which eventually called on the Brazilian army to intervene, take over power and return Bolsonaro to the Palácio da Alvorada. The controversial right-wing president and his supporters believe that Lula’s victory is illegal, and it is no wonder that they decided to take such steps.
Military intervention in Latin American countries is not rare, it happened often during the 20th century. Normally, the military would take over in times of instability, establish order and a technical government, and create the conditions for new elections. This time, however, it did not happen and Lula came to power as planned. Bolsonaro left the country and went to Florida, which reduced the risk of possible further unrest in the country. Given that Bolsonaro was absent, he did not hand over the presidential ribbon, which is a common tradition. Instead, Lula was presented with the ribbon by ordinary Brazilians, including an indigenous leader, a man with cerebral palsy and a dark-skinned young man – a ceremonial move that symbolizes the diversity of Brazilian society.
It is certain that Lula will not have an easy time at the head of a fiercely divided nation, and few would actually want to be the president of the most populous country in South America today. Lula has repeatedly said that he will rule on behalf of all Brazilians, including those who voted for Bolsonaro. It should be borne in mind that Bolsonarianism has not died- Bolsonaro’s allies and the right have a strong foothold in both chambers of the Brazilian National Congress.
Namely, the right achieved huge electoral successes in the elections for Congress, and Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party became the largest bloc in the fragmented House of Representatives (99 out of 513 seats) and the Federal Senate (13 out of 81 seats). Moreover, in gubernatorial elections, Bolsonaro-backed candidates won in 14 of Brazil’s 27 states – including the country’s three most populous states: Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais. Several of Bolsonaro’s former ministers were elected to the upper and lower houses of Congress. This suggests far less stability to Lula’s tenure than he enjoyed during the 2000s.
In his inaugural speech and other addresses to the public, the new president promised a return to “normal” and pledged to unite a nation plagued by economic concerns and the severe consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic (around 700,000 Brazilians have died as a result of the coronavirus).
In addition, Brazilians are worried about other problems that are the result of Bolsonaro’s irresponsible populist policies, such as the merciless exploitation of the Amazon rainforest (illegal logging, mining and other harmful activities in the protected area), as well as ever-present challenges such as racism and crime. Lula announced that in his third term, he plans to deal fiercely with the problems of poverty, hunger and racism that are plagues that are widespread in Brazil, he also plans to protect the Amazon and the rights of the indigenous population.
Leftist allies and confidants of Lula claim that the 580 days he spent behind bars imbued the president with an exceptional sense of social justice, so that he is aware of the need to prioritize the eradication of poverty over the acquisition of profits. Lula’s heightened social awareness was fueled by reading books while incarcerated.
According to information published on his website, he read books on race, slavery and hunger, as well as biographies of Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela. He had the strength to read a critical review of his own political movement, “Lulismo in Crisis”, published by his former press secretary, André Singer, and also the author of the term Lulismo, which is used to describe Lula’s political movement and ideas. Singer argues that although Lulismo advocates socialism, it pursues a “socially liberal” approach that gradually resolves the gap between rich and poor in a market-oriented manner. He also points out that the success of Lulism lies in “harmonizing the interests of the private industry sector on the one hand and organized labor on the other, which led to the stability that allowed this political system to take the form of a kind of consensus”.
Economist Andre Perfeito asserted that the first reactions of the business sector, especially on Brazilian Wall Street, Faria Lima, were not favorable after the composition of the president’s cabinet and the government’s public spending proposal were announced. This is not strange because many businessmen played the Bolsonaro card. When appointing members of his cabinet, the president decided to reward loyal associates from his Workers’ Party (some of whom were also in prison only to be released later) with key positions in his cabinet.
Certain government appointments, including Workers’ Party leader Fernando Haddad as finance minister, unsettled some investors. Lula recently appointed party economist Aloizio Mercadante as head of the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES). Lula’s spokesman Jose Chrispiniano said the president supports fiscal responsibility and believes strengthening the economy is the best way to fight poverty. There should be no doubt that Lula will be moderate in his intention to achieve social justice, because in the past he had a conciliatory relationship with the Brazilian private sector. Although he came out of prison more ideologically motivated than before, there is no questioning his pragmatism because he is still a hardened politician who showed his moderation back in the 1970s when he was a union leader in the car factories in Sao Paulo.
Of Lula’s 37 ministers, only 27% come from his Workers’ Party, a smaller proportion than in his cabinets appointed in 2003 and 2007. Instead, many ministers are independents or members of left and center parties who joined the Workers’ Party to formed majority coalitions in both chambers of the Brazilian Congress. Lula’s cabinet sets records for diversity: 30% of ministers are women, and 27% identify as members of the mulatto or black race. The cabinet includes the first indigenous minister who heads the newly established Ministry of Indigenous Peoples.
Ministerial speeches on the first days of the new mandate offered an insight into the economic priorities of the new government. Vice President Geraldo Alckmin will perform the key economic duty of the Minister of Development, Industry, Trade and Services. Described as one of the pro-market figures on Lula’s economic team, Alckmin spoke at length at the swearing-in ceremony about the need for policies that promote Brazil’s green reindustrialization.
Lula revoked some of Bolsonaro’s government measures on his first day in office, reversing loosened gun control that was a key policy component of the former president’s strong defense of gun ownership. The president also re-established the Amazon Fund, which uses foreign funds for projects that fight deforestation and environmental conservation in the Amazon rainforest. Germany and Norway have so far been the main sponsors of the Amazon Fund. Under Bolsonaro, the fund remained untouched while then-environment minister Ricardo Salles dissolved the boards responsible for resource management. Lula approved the restructuring of Brazil’s main environmental protection agency (IBAMA), which has seen layoffs after Bolsonaro severely cut its budget.
The new president also signed a decree establishing a federal monthly allowance of 600 reais for low-income families. The original name of the program, Bolsa Família, was also restored (Bolsonaro changed the name of the program to Auxilio Brasil). Lula extended the fuel tax cut, a measure introduced last year that lowered prices at gas stations. Lula extended that measure for another 60 days. Many consider her populist and controversial because she deprived the federal government of taxes. Other acts signed by Lula on his first day in office instruct ministers to remove state-owned companies such as oil giant Petrobras, national postal company Correios and public broadcaster EBC from privatization plans. An order was issued to develop proposals for the re-establishment of a program to support the recycling of materials.
In his address to Congress, Lula praised Brazil’s natural resources and promised a 180-degree U-turn on Amazon policy. “No other country has the conditions that Brazil has to become an environmental power. Starting from creativity, economy and social enterprises for biodiversity, we will start the energy and ecological transition towards sustainable agriculture and mining, family farming, and green industry. Our goal is a zero deforestation rate in the Amazon, zero greenhouse gas emissions,” said Lula.
In order to reduce the inequality of minorities, the Ministry for the Promotion of Racial Equality was established and positive discrimination was expanded in universities and public institutions with the intention that people of black or mixed race can have better access to health, education and culture.
As soon as Lula da Silva assumed his new mandate, his foreign minister, Mauro Vieira, declared that the main objective of Brazil’s foreign policy would be to return the country to the spotlight. In other words, Brazil will again try to be an important regional but also global power, which it was de facto during the first and second term of Lula, and this is the status that it lost during the mandates of Dilma Rousseff, Michel Temer and Jair Bolsonaro when the country entered an endless sea of internal problems that made it impossible for her to get more involved on the outside.
“Brazil is back,” Vieira said in a speech held at the Itamaraty Palace, headquarters of the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. According to him, it is necessary to “restore the diplomatic heritage” and return the Latin American giant “to the stage of international relations” since the country was distanced due to “limited ideological vision”.
Vieira said he was aware that Brazil “has a lot to do to rebuild” its foreign relations, a role the former president has given little importance to. He pointed out that President Lula’s first instruction was to open channels of dialogue that had been blocked in recent years, for example to restore relations with Venezuela, on which work was immediately started since there was no time to lose. Strengthening ties with Latin American countries will be a priority of Brazilian diplomacy and will do so through multilateral organizations such as the South American trade bloc Mercosur, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).
Also, the minister confirmed that care for the environment will get a central place in foreign policy – Brazil will be oriented towards sustainable development. Lula spent his first full day in office in a series of bilateral meetings with South American leaders. There he presented the idea of a regional summit on the protection of the Amazon rainforest in the first half of this year. At international summits, they will promote racial and gender equality and respect for human rights.
Undoubtedly, Vieira is Lula’s ideal confidant to implement such a foreign policy since he is a career diplomat with almost 50 years of experience who has held the most responsible positions. He was ambassador to Argentina from 2004 to 2010, ambassador to the USA between 2010 and 2014, minister of foreign affairs in 2015 and 2016 in the Rousseff government, and permanent representative of Brazil to the UN from 2016 to 2020. His last function before the current one was the position of ambassador of Brazil in the Republic of Croatia from 2020 to 2022.
There is no doubt that Lula’s vision of international relations and global order is based on international dialogue, multilateralism and multipolarity, which he has unequivocally stated on several occasions. Lula’s vision rejects the American division of the world into the democratic camp (USA, EU and allies) vs. authoritarian camp (Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Cuba, etc.) as well as calls for confrontation between these two camps.
“We will have relations with everyone,” said Lula in his inaugural speech. When he mentions the dialogue, Lula means breaking with the policy of isolating the enemy, and offers diplomatic solutions as an alternative. When representatives of the Biden administration call for sanctions against Russia, it is clearly opposed by people from the former or current Lula administration. “I am against sanctions,” said former foreign minister Celso Amorim and the current chief adviser to the president. “They will not help to solve anything, but will create problems for the whole world”. The new Brazilian administration has the same approach towards America’s enemies in the region. Brazil recognizes the government of Nicolás Maduro and condemns the US trade and financial blockade of Cuba.
Support for multilateralism means that Lula’s administration opposes unilateral coercive measures and believes that problems should be solved in multilateral international forums. Lula’s cabinet perceives multilateralism as adherence to good existing treaties and agreements such as the Paris climate agreement, but also as the need to reform some bodies such as the UN (e.g. reform of the Security Council), and as an effort to make Brazil a leader in the global south. The last two ideas will definitely not appeal to American policymakers because the Biden administration has repeatedly shown that the US intends to lead the way on the global stage.
Multipolarity is perceived by Lula’s administration as avoiding conflict between blocs, and includes the ambition to build a new world order that would be fairer. At the same time, Brazil focuses mostly on its western hemisphere: it wants to connect Latin American countries into political and trade blocs independent of the USA. A good example is UNASUR and CELAC, which are an alternative to the US-dominated Organization of American States (OAS). Lula’s position that Brazil should belong to an international bloc independent of the US risks direct conflict with the Biden administration.
Back in 2008, Lula presided over the establishment of a new global economic and political bloc that brought Brazil together with Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS). On his return to office, Lula threw his support behind proposals to expand the bloc and introduce a new BRICS payment system to facilitate more trade between its members independent of the US dollar. In addition, Lula will try to achieve strong bilateral relations with China and African countries.
Most importantly, Lula and his moderate left-wing cabinet do not believe that Brazil should be part of the so-called “free world” led by the USA. They believe that such a concept is outdated and that the time has come to form a fairer world multipolar order and that Brazil’s task in such an order is to take a positive role through an assertive and independent foreign policy. Lula’s Brazil does not want to be anyone’s satellite country, much less an oppressor, in fact it wants to become an initiator of positive changes, a leader of the global south, and a pillar of equal international order. A country with 217 million inhabitants and 8.5 million square kilometers certainly deserve it.
First published by Eurasia Review