After Bolsonaro, Can Lula Remake Brazil?

    His concerns extended beyond the silence of the military. When I told him about the protesters outside the Army garrison, he turned grim. “I think we need to find out who is financing and who is feeding them, because this is not spontaneous,” he said. The day before, he’d had a discouraging talk with the governor of Pará state, in the Amazon. “When police went and tried to unblock the roads, demonstrators shot up their car,” he said. “The entire country is like this. And Bolsonaro has locked himself inside his house. We are not used to this kind of thing here. Since the return of democracy, elections have always been respected.”

    Lula mentioned reports that pro-Bolsonaro police around the country had interfered with his voters on Election Day, and had assisted bolsonaristas who blocked the highways. Lula said that he wasn’t worried about being kept out of office: “It may be difficult, but, you see, the law exists to give guarantees to society.” The problem was instability, and Bolsonaro’s seeming willingness to deploy the police to keep Lula out of office. “This election was atypical,” he said, “because it was the candidacy of a candidate against the state—an absurd thing.”

    Like many others, Lula likened what was happening in Brazil to the Trump phenomenon in the U.S. January 6th had established a destabilizing precedent all over the world. “Whatever disagreements you may have with the United States, it still represents the face of democracy on planet Earth,” he said. “When the most important country fails to exercise democracy, you are giving an endorsement to all the crazies in the world.”

    In speeches, Lula often raises the need to address hunger in Brazil, describing it as an unassailable moral imperative. He talked at length about hunger when we met in 2019, and with increasing emotion in his campaign appearances last year. In our interview after his recent victory, it came up when I questioned him about Ukraine. A few months earlier, he’d made acerbic remarks about Volodymyr Zelensky, and had seemed to suggest, as Vladimir Putin had, that the United States was partly responsible for the conflict. Apparently eager to set the issue aside, Lula told me that he intended to talk with Zelensky and Putin, and with Biden as well, but that all he cared about was “world peace.” Soon enough, he returned to the issue of hunger. “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t betray these people,” he said, tears welling in his eyes. “I’ll have to fight with the markets sometimes, but people have to be able to eat again. I don’t want anything much, but people have to have hope again, and a full belly, with morning coffee and lunch and dinner.”

    Lula remains an earnest believer in the leftist project in Latin America. But, as Cardozo, Rousseff’s minister of justice, told me, “Lula is not a man who theorizes about politics like Lenin or Trotsky. He is a pragmatist, a trade unionist.” He added, “He is also a political genius and a charismatic man. Inside the P.T., everyone below Lula fights against one another, but not against him. That’s how he conserves his power.”

    “Here comes the airplane—once it gets clearance from the tower, which should be in another forty-five minutes. Thank you for your patience.”

    Cartoon by Benjamin Schwartz

    Lula’s team is mostly made up of fairly doctrinaire leftists, but he has brought in some ideological diversity, in an effort to reassure the business lobby and other conservative interests. His Vice-President is Geraldo Alckmin, a center-right physician who once ran against him for President. His minister of planning and budget is Simone Tebet, who leans to the right on the economy. But Cardozo suggested that he’d need to go further to cultivate people who disagreed with him. “The extreme right is going to be strong and make permanent efforts to destabilize things. To keep the P.T. in its place and the extreme right in its place, he will need a broad alliance,” he said. “You can’t put out a fire with alcohol.”

    A couple of days after I met Lula in São Paulo, he travelled to Brasília, hoping to widen his network of allies. Even as he had retaken the Presidency, Bolsonaro’s party had won ninety-nine seats in Congress, forming the largest bloc in the lower house; in the upper house, it secured fourteen of eighty-one seats. For Lula to run the country, he would have to make a deal with the Centrão, a shape-shifting coalition of right-of-center parties that have come to wield extraordinary power in the capital. The Centrão has few ideological allegiances; its members’ main imperative seems to be exchanging their votes for lucrative concessions for their constituencies, and for themselves.

    But the Centrão was increasingly aligned with the hard right. It had voted out Rousseff in 2016 and then protected her successor, Temer. It had also effectively partnered with Bolsonaro when he joined one of its parties, the Partido Liberal, to run in last year’s election. Brazilian politicians change parties often. Bolsonaro has belonged to nine. The leader of the lower house of Congress, Arthur Lira, has belonged to five. Lira was a main beneficiary of Bolsonaro’s “secret budget,” and the person Lula most needed to cultivate on this trip. Judging by their encounter, Lira was eager to make a deal; he came out of Congress to greet Lula warmly.

    But Valdemar Costa Neto, the president of the Liberal Party, had decided to stick with Bolsonaro. A canny, amiable man in his seventies, Costa Neto was a former Lula ally; in 2012, he was convicted on money-laundering charges related to the mensalão scheme, and spent two and a half years in detention before he was pardoned. “I had to rebuild the Party when I got out, because my image was destroyed,” he told me. The Liberal Party had traditionally leaned to the center, but he had shifted it right, and eventually the affiliation with Bolsonaro had paid off. “Now we have ninety-nine congressmen,” he said, scribbling figures on a scrap of paper to demonstrate how much funding they were bringing in. He explained brightly, “We have to make room for the extreme right now.”

    Costa Neto said that he had nothing against the new President. Smiling, he told me that Lula had recently asked if he would back his coalition, but he’d shown him the math and Lula had understood. But, he added, Bolsonaro didn’t approve of him talking to Lula: “Bolsonaro’s not like you or me. He’s not normal.”

    Costa Neto said that he thought Lula had won the election fairly. He recalled telling Bolsonaro to accept the results, relax, take a break, become the honorary president of the Liberal Party, and rebuild for the next elections. But Bolsonaro truly believed he had won, he said—he was wounded and “really depressed.” Costa Neto threw up his hands in exasperation. At Bolsonaro’s insistence, he had hired a company to investigate his claims of voting-machine fraud, and, Costa Neto said, it had come back with “troubling data.” He explained vaguely that the issue had to do with voting machines that had inexplicably identical serial numbers. In a few days, he said, he was going to hold a press conference on the matter.

    He confessed to feeling anxious, because the claim of fraud would surely bring “three times as many people onto the streets as those already camped out in front of the Army bases.” But Bolsonaro was an important ally, and Costa Neto had promised to advance his cause. A few days later, he held his press conference. The claim was quickly rejected by Brazil’s electoral tribunal; the military had already assessed its sample of voting machines and declared Lula the legitimate winner. Still, the report generated a flurry of headlines—enough to feed the bolsonaristas’ conviction that there had been a conspiracy.

    On the afternoon of January 8th, Bolsonaro supporters poured into the federal district of Brasília, overrunning the complex that houses the three branches of government—the Three Powers, as they are known. In the plaza, protesters gathered to confront soldiers protecting the buildings. Others prayed, or yelled slogans: “Brazil was whored out by those nasty, corrupt people!” Rioters forced their way in, shattering windows and setting fires. The district police, led by a former Bolsonaro official, offered little resistance, and sometimes provided aid.

    Marina Dias, a Brazilian journalist, was near the Ministry of Defense when she saw an older woman dressed in a camouflage shirt, of a kind that bolsonaristas wear in tribute to the armed forces. The woman said that she had been camped out at the military headquarters in Brasília for two months. She had joined the protest on the eighth to urge Bolsonaro to hide; she explained that Alexandre de Moraes, the head of the Supreme Electoral Court, was conspiring to have him killed.

    Dias, like other observers, was confused by the timing of the riots. Why wait until a week after the inauguration? When she asked the woman if she was inspired by the January 6th insurrection in the U.S., another protester yelled, “Don’t answer her! She’s a journalist, a leftist!” Sensing a threat, Dias walked away, but she was surrounded by bolsonaristas, and someone tripped her. “I fell to the street, where people kicked me and punched me,” she told me. “Two men tried to protect me, saying, ‘You will kill her and ruin our movement.’ ” But women were scratching her, pulling her hair, grabbing for her phone. Someone snatched her glasses, broke them, and yelled, “We have to kill her!”

    Finally, a military officer forced his way through the crowd and pulled her away. As the officer escorted her off, “people yelled that I was a whore, and someone threw a bottle of water at me,” she told me. “It was clear they felt like there would be no punishment.”

    On the day of the insurrection, Lula and Janja were visiting the city of Araraquara, in São Paulo state, five hundred miles away. But they were able to monitor the situation, an aide told me. One of Lula’s bodyguards entered the Planalto Palace, recorded the rampage, and shared it with the President in real time. No one noticed the bodyguard, the aide said, because “they were all filming themselves, too.”

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