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How the Left Lost Brazil

This October, the far right may take over South America's largest economy.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva attends his successor's impeachment trial. (Igo Estrela/Getty Images)

In the twilight of his life, 72-year-old former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was expected to be enjoying the fruits of his labor, basking in the glory that comes with leading his country through an unprecedented period of prosperity. Starting out as a shoe-shiner on the streets of São Paulo, Lula spent most of this century commanding ballrooms and stages the world over. Many Brazilians still recall with pride the moment when Barack Obama, recently sworn in as president of the United States, shook Lula’s hand and said, “This is my man, right here. I love this guy.”

Now Lula is in prison serving out 12 years in jail on charges of corruption—the socialist Workers Party he founded in tatters. Having led the polls for this fall’s election from his prison cell, he was also last week blocked from running by a Brazilian tribunal. The country seems likely instead to elect a right-wing authoritarian who favors violence against gay people and speaks approvingly of military rule.

The story of Lula and the Brazilian left represented by his Workers Party is, largely, one of what could have been. For almost a decade between 2003 and 2011, millions of Brazilians believed their time had finally arrived.  

His legacy, though, remains ambiguous. Is Lula the president who took a little bit from the rich to give to the poor, or is he the president who gave to the poor, and kept a little bit for himself as well, his scandals bringing down the Brazilian left and opening up a space for far-right extremists?

When he got his chance in 2002, unquestionably beating his rivals with 61 percent of the vote, Lula came to power promising to break away from politics as usual. For most of its history Brazil has been controlled by a white conservative elite, in a nation that is 53 percent black or mixed. “Change, that’s the key-word,” Lula proclaimed inside the imposing chamber of the Brazilian Congress during his inaugural speech in Brasilia. “Hope has finally defeated fear and the people decided it is time to pave new roads.”

The Workers Party drastically reduced poverty and inequality levels by implementing a cash-transfer program for poor families called Bolsa Familia. Beneficiaries only had to keep their children in school and regularly attend preventive health checks. The program is estimated to have pulled some 40 million Brazilians out of poverty and was greeted with international acclaim.

In education, the number of university students doubled between 2000 and 2011. In 2013, the government enacted one of the world’s most sweeping affirmative action laws, requiring public universities to reserve half of their admission spots for the largely poor students of African descent. In health, it introduced the More Doctors program as a way to address the lack of healthcare faced by poor communities in the inner-city and the countryside. 

Along with the domestic victories came a new-found international prestige. The country was awarded the 2014 World Cup, and then the 2016 Olympic Games, which was coming to South America for the first the first time in the history of the competition. 

But beneath such successes, which understandably pleased an electorate neglected for so long, the deeper issues remained unresolved. Tax reform, political reform and an end to the prison industrial complex, by and large never came. Brazilians remain some of the heaviest taxed people in the world. The country’s political structure, which includes 25 parties in Congress, is ripe for malfeasance. Its justice system still incarcerates young black men on a massive scale—Brazil’s prison population is the fourth largest in the world. 

Meanwhile, corruption, the creature with tentacles on all facets of Brazilian life, kept growing. It was just a matter of time before Lula and his associates were swallowed up as well.  

As Lula was racking up some of his greatest victories, a scandal was brewing. In 2005, a congressman publicly accused the Workers Party of paying the equivalent of $10,000 a month to political allies dating back to 2003.  The implication was that the payoffs had enabled Lula’s coalition government, which at one point encompassed no fewer than 10 political parties in 37 ministries, to actually govern despite their differing agendas. The allegation led to the downfall of several members of Congress and senior members of the government. José Dirceu, who was Lula’s chief of staff, was accused of being the mastermind behind the scheme. He resigned.

Lula’s reputation, however, remained intact. Although it seemed unlikely that the leader of the Workers Party was oblivious to what his underlings what up to, the country’s political establishment, the media, and the judiciary let him off the hook. “Emotional connections and personal ties have a much greater role in Brazil’s everyday life than rules designed to benefit the anonymous collective,” said Bernardo Conde, a Social Sciences professor at Rio de Janeiro’s Pontifical Catholic University. “And that’s how we look at politics: ‘I identify with this guy, I like him, so I let him get away with certain things.’”

But as soon Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s successor and protégé, assumed office in 2011, the scandals started to catch up. That year, several high-ranking politicians from the Lula administration faced trial for their role in the kickback schemes. The central accusation was that politicians from coalition parties were given large payments each month from public funds to support the minority government led by Lula. Public funds, it was alleged, were also used to pay campaign debts.

Rousseff acted decisively in her first 12 months in office, firing six ministers who had been implicated in various corruption investigations. Her approach became known as the “ethical clean sweep,” and it sat well with the public. But the honest image the Workers Party had been so careful to maintain was starting to lose its shine.

Meanwhile, the underlying instability of Brazil’s Lula-era economic successes was starting to emerge.

The darling of international investors in the first decade of the century, Brazil’s economy enjoyed a spectacular boom, even as on the other side of the Atlantic governments were pushing austerity measures. Fortunes were being made in the property market, and millions of Brazilians had access to cheap credit for the first time in their lives. Families who just a few years ago could not even afford to eat meat were suddenly able to buy steak at the supermarket, and cook it in their newly fitted kitchens. 

In hindsight, the country’s economic success was built on quicksand, sustained by the unreliable pillars of commodities and consumption. China’s own booming economy meant that Brazil’s minerals such as tantalum, which is used to make cell phones, and other raw materials such as coffee and sugar, were in high demand. But when China’s own consumer market started showing signs of slowing down, so too did Brazil’s. Suddenly, the South American giant didn’t seem like such a safe bet. 

“The commodities boom helped clear our external debt,” says Marcio Pochmann, an economist running for Congress as a Workers Party candidate. “All we could do at that point was to take advantage of the high-value of our natural resources to pay our outstanding amount to the International Monetary Fund and build up our international reserves.”

Social unrest was also brewing. In 2013, a year before the country was due to host the World Cup, protesters took to the streets, demanding the government revoke its public bus fare increase. Following days of violent confrontations between protesters and Brazil’s military police, officials in a number of cities relented and reverted to the old rates. For Rousseff’s government, however, it was the beginning of the end. Public anger soon turned to the billions of dollars being spent on giant stadiums for the World Cup and Olympic Games, while the country’s schools and hospitals were falling apart. The same voters who could now afford a family car and supermarket steaks wanted more from a Workers Party that promised everlasting change.

The final blow came from an all-encompassing corruption investigation called Operação Lava Jato, or Operation Car Wash, launched in 2009. In it, hundreds of high-profile politicians and business leaders have been arrested for their alleged involvement in bribery schemes operating out of the state oil company, Petrobrás, and the construction giant, Oderbretch. 

Lula himself was indicted in September 2016, based on evidence that the former president was gifted a triplex apartment in exchange for green-lighting certain public contracts. 

Leftist commentators claim there’s no material evidence proving that Lula accepted the apartment or that it was part of any quid pro quo agreement—the main evidence is the testimony of the former CEO of one of the construction companies investigated in the Lava Jato operation, who made the claims as part of a plea bargain. They view the conviction as an attempt by a biased judiciary to stop him from becoming president.

Others believe that in a country where roughly half of members of Congress face some sort of charge, the jailing of one of its most beloved politicians is proof that the tide has finally turned against those who use the public office they hold to break the law.

In 2016, Rousseff was impeached for breaking budgetary rules. Millions took the streets calling for her ousting, while others considered her removal a coup d’etat. Her departure marked the end of an era.

A vacuum in politics is never a good thing. It leaves voters wondering, thinking back about that glorious past that never was. In Brazil, the levels of despondency for such a young democracy are alarming.  In a poll earlier this year, when asked if they believed in the campaign promises made by candidates, 75 percent of respondents said they did not. The poll also revealed that 44 percent of Brazilians are pessimistic about the October elections. 

Jair Bolsonaro holds an inflatable doll of former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in prison clothes at a September 2018 rally.
Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images

Following the demise of Brazil’s military dictatorship in 1985, it looked as though tyranny would be forever consigned to the dark annals of the country’s past. But old ideas don’t just vanish. In moments of crisis, when hopelessness sets in, or when people feel like things are moving too fast and leaving them behind, old ideas tend to comeback with a vengeance.

Rio de Janeiro Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, nicknamed the “Trump of the Tropics,” has seized the opportunity presented by Brazil’s political and economic crisis to assume the role of the tough outsider, who will fight a corrupt political establishment and mainstream media. Bolsonaro is the de facto frontrunner in the presidential race, polling at around 22 percent. His politics are startling.

The former army officer believes in government-sponsored torture, has said if he saw two men in the street kissing each other he would physically assault them, and admitted he’s reluctant to appoint more women to key government positions, because then he would have to hire more black people. He has also toyed with the idea of bringing back military rule. 

Like Trumpism or Brexit, Bolsonaro seems a symptom of a broken system. Brazilian voters, tired of being ignored for so long, are ready to risk it all, convinced it cannot get any worse. 

Like Trump, Bolsonaro has very little command of Brazil’s most pressing issues, such as the economy, health,  and education. For the masses, however, their two biggest concerns are the 13 million people who can’t find a job, and a homicide rate that at the moment runs at more than 62,000 per year.

For the unemployment problem, Bolsonaro claims that excessive regulation and workers rights make it harder for employers to hire. When it comes to combating Brazil’s extreme levels of violence, he strongly believes every citizen should carry a gun, and that more powers should be given to the Brazilian police, for years one of the world’s deadliest. 

Sixty percent of Bolsonaro’s supporters are under the age of 34. The right-winger has been giving a masterclass of social media use, mobilising millions of Brazilians who have grown weary of mainstream media. His Facebook page has almost six million followers, his Twitter account more than a million.

When first asked, his supporters tend to mention corruption as their main concern. But for those on Lula’s camp and voters who remain on the fence, Bolsonaro’s rise represents a pushback from a section of the population who disliked the Workers Party project from the get-go.

“Corruption has always been a part of our everyday lives,” said Professor Conde. “The Brazilian right was just waiting for an opportunity, a reason for this resentment that’s been brewing for so long, to gain legitimacy.”

The spectacular indictability of the Workers Party seems to have given them that opportunity. This Tuesday, Lula’s likely replacement on the ticket, Fernando Haddad, was also charged with corruption, accused of accepting money to cover a debt while he was running for mayor of Sao Paulo.

With a post-Lula left still in search of a credible identity and leader, come October 7 a new cycle in Brazil’s history will get underway. So far, Bolsonaro has offered simplistic answers to complicated problems. If he is victorious, the Brazilian left will have a long time to reflect on where it all went wrong.