In his first interview with an Arab newspaper after his release from prison, former Brazilian President Lula da Silva spoke to Al-Ahram Daily newspaper about what led to his incarceration, as well as his experience and that of the political left since 2008 in light of the right-wing wave that is spreading in South America and beyond.
You were accused of corruption and imprisoned. Do you think that there were concerns among the right-wing regarding your nomination in the presidential elections of 2018?
What happened in Brazil means that they didn't accept the victory of Dilma Rousseff in the 2014 election, which was the fourth victory in a row for the Workers’ Party (PT). Sections of the opposition didn't accept the result and did their best to overthrow President Rousseff in 2016 and she was unjustifiably deposed. Their coup against Rousseff in 2016 meant that they wouldn’t allow me to be nominated and win the 2018 elections. They had to stop me, one way or the other, from being nominated in 2018, especially since my name was at the top of all the opinion polls. Day after day, it became obvious that that there was a race in the courts to press charges against me and level false, baseless accusations so as to drive me out of the election race. Afterwards, the judge who convicted me became a minister in Jair Bolsonaro's government, who only won in the elections because I didn't face him.
Do you think what happened to Dilma Rousseff was a conspiracy by interest groups?
It was a new kind of coup in which tanks weren't used. The biggest role was played by some sections of the media and politics. According to the Brazilian presidential system, a crime must be committed related to an abuse of authority before the president can be forced to step down. However, it did not happen this way, it was a coup, a plot from conservative sections who couldn’t make their way back into government through the ballot box.
What’s your opinion about the new President Jair Bolsonaro and his government’s performance?
Bolsonaro always said that he came to destroy many things in Brazil, not to build. His government does not speak about providing jobs, creating opportunities or reducing poverty. He came with a government that is totally subordinate to the Americans and is not for the national interest. I hope that he will change his attitude and be in charge of a government for all Brazilians, especially the poorest. Unfortunately, we aren't seeing this and the people are paying the price.
Are there fears that if the right-wing government continues to rule that it might eliminate the gains your administration made for the poor and workers?
The Brazilian people were deprived of many rights and we witnessed a number of setbacks with the increasing rates of poverty, misery, inequality between rich and poor, and an increase of children begging in the streets. The poor in any country shouldn’t be viewed as a problem. The solution lies in incorporating the poor in economic programmes and giving them access to education and providing housing and jobs. Thus, Brazil has developed and has lived its best periods when its government revived the economy through social inclusion.
According to some influential members of the Workers’ Party, the US played a role in what happened in Brazil. What’s your opinion?
It isn’t just an opinion, there is concrete evidence that the US Department of Justice illegally helped Brazilian prosecutors. Unfortunately, the US could have had a more fruitful role in Latin America. My government established good relations with the Americans, but the Americans had to understand that Latin America's developing countries have sovereignty and that real democracy works for the benefit of everybody.
In your opinion, after all these mistakes were made, does the left, namely the Workers’ Party, need to adopt a new strategy?
I believe that all of us learn, correct and develop ourselves in this life. We’ve suffered for our mistakes,and even more for our successes. Look what they have done to bring down the PT: they have overthrown Dilma without cause. They detained and excluded the candidate who was at the top of the polls by far; myself.
In spite of all this, Fernando Haddad emerged to replace me and won 47 million votes, undergoing a second round of the elections and was about to win. They launched a very disgraceful campaign of lies against him on social media in order to elect Bolsonaro, who presented himself as an outsider to politics, even though he was a congress member for 28 years. He used to claim that he hates politics, now he has placed all his sons in political positions. They have harmed the economy and enacted a series of policies to destroy the PT.
The PT has endured all this in a peaceful manner, for it has always believed in democracy and working through dialogue. What we need to do to confront this scenario is to open channels for dialogue with the people and make it clear that this coup didn’t just intend to end the rule of the PT, but also to strip workers, indigenous people, women and blacks of their rights. The coup wasn’t against the PT, but rather against Brazil.
You had a special vision regarding social work, what was your strategy to realise this vision and how did this affect the poor?
My objective in the government was very simple: ensuring that all Brazilians have three meals a day and not to have a country with hungry children. This was possible through democracy and the maturity of the Brazilian people. Thus, we made sure that every individual had the right to education, housing, decent work and a car, as well as ensured that farmers' crops are bought. When individuals have an opportunity to lead a better life, they seize it.
Brazil is a rich country with poor people. How do you view this statement?
This is the sin of inequality. The country suffered from slavery for over three centuries, which affected one-third of the population. Thus, my government’s slogan was Brazil is a country for all and the land of opportunity. I governed all, while devoting special care to the poor, those who were in dire need of help. Brazil will be richer and greater if it gives a chance to everybody and offers the youth a full opportunity for education and developing their potential.
Your experiment in development inspired several countries around the world. Do you believe it can be repeated? What is your advice in this respect?
I believe that every country has its own reality and specific circumstances. There is no formula that fits every place. What I always assert is that countries have to incorporate the needs of the poor in their budgets. The army takes up a part of the country’s budget, so do public services and supporting investments, but the poor are always absent from the scene. They don’t participate in the government’s meetings and in general don’t participate in demonstrations, because they are not an organised segment of society. When you set up a programme like “Bolsa Familia,” which puts money in the hands of mothers so their children can go to school, instead of opening bank accounts abroad and using this money to speculate, this leads to stimulating trade and increasing jobs and demand from factories.
From the political and economic perspectives, what is the significance of Brazil having the right to organise the world's two most important sports events, the Football World Cup and the Olympics?
When I left the presidency in 2010, Brazil had combined economic growth, social inclusion, job creation and democracy. That is what attracted positive attention from the world towards Brazil, and the polls suggested that the Brazilian people were the most optimistic in the world. All economic estimates put Brazil as the fifth largest economy in the world after Germany, Japan, China and the USA. That is our potential, and think the potential of the country is still the same. Just be confident in yourself and invest in people instead of exploiting them.
How do you view the worldwide shift to the far right?
The Mozambican writer Mia Couto said, "In times of terror, we choose monsters to protect us." I believe that this explains much of the current situation. After the 2008 crisis, the world didn’t completely heal, insecurity prevailed and countries had to isolate themselves. Technology ended several types of jobs. Real humanity was removed with the mobile phone. Many countries suffer from not practising their rights in politics and dialogue. Politics, with all its difficulties, is the only way through which people can understand each other. History has taught us that in the absence of politics, the worst always comes.
How do you view the right-wing attempts to do away with national independence in Latin America?
Every country in Latin America has its own history and unique situation, but we share many problems and live in the same geographical area. We have all endured the bitterness of colonial exploitation and dictatorship. There was certain period when I, Kirchner in Argentina and Chavez in Venezuela were presidents. It was a very special period from the perspective of integration, democracy and mutual respect among presidents, even those who had big ideological differences between them.
I established good relations with Alvaro Uribe and Sebastián Piñera, who were the most conservative presidents, and we established together the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). Unfortunately, local elites drove the region’s countries to turn their backs on each other. Bolsonaro’s government thinks it will receive something from the US by humiliating itself before Trump. This won’t happen, but I trust in democracy and that the people will evaluate the consequences of neo-liberalism's return to the region and choose better rulers.
The Arab world remembers your bold stance in support of the Palestinian cause. Do you think there is hope for establishing an independent Palestinian state?
Brazil’s standpoint, until Bolsonaro came, was always to side with the two-state solution. Just like the UN used its power to establish the state of Israel, it has to use the same power to establish a Palestinian state. Both peoples don’t want war; neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians. The conflict is being prolonged by the interests of the few and the interests of those outside the region. Peoples always want peace. Arabs and Jews live harmoniously in Brazil. Unless we put all the interests on the same table where everybody can participate in the dialogue, peace will not materialise. But I am optimistic by nature and I hope that I will live to see peace brought to the region.
How do you view cooperation among countries of the Global South, considering you were the first to call for cooperation mechanisms with Africa and the Arab world?
I believe that it is important to explore all possible relations between our countries. In 2009, in the G20, we discussed the idea that solving the economic crisis could be achieved through promoting growth and social inclusion of the poor in Africa and Asia. This in turn would support global growth. Instead, states turned to protectionist policies. Latin America and Africa were conditioned not to look to each other but to focus our vision on Europe and the US, and the rise of China and the growth of India opened up opportunities for us.
There are common denominators between Africa and Latin America that enable them to share solutions and opportunities, not only in raw materials, but also in manufactured products. We have the Atlantic Ocean, which can be a major route between the West African coast and the eastern South American coast and all the equatorial agriculture technology perfected by Brazil.
Brazil also has the second largest black population in the world, and there is a big Arab community in the country. In the first 10 years of the PT's rule, trade between Brazil and Arab countries grew by 300 percent. It is possible to create another world which is more just and diverse without poverty and hunger. This claim is not based solely on my opinion, but built on experience. I was president of Brazil for eight years and saw what governments can do when they take on the responsibility of combating poverty, as well as what states can do when they decide to work together for the sake of peace and development.
Amid the hegemony of the major nations over politics and the economy, do you think that the world is now in need of making changes to the UN Security Council?
The world needs to carry out big reforms in the way it manages itself. The world cannot maintain the same post-World War II structure. It is necessary that the rise of China and India be recognised; the populations of each of these countries exceeds a billion people. Africa and Latin America need Security Council membership. We have global challenges: the climate, immigration and poverty. It is imperative that countries cooperate with each other in order to solve these problems. We all share the same planet.
Are you considering running in the next presidential elections?
There are still three years before the next election. I am now struggling to clear my name. I can’t accept that after years of struggling for Brazil’s interests, a group of liars can come and tarnish my name.
I was Brazil’s president for two terms, and I prefer to see new figures emerge; the PT has good candidates. Fernando Haddad had a strong voice in the last elections. However, in politics we can never say, “It will not happen,” because candidacy is not an individual decision, it represents the hopes of sections of Brazilian society. I always respect the Brazilian people’s decision.