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Elections in Brazil, Democratic Governance and the Future of the Region 15 Nov 2022 22:26 #12357

  • Luis Fleischman
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The recent hard-fought Brazilian presidential elections resulted in a victory for Luiz Inacio “Lula” Da Silva, who by a small margin defeated the incumbent president, Jair Bolsonaro.

In contrast to his first two consecutive governments (2003-2010), Lula’s popularity has considerably diminished. His victory seems to be more the result of fear of a second Bolsonaro term rather than an embrace of the Workers’ Party leader. Lula, despite his past conviction over corruption, seemed to be the only alternative to a chaotic, illiberal, and semi-authoritarian government. Bolsonaro’s negligent contempt for the effects of the pandemic led Brazil to have one of the highest rates of COVID-related deaths per capita in the world. Bolsonaro resisted mask-wearing, blocked efforts by local government to impose lockdowns, called COVID a “little flu”, and downplayed the value of the vaccines. It took Bolsonaro several months to purchase the vaccines.  What is worse, following Trump’s advice, Bolsonaro promoted the purchase of hydroxychloroquine. It is also not clear what role his racist and misogynist public remarks played in his defeat.

Having said all this, it is important to focus on what Lula is going to do next.

To Lula’s credit, he said that he will govern for everybody and not just for those who voted for him. This makes sense since his victory was narrow.

Now Lula will have to listen not just to his traditional supporters of the landless movement and the union workers (CUT), two strongly ideological groups that have had a say not only in domestic affairs but also in foreign policy. Lula will not enjoy a Congressional majority. In a legislative election that took place early in October, Bolsonaro’s party and its supporters gained control of half of the lower house of Congress. In the Senate, Bolsonaro won several important seats. Under these circumstances, Lula will have a hard time passing legislation unless he secures the support of those center-right legislators who refused to support Bolsonaro, as well as other non-traditional allies.

In the past, Lula respected the democratic and constitutional process. On the domestic side, he included the entrepreneurial class in his cabinet and conducted a social-democratic economic policy. However, his foreign policy was very dangerous for the region and for the world.

Lula was the chief enabler of the Chavez and Castro regimes in Venezuela and Cuba (although he did not join the formal alliances these regimes established such as ALBA). Under Lula, Brazil claimed leadership over a region that wanted to disengage from the United States’ influence. In that sense, he helped strengthened Chavez’s influence and ideology by enabling and protecting regional tyrannies. On the global scene, Lula joined BRICS, an international organization of emerging economies formed by Brazil, Russia, China, India, and South Africa, whose political agenda was its opposition to a U.S. -dominated unipolar world. Then he promoted South-South relations aimed at strengthening relations between Latin American countries and other \post-colonial nations, including Arab states and Iran.

Lula’s arrogance went to the extreme of trying to remove the United States’ role as a peacemaker between Israel and the Palestinians. Along with Erdogan’s Turkey, Lula made an unacceptable proposal to resolve the Iran nuclear crisis that astonished even former president Barack Obama. He also paid a visit to Ahmadinejad’s Iran not without fanfare as the world was concerned about  its development of nuclear capabilities and its genocidal statements against the State of Israel.

Under Lula’s past governments, the idea of “national autonomy” led him to refuse to join the global war on terror.  As the Brazilian scholar Sophia Luiza Zaia reminds us, Lula’s Minister of Institutional Security pointed out that “even if a problem were to appear, we won’t admit that the problem exists”.

Most recently, Lula’s public statements were not particularly encouraging either. Referring to the recognition Juan Guaidó was granted by the international community as president of Venezuela, Lula called Guaidó an impostor and said the world is not respecting the sovereignty and the legitimacy of the internal political process in Venezuela. He promised to treat Venezuela with respect. Of course, he didn’t say a word about the fact that the Maduro government is a dictatorship that won elections through fraud, intimidation, and use of the government machine, without regard for the people’s sovereignty. Lula has also refused to condemn human rights violations in Nicaragua and Cuba.

Though Lula has also spoken against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he casts blame on the U.S. and European Union for expanding NATO and for not making a commitment to Russia that Ukraine would not join the transatlantic alliance. In the United States, scholars like John Mearsheimer and others believe the same thing. But none of them can provide a justification for the massacres, human rights violations, and random killing of civilians that Russia is conducting. Lula also believes that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a showman who is as guilty as Putin for this war despite Russia’s clear aggression and victimization of the Ukrainian people. In other words, he draws a moral equivalency between Russia’s invasion of a sovereign nation and the expansion of NATO.

Lula’s concepts of foreign policy and national security have serious flaws. He is not a guaranteed partner and, for now, he is not to be trusted.  This means that the Biden administration must carefully deal with the Brazilian leader and come up with a strategy.

Biden can approach Lula through the method of the carrot and the stick.

First, the carrot. The United States could help Brazil in halting deforestation in Amazon. If Lula accepts this offer, it could be a great opportunity for him and his country.

Today, China is fully involved in Brazil’s infrastructure projects, which also include the Amazon region where the Asian giant has contributed to major deforestation. Given China’s massive imports of agricultural commodities, major environmental devastation has taken place in the areas of the Amazon rainforest and the Cerrado savannah. In the Cerrado,  two-thirds of the land has been cleared of vegetation to allow for cattle pasture. Illegal deforestation, forest fires, illegal mining, and encroachment on indigenous lands and conservation units have taken place in Brazil with the help of China. Such Chinese involvement has generated a serious debate over environmental policies around the destructive effects of these projects.   

This environmental destruction, intrusion in indigenous lands, and the role China has played, have been a source of great debate and conflict in Brazil. If the United States can find creative ways to help Brazil, it is likely that its leverage over the South American giant will increase.

The Biden administration can talk about importing oil from Brazil, particularly given the current energy crisis generated by the war in Ukraine. Brazil is a large oil producer, and its exports also go largely to China. Establishing oil deals with Brazil might be a better idea than doing it with Saudi Arabia, let alone Venezuela.

But Biden must insist that Lula not give legitimacy to authoritarianism in the region. Likewise, it must convince him to support Ukrainian efforts to survive and to stay away from Iran.

Applying pressure on Lula is crucial, particularly at a time when Iran and Russia have strengthened their partnership over the war in Ukraine (Iran has provided drones and other war materials to Russia). Both have an interest in Latin America and seek to increase their influence in the continent. The Venezuelan and Cuban regimes are the gates through which these two rogue entities penetrate the region. Russia is likely to increase the authoritarian character of countries, such as Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, and may also try to do so with Colombia and Peru. Iran is already using Hezbollah and its connections to drug trafficking and local Shiite communities to raise money for its wars in the Middle East. Iran is likely to increase its ability to carry out acts of terror against an American or Western entity.

However, the truth is that, given his latest statements, mere persuasion will not work with the obstinate 76-year-old workers’ leader. The Biden administration should take advantage of the relative weakness of the upcoming Lula government, particularly its dependence on the center-right.

The Biden administration must play its cards accordingly. Lula shouldn’t be the only target of such persuasion efforts. The administration must send congressional delegations to discuss with Brazilian colleagues all of these issues. The Brazilian center-right and other non-traditional allies of the president should be the key vehicles through which Lula’s moderation should be assured. In other words, the U.S. government directly or indirectly must turn into a lobbyist. A classic Lula will be nothing but a disaster for the region’s security. 
Moderators: Miguel SaludesAbelardo Pérez GarcíaOílda del CastilloRicardo PuertaAntonio LlacaHelio J. GonzálezEfraín InfantePedro S. CamposHéctor Caraballo
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