An interview with Lula

The former Brazilian leader was just freed by his country's Supreme Court to seek the presidency again in 2022

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Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former president of Brazil, has led an extraordinary life of lows and highs. Raised in poverty, he became a factory worker, then a union organizer, then the founder of a leftist political party, then president of the republic striding across the world stage, then a prison inmate accused of corruption, then a free man once again, insisting on his innocence, fighting to clear his name.

Yesterday, Brazil was convulsed by news that several criminal cases against Lula, as he is popularly known, were voided by a Supreme Court justice, “restoring his right to seek the presidency again, in a decision with the potential to reshape Brazil’s political future,” as The New York Times reported. Lula is now expected to run next year for the presidency, against the rightist Trump govern-alike Jair Bolsonaro.

In a conversation recorded before the justice’s decision, but with the possibility it created already in mind, I talked with Lula about what he learned in prison, how he reads the rise of fascism around the world, what he thinks progressives must do to win national elections as he did, and whether he is ready for another go at the presidency.

“I say every day that I am 75 but I feel that I have the energy of a 30-year-old,” he told me. “And I am as horny as a 21-year-old, so I can say to you that I'm alive, fighting for democracy.” There is no one quite like Lula. While I cannot say he answered my actual question in more than one case, he did have the charming habit of punctuating every answer with utterances of “my dear Anand.”

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“If we take a nap, someone would very much like to overthrow democracy”: a conversation with Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva

ANAND: I wanted to begin by going back and asking you about your journey. You grew up in poverty, you ascended to the height of power in your country, and then found yourself in prison. When you were there, in that solitude, I wonder where your mind was. What were you thinking about? How did you look back on your journey in that solitude?

LULA: When I was at the federal police cell, I was thinking a lot, and I was thinking about a phrase, a sentence, that Victor Hugo, the French writer, said long ago. He said, “The paradise of the rich is made out of the hell of the poor.” And this sentence today is even stronger than it was then, because we never have had so many people living disenfranchised on planet earth. And there's no explanation to justify the difference between the poor and the rich in the world. There's no explanation to convince people why someone can have ten meals a day and other people have to go ten days without a meal.

So the only blame that I could assign is to the ruling class in the world, those who are in charge of the politics in the developed countries, those who run the world. They have no concern for poor people. They have no concern for the number of people who die every day. For them, the poor are just a number.

But those people, those numbers, have grandsons, mothers, sons, daughters. They want to live with dignity. So I was thinking about that when I was in prison.

How is it possible for someone to be proud to say that they have a hundred hotels, or $1 billion in a bank account? How can someone build a foundation that gives out a little bit of charity, a little bit of money here and there, but then, when it comes to actually solving the problem, they refuse to take responsibility that no one should be so rich? So we have to think about a world that is more fair and more human.

ANAND: In the past, you've cited the Mozambican writer Mia Couto on why Brazil turned to its current president, Jair Bolsonaro. "In times of terror,” Mia Couto wrote, “we choose monsters to protect us." So Brazil is right up there with the United States on Covid-19 cases. Even before the virus, the economy was plummeting, unemployment was in crisis, the president was facing impeachment measures. Can you describe for an international audience the current state of the crisis in Brazil as you see it?

LULA: Anand, the issue is that whoever governs the country has to work as the conductor of an orchestra. He needs to establish harmony in society. In the case of Brazil, we have a president of the republic who represents militiamen. He is very much linked to these paramilitaries and also to the armed forces. He thinks that the problem of humanity will be solved by guns, by arms.

So this man who rules our country, he should have taken care of Covid-19 when it first emerged in China and in Europe. What do you do when you govern a country? First of all, you set up a team of scientists to discuss the severity of the situation. And then afterward you set up a group of scientists who will guide the political and policy decisions of the government on public health matters. He did none of that. Because he didn't believe in Covid. He said that Covid didn't exist.

This is a government that doesn't govern. He is just a copycat of Trump's administration. Trump is his reference, and he salutes Trump and he thinks that everything that Trump did is good. He followed Trump's instructions.

ANAND: It's easy for each of us to look at the turn to demagogues and fascists in our own country and make local explanations for why this is happening. You may have your explanation in Brazil. We in the United States are talking a lot about the history of white supremacy in this country and how that led to Trump. But in a strange way, the same thing is happening in so many different places that have very different histories. What is your explanation for this pattern in the world, the Bolsonaros, the Orbáns, the Trumps, the Dutertes? What are the larger forces you see enabling those kinds of people to win?

LULA: My dear Anand, I would like to start by talking a little bit about my experience in Brazil.

Brazil had 350 years of slavery, of Black slavery. And the Brazilian ruling class elite still believes in a kind of slavery regime. I read a lot of books about slavery in Brazil when I was in prison. Today I better understand racism in Brazil, the prejudice that exists in Brazil toward Blacks and other people. And I am convinced that the major problem of the Brazilian elite is that they do not accept that these people should rise on the social ladder.

When I first took office, I made a very simple speech. I didn't make big promises when I was sworn in. I learned in the labor movement that you can't promise what you know in advance that you will not deliver. And so I started my speech saying the following: that when I end my term, if every Brazilian woman and man would have had their breakfast, their lunch, and their dinner, I will have fulfilled my life mission. 

I said that because I knew what hunger was. I experienced hunger when I was a child. I ate my first piece of bread when I was seven years old. Before that age, I ate a breakfast of flour and black coffee. So I knew that I had to end hunger.

Hunger is not a phenomenon of nature. It is a phenomenon of the lack of responsibility of rich people, of the white elites. It is a phenomenon of those who rule and do not care. They don't look at the poor, they don't meet the poor's needs, and all the money that should go to the poor is spent. All the money that goes to the rich is called development. All the money goes to the poor is called government spending.

ANAND: As someone who is a former head of state on the world stage, and a citizen of the world, I want to ask you, selfishly, what it has been like for you to observe the United States and its unraveling at this time. How do you see us from where you sit?

LULA: In 2002, I was invited by then-President George W. Bush to go to the White House. I was already president-elect, but I was not yet sworn in. When I arrived at the White House, I found President Bush was obsessed with hunting down terrorists, and he wanted to invade Iraq. He talked with me for a long time about the need to invade Iraq and the need to overthrow Saddam Hussein. He invited me, as the incoming president of Brazil, to participate in that campaign against Saddam Hussein.

I replied to President Bush, "Mr. President, I am not acquainted with Saddam Hussein. Iraq is thousands of kilometers away from Brazil. This man has never done any evil against my country. I have nothing against Iraq and Saddam. My problem is with hunger in Brazil, which has tens of millions of people living below the poverty line. That's the war that I have to wage, President Bush, the war against hunger, the war against inequality. And this war, President Bush, I know I'm going to win. But against Iraq, I don't know if I'm going to win a war. So I'm sorry. The war that I'm going to wage is against poverty and hunger in my country."

Still, I had a very good relationship with President Bush and with President Obama. But I discovered that the Americans do not accept the idea that in the Americas there could be another country that could be a player, or become a global player. The only player that they accept is the U.S.

ANAND: I want to ask you, as someone who led your country and then went to prison on charges that you deny, there's this discussion right now in the United States about justice for Donald Trump. As you know, Trump has long faced accusations of corruption. There are a lot of people who do not like Trump, who would love to see him go to prison. There are multiple investigations underway. Would you suggest that that's a good thing, that he be investigated and go to prison, if those charges are real and proven? Or do you think it's a dangerous road for a democracy to get into pursuing former leaders criminally, even if they're guilty?

LULA:I believe that it strengthens democracy if all people are equal before the law. Being president of the republic, or a former president or minister, does not give immunity. Everybody has to be investigated as democracy demands under the rule of law. Everybody is innocent until proven guilty. And you cannot be convicted by the media first.

Here in Brazil, when a citizen is arrested, he has often already been convicted by public opinion because of what the mainstream media reports on the person.

I was the victim of a great judicial scandal. The judicial system wanted to end the Workers' Party government because they didn’t want Black people to have a voice in government, they didn’t want the poor to be lifted from poverty, they didn’t want domestic maids to have a daughter or son in university, studying. They don't accept that, the ruling class.

So they invented a story against me, and then they tried to justify the story. All of them, they lied. And that's why I'm very calm. I sleep well because I'm waiting for justice.

ANAND: I want to ask you about the political left and the possibilities for winning. One of the debates in the United States, I assume in Brazil as well, is about whether to run candidates like you who have lived experience of poverty, who come from very humble backgrounds, who are working in ordinary jobs, versus a lot of the professional class that dominates the Democratic Party in the United States, I imagine the upper ranks of the Workers’ Party as well. Do you think there needs to be more candidates from backgrounds like yours if parties on the left are to succeed?

LULA: I wish the world could have many more political parties and candidates running who represented working people and poor people, and represented women and poor women, and represented Black people. We need to acquire the awareness that people, even though very poor, can have the wisdom to participate in politics and are going to advocate for the people they represent.

Do you know what a human being wants? They want a job. They want to have breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They want their kids to go to schools. They want to have the right once a month to go to a restaurant, to eat out or have a beer with friends. They want to have the right to safety. They want to be treated with dignity and respect. You can't kill and suffocate your citizens, as we saw with the policeman who put his knee on George Floyd’s throat.

We cannot lose our humanity. It is necessary for us not to lose our solidarity. It is necessary for us to think a little bit with our hearts.

ANAND: I'm going to give you a new job as a political adviser. You successfully won two national elections on a left-populist platform. No one in America, Bernie Sanders or anyone else, has successfully won the presidency on such a platform in modern times. What advice would you give progressives in the United States to win? Because, like Brazil, this is a conservative country. It has got a powerful ruling class. It has a lot of ordinary people who love capitalism even though it doesn't work for them very well. How do you actually win? What could progressives do in terms of message, in terms of outreach, in terms of how they persuade voters?

LULA: I always say that all my life I called myself a socialist. And when I joined the presidency, it was the first time that this country had the opportunity to have a capitalist system that would be more humanized.

What you need to do is not have an ultra-left-wing speech that people won't believe. People have to believe what you're saying. So you cannot promise what in the mindset of the listener cannot be achieved. You can only promise what is possible, and that they can understand can be done.

The problem is that the politician, when he's running for office, he likes to go outside in open cars and wave to people. He enjoys doing that. But when he's elected, the state apparatus locks him in a shielded car. Then he can't wave anymore to the people. He doesn't greet people in the streets anymore. And when someone from among the people protests, he thinks that that person is his enemy.

The problem is that politicians forget the campaign. One day after the election, the politicians forget everything that they promised. So during the electoral period, no politician wants to meet with bankers. No politician wants to meet with big businessmen. They only want to meet the people during the campaign. But once elected, they don't want to meet the people anymore. They want to meet the bankers. They want to meet with big business.

ANAND: Do you view the coronavirus crisis, and the economic, political, and racial crises in many places which it has coincided with — do you view this as an inflection point for change? Do you think we may be at the end of an era and the beginning of a new one?

LULA: My dear friend Anand, this will not happen by chance. We must understand that it is necessary for us to change our behavior after the Covid phenomenon. We have to think of building another world that would accumulate less and distribute more.

We should make a commitment that no one on planet Earth should go to sleep one single night without having 2,500 calories that day. We should make a commitment as humanists that no child in the world could wake up in the morning without a glass of milk. We have to think of creating jobs, too, of technologies’ impact on jobs and on the economy, because now we can see that the fruits of technology are in the hands of very few people. We have to find a way that this wealth can be distributed.

I believe in the possibility of building a world with more fairness. It's necessary that we should start, each one of us, doing what the American people did against that police officer who killed George Floyd. It's necessary that we should not lose sight of the capacity for dignity. Dignity is the most important thing.

ANAND: Are you going to try to become president again?

LULA: Well, I only have one barrier, which is nature. Nature is relentless.

I am now 75. Physically, from a health standpoint, I'm very well. I say every day that I am 75 but I feel that I have the energy of a 30-year-old. And I am as horny as a 21-year-old, so I can say to you that I'm alive, fighting for democracy, and I don't have to run for the presidency to be in politics. 

So I'll continue to struggle. I'm enthusiastic, conveying energy to people, conveying vitality to people. There's no room, there's no time, to stay quiet. We have to build democracy. We have to build a better world, and to fight every day, because if we take a nap, someone would very much like to overthrow democracy.


Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is the former president of Brazil. This interview, conducted via a live interpreter, was edited and condensed for clarity.


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Photo: Sergio Lima/Getty