In an interview, former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva says the country’s current leader, Jair Bolsonaro, shares blame for the country’s 300,000 coronavirus deaths in one year. He is calling on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders to join forces to make vaccines a public good.
Ein Interview von Marian Blasberg, Jens Glüsing und Britta Kollenbroich
Now that he’s allowed to run for office again, former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, 75, is preparing his political comeback.
About Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, 75, is a founding member of Brazil’s Worker’s Party. Lula shaped the country for a decade and a half — from 2003 as president and from 2011 as mentor to his designated successor, Dilma Rousseff, who was removed from office by parliament in 2016.
On March 8, a Supreme Court judge overturned all the corruption convictions against Lula. On March 23, the high court also declared that the judge in the case, Sergio Moro, had been biased. Moro, who had convicted da Silva of corruption, was later appointed justice minister by President Jair Bolsonaro. This is Lula’s first interview since the decision. It was conducted via Zoom because an in-person meeting wasn’t possible given that the coronavirus pandemic is currently out of control in Brazil.
Lula is now eligible to challenge the incumbent president in next year’s national election. If he runs, it would be a great political battle for Brazil’s future, putting the far-right populist against his social democratic predecessor.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. president, you were in prison the last time you were interviewed by DER SPIEGEL two years ago. Today, you’re a free man and you can run for political office again. Are you satisfied?
Lula: It’s sad that it took the judiciary so long to reach this decision. They were already aware of the information that led to this verdict in 2016. My opponents spent five years trying to destroy the image of Lula, to portray me and my party as corrupt. I am happy that faith in justice has been restored. But Judge Moro should not go unpunished – nor should the prosecutors who spread so many lies. They should lose their jobs. There was a pact between the judiciary and some media to remove President Dilma Rousseff from office and prevent my candidacy in 2018. Moro was part of that, and he was partisan.
DER SPIEGEL: Will you run against Bolsonaro in the presidential elections next year?
Lula: We shouldn’t be discussing candidacies in the middle of the pandemic. Yesterday, on Tuesday, 3,158 people died of COVID in Brazil. It is the biggest genocide in our history. Our attention right now should not be on next year’s election – it should be on fighting the virus and vaccinating the population. We have to save Brazil from COVID-19.
DER SPIEGEL: President Bolsonaro has consistently dismissed the virus as a “little flu.” Recently, he has been wearing a mask and even spoke out in favor of vaccinations for the first time in a televised speech.
Lula: A president does not have to know everything. But he should have the humility to consult people who know better than he does. He should talk to scientists, doctors, governors and health ministers to come up with a plan to beat COVID. Even if, for the first time, Bolsonaro didn’t spread any foolishness in his speech yesterday, he still is not taking COVID seriously.
DER SPIEGEL: How can you tell?
Lula: He doesn’t believe in vaccination. He spent a fortune on a drug called hydroxychloroquine even though it has been proven that it does nothing. He has mocked anyone who uses a mask as a faggot. He didn’t take this virus seriously for a year and told us lies. He spent a year provoking everyone who disagreed with him. If he actually cared about the people, he would have set an example and immediately put on a mask and avoided creating crowds. If he had any gravitas, he would have apologized yesterday to the families of the 300,000 COVID dead and the millions infected. He is responsible for this.
DER SPIEGEL: Because the virus is circulating almost freely in Brazil, aggressive new mutants have appeared in the country, which is also dangerous for the rest of the world. Are you hoping for support from the international community against Bolsonaro?
Lula: We as Brazilians are responsible for stopping this man and restoring democracy in the country. We don’t need help from abroad for that. Brazil will not be able to endure it any longer if this man continues to govern the way he is. Never before in our history have we had a president who was this irresponsible.
DER SPIEGEL: Then why isn’t there more political resistance to Bolsonaro in the country?
Lula: The media in Brazil have criminalized politics. The battle against corruption is important, but all the corruption trials have resulted in the election of a man who pretended that he wasn’t a politician. He won elections based on hate and he governs based on hate. Anyone who says anything critical about Bolsonaro is persecuted and threatened by his supporters. Bolsonaro is backed by right-wing militias. He has instilled fear in society and it is numb. Add to that the fact that people can’t take to the streets because of corona. The most important thing to do is to hammer it into people’s heads that Brazil doesn’t deserve Bolsonaro.
An Appeal to Angela Merkel, a Letter to Xi Jinping
DER SPIEGEL: Is it true that you personally lobbied Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping for the delivery of vaccines?
Lula: I wrote a letter to Xi Jinping and met with representatives from the Russian fund responsible for the distribution of the Sputnik V vaccine. Bolsonaro and his supporters have been spreading word on the internet that people who take the Chinese vaccine are implanted with a chip and that the one from BioNTech can turn people into crocodiles. Those are the kinds of lies we have to deal with here. I have asked Putin and Xi Jinping to ignore the insults coming from Bolsonaro and his foreign minister when Brazil asks for vaccine.
DER SPIEGEL: The richest countries have secured the most vaccine doses around the world. How can poorer countries also obtain sufficient amounts of vaccine?
Lula: Everyone must have access to the vaccines. We need to break the pharmaceutical companies’ patents on vaccines. This is a good for all of humankind. A handful of industrialists should not be allowed to use it to enrich themselves. We cannot allow the commercial interests of this or that manufacturer to take precedence over the interests of humanity. This is a humanitarian decision – it has nothing to do with socialism. Humanity is at stake.
DER SPIEGEL: You need cooperation from wealthy countries for such an approach.
Lula: That is why I would like to use this interview to appeal to Angela Merkel for an international meeting of the most important heads of government to discuss this issue. She is respected around the world. Such a meeting could take place within the framework of the G-7 or the G-20, or an extraordinary virtual General Assembly of the United Nations could be convened. Someone just has to take the initiative. It disturbs me that people only care about what is happening in their own backyards. No single country is capable of solving the problem on its own. Even Germany and France lack vaccine. That’s unbelievable!
“It disturbs me that people only care about what is happening in their own backyards.”
DER SPIEGEL: Why has there not been an international initiative so far?
Lula: Because the political leaders are fighting about other things. Trump did an enormous amount of damage when he declared China the enemy. Biden is calling Putin a murderer. This is no way for statesmen to treat each other. What is still needed to finally come to a decision and stop blaming each other? During the 2008 financial crisis, when Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, we immediately called a G-20 meeting. Someone needs to pick up the phone and organize a meeting to discuss how to stop the spread of the virus. After that, we can go back to our political squabbles.
DER SPIEGEL: One study has accused Bolsonaro of deliberately helping to spread the virus. What is the reason for his behavior?
Lula: He governs for a small, radicalized part of the population that represents 25, maybe 30 percent of society. They are people who don’t believe in democracy. This man hasn’t even sat down with a serious business owner in the two years he has been in office. He has never even talked about productivity or economic growth. He has never met with the unions or with the social movements. He is only comfortable with the military.
DER SPIEGEL: Around 60 petitions for Bolsonaro’s impeachment have been filed by members of Brazilian congress, but the president of parliament has taken no action. Why not?
Lula: Because the president of Congress, who has the majority of its members behind him, agrees in large parts with Bolsonaro’s economic policy. The Brazilian elite, financial system and banks support his economic policies, as do the media. Yet he has no economic policy plan. He just wants to privatize all state-owned companies. It’s like a newly married, unemployed man sitting in his new house with his new wife and telling her: Look for work? Yeah, right! Let’s just sell the bed, the fridge and the TV.
Is It Possible to Repeat an Economic Miracle?
DER SPIEGEL: Under your government, 20 million people were elevated out of poverty. There was a commodities boom at the time, but that is now over. Is it possible to repeat such an economic miracle?
Lula: I sometimes joke that the people want to go back to the past of the Lula administration. They say that technological developments have changed the working world. Before our interview, I watched a documentary film about Uber drivers who won a lawsuit over poor working conditions. There are millions of people working at Amazon and in e-commerce who don’t even have the right to take a vacation. People who work for apps have no weekends, no vacations and no social security. Everyone should go back and watch the film “Modern Times” by Charlie Chaplin to understand what is happening in the world right now.
DER SPIEGEL: That app economy is particularly strong in Brazil. Do you want greater government influence?
Lula: In contrast to Germany, where there is a functioning sewage system, social housing and a good highway and railway network, we still have to build everything here. There is plenty of room for public investment. If the government doesn’t push it, then how will the private sector create jobs that pay decent wages? If we have growth, foreign companies will come and invest in Brazil again. No one goes into a country where poverty, hunger and crime reign.
DER SPIEGEL: Brazil is deeply divided, with the two camps viewing each other with hostility. How do you intend to overcome that polarization?
Lula: The hatred toward my Worker’s Party is fanned because it represents social inclusion. Brazil has the weight of the legacy of 350 years of slavery on its shoulders. “The Masters and the Slaves” is the name of a famous book about colonial society in Brazil. It’s still a reality. The residents of the mansion won’t accept having the residents of the slave cabin move up even just one step on the social ladder. That’s what is dividing this country and the reason so many people are against me. We governed for everyone, but the poor have always been our priority. If the poor don’t share in the wealth of the country, there is no way out for this country.
Is There a Danger of a Coup in Brazil?
DER SPIEGEL: Bolsonaro has brought many military officers into his government and he often attacks democracy. After the storming of the Capitol Building in Washington, he said that things could get even worse in Brasília if there is any doubt about the outcome of the next elections. Is there a danger of a coup?
Lula: I should actually be able to say no to that. But I also didn’t believe that my successor Dilma Rousseff would be removed from office. Nor did I think that Brazilians would elect a man like Bolsonaro. We need to say loud and clear that we will stand up against any coup attempt – because Bolsonaro doesn’t know how to govern democratically. He does not respect the basic principles of democracy. In Bolsonaro’s world, there is no room for two teams. He doesn’t want any opponents. He wants to win the game before it has even started.
DER SPIEGEL: In the U.S., Trump supporters stormed the Capitol because they didn’t accept the election results. Would Brazil’s military back Bolsonaro in a coup attempt?
Lula: The Brazilian people are the ones who will defeat Bolsonaro. He can start preparing to drape the presidential sash over his successor. The democrats will win, the parties of the left will win. They will provide the next president and that president will get Brazil back on its feet.
“We need to say loud and clear that we will stand up against any coup attempt.”
DER SPIEGEL: Your Workers’ Party, in particular, is not well liked in military circles.
Lula: I had an extraordinarily good relationship with the military while I was president. I always treated them very well. I re-equipped the army, navy and air force and even paid the recruits the minimum wage. But the military doesn’t have to like me. They are supposed to defend the country against possible external enemies and respect the constitution.
DER SPIEGEL: If you run, will you assemble a broad opposition alliance that also includes centrist parties? In 2002, you won the election because you positioned yourself as “Lula Paz e Amor,” as a reconciliation candidate of peace and love.
Lula: That’s also how I am in my private life. I can’t help it. At some point, a moment will come like in 2002, when I succeeded in getting José Alencar, a great entrepreneur, to be my candidate for vice president. We made a pact between capital and labor. You have to have a clear program of what you want to do with the country and then gather the political forces to support you. The PT will present its program and explore possible alliances.
DER SPIEGEL: The elections are still a year and half away, but it feels like the campaign has already begun. There have been death threats against you. Are you afraid to go out on the street?
Lula: I’m not worried about that. I have barely left the house in over a year. I am patiently waiting to get the second dose of my vaccine so that I can finally drive across the country again.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. President, we thank you for this interview.