The Historic Opportunities and Challenges for a Post-Bolsonaro Brazil

On October 30, 2022, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – known by most simply as Lula – defeated Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro in a runoff election.

On Lula's agenda: rebuild Brazil’s social safety net, restore the country’s democratic institutions, and advocate for the country's most marginalized citizens -- oh, and save the Amazon rainforest. He'll have to do all of that while navigating a divided government, polarized public, and aggressive far-right opposition.

On this episode of Trending Globally Dan Richards explores this historic moment in Brazil with James Green, a historian and professor of Latin American history at the Watson Institute, and the host of the podcast Brazil Unfiltered

They discuss how Lula came to win, and what his victory means for Brazil and the world. They also look at why, contrary to what so many people predicted and feared, Brazil’s election went relatively smoothly. Because, as James makes clear: it easily could have not. 


Learn more about James Green’s podcast Brazil Unfiltered.

Find transcripts and more information about all our episodes on our website.

Learn more about the Watson Institute’s other podcasts. 


[MUSIC PLAYING] DAN RICHARDS: From the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards. You've heard the one about the far-right president who recently took a democratic country to the brink of authoritarianism, who is ultimately ousted after only one term in office by a veteran of the country's political establishment, I'm talking about Brazil, of course.

On October 30 of this year, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, known by most simply as Lula, defeated Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro in a runoff election. Starting in January, Lula will have to navigate a divided government, a polarized public, and an aggressive far-right movement as he tries to rebuild Brazil's social safety net, restore the country's democratic institutions, and save the rainforest, among other things. Which is all made a little more complicated by the fact that Lula has already served as President of Brazil from Two-Thousand Three to Two-Thousand Ten. He has also served time in jail from Twenty Eighteen to Twenty Nineteen.

MAN: It marks a miraculous political comeback for the man who was sent to prison over a corruption scandal, then cleared, and then allowed to stand again.

BRIAN: The country has a new leader who was also the old leader.

WOMAN: Kind of, right. Exactly, Brian. Lula da Silva returning to the center stage securing [INAUDIBLE].

DAN RICHARDS: If you don't follow Brazil's politics closely, you could be forgiven for being a little confused by what happened this fall. But don't let that get you down because you're about to hear from James Green, a historian and professor of Latin American History at the Watson Institute, and a host of his own podcast, Brazil Unfiltered. We talked about how Lula came to win this election, and what his victory means for Brazil and the world. We also got into why, contrary to what so many people feared, Brazil's election went relatively smoothly. Because as you'll hear James explain--

JAMES GREEN: It wasn't hysteria on people's part that Bolsonaro could easily mobilize the military, which he had built strong relations with, and of the possibility of a coup.

DAN RICHARDS: On this episode, the most important election of Twenty Twenty-Two, and looking ahead to a post-Bolsonaro Brazil. Before we got into all the analysis, I started by asking James to recount his experience of election night in Sao Paulo. Here's James.

JAMES GREEN: I was in downtown Sao Paulo, and the city erupted in shouts and happiness. And I went to the main street where people who were supporting Lula gathered, about 200,000 people. And I had actually done the same thing in Two-Thousand Three when Lula was elected the first time to the presidency. One of the things that really was notable to me was the difference in his speech.

In Two-Thousand Three when he was elected president the first time, it was very much thanking his mother and all the things that he had done to achieve what he had achieved, and he really didn't talk about the ways in which so many different social movements and political movements guaranteed that he was elected. This time it was just the opposite. He really spoke out clearly about all the things that had been done in the last two years to support his candidacy, to build a broad front, to get him elected, and the hope and the positiveness of bringing the country together again.

DAN RICHARDS: Like, he shifted the spotlight from him and his story to the movement behind him and the Workers' Party?

JAMES GREEN: I think changed the spotlight because it was really a very difficult battle. I mean, keep in mind two years ago he was imprisoned.

DAN RICHARDS: Before we look at the new Lula administration, let's take a quick tour back to the old one, and to Lula's unexpected rise to power. We'll keep it brief. And if you want to learn more we'll put a link to James's podcast Brazil Unfiltered in the show notes. But back to Lula. He grew up during a period of momentous change in Brazil.

JAMES GREEN: Brazil was in a dictatorship from Nineteen Sixty-Four to Nineteen Eighty-Five, and in the end of that period, one of the important new movements that emerged was a radicalized labor movement in the industrial center of the country in Sao Paulo.

DAN RICHARDS: He grew up poor, started working at a young age, and became involved in Sao Paulo's growing labor movement in the '80s and '90s. Lula was a born organizer and politician.

JAMES GREEN: And Lula led a series of strikes that catapulted him to national prominence, and then as the dictatorship was leaving power, Lula founded the Workers' Party and ran for president three times, and on the fourth time he was elected in Two-Thousand Two.

DAN RICHARDS: As president, Lula took the country in a new direction on a number of fronts.

JAMES GREEN: He really was the first president to seriously set up a series of very comprehensive social programs to confront poverty and inequality, to expand the building of public universities, and encouraging the possibility of working class and poor people, especially people of color, having access to the universities. It was a very, very successful presidency. He left power in Two-Thousand Ten with an 87% approval rate.

In Twenty Thirteen, his successor, Dilma Rousseff, who was a former guerrilla fighter during the dictatorship, and had been his minister of mines, and then his chief of staff was hand-picked by him to be his successor. She had three successful years of her government, and then in the third to the fourth year, there were mobilizations against her. This was the first time that the far-right could realize that there was a possibility of finding a kind of vulnerability within the Workers' Party.

DAN RICHARDS: In the election of Two-Thousand Ten--

JAMES GREEN: She was re-elected, but then soon thereafter, there was a series of scandals that were revealed.

DAN RICHARDS: Some of these scandals had to do with politicians skimming money from public companies, especially Petrobras, the state oil company. Others involved old-fashioned bribery. Rich people giving politicians money for influence. Many in the country are still divided as to whether these were primarily political attacks or honest charges against corrupt politicians. James sees it clearly as the former. One reason, investigations and prosecutions were focused on members of the Workers' Party, despite the fact that--

JAMES GREEN: Across the board, all of the political parties were receiving these bribes for their electoral campaigns. Because at the time, there was no public funding of electoral campaigns, and so you had to receive money from private donations. And this was illicit funds that were received, and the Workers' Party received those funds as did every other political party.

DAN RICHARDS: Dilma Rousseff was impeached in Twenty Fifteen and removed from office in Twenty Sixteen. Lula was sent to prison in Twenty Eighteen, sentenced to 12 years on money laundering and corruption charges. This all paved the way for the election of the right's preferred candidate in Twenty Eighteen, Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro was a former military official, and hard-line authoritarian type. He was a big admirer of Donald Trump, and in fact while in office, he developed a nickname.

JAMES GREEN: The Trump of the tropics.

DAN RICHARDS: Shortly after Bolsonaro was sworn in, Lula was released from prison well before the 12-year sentence.

JAMES GREEN: The Supreme Court stated clearly that the presiding judge had been biased in his taking on these cases, these investigative cases about corruption.

DAN RICHARDS: And in Twenty Twenty-One, a Supreme Court judge annulled all convictions against him. Out of prison and cleared of his charges, he decided to run for president in the Twenty Twenty-Two, election. Now, it was not an easy path to victory.

JAMES GREEN: There remain though a very strong feeling among sectors of the population about the fact that he had allegedly been involved in major corruption, which tarnished his image. On the other hand, Bolsonaro was such a bad president. And if we think of the analogy of Trump in the United States, in a lot of ways he was worse than Trump. Brazil confronted, in the same disastrous way, the COVID-19 pandemic. Bolsonaro refused to wear a mask, refused to be vaccinated, refused to quickly buy vaccines, at one point trying to make money off the vaccines. So he was really discredited by large sectors of the population.

DAN RICHARDS: Brazil is a highly polarized country. There are not many undecided voters to sway.

JAMES GREEN: The election victory was so razor-thin.

DAN RICHARDS: The first election in early October led to a runoff, a head-to-head contest between Bolsonaro and Lula in late October. In that election, Lula won with just under 51% of the vote compared to Bolsonaro's 49%. This wasn't just a victory for Lula and the Workers' Party, it was a victory for democracy in Brazil. The election was called within hours of the polls closing, and after a nerve-wracking two days, Bolsonaro accepted the transition of power, and maybe the biggest story is what didn't occur.

JAMES GREEN: In Twenty Twenty-One, Bolsonaro organized a series of activities and actions to criticize the Supreme Court, which he considered was ruling against him in favor of Lula. And started criticizing them, and made gestures indicating that he was going to call on the military to support him, and started questioning the electoral voting system in Brazil. It wasn't hysteria on people's part that Bolsonaro could easily mobilize the military, which he had built strong relations with and of the possibility of a coup.

DAN RICHARDS: So why didn't that happen? As James explains, it wasn't because Bolsonaro turned a new democratic leaf, it was more of the result of a global effort led by democratic activists inside and outside of Brazil.

JAMES GREEN: And this was something that was carried out by many groups, but especially the Washington Brazil Office, of which I'm the president of the board of directors, which was founded several years ago in order to advocate for progressive change in Brazil in Washington DC. And we organize a series of campaigns to send a clear message that we wanted the US government to recognize the electoral process as fair and democratic and recognize the results.

We working in Congress got two letters written by congresspeople to the Biden administration articulating the same concern. And Bernie Sanders presented a motion in the Senate calling for the recognition of the elections and affirming that they were democratic and fair, and that if something happened that there was a military intervention that the United States should cut off all economic and military aid.

DAN RICHARDS: Meanwhile, in a less public way--

JAMES GREEN: The Biden administration sent a message to the Brazilian military through the CIA stating clearly that if the Brazilian President overthrew the election results or mobilized the military, the United States would not recognize that action. And this was something that was sent discreetly between the representative of the CIA and the armed forces, and then the Secretary of Defense who was in Brazil made the same message, the State Department made the same message.

Therefore, after Lula won, even though it was a very tight race, immediately, politicians from the opposition recognized the outcome and Biden called Lula 38 minutes after the electoral results were announced. In other words, a very clear message was sent to the Brazilian armed forces that if they tried anything it would be unsuccessful. That's how a possible coup d'etat was averted.

DAN RICHARDS: If Donald Trump was still president of the United States, who's famously friendly with Bolsonaro, if there was a Republican Congress, do you think it meaningfully could have had an effect on the results of who's going to be in charge of Brazil?

JAMES GREEN: Absolutely. I think he would have done all that's possible to ensure the victory of Bolsonaro or supporting it, recognizing the government. Although it seems that Bolsonaro actually has been holed up in the presidential palace, and has not been having any public meetings, or meeting with the press, or with dignitaries, and it's rumored that he's extremely depressed and despondent because he lost the elections.

There is a very strong far-right movement in Brazil that is not going to go away anytime soon. The political party that he's a member of, it's called the Liberal Party is now probably going to challenge the election results. A little late and no one takes it seriously, but they need to create a big lie in order to guarantee that their base of support stays loyal to them.

DAN RICHARDS: I want to turn now from the election itself to some of the biggest issues that Lula administration will be facing. And the first one I wanted to get into was one of truly global importance to everyone on Earth, and that is the future of the Amazon rainforest. How is the management of the Amazon going to change under Lula, and what does it mean for the climate?

JAMES GREEN: It's going to be dramatically different. There had been, under the first Lula governance, a serious attempt to address the deforestation of the Amazon. And then under Bolsonaro it was a 180-degree reversal. He eliminated all of the agencies that were monitoring deforestation.

I think one of the first things he's going to be doing when he comes to office is overturning all of these deregulation efforts that were done by Bolsonaro, and to start just restoring things to normalcy, and then start being aggressively proactive in defense of the environment. And he's going to face a lot of pressure because one of the main opponents of his election were agribusiness. They're very concerned that the deforestation will cut back in their profits and their ability to produce more soybeans and more cattle. But it's something that Lula's going to have to do with.

DAN RICHARDS: Brazil's singular role in combating climate change though, is just one of many priorities facing Lula's administration.

JAMES GREEN: He needs to fight to try to achieve zero emissions, which is one of his goals. He needs to address the economic problems of the country as a whole. There's considerable unemployment and inflation in Brazil at the moment. And a lot of people have still suffered from what happened with COVID and are in a marginalized situation.

DAN RICHARDS: Keep in mind though, Lula won with just over 50% of the vote. Despite the alliances he built to win--

JAMES GREEN: He doesn't have a clear majority in the Congress. He's going to have to build an electoral coalition in the Congress to be able to get his measures passed. Lula has a big challenge ahead.

DAN RICHARDS: What does a divided Congress mean in Brazil in the sense of-- how limited is the scope of things a president could do under a divided Congress?

JAMES GREEN: It's something that Lula's going to have to deal with. He's going to have a very difficult time. But Lula is a very, very good broker, bargainer, negotiator. He knows how to build a coalition. He did that in bringing 10 political parties to support him in the electoral campaign, and he's already reached out to four other political parties which are important kind of center-right parties. And then you have the opportunists who always want to be on the side of the government in power because they have more access to resources and appointments in different ministries, et cetera, et cetera.

So even the most scandalous Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, which is a Brazilian church. It's a megachurch. It has billions of dollars. It built a big building in Sao Paulo, which they consider to be the exact replica of the Temple of Solomon from the Old Testament. They're very, very powerful, and they supported Bolsonaro unconditionally. And then the founder said, well, God clearly supported Lula and not Bolsonaro, and so we're going to support what God wants, and so we're going to support Lula. So 180-degree flip within two days because evidently God--

DAN RICHARDS: --is a pragmatist.

JAMES GREEN: --is a pragmatist. So Lula is going to have to work with a lot of people who are only with him to squeeze things out of him, to negotiate things, to get what they want, but he's going to have to build that coalition. And it's going to make it harder to carry out his more progressive agenda. And that's going to be the big challenge.

DAN RICHARDS: One example of these compromises has already been on display.

JAMES GREEN: Lula basically made a statement that he was personally against abortion, and he believed abortion was a public issue, but he did not do anything to support the right to choose because 30% of Brazilians now are evangelical Christians. Abortion is illegal in Brazil, and most people who use procedures are taking pills. Now, there's the whole movement to try to eliminate the pills.

And I'm hoping that they might learn from what happened in the United States and understand that there can be a powerful movement in favor of women's right to choose that can have an outcome. Now, the difference is women in the United States for 49 years have the right to an abortion in every state, whereas Brazilians have to do it clandestinely, and so it's not the same.

DAN RICHARDS: Something else that's kept coming up in Lula's public comments recently and in analysis of what his election means for the country, is the idea of Brazil returning to the, quote, "world stage." Or as Lula said at the COP27 Summit, "Brazil is back." I wanted to know from James, what does that mean exactly? As with so much of the discussion around Lula's agenda, the answer requires going back a little bit to Bolsonaro.

JAMES GREEN: Bolsonaro, he basically had no international experience. He was a backbencher in the Congress. He had been elected I think seven or eight times. Had not passed any significant legislation. He was very awkward internationally, and he would go to international events and would give horrible speeches, and not interact with other people, and feel very uncomfortable and isolated. So Brazil really withdrew.

Then he also appointed to the Ministry of Foreign Relations some of the most conservative people. Some of whom actually believe on a flat Earth theory. I mean, it's that bad. Or don't believe in science, and are very connected to a series of conspiracy theories. And these are the key diplomats in the Ministry of Foreign Relations in these positions.

And so Bolsonaro was not really interested in interacting with the world except going to Russia on the eve of the invasion of the Ukraine, and then stopping off in Hungary to meet his dear friend Orban, who is a far-right dictator in Hungary. Those are the people with which he has kind of a sympathy and an alliance. So Lula when he was president--

DAN RICHARDS: That is the first time back in the two-thousands.

JAMES GREEN: --really understood that Brazil had the potential of being an important international player. Expanded Brazilians influences in Africa, opening consulates all over the world in embassies in countries that never had them, and traveled a huge amount of his time in office to visit people in Europe, in Africa, in Asia, and in Latin America, and in the United States. Brazil used that to be a important player in G20, and in many other international entities. Bolsonaro destroyed all that, and now Lula is going to rebuild that, and I think it will be significant.

DAN RICHARDS: One of the most famous international projects Lula worked to grow in his first time around as president was the formation of BRICS, that's Brazil, Russia, India, China, and then later South Africa. And it was sort of an economic alliance between these fast-growing economies. Do you see BRICS as having a future in the new Lula administration? I mean, a lot has changed in those countries and in geopolitics generally in the 15 or so years since they were framed together as a group with many common interests.

JAMES GREEN: It's contradictory because on one hand, Brazil fought for a democratic regime now, and against authoritarian regimes, so far-right regimes, and then it's very complicated to understand how they can find a lot of sympathy for Putin's Russia given its authoritarian nature. China is not a paradigm of democracy and democratic governance clearly. Yet Brazil's very pragmatic and realizes that China is a country that they need to be in good relations with because of the economic dependency they have on China.

India has a far-right government in power too, which is much closer to Bolsonaro sentiments than to Lula, so it'll be very interesting to see how he relates to India as well in this process. It's not clear to me to what extent BRICS as an entity of countries, it will come together and elaborate policy and get it implemented, to what extent that will really happen, or whether Brazil will more likely carry out a multilateral approach building relations with the United States but with China and other countries of the world in order to be a leader of more independent less-aligned countries.

DAN RICHARDS: And as to what that all means for Brazil's relationship with the US and the rest of the world.

JAMES GREEN: On one hand, Lula clearly is interested in having good relations with the United States, and I think that will happen, but is also conscious of the ways in which the United States sometimes tries to pull its weight a little bit too much in Latin America and dictate as opposed to be a partner. And finally, which is very important, Lula today reiterated something that Brazilians have felt for a long time, which is that the United Nations was set up after World War II with the victors who run the Security Council.

And Lula points out, look, the world has changed. These are not the only important powers in the world. We need to restructure the international agencies that do global governance, and the Global South has to have much more power and influence in that process. Brazil fought with the United States in World War II, and sent troops to Italy, expected to be on the Security Council as a result, and didn't get that position. And so I think there's a long term aspiration for Brazil to be able to move into that place that it has long wished to have as an important international influencer.

DAN RICHARDS: Something I was thinking about looking at Lula's upcoming, his agenda, and also just his rhetoric compared to in Two-Thousand Three, I couldn't help but see some similarities with the Biden administration in the sense of this leftward seeming shift on many economic and social issues from a political veteran. Do you get the sense he has actually moved to the left on issues, or is it more just talk?

JAMES GREEN: I think that the Workers' Party and Lula has grown into understanding that there needs to be many more structural changes and more serious reforms taking place in Brazil in order to address long-term issues. I think over time he has grown politically in that a very strong Black movement in Brazil over recent years has pointed out about structural racism. In other words, there's a structural discrimination in the country, which is embedded in the legacies of slavery. Brazil had a slave system until Eighteen Eighty-Eight, 350 years of slavery, and a very strong articulate movement led by women, Black women, demanding that these questions be addressed.

And so Lula has promised to take seriously the issues of reparations and the ways in which Afro-Brazilians were left behind over five centuries. He also has made a very clear commitment to the Indigenous peoples of Brazil, there are less than a million people who are still Indigenous identified, and many of them have territories, many of them don't have territories recognized by the federal government, and he has promised to establish, not only a ministry for the original people as what it's called in Portuguese, the povos originarios, but also to appoint an Indigenous person to lead that. And that's a very significant thing, a really radical change.

So on these questions, I think, Lula has grown in his understanding of the importance of addressing certain issues. On other things, as I mentioned earlier, he's being cautious. He's really afraid of getting blowback from evangelical Christians who love to use LGBTQ issues to triangulate and divide the population. Again, it's part of the playbook from the United States being carried out in Brazil. So he's backtracked on those issues to a certain extent on the defense of women's right to choose or to have abortion

I think partially it's a pragmatism on his part saying, I can't take on everyone all the time because I'm not going to be able to govern, going to be hard for me to build a long-- a large electoral coalition, and I think that the civil society and social movements will then be pressuring him. Because even though he has not been at the forefront of articulating rights for LGBTQ people, for example, they're very loyal supporters and most LGBTQ people voted for Lula, or key people connected to his new administration which will be dealing with those questions. It'll be a very interesting tension as the far-right reorganizes and tries to figure out what are the ways in which it can chip away at Lula's government and his popularity.

DAN RICHARDS: So Lula will be 77 when he takes office in January. To what extent do you see Lula as a transitional figure. Like, what does his win mean for the next generation of political leaders in Brazil?

JAMES GREEN: So Lula has announced that he will not rerun for president. So unlike Biden, he has already declared that, which is going to then open all the doors of battles within the Workers' Party and beyond the Workers' Party of who are the eligible candidates. And it's possible that a progressive person or a center-left person would be the next president after Lula, and not necessarily someone from the Workers' Party.

There are strong candidates in the Workers' Party who represent a new generation, and younger people who have been elected to Congress who are very dynamic and promise to be important leaders in the future. Now, his transition team, which is preparing the new government has a very open process with lots of very exciting people who, I think, reflect this new generational energy that's come in to the left in Brazil. I think there won't be a 25-year-old elected president next time around, but I think there will be younger voices that are going to play a more important role.

DAN RICHARDS: Is there anything else you think as we sort of wrap up that you wish more Americans understood about the state of Brazilian politics? And this podcast isn't entirely for Americans, but it's an English language podcast.

JAMES GREEN: No. I think the period ahead is going to be very exciting. It's going to have many problems, and I think Lula is going to stumble, and I think I have no illusions about that. I think that not all of his program will be implemented, but it's such a relief. Two weeks, three weeks after the elections, just taking a deep breath and saying, oh my God, Bolsonaro is no longer in power. Things can change. I think this is the most important thing for us to understand that a very tremendously important victory for democracy took place in Brazil, but it's not the end game.

DAN RICHARDS: Well, James Green, thank you so much as always, for talking with us on Trending Globally.

JAMES GREEN: Feel free to call me back any time.


DAN RICHARDS: This episode was produced by me, Dan Richards, Sam McKeever Holtzman, and Laila Wirth. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. Additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. If you like the show, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. It really helps others to find us. And even better, recommend the show to a friend who you think might like it. If you have any questions, comments, or ideas for guests, or topics, send us an email at trendingglobally@brown.edu. Again, that's all one word, trendingglobally@brown.edu. We'll be back in two weeks with another episode of Trending Globally. Thanks.


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