Lula Interview on Ukraine, Bolsonaro, and Brazil’s Future
This story is available in Portuguese
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s return to frontline politics was a bombshell for Brazil. Brazilian Supreme Court in April 2021 annulled corruption convictions against Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva that excluded him from 2018’s national elections. The court ruled that his fair trial rights had been compromised by a biased judge. The decision set Brazil on course for a showdown between Lula—as he is universally known—and current far-right President Jair Bolsonaro in the October 2022 elections.
Learn More Brazil’s Most Popular President Returns From Political Exile With a Promise to Save the Nation
Lula launches his campaign officially on May 7. He promises that Brazil will return to its glory days during his presidency 2003-2010, when he received an 83% approval rating. That would mean reviving an ailing economy, saving a threatened democracy, and healing a nation scarred by the world’s second-highest COVID-19 death toll and two years of chaotic pandemic mismanagement. So far, his promises are resonating: Lula is polling at 45% compared to Bolsonaro’s 31%. However, the gap is closing.
TIME staff writer Ciara Nugent sat down with Lula in late March, in the São Paulo headquarters of his Workers’ Party (PT), to speak about his time in prison, the war in Ukraine, and whether his plans for the country are based on more than nostalgia. The transcript was condensed for clarity.
TIME: According to Brazilian media reports, when the Supreme Court reinstated your political rights in 2013, you already planned for a peaceful existence away from politics. Are you deciding to make a return immediately?
Truth be told, I have never given up. My body is filled with politics, as well as my blood and my brain. It isn’t the politics themselves, but rather the cause of politics. There is a cause.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva gives a speech to union workers at Praça Charles Muller, São Paulo, on International Workers’ day, May 1, 2022.
Luisa Dörr for TIME
My intention was to not run for president again when I left office in 2010. But in the 12 years since I left office, I see that all the policies I created to benefit the poor—all our social inclusion policies, everything we did to improve universities, technical schools, improving salaries, improving the quality of jobs—all that was destroyed, dismantled. They were among those who attempted to seize power from the government in the aftermath of the Dilma coup. [Rousseff]There were also people out there who wanted to take away all the Brazilian things they had gained after 1943.
Because people are fond of my time as President, there is a possibility that I will be elected President again. Because people had jobs. People had higher wages because there were wage rises above inflation. I feel that people have lost this and want it to be improved.
Brazil is facing a very different situation today than when you won the presidency for the first time in 2002—in terms of the economy, political polarization, the international situation. Are you able to do the same job today as in 2002?
A player is the most important thing in American football. As it happens he’s ended up with a Brazilian woman. He is a model. And he’s been the best player in the world for a long time. In each game he’s going to play, his fans demand that he plays better than he did in the last one. With the presidency it’s the same thing.Because I know I can be better than before, I’m only running.
I’m sure that I can resolve [Brazil’s] problems. I’m certain that our problems will only be solved when poor people are participating actively in the economy, when poor people participate in the budget, when poor people are working, when poor people can eat. This is possible only if there is a government dedicated to helping the poor.
Brazil has many people who believe that Lula was incarnated in many ways, especially on the economic side. We have which Lula today?
People should not worry about me because I’m the only one. Why? Because I’ve been a President twice already. And we don’t discuss economic policies before winning the elections. The first step is to win the election. Next, you must know the names of your team members and what you plan to do. You can also look back at Brazil’s history as President of the Republic if you still have questions. Take a look at the growth of this market. Brazil could only do so much. [a few] IPOs. We had 250 under my government. Brazil owed $30 billion. After my government took office, we began lending money to the IMF. Brazil didn’t have a single dollar of hard currency reserves. Today, there are $370 billion hard currency reserves. […] So you have to understand that instead of asking what I will do, just look at what I’ve done.
Lula during the 1989 Presidential Campaign at Sao Bernardo Do Campo
Antonio Ribeiro—Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Oil, along with other products, was the engine behind much of your economic success during your first presidency. Now, with the climate crisis, we’re trying to use less oil. The front runner in Colombia’s May election, Gustavo Petro, has proposed an anti-oil bloc, in which countries would immediately stop exploration for oil. Do you want to join?
Petro is free to make any proposal he likes. This isn’t true for Brazil. In the case of the world, it’s not for real. We still need oil for a while, you can’t just…
But the idea is to continue extracting and using the oil they’ve already found, and stop exploring for new deposits. Do you agree?
No, as long as you don’t have alternative energy, you will continue to use the energy that you have. Take a look at Germany dear: Angela Merkel closed all of the nuclear power plant. Her countenance was not affected by the conflict in Ukraine. Today, Europe is dependent on Russia to provide energy. It is possible to start a long-term effort to decrease Russia’s dependence. [the need for oil]You will increase the use of other options. It is hard to imagine that the United States would stop using oil one day after another.
The war in Ukraine is what I would like to discuss. You have always prided yourself on being able to speak to everyone—Hugo Chavez as much as George Bush. The world is fragmented today diplomatically. Your approach is still viable, I would like to hear from you. Could you speak to Vladimir Putin after what he’s done in Ukraine?
Politicians reap the fruits of what they sow. If I sow fraternity, solidarity, harmony, I’ll reap good things. If I sow discord, I’ll reap quarrels. Putin shouldn’t have invaded Ukraine. But it’s not just Putin who is guilty. Both the U.S.A. and E.U. are guilty. they are also guilty. Was there a reason why Ukraine invaded? NATO? Then the U.S. and Europe should have said: “Ukraine won’t join NATO.” That would have solved the problem.
Inside a shop in São Paulo in 2004, Lula is seen on television giving a speech responding to accusations of corruption against his government.
Alex Majoli—Magnum Photos
Do you think the threat of Ukraine joining NATO was Russia’s real reason for invading?
That’s the argument they put forward. If they have a secret one, we don’t know. Ukraine could also join the E.U. The Europeans could have said: “No, now is not the moment for Ukraine to join the E.U., we’ll wait.” They didn’t have to encourage the confrontation.
However, they tried to contact Russia.
No, they didn’t. There were only a few of them. To achieve peace you must have patience. You could sit at the negotiating table for 10-15 days or 20-days, or even a month trying to reach a compromise. Dialogue only works when taken seriously, according to me.
Would you act as President if it were right now? How would the conflict have been prevented?
I don’t know if I’d be able to. If I had been President, I would have telephoned [Joe]Biden, Putin, Germany [Emmanuel] Macron. Because war isn’t the answer. I think the problem is that if you don’t try, you don’t fix things. It is up to you to make an effort.
Sometimes I get anxious. When the U.S.A. and E.U. came into being, I was extremely concerned. adopted [Juan] Guaidó [then leader of Venezuela’s parliament]As President of the Country [in 2019]. You don’t play with democracy. For Guaidó to be President, he would have to be elected. Bureaucracy can’t substitute politics. In politics, it’s two heads of state who are governing, both elected by their people, who have to sit down at the negotiating table and look each other in the eye and talk.
Sometimes I just sit down and listen to the President of Ukraine speak on TV, receiving applaudion from all, as well standing ovation. [European] parliamentarians. Putin can’t be held responsible for his actions. Because in the war, there’s not just one person guilty. Saddam Hussein is as guilty as Bush [for the outbreak of the 2003 Iraq war]. Because Saddam Hussein could have said, “You can come here and check and I will prove that I do not have mass destruction weapons.” But he lied to his people. And now, this President of Ukraine could have said, “Come on, let’s stop talking about this NATO business, about joining the E.U. Let’s take a moment. Let’s discuss a bit more first.”
Lula, former Brazilian President and 2022 presidential candidate, photographed in São Paulo on March 23.
Luisa Dörr for TIME
Volodomyr Zilensky ought to have spoken with Putin more even though he has 100,000 Russian soldiers at his border.
I don’t know the President of Ukraine. However, his behaviour is quite strange. It seems like he’s part of the spectacle. He’s on TV morning, noon and night. He appears in the U.K., French, and Italian parliaments as though he are waging an election. He should be at a negotiating table.
Zelensky would be shocked to hear that. He didn’t want a war, it came to him.
He wanted war. If he didn’t want war, he would have negotiated a little more. That’s it. While I was in Mexico City I was critical of Putin. [in March]It was wrong to invade, he said. But I don’t think anyone is trying to help create peace. Some people are encouraging hatred against Putin. That won’t solve things! There must be an agreement. However, people are supportive [the war]. This is what you are doing to encourage him [Zelensky]Then he believes he is the cherry. We should be having a serious conversation: “OK, you were a nice comedian. But let us not make war for you to show up on TV.” And we should say to Putin: “You have a lot of weapons, but you don’t need to use them on Ukraine. Let’s talk!”
You think Joe Biden is a good guy?
When Biden announced his economic plan, I gave a speech in which I praised him. The problem is it’s not enough to announce the program, you’ve got to execute it. Biden seems to be in a very difficult time.
And I don’t think he has taken the right decision on the war between Russia and Ukraine. American politics are very powerful. Biden could not have done so. [the war]He encouraged it, not incited to. Biden could have spoken more and participated more. Biden could have flown to Moscow and spoken to Putin. This attitude is what you would expect of a leader. To intervene so that things don’t go off the rails. I don’t think he did that.
Would Biden have had to make concessions for Putin?
No. In the same way that the Americans persuaded the Russians not to put missiles in Cuba in 1961, Biden could have said: “We’re going to speak a bit more. We don’t want Ukraine in NATO, full stop.” That’s not a concession. Let me tell you something: if I were President of Brazil and they said to me, “Brazil can join NATO,” I’d say no.
Because I’m a guy who only thinks about peace, not war. […] Brazil doesn’t have disputes with any country: not with the U.S., not China, nor Russia, nor Bolivia, nor Argentina, nor Mexico. The fact that Brazil has a stable government will help us to restore the friendships we had between 2003-2010. Brazil will once again become a protagonist on the world stage, because we will prove it’s possible to have a better world.
Lula, left, and his lawyer Cristiano Zanin leave the Lula Institute building in São Paulo, Brazil, on April 5 2018, the day federal judge Sergio Moro issued an arrest warrant for Lula.
A crowd of supporters carries Lula during a gathering outside the metalworkers’ union building in São Bernardo do Campo, in São Paulo, Brazil, on Nov. 9 2019, after the former president was released from prison.
Nelson Almeida—AFP/Getty Images
What are your plans?
A new model of global governance is needed. Today’s United Nations doesn’t represent anything anymore. The U.N. isn’t taken seriously by governments today, because each one makes decisions without respecting it. Putin invaded Ukraine unassisted, and without consulting with the U.N. U.S. has a history of invading other countries without consulting the Security Council and without asking anybody. Therefore, we must rebuild the U.N. and include more people and countries. We can make a difference in the world if we do this.
Brazil had an epidemic that caused a high death toll among Blacks. And Brazil’s police-violence problem has only worsened during the Bolsonaro government. How can you improve the lives of Black Brazilians?
When I was in prison I did a lot of reading about slavery. And sometimes it’s difficult for me to understand what it means to have had 350 years of slavery. It’s difficult for me to understand that slavery is in people’s minds. We have young people who die almost every month in Brazilian cities. It can’t continue. We passed a law in Brazil to teach African history. We would never consider Africans inferior. This type of education is required at both home and school. Bolsonaro awakened hatred and prejudice. In Hungary, there are many other European Presidents. Many Nazism, or fascists are rising up around the globe.
Bolsonaro or Brazil to Blame for Racism in Brazil
No, I wouldn’t say he is to blame for Brazil’s racism. It’s a chronic problem in Brazil. However, he encourages it.
A street vendor sells towels with images of Bolsonaro and Lula near Eldorado dos Carajás in September 2021.
Jonne Roriz—Bloomberg/Getty Images
Over the course of five years you’ve been through many personal tragedy. Have you been affected by any of these tragedies?
No. I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t wounded, that it didn’t make me very nervous when the liars mounted this scheme to convict me. I was aware of what was happening in Brazil, I knew that the reason for Dilma’s impeachment had to continue. It was absurd to impeach Dilma and, two years later I’d be president again. They had to remove me from the game. They had no other reason. They can’t stop me running for president. They did what? They set me free, and they made up lies to frame me. I was put in jail. All my trials are over and I am now free.
The convictions were thrown out. How did this period affect you?
Five hundred and eighty-two days were spent in jail. I enjoyed reading a lot. It was a habit that I did a lot of reflection. It was clear that I wanted to get out of prison. It is a part of my history that I will never forget. But I can’t put it on the table every day. The future is what I am looking forward to.
To help you understand me, the only time I ate bread was when I was seven years old. My mother, many times, didn’t have anything to put on the stove for us. She was never desperate, and I have never seen her that way. She always said: “Tomorrow we’ll have enough. Tomorrow will be better.” And that was ingrained in my consciousness, in my blood. That’s how I am. There are no problems you can’t overcome.
My accomplishments have made me proud. A metalworker with no university degree is better equipped to lead this country than the top brass of Brazil. The art and science of government requires that you use your heart as well as your head.
You’re getting married soon. Can you talk a bit about your fiancée?
I don’t like to talk about her. She is able to speak for herself.
What have you taken away from her lessons?
It is all I know. You lose your spouse and feel like you have lost all meaning in life. You suddenly meet this person who gives you the desire to live again. I’m in love as if I were 20 years old, as if it were my first girlfriend. I am going to get married in the most peaceful way possible, and I’m going to run a happy campaign.
A guy as happy as I am doesn’t have to rage, doesn’t have to speak badly about his opponents—let them do what they want. On the campaign I will only speak about love if I have to. I don’t think it’s possible to be a good President if you only feel hate inside you, if all you want is revenge. You must think about the future. It is now over. The past is over. I’ll build a new Brazil.
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