Folha de S.Paulo
The Brazilian people have voted a monster out of the presidency and now have a chance to restore the democracy they had lost. Bolsonaro mismanaged the pandemic, spreading massive COVID misinformation that contributed to Brazil’s death toll of more than 600,000 people. Deforestation of the Amazon accelerated: the amount deforested in 2021 was over 70 percent more than when he took office in 2018. He also praised and defended Brazil’s past military dictatorship and said they didn’t kill enough people. Like Trump, Bolsonaro threatened to reject the election results if he lost.
Lula da Silva defeated Bolsonaro by more than two million votes. He was previously a transformational president (2003–2010) and was immensely popular when he left office. During his presidency, Brazil’s poverty rate fell by 50 percent and extreme poverty by 49 percent. Income per person grew by 2.9 percent annually; more than five times faster than it had grown in the 20 years prior. Unemployment fell from 13 to 8.5 percent.
Most of the world is rightly celebrating alongside the majority of Brazilians. But the world should know more about how this democracy was lost and about some of the most powerful actors and events that contributed to this loss, so that it does not repeat itself.
Democracy in Brazil was assassinated when President Dilma Rousseff was impeached without even committing a crime. And democracy was buried when Lula da Silva was imprisoned to prevent him from running for re-election, in 2018. His conviction was later overturned after the courts determined that the judge who sentenced him, Sergio Moro, was biased. Moro was named the new justice minister four days after Bolosonaro was elected.
The evidence for Lula’s conviction rested on testimony from one executive of a construction company, who had been convicted in a corruption scandal and had his prison sentence reduced in exchange for testimony. Indeed, this newspaper reported that the executive was prevented from plea bargaining until he changed his testimony to implicate Lula in an alleged crime.
When I wrote about this farce of a trial for the New York Times op-ed page in 2018, it became the first publication of any kind in big US media to include these publicly available, basic facts showing that Lula’s trial was clearly political persecution. These facts were necessary to see what Brazil’s traditional elite was actually doing: destroying the rule of law, and dispensing with the independence of the judiciary, in order to gain what they could not win for 14 years at the ballot box: the defeat of the Workers’ Party.
The Workers’ Party was defeated, but not without significant, perhaps decisive, help from the US government. High-level US officials took a number of steps in public, such as friendly meetings with leaders of Dilma’s impeachment in Washington and Rio while the impeachment was ongoing.
The US Department of Justice also contributed significantly to the investigation that led to the political persecution and imprisonment of Lula. For example, in 2015 17 US officials went to the Lava Jato HQ while attempting to hide the visit from the federal government. US authorities also agreed to transfer a share of fines collected in the US to a private foundation headed by the Brazilian Lava Jato prosecutors, an arrangement suspended by Brazil’s supreme court.
Those who care about democracy in Brazil will have to keep a watchful eye on what the United States government is doing in the months and years ahead.