The interview: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva

Brazil’s former leader is the frontrunner in polls for the 2022 presidential election, well ahead of Jair Bolsonaro. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva would have run in 2018 had he not had his political rights withdrawn and been imprisoned for 580 days.


Joe Biden has made climate change a priority. Would a new PT (Workers’ Party) government do the same, considering that this would mean changing the Brazilian industrial framework?

Under the PT – and back in 2009 during COP-15 in Copenhagen – Brazil set out to meet ambitious carbon reduction targets. We reduced deforestation in the Amazon by 80 per cent, while the United States hadn’t even signed the Kyoto Protocol. So, I congratulate the US on reviewing the stance it has taken on this issue.

Brazil’s development cannot be dissociated from an environmental agenda that includes: watershed recovery, sustainable agribusiness, recycling co-operatives in cities, forest preservation, the situation of nut gatherers, rubber tappers, and fishers in the Amazon. Also, the carbon compensation market and decentralized clean energy generation.

[There are] opportunities for biotechnology, for preserving the forest, for investing in solar and wind energy, particularly in the northeast. [These are] central to the future the country needs to rebuild, to create jobs, income and quality of life for its population.

In your government there was conflict between the environmental agenda and the development agenda, environment minister Marina Silva clashing with mining and energy minister Dilma Rousseff. How can Brazil’s international environmental credibility be restored, especially after Bolsonaro, while holding on to economic growth?

There was no conflict. There was debate. What happened in my government was that we combined the largest environmental and indigenous reserves ever created in the country’s history, deforestation reduction, advances in waste treatment and environmental regulation with economic development and social inclusion. We reduced unemployment and eliminated hunger while strengthening environmental agencies and agendas. We had credibility in both areas because we were serious and talked to everyone. That’s not conflict; it’s debate, it’s democracy, where disagreement is just natural on some issues. Debate creates improvement.

Bolsonaro evoked nationalism to support his disastrous approach to the environment. How are you going to convince Brazilians that a large part of the Amazon may belong to Brazil but it does not exist simply to be destroyed by Brazilians?

I don’t need to convince Brazilians of that because that’s what Brazilians already think. The vast majority of Brazilians want the forest to remain. We must not mistake Bolsonaro for Brazil or mistake some outlaw landgrabbers, a backward minority of landowners, for Brazilians in general.

Do you regret your previous relationship with big business and economic power?

I don’t regret it because my relationship with businesses – Brazilian or foreign – has always been republican, legal and focused on creating jobs and development for Brazil. [The ‘Car Wash’ anti-bribery prosecutors] investigated my life from top to bottom and found nothing. They had to invent a conviction for ‘indeterminate acts’. Even Moro could find no wrongdoing. If business people break the law, they’ll have to pay, lose control of their companies, go to jail, but jobs and development projects have to be preserved. Today, those who overthrew [former President] Dilma [Rousseff], promising paradise and then destroying the country in the process, are the ones with a credibility problem.

The future of Brazil cannot be separated from an environmental agenda

How will you reconnect with your base and other people who supported the PT in the early days but may have lost faith since?

There is a younger generation that got to know Brazil under the PT. They didn’t know what it had been like before that. Today they see Brazil as similar to what it used to be [like] before my government. Now these young people are understanding the struggle of my generation, and the PT, for democracy; for workers’ rights and against extreme poverty and social inequalities.

Critics of your foreign policy claim that while it was proactive, it did not consolidate its achievements. They mention UNUSUR (the Union of South American Nations) and ASPA (the Summit of South American-Arab Countries).

It takes time to build – which was what we were doing. Demolishing is quick. Those who came later to destroy South American integration and South-South co-operation, in Brazil and other countries, [could] only restore an almost colonial order in international relations. The resulting disaster is in plain sight. Many countries are already starting to build a multilateral and integration-oriented policy in the region, which will be strengthened when Brazil returns to a more humane path.

Containing China’s advance is a growing concern in some quarters. Do you think there will be a new Cold War, between China and the West?

I think it would be a mistake. The world no longer has room for a Cold War. We need co-operation to tackle global problems – problems that are common to everyone, such as climate change, hunger, poverty and pandemics. The world wastes too much time and resources on conflicts.

President Biden is pushing public spending to previously unthinkable levels and strengthening the role of the State. The opposite is being done in Brazil. Did we swap positions with the US?

The Biden administration has taken correct measures at a domestic level to restore the economy, the population’s standard of living and purchasing power, and the role of labour unions. Developed countries often adopt policies internally and then, through international organizations, oppose the same measures in developing countries.

After the 2016 coup [in Brazil], a series of absurd measures to dismantle the state, labour and environmental legislation, education and public health, were introduced. Public spending was to be frozen for 20 years. Of course, in practice they had to approve special spending to address the Covid-19 pandemic. A country’s life cannot be frozen for 20 years.

You have personally suffered in recent years with the obstruction of your candidacy, your imprisonment for 580 days, the loss of your grandson and your wife. How has this changed you? What kept you going in your darkest hours?

What kept me going even in the most difficult times was the certainty of my innocence, my faith in God, and solidarity from so many people. The people who were at the vigil [outside the prison], who stayed there for 580 days... Many people who didn’t even agree with me politically but made a point of defending truth and justice against the absurd and politically motivated conviction I suffered.

I know that what [was done against] me was against a political alternative for millions of Brazilians who had always been ignored by the state. I can’t reverse the time I lost or my sadness at the loss of loved ones. But I’m not interested in wasting time feeling hatred and resentment. I left [prison] cherishing every moment even more, every little thing I could do to build a better Brazil and a better world.