Brazil suffers from a double affliction. With 270,000 Covid‑19 deaths it is second only to the US—although per head mortality is higher in Britain and other European countries.
But the pandemic is made much worse by Jair Bolsonaro, the far right populist who is president of Brazil. A Covid-denier and anti-vaxxer, he has been content to let the infections spread. This has made it easier for the more infectious P.1 Covid-19 variant, first discovered in the Amazonian city of Manaus, to spread.
Now Bolsonaro faces a potential political challenge from ex-president Lula da Silva. Lula, a former metalworkers’ leader, helped to found the Workers Party (PT) in 1980. When he finally won the presidency in 2000, Lula continued the neoliberal economic policies of his right-wing predecessors, but introduced the Bolsa Familia, a direct payment to the poor.
Lacking a majority in Congress, Lula relied on deal-making with conservative politicians, often involving backhanders.
He later justified this policy, saying, “you have to put your principles on the table to make them practicable. You make an agreement with who is there, in Congress. If they are robbers, but have votes, you either have the courage to ask for them, or you lose.”
This combination of neoliberal policies and implication in political corruption destroyed the presidency of Lula’s ex-chief of staff and successor, Dilma Rousseff.
After winning re-election with the support of the Brazilian poor in 2012, she implemented a harsh austerity programme. Then came the exposure of the Lava Jato (carwash) scandal, in which Petrobras, the huge state energy company, was revealed to be engaged in the large-scale bribery of politicians.
The investigating magistrate, Sergio Moro, ran the case in a highly politicised and media-driven way. The logic of the operation, as Perry Anderson of New Left Review has shown in a careful analysis, was to make the PT the fall guy and protect the rest of the Brazilian political elite.
Rousseff was impeached and removed in 2016, even though her replacement, the right-winger Michel Temer, was himself revealed much more convincingly to be involved in Lava Jato.
Moro then accused Lula who was convicted and sentenced to first nine and then 12 years imprisonment. Almost certainly this was a fit-up, but it prevented him from standing in the 2018 president election, which, still immensely popular, he might well have won.
In the light of how Bolsonaro has handled the pandemic, Lula’s framing costs many thousands of lives.
The Brazilian Marxist Valerio Arcary told me soon afterwards—“Lula in prison isn’t a secondary question, it’s a symbol for the politically educated, experienced sectors of the working class, who influence the younger generation.
For them Lula rotting in prison is a demonstration of the strength of the state and of the dominant class.”
The way was open for Bolsonaro, an obscure member of Congress known mainly as an apologist for the military dictatorship of 1964-88, to run for president.
He tapped into the racism deep-seated in Brazilian society but also expressed the widespread anger at corruption and violent crime.
Big business was willing to back him because it wanted the PT’s higher social spending reigned back. Moro was rewarded by being appointed minister of justice.
But Bolsonaro has been an even more chaotic and incompetent president than his hero Donald Trump. He hasn’t delivered the radicalisation of neoliberalism promised by his finance minister, Paulo Guedes. And Lula is now free to run for president in 2022.
He served 580 days in jail, but was released in 2019 on appeal. Now a Supreme Court judge has ruled his original conviction was a mistrial.
This still has to be confirmed by the entire Supreme Court, but already Lula is back in active politics.
Maybe sections of big business would like now to see Lula back in the presidency. Anderson quotes the Brazilian political scientist Andre Singer describing the PT even at its best as “weak reformism”.
Will this be enough for a Brazil ravaged by Covid-19 and economic slump?