Lawfare, Lula and capital’s hand dismantling Brazil’s democracy

The real battle going on in Brazil is over the issues of petroleum, privatization and labor reforms. The left candidates are promising to undo all of these changes that have happened since the coup. That’s the real electoral battle. It’s not really about Lula, it’s about two competing visions for government

The Following is the transcript of an  interview of Brazil Wire Co-editor Brian Mier, conducted by Chuck Mertz on the Chicago radio program This is Hell, on Saturday, September 1, 2018.

Lawfare, Lula and capital’s hand in the dismantling of Brazil’s democracy

Chuck Mertz: The UN Has determined that the imprisoned former Brazilian President Lula da Silva, who is currently leading the polls for the upcoming presidential vote next month, has the right to not only talk to his political party and the media but also has the right to run in October’s election. Why not? Murderers are allowed to talk to the media and run for office while waiting for their appeals in Brazil, why can’t Lula? Well, you know why if you heard our interview with Mark Weisbrot during our last live show earlier this month, and it has to do with a US lawfare campaign that is rolling back Latin America’s pink tide, which during the first decade of the century, challenged US dominance in the region. We’ll talk about the Coup – no US or Western media outlet dare speak its name – when we hear from our São Paulo,Brazil correspondent Brian Mier.

Brian, there has been some breaking news overnight about President Lula, but let’s hold off on that for a little while, let’s tease people with that for a little while so we can get to the background leading up to the decision that has been made, by Brazilian courts late last night. You’ve been seeing the far right Jair Bolsonaro described as the leading candidate in Brazil’s upcoming presidential election again next month, but you say that is not true. Why do you think the Western Media is reporting Bolsonaro as the leading candidate and who is the real leading candidate?

Brian Mier: First of all it’s not true because the leading candidate in all polls has consistently been Lula, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who promised to run for president from behind bars. He’s in prison as a political prisoner right now. The United Nations Human Rights Committee issued an order to the Brazilian government to let Lula run for president and it is legally binding according to the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Brazil adheres to – the US doesn’t of course, neither does Israel. But not only is Lula leading in the polls with a higher rate of support than all other candidates combined – there have been polls done which show that anyone he supports, if he is barred from running, will get an immediate 20 percentage point spike in popularity. In all scenarios that include him, Lula is winning. He has over twice the support of Jair Bolsonaro, and in polls that are made in which he is not running, whoever candidate he supports has more popularity than Jair Bolsonaro. So that is why it is misleading and I think the reason that they are building Bolsonaro up so much in the American media right now is because they want to present this guy named Geraldo Alckmin as the sensible moderate candidate, despite the fact that he’s got connections with Opus Dei, and that he ordered his military police to fire on non-violent teenage, high school student protesters with rubber bullets a couple of years ago. He is alleged to have connections to the PCC cocaine trafficking mafia and he has been involved in billions of dollars of corruption scandals over the last 20 years, as two-time governor of São Paulo and former vice governor.

So let’s say Geraldo Alckmin does become elected, let’s play on that hypothetical just for a moment. If there are all these corruption allegations against him… We have seen Michel Temer, the current president, touched by corruption allegations, we have seen Lula, he is in jail over corruption allegations, we have seen Dilma Rousseff impeached over corruption allegations even though she was never charged with a crime. What is the likelihood then that we are just going to see more corruption allegations and investigations if Geraldo Alckmin becomes the next president of Brazil?

Zero because his political party is untouchable with corruption allegations, its the PSDB. This is the official party – not official but everyone knows its supported by the US State Department. Top officials from this party were up meeting with John Kerry the day after the coup, negotiating. All of the American newspapers always support PSDB and they are pretty much untouchable on corruption charges. But the reason whey they are supported is because his presidency will represent total continuity with the current government. And the current government has privatized hundreds of billions of dollars worth of Petroleum to American multinationals, it’s opened up the country for possible construction of US military bases. It’s planning to privatize the second largest aquifer in the world, it’s privatizing all of its natural resources right now, and so this is why international capital is very interested in having Alckmin as President, and if he doesn’t make it then their second choice seems to be Jair Bolsonaro, because he’s been invited up to speak at the AS/COA (Americas Society/Council of the Americas), he’s been invited to speak at US universities which is basically normalizing his campaign up there. But I feel like they are trying to build this false dichotomy between two right wing candidates that have identical economic platforms – Jair Bolsonaro and Geraldo Alckmin – trying to make it seem like Bolsonaro is the racist, neofascist candidate and Geraldo Alckmin is the sensible administrator. But meanwhile, the PT party continues leading in the polls with or without Lula. It will at least make it to the second round, whoever candidate they put in, probably Fernando Haddad, and their platform is to undo the privatizations. So the real battle going on in Brazil is over the issue of Petroleum, privatizations and labor reforms that were done that are insane – they have transformed Brazil into a right to work country. And the PT party is promising to undo all of these changes that have happened since the coup. This is the real electoral battle. It’s not really about Lula its about two competing visions for a program of government. The right candidates are on one side and the left candidates are on the other side. So Bolsonaro and Alckmin basically have the same platform in that respect.

So what does the US and what does the Western media – the Northern media if you will – what do they miss in their understanding of what is happening right now within Brazilian politics in the run up to the Brazilian vote, when they see the major issue of the election being corruption and not privatization?

What they are doing then, de fato, is a censorship by omission that favors privatization, obviously, and that is what is favored by the big newspapers and their corporate advertisers, privatizations. So in ignoring the real campaign issue they favor the side that is in power right now. They favor this massive natural resources grab for international capital and the decimation of worker rights and other human rights here in Brazil.

This week the Associated Press – let’s get to Bolsonaro again just for a second – reported that a ‘leading candidate in Brazil’s presidential elections said that Police should be given license to kill criminals, and those who do should receive medals, not face prosecution. Hard right candidate Jair Bolsonaro said in an interview Tuesday night, that he would quote, leave good people out of the range of the shooting and go at criminals full steam. On TV Globo’s main nightly news program Bolsonaro said, ‘ these kinds of people (criminals), you cannot treat them as if they are normal human beings, OK, we can’t let policemen keep dying at the hands of these guys. If he kills 10, 15 or 20 with 10 or 30 bullets each, he needs to get a medal and not be prosecuted.’ Bolsonaro has also spoken positively of the 1964 – 1985 military dictatorship. How do you fear Brazil would change under Bolsonaro?

In a way I feel like it is not even worth talking that much about him because he gets so much press as it is. It’s almost like this friendemy press, like the American media did with Donald Trump during his campaign, ‘look at this outrageous thing Bolsonaro said!’ ‘look at this outrageous thing Trump said’. So I don’t feel like…… First of all will that change the way that police act? No. Police already have a license to kill in Brazil, regarding that individual point. But I don’t think he deserves this much mention in the media right now. He’s poling at 17% support nationally right now, and unlike the US, where a racist can get up there and say all kinds of racist comments, and be cheered and elected by a majority white electorate, Brazil is 53% Afro-Brazilian. And this is a guy who has said a lot of racist things about Black people. So the electoral dynamic is different here than it is in the United States. I seriously doubt that more than about 10% of the Afro-Brazilian population would vote for this guy. He is a distant as of the last round of polls. So I feel in a way that his candidacy is being built up by the media with this kind of coverage.

Are there attempts by the right to disenfranchise Afro-Brazilians in order to make it more difficult for them to vote, even thought they make up 53% of the Brazilian population?

Well, like in any capitalist democracy including the US there are candidates who try to create a climate of low voter turnout as an electoral strategy. It’s the Chicago democratic party’s strategy and has been since the Richard Daley Sr. years. But in Brazil everybody is legally required to vote. If you don’t vote you have to pay a very small fine unless you can justify why you didn’t vote, which is like, ‘I was out of town’, because you have to vote in your district. So voter turnout is usually a lot higher in Brazil than it is in the US. In the last elections it was 70% or something like that. So the dynamic is a little bit different so I don’t think it is as active a strategy as it is in the US.

Do you think it is a bad idea to make it a legal obligation to vote, because there is this video that is going around social media right now and it is a dramatized version of a guy being chased down the street and down alleys by what appears to be like a London Bobby, who is chasing him down the street because he has not voted as if he is going to be arrested and detained for not voting and so it kind of paints this picture of a police state forcing people to participate within democracies, so how do you feel about the idea of making it a legal obligation in Brazil to vote?

I think it is a fantastic idea. First of all, you don’t have to vote for anybody. If you don’t want to vote you just have to show up there that day, you have a day off of work anyway for it. You just have to show up and you can cast a white ballot, which means you vote for nobody. And if over something like 40% of the ballots are cast white they have to hold another election. So they are not making you vote, they are making you appear somewhere on that day and go through a bureaucratic process, and I’m confident that one of the reasons that the left won four consecutive presidential elections in Brazil and was only forced out of office by a coup is because a much higher percentage of poor people are voting down here. If it were done in the US imagine how judicial elections would change if people had to show up and vote for judges. I have a buddy who ran for Alderman in Chicago out on the Northwest side and the day of the election they only had like 12% voter turnout. So I think it’s actually a really good idea.

We were talking about Jair Bolsonaro I know you don’t want to hype him up anymore than he might already be and we don’t want to turn him into another Trump, but that is one of the things that I have noticed in the Western media that Bolsonaro keeps being referred to, and I know that this is lazy comparison and lazy journalism but they keep referring to Bolsonaro as Brazil’s Trump. Is that a fair and accurate comparison and more importantly, how do you feel about those kinds of comparisons that are often made in the US media about, this person is France’s Bernie Sanders, or this person is England’s Trump?

It’s just something to generate clicks I think but in the case of Bolsonaro, he’s positively compared himself with Trump but he’s not Brazil’s Trump. Brazil’s Trump was planning on running for President but now he is running for governor of São Paulo. His name is João Doria. He is a right wing guy from Geraldo Alckmin’s PSDB party, who is a millionaire and reality TV personality who was the star of the Brazilian franchise of Trump’s Apprentice show. And he acts exactly like Trump. He’s really into branding himself and making controversial comments and that guy is obviously Brazil’s Trump. The main difference between Bolsonaro and Trump is that Bolsonaro was actually in the military and he is not a multimillionaire. The only thing that he has in common with Trump is that they are both racists.

So how much better off would Brazil be with Alckmin as president, with the PSDB candidate who you believe that the United States is going to say is a good alternative to the far right Jair Bolsonaro. How much better off would Brazil be under a leadership of Alckmin compared to a leadership of Bolsonaro?

There would be almost no difference whatsoever in terms of labor rights and macroeconomic policy. Foreign companies would continue having this field day buying off all of Brazil’s natural resources at below market rates, so there would be almost no change in the way that the country was managed. In fact if he took office the same political parties that are currently connected with Alckmin would immediately jump into his coalition and it would be almost the same people running the economy and the different ministries. The question of the police is not related to the President, and this is something that a lot of foreign journalists got wrong during the World Cup and the Olympics when they were blaming Dilma Rousseff for police violence. The State governors control the police. And the police are already killing criminals indiscriminately and never getting punished for it. I think that maybe if Bolsonaro took office there would be a kind of wave of fascist violence against leftists. Bolsonaro calls anyone who is left of center a communist, and some of his fans have already been attacking members of the PT party, which is essentially a social democratic party – its not that far left – calling them communists. Another presidential candidate from the left party PSOL, Guilherme Boulos, his campaign was threatened by Bolsonaro fans with guns earlier this week, so I think that if Bolsonaro is elected, just like when Trump was elected in the US, there is going to be a rise in fascist mob violence. The economic policies will remain the same.

We are speaking with our São Paulo, Brazil correspondent Brian Mier. Brian now has his own weekly web TV show in Brazil for some big lefty news medium called Brasil 247. You can find out more about that by, I guess, going to Brasil Wire or by going to Brasil 247. I’m looking it up online. So, as Agence France Press reported late last week, the UN Human Rights Committee ruled on Friday, August 24th that Brazil’s imprisoned leftist leader, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, cannot be disqualified from upcoming presidential elections because his legal appeals are ongoing. In a statement the panel requested Brasil to take all necessary measures to ensure that Lula can enjoy and exercise his political rights while in prison as a candidate in the 2018 presidential elections. The committee said Lula cannot be barred as a candidate until his appeals before the courts have been completed in fair judicial proceedings, and they reported that the UN Committee monitors member states compliance with the international Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as a supplementary text called the Optional Protocol. Because Brazil has ratified both texts it is technically obligated to abide by the Committee’s findings. So what they decided was that Lula should be be granted access to the media and his political party and that he should be allowed to run in the election. So before we get into what the Brazilian courts have decided, and for those who do not remember, why is Lula in jail?

First of all, let me point out the irony that the Guardian would run an article by the French Press Agency explaining this situation, because their own writers about Brazil are so anti-PT and anti-Lula that they couldn’t have had any of their own people say this. Lula is in jail for committing indeterminate acts related to an apartment that was overvalued by prosecutors at $600,000 – it’s clearly not worth that amount of money, but, nevertheless, the prosecutors were unable to prove that he ever owned or set foot in it. And it is relevant to mention here that the prosecutor was the judge who ruled on his own prosecution, after he’d written a book about it, and was going on the lecture circuit bad mouthing Lula. And this prosecutor/judge’s wife worked for a PSDB party governors office for several years as legal council – Beto Richa in Paraná. When you compare these charges to those against people who are in office and people who are allowed to run have committed with mountains of evidence including bank accounts, video and audio tapes it is ridiculous. Aécio Neves, for example, was caught on audio threatening to kill a witness in a corruption case against him involving millions of dollars of personal enrichment – he’s now running for Congress. Anthony Garotinho is running for governor of Rio de Janeiro right now – he’s been in jail twice. He’s been arrested for organizing an illegal crime organization with members of a gambling mafia, and buying votes and all kinds of stuff. And the Supreme Court just stepped in and canceled the electoral court ruling against him until after the elections. Standing President Michel Temer has been implicated in something like $80 Million of personal enrichment for him and his, what the courts call, organized crime group that he created, and he’s the standing president. So the charges against Lula are very small. Even if he had committed them the events took place after he left the presidency, so there is now way they could prove conflict of interest. But let’s imagine there was a conflict of interest, that he did receive an apartment and it happened while he was president – there is no proof that that actually happened – but even if it did happen these are very minor charges compared to what a lot of the leading candidates are under investigation for. Something like R$3.5 billion disappeared from an expansion project in the São Paulo train system, in a scandal that was announced by Siemens, the German multinational, against Geraldo Alckmin’s São Paulo State government, and this case was just buried in the courts. So the case against Lula is very small but there’s no material evidence and they weren’t even able to accuse him of anything specific. He’s in jail for committing indeterminate acts. So it is a farce. The AFL-CIO released a public statement calling Lula a political prisoner. Various ex-Presidents from around the world like Francois Hollande, Michelle Bachelet, José Zapateiro, they are all calling Lula a political prisoner. Noted intellectuals like Angela Davis and Noam Chomsky have signed letters demanding the Brazilian government to release Lula. So it all comes down to these two projects for governance. International capital is worried that someone will get back in power in Brazil who will undo all of the privatizations and austerity cuts.

So, now a decision was made last night on whether Lula can leave his imprisonment and whether Lula can run for President next month what was the decision that was made?

The decision was that Lula cannot run for office. This is in violation of the Second Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of the UN. I talk to a lot of Americans who are like, screw the UN, no one ever listens to them anyway. But the difference between Brazil and the US is that first of all the US never signed this treaty but secondly, in 2009, Brazilian Congress passed a law saying that all decisions made by the UN Human Rights Committee are legally binding in Brazil. This is law MP 311 from 2009 which means that even if the electoral courts were ignoring an international treaty they are actually breaking Brazilian law in this decision. It’s not just international law. So they literally committed a crime when they made this ruling.

We went back and forth online and I mentioned how the Kirchners, Nestor and Cristina, the husband and wife who served as Argentina’s left-leaning presidents in consecutive terms during the 2000s are now the target of a corruption probe, which seems to happen wherever there was any potentially socialist but definitely anti-right wing political party or politician being elected during the last decade which were all part of the so called ‘pink tide” of socialism that was challenging US dominance in the region and US support for the far right, which often constituted military dictatorship support in Latin America’s history by the US. And now this is happening in Chile, against Michelle Bachelet as well with an investigation into corruption allegations against her. So the first question is kind of facetious, why did all the left wing socialist alternatives in Latin America turn out to be corrupt? But the second part of it, Brian, is, what impact has this kind of lawfare had on any dissent in Latin America?

First of all, it’s not just Christina Kirchner and Michelle Bachelet. Michelle Bachelet, by the way, is being tied up in the same investigation, which is a cooperative effort with the US Department of Justice – Operation Car Wash – involving Odebrecht construction company, which was used to arrest Lula. There’s now been 8 current or former Latin American presidents who have been tied up in the Operation Car Wash corruption investigation, which is selectively choosing its targets. It’s not even based on this idea of left or right. It’s based on this idea of sovereignty and autonomy for countries. Sometimes you even have center-right leaders who believe in protecting national industry and natural mineral resources. Even the neofascist dictator Augusto Pinochet refused to privatize Chile’s copper industry, which is the nation’s biggest industry. So it is really a question of which presidents or candidates want to open up all of their nation’s natural resources and open up free trade, stop subsidizing national industrial production so that the international capitalist community can engage in predatory activities against people who want to implement some kind of Keynesian protective measures against that from happening. That is what it’s really about. It’s not even that much of a left and right issue anymore. So I believe that the entire continent has taken a major hits in the last 6 or 7 years, from these kinds of lawfare investigations because the language used is so complicated, the legal language, and it plays into stereotypes that Americans and Europeans already have about Latin America. “Oh they are just a bunch of corrupt populists”. So it has been a pretty hard hit and luckily Obrador was elected in Mexico, Macri’s popularity is falling in Argentina, so there is going to be some kind of hit back against this roll back and hopefully in Brazil this will be done by Fernando Haddad being elected president in October.

Let’s get to that about Haddad just for a second because one of the things that people have been saying is that what would happen if Lula was not able to run as it appears he will not be able to run, is that Haddad will take his position and that he would then win. And now the criminal justice system is looking into Haddad for potential corruption as Brasil Wire reported, with Lula jailed the Workers’ Party Vice Presidential would be substitute Fernando Haddad is now being bombarded with legal actions from the stronghold of political arch enemies the PSDB. Can Brazil’s right just keep going after one after another after another Workers’ Party member so that the Workers’ Party just will not be able to win the October election, or even possibly have a candidate running?

This is what they have been doing since 2005 when there was this scandal fabricated by the media called the Mensalão, which enabled them to arrest some of the top leaders of the PT party with no material evidence. So the PT has been under attack since 2005 which ironically has transformed them into the least corrupt of the major political parties because they know that anything they do will have a much higher level of scrutiny than any other party in the country. Haddad was mayor of São Paulo for four years. I wrote an article at the time saying that it was biggest radical left city government in history. He was a decent mayor. So they are trying to tie him up on corruption charges. They would have to really operate outside of the law to be able to cancel his candidacy before October because these charges normally last for years and years. But, you know, it’s what we are worried about now. They tried to arrest the PT Party President Gleisi Hoffmann because they thought she would be the candidate and the Supreme Court threw out all charges against her. Once again it was the same judge who went after Lula. Once again there was no material evidence presented against her – it was entirely based on one plea bargain testimony from someone who was trying to bargain his way out of jail, and it was all dismissed. So, yeah this is our worry and I think that to guarantee that this doesn’t happen there just has to be a lot of pressure on the streets from the unions and the social movements. The day they went to register Lula’s candidacy in Brasilia 50,000 people showed up to surround the electoral courts. So I feel like there are going to be some more protests coming up. And the other thing that is happening behind the scenes is that Haddad is negotiating with the international finance community. I think he is trying to do the same kind of thing that Lula did in 2002. He’s saying ‘look it’s not going to be a radical left administration, it’s going to be a pro-capitalist government that has strong social programs. We are going to maintain neoliberal macroeconomic policies like Lula did, bla bla bla’, and it’s a little bit frustrating but I feel like if he is elected he won’t be as left wing as Lula would have been, but he would still by far be the best option for undoing all of the damage that’s been done to Brazilian society since the coup, which happened exactly two years ago yesterday, on the same day that they canceled Lula’s candidacy in a bitter reminder to everyone down here that we are living in a State of Exception.

Just a couple more questions for you Brian. You posted a couple weeks ago on Facebook how Facebook has once again removed Telesur English, ‘please share Telesur’s news stories and fight Facebook censorship, bring back Telesur English. That is #BringBackTeleSurEnglish.’ Why do you think Facebook is blocking Telesur English and what does it offer that you don’t see from other media outlets that are covering Brazil?

What Telesur offers is that it is not corporate funded like the New York Times and the Guardian are. So it does not represent the interests of multinational corporations in Latin America. It is run by a coalition of left wing governments: Venezuela, Cuba, Argentina participated until Macri was elected, Ecuador participated until their Trojan horse fake left candidate Lenin Moreno was elected. But it represents different governments and so when you read it you have to read between the lines, just like when you are reading RT. RT provides great coverage on the United States. If you are reading an RT article about the Ukraine or Chechnya, you’ve got to know that this is somehow connected to Russia’s geopolitical interests. But it’s coverage on areas outside of that is really good and I feel like TeleSur provided the best coverage on a lot of issues in Latin America in English. It still does. So I believe the reason it was pulled off of Facebook is because Venezuela has the World’s largest oil reserves, the US is building up for some kind of military action against Venezuela right now, so TeleSur English was pulled off of Facebook, Venezuela Analysis was pulled off of Facebook. Venezuela Analysis is kind of like… I like to say that Brasil Wire is the Venezuela Analysis of Brazil because it’s just a couple people voluntarily providing good analysis and news in English, about the situation. My co-editor was on a panel a couple months ago in Liverpool with the editor of Venezuela Analysis. We have a lot of respect for them. And we’ve now been barred from promoting posts on Facebook, so we feel like Brasil Wire might be next, depending how things play out during the next month and a half to two months with the elections.

I’ve only got time for one more question. On Facebook you quoted Genival Rabelo, author of “Foreign Capital and the Brazilian Press” talking about how Brazilian and International journalists avoided criticizing the Military Dictatorship and you write about how the same could be said today about the foreign correspondents who avoid saying the word coup without qualifying it as a minority opinion and who avoid referring to Lula as a political prisoner. Rabelo you quote saying, “This is the sad choice, to swim against the current standing firm on a legacy of convictions or to leave ourselves at the mercy of the current, fattening ourselves like pigs for, who knows, the inexorable sacrifices of the great feast of the conquerors.” Are foreign correspondents today, in your opinion, in Brazil, setting the tables for a great feast by conquerors from the US and the West?

Yes, exactly. It’s sad, because I feel that journalism is dying anyway but if you want to make it as an anglo journalist who is writing about Brazil you can’t talk about the unions, you can’t use the word Coup, you can’t talk about the United Nations or anything. There are certain subjects.. We’ve heard all kinds of stuff informally, like after 2016, some press agencies – big ones like Reuters and AP and whatever – banned their writers from using the word coup on their personal social media accounts. So you got to toe the line if you want to scrape by on $35,000/year as a freelance foreign correspondent in Brazil and this involves making a lot of sacrifices of your personal integrity. I feel like all these guys know what is really going on down here and they are just lying so they can have the status and the money to maintain their bourgeois lifestyles down here at the service of international capital.



By Brian Mier

Writer, geographer and former development professional who has lived in Brazil for 26 years. Former directorate member of the Fórum Nacional de Reforma Urbana (National Urban Reform Forum). Has lived in São Luis, Recife, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Author of “Os Megaeventos Esportivos na Cidade do Rio de Janeiro e o Direito á Cidade” (CEPR: Porto Alegre. 2016). Editor of "Voices of the Brazilian Left" (Sumare: São Paulo. 2018). Editor of "Year of Lead: Washington, Wall Street and the New Imperialism in Brazil" ((Sumare: São Paulo. 2019) Irregular correspondent for the Chicago radio show This is Hell.