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A Further Blow to Democracy in Brazil? Glenn Greenwald on Conviction of Lula Ahead of 2018 Election

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Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been convicted on corruption charges and sentenced to nine-and-a-half years in prison. Lula, widely considered one of Brazil’s most popular political figures, is the front-runner in the 2018 elections. We look at how this development could impact his presidential bid, and we speak with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, co-founder of The Intercept.

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NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show in Brazil, where former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been convicted on corruption charges Wednesday and sentenced to nine-and-a-half years in prison. He will remain free on appeal. Lula has been the front-runner in the 2018 elections and is widely considered one of Brazil’s most popular political figures. The former union leader co-founded Brazil’s Workers’ Party and served as president from 2003 to 2010. During that time, he helped lift tens of millions of Brazilians out of poverty. The sentencing of Lula comes a year after his successor, President Dilma Rousseff, also of the Workers’ Party, was impeached by the Brazilian Senate in a move she has denounced as a coup. Prosecutors allege a construction firm spent about $1.1 million refurbishing a beachside apartment for Lula and his wife in exchange for public contracts. He is also facing four other corruption trials.

AMY GOODMAN: But Lula says he has been the victim of a political witch hunt. Lula’s legal team has vowed to appeal the conviction. In a statement, they said, "For over three years, Lula has been subject to a politically motivated investigation. No credible evidence of guilt has been produced, and overwhelming proof of his innocence blatantly ignored," they said.

Meanwhile, many of the lawmakers who orchestrated Rousseff’s ouster last year are also facing corruption scandals. Last month, federal prosecutors charged President Michel Temer with corruption, accusing the president of taking millions of dollars in bribes.

We go now to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where we’re joined by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald for the hour. Glenn is the co-founder of The Intercept.

Well, Glenn, we’re going to talk about a lot of issues this hour, but let’s start in Brazil. Talk about the indictment of the former president, Lula.

GLENN GREENWALD: It’s hard to put into words what an—

AMY GOODMAN: The conviction.

GLENN GREENWALD: —extraordinary political earthquake this is for Brazil. Lula has been the singular dominant figure in Brazilian politics for more than 15 years. He is identified internationally as being the brand of the country. He was president for eight years, from 2002 until 2010, and oversaw extraordinary economic growth, left office with an 86 percent approval rating, and is currently leading, as you said in the introduction, in all public opinion polls for the 2018 election. He’s a polarizing figure now, to be certain. There’s a large segment of the population that despises him and that doesn’t want to see him return to power, but there’s a large segment of the population that wants to see him be president again. Certainly, he has more support than any of the other prospective 2018 candidates. And so, to take somebody who is this dominant on the Brazilian political landscape, not just in terms of its recent past, but also its short-term future, the person overwhelmingly likely to become the country’s next president through the ballot box, and convict him on charges of corruption, bribery and money laundering, and sentence him to a decade in prison, just a little under a decade in prison, you really can’t get much more consequential than this.

Independent of the merits of the case against Lula—and the extraordinary thing about this case is that there’s a lot of different corruption charges and claims against Lula, including being at the center of the Petrobras corruption. This has always—this was always regarded—has been regarded as an ancillary case, not very strong. It involves kind of obscure questions about who is actually the owner of this triplex apartment that received the benefits. Lula insists that he is not even the owner of the apartment, whereas the state insists that that was just a scam, that he really is the owner and these benefits went to him. But leaving aside the merits of the case, which will now be adjudicated on appeal, if you look at actually what has happened, it’s amazing, in Brazil. You have, first, the leader of the country who was elected president, Dilma Rousseff, impeached on charges that, even if you believe them, are extremely petty in the context of the corruption claims lodged against the people who removed her. So, you took out the elected president of PT, which severely harmed PT, and now you take the next PT candidate, who was president and who likely will be president again, and you convict him on charges and make him ineligible to run for office for the next 20 years. It certainly looks like, whether, again, these claims are meritorious or not, that there is a real attempt to preclude the public from having the leaders that it wants, which are the leaders of PT.

And at the same time that you have that going on, once Dilma was removed from office, you move from a center-left government, with PT, to a center-right government, with her successor, Michel Temer, who formed a coalition with the right-wing PSDB party, and now they’re talking about removing Temer and installing the next person in line, Rodrigo Maia, who is the head of the lower house, essentially the speaker of the house, who is a member of the right-wing Democrats party, which means you’ll go from a center-left party to a center-right party to a right-wing party without a single vote being cast. And so there’s a lot of concern and a lot of perception on the part of Brazilians that this is a further blow to democracy, that this is really just politically driven, that there are all kinds of corrupt figures on the right, including President Michel Temer and Senator Aécio Neves, who was the candidate the right ran against Dilma in 2014 and almost beat her, about whom there’s much more tangible and concrete evidence of criminality, and yet haven’t been convicted, haven’t even left office. Aécio is still in the Senate. He was ordered by a court to be removed, and now he’s been returned. And Temer remains running the country, even though the whole country heard him on audio approving bribes paid to witnesses to keep them silent.

So, I think it has to be underscored that there is reasonable debate about how strong the case is against Lula. But the way in which these cases are being prosecuted, the people who are paying prices and the people who are being protected, does give a strong appearance of it being politically motivated, whether that’s really the intention or not.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Glenn, there have been reports that protesters—or people came out on the streets yesterday following the conviction, both in support of the conviction and opposed to it. So could you talk about that and the people who have been—who have approved, who think this is a good decision made by the judiciary to convict Lula?

GLENN GREENWALD: Sure. So this goes back to the protest movement against Dilma, which the Brazilian media, which is a corporate media very much opposed to Dilma and very much in favor of impeachment, depicted as this kind of uprising on the part of the people. And the reality was always much different. There is a huge segment of the population, primarily the wealthy, the oligarchs, the upper-middle class, that dislike PT because of its socialist policies. PT has become much less socialist over the years. They’ve actually gotten into bed with some oligarchs, the way the Democratic Party has in the U.S. But they’re still perceived as a socialist party. And compared to the right, they certainly oppose austerity more. They favor greater spending on social programs and the like. And so there is a segment of the country that hates PT on ideological grounds. And that is the segment of the population, that has been trying to defeat PT at the ballot box for 16 years now and has failed to do so, that were out on the streets demanding Dilma’s impeachment. The same people who wanted to beat her at the ballot box and failed then went to the streets to demand her impeachment, which is not surprising. And so, the people who are out on the streets now demanding that Lula be imprisoned or celebrating his imprisonment are the people who have just always hated PT and hated Lula strictly on ideological grounds. Then there are people, sort of the hardcore loyalists of Lula and Dilma and PT, who are out on the streets protesting his imprisonment.

This is really the big question that continues to lurk over Brazil, which, I should remind everybody, is the fifth-largest or fifth most populous country on the planet. It’s a country of 260 million people. So it really matters what happens here. The lurking question is: Are you going to move beyond the kind of hardcore political junkies on the right and the left, when it comes to street protests? We haven’t seen massive street protests demanding the removal of Michel Temer, and we haven’t yet seen people pouring out onto the streets in anger over Lula’s conviction—albeit it’s been less than 24 hours since it happened. We might see that.

And the reason is, is that Brazilians are just exhausted. This is not a country where there are isolated corruption cases against specific political figures. This is a country which, for decades, has had a political class that is systematically corrupt. It runs on corruption. And the only thing that has changed is that you now have an independent judiciary, a judiciary that’s a little bit more or a lot more aggressive about holding people in political office accountable. There’s more transparency. And so it’s being exposed. And what Brazilians have seen is that the entire political class in Brasília, virtually, is itself corrupt, that their political system is one based in corruption. And so, they really aren’t convinced that they should be out on the street demanding Temer’s removal, as much as the country hates Temer across the board, because they’re not convinced that whoever replaces him is going to be any better, just like Temer replacing Dilma actually made things worse. And I don’t know how much loyalty there is to Lula at this point among the broad population, given that people are really disenchanted with and exhausted by political scandal. And so, I don’t—if I had to bet, I would say there isn’t going to be a mass uprising protesting Lula. There will be some people out on the street who are hardcore PT followers, but I don’t think you’re going to have massive social instability over the fact that Lula got convicted, especially since they haven’t put him in prison. They said he could remain free pending appeal.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to the ousted Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who was recently here in Democracy Now!’s studios in New York. She was talking about Lula.

DILMA ROUSSEFF: [translated] I think that Lula will run for president, unless there is an effort to convict him on appeal, because, today, if Lula were the candidate, well, he’s still the only person who has a significant number of votes. He has a 38.5 percent support. The others in the latest polls all had around 10 percent, 9 percent, 5 or 6 percent. So there is that difference. There is a concern on the part of those who carried out the coup. They are very concerned about this situation. Now we have to see how things evolve. I think it’s very difficult to convict him twice. I don’t think there’s any basis for that, because the witnesses who were called, when I called him, they did not incriminate him. In addition, I think there could be other efforts to avoid the 2018 elections, because certainly those who carried out the coup and are pushing the coup program are not going to enjoy popular support. I can assure you of that.

AMY GOODMAN: To see the full-hour interview with the ousted President Dilma Rousseff, you can go to democracynow.org. Glenn, your response?

GLENN GREENWALD: So, I think maybe she overstates just a little bit the inevitability of Lula’s victory. As is true for polls in the United States a year or more out of an election, polling tends to be about name recognition, and then, ultimately, as the election proceeds and people pay more attention to the more obscure candidates, they’re able to get some traction. But she’s definitely right that if you had to bet your money on one person to win in 2018, it would be Lula. That’s certainly who I would put my money on, not just because he’s leading in the polls, but because there is no political talent even close to Lula in terms of his ability to just be persuasive and charismatic and to appeal to people’s gut in a way that very few other politicians that I’ve ever seen in my lifetime are capable of doing. So you certainly wouldn’t bet against him.

And, you know, you—I’ve been on your show many times talking about the impeachment process, and you know what a political upheaval and crisis it was for this country to remove Dilma, to remove a democratically elected president who is part of a party that won four consecutive national elections. It really tore the country apart. Imagine if the elites of this country endured all of that, went through all of that to get her out of office, only for a year and a half later PT to return to power in the person of Lula. So, yes, they are petrified that Lula is going to return to power. They do want to make certain that he is ineligible by making him ineligible through this criminal process.

But there is another aspect to it that I think is important to point out. It’s not so black and white, this morality play, because there are a lot of politicians in Brasília across the political spectrum—on the right, on the left and on the center—who are very vulnerable to corruption charges and to having criminal proceedings brought against them. And they are petrified, all of them. They have watched some of the country’s most powerful politicians and its oligarchs go to prison, including Eduardo Cunha, who was the most powerful and feared politician in Brazil over the last several years, who’s now sitting in a federal prison without any real hope of getting out anytime soon. It’s a serious threat.

And what we see now is them start to unify. Recently, Lula gave an interview in which he actually sort of defended Michel Temer and said, "Let’s not jump to conclusions about whether he’s really guilty. We need to see the evidence." There’s starting to be a movement on the part of all these politicians who are vulnerable to corruption charges to unify against the Lava Jato investigators, against the corruption investigators.

And so, how much of a threat Lula really poses to the oligarchical class? He’s become very close allies with a lot of the leading plutocrats, a lot of the leading oil and construction executives. He’s made a lot of money by doing business with a lot of these extremely wealthy and powerful financial interests in Brazil. He’s not the Lula from 1986, where he was this firebrand, you know, hardcore socialist union leader. He’s been integrated into the power structure. And so, I do think that they want to make sure PT doesn’t come back to power, but I don’t think it’s accurate to depict it as them viewing Lula as some kind of towering enemy of the elite. I think that the elite has found a way to work with Lula and accommodate their interests with Lula. And so I don’t know how petrified they are of his return.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Glenn, very, quickly, before we go to break, I wanted to ask you about something else that occurred on the very same day that Lula was convicted—that is, yesterday, Wednesday—which is that the Brazilian Senate approved a government-sponsored series of labor reforms. So could you tell us about those reforms and how the approval by the Senate, as reports are suggesting, might boost the Temer government—Temer himself, of course, facing corruption charges, as you mentioned, and, in fact, Brazil’s first sitting head of state to be formally charged with a crime?

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah, I’m really glad that you ask that, because there’s no way to discuss the situation in Brazil without understanding the agenda of international finance and domestic oligarchs, in particular, their desperation to impose extremely harsh austerity measures on an already suffering poor population.

Michel Temer, shortly after he was installed as president, came to New York and spoke to a gathering of hedge funds and foreign policy elites in New York and said that the real reason Dilma was impeached was not because of these budgetary tricks she was accused of using, but it was because she was unwilling to impose the level of austerity that international capital and the business interests in Brazil wanted. That’s why they put Temer into office, to, quote-unquote, "reform" pensions and labor laws, to make people work longer, to extend their retirement rate, to reduce their benefits. This is what the whole thing is about. And it’s amazing because every time it looks like Temer is going to stay, the real increases in strength, as does the Brazilian stock market. Every time it looks like he’s in trouble, the real decreases, and the Brazilian stock market weakens, because international finance wants Temer to stay, because he’s the only one willing to impose these harsh austerity measures, because he’s already so unpopular and so old that he’s not going to run again and can’t run again, so he doesn’t care. He’s willing to do their dirty work for them.

At the same time, yesterday, when Lula got convicted and it looked like or the court has declared him ineligible to run again in 2018, what happened to the real? It skyrocketed against the dollar. The Brazilian stock market boomed because international finance wants the right to take over and continue to maintain power in Brazil. So, everything is about the underlying attempt to take away the benefits from the nation’s poor that PT has legislated for them, to make people work longer hours, to make them have fewer benefits, to transfer wealth from the laborers in this country and the poor in this country back to the oligarchs. That’s why Dilma was removed. That’s why Michel Temer is in power. That’s why they want to make Lula ineligible. And so, that is absolutely what lurks at the center of all of this intrigue.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Glenn, please stay with us. We’re talking about the former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, convicted on corruption charges and sentenced to nine-and-a-half years in prison. When we come back, we’ll speak with the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald about the Putin-Trump versions of their meeting at the G20, and also about the latest brouhaha, the Donald Trump Jr.-Jared Kushner-Manafort meeting with a so-called Russian government lawyer. And we’ll also talk about what’s happening with NSA whistleblower Reality Winner. Stay with us.

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