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The Edge of Democracy: Lula Is Freed in Brazil in Victory for Movement to Resist Bolsonaro

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In Brazil, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was freed from prison Friday after 580 days behind bars. Lula’s surprise release came after the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled to end the mandatory imprisonment of people convicted of crimes who are appealing their cases. He was serving a 12-year sentence over a disputed corruption and money laundering conviction handed down by conservative Judge Sérgio Moro, an ally of current far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and has long maintained his innocence. Lula has vowed to challenge Bolsonaro in the 2022 elections. At the time of his imprisonment in April 2018, Lula was leading the presidential polls. A new documentary, “The Edge of Democracy,” chronicles the imprisonment of Lula and impeachment of former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. It also looks at the aftermath of the rise of President Jair Bolsonaro — a former military captain who glorifies Brazil’s past military regime, denies the climate crisis and celebrates misogyny, homophobia and racism. We speak with Petra Costa, a Brazilian filmmaker and the director of “The Edge of Democracy.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show in Brazil, where former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was freed from prison Friday after 580 days behind bars. Lula’s surprise release came after the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled to end the mandatory imprisonment of people convicted of crimes who are still appealing their cases. Lula has vowed to challenge Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro in the 2022 elections. During a rally on Friday soon after his release, Lula warned about Bolsonaro’s ties to violent militias.

LUIZ INÁCIO LULA DA SILVA: [translated] Bolsonaro was democratically elected. We accept the result of the election. This guy has a mandate for four years. Now, he was elected to govern the Brazilian people, and not to govern the militia in Rio de Janeiro. … I want to build this country with the same happiness that we built it when we governed this country. My dream isn’t to solve my problems. Today I’m a guy that doesn’t have a job, a president without a pension, not even a television in my apartment. My life is totally blocked. The only thing I’m certain of is that I have more courage to fight than ever before.

AMY GOODMAN: Lula was serving a 12-year sentence over a disputed corruption and money laundering conviction handed down by conservative Judge Sérgio Moro, an ally of current far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. After that, he became the justice minister. Lula has long maintained his innocence. Earlier this year, The Intercept revealed Moro aided prosecutors in their sweeping corruption investigation, known as Operation Car Wash, in an attempt to prevent Lula from running in 2018 election. This cleared the path for Bolsonaro’s victory. At the time of his imprisonment in April 2018, Lula was leading the presidential polls.

Well, for more, we’re joined by the Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa. Her new documentary, The Edge of Democracy, chronicles the imprisonment of Lula, the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff and the story of the dictatorship and the democracy — about the same age of our guest, the Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa.

Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Petra.

PETRA COSTA: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: We last saw you right before Lula was released. It was a total shock. Can you respond?

PETRA COSTA: Yes, I was very moved by his release, but also very worried, because the abuse of law in Brazil has been so consistent over the last five years that it’s hard to know how long this decision will last. It’s a very necessary decision that goes back to our Constitution in ’88, which says that anyone has the right to exhaust their appeals before they are imprisoned. That was revised in 2016 due to large pressures of Operation Car Wash, the corruption investigation led by Judge Moro. And now the Supreme Court, I believe, influenced by the revelations of the leak that happened earlier this year, which showed how politicized the operation possibly was, decided to come back to the Constitution and grant Lula his constitutional right, as well as other Brazilians.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I was going to ask you precisely that, that given the revelations that have come out about the tainted nature of his actual conviction, that this possibly could have been the easier way for the Supreme Court to go than to actually overturn his original conviction and call the entire current government into question because Sérgio Moro now is the justice minister, right?

PETRA COSTA: Yes. We are waiting for another ruling that the Supreme Court should do soon, which will decide whether the trial and the judge were actually impartial or not. If that is decided, that he was not impartial, then all the process goes by — falls, which means that Lula could even run for president in 2022, because, basically, what the leak showed, as Amy mentioned, was that there’s a possibility that the judge was coordinating every action of the prosecutors, influencing, just before the election, whether Lula could be a candidate or not. Lula was not allowed to be a candidate. And if it was done differently, it was possible that he would be president at this moment.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain who Moro was in the trial and who he is today.

PETRA COSTA: Moro was the judge responsible for overseeing Car Wash Operation. Today he is justice minister of Bolsonaro, with — it’s called super justice minister, with more than just the Justice Ministry, but other ministries under his watch.

AMY GOODMAN: Was that seen as a reward by Bolsonaro to Moro for imprisoning his opponent? Lula, course, the polls showed he was far ahead in the race for president in 2018.

PETRA COSTA: Exactly. Many see it as a reward.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, are there any other people who are in jail who will also be released as a result of this ruling?


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Some of them who are?

PETRA COSTA: José Dirceu, I believe, and about 200, from Car Wash and also people who have committed petty crimes. And Brazil has the third-largest incarcerated population in the world. It’s a huge crisis, similar to the United States. And we need an urgent judiciary — like, prison reform and judiciary reform, that will make our judiciary system more efficient. I think the mistake that many people fall into is thinking that constitutional rights can be abused to have a more efficient system. The danger with that is that today Lula’s constitutional rights can be abused, tomorrow mine, tomorrow yours. And where do we stand as a democracy?

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a clip in your film, The Edge of Democracy. This is former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva giving his farewell speech to the people on his way to prison in 2018.

LUIZ INÁCIO LULA DA SILVA: [translated] They ordered my arrest. It’s no use trying to stop me from traveling around this country, because there are millions of Lulas, Boulos, Manuelas and Dilma Rousseffs to do it for me. There’s no use in trying to stop my ideas. They’re already in the air, and you can’t imprison them. There’s no point in trying to stop my dreams, because when I stop dreaming, I’ll be dreaming through your minds and dreams! There’s no point in thinking everything’s going to stop the day Lula has a heart attack. That’s nonsense! Because my heart will be beating through yours, and there are millions of hearts! The powerful can kill one, two or a hundred roses. But they’ll never stop the arrival of spring. And our fight is in search of spring!

AMY GOODMAN: That is Lula, right before he went to jail. Now, Petra Costa, what is amazing about your film is that you are right there with him. Talk about the moments before he turned himself in. You didn’t know what he wanted to — or, maybe more significantly, he didn’t know what he was going to do.

PETRA COSTA: Exactly. Once his prison was declared and — he immediately said that he was going to go to the syndicate, the union, where he started his political career in the '80s. So everyone went there, and I went with my camera, not knowing if I would be able to get in. And slowly, I managed to get access. And we were there for three days, kind of hostage inside that workers' union. He had no idea. Every moment, someone would come and say, “He decided not to give himself in,” “He’s giving himself in.” And until the last moment, he did not know, until he decided to give himself in. And when he declared that decision, the crowd surrounded the union and started to try to prevent him from giving himself in, holding the doors and the gates, not allowing for the police to enter or for Lula to leave. It was one of the most dramatic things I’ve ever seen in my life.

AMY GOODMAN: And why did he decide to turn himself in?

PETRA COSTA: Because he believed it was necessary for him to abide by the Constitution, abide by the rule of law, to expose whether he was having a fair trial or not.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the clip that really conveys this moment. We’re going to try to go to that clip, that conveys that incredibly powerful moment, where Lula — where was he, by the way?

PETRA COSTA: It’s the workers’ union where he started his career in the interior of São Paulo, São Bernardo.

AMY GOODMAN: So, we’re going to see if we have that clip.

PETRA COSTA: For the climax of Car Wash, Moro authorizes the police to detain Lula and force him to testify, even though the former president had never resisted questioning. Suspecting Lula was involved in the corruption scheme, investigators look for evidence. An apartment, allegedly gifted to him by a construction company implicated in the Car Wash scandal. Although there’s no formal accusation, the spectacle of Lula being taken by force by the police creates an impression of guilt.

AMY GOODMAN: That wasn’t the moment that he was deciding whether to go to jail. But explain what it was, Petra Costa.

PETRA COSTA: This is early 2016, when Judge Moro declares that Lula should be taken in an enforced coercion, which basically meant taking him to an enforced interrogation, which many said at the time was unconstitutional because Lula had volunteered to speak. And many didn’t know at the time if he would be imprisoned or not immediately after this interrogation. It would still take two years for him to be imprisoned.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And tell us a little about how you got started with this film, why you decided to make it. You’re relatively young for the leaders of this movement, covering this movement. How you get involved?

PETRA COSTA: Well, I grew up believing that democracy was my birthright, guaranteed from a lifetime of my parents’ struggle. My parents fought against the military dictatorship and dedicated their lives to kind of establish democracy in Brazil. And when I was born, it was more or less at the same time as Brazilian democracy. And as I was growing up, I kind of took it for granted. I thought it was a given, until in 2016 it started to become clear to me that that was not the case, for many reasons. One of them was, the first time I took the camera was to film a protest asking for Dilma’s impeachment. And I filmed the streets of Rio with thousands of people asking for Dilma’s impeachment, but some asking for the return of the military, the military that had killed hundreds and tortured thousands in Brazil. And I never thought I would see people asking for the return of that regime. So it was clear to me that a neurosis was boiling in Brazilian soil, and I wanted to understand where it was coming from and where it was heading. And that’s when I embarked on this journey that took 1,001 days.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s turn to the trailer of your film, Petra, The Edge of Democracy.

PETRA COSTA: Brazilian democracy and I are almost the same age. I thought that in our thirties we would both be standing on solid ground.

UNIDENTIFIED: Petra, the first time voting, in a historical election.

PETRA COSTA: I was 19 when Lula got elected, and I remember the excitement.


PETRA COSTA: It felt like a huge step in our democratic path, 20 million people leaving poverty. Unemployment reached the lowest number in history, and Brazil rises as a major player on the world stage.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The most popular politician on Earth.

PETRA COSTA: To succeed him, he chooses Dilma Rousseff, who becomes our first female president.

PRESIDENT DILMA ROUSSEFF: [translated] We will all be judged by history.

PETRA COSTA: It felt like a change of symbols. But something in our social fabric started to change. The country divided into two parts. And this wall would rip us apart. Their party is soon caught in a corruption scandal, the greatest investigation in the country’s history.

PRESIDENT DILMA ROUSSEFF: [translated] What will they think of us?

LUIZ INÁCIO LULA DA SILVA: [translated] My biggest regret is not having done more.

UNIDENTIFIED: Crimes include broad slavery, even homicide.

PETRA COSTA: One president impeached, another in prison. Our democracy is crumbling.

UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] This sexist hoax!

JAIR BOLSONARO: [translated] I get stronger each day towards public opinion.

PETRA COSTA: I fear our democracy was nothing but a short-lived dream.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The trailer for the film The Edge of Democracy. I wanted to ask you, in terms of the current situation we’re seeing in Bolivia — we’re seeing the continued conflicts in Venezuela. One of the, I guess, hallmarks of Lula’s approach to social change, his leadership, is that he served his terms and then left office and passed it on to a successor, whereas in Bolivia Evo Morales has stayed now for — attempted to stay for a fourth term, and in Venezuela, with Chávez, as well, seeking to overturn term limits. This whole issue of succession in a movement and passing the baton on to other leaders, I’m wondering your sense of Lula’s impact by making that decision?

PETRA COSTA: I think it was essential, and he deserves a lot of respect for his decision. Lula and Dilma, as well, were very republican, in the sense of the word that they respected the institutions in Brazil and the equilibrium of the three powers. And it should be seen as an example for other countries, in a moment where that is becoming less and less. I think we’re seeing an abuse of the institutions, an abuse of the Constitution, where some are, like, putting it on the ground to stay in power for longer and to destroy their enemies. That is happening in the United States, as well as in many places around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: And since we last saw you, as you presented your film, that’s now on Netflix, in New York, yet another — in fact, several environmental activists, indigenous leaders in the Amazon have been murdered. Talk about the connection between that, the far-right President Jair Bolsonaro and Lula’s imprisonment, and what it could mean now that he’s free.

PETRA COSTA: That’s very serious. The indigenous leader Paulo Paulino was assassinated, and many killings have been happening in Brazil by the police and by militias and in the Amazon by loggers and miners. And it’s part of, I believe, an advanced, of a savage unregulated capitalism that is seeking profit for all costs. And I think what we need, international attention is essential in this case in Brazil. It helped a few months ago with the question of the Amazon, which had a 90% increase in deforestation compared to the previous year. And who is paying the check for the impeachment and Lula’s — who is actually gaining from the impeachment that happened in Brazil and Lula’s imprisonment? There are big corporations that are taking huge profit out of this.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk a little about the change between the Dilma — the Lula and Dilma eras and Bolsonaro in terms of the day-to-day lives of working people, of the racial minorities and of women in Brazil?

PETRA COSTA: Yes. The economic crisis started with Dilma Rousseff. There was a huge stagnation and a huge crisis and augmentation of unemployment then, but it continues to rise immensely now. There are now 13 million Brazilians under the poverty line.

And the question of women, it’s far worse, I think. Since the election, there has been a huge spike in violence and femicide and rapes and in killings of people by the police. That is the most absurd. There has been a 20% increase in killings in Rio, just in Rio. And Rio de Janeiro has more people killed by the police than the entire United States. Five people are killed per day. And that has been incentivized by the government, which says that a police is only a real police if they kill. That is a kind of a state-led genocide that is happening in Brazil at this moment.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro lashing out at Brazil’s largest media company, Globo, after it broadcast a report alleging a link between Bolsonaro and the two men accused of murdering the Rio de Janeiro Councilmember Marielle Franco in March of last year. Globo quoted a doorman who said one of the murder suspects, the alleged getaway driver, Élcio de Queiroz, arrived at Bolsanaro’s gated community on the night of the murder and was granted access after calling Bolsonaro’s residence. De Queiroz then drove to the home of the second suspect in the murder, the alleged trigger man, Ronnie Lessa, who has a residence in the same area. His railing against Globo, he did when he was in Saudi Arabia in this meeting they had with, well, Bolsonaro, Mohammed bin Salman, Jared Kushner and others, what was called Davos in the Desert. And he just railed for many, many minutes on television. Talk about the threats to the press and what this means about the murder of and the significance of Marielle Franco.

PETRA COSTA: Well, Marielle Franco was assassinated last year. And there are still investigations into who killed her. Yes, Globo did that report, and Bolsonaro railed at them, but there have been consistent attacks to the media that have happened in the last months. And it’s very serious, and it puts real questions into what will happen to Brazilian democracy. There have also been threats of — indications that there is a desire to reinstate the Institutional Act Number Five, which is the act that determined the closing of the Congress in Brazil and repression of any assembly. And Brazilians — I am extremely fearful of what will happen in Brazil. I think we have to be very attentive. And there’s a recent remark by Bannon saying that Lula is the biggest threat to the populist right movement and that he’s the biggest leader of the globalist —

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Bannon.

PETRA COSTA: Yeah, Steve Bannon — and that Lula is the biggest leader of the leftist globalist movement. So, I think the world has to pay attention to what will happen to Lula in the next months, because his constitutional rights and his right to a fair trial are of international interest at this moment.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Petra Costa, congratulations on this deeply moving personal and political film. The film, The Edge of Democracy, out on Netflix. Petra Costa, a filmmaker and actor.

When we come back, we go to California to speak with San Francisco’s District Attorney-elect Chesa Boudin, who won despite the Police Officers Association — or some might say because of them — spending over $650,000 on ads against him. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Caetano Veloso performing “Brasil” at Columbia University last month. He was on a panel talking about The Edge of Democracy, the new Netflix film.

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