Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro faces former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Sunday’s presidential election. Lula is a former union leader who held office from 2003 through 2010. He’s running on a leftist platform to uplift Brazil’s poor, preserve the Amazon rainforest and protect Brazil’s Indigenous communities, and is supported by a broad, grassroots alliance, explains Brazilian human rights advocate Maria Luísa Mendonça. Polls show Lula has a strong lead over Bolsonaro, but it is unclear if he will win the majority of the vote needed to avoid a runoff. This comes as Bolsonaro and his party appear to be attempting to prepare to stage a coup if he loses the election, says reporter Michael Fox, former editor of NACLA and host of the new podcast “Brazil on Fire.” Despite fear over a coup, Fox says people in Brazil “are really hopeful that they’re going to see change on Sunday.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
We begin today’s show in Brazil, where Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro faced off against former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva Thursday night in the final debate ahead of Sunday’s presidential election. Polls show Lula has a strong lead over Bolsonaro, but it remains unclear if Lula has enough support to win the 11-way race outright. If no candidate receives 50% of the vote on Sunday, a runoff will be held October 30th.
Lula is a former union leader who served a president of Brazil from 2003 to 2010. During that time, he helped lift tens of millions of Brazilians out of poverty. He’s been running on a platform to reduce inequality, preserve the Amazon rainforest and protect Brazil’s Indigenous communities.
In 2018, he was jailed on trumped-up charges, paving the way for the election of Jair Bolsonaro, a retired military officer who’s often praised Brazil’s former military dictatorship. There is widespread fear in Brazil that Bolsonaro could attempt to stage a coup if he loses the election. Earlier in the campaign, Bolsonaro said, quote, “Only God will remove me [from power]. … The army is on our side. It’s an army that doesn’t accept corruption, doesn’t accept fraud,” he said.
During Thursday night’s debate, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva criticized Bolsonaro’s efforts to keep secret many of his government’s actions, including his handling of the COVID pandemic.
LUIZ INÁCIO LULA DA SILVA: [translated] I’m going to do something for you. I’m going to make a decree to end your 100-year secrecy, to know why you want to hide so much for 100 years. I’m going to do it. I’m going to make a decree and sign it, to know what this man wants to hide for 100 years. And I’m going to stop here, because I want others to participate in the debate. President, when you show up here, please lie less.
AMY GOODMAN: During Thursday’s debate, Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president, accused Lula, the former president, of lying.
PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: [translated] The ex-convict says that I decreed the secrecy of my family. Which decree? Give me the decree’s number. He says I delayed the purchase of vaccines. No country in the world bought a vaccine in 2020. Stop lying. When you talk about hunger, I gave 600 reaies in aid to Brazil. You gave little to the poorest. You used the poorest as a way to win votes.
AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about Sunday’s vote in Brazil, we’re joined by two guests. Michael Fox is a freelance journalist based in Brazil, former editor of NACLA and host of the new podcast Brazil on Fire. He’s joining us from São Paulo, Brazil. Here in New York, Maria Luísa Mendonça is the director of the Network for Social Justice and Human Rights in Brazil and a visiting scholar at City University of New York Graduate Center.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Maria Luísa Mendonça, let’s begin with you. Talk about what’s at stake in Sunday’s election.
MARIA LUÍSA MENDONÇA: [inaudible] Bolsonaro of having a far-right government that —
AMY GOODMAN: Maria Luísa, if you could begin again? I didn’t catch the beginning of what you said.
MARIA LUÍSA MENDONÇA: Yes. Thank you. Yeah, this is a very important election in Brazil, because after four years of having a far-right government represented by Bolsonaro, voters in Brazil are about to send a strong message and say that we don’t want a far-right government. And I think it’s important also for people to understand that Bolsonaro only won elections four years ago because Lula was in jail and based on false charges. There was no evidence against him, but he was put in jail anyway so he couldn’t run four years ago. And before that, there was a parliamentary coup in 2016 against President Dilma Rousseff. So, that was the context that created the possibility for Bolsonaro to get elected. And now, you know, there is a broad alliance in society to support the candidacy of Lula. So, you know, there is a lot of activism. Many artists are involved with the campaign. And so, Lula was able to build a broad alliance for this election.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Michael Fox, what about the threats of Bolsonaro, similar to Trump, not to accept the results of Sunday’s election? Talk about the polls, what they’re showing right now. It’s not just between the two of them, of course, and there’s like, what, more than — there’s close to a dozen candidates. But one of them has to hit 50% for it to be an outright victory.
MICHAEL FOX: That’s right. So, what we have right now is Lula is roughly 14 to 17 points ahead of Bolsonaro. He’s hovering around 50% of the valid votes, according to the latest polls. So, even though all those other candidates, they have less than 10% — they’re minor candidates. Ciro Gomes would be the one who has the most; it’s around 6 or 7%. So, the big question: Is Lula going to hit that 50% mark? Is he going to be able to win it in the first round? And that is the thing that everyone’s asking themselves.
Now, like you said, the potential for Bolsonaro to come out and say that, “No, I don’t respect these results,” that is absolutely — and most people think that he’s going to follow down Trump’s path, he’s going to do that. He’s been setting the scene for that for the last year and a half. And, in fact, what we saw just two days ago, his party, the Liberal Party, came out and released a document saying that they had audited the electoral, the voting system, and saying that there was the potential for grave fraud. Of course, the electoral court responded almost immediately, putting this in an inside the fake news investigation, calling it absurd. And, in fact, they have now requested from the Liberal Party: Who paid the invoice? Who actually bankrolled this document? Because they think what is happening here is trying to set the scene for, then, Bolsonaro to come out later on and say, “Oh, well, see, I told you it was fraud.” That’s what we’re already seeing. So, this is kind of the general playbook that we’re already expecting. Everybody in Brazil is pretty much expecting this.
The reality behind it is the fact that most of Brazilian society, just they are not on board with the potential for a coup. They don’t want that. Three-quarters of Brazilians said in a recent poll that they want democracy and they’d like to stick with this. And I think that, well, we’re crossing our fingers and hoping that’s what happens.
AMY GOODMAN: Maria Luísa, we’re talking about the, what, sixth- or seventh-largest population in the world, Brazil. This election is extremely significant. Talk about what Lula represents.
MARIA LUÍSA MENDONÇA: Yes. Lula is a very popular figure in Brazil, because when he was president, there was a, you know, real change in the lives of people. I think for the first time in Brazilian history, there was a great deal of investment in education, in healthcare, in job creation. So, there was also a lot of support for culture, for the arts. So, I think people saw, in very concrete terms, what — you know, the results of his government. Also, one of the main programs in his administration was the zero hunger program. And now, you know, in a few years of Bolsonaro, Brazil again is in the so-called hunger map, so there was a huge increase in hunger and poverty in the country.
So, also President Dilma, who was also with the Workers’ Party, after Lula, was a very popular president in her first term, before the orchestration of a parliamentary coup. So, the only way the right-wing parties can take power is by, you know, orchestrating those kinds of coups. So, that’s why there is a real fear right now.
But I think at the same time Brazilians — the majority of Brazilians understand that their lives were much better before, and they want those kinds of changes and investments in education, healthcare, culture and the arts.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Brazil’s presidential candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva speaking Monday to his supporters.
LUIZ INÁCIO LULA DA SILVA: [translated] Never before in the history of this country have so many parties, popular movements, unions, trade unions, associations of classes, workers and entrepreneurs, liberal professionals, artists, intellectuals, athletes, people of different colors and religions, sexual orientations and political preferences come together in the first round of an election to say, “Enough with so much hatred, so much destruction, so many lies, suffering and so many deaths.” We are going right now, on the 2nd of October, to rebuild the country.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Michael Fox, if you can take off from what Lula is saying? And also talk about the Brazilian rainforest. Talk about the Amazon, the protection of the Amazon, and what has happened to it under Bolsonaro.
MICHAEL FOX: Well, absolutely. The organizing in support of Lula has been extremely important and unprecedented. In fact, many different social movements even joined forces to create what they’re calling these popular committees, these grassroots committees, in neighborhoods around the country. And it kind of takes off the work that was happening under the pandemic to try and respond to the rising hunger, where people were organizing and bringing food and working in solidarity. Well, they’ve now built these grassroots committees, somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 around the country, to organize for Lula and then to continue organizing regardless of what happens. So, it is an extremely important election. Everyone sees it as that.
And I just want to say for a second that it’s not just on the presidential election, but also on like the very local level. You have different social movements, Indigenous peoples, women, Black movements who have an unprecedented number of new candidates that they’re putting out there. So that is really important on the local legislative level.
Now, the Amazon, it has been devastated under Bolsonaro. I think just one thing to point out, if you remember back in 2019, when we had all the huge fires that were going around, people were protesting around the world. Well, the fires this last year were even worse. They’ve been worse consecutively each year. And deforestation in the Amazon is the worst we’ve seen in a decade. And this is because Bolsonaro came in with a promise to push development in the Amazon. He gutted agencies, state agencies, the environment agency, the Indigenous agencies, that in the past had defended Indigenous territories and defended the environment. And he came in, gutted all this.
And his own violent rhetoric of trying to open up the Amazon for development really let loose landowners and miners and loggers and narcotraffickers, and said, “You have carte blanche to do whatever you need to do in the Amazon.” And that’s what they’ve done. The invasions of Indigenous territories spiked 150% just in the first three months of Bolsonaro’s government. And under COVID, basically what happens is they pulled the rug out. Everybody backed off, because everything was isolating. And that’s — the illegal forces really took advantage of that to really move into the territories. Violence spiked. And this is the destruction that’s happening in the Amazon right now.
Now, it’s really important to understand that if you look back just 20 years ago, when Lula came into power, deforestation in the Amazon was even worse than it is today. And within a couple of years, with the help of Marina Silva, his environment minister, he went in, and they were able to enact a series of new measures, policies that cut Amazon deforestation in half within two years. So, there is obviously hope that if Lula is able to win, if he’s able to come back into office, you know, he might be able to reimplement some of these things to push back on the devastation that’s happened in the Amazon up ’til now.
AMY GOODMAN: In August, Jair Bolsonaro formally launched his reelection campaign with an attack on Lula. This is what he said.
PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: [translated] Our country does not want to take steps back. We don’t want gender ideology in schools. Our country does not want to legalize drugs. Our country respects life from its conception. Our country does not want to become an ally to communism in other countries; a country that wants a president who defends private property, a country that increasingly preaches its people the freedom to raise their children. We are going to talk politics today, so tomorrow no one will prohibit us from believing in God.
AMY GOODMAN: Maria Luísa Mendonça, touch on these themes. Talk about what he’s getting at.
MARIA LUÍSA MENDONÇA: Yes. Bolsonaro is part of this global far-right movement, and also he has a lot of support from the evangelical church in Brazil. And he dismantled several policies and institutions that protected women’s rights, that fought against racism in Brazil, and, you know, the arts, the culture. He dismantled the Ministry of Culture and the human rights institutions in Brazil. And he promotes this violent rhetoric. And I think this is another reason why in Brazil what we see, for example, is that he tries to spread fear, fake news and hate.
And what we see is also a broad coalition. In addition to the grassroots movements, the social movements that Michael was talking about, there is also a broad coalition of artists, of musicians. Very well-known artists in Brazil are speaking out and are campaigning for Lula. So, there is a broad coalition.
And so, this is a key moment for Brazil. And we also need international solidarity. For example, in relation to the destruction of the Amazon, we need to look at the role of foreign corporations that benefit from that. And we are not talking about development. We are talking about destruction, destruction of the land, destruction of Brazil’s natural resources. And there are mining companies, agribusiness corporations, financial corporations in the U.S. that benefit from that destruction. So, I think it’s very important for us to build international solidarity, because we will need that, moving forward.
AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate passed to resolution calling on Brazil to ensure the election is conducted in a, quote, “free, fair, credible, transparent and peaceful manner.” Senator Bernie Sanders sponsored the resolution.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: It is imperative that the U.S. Senate make it clear, through this resolution, that we support democracy in Brazil. It would be unacceptable for the United States to recognize a government that came to power undemocratically, and it would send a horrific message to the entire world if we did that. It is important for the people of Brazil to know we are on their side, on the side of democracy.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Fox in São Paulo, your final comments, leading into Sunday’s election in Brazil?
MICHAEL FOX: I just want to say that that resolution from the Senate was so important. I mean, if you look back, in 1964, the coup that happened here in Brazil, the military coup, that was greenlighted by the United States. So, to get a really strong, profound statement from the U.S. Senate, that means a lot. It means a lot to the military here. It means a lot to the business sector. It means a lot in Brazil. And I just say that, look, the mood on the ground is one of a lot of excitement. It’s one of tension. And people are really hopeful that they’re going to see change on Sunday.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Fox, journalist in São Paulo, Brazil, we want to thank you for being with us. And, Maria Luísa Mendonça, Network for Social Justice and Human Rights in Brazil, thank you so much for being with us, from the CUNY Grad School here in New York City.
Next up, as a cinema dedicated to documentary film opens in New York City at the DCTV firehouse, its lobby will be dedicated tonight to the documentary filmmaker Brent Renaud, killed in March covering the war in Ukraine. We’ll speak to Jon Alpert and Brent’s brother Craig, as well as the filmmaker Reid Davenport, whose new film about how he sees the world as a person with a disability opens at the Firehouse today. It’s called I Didn’t See You There. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Fire in Freetown” by the Somalian musician K’naan, performing in 2009 in Democracy Now!’s firehouse studio.