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“Return to Democracy”: Brazil Swears In Lula as President, as Far-Right Bolsonaro Flees to Florida

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In Brazil, ​​former union leader and head of the Workers’ Party Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was inaugurated Sunday for his third term as the country’s president, replacing far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. Lula served as Brazil’s most popular president from 2003 to 2010 and helped lift tens of millions of Brazilians out of poverty. But in 2018, as he prepared to run for office again, he was jailed on trumped-up corruption charges, paving the way for the election of Bolsonaro. The charges were later thrown out. Bolsonaro boycotted the ceremony, after first refusing to concede the election, and fled Brazil for Orlando, Florida, as he avoids criminal investigations. The new administration has vowed to fight poverty, invest in education and health, and halt illegal logging in the Amazon rainforest. We are joined by ​​Maria Luísa Mendonça, director of the Network for Social Justice and Human Rights in Brazil, and journalist Michael Fox, host of the podcast “Brazil on Fire.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Latin America’s largest country, Brazil, where people filled the streets Sunday to celebrate the inauguration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as their new president, marking a stunning comeback for the former union leader and president, who replaces the far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.

LULA SUPPORTER: [translated] We are here because the inauguration of Lula means we can resume the restoration of our democracy. We are here to show political force and that democracy includes all races, ethnicities and social classes.

AMY GOODMAN: Lula served as Brazil’s most popular president from 2003 to 2010 and helped lift tens of millions of Brazilians out of poverty. But in 2018, as he prepared to run for office again, he was jailed on trumped-up corruption charges, paving the way for the election of Bolsonaro. The charges were later thrown out, after he was imprisoned.

Bolsonaro boycotted Sunday’s ceremony. He left Brazil Friday and went to Orlando, Florida, after refusing to concede the election to Lula. Bolsonaro is staying with the Brazilian mixed martial arts fighter and longtime supporter José Aldo and reportedly plans to stay in Florida for at least a month to avoid multiple criminal investigations. The move echoed Donald Trump’s departure from Washington, D.C., hours before Joe Biden was sworn in as president.

Lula heads Brazil’s Workers’ Party. During his inauguration Sunday afternoon in Brasília, he lashed out against the far-right former President Bolsonaro and vowed to fight poverty and invest in education and health and halt illegal logging in the Amazon rainforest.

PRESIDENT LUIZ INÁCIO LULA DA SILVA: [translated] The last few years, we undoubtedly lived in one of the worst periods in our history, an era of shadows, doubt and a lot of suffering. But this nightmare came to an end with the sovereign vote in the most important election since the country’s return to democracy, an election that has shown the Brazilian people’s commitment to democracy and its institutions. This extraordinary victory of democracy forces us to look forward, to forget our differences, which are much less than what unites us forever — the love for Brazil and the unbreakable faith in our people. …

Unfortunately, much of what we built in 13 years was destroyed in less than half that period, first by the coup against former President Dilma Rousseff in 2016, and then by the four years of a government that destroyed the country and whose legacy history will never forget. …

In the fight for the good of Brazil, we will use the weapons that our adversaries fear the most: the truth that prevails over the lies, the hope that conquers fear, and the love that defeats hatred. Long live Brazil, and long live the Brazilian people!

AMY GOODMAN: Lula has appointed 11 women to serve in his government, more than any previous administration. The Goldman Prize winner Marina Silva was chosen as Brazil’s environmental minister. She held the post in Lula’s previous two terms in office, during which Amazon deforestation slowed significantly. Indigenous land and water defender Sônia Guajajara was named Brazil’s first-ever minister for Indigenous peoples. Lula also nominated the Black activist, journalist and educator Anielle Franco as Brazil’s new minister of racial equality. She’s the sister of Marielle Franco, who was a human rights and racial justice activist and member of Rio de Janeiro’s City Council before she was assassinated in 2018.

Ahead of Lula’s swearing-in Sunday, the Brazilian Supreme Court temporarily banned registered gun owners from carrying their firearms in the capital Brasília until after the inauguration ceremony. The move came amidst rising concerns of violence from the far right and supporters of the defeated President Jair Bolsonaro. Lula addressed Bolsonaro’s supporters during a speech at the National Congress, where he was sworn in to office for his third term in office.

PRESIDENT LUIZ INÁCIO LULA DA SILVA: [translated] We do not carry any spirit of revenge against those who tried to subjugate the nation to their personal and ideological purposes, but we will guarantee the rule of law. Those who made mistakes will answer for their mistakes with the right to defense within the due legal process.

AMY GOODMAN: As we broadcast, Brazil’s new president, Lula, is paying his respects at the Afro-Brazilian soccer great Pelé’s open casket in Santos as one of his first actions as the country’s new head of state.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. Maria Luísa Mendonça is director of the Network for Social Justice and Human Rights in Brazil and a visiting scholar at the City University of New York Graduate Center. And journalist Michael Fox is host of the podcast Brazil on Fire, former editor of NACLA.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Maria Mendonça, let’s begin with you. Just talk about the significance of Lula returning as president, what this means.

MARIA LUÍSA MENDONÇA: Yes. This is very, very important. It’s a historical moment for Brazil. And as we heard from Lula and also from the supporters that were present at the inauguration, this is about the return of democracy in Brazil, because Bolsonaro was only able to get elected because there was a parliamentary coup against former President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 that opened the space for that, and then Lula was arrested, although, you know, there was no evidence against him. So, it was a long way to return to democracy.

And I think it was very symbolic that, it was important that Bolsonaro was not present at the inauguration. So, the what meant was that there were representatives from different, diverse sectors of Brazilian society that made Lula the new president. So, it was a very important, symbolic moment and a moment of joy.

And also it was important because in the first day Lula also issued several executive orders that are very important in terms of changing policy and rebuilding Brazilian institutions in areas of environmental protection, education, gun control, and also changing policies, for example, to stop privatization of key public corporations in Brazil.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Maria Luísa Mendonça, I’d like to ask you about the — while Lula himself is personally still very popular in Brazil, the same is not necessarily true for the Workers’ Party. What’s going to be the problems that he faces with the new Congress? If you could talk about that?

MARIA LUÍSA MENDONÇA: Yeah, there are very strong lobby in Congress. For example, you know, agribusiness, mining corporations, they have very strong lobby. At the same time, in the parliamentary elections, the party that lost most seats was the traditional conservative parties, not the left-wing progressive parties. So, the PT still has a broad coalition of progressive parties.

And I think that Lula also can rebuild a lot of the institutions, as he is already doing. He is rebuilding the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Gender Equality, Racial Equality, the Labor Ministry. And he appointed very important key people to run those institutions. So, I think that he’s going to be able to advance progressive policies, although, of course, you know, there will be a battle, I think, especially with the agribusiness sector, that is very strong in Brazil.

At the same time, Lula also already signed important policies to rebuild, for example, funding to protect the Amazon and other important areas in Brazil — the Cerrado, the Pantanal, the wetlands. So I think environmental protection is going to be key. And that’s important because the main cause of environmental destruction is the expansion of agribusiness plantations.

So, I think that at the same time Lula rebuilds the ministry that protects and gives support to small farmers in Brazil. So, I think that that will be an important balance and much more participation of civil society and organizations, progressive organizations, and social movements in his administration.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’d like to bring in Michael Fox, the freelance journalist, former editor of NACLA. Welcome to Democracy Now! Could you talk to us about the foreign policy implications of Lula’s return, both for Latin America and also, of course, he played a major role in the formation of the BRICS nations — Brazil, Russia, China, India and South Africa — in terms of a new international pole against foreign, Western imperialism?

MICHAEL FOX: This is just huge. And like you mentioned, Lula coming back is bringing back what he was able to do in the 2000s. You know, he created, during his first two terms, 35 different embassies, many of them in Latin America and the Caribbean and in Africa. The whole idea was really South-South ties. That’s why the BRICS was so important. UNASUR — he was one of the founding members of the Union of South American Nations — that’s going to be important again. And these are all things that Bolsonaro had completely taken Brazil from and had taken Brazil from these kind of international agreements, pulled Brazil from CELAC, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Countries. And that’s something that Lula’s first trip, he’s already talked about — he’s going to be going to Argentina in just a few weeks to reenter Brazil into that regional integration, that regional organization. So, these things are absolutely huge.

And this is like Lula’s bread and butter, right? You know, he transformed what was foreign policy for Brazil. And the whole idea was we’re going to lift Brazil into an international sphere; we’re going to talk with the richest countries; we’re going to be dialoguing with, for instance the United States and China. Lula already has talked about the importance of these two different countries that are really key and are top trading partners for Brazil. But at the same time, he’s going to continue the regional integration. He brought in his new foreign minister, who was the foreign minister under Dilma Rousseff, Mauro Vieira, who’s already talked about the top three tenets of Lula’s foreign policy, which is going to be, first, South American relations, then Latin American relations, and then African relations, reupping those deep ties with Africa, which Lula was so important.

And we saw this at the inauguration on Sunday. Nineteen different heads of state were there, and 65 different foreign delegations. We’ve never seen this before at a Brazilian inauguration, the highest number of people. And just to show you kind of the interesting relationship that Lula brings to the world is you had the foreign delegation from Ukraine, and right behind them was the foreign delegation from Russia, both of them wanting to be close to Lula.

The BRICS was huge, that he brought in. Lula also negotiated the Iran nuclear deal. So, he is this important, huge, important figure on the international scene. Remember that Obama called him o cara, “the man.” And that is what he really brings back on an international level. That’s just going to be huge for Brazil.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Fox, can you talk about the significance of — I mean, some talked about Bolsonaro flying out; you might say he was fleeing. But on Friday, without conceding defeat, he flies to Orlando, not that far from where President Trump is — right? — at Mar-a-Lago, often referred to, by the way, as the “tropical Trump.” Can you talk about the significance of this and the criminal investigations that may be beginning?

MICHAEL FOX: Him leaving early was kind of the final straw in an administration which had just no respect for Brazilian democracy. And that’s how so many people in Brazil see this and saw it on this day. When he was flying out, in fact, there were all these tweets showing the video of his plane flying and people cheering in places all around the country, because it was the final kind of leg of his government.

And the fact that he flew to Florida of all places — in fact, for weeks before, we had been hearing that he was going to be spending New Year’s in Mar-a-Lago with Trump. He obviously was not.

But it’s hugely significant, the fact that he was not there to actually hand over the presidential sash. This is the first time that a Brazilian president, since the end of the dictatorship in Brazil, was not there to pass the presidential sash to the incoming president. And as Maria Luísa had already talked about, it was actually this diverse group of Brazilian people — a Black trash collector, the folks from — a cook, a handicap activist — who passed that sash on to Lula, and it showed the Brazilian people coming together. So it was huge.

And, yes, there are all these different — these convictions, these cases against Bolsonaro, which are really, really important. What we saw yesterday, PSOL, the small left party, has already asked the Supreme Court to issue preventative prison for Bolsonaro for the crimes that he’s committed under his term. So, this is going to be an interesting thing to see how this all plays out, you know, in the coming weeks, in the coming months. What we understand is that part of the reason why he left early was that his lawyers suggested that he should be leaving — you know, he might want to leave the country so as not to have issues and problems regarding these different, you know, potential lawsuits against him.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Maria Luísa, Michael mentioned the military dictatorship, the dark period of Brazil’s modern history. What is your sense of the role of the Brazilian military at this point? Quite a few, obviously, of Bolsonaro’s supporters are hoping that the military will somehow or other step in and reverse what has happened. And there’s a large protest camp of Bolsonaro supporters that’s been now in existence for weeks. Talk about how Lula will deal with or is expected to deal with the military.

MARIA LUÍSA MENDONÇA: Yes. Lula is already in conversation with the military, even during his campaign. I think, of course, the military is divided. And I think what we see right now is that the majority of people within the military is not willing to take a political role at this time.

So, Bolsonaro kind of instrumented the military and gave them a lot of power in different situations, but now what Lula is doing is completely reforming the key institutions in the country and placing technical people, people who are really experts in the fields that — where they are. For example, for the first time, Brazil will have a woman as the head of the Ministry of Health. And she is a very important expert in public health. And they’re going to be investigating why Bolsonaro did not buy vaccines at the time, why there were so many deaths in Brazil because of COVID that could be prevented.

So, you know, I think that we are rebuilding and transforming the institutions, and the military is going to keep its traditional role and not take the role of civilian and civil society organizations. So, I think that there has been negotiations, and I think we are very happy — you know, social movements in Brazil are very happy with how Lula is rebuilding the institutions and, you know, really bringing the best experts to each area in terms of, you know, now moving forward and rebuilding policies that would benefit the majority of the society.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about the people he’s appointed, the 11 women to serve in the government, more than any other previous administration, like the Goldman Prize winner Marina Silva, chosen as Brazil’s environmental minister, held the post in his previous two terms, during which Amazon deforestation slowed significantly, and then Sônia Guajajara, the Indigenous land and water defender, and Brazil’s first-ever minister for Indigenous peoples. Lula also nominated the Black activist, journalist and educator Anielle Franco as Brazil’s new minister of racial equality, so significant, who she is, the sister of Marielle Franco, who was that human rights and racial justice activist, Rio de Janeiro city councilmember, who was assassinated in 2018. And, Michael Fox, there was questions of the Bolsonaro family being linked to that assassination. Can you talk about these people?

MICHAEL FOX: Game changer, Amy. It’s such a game changer. I mean, you have now for the first time in years, I mean, definitely since well before Bolsonaro — Marina Silva, Sônia Guajajara — you have people that are actually focused on trying to defend the Amazon rainforest and are there and ready to stop deforestation.

I actually spoke with Marina Silva just before Lula’s electoral victory, and she had actually said that “I’ve already handed the documents that Lula needs to get us to deforestation zero — zero deforestation. And now we just need to take those steps to be able to implement them.” It’s not going to be easy, but they were able to do it under Lula’s first administration. And that’s just absolutely key.

The fact that there’s an Indigenous person, like you said, and there is now an Indigenous Ministry — the Indigenous peoples have been so — they’ve had their back against the wall. They have been attacked under the Bolsonaro government. The Amazon rainforest has. And what we’ve seen in Indigenous territories, 50% of the deforestation happening under Bolsonaro was in and on Indigenous and conservation zones. So, the fact that there is now an Indigenous Ministry, led by Indigenous activist Sônia Guajajara, who is part of the largest Indigenous organization, is just absolutely key.

The fact that Marielle Franco’s sister is now the head of racial justice is just huge. And so, all these things bring in this absolute change. I mean, when we talk about the themes that Lula’s government means — the idea of diversity, of unity — an absolute change from what we’ve seen under Bolsonaro, a pushback on the white supremacy that’s been attacking Brazil so much in the attacks and the lies. This is just a complete game changer for Brazil. And, you know, it really marks what the coming days and the coming weeks and the coming months are going to mean for Lula.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Maria Luísa, I wanted to ask you about the role of the judiciary in Brazil. It’s been very controversial. The judges have been accused oftentimes of trying to shape the political process by their rulings. How do you expect the Supreme Court and the judiciary to act now under the new — with the new Lula administration?

MARIA LUÍSA MENDONÇA: Yes. We have seen a change in the Supreme Court since the parliamentary coup against President Dilma Rousseff, because the Supreme Court went along with the coup at that time. But I think, during the Bolsonaro administration, he was so extreme in terms of attacking all democratic institutions in Brazil, including attacking the Supreme Court, that then we saw the Supreme Court taking a turn and really making sure that we will have free and fair elections this time, and, you know, getting Lula out of jail and restoring democracy. So, I think that we have seen that change, which is very important.

And also, the new minister of justice in Brazil also is willing to move forward, for example, with the investigation on the assassination of Marielle Franco and many other investigations that were stopped during Bolsonaro’s administration. So I think we will have important advancements in that area, as well, in terms of, you know, fighting against impunity in the country.

And, of course, there will be always a battle. Sérgio Moro, who was the judge that made up the case against Lula, was elected to the Senate. So, of course, you know, we will have still a lot to do in terms of activism in Brazil. But we have very important measures and policies that just in this last couple of days we have seen that key policies have been announced.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Michael Fox, one of his first acts in office, Lula is in Santos today in Brazil paying respects to Pelé, known as “the king,” the great Afro-Brazilian soccer player, the soccer icon of the world, at the 16,000-person stadium where he made some of his best goals, comforting Pelé’s widow. If you could end by talking about the significance of this start? And interestingly, Pelé, who overcame so much racism in Brazil, yet also the complex relationship he had with the Brazilian coup leaders.

MICHAEL FOX: Absolutely. I mean, the fact that this comes in one of Lula’s first days, and the fact that he says, you know, “Despite just being inaugurated, I’m going to this,” is really, really key. You know, the loss of Pelé has been huge for Brazil. There was three days of mourning. The lights were on at the stadiums across the country. People came out crying, because of what he meant. You know, this is the soccer great, but he also unified a country — right? — and brought them forward so much.

Now, like you said, his relationship with the dictatorship, his relationship with power, was very complicated, because he didn’t often speak out. He didn’t come out against them, and he liked to play it easy. But at the same time, what he represented for Brazil was huge. And he was this international symbol that was important for even the United States. If Pelé had never come to play at the Cosmos, I probably never would have been playing soccer in the early ’80s.

And so, the fact that Lula was there, the fact that they held off his funeral and this day of mourning for today, is key and is absolutely really, really timely, and it’s showing of what this means, the beginning of this new administration, the beginning of hope, really, for Brazil. That’s what everyone is talking about. And I think this is just a really important day for Brazil and Brazilians.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both for being with us, Michael Fox, a former editor of NACLA, host of the podcast Brazil on Fire, and Maria Luísa Mendonça, director of the Network for Social Justice and Human Rights in Brazil.

Next up, after years of legal challenges from former President Donald Trump, Congress releases six years of Trump’s tax returns. We’ll speak with the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who wrote two books about Donald Trump, David Cay Johnston. He says the returns show Trump knowingly committed brazen tax fraud. We’ll look at what he did and didn’t pay in taxes in this country, and what he did pay in taxes in countries around the world. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “System of Survival” by Earth, Wind & Fire. The band’s drummer Fred White died New Year’s Day at the age of 67.

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