Lula: “Without democracy we won’t go anywhere”
In January, 2020, Brasil Wire editors Daniel Hunt and Brian Mier, in partnership with Michael Brooks, host of the Michael Brooks Show, interviewed former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the Workers Party (PT) headquarters in São Paulo. The interview was the culmination of a 6 month process which started with the filing of a request in the Curitiba Court system to interview him while he was still a political prisoner due to a kangaroo court procedure which leaked social media messages exposed by Glenn Greenwald now show was designed to catapult neofascist Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency. While preparing for the interview we made the decision not to cross-examine him about his imprisonment as most interviewers have done recently. Instead, we decided to focus on questions related to the legacy of a historically important union leader and President, US imperialism and how to defeat the resurgence of fascism on the World stage. The following edited transcript represents Part 2 of the interview. (Part 1 can be read here). The video was filmed by Edge of Democracy cinematographer Ricardo Stuckert and TeleSur producer Nacho Lemus and can be viewed on the Michael Brooks Show Youtube channel, here.
President Lula I want to ask you, as a former labor union organizer and friend of labor, about what we call the Gig or the Uber economy. A big problem in the United States and I think also in Brazil, is that these silicon valley companies design business models so that they can say, for example, that Uber drivers are not a real workers, they are freelancers and aren’t actually an employee of the company, which they say is a platform and not a corporation with common workers. The workers are isolated. People in the Uber example are each in their own cars, they don’t meet each other and they don’t have opportunities to organize. The companies cut down all the wages by design. They can lose money for a long time. They get the venture capital and then they redesign the marketplace to muscle out labor power. What is the strategy for labor to respond to this Gig economy in Brazil, the United States and internationally?
I have tried to learn about this issue with Brazilian union leaders because it is one of my concerns as a former union leader. I don’t know if you know this, but since the fall of Lehman Brothers, 125 countries around the world have enacted labor law reforms to remove rights from the workers, not to improve labor rights. In other words it’s almost like we are going back to the days of slavery. You work without knowing if you will have a job the next day, you work without the guarantee of accident insurance, you work without knowing if you will ever be able to retire and you work with your own assets which you can lose if you get into a car accident.
There are a lot of qualified people, even engineers, people who worked in national Congress and other government workers who were laid off and don’t have jobs and are now working for Uber. It’s kind of like a lifeboat. When a ship is sinking you get into one of those little boats and you think you are saved but you are not safe there like you would be if you were in a big ship. The financial system and the Brazilian media and elites sell the idea that Brazil is evolving because it is removing labor rights from the workers and because it’s making it harder for workers to get retirement pensions. I don’t know if you saw this in the Brazilian media, but there is a line of nearly 2 million Brazilians waiting to retire and the President said that he will hire 4000 army reservists to solve the problem of the retirement system back up. When I was President, starting in 2007 and afterwards during Dilma Rousseff’s government, it took 30 minutes for a worker to officially retire. Half an hour. The workers didn’t have to chase after their pension benefits because the pension administration would chase after the workers. The pension department would contact the worker and ask, “have you completed your time of service? You have the right to retire. Go into the pension office.” It was us who communicated this. We had cases of workers who retired in 5 minutes. All you have to do is look at the newspaper headlines from that time and you will confirm this miracle. This was all dismantled in Brazil. So I think that now people are being polite, saying, “the person who works in the Uber is a micro-entrepreneur.” I said in an interview the other day that when I was 20 I worked as as a lathe operator and at that time we didn’t have the word “micro-entrepreneur”, we didn’t call it “entreprenuerialism”. I wanted to open a bar. I thought the best thing in the world would be to not have a boss. I wanted to be my own boss. Today it’s called “entreprenuerialism.” Now a citizen works in an Uber and doesn’t have any security whatsoever, he doesn’t have retirement benefits and doesn’t know how much money he is going to make that month. I know people who can’t make their car payments and sell their cars and start renting. They pay R$1600/month rental fees and sometimes they only make R$1600/month. People do it because they don’t have anything else to do, they don’t have any other job because there aren’t any opportunities. So they deliver pizza by bicycle now in the rain. Last week it was pouring rain in São Paulo and I saw a poor guy delivering a pizza on his bicycle because he had no other way to survive. There are no jobs. We should say ‘thank God’ that people accept to do this instead of becoming muggers. It’s better to work like that than to buy a revolver and stick up the first person who walks by your house. So what do we need to do? We need to recuperate working people’s rights. People died during historic strikes for women to get the right to an 8 hour work day in Chicago. There were deaths in the United States, in Brazil, in Sweden. There were workers who died fighting for the right to a 48 hour work week and to get the right to retire. All of this is being thrown out now in benefit of the employers. Most employers nowadays are representatives of the financial system. It is the financialization of the economy. You don’t know who the owner of a business is anymore. Now it’s all corporations. It’s all a group of investment funds and the people make money by speculating instead of producing, by selling paper. In Singapore a group of people created a fund to protect Uber workers. And when they organized – I think it was 6000 workers who organized this fund – they approached Uber to negotiate for the workers’ rights. Obviously workers are going to have to find a way to organize because if they don’t the situation will get really bad. I think that its only a question of time. The union movement is going to have to figure out a way to organize these workers who are working in such a precarious manner, without any rights, without any guarantees because they have to support their families and they have to pay their light and water bills at the end of the month. It’s a tough life but I am sure that we will find a solution. And this is why I say that PT should keep fighting. Any time that the PT has any doubts about what it should do it should remember why it was created. If anyone has any doubt about what side the PT is on and what fights the PT has to fight, they should just remember why the PT was created.
When François Hollande was elected President of France he came to Rio+20 in Brazil. I welcomed him here and we started talking and at one point I said, “let me give you a piece of advice. You know why you won the elections. Take the program you used to win the elections, put it on your bedpost and every morning when you wake up, before you wash your face, read the speeches you made to win the elections so that you don’t forget.” I went to visit Obama during the beginning of his mandate and I said, “Obama, you are one of the only Presidents in the World who won’t have problems governing. “He said, “why?” And I said, “All you have to do is show the courage of the black people who voted for you to govern the country. It takes courage to do things differently from the way they are normally done. That is how you can govern the country and things will work out because when you win an election the first thing that happens is that the elites and big business – even if they never liked you – will be the first people to support you. It’s hard. People you’ve never met are going to knock on your door every day. And the poor people who voted for you won’t be able to see you anymore.”
So, my dear, there are a lot of things that we have to learn how to do. I’d go to an event and I like to hug and kiss people on the cheek and the security wouldn’t let me. I had to go around in an armored car. I told my advisors, “it’s funny. When we are running for office, we drive in a convertible waving at everyone but after we win they don’t let you wave at the people anymore.” When a VIP goes to visit the President there is no security. But when poor people come, there’s security. It’s incredible. So it is a learning experience. This is why I wanted to come back in 2018. This is why I wanted be President again because there are a lot of things that I learned how to do after I left the government. It’s possible to do a lot more – a lot more. You don’t have to radicalize things, just obey the Constitution. Follow the constitution, follow the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and follow the Bible. It’s all there. People have to have houses, schools, jobs, salaries and food. Everything is written there. There is no law that says that people have to go without food. Meanwhile, there are big Silicon Valley companies which coordinate the internet. We thought that the means of communication could be much more democratic. Today there are a half dozen companies which coordinate everything. They even falsify elections. If people don’t take care, they will be transformed into algorithms. They will know what you think, what you do and what you like to eat. They will start to interfere and they will start to tell lies. This is what happened in the US elections, in the Brazilian elections and the Hungarian elections.
When TeleSur’s Nacho Lemus interviewed you recently you said that you believe that foreign powers were involved in the June 2013 protests in Brazil. Immediately afterwards you were attacked by Brazilians from the vanguard left who accused you of reducing what had happened to a mere intervention by the CIA. I know that the PT historically takes a Gramscian view of the integral state – it is not just the government, it’s things like the corporations too. Could you explain exactly what you meant when you said there was external interference in 2013?
This question is important because it enables me to clearly explain what I said during the other interview. I did not say that the CIA started the movement. The movement started in the protests by people who were fighting for the right to collective transportation in several Brazilian state capitals and this was a legitimate social movement. But after it started, after the black blocs appeared and started breaking a few things, the movement was taken over. It wasn’t the transportation movement that put 1 million people from the middle class onto the streets protesting against the government, against the World Cup and against just about everything that was happening in Brazil. Globo TV had never interrupted it’s telenovelas before to broadcast a protest against busfare hikes or any workers protest – never. Suddenly TV Globo, SBT, Bandeirantes and Record were all inviting people to the streets at 7 AM, Noon, 3PM. They were inviting people as if they were advertising a party. The protest marches were broadcast on live TV, which is something that had never happened before in the history of Brazil. So if it is true that it started here in São Paulo as a movement to fight for a 20 cent bus fare reduction, this struggle was taken over and held up by other interests. Today things are clearer to me then they were back then but I don’t think we will find out exactly who was behind all of it very quickly.
I remember the Arab Spring. I remember the downfall of Mubarak. Mubarak really had to go down. He was a dictator who was in power for so many years. But then the people elected Morsi. And how long did it take to take out Morsi? And who is there now? If it is true that the people were fighting for democracy, what are they doing now with 3 generals running Egypt, with no more protests and no more marches? The same thing happened in Turkey. Erdogan called us up in 2013 and said “this isn’t a movement trying to improve a public square – they want to overthrow the government. So be careful in Brazil.”
Therefore, I have plenty of reasons to be suspicious about what happened here in Brazil, first of all because no labor unions were protesting against the government. We didn’t know what this movement was. It appeared to be against nearly everything and favorable to one segment of society. It seemed like it was anti-PT, anti Dilma, anti-World Cup and anti-Olympics, so I wrote an article for the New York Times in which I said “the people who have gotten used to eating sirloin want filet mignon”. This is what I thought at the time, but today I think there was a lot more to it than this. It was not just economic, it was political. So I have a lot of mistrust about what happened here, what happened recently in Ecuador, what happened in Argentina and what happened in Bolivia. What was the logic behind what they did to me in Operation Lava Jato? Any lawyer who looks at case can see the lies that are being told and the con they are pulling on me. This lawfare attack, which was uncovered by my lawyers, is one of the most commentated subject in legal circles around the World today. It is a more modern and efficient way to destroy a democracy and end the popular representation of the vote. This is what they did here. This is what they did in Bolivia and they tried to do it with Rafael Correa in Ecuador. So I have a deep mistrust about this legalization of world politics.
I think we have to take into consideration that an honest and serious person won’t lie and spread fake news. He won’t lie on WhatsApp. But a person who has no worth, dignity or morality lives on lies. I saw a news story that Trump tells 12 lies per day. I’m not sure if it was 12, but I saw it in a newspaper somewhere. How can a President lie 12 times per day? Look at Bolsonaro’s tweets and the number of lies he tells. When a person becomes President of the Republic they have to be responsible. It’s not a small job, it’s a very big job. And we have to remember the respectability that people have to have with the institution. I am deeply worried about a certain type of movement that has started in Italy and other countries. Democracy has to be strengthened. The political parties have to exist. Whoever thinks there is an easy solution for humanity outside of politics should understand that what comes after politics will always be worse. This is why I defend politics and political parties. If a politician is no good, exchange him. Substitute him. What you can’t do is believe that there is a national savior from the business world who is going to save everyone. Only democracy and the exercise of democracy in its plenitude will solve the problem of the conflicts around the World and reduce the demand for war. Do you think it makes sense for Trump to order the assassination of an Iranian General in Iraq? What is the logic behind that? The World needs peace. The World needs hope. The World needs people that wake up every morning thinking its going to be a good day. Who would gain from a war with Iran right now? Who gained from the war in Iraq? I saw Trump complain the other day that Iran has won over Iraq now, that the majority of them are Shia and now they like Iran. But it was the US that started the war. I met with Bush around the time when the US started the war, in 2003. Later I met with Clinton in Davos and he said, “Bush is going to do some research. If he sees it will help him in the elections he’s going to attack Iraq.” And he did it, in exchange for what? Did it improve the lives of the people of Iraq? Did it improve democracy in Iraq? Nothing improved. It’s worse now. Nowadays you have a nomadic society traveling around the World made up of people who have been hired to assassinate, to hold coups and to make wars. I think that the government leaders who like democracy are going to have to work very hard to reestablish democratic values. Because without democracy we won’t go anywhere. This is why I hope that during the next US elections the people can elect someone who is committed to democracy, peace and development – someone who is committed to harmony among the people and not someone who likes war.
My own country, the United Kingdom, is usually considered a puppet of the United States but it has its own foreign policy in Latin America which has hardened during the last 10 years of conservative rule. What were your experiences with UK governments and what is your view of UK/Brazil relations now?
I’m going to tell you something new. When I was a union leader here in the city of São Bernardo do Campo during the 80s, I went to participate in a strike in England, when the miners went on strike for 11 months and Margaret Thatcher defeated them. I spent two days there giving speeches and marching with the miners.
Brazil’s relationship with the UK is very respectful. There was a time in Brazil when the figure of the Queen was something seen as beyond the normal comprehension of humans. I don’t know if you know this but here in Brazil they will still do things like broadcast a royal baptism on TV. England has the only Queen that still maintains the power of the crown.
I had a good and respectful relationship with Tony Blair and I had a good relationship with Gordon Brown. Those were the two governments with which I had contact. Tony Blair’s role in the decision to join the war in Iraq was unfortunate. He knows this. He is regularly accosted on the streets of London because of the war in Iraq. He knew there were no chemical weapons in Iraq. Do you know why we also knew about this? Because the Secretary who took care of the UN’s department of nuclear weapons was Brazilian. It was Ambassador Bustani. He was the Secretary who dealt with chemical weapons. And he wore himself out saying, “they don’t have them”. The Americans ordered Fernando Henrique Cardoso to remove Bustani because of this. So they appointed someone from Japan who said they did have them. How long has it been since they invaded Iraq? Where are the chemical weapons? The only chemical weapons they had there were Saddam Hussein himself, who lied to his people the whole time and Bush, who lied to the World the whole time.
I have to say I’m a little proud that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown helped me during the beginning of my government. They were very friendly. I think it was because I am a former factory worker. When Gordon Brown was in charge of the British economy he helped a lot. He spoke well of Brazil in the foreign newspapers and this helped us a lot. I had a very good relationship with them. It was stronger with Gordon Brown, who I thought was more serious and more committed. But from the commercial standpoint it wasn’t a big deal. I think trade with the UK reached $8 billion. It is very small because Brazil is not taken very seriously in those parts of the World. Brazil does not have international political power so is not taken into account much. It was taken into account a bit more during our period, maybe because I was the first metalworker to become President. But the truth is that Evo Morales and I were always odd men out. Imagine Evo, an Indian coca farmer, as President of Bolivia. I met Gonzalo, the Bolivian President. who I believe resigned in 2003, and he didn’t even speak Spanish. He wanted to explain something to me in English because he had problems speaking Spanish and he was President of Bolivia. Evo Morales was a real President. He implemented social inclusion policies, reduced inflation, generated jobs and increased Bolivia’s foreign reserves, which are now larger than the value of the GDP. Now the elites have deposed him.
In short, I have good memories of Great Britain and I am thankful for all of the solidarity that the Labour Party give me when I was in prison recently. I am going to send a letter thanking Jeremy Corbyn for all of the work he did in solidarity against my unjust imprisonment. I hope that Brazil understands that Britain is politically important and that it maintains healthy relations with it so that it always leaves a door open for Brazil and other countries.
President Lula, you recently quoted Mia Couto, who said that when the people are afraid they elect monsters to protect them. I want to know two things about this. First, I know we need an intellectual program but are there spiritual or emotional qualities that a leader needs to help take the fear out of people and give them some sense of hope? And, if I may, is Bernie Sanders that kind of leader?
I have not had the pleasure of ever meeting Sanders. I know about him from the press and through people who have met him and I know about him from the things he’s said in solidarity with me. He spoke with a comrade from PT, Fernando Haddad, and my impression of him is as high as can be. The impression I have from his last campaign is that, although he was unable to win the democratic primary, he had a very exciting campaign for the youth with a good discourse which, by US standards, was very leftist. For 20 years, whenever I visited the US I tried to see if I could find leftist in an American bar and I never met one. So when someone like Sanders comes up it’s extraordinary news. It is hopefull to know that you have someone in the Senate of a certain age – I think he is as old as me – who is strong willed. I think this is important because a country that has an economy the size of the US could really improve the quality of life for its people if it stopped worrying so much about wars and spending so much money on the armed forces and espionage. It could use some of this money to improve the quality of life of the poor people in the US who also don’t live well, who have health problems. I dream that if Sanders can win these elections we can dream, even though we know that an American President has an entire, powerful war machine behind him which can complicate democratic actions. I think that you can only govern well if you have made up your mind about what you want to govern for, who you want to govern for and what side you are on. There are sides we have to take during our time on planet Earth. The fact is that the rich do not need the State but they gain power from it. They often perform the role of the State itself. I have always said that if anyone wants to learn how to govern they should look at how mothers raise their children. If a mother has 10 children she will love them all equally but if there is one who is debilitated and weaker, that is the one who will get the second piece of meat. That is the one who will get a second bottle. That is the one who she will put on her lap to help fall asleep. This is the role of the State. This is governing for the people who need the State. Who needs the State? It is the working poor and people who want jobs. I am very sad now because I was proud when our social inclusion policies caused Brazil to exit the World Hunger Map. I am very proud that the UN had recognized that Brazil no longer needed to be on the map. Today Brazil has returned to the Hunger Map. There is a neighborhood in Pernambuco called Brasilia Teimosa where we got rid of the wooden stilt shacks and paved a nice road and the beach became beautiful. Stilt shacks have started popping up there again. And the number of people who sleep on the streets in this country has…. I never used see children begging on the streets of Brazil anymore. Now the children are back on the streets begging and living under the bridges. This doesn’t make sense in a rich country like Brazil. People say I am a radical. I am not a radical. I learned how to be more human in jail. I reflect more. I look at my 70 years of life and realize that I have to fight more and I have to argue more. You cannot accept the idea that the Brazilian elites don’t accept the economic growth of the poor. They don’t accept that the poor can have the right to healthcare, education, water, school- everything that can feed them. They don’t accept that the poor have these things. So I am not radical. I have a lot more political consciousness now. And for this reason I want to fight a lot more. “Oh, but Lula wants to come back,” they say. “Lula got out of jail angry and now he wants to polarize things.” I really want to polarize. I want to hold deep ideological debates. I want the people to know that there is no teaching anywhere that says a person has to go three days without food. There is no teaching that says that a person is supposed to wake up in the morning and not have a cup of milk or a piece of bread to give to their child. In a rich country like this one? So this is why it looks like I am more angry. It looks like I am a radical but I am not. I am a man who likes to talk and likes to negotiate. I learned how to do politics by negotiating. But I don’t want to be fooled again and I want to help the Brazilian people raise their heads up. A guy who is working for Uber has to know that he deserves something better than Uber. A man who is delivering Pizza by bicycle has to know that he deserves something better. Citizens who are sleeping on the sidewalk have to know that they don’t have to sleep on the sidewalk – the State has a responsibility to them. If not, what is the State for?
Brasil Wire | Translated and edited for readibility by Brian Mier.