For the second week running the memories sparked by the column theme take me back to dictatorial times (perhaps topical enough with all the attention being given to the film Argentina, 1985 premiered here this week) – last week it was presidential appearances at the United Nations and today Brazil, which votes tomorrow in a key election for the region. When I joined the Buenos Aires Herald newsroom in mid-1983, Brazil’s president was General João Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo (previously the military intelligence chief) at the tail-end of two decades of dictatorship beginning in 1964, just a couple of years after then-French President Charles de Gaulle had concluded his visit with the brutal verdict: “Le Brésil n’est pas un pays serieux.”
Tomorrow’s vote – with the main uncertainty not hovering around the winner but on whether he wins in the first or second round (probably the latter) – should be a no-brainer. The mainstream global press never tires of reminding us of President Jair Bolsonaro’s appalling record with the coronavirus pandemic and Amazon deforestation among other disasters, dire indeed, but the rightist runs into terminal problems even accepting his own premises. His status as an anti-system incumbent makes Bolsonaro almost the ultimate oxymoron (some would simply call him a moron). And those who might have welcomed a violent lurch to the right as a prelude to the deep structural reforms needed by the region were doomed to disappointment because his government was a walking contradiction between the free-market enthusiasms of his Chicago boy Economy Minister Paulo Guedes and the totalitarian streak underlying the military clique surrounding the ex-paratrooper.
Yet in my case at least, welcoming Lula back to the presidency he occupied so successfully between the first day of 2003 and the last day of 2010 is shadowed by my newsroom experience. Writing a “LatAm Watch” column during most of the first decade of this century, I had to keep a much closer eye on regional news than in other years, reading up on Lula’s numerous state visits to neighbouring countries, no matter how routine. There Lula never failed to highlight the virtues of developing regional infrastructure nor to recommend Odebrecht to do the job most warmly. At the time I naively assumed from the company name that they sported a Teutonic efficiency which made them genuinely the best but in hindsight we might think differently.
Some analysts like to contrast the “lawfare” claims of Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Lula on the grounds that the Brazilian Supreme Court cleared him to run (but without fully acquitting him) due to then-Curitiba judge Sergio Moro lacking the jurisdiction to try him but this columnist does not think that Cristina is so guilty nor Lula so innocent. No way that Cristina Kirchner can have been ignorant or innocent of the mass larceny going on around her but it was not of her making. She is on another planet of ideological grandstanding and pontificating rhetoric – her body language has always been more about smoothing her hair than tapping her pocket. In contrast, Lula was in the engine room of graft – they may have jailed him on the simplest (and also flimsiest) case against him, that Guarujá beach triplex gifted to him by Odebrecht, but big questions about both Odebrecht and Petrobras remain to be answered.
Yet there is so much more to Lula than graft – lifting over 20 million people out of poverty and making his country a global player as symbolised by being the first letter in BRICS, the 2014 World Cup and the Rio Olympics, punching above its weight for almost the first time – and Brazilians have plenty of reasons to vote him back in his own right. Yet there are also reasons to pause and at least think about Ciro Gomes, Simone Tebet or some alternative. Just as a bit of inflation might seem positive (stimulating growth, cancelling debts and deficits), so zero tolerance for corruption might seem excessive but just as inflation ends up destroying real wages, as we are now experiencing, corruption ends up being even more destructive. Even with the insane result of Bolsonaro, voting out Lula’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) was not insane. Bolsonaro’s evangelical voter base should not just be seen as wacky sects but also as Max Weber’s Protestant ethic (even if flawed economic history with Belgium the first country to industrialise after Britain) seeking to make Brazil the serious country which De Gaulle could not see.
No space for much more than a list of the presidents since 1983. None of the first two elected presidents reached the end of their terms – Tancredo Neves (who died between his election and inauguration, surely a unique case) did not even begin it while Fernando Collor de Mello was impeached for corruption after only two years. Their replacements, José Sarney and Itamar Franco, both laid the foundations of Mercosur. They were followed by two two-term presidencies: Fernando Henrique Cardoso (whom Argentina’s Economy Minister Sergio Massa would like to emulate by reaching the presidency on the back of stabilising the economy) and Lula, who proved too hard an act for his Cabinet chief Dilma Rousseff (Brazil’s first woman president) to follow – re-elected in 2014 but removed from office in 2016 with Michel Temer filling in until Bolsonaro won the presidency in 2018. All background information but what matters is tomorrow’s vote.