Brazil’s Dead End

The Edge of Democracy

a documentary film by Petra Costa

O Mecanismo [The Mechanism]

a television series created by José Padilha and Elena Soarez
Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva with supporters on the day he agreed to start a prison sentence for corruption, São Paulo
Francisco Van Steen Proner Ramos
Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva with supporters on the day he agreed to start a prison sentence for corruption, São Paulo, April 2018; from Petra Costa’s The Edge of Democracy

For Brazilians, January 1, 2003, was one of those rare moments in history when everything seems possible. It was Inauguration Day, and not only was power being transferred from one democratically elected civilian president to another for the first time in more than forty years, but the man donning the green-and-yellow presidential sash, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was a former lathe operator and union leader, and the son of illiterate peasants—what Brazilians call povão, a man of the people. Tens of thousands of ordinary citizens had traveled from every corner of their vast country to celebrate his swearing-in, and they flooded the esplanade in front of the presidential palace in Brasília, waving banners, chanting “hope has vanquished fear,” and cheering the incoming president’s promise of a new era of honesty and transparency in government.

Sixteen years later, Lula, as he is universally known, was several months into a long prison term, having been found guilty of corruption and money laundering during and after his eight years in office. His hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff (whom Brazilians usually call by her first name), had been impeached, with the connivance of political parties nominally allied with her, and the left-wing party Lula founded and led, the Workers’ Party, had been all but obliterated in the municipal elections that followed soon after. Encouraged by that outcome, an obscure ultra-right-wing congressman from Rio de Janeiro with no party support, Jair Bolsonaro, had launched an insurgent campaign for president that, shockingly, was about to put him in control of Latin America’s most populous nation.

How Brazil got from Lula to Bolsonaro in so short a time seems unfathomable, even to many of the 210 million Brazilians who lived through the process. Two main theories have been offered to explain the momentous shift. One is that Lula, by presiding over the most corrupt government in Brazilian history, betrayed those who believed in him and that Bolsonaro became the instrument of their disgust and revenge. The other is that Lula and his party were victims of a “parliamentary coup d’état” and a campaign of judicial persecution, both aimed at restoring to power the elites who scorned Lula and regarded him and his party as a threat to their interests.

In Brazil Apart: 1964–2019, Perry Anderson, an emeritus professor of history and sociology at UCLA, positions himself squarely in the second camp. Lula is not only innocent of the trumped-up charges of which he has been convicted, Anderson argues, but he and his party…

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