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 are solely responsible for virtually all the social and economic advances Brazil has enjoyed this century. From 2003 to 2016, he writes, Brazil was “the theatre of a socio-political drama without equivalent in any other major state,” making it for the first time in its history “a country that mattered politically beyond its borders, as an example and potential inspiration to others.” The collapse of that noble experiment, he would have us believe, was the work of a jealous, vindictive, and treacherous opposition, and he directs particular opprobrium at Lula’s predecessor in office, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and the center-left party he then led, the Brazilian Social Democratic Party.

About Bolsonaro, Anderson reiterates the obvious: he is a moral monster. He spouts racist invective at black and indigenous Brazilians; is a misogynist; uses the most vile language imaginable to refer to gay people; extols the military dictatorship that tortured, exiled, and killed Brazilians for twenty-one excruciating years; sees arming the middle class as the solution to the country’s crime problem; wants to hand the country over to the rapacious corporate interests that are pillaging the Amazon and fouling pristine beaches; and is waging war against a free press. If he has redeeming qualities, they are carefully hidden, though Anderson generously describes him as “crude and violent certainly, but also with a boyish, playful side, capable of a coarse, on occasion even self-deprecating, good humor.”

Lula, on the other hand, is far more complicated and interesting. When I first met him in 1978, he was leading a metalworkers’ strike in the industrial belt around São Paulo and, at the age of thirty-three, just emerging as a national figure. He seemed inspiring, a charismatic, plain-speaking orator born in the parched and poverty-stricken interior, the seventh of eight children in a family that, like millions of others, had migrated to industrial cities in the south in search of a more bearable life. He left school after the sixth grade, sold oranges and shined shoes before getting a factory job, lost part of a finger in an industrial accident, then lost his first wife during childbirth. As Anderson writes, “Lula embodies a life-experience of popular hardship and a record of social struggle from below that no other ruler in the world approaches.”


That was Lula the labor leader. Lula the politician and president has proved to be a rather different matter. From the time the Workers’ Party, founded in 1980 and often referred to as the PT, its Portuguese-language initials, began winning mayoralties, it engaged in the standard schemes to siphon money from public coffers that have always contaminated Brazilian politics and invented a few new ones of its own. Some of that graft inevitably found its way into the pockets of party leaders. But PT stalwarts who brought the abuses to Lula’s attention, thinking he would intervene, were instead drummed out of the party, and in 2002, Celso Daniel, the mayor of a São Paulo suburb and coordinator of Lula’s presidential campaign, was murdered—a case that, though still unsolved and consigned by Anderson to a brief mention, revealed an elaborate network of bribes, kickbacks, slush funds, extortion, and other payoffs to the PT.

Referring to Lula and the corruption that was institutionalized during his first term as president, Anderson urges the reader to brush aside “lapses in the PT of which he had, of course, been unaware.” But that assertion is challenged by the sworn testimony of associates of Lula who turned state’s evidence, such as the former party treasurer Delúbio Soares, barely noted by Anderson, and the former minister of finance Antonio Palocci, whom he dismisses as a “toad” and a snitch. And all of that was just a prelude to the wholesale pilferage of public assets that provoked the Operation Car Wash investigations beginning in 2014: billions of dollars stolen from Petrobras, the state oil company, and distributed to the PT, its allies in Congress, and corrupt businessmen.

Inadvertently, Anderson is highlighting one of the central problems in current Brazilian politics: the unwillingness of Lula and the PT to accept the slightest responsibility for the corruption that flourished during their years in power or even to concede wrongdoing. Lula, Anderson claims, was jailed merely for “his inspection of a beach-side condominium” and the “improvement of a friend’s retreat.” But Lula’s own depositions, along with piles of documentary evidence, are available online for all to see, and they point not only to his guilt on the charges filed against him but also to several channels of malfeasance that have yet to be judged, including the unexplained wealth of his son “Little Lula,” a former zookeeper who became a millionaire during his father’s time in office. And an “everybody does it” argument doesn’t wash either: the PT came to power promising to hold itself to a higher standard than its rivals, so the sense of deception and disillusionment has been especially sharp.

The “parliamentary coup” theory also has enormous holes that Anderson blithely ignores. Contrary to what he implies, the impeachment articles against Dilma were largely drafted not by her opponents but by Hélio Bicudo, a founder of the Workers’ Party and a distinguished jurist and human rights defender who held senior posts in a pair of PT governments in São Paulo; appalled by the thievery metastasizing around him, Bicudo broke with Lula in 2005 but continued to espouse the party’s core values of social justice. The articles included election fraud and negligence as chair of the Petrobras board from 2003 to 2010, but Eduardo Cunha, the devious president of the Chamber of Deputies, accepted only the weakest one: that Dilma had illegally borrowed money from state banks to make up for budget shortfalls.

Both Cunha and Dilma’s vice-president, Michel Temer, were members of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, which has no defined ideology and seems to exist only to enjoy the fruits of power and corruption. In a political system with more than thirty parties, it has often provided the support in Congress that any president needs in order to govern effectively, for which it has exacted a high price in the form of ministerial appointments and other patronage. Its alliance with the PT was especially uneasy, and Cunha, whom Anderson describes as “an exceptionally skilled and ruthless politician, a master of the black arts of parliamentary manipulation and management,” held back the stronger impeachment charges in hopes of saving his own skin; he too was enormously corrupt, and the Car Wash investigation had already unearthed a wealth of incriminating evidence against him. As Anderson acknowledges, “he offered to freeze impeachment if the PT would protect him from annulment of his mandate and expulsion from Congress.” Lula was willing, even eager, to do this, but Dilma, not accused of personal corruption herself, was not. So the impeachment went ahead, and she was removed from office days after the end of the Rio Olympics in 2016. A month later, Cunha was stripped of his seat, then arrested, charged with hiding $40 million in payoffs in secret bank accounts, and convicted of corruption and tax evasion; he is now serving a fifteen-year sentence.


What Brazil experienced that year, in other words, was a falling-out between two gangs of thieves who had been working together but, as the cops closed in, turned on each other. The public was furious and demanded that all of the guilty parties be brought to justice: the slogan heard on the streets and seen as graffiti at that time was “Dilma out, Temer out, Cunha out, Renan out,” the last being the president of the Senate and an ally of the other two men. Instead, Temer simply outmaneuvered Dilma, orchestrating her impeachment behind the scenes and eventually succeeding her. Thus the plundering continued for the more than two years remaining in her term, to the public’s mounting rage.

When Anderson turns from the seaminess of politics to actual policy, a different problem with his analysis emerges. In one typical passage, he examines education programs and spending in Brazil, using cherry-picked numbers to make questionable claims for progress and equality under three consecutive Workers’ Party administrations, while minimizing advances that occurred prior to its taking power. “Since 2005 government spending on education has trebled, and the number of university students doubled,” he states. In contrast, he alleges, under Cardoso “during the nineties, higher education in Brazil largely ceased to be a public function.” Anderson’s book lacks footnotes, so I’m not sure of the source of those statements. But statistics compiled by the World Bank, UNESCO, the OECD, and Brazilian government agencies would seem to indicate that, at best, government spending on education rose about 100 percent in real terms over the period the PT was in power, significantly less than Anderson claims.

The principal problem with his assessment, however, is what it leaves out. During Cardoso’s eight years in office—1995 through 2002—his administration focused on secondary education, having logically concluded that it made no sense to prioritize investment in higher education if a sufficient number of high school students were not graduating. In that, the Cardoso administration excelled: high school enrollments expanded by more than a third during his tenure, the number of high school graduates increased by 35 percent, and the number of children not attending school at all dropped to 3 percent, compared with about 20 percent at the beginning of the decade. That is why, as Cardoso was leaving office, the United Nations Development Program praised him for having “overseen important human development progress,” especially in the areas of education, health, and agrarian reform.

Had Cardoso’s party won the 2002 election, it planned to supplement investment in secondary education with a similar push in higher education, emphasizing public universities, to accommodate the growing number of high school graduates. When Lula won, he took a similar path, but rather than focus on the public sector, he allowed dozens of fly-by-night private universities to proliferate, with the government providing scholarships and loans to underprivileged and nonwhite students. “However poor the quality of instruction—it is often terrible,” Anderson argues, the program was “a great popular success, sometimes optimistically compared for democratizing effect to the GI Bill of Rights in postwar America.” Who besides Anderson makes that comparison is never stated, but their numbers probably do not include Brazilian graduates saddled with debt who find, when they apply for jobs, that their degrees are deemed less worthy than those from public universities.

Anderson’s unwillingness to give credit where credit is due emerges as a major problem throughout Brazil Apart. He is skilled at turning the snarky phrase; in a single paragraph he refers to Bolsonaro’s “austeritarian overload” and the “salmagundi of conservative parties” behind him. But when the subject is Cardoso, all he can summon is bile and more bile. It is hard to say whether the origins of his animosity are personal—Anderson and Cardoso moved in the same circles at the University of São Paulo in the mid-1960s and were friendly until they weren’t—or ideological, or some mixture of the two. A sociologist and political scientist, Cardoso is the coauthor of Dependency and Development in Latin America, a canonical text in economic underdevelopment theory, but like many other Latin American intellectuals, he long ago left orthodox Marxism behind. Anderson, a founder of the New Left Review, has not, and accuses Cardoso of “sacrificing his intellectual standards” to become “a lesser mouthpiece for the guff of the Third Way,” personified by Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder, and Ricardo Lagos of Chile.

Anderson goes so far as to maintain that Cardoso’s criticisms of Lula and the PT are motivated by jealousy and vanity rather than legitimate policy differences. “For eight years, he suffered from comparison with Lula, a far more popular president who repudiated his legacy and changed the country decisively in ways he did not,” Anderson writes, adding that Cardoso was “stung by the greater political appeal of a worker with no education.” This seems exactly wrong, and on multiple levels. For one thing, though Lula did complain of the “cursed inheritance” Cardoso supposedly bequeathed him, he never really “repudiated” that legacy. Instead, after losing three campaigns for president (including two to Cardoso by wide margins), Lula embraced significant elements of his predecessor’s policies and moved away from a hard-left position—so much so that the Brazilian sociologist Francisco de Oliveira, a cofounder of the Workers’ Party whom Anderson cites approvingly on other matters, used to mordantly observe that Lula’s first year in office was actually “the ninth year of the Cardoso Administration.”

Even Lula’s signature social program, the Bolsa Família (Family Allowance), owes a significant debt to Cardoso. Anderson concisely defines Bolsa Família as “a monthly cash transfer to mothers in the lowest income strata, against proof that they are sending their children to school, and getting their health checked.” But he refuses to acknowledge the two principal authors of what he describes as “various pre-existent partial schemes” that Lula consolidated. One was Cristovam Buarque, who implemented such a program as governor of Brasília and later became Lula’s first education minister before leaving the PT in 2005 in protest against corruption; the other was none other than Cardoso, who, recognizing a good idea, expanded Buarque’s plan to a nationwide effort.

If anything, it is Lula who over the years has seemed to suffer from an envy complex. He and Cardoso were initially allies during the military dictatorship, but differences of both substance and style drove them apart. The Brazilian journalist Paulo Markun once wrote a dual study called The Frog and the Prince, and there was no mistaking who was who. Cardoso was the polished, erudite, multilingual one, while Lula was gruff and canny but unlettered and, as Anderson puts it, “ungrammatical in speech and untutored in government.” This always seemed to gnaw at Lula, and once elected he began to lob potshots at Cardoso. “Never in the history of Brazil,” he would often say after some routine measure went into effect, had any president achieved what he had; another favorite phrase was that “the lathe operator is doing what all the professors could not.” So while Anderson may be correct in describing Cardoso as “politically Lula’s arch-enemy,” the reverse has never been true.

Even more than Anderson’s book, Petra Costa’s film The Edge of Democracy adopts a “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” attitude toward the PT’s depredations. Nominated for an Academy Award in the feature-length documentary category, The Edge of Democracy is visually powerful and also benefits from behind-the-scenes access to Lula, Dilma, and their advisers that would be the envy of any filmmaker or journalist. And it is very much a personal story, attempting to link the Car Wash investigation and Dilma’s fall from power to the story of Costa’s parents, former supporters of the armed resistance who were jailed and tortured during the military dictatorship. In one memorable scene, Costa introduces her mother to Dilma, and the two women reminisce about the time they spent in prison and in the underground.

But as a guide to what actually happened in Brazil in the middle of the last decade, Costa’s film is unreliable. Instead, it plays as a friend-of-the-court brief for Lula and the PT, and simply ignores or seriously downplays evidence against them. Costa completely skips, for example, the bribery case in which two major construction companies spiffed up a weekend house for Lula in return for Petrobras contracts. And though she takes note of a notorious phone call in which Dilma and Lula arranged for his appointment as her presidential chief of staff to provide him with immunity from prosecution, Costa’s indignation is directed at the fact that the call was intercepted two hours and seventeen minutes after legal authorization for a wiretap had expired, rather than at the conversation itself, which clearly constituted obstruction of justice and was therefore an impeachable offense.

The Edge of Democracy is streaming on Netflix and is worth watching for the atmosphere of growing national division it portrays, but it is another Netflix offering, José Padilha and Elena Soarez’s sixteen-episode series The Mechanism, that provides the most illuminating look at the Car Wash scandal and the fall of the PT. Though ostensibly a work of fiction, all of the main characters in the series have real-life counterparts who are easily identifiable—Lula is Gino and Dilma is Janete—and significant chunks of dialogue among the corrupt protagonists seem drawn from wiretaps or testimony under oath. Overall, this appears a more truthful version of events, with no purely good guys, just a nation in the grip of a corrupt cartel of construction companies and bankers, regardless of which party is nominally in power, and cops and prosecutors willing to cut corners in their attempt to take down that “mechanism.”

Naturally Anderson expresses disdain for Padilha, accusing him of “descending from the bitter documentary truths” of his early work to low-grade action films. In general, Anderson’s view of Brazilian culture, one of the most dynamic and creative in the world, is narrow and sour. “Compared with the Brazil of fifty or thirty years ago, the decline of political energy in cultural life is palpable,” he complains, and results in a “neutralization or degradation into entertainment,” as if culture and entertainment were utterly incompatible. In reality, the political energy in Brazilian culture has merely shifted from posh neighborhoods like Ipanema to gritty suburbs known collectively as “the periphery,” and into new forms, such as rap: Anderson might want to give a listen to artists like Gabriel o Pensador, Chico Science, Nação Zumbi, Seu Jorge, Marcelo D2, Emicida, or Racionais MC’s.

This tendency toward overgeneralization permeates Anderson’s book, and it weakens his arguments. He talks in broad, sweeping terms, for example, of “the press” and “the military” as if they were monoliths. They are not, and each institution, like the rest of Brazilian society, has had to grapple with the shifting political landscape that Lula and Bolsonaro have created. Anderson argues that an elite cabal of newspapers, magazines, and television networks was motivated purely by class resentment to bring Lula down: “For the first time, a ruler did not depend on his proprietors, and they hated him for this,” he writes. But Lula initially enjoyed broad support among reporters and editors, and coverage reflected that. When the first giant corruption scandal erupted in 2005, though, they did what journalists always do: they chased the story to its origins, adhering to the Woodward and Bernstein adage “follow the money.” Were they supposed to turn a blind eye to the systematic looting of the national treasury simply because the PT was now doing it?

This leads to a peculiar contradiction that underlines the biases shackling Anderson. He has plenty of praise for articles published last year by Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept Brasil that documented collusion and other improper contacts between the chief judge in the Car Wash case and prosecutors. This was journalism at its best, and in the resulting uproar, Bolsonaro and his allies were so irate that there were calls for Greenwald’s expulsion from Brazil. (This was something I also experienced firsthand: in 2004 Lula ordered me expelled because he did not like articles I had written on subjects ranging from the Celso Daniel case to his well-known fondness for a drink or ten, and he backed down only after the Supreme Court intervened.) Yet when Lula or Dilma is the target of similar investigations into official misconduct, he criticizes the press for its partiality and condemns the leaks that inevitably are part of such probes.

In the most recent phase of Brazil’s crisis, the military has been even more significant than the press, so Anderson’s oversimplification in that area is particularly misleading. Many in the armed forces view Bolsonaro not as a representative of their class but as a failed soldier; no one leaves the army as a mere captain, as Bolsonaro did, unless he has no prospects of advancing, which was his situation after showing he was unable to submit to discipline. It is true that he has turned to the military to staff many important ministries and advisory posts, but that should not be taken as a blind show of military support, and there has been a lot of turnover. As Americans have learned during the Trump years from the example of generals like Jim Mattis, H.R. McMaster, and John Kelly, military officers feel a strong pull of patriotic duty even if—or perhaps especially if—their commander in chief is incompetent. The same is true in Brazil.

Anderson does not tell us whom, if anyone, he has talked to in the high command or officer corps. But conversations with members of those groups reveal a deep-seated reluctance to be thrust back into a politically prominent and sensitive position, especially in the service of an administration that has every possibility of ending up a disaster. When the military dictatorship ended in 1985, the armed forces had nearly zero prestige among Brazilians, and it took thirty years for them to claw back a degree of respect. Younger officers in particular have no appetite for throwing that away on Bolsonaro’s mad adventures, such as the gratuitous fights he has picked with traditional allies like France, Germany, and Norway and his falling into lockstep with Trump on foreign policy issues, nor do they want to inherit the mess he seems certain to leave behind. Hence the distinct lack of enthusiasm for either an old-fashioned military coup or for a Bolsonaro-led “self-coup” in the style of Alberto Fujimori in Peru, specters Anderson raises in the last paragraph of his book.

The sad truth about Brazil in 2020 is that there seems no logical way out of its crisis, at least not until the next presidential election in 2022, and perhaps not even then. Lula was released from prison in November to appeal the verdicts against him, and he now tours the country, portraying himself as a martyr, even as Bolsonaro blunders from one self-created controversy to the next—most recently his inept and dismissive response to the coronavirus. The two men need each other as foils, but neither can offer Brazil anything but dead ends and, in different ways, both have shown themselves to be morally bankrupt. At this juncture, even Anderson’s dreaded “guff of the Third Way” might be welcome, but that pathway also seems closed because of the damage they have inflicted.

March 25, 2020