Gustavo A. Maranges interviewed Latin American political scientist and film-maker Micaela Ovelar on the current scenario in Brazil and other defining issues ahead of the presidential election of Sunday. Micaela Ovelar is Argentine-Venezuelan and was one of President Hugo Chávez’s foreign policy advisors. She has worked with the Venezuelan government for the last 15 years, and is currently based in São Paulo. She specialized in film and TV direction at EMPA (Caracas) and worked as an archive researcher for the film Silvio Rodriguez: My First Calling. She was also the producer of A as for Angicos, a film by Catherine Murphy. At present she is a columnist for Correo del Alba (Bolivia), United World (Türkiye) and other international media.
This Sunday, October 2, Brazil, Latin America’s largest economy, will elect its president. This election is decisive not only for the country but also for the entire region, since its outcome will heavily influence the correlation of forces. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s predicted victory would be a boost for the Latin America left and a rejection of neoliberalism which has strengthened in the last three years. On the other hand, if Jair Bolsonaro (ultra-right and Trump supporter) wins, it would mean a entrenchment for the right-wing.
Regarding this election that carries such weight, Resumen Latinoamericano in English interviewed Micaela Ovelar Márquez, who is in Brazil directing a documentary on the current political electoral process of that country.
Gustavo Maranges (GM): Micaela, first of all, I would like to talk about the internal context in which these elections will take place.
Micaela Ovelar (MO): Extreme polarization is a good way to define Brazil’s current social context. Brazilian society has become very political, like a few times before in its history. For example, issues deeply rooted in the culture, such as football, carnivals, and other major holidays, have taken a back seat to the fierce polarization of political debates.
The confrontation between the followers of the president Bolsonaro followers and former PT president Lula has reached the whole society. We understand bolsonarism as an ultra-right and neo-fascist movement whose main figure is the current president Jair Bolsonaro. Meanwhile, Lulism is a progressive movement in its essence, even when it is made up of many social and political sectors ranging from some traditional right groups to social movements and leftist organizations. It is a confrontation between two completely opposite models. It is a very complex scenario involving the entire Brazilian society.
GM: Taking into account the neo-fascist nature of bolsonarism and the fact that ultra-right forces have advanced internationally, especially in Europe and the United States, could you comment on Bolsonaro’s electoral base in Brazil and what he proposes?
MO: It is true that the ultra-right has advanced a lot in Europe and the United States. Bolsonaro, to some extent, is the result of this trend’s influence in the region. For example, we cannot forget his affinity with Trump.
However, in Brazil, ultra-right forces’ advances have different characteristics than in Europe. In 2018, the ultra-right came to power not only because of the growth of its electoral base but also because of the Brazilian lawfare. There was a dirty campaign against the Workers’ Party (PT), to the point of disqualifying Lula so that he could not run in the 2018 presidential elections. It does not happen like that in Europe.
Bolsonaro’s electoral base is made up of middle and upper-middle-class sectors, which grew thanks to the economic prosperity generated by 13 years of PT governments. These sectors identify very much with Bolsonaro’s main slogan: “God, homeland, family, and freedom.” This describes very well what Bolsonaro’s proposals are. “Freedom” refers to his economic program, which is deeply neoliberal. It is about giving all freedoms to agribusiness over and above the indigenous peoples, the conservation of the Amazon, and the environment. It is essentially social traditionalism and economic neoliberalism.
He basically proposes to maintain his current strategy if re-elected, and it is one of Bolsonaro’s weaknesses. He does not have any proposal for change or improvement, something that Brazilians know is needed.
If there is something that joins forces beyond ideology right now in Brazil, it is the environmental deterioration, especially its main ecosystem: the Amazon, the precarious living conditions of the poorest sectors, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. All of these are issues closely related to Bolsonaro’s gloomy management of the country’s natural resources, institutions, and productive capacities.
On the other hand, Bolsonarism counts on some groups which were favored by a law, which allowed them to buy and carry firearms with practically no requirements. It has not only pleased some sectors carrying out illegal activities but also Bolsonaro’s most radical followers, who became a sort of armed wing of his movement. Something that has cost lives. For the first time in decades, there are politically motivated killings in Brazil.
This is a symptom of the polarization that I mentioned before, which, while working as a very subtle element of repression and coercion—since it is not exercised directly by the government, has an inhibiting effect when it comes to expressing opposition to the government by any means.
GM: This element of psychological and physical violence, together with the loyalty he claims to have within the Armed Forces, are two elements that make Bolsonaro feel confident enough to state he will not recognize the election results if he loses. Does the ultra-right president maintain this position, or have the international and institutional criticisms moderated his discourse?
MO: His position about this matter has been inconsistent and changing, nothing different from his mandate in general. Therefore, it is a bit difficult to be sure what he actually intends to do.
First, Bolsonaro went so far as to gather the diplomatic corp to tell them if he lost in October, there would be a coup d’état. This opened a confrontation between the executive and the judiciary, which controls the electoral processes in the country. Faced with the judiciary response, the president tried to cover his outburst with a speech on democracy protection. However, he recently assured if he does not win with 60%, it would be only because of fraud.
I think it is a strategy to foster confusion and instability while opening an issue for him to exploit after a possible defeat. It is not something new. Donald Trump made it in the United States and is still doing it and Keiko Fujimori did the same in Peru. The assault on Capitol Hill in Washington on January 6, 2021, a failed coup d’état, is the result of this kind of strategy, one that put the entire US institutionalism under pressure. Meanwhile, in Peru, Keiko Fujimori almost prevented Pedro Castillo from assuming his post.
This strategy has kept together and actively mobilized the ultra-right forces. The phantom of fraud has served as a justification to cover the real causes of the electoral defeat, which is the rejection of the model that the right wing has carried out.
GM: Faced with this unstable scenario, what has been the response of Lula and the progressive movement he represents?
MO: Lula has bet on fostering broad political alliances and convincing the majorities. He is a born trade unionist and has gained strength thanks to collective leadership. Today he counts on the trade union movement, the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), defenders of the Amazon and the environment, indigenous peoples, defenders of peasants, LGTBQ+, and women’s rights. That is to say, these are forces that see him as an option for progress and change, despite disagreeing in certain aspects with Lula’s positions.
It is not an ideologically homogeneous group, although united by the fact that they have all been trampled by Bolsonaro’s administration. This is a setback, since they have lost rights and spaces gained during the PT governments. For example, the PT managed to get Brazil off the hunger map, although today, over 30 million Brazilians are hungry while 50% of the population is not adequately fed.
It has been one of the main issues of Lula’s electoral campaign, which focused on love, unity, and hope for positive change. Hence, it has not looked for direct confrontation with Bolsonaro, but channeled the dissatisfaction generated by his mismanagement. Lula has exposed what is at stake if Bolsonaro wins, the social schism he has generated, and the instability he has brought to the country in all senses.
The government program presented by Lula is the result of the collective leadership he has built around him. It intends to address the country’s main needs, but above all, the demands of those movements backing him. It is a comprehensive and ambitious program that goes beyond rebuilding the country and strengthening public services and social assistance. It aims to put Brazil back on the path of development for the benefit of the people. In other words, it is not only to recover what has been lost but also to continue building.
GM: This inclusive strategy is often questioned because of the risks it implies. For example, the selection of São Paulo’s former governor, Geraldo Alckmin as Lula’s vice-president, was highly questioned. What criteria led to his addition, and how will it be assessed?
MO: Certainly, the vice-president selection was very controversial and criticized by some leftist sectors which stand for Lula. However, it is part of the strategy of creating alliances to ensure victory.
Brazil is the 12th largest economy in the world, with a very strong private business sector, which shapes political structures and institutions. We cannot ignore the peculiarities of Brazilian politics when making this type of decision. Likewise, it must be understood that Lula is anti-imperialist, but not anti-capitalist.
Lula’s program is the most progressive among the candidates, but it is useless if he cannot defeat Bolsonaro. That is why he has to unite and add up more people.
The right wing in the region is very organized and has a lot of economic and media power. Therefore, thinking that a chaotic tenure is enough to defeat it is a childish reading. How long did it take Andrés Manuel López Obrador to become the president of Mexico or Gustavo Petro to win the presidential elections in Colombia? What was their strategy?
The appointment of Alckmin responds to Lula’s will to form a broad front against Bolsonaro, which is the very first step toward saving the country. On top of that, it shows an open-to-dialogue stance, especially with major political forces, even if there are disagreements on certain issues. It is not possible to campaign for unity if sectarianism prevails in practice.
Although the decision was indeed controversial at the time, today almost nobody questions it. All doubts disappeared after these months of the electoral campaign.
GM: Finally, I would like to know which are Lula’s weak points and his main challenges going into the October 2 election.
MO: As for the weak points, I think they do not exist or have not been visible. Lula comes out of prison with tremendous moral strength and unequaled political capital. Logically, there are different criteria regarding the strategy, but this type of matter is very subjective. For example, some would say the current alliances or the non-confrontational tone are weaknesses, but I do not think that is the case. These are methods that have their pros and cons.
The challenges are huge, but both he and those who follow him are aware of them. The first thing is to get Brazilians to vote, since abstentionism is a significant factor in today’s electoral processes. This affects progressive or leftist candidates more since the right wing is very militant and has a lot of organization, as I mentioned before.
All progressive forces understand that the main challenges will come after the elections. Implementing Lula’s government program will not be easy, even if he wins the elections in the first round. There are many obstacles to overcome within the government structures, which still resemble Bolsonaro.
A possible defeat at the polls does not mean that bolsonarism will disappear from society, especially if it has already prepared to act as opposition. Biden’s current situation in the US, putting aside the differences, is a perfect example of how tough it is to deal with the extreme right and neo-fascist opposition.
Four years is not enough to rebuild a country, not one ravaged by a tsunami called Bolsonaro. A revolution is needed in education, health, and culture to recover what has been lost. Nevertheless, Lula’s self-criticism shows a more resilient movement. Acknowledging past mistakes is a very positive step that predicts better management of social problems or political crises, such as the Dilma Rousseff impeachment in 2016.
GM: How has Lula dealt with the stigma of corruption, which is one of the main lines of attack against the left in the world, but especially against him, since he is probably the only left-wing president imprisoned because of it, albeit unjustly?
MO: It is indeed a stigma. It is a stamp that the judiciary and mainstream media have stamped on leftist movements in Latin America, especially in Brazil. Perhaps few have the real perception of how dirty and strong these campaigns are. There is constant harassment in all media channels, and it is not a matter of months, but years, since the very beginning of the progressive decade. Today, when the scenario is more complex, these ideas, which have been carefully shaped by the right wing, do enormous damage.
Unfortunately, it continues to affect Lula, and it is going to impede better results. On the other hand, it is well known by him and his campaign team. I can assure you they have worked hard to reduce the possible damage. No matter how much the courts say he is innocent, corporate media will continue to revive the ghost of corruption against Lula.
GM: Who do you think will win, and would it be possible to have a conclusive result in the first round?
MO: Despite pollsters presenting Lula as the big favorite, even some of them dare to say he might win in the first round, it is very hard to predict anything. Bolsonaro is backed by very influential sectors with a lot of resources.
On the other hand, Lula’s electoral campaign has been very comprehensive, and even some evangelical churches joined him. It is very positive since this is a sector that Bolsonaro controlled almost entirely in 2018.
Still, the opponent cannot be underestimated. Lula’s victory in the first round seems very difficult, but it would be a beautiful surprise.
(Resumen Latinoamericano – English) by Gustavo A. Maranges
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