Can Lula Save the Amazon?

What his victory means for Brazil’s economy and climate policy.

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva flashes the "L" (for Lula) sign after casting his vote during the presidential run-off election in Sao Paulo.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva flashes the "L" (for Lula) sign after casting his vote during the presidential run-off election in Sao Paulo.
Brazilian former president and candidate for the leftist Workers' Party Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva flashes the "L" (for Lula) sign after casting his vote during the presidential run-off election at a polling station in Sao Paulo on Oct 30. NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP via Getty Images

Last Sunday’s runoff election in Brazil confirmed that the country would be getting a new president—and an experienced one. The 77-year-old Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—more widely known simply as Lula—served as Brazil’s president for two terms from the start of 2003 to the start of 2011. His comeback represented the defeat of President Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist who had already served one controversial term. But on the campaign trail, Lula was vague about what he intended to accomplish in the years ahead—forcing analysts to scour his governing record for clues.

How has Lula’s underprivileged background shaped his politics? How might his promise to stop the Amazon’s deforestation actually help the Brazilian economy? And how do Lula’s economic platform and foreign-policy views hang together?

Those are some of the questions that came up in my conversation this week with Foreign Policy columnist Adam Tooze on the podcast we co-host, Ones and Tooze. What follows is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity and length. For the entire conversation, subscribe to Ones and Tooze on your preferred podcast app.

Last Sunday’s runoff election in Brazil confirmed that the country would be getting a new president—and an experienced one. The 77-year-old Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—more widely known simply as Lula—served as Brazil’s president for two terms from the start of 2003 to the start of 2011. His comeback represented the defeat of President Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist who had already served one controversial term. But on the campaign trail, Lula was vague about what he intended to accomplish in the years ahead—forcing analysts to scour his governing record for clues.

How has Lula’s underprivileged background shaped his politics? How might his promise to stop the Amazon’s deforestation actually help the Brazilian economy? And how do Lula’s economic platform and foreign-policy views hang together?

Those are some of the questions that came up in my conversation this week with Foreign Policy columnist Adam Tooze on the podcast we co-host, Ones and Tooze. What follows is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity and length. For the entire conversation, subscribe to Ones and Tooze on your preferred podcast app.

Cameron Abadi: I wanted to start by talking about Lula’s working-class background. What sort of pathways to power does Brazil provide to its underprivileged?

Adam Tooze: It’s a really extraordinary story, because he grew up not just underprivileged. He grew up downright poor. They were a migrant family that came down from the north that was hit by droughts and lived rough, essentially. I think at one point he was living in an apartment with 27 people as a child. So, I mean, it’s a true story of extraordinary mobility from the very, very bottom of the social hierarchy to the top. And in Brazil, that’s a very, very long way. I mean, Brazil is a byword for inequality. It’s one of the societies with the most extreme inequality in the world and not, therefore, a society characterized by high rates of social mobility normally at all.

And yet, in another way, Brazil’s story—and Lula is very deeply, personally identified with that—since the late ’90s onward anyway, is one of collective mobility in the sense that the economic growth that has happened in Brazil since the ’90s has been such that it transformed the structure of Brazilian society, reshuffled it, and made a new Brazilian middle class. And Lula starts out as a socialist, as an extraordinarily courageous mobilizer of autoworkers in the Brazilian industrial centers against the military dictatorship, so a true working-class militant. He becomes a figure associated with the project, really, of the emergence of a giant Brazilian middle class. And Brazil, being an extremely sophisticated society with an elaborate intellectual world, has produced a kind of incredible real-time debate about its own transformation. By 2008, an important sociological study basically declared that Brazil had transitioned to being a majority-middle-class society.

CA: Lula has been president before, serving a full two terms. And so what can we say about his stint as an economic policymaker? How successful was he? When he was in office, commodity prices were very high. Did that just basically make it easy for him, allowing him to redistribute commodity profits? Is that just what his policymaking amounted to?

AT: I think it’s fair to say, probably, that you would had to have been astonishingly incompetent not to have presided over an economic boom in Brazil in the early 2000s, because there’s the great China story, the great surge of global emerging-market growth, which generates huge demand for raw materials and huge demand for foodstuffs. And Brazil benefits from this.

And it’s worth just driving home that Brazil isn’t just the biggest economy in South America. It is overwhelmingly the biggest economy in South America. Brazil’s economy is four times larger than that of Argentina. It is five times larger than that of Colombia and Chile, which are the other two big South American economies. It is 25 percent larger than the economy of Mexico, which benefits, of course, from being America’s immediate neighbor. So Brazil is absolutely the giant in the room.

But the big difference with Lula is social policy. What Lula really is, is a pioneer of comprehensive social policy, such that this time around, Brazilian growth actually did benefit the majority of the population. That’s his achievement. Poverty fell by about 40 percent in this period. And rates of primary school enrollment surged so that the majority of the Brazilian population now at least has elementary education. Electrification was brought to the vast majority of the population. So, you know, there’s a huge transformation of Brazilian society which consists precisely in the success of the Lula government in translating that money down. It isn’t so much trickle-down economics as opening the taps, very deliberately channeling the resources to flow down.

CA: Just so I can understand the form that took: So that took the form of investments in schools, electrification, other infrastructure, but also cash transfers to the poor?

AT: Yes, conditional cash transfers. So Brazil is one of the pioneers of the new model of welfare. In the Brazilian case, it’s called the Bolsa Família, and it’s cash transfers centered on families, centered on mothers, crucially, and is conditional on the kids attending school and doing basic medical checkups. So the idea is to empower women in households, with the resources of the state, to tie the mothers and their children into education and the health system so as to ensure that you get maximum human capital payoff from this. And so that’s the idea. And it’s a highly effective mechanism of welfare distribution.

CA: One policy that Lula stipulated very clearly in the campaign is a promise to reverse the deforestation of the Amazon region, which surged under his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro. Restricting deforestation would seem to represent a kind of diminishment of the national timber business and of land development. But the financial press is treating Lula’s promise as a potential economic boon. What’s the connection in Brazil between stopping deforestation and reaping financial benefits?

AT: Yeah, it’s a huge challenge, because the agribusiness in Brazil has grown spectacularly since the 1990s. It now accounts for 28 percent of the economy. So rather than becoming less rural and less agricultural, as Brazil developed in the 21st century, it’s become more agrarian. Whereas manufacturing has slid from being 26 percent of the Brazilian economy to being 10 percent of the Brazilian economy now. So this challenge to the primacy of agriculture is a huge challenge.

But this represents a specific lesson learned on the part of the South American left, which is, thinking back on their experience of the early 2000s, when there was the so-called pink tide and a bunch of left-wing governments swept into power. The critical self-reflection is that they all basically piggybacked on the agro-commodities boom of the early 2000s. And this didn’t lead to the transformation of society and, of course, produces collateral damage in the form of environmental damage. And so the challenge that the Lula team are taking on is essentially to make Brazil into a pioneer of various types of clean energy. But it’s a question, because Lula, who comes out of the old industrial model, is challenging the extractivism model that he himself benefited from when he was last in office. And really, what this new vision is going to look like, it’s a bit of a blank page.

CA: Is the idea here also that international investors and financial markets are on board for this kind of big shift? And that by the same token, extractivism is something that international financial markets, maybe, are a little more wary of in our era of climate change?

AT: Yes, I mean, absolutely. And there’s no doubt at all that Brazil under Bolsonaro paid a price for his aggressive culture wars, its Trumpist kind of rejection of the “bon ton,” the good tone of global finance. You know, in practice, Brazil was still an attractive place for people to invest, so they did. But I think the idea is, indeed, that a compromise could, as it were, be worked out between what is in certain respects still quite a leftist politics in Brazil and global capital, which is looking for green capitalism, basically. And so Brazil could potentially be a laboratory for an agrarian version of a green capitalist future.

CA: Lula does seem to have a firmer commitment to democracy than his predecessor, Bolsonaro. But his views on foreign policy aren’t necessarily more congenial to priorities right now in Washington or Europe. He has expressed views, for example, on the war in Ukraine that suggest Ukraine may share responsibility for the war there. So how does his worldview hang together—what’s the connection between his domestic economic views and his foreign-policy ideas?

AT: We shouldn’t overly exoticize this, right? I mean, the fact of the matter is that governments representing more than half of the world’s population do not accept, you know, what you just quite reasonably described as the official Western view. They don’t. Like the vast majority—the majority of people around the world are represented by governments which have taken a studiously neutral, if not overtly skeptical, view of this. So he’s in no way exceptional. In fact, he’s pretty typical of the BRICS, if you think about it—Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa. Obviously none of them are straightforwardly aligned. And they know, and quite self-confidently know, they represent the majority of humanity.

And Lula himself has history. I mean, he’s a South American leftist. He risked his life in the politics of the 1960s and the 1970s, opposing a military dictatorship that was backed by the United States. He was a proud member of the BRICS coalition as it emerged. He has met regularly with [Russian President] Vladimir Putin. Putin, you know, actually upgraded the BRICS. I mean, of course, on Putin’s part, I know, with clear strategic intent. And Brazil was willing to take them up on that. Lula and his foreign-policy team always pushed the community of Latin American and Caribbean nations, as opposed to the OAS, the Organization of American States, which is more North American-dominated. And they were looking for a South American alternative.

And so, yes, you have to recognize that the politics of much of the world is skeptical toward these naturalized, apparently self-evident to us, claims about how this war started. I mean, it’s clear, like, Russia invaded Ukraine. It’s a fundamental breach of international law. But that, per se, doesn’t necessarily shift somebody like Lula into a position of, you know, wanting to align with the United States. He’d probably be more congenial to the question of lining up behind Ukraine if it wasn’t posed in the context of Ukraine’s NATO membership, EU membership, and so on, which is clearly a geopolitical alignment with which somebody from his politics is profoundly uncomfortable.

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi

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