Ex-Brazilian President Lula 'Bolsonaro Is Setting the Whole Country on Fire'

In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, former Brazilian President Lula da Silva discusses the loneliness of his prison term, the U.S. influence on Brazil and the threats he says are posed by the country's current leader, Jair Bolsonaro.
Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva during his interview with DER SPIEGEL.

Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva during his interview with DER SPIEGEL.

Foto: Luiz Maximiano / DER SPIEGEL

Seven months ago, DER SPIEGEL correspondent Jens Glüsing asked the Brazilian Supreme Court for permission to conduct an interview with the country's former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has been in prison for over a year. Until April, all interview requests had been rejected, but permission was then unexpectedly granted. Glüsing was allowed to speak to Lula for 60 minutes in a windowless conference room at police headquarters in the city of Curitiba in southern Brazil. Two armed policemen were present for the duration of the interview. DER SPIEGEL's correspondent was permitted to greet the former president with a handshake, but after that he was required to keep a distance of about 3 meters (about 10 feet).

The former president seemed to be in excellent physical and mental condition and he also seemed combative. But Glüsing did not get to see the former Brazilian leader's actual prison cell. It's on the fourth floor of the building and doesn't have bars on the windows. Visitors report that it is 15 square meters in size. Lula keeps in touch with the world via a TV with a USB connection and is well informed about national and international politics. Each morning, prison staff save a press review and important documents on a USB stick for him. He has no access to the internet. The former president spends a lot of time reading in prison and he is permitted access to sunlight three times a week. At his request, a treadmill was installed in his cell so he can keep fit.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. President, how are you doing? Are you lonely?

Lula: I can deal with it. I am also greeted loudly three times a day by my supporters, who camp outside on a street corner. When I get out of here, I will be eternally grateful to these people. I hope that once I leave this building through the main entrance, I can have a proper drink with them.

DER SPIEGEL: You've always been a very communicative, sociable person. How are you able to stand such a small cell?

Lula: I will tell you something I haven't told anyone before. When I started my career in the labor union many years ago, I was extremely shy. Whenever I was supposed to speak at an event, I got nervous. To prepare myself, I stuck photos of many people on the wall of my room and practiced my speech in front of them. I was speaking to an imaginary audience. When I feel like speaking to an audience in my cell today, I also just stick photos to the wall.

Lula at a 2016 protest: "I was convicted in the first instance without the presentation of a single piece of evidence."

Lula at a 2016 protest: "I was convicted in the first instance without the presentation of a single piece of evidence."

Foto: Victor Moriyama/ Getty Images

DER SPIEGEL: Your imprisonment has also been a burden for your family. Your accounts have been frozen and your daughter is now selling sweets on the internet.

Lula: All of this is difficult for them, but I don't want to complain. As a child, when I lived with my mother, I often saw her sitting next to the stove on Sundays. There was absolutely nothing she could have prepared a meal with, but she didn't complain. At least my children have enough to eat. Of course, I wish they didn't have to go through this. But in time, the truth will show its face.

DER SPIEGEL: You were sentenced to 12 years by an appellate court for corruption and money laundering. Recently the sentence was reduced to just short of nine years. You were convicted of having received an apartment from a construction company, which in return is said to have been given preferential treatment in the awarding of the contract to the oil company Petrobras, which is half-owned by the government. How do you intend to prove your innocence?

Lula: I don't have to prove that I'm innocent. I demand that the judiciary prove my guilt. I was convicted in the first instance without the presentation of a single piece of evidence. The prosecutor in charge gave a PowerPoint presentation to justify the charges against me. During the trial it was stated that there was no clear evidence and that the charges were based on "convictions." Even Judge Sérgio Moro, who convicted me, did not produce any evidence. He referred to "indeterminate facts." The appeals court then sentenced me without reading the case files. They wanted to prevent my candidacy as quickly as possible.

DER SPIEGEL: The prosecutors accused you of acting as the head of a criminal organization.

Lula: Somebody needs to finally prove that I own this apartment and that I received money from the construction company or money from Petrobras. It's unacceptable for someone to be in custody waiting for the justice system to produce evidence. I'm fighting for the truth to finally come out in its own right.

DER SPIEGEL: It's possible you will have to spend years in prison.

Lula: It could take a while. No problem. It's tough. I'd rather be free, but there's one thing I won't give up at any price: my dignity.

DER SPIEGEL: Shortly before your arrest, you were campaigning for the election on the border with Uruguay. You said at the time that all you needed to do to be safe from the judiciary was to step across the border. Do you regret that you didn't go into exile?

Lula: No. There were a few things I didn't want to give up. I am 73 years old, I was president of Brazil and I am too well known. I didn't see myself as a refugee. Important people spoke with me about whether I should leave Brazil or seek refuge in an embassy. I decided to stay in the country. I am fighting for the truth. I want to prove that my accusers are liars, even if I have to do that from custody. I have a clear conscience. I am convinced that Judge Moro and the prosecutors who put me behind bars do not sleep as well as I do.

Lula supporters demonstrated in April in front of the police headquarters in the city of Curitiba where he is being held.

Lula supporters demonstrated in April in front of the police headquarters in the city of Curitiba where he is being held.

Foto: Heuler Andrey/ AFP

DER SPIEGEL: Did you expect that you would be arrested?

Lula: From the beginning, I was convinced that the real target of Operation Lava Jato (editors: the name of the corruption investigation) was me. I was fully aware that it wasn't likely that my opponents would remove my successor, Dilma Rousseff, who also comes from the Labor Party, from office only to then allow me to be re-elected President. It didn't fit together.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you see yourself as a political prisoner?

Lula: Judge Moro, who convicted me, has since been appointed Justice Minister by Jair Bolsonaro, the new president. A few days ago, Bolsonaro publicly admitted that he had agreed with Moro to move him to the next vacant justice position at the Supreme Court. That shows that it was all planned in advance.

DER SPIEGEL: Moro is defending himself against such accusations ...

Lula: Moro made sure that Bolsonaro was elected president by preventing my candidacy.

DER SPIEGEL: The economy boomed under your leadership and millions rose out of poverty. But a political and economic crash followed, and last year Bolsonaro, a right-wing radical, was elected president. What went wrong with your country?

Lula: Economic policy isn't magic. You have to be credible to be respected. That's why I had the support of Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Brazil was on its way to becoming the world's fifth-largest economic power, and now we have this disaster. Bolsonaro is like the Roman emperor Nero: He'ssetting the whole country on fire . He doesn't use the words employment, growth, investment and development. He doesn't want to build anything. He just wants to destroy. We've got a president who is clicking his heels in front of the American flag. Brazil doesn't deserve this.

DER SPIEGEL: Isn't your Workers' Party (PT) partly to blame for the decline? It once promised to fight corruption, but now the party itself is entangled in numerous corruption scandals.

Lula: There is no party in Brazilian history that has created more instruments for combating corruption than the PT. We've not only created tougher laws, but also greater transparency. That's how corruption came to light. We've made mistakes, and we are paying for them. But it's only the treasurer of our party who is in prison, even though all parties raised money in the same way. PT is not being punished for its mistakes, but for what it did right.


Lula: The Brazilian elite do not accept the rise of the poor. My crime was that I made it possible for the poor to study, to use the same sidewalks as the rich and for them to suddenly be able to go to shopping centers and airports. This country belongs to everyone. PT has been generous to those who need the Brazilian state, but it has not neglected the rich. I bear my cross, but the sins were committed by others.

DER SPIEGEL: The public prosecutor's office claims there was a gigantic corruption system surrounding Petrobras to finance the parties.

Lula: That's a lie. There may have been one or two cases. Petrobras is a huge company that moves 30 billion real a year, the equivalent of 6.6 billion euros. I just read a book about the history of oil and the power politics associated with it. I've been convinced ever since that what is happening in Brazil has to do with the interests of the U.S. oil companies.

DER SPIEGEL: Are you serious?

Lula: The Americans and the Brazilian elite didn't want to the deep-sea oil deposits that were discovered during my government to be extracted only by consortiums in which Petrobras held a majority stake. They're opposed to the fact that 75 percent of the money from license fees is invested in the education system so that Brazil, which is 200 years behind, can finally catch up. Or that it will be used to finance research, technology and the health system. That's why they overthrew my successor Dilma Rousseff. It's also why all the illegal maneuvers followed to prevent me from being able to run again. They knew that I would be elected president, even if I were in prison. Public Prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol, who is persecuting me, is a puppet of the U.S. Justice Department.

DER SPIEGEL: But not all the accusations have come out of nowhere. Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction company at the center of the corruption investigations, is said to have bribed politicians throughout Latin America. Did you have too close a relationship with Odebrecht?

Lula: No. And I don't regret any relationship I had with companies, banks, businesspeople and workers. I have always been aware of how important Odebrecht is for Brazil. It's quite possible that the people who were trying to destroy Rousseff and Petrobras also had an interest in busting up the big Brazilian construction companies. You can investigate allegations of corruption and expose corruption perfectly well. And if the owner of Odebrecht has practiced corruption, then he should be arrested. But the company should continue to work to create jobs and prosperity. Who would benefit if the construction companies were to go under? Who has an interest in Brazilian companies not being active in Africa or other South American countries? The competitors in Europe and the U.S.

DER SPIEGEL: The Brazilian elite that you criticize so harshly courted you when you were in government.

Lula: I always said: I govern for the rich and for the poor. But everyone needs to know that my preference belongs to those who are most in need. At the end of my term in office in 2010, I had approval ratings of more than 80 percent. There was a national consensus regarding my person.

DER SPIEGEL: How do you explain the fact that you are so hated by an element of society today?

Lula: Brazil's media has been stirring up hatred against me since 2005. Mário Soares, the former Portuguese president, told me during a visit: Lula, I don't understand how you are a god in the foreign press, but a devil in the Brazilian press. This hatred grew even stronger after the mass protests in 2013. After the 2014 election, which my successor Rousseff narrowly won, the opposition initially refused to accept the result. The right is always preaching that their enemy is the Labor Party, that they must destroy us. But they didn't succeed in doing that. They just won a single election.

DER SPIEGEL: Bolsonaro, though, isn't a representative of the traditional opposition ...

Lula: He's not capable of serving as president. Why did he win anyway? Let me quote the Mozambican author Mia Couto: "In times of terror, we choose monsters to protect us." A guy comes along who was a member of parliament for 28 years, but never achieved anything, and manages to sell himself as the "new one." He wasn't elected because his supporters believe he is the better alternative. It was because he opposes the PT. It was a protest vote.

DER SPIEGEL: Is democracy in peril in Brazil?

Lula: Bolsonaro doesn't think much of democracy. He and his people know only one thing: weapons. He simulates a pistol with his hand in almost every photo. The first thing he did was to send the Cuban doctors home, who were the only people guaranteeing health care in many poor regions. Then he took on environmental policy and eroded workers' rights. Now, he's talking about a major pension reform. It may help the banks, but not the people. This man is a danger to Brazil. He's destroying everything we have built.

DER SPIEGEL: Nonetheless, he enjoys the support of the armed forces.

Lula: Those in the military who support him seem to have forgotten all nationalist principles. In my view, this includes not only protecting our borders, but also our biodiversity, our water, our Amazon region, our industry.

DER SPIEGEL: You had a good relationship with the armed forces during your time in office. Why are the generals now turning against you?

Lula: I'd like to know that too. When I get out of here one day, I want to have a serious discussion with several officers. I don't understand why the army chief suggested my conviction to the Supreme Court before the election to prevent my candidacy. My government always treated the military well.

DER SPIEGEL: Will the military take power if the Bolsonaro government fails?

Lula: I don't want that to happen. The Brazilian people don't deserve that. I hope that Bolsonaro will come to his senses and earn respect as the president of this country. He should learn to behave in a civilized way. If Bolsonaro falls, the vice president would have to take over. He's a general.

DER SPIEGEL: Brazilian society is deeply divided ...

Lula: That doesn't only apply to Brazil, but also to Germany, the U.S. and other countries. Hate is being stirred up everywhere. He that soweth the wind shall reap the whirlwind. That's the situation Brazil is in.

Of current Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro, Lula says: "This man is a danger to Brazil. He's destroying everything we have built."

Of current Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro, Lula says: "This man is a danger to Brazil. He's destroying everything we have built."

Foto: Marcelo Camargo/ dpa

DER SPIEGEL: Venezuela is in an even more serious crisis than Brazil. The leader of PT traveled to Nicolás Maduro's swearing-in. Brazil's government, like Germany and many others, has recognized Juan Guaidó as interim president.

Lula: It was a mistake for Germany to recognize Guaidó, you can tell Angela Merkel that. That Donald Trump would do it, okay, but Germany wasn't obliged to obey the Americans. No one can proclaim themselves president. That kind of approach destroys the institutions.

DER SPIEGEL: Guaidó invokes the constitution.

Lula: Why didn't the opposition contest Maduro's election victory last year?

DER SPIEGEL: The election was considered to be rigged.

Lula: If it was manipulated, why didn't they challenge it? I don't agree with what is happening in Venezuela, but it is a Venezuelan problem. I support people's right to self-determination. Whoever wants to govern in Venezuela must sit down at the table with his opponents and negotiate, but Guaidó isn't prepared to do that. He's vain, he's not credible.

DER SPIEGEL: Can you imagine running for president again?

Lula: At my age -- I'm 73 now -- I don't even know if I'll be alive in four years. We have to look for new candidates, and there are good people inside and outside PT. I'm not thinking of running for office right now. I'm focusing on my life and on my court cases.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. President, we thank you for this interview.

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