Noam Chomsky and Vijay Prashad: A Lula Victory in Brazil Could Help Save the Planet

Democracy Now!
Noam Chomsky and Vijay Prashad: A Lula Victory in Brazil Could Help Save the Planet Lula da Silva is hoping for a third term as president of Brazil. (photo: Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images)

Noam Chomsky joins us from Brazil with Vijay Prashad, just back from Brazil, to discuss Sunday’s Brazilian election between Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Chomsky and Prashad are co-authors of the new book, “The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power.”

In Brazil, voters head to the polls Sunday for an election that could see far-right President Jair Bolsonaro replaced by former President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. Polls show Lula has a strong lead over Bolsonaro, but it remains unclear if he has enough support to win the 11-way race outright. If not, Brazil will hold a runoff election on October 30th.

Lula has been running on a platform to reduce inequality, preserve the Amazon rainforest and protect Brazil’s Indigenous communities. There’s widespread fear in Brazil that Bolsonaro could attempt to stage a coup if he loses the election.

We’re joined right now by two guests, by Vijay Prashad, who’s just back from Brazil. He’s joining us from here in New York. He’s just back from Brazil. And with us from Minas Gerais, Brazil, is Noam Chomsky, world-renowned political dissident, linguist and author, laureate professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Arizona and professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, where he taught for more than half a century.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Noam, let’s begin with you in Brazil. Can you talk about the significance of this election that is going to take place on Sunday, and what this means for not only Brazil, but for the world?

NOAM CHOMSKY: It is very significant — not only for Brazil, but for the world — in Brazil, in many respects, but one of them is what you mentioned: the fate of the Amazon. Most of the Amazon region is in Brazil. Of the two candidates, one of them, the current president, Bolsonaro, is basically committed to destroying the Amazon. Under his years in office, there’s been sharp acceleration with his approval of illegal logging, mining, agribusiness, tax on the Indigenous reserves. It’s been known for some time that, sooner or later, if destruction of the forest continues, there won’t be enough moisture produced to reproduce the Amazon. It’ll turn to savanna. Regrettably, that’s beginning to happen. Satellite and other studies have shown that in corners of the Amazon in Brazil, it’s already happening. Tipping points may be coming soon, which would be irreversible It’s a catastrophe for Brazil, but, in fact, for the entire world. The Amazon forests are one of the major carbon sinks, and it will be — soon become a carbon producer. That’s devastating for the world. And those are Bolsonaro’s policies. So, for that reason alone, if he manages somehow to maintain power, perhaps by a military coup, it will be a disaster for the world.

Now, you might point out that there’s a counterpart coming in the United States. The Republican Party, of course, is a 100% denialist party committed to maximizing the use of fossil fuels, eliminating the regulations that somehow mitigate their effects. If they come back into power again, hurtling towards disaster. So, for those reasons alone, the next couple of months are of extreme significance.

There are many other factors. The business community in Brazil doesn’t like Bolsonaro. He’s too vulgar and corrupt. But they like Lula even less, because of his social democratic policies. So where they’ll stand is not so clear. Also unclear is the nature of the military, the police, the various branches of the police. They tend to be quite supportive of Bolsonaro. The military is split. There’s been a heavy military component in his government — unprecedented, in fact — but other elements of the top military command have been ambiguous about their status. So, that’s naturally a reason for concern.

Bolsonaro has said openly and clearly that — basically following Trump’s line, probably with Trump’s advisers at his elbow, saying that either he will win the election, or the election was fraudulent, that he won’t accept it. In fact, he called all of the ambassadors to a special meeting to tell them that, which shocked the diplomatic community and did lead to negative responses. Whether he’ll keep to that or not, nobody really knows. So, there is a kind of background tension in the atmosphere.

But I should say that from the little that we can see on the streets, in the community, it looks pretty normal. So, if there are concerns, they’re not very openly expressed. There are — last night, there was a major debate, went on for hours. There’s demonstrations and so on. So, the whole matter is very much in people’s minds, clearly. But if the polls are anywhere near accurate, Lula might win on the first round, but almost certainly would on the second. But then there’s the open question of how Bolsonaro and the forces behind him would react to this. That’s pretty much the current situation.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Noam Chomsky, following up on that, the significance politically for Latin America and the world of a Lula victory, given the fact that we’ve seen now Latin America go from the early pink tide of the early 2000s, then there was a resurgence of right-wing government and lawfare actions throughout the region, and now we’re seeing almost every major country in Latin America voting in left-wing governments — Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, Peru? And Brazil, of course, is the largest country. This is a region with no nuclear weapons, with no major armed conflicts in the region right now. What would Lula coming to victory mean for the consolidation of this left-wing trend in Latin America?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Yes, you can add Chile to the list. Brazil is, of course, the largest, most important country in South and Latin America. And the direction in which Brazil goes is sure to have a major impact on these tendencies that you describe. Of course, they’re bitterly opposed by most of the business world, by the international investment community. What happens in Brazil could be certain to have a large-scale effect on whether this mildly left social democratic tendency will continue to develop and evolve.

That’s very important on the international scene, as well. It will, for example, affect the character of BRICS — Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, now Indonesia — developing independent, possibly independent, force in global affairs. During the early years of the century, when Lula was in power, he managed to give the BRICS alignment a significant role in world affairs. In fact, Brazil became perhaps the most respected country internationally under Lula and his foreign minister, Celso Amorim. And if he returns to office, that could give an impetus to the development — the further development of BRICS as a quite significant element in international affairs.

That’s connected with much broader tendencies, much broader issues about multipolarity and unipolarity in international affairs. The United States, of course, is working hard to maintain what’s called a unilateral world order. Other elements in the world, other components in the world are not going along with that. Ukraine is a central part of that issue. About 90% of the countries of the world are not going along with the U.S.-U.K. position on Ukraine, which is basically to continue the war to weaken Russia and no negotiations. Even in Europe, like in Germany, that’s not accepted. About over three-quarters of the German population wants to move to negotiations now. All of these things are taking place in the background, and what’s happening in Brazil will have a significant impact on the direction in which they go.

So there are many large issues at stake, also just domestically in Brazil. Brazil has extraordinary inequality, kind of like the United States in that respect. An enormous amount — it’s potentially a very rich country. A century ago, it was called the “Colossus of the South.” It’s never been realized, partly because of the avarice of the wealthy sector, which has basically no commitment to the country. And that will move in one or the other direction, depending on the outcome of this election. So there is quite a lot at stake, locally in Brazil, in Latin America altogether, as you mentioned, and even globally, because of the role of the Latin American countries traditionally in the lead in setting the stage for the next phase of global order.

AMY GOODMAN: Noam Chomsky, on the issue of Bolsonaro perhaps not accepting election results — and he is in charge of the elections now as president — earlier in the campaign, he said, “Only God will remove me [from power]. … The army is on our side. It’s an army that doesn’t accept corruption, doesn’t accept fraud.” Are you concerned that he will not accept the election? And also, how much has Trump and his rejection of the elections and spreading the big lie influenced Bolsonaro, empowered him?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, Trump is his ideal. And there’s good reason to suppose that Trump’s circle of advisers is playing a role in Bolsonaro’s current decision making, as they pretty clearly did in the 2018 election, which he managed to win, but on reasons we don’t have time to go through. So, he might try to follow the Trump model.

His statement about “only God can remove him” is a Trump-like appeal to a large sector of his voting base. A large sector of his voting base is evangelicals, right-wing Christian groups, much as in the United States and Trump. So, references to God are obligatory. And charges that the PT, Lula’s party, will undermine the church, all of these charges which we’re familiar with in the United States, are part of the Bolsonaro campaigning.

What he’ll do, we don’t know. Now, a large majority of the population in Brazil, according to the polls, is concerned, seriously concerned, that there might be violence at the time of the elections or in the aftermath. To this concern, there’s reason for it. The alliance with the Republican Party, the Trump-owned Republican Party, is pretty clear. It’s not hidden. So there are similarities in the United States and Brazil that are certainly worth — merit attention.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Vijay Prashad, I’d like to bring you into the discussion here on Brazil. You were there recently. Your assessment of the importance of this election? And also, to what degree is the electorate voting for Lula and the Workers’ Party, or predominantly for Lula? There have been some reports that his popularity is much greater than that of the Workers’ Party because of all of the years of corruption scandals that occurred while the party was in power. I’m wondering your views on those two things.

VIJAY PRASHAD: It’s great to be with you. And it’s great to have Noam from São Paulo — from Minas Gerais.

The first thing I’d like to say is Lulu is an extraordinary person, an extraordinary campaigner, an extraordinary politician. You know, these things matter. I covered Lula’s first election campaign when he first won in the 2000s, was in Brazil during his second presidency, and covered this year some of his rallies and public appearances, and also had the opportunity to briefly speak with him. He is an extraordinary person. He’s extraordinarily charismatic, touches the hearts of people. This is what I suppose in the United States is called retail politics.

Also, Lula is this time running to the left of Lula the president. He’s made it very clear that questions of social justice will be at the forefront of his presidency. He’s made it clear that he once again wants to have Brazil be an important player in the process of South American integration and in the revival of the BRICS.

Now, it’s really important that we concentrate on the attempts to undermine Lula. It’s the military, of course, but got to pay attention to the fact, as Juan said earlier, this issue of lawfare is on the table. One of the things I learned in talking to Fernando Haddad, who ran for president in 2018 and is now running to be the governor of São Paulo state — what Haddad told me is that the key issue in this election is, yes, to elect Lula, but also to get an impeachment-proof majority in the legislature, because what happened to President Dilma Rousseff is on the minds of everybody. You can win an election, you can push an agenda, but you will get removed by a legislature which is committed to a very right-wing politics. And to somehow drive a impeachment-proof legislature is important. And that’s where the assessment about the Workers’ Party comes in. Is the party going to be strong enough to elect its candidates across the country? Or will it again rely merely on winning the presidency? So, that first issue of winning in the legislature is key.

You know, when Lula comes to office this time, he has already pledged to start a conversation about, for instance, a Latin American currency called the sur. This was tried previously under Hugo Chávez, called the sucre. But the sur, if Brazil puts its considerable resources behind it, it’s going to be a really important development for Latin America.

And, you know, we need to understand that, as Noam said, the mood in the world is contrary to being pushed around by the United States or its allies. People are looking for some other kind of leadership. And the respect that Lula has, which the other leaders, let’s say, in the BRICS countries don’t have, that respect that Lula has — Lula is the first Brazilian president whose name is known in other countries in the Global South. He’s going to leverage that respect to drive a multilateral agenda in world affairs. I think that’s going to be of great significance and importance. Again, when he came to power in the 2000s, the mood was not like that around the world. Now we see the mood, in South Africa, even in India, governed by a right-wing government. The government has said, “Look, we are not going to involve ourself in Europe’s wars. We have our own problems. We have our own conflicts.” And I believe that a presidency from Lula, a revival of the BRICS will allow some of that mood to be captured by somebody who comes to world affairs with a great deal of legitimacy and love and, in a sense, respect.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Vijay, following up on that, the issue of a greater, more multilateral world, that you mentioned, one of the things that’s happened in Latin America in the recent decades is the increasing visibility and investment of China throughout Latin America, allowing many of these governments, whether of the right or the left, to be more independent of financing and loans and investment from the U.S. and Europe. I’m wondering your sense of, again, if a Lula victory, what would happen in terms of this trend of China getting more involved in Latin America’s economies.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, it’s important to say that even during the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, China continued to be a major trading partner with Brazil. And Mr. Bolsonaro was very careful not to come out with any kind of frontal attack on China. Let’s be quite clear that the arrival of Chinese commercial, economic ties with most countries in Latin America is inevitable. It’s clear. You know, there’s a reason why a country like Argentina joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative. That’s because the Chinese have investment capital available. The Chinese have a large market for the commodities produced in Latin America. In a way, China is offering much more to these countries in terms of trade, development, investment and so on than the United States. That’s just a fact.

The question is that in the last period, from Trump onward, the United States has attempted to tell countries in Latin America that they should stop trading with China. This is what happened with El Salvador, for instance, over a deal for a Pacific port. The United States tried to impose on the government of El Salvador — and, in fact, succeeded — to break a deal with the Chinese. Interesting thing is, China is not telling anybody to break deals with the United States. In fact, Argentina, a Belt and Road partner, went back to the IMF this year — a very poor deal, by the way, and it’s a deal that requires far more scrutiny, once more austerity on the Argentinian people.

But Lula has made it clear they’re going to continue, in that sense, Bolsonaro’s policy of trading with China, but there’ll be a kind of friendlier attitude to China. And I’m very much hopeful that if there’s a revitalization of the BRICS, this attempt to demonize countries in Eurasia, particularly China, will find less of an audience than it finds even now. It’s quite unfortunate that the United States has ramped up a kind of demonization policy, suggesting that, you know, the Chinese are out there to steal people’s privacy and so on. This is not a credible line of argument in countries where the Chinese have come, put money on the table through the People’s Bank of China, done currency swaps and so on, and said, “You don’t need to do austerity. Here’s investment money.” It’s not credible when the United States comes there and says, you know, “China is here to steal your house.” That’s not a credible argument. But it does create a lot of instability. It creates a lot of tension for countries.

And I think if Lula comes to power — or, not just Lula. We see this already with Gustavo Petro in Colombia. You know, when people come to power of that ilk, who want an independent foreign policy for their country, they understand that next year, 2023, is the 200th anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine. They want to go beyond the Monroe Doctrine. You’ll remember, Joe Biden said that Latin America is not the United States’ backyard; it’s the United States’ front yard. For God’s sake, President Biden, Latin America is nobody’s yard. These are sovereign countries that must be permitted to produce their own relations, whether it’s for trade or political relations. The United States cannot continue to essentially, as Noam says, be the godfather and tell countries what to do.

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