This interview, by special correspondent Bruno Meyerfeld, appeared in Le Monde on 12 September 2019. The original, in French, can be read here. It was translated for LAB by Francis McDonagh.
With a firm stride Lula comes into an anonymous room at the headquarters of the Brazilian Federal Police in Curitiba, Paraná, which has been remodelled as a press briefing room. This soulless building is where the former head of state, convicted of corruption, has been serving his eight years and ten months prison sentence since April 2018. At 73, the leader of the Brazilian left has lost nothing of his verve. He appears with his beard neatly trimmed, wearing a dark suit and a purple tie. The style is presidential, and the symbolism very clear: Lula is still working, still in action. This interview with Le Monde is his first interview to a French media outlet since his imprisonment.
After a year and a half in prison, are you beginning to feel a bit discouraged or weary?
No, I feel well, emotionally and physically. I am at peace because I know why I am here. I know that I am innocent and that those who have put me in prison are liars. I am an optimist. I owe this attitude to my mother. Yes, of course, prison is a challenge. But I have lots of energy, I’m cheerful. I’m sure that I shall win.
What’s your day-to-day life like?
I watch films, television. I talk to my lawyers. I walk, 9 kilometres a day! I wait for the time to go by… I also read a lot. I’m studying the history of social struggles in Brazil. I’m horrified to see that all those who have fought for the people in this country, like Zumbi, Tiradentes or Antônio Conselheiro, were beheaded, hanged or burned alive, and to realise that the people don’t know who they are, as though they’d never existed.
Do you identify with them?
Yes. I think I’m to a small extent a modern version of them. In a more sophisticated way. In my case the power of the courts was used, not to produce justice, but for political ends.
There was a diplomatic crisis between France and Brazil over the preservation of the Amazon with president Jair Bolsonaro’s insults directed at Emmanuel Macron. How did you feel about this episode?
I have always had excellent relations with all French presidents, on the left and the right, with Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande. I am in solidarity with Emmanuel Macron after the insults directed at his wife. It was unprecedented rudeness, and it has nothing to do with the Brazilian people.
What do you think are the solutions to deal with the fires that are currently destroying the Amazon rainforest?
The people have to react. Brazilians have to organise and demonstrate in defence of the environment. Nothing can be expected from Bolsonaro or his ministers on this issue. In passing, I have to remind you that my government, the Workers Party government, was the government that devoted most attention to the Amazon. It was during my period of office that the fund to protect the forest, financed by Germany and Norway, was created. I devised a plan that dramatically reduced illegal deforestation. I also created 114 nature reserves in the country. We took care of the environment, good care.
But during your term of office (2003-2011) and that of Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016) there were numerous criticisms from defenders of the environment, particularly about the building of the Belo Monte dam in the Amazon region. Can the PT really preach on the subject of the Amazon?
Listen, even God can’t get away without criticism! For a government it’s even worse. We did all that could possibly be done. Belo Monte was a necessity for this country. It was built with the agreement of all the Indian communities that lived in the area. Brazil had to develop its hydro-electric potential. 80% of the energy produced in Brazil is clean, and we’re proud of that!
Do you support the idea of an internationalisation of the Amazon region such as suggested by Emmanuel Macron?
No! The Amazon is Brazil’s property. It is part of the Brazilian heritage. And it’s up to Brazil to take care of it. That’s clear. That doesn’t mean being stupid or that international aid isn’t important. But the Amazon region can’t be a sanctuary for humanity. I remind you that 20 million people live there and need to eat and work. We have to take care of them as well, while bearing in mind the preservation of the environment.
Now that he’s been in power for eight months, what’s your feeling about Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency?
Bolsonaro’s doing nothing. He’s destroying things. He’s destroying education by cutting funding for universities, so they can no longer give scholarships. He’s destroying workers’ rights that we fought so hard for. He’s destroying industry by privatising Brazilian firms, especially Petrobrás – that’s a crime! It’s a destructive government, with no vision of the future, with no programme, that’s not equipped for power. That’s why Bolsonaro says so many stupid things, why he insulted Macron’s wife and Michelle Bachelet, why he’s arguing with Maduro…. It’s total madness. And underneath it all he’s totally subservient to Trump. I’ve never seen anything like it!
‘Anti-PTism’, rejection of the PT, is very strong in part of the population in Brazil. Hasn’t the time come for self-criticism, or to turn a new page, create a new party or change its name?
The PT doesn’t need to do any self-criticism? Self-criticism for what? About what? The PT has no need to change its name, but it needs to change what’s in people’s heads. The truth is that I would have won the election, even from prison, if I’d been authorised to run by the judge! Besides, Fernando Haddad [the PT candidate against Bolsonaro in the 2018 election] won 7 million votes. That’s a lot!
The PT is great; it’s the most extraordinary left-wing party in the world. It’s a very well-organised party. It’s come first or second in every election for 20 years. So yes, we lost an election, that’s true. But losing is normal in a democracy. You can’t always win. In Brazil there are lots of anti-PTists, but also many people who believe in the party, and still others who need to be persuaded.
So won’t there be any rethinking on your part?
In Brazil there have always been people saying ultra-reactionary things that won elections: that’s not new. Bolsonaro is first and foremost the result of a rejection of politics. At these moments in history when there’s so much hatred of politics, people go off with the first monster they come across. It’s regrettable, but it happens.
Despite the revelations of The Intercept website about the backroom dealings in the ‘Car Wash’ affair, your repeated demands to be freed have been rejected or deferred by the courts. Do you still have hope that you’ll be released?
There’s a pact between the mainstream media, the prosecutors and Judge Sergio Moro [who headed the ‘Car Wash’ anti-corruption investigation and is now minister of justice]. They spread so many lies about me that they don’t have the courage to go back on their verdict. Only on Sunday [8 September] the press revealed new evidence that Moro had lied to the Supreme Court. That sort of behaviour on the part of a judge I cannot forgive. But I’m quite sure I’ll get out of here and that one day those people will be held responsible for what happened in this country. I still have confidence in the justice system even if I know it’s under many forms of pressure.
Would you accept a lighter punishment? House arrest with an electronic tag, which ought to be an option for you from the end of September?
I’m not asking for any favour, any reduction in my sentence. Nothing but justice! My house is not a prison. And ankle tags are fine for carrier pigeons! All I want is for my innocence to be recognised.
Brazilian society today is very polarised. Aren’t you afraid that your life will be at risk if you come out of prison?
A person like me, born where I was born, who ate bread for the first time in his life at the age of seven, who went to bed many times without a meal, and who got to where I got to, a person like that can’t be afraid. Brazil is a country of peace, with a people who like having a good time. Those who try to make it a nation of hate should be ashamed!
I want to leave prison and go and talk to the people so that that enjoyment of being Brazilian can come back. I am a man with no sense of vindictiveness, no hatred. Hatred gives you indigestion, headaches and sore feet! I am well precisely because I’m on the side of truth. And in the end truth always wins.
LAB adds: It’s a bit depressing that Lula makes no self-criticism at all and shows no awareness of why so many Brazilians ended up hating the PT. It’s particularly noticeable in reference to the Amazon — no awareness that Belo Monte was a colossal mistake, and that many indigenous people would beg to differ about their consent to the project; no awareness that the kind of development the PT governments have been promoting in the Amazon has done so much harm. But then the environment always was a weak point for Lula and the PT in general.
On politics, there is no mention of the PT’s use of corrupt methods for election financing, no self-criticism for the deals done by PT governments with various ‘devils’, not least Dilma’s vice president, Michel Temer. Finally, there is Lula’s catogoric assertion: ‘The PT doesn’t need to do any self-criticism… The PT has no need to change its name, but it needs to change what’s in people’s heads… it’s the most extraordinary left-wing party in the world’. Indeed!