Nick Zimmerman, senior advisor at WestExec Advisors and global fellow at the Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute, and Amy Erica Smith, liberal arts and sciences dean’s professor and associate professor of political science at Iowa State University, discuss Brazil’s recent presidential election and the ensuing protests, U.S.-Latin America relations, and how Lula’s presidency will affect religious pluralism and democracy in Brazil.
FASKIANOS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar Series. This series convenes religious and faith-based leaders in cross-denominational dialogue on the intersection between religion and international relations. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.
As a reminder, this webinar is on the record and the audio, video, and transcript will be available on CFR’s website, CFR.org, and on the iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
We’re delighted to have Amy Erica Smith and Nick Zimmerman with us to discuss Lula’s Presidency and the Future of Brazil. You have their bios in full, but I will give you a few highlights.
Amy Erica Smith is an associate professor of political science, as well as a liberal arts and sciences dean’s professor at Iowa State University. Her research examines how citizens understand and engage in politics in democratic and authoritarian regimes, with an emphasis on Latin America and, specifically, Brazil. Dr. Smith has published numerous articles in top peer-reviewed outlets in political science, and authored or coauthored three books, including Religion and Brazilian Democracy: Mobilizing the People of God.
Nick Zimmerman is a senior advisor at WestExec Advisors, and a global fellow at the Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute. He previously served in the Obama administration in a variety of national security capacities, including as a senior policy advisor to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and the White House National Security Council director for Brazil and Southern Cone affairs. He’s been cited, interviewed, and published in an array of media outlets in Europe, Latin America, and the United States.
So thank you both for being with us for today’s conversation. Amy Erica, I thought we could begin with you. We just saw the election in October in Brazil. Lula became president. Can you talk about that election and the implications of the protests that we then saw in January, and where we are now?
SMITH: OK. And you’re specifically interested in the religious angle on this, right, Irina?
FASKIANOS: And the religious angle, but we could set the stage and then we can come back and focus in too on religion questions as well.
SMITH: OK. So Brazil’s current president, President Lula, as I think probably most of our viewers know, is maybe the oldest political figure in terms of longevity on the Brazilian scene today. He was a part of the resistance to the military regime, and then has been running for president almost continuously since the return to democracy. Or, one of his proxies has been running for president in a few elections.
So he is a longstanding, classic figure in Brazilian politics who Obama once referred to as “the most popular politician on the planet.” He’s highly charismatic, was extraordinarily popular during much of his presidency. So popular that he was able pretty much singlehandedly to get his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, elected to office in 2010. And then Dilma Rousseff was reelected in 2014, and subsequently impeached, and major scandals and political meltdown.
In any case, so Lula was in office from January 1, 2003 through the end of 2010. So eight years. He has, of course, been out of office since then and is now back in the presidency, an older, wiser man, one might think. He was, historically, a member of what at one point was something close to a radical left. I don’t know if radical would be maybe an overstatement. But he was pretty far left at some point. And substantially moderated over time. As president, he had a relatively center-left government. And, speaking of religion, he had good, amicable relations with religious groups on the right, center, and the left.
Subsequently, towards the end of his administration, and really under Dilma Rousseff, his successor, we had a rise in culture war politics in Brazil, which was really focused on issues of sexuality. To some extent abortion, but Brazilian public opinion is pretty conservative on abortion, relative to the United States, and there was never a lot of movement on abortion. Though, what little movement there was in terms of policy debate Lula was perceived as being more to the left than other politicians. But most of the culture war politics that arose kind of at the tail end of the Lula presidency and then afterwards was about—it was really focused on gender and sexuality—LGBTQ issues, in broad terms.
The rise of sexuality politics in Brazil was associated with a religious backlash against the left. So while Lula had been really quite successful in marshalling support from religious actors all across the political spectrum, subsequently we started to see religious groups moving away from the left under Dilma Rousseff’s presidency, particularly upset about things like anti-LGBTQ bullying initiatives, and things like that. So the center and right were responsible for coalescing to impeach Dilma Rousseff in 2016. And all of this is associated with the rise of now-former president Jair Bolsonaro, who was elected to office in 2018.
Jair Bolsonaro was long known as highly conservative, to the point of being, I think, by many people’s standards, reactionary. He was a supporter of the military regime—he had been a supporter of the military regime during the military regime. And he continued to defend the military regime in ways that were outside the political mainstream during his long career in public office, before he was elected president. So it was rather shocking to the political system to see someone who was an open proponent of the military regime be elected to office in 2018.
Bolsonaro was elected in part with support of Evangelical groups. So the best analysis suggest that he would probably have narrowly lost the election in 2018 if it hadn’t been for the support of Evangelical groups. Of course, it’s hard to assess these kinds of counterfactuals, but it’s clear that Evangelicals were much more strongly supportive of Jair Bolsonaro than were members of any other religious group.
A number of studies, including my own work, suggest that the support for Jair Bolsonaro is, I would say in some sense, spontaneous and sincere among Evangelicals, in that there were Evangelical leaders who came on in support of Jair Bolsonaro, but really the base of his support among religious groups, among religious conservatives, was driven by Evangelical masses, by Evangelicals themselves—lay Evangelicals, that is to say.
So we had this Evangelical support for Bolsonaro that appeared to be really strongly related to Jair Bolsonaro’s conservatism on sexuality politics issues. These were the major issues that seemed to drive Evangelical support for him. So he was elected with strong Evangelical support in 2018. He was less popular among Evangelicals once he had taken office than he had been running in the election. He had a number of performance-related issues as president, including poor management of the COVID pandemic, economic malaise that was exacerbated, of course, by the pandemic. So he was not incredibly popular—he continued to be more popular with Evangelicals than he was with other religious groups, while not being a terribly popular president among Evangelicals either.
He was, of course, defeated with little over 48 percent of the vote—close to 49 percent of the vote; more like 49 percent of the vote—in the second-round election of 2022. In that election, again, he was able to count on strong support from Evangelicals, though somewhat less than in other times. So what we found was that Evangelicals continued to be more attracted to Bolsonaro than were members of other religious groups. And at the same time, Evangelicals were less supportive of Bolsonaro in 2022 than they were in 2018. And a large part of this, again, is concern about performance-related issues.
We, once again, in 2022 saw Evangelical leaders also climb onto the Evangelical bandwagon that was supportive of Bolsonaro. One of the major differences though, between 2018 and 2022, is that once Bolsonaro had lost and Lula had won, we saw religious leaders generally trying to build a truce with the Lula administration. So it doesn’t appear that religious groups are going to be a strong oppositional force against a Lula presidency, for the most part.
Does that give an overview? Or is there something more that you’d like from me, Irina?
FASKIANOS: That’s great. Why don’t we go to Nick and then we can come back to you.
So, Nick, we see next week will be the first meeting between Presidents Biden and Lula. Or, actually, it’s happening this week. Is it happening this week? Next week, OK. So next week. So what do you expect the relationship to be? You worked in the Obama administration when Lula was president for part of that time, and I’m sure have studied it during the Trump years. And now what can you say—talk about a little bit about what we should expect the relationship between the U.S. and Brazil to—how will it evolve from where it's been?
ZIMMERMAN: Sure and absolutely. Well, thanks, again, Irina, for having us, and putting on this event. It’s quite an opportunity. And I’m always happy when people are Brazil interested which, admittedly, has been happening more often as of late, given that it’s been having a prominent role in the headlines, it seems.
Lula’s visit to the White House is happening upon a broader political backdrop that, in many ways, is quite eerie in how, within their own contexts, of course, and certain idiosyncrasies, these two countries’ political bodies have mirrored each other over their respective last several political cycles. This is a story of profound polarization, disillusionment with democracy as a form of government, a suspicion that the system is rigged, rife with corruption that range from the normal type of money laundering public corruption that might come to mind, to election fraud.
And so if you take a step back, I think we need to look at this visit and the elections that just happened—both in the United States and in Brazil at the end of 2022—in the broader context of a moment in which global democracy is really being pushed, challenged, and stressed in ways that had not been the case in recent decades. And I think that both leaders are going to try to sit down and discuss that very topic. And it’s hard to get one’s arms around, frankly, in terms of government bureaucracy, how exactly can two countries that have been suffering from similar political dynamics in terms of their negative, in my view, impacts on their democratic fiber—what can they do together both in their respective countries, and then in other democracies around the world, to learn certain lessons?
And so in many ways, I think this is going to be Lula and Biden trying to figure that very thing out, create a framework for cooperation. It’s very early on for Lula, obviously. It’s been literally one month. So I think that they’re going to try to touch on some really central topics, like the state of democracy in the world, like climate change and how they can lead together on that existential challenge, a number of human rights. Sort of more traditional foreign policy issues, like what’s going on in terms of the political crisis in Haiti, the ongoing political migration, refugee crisis in Venezuela, the complete disillusion of democracy in Nicaragua.
And Lula has started to be very public about the fact that he envisions a role for Brazil as a mediator of some sorts, as a representative of the global south, perhaps, as a member of the G20, what have you. To try to engage also with respect to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. So there’s going to be a really rich agenda. I think it’s going to be more frame setting than a laundry list of deliverables and initiatives.
But these are two veteran leaders. And Professor Smith spoke about Lula’s long history and trajectory in Brazil. Obviously, President Biden has a similarly long trajectory in U.S. politics. They knew each other. Their teams knew each other. There’s a lot of overlap, obviously, in the Biden-Harris administration and the overlap between the Obama-Biden administration, and the last two years of the Lula one, as well as the overlap that occurred after Lula departed and Dilma Rousseff took office. So we’ve got a lot of wily negotiators on both sides, to include the new Brazilian foreign minister who’s formerly the Brazilian ambassador to the United States, actually, when I worked at the White House. So I think they’re going to start to try to put a frame, so to speak, on the house, and try to fill it up as time goes by.
I did just want to mention—as just a brief tangent—that I do see the trajectory bit of how we got here in Brazil, specifically, in terms of the polarization to not be as singularly driven by sexuality politics and gender ideology as perhaps Dr. Smith does. I agree, it was a driving factor, particularly I think in his second election—Bolsonaro’s reelection campaign, Bolsonaro’s reelection campaign. But we just can’t tell the full story also if we don’t talk about the legacy of corruption, and the fact that tens of millions of Brazilians across any slew of socioeconomic factors that you want to look at—from education and literacy rates to food insecurity rates. We’ve seen tremendous backsliding, after decades of success.
And this was a corruption scandal, of course, that gets at the very core and root of the other part of Lula’s governing legacy, which were successive corruption scandals involving really all levels of the government apparatus, which actually netted him himself in prison. I mean, you can’t tell the full story of Lula if you don’t talk about the rise, the depth of the fall, and now where we are again here today. And the judicial overreaches and biases that led to his release do not also erase that legacy of corruption that led to, I think, a broader disillusionment that allowed someone like Jair Bolsonaro, who had been considered outside of the Brazilian mainstream previously, to not only rise in prominence but rise all the way to the presidency. And despite having a very, very bumpy tenure as president, as Dr. Smith outlined quite well, almost won again. Not unlike what we saw here in the United States in 2020. I’ll stop there for now.
FASKIANOS: Maybe we can talk a little bit about the insurrection that we saw there and the links to what happened here on January 6, and just that interplay.
SMITH: Sure. Are you asking Nick or are you asking me?
FASKIANOS: I’d love to hear both of your perspectives. So, Amy Erica, why don’t you go first?
SMITH: OK. Well, first of all, thanks to Nick for the really very good explanation. And I absolutely agree. And thanks for the correction. (Laughs.) You can’t really talk about the history of the past twelve years or the past twenty years in Brazil without talking about corruption scandals, and Lula’s strong association with corruption scandals.
As far as where this insurrection came from, they were among the most telegraphed, feared outcomes. On the one hand, nobody expected them on the day they happened. And on the other hand, there had long been concern that this kind of thing would happen. Jair Bolsonaro had effectively announced that he was going to try to have this kind of thing happen. (Laughs.) And at the same time, the system wasn’t ready for it at the moment that it actually happened—which is how it happened, really.
So as I said, Jair Bolsonaro had long been known as something of—somewhat ambivalent towards democracy in certain ways. He had been an apologist for the military regime, defender of the military regime’s use of torture. And this was all outside the military—or, outside the political mainstream, I would say, during the time that he was running for office. As he was running for office in 2018—that is, when he was running for office the first time. As he was running for office in 2018, he ran a nontraditional campaign in many different ways. But among the nontraditional components of it was that his skepticism of electoral procedure.
So Brazil has a highly professionalized electoral administration service—or, a tribunal, court—which runs an electronic voting system that runs across the country and is consistently shown to be quite secure, and really quite free and fair. Elections are run efficiently smoothly, highly professionally in Brazil, and are widely recognized across the political spectrum in Brazil and across international circles as being really highly competent, and highly democratic in the sense of counting everybody’s vote.
In any case, he raised skepticism of the election in 2018, of the electoral procedures in 2018. Claimed, without evidence, that he would have won in the first round if it hadn’t been for fraud in the first round. He ended up winning the second round of 2018. And then continued to beat that drum, off and on, throughout his presidency. And as in the lead-up to the 2022 election, started to make lots of claims about fraud, potential corruption, all kinds of issues that he said they were going to face in the 2022 election. Again, without what most independent parties thought was much evidence at all, and with a strong opposition of the Brazilian Supreme Court, which runs the Superior Electoral Tribunal. The Superior Electoral Tribunal is effectively an offshoot, a branch of the Supreme Court.
So he went head to head over and over again with Supreme Court justices over whether elections in Brazil could be trusted. He ended up getting some members of the military to, I would say, not exactly endorse, but help to support his story about the potential of corruption. There were members of the military—high-ranking members of the military who, for instance, put forth a memo asking for a whole bunch of changes to electoral procedure, which were widely perceived as being irrelevant, or distracting, or harmful to election procedures in Brazil.
In any case, so there was lots of electoral skepticism and attempt to foment the perception in the public that elections were rigged. There was also, along with this, skepticism of polls. Skepticism of polls fed on itself, where it appears that certain members of—some Bolsonaristas, some of the people who were most strongly attached to Bolsonaro, were less likely to answer polls because of skepticism of polls, which then led to polls to underrepresent support for Bolsonaro, in some cases. So we have all of this skepticism, perception of fraud going on.
Following the election, there had been concern that Bolsonaro was going to try to stage a coup, or—most observers—most people who were observing most closely didn’t think he would actually try to stage a coup. But there were attempts that something along the lines was going to happen. That there might be a potential attempt at coup. That there might be some other kind of major unrest immediately following the election.
Immediately following the election none of that materialized. He never acknowledged—he never conceded the election, and at the same time allowed his administration to proceed to work with Lula to plan the transition. So there was a grudging, if not true acceptance of the result, at least willingness to go along with Bolsonaro stepping down. At the same time, protests were proceeding across the country that were not directly spearheaded by Bolsonaro, though certainly Bolsonaro allies were involved, and Bolsonaro was maybe tacitly supporting some of these protests.
One of the things that was different between 2022 Brazil and 2020 U.S. is that in the Brazilian case the allegiances of the armed forces were more in question. While the armed forces were clearly not going to support an overt coup—or, I think most people believed that they were clearly not going to support a coup, and in the end they did not support a coup—there were definitely members of the military who strongly supported Bolsonaro and were really highly sympathetic to the claims of election fraud, and the general disgruntlement among Bolsonaristas.
And so a lot of these protests were happening outside military bases with effectively the tacit support of many of the people inside the military bases. Tacit, or non-tacit—or, overt. So all this heads into January 8. And in this run-up we also have an attempted bombing of a petroleum refinery. We have truckers who are blocking roads. And in some cases, we have members of the military themselves who are blocking roads, though that’s not supposed to be happening. So we have all this sort of social unrest heading into January 8.
I think after Lula had taken office there was a perception that things were going to calm down, that the protests were going to calm down. The system appeared not to be ready for what happened on January 8. There were groups on Telegram and other social media sites that were organizing the protests of January 8. It was clear that this was going to happen, people knew it was going to happen, and yet the system was not ready to stop the protestors on January 8. There are real concerns about certain members of the military possibly having subverted the reaction—members of the military and other officials, having possibly subverted part of the response to January 8, which was what allowed it to get so out of control.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
Nick, do you want to share your perspective? I mean, you did talk about this, the democracy piece in your opening, and what Lula and Biden will talk about vis-à-vis the protests—insurrection, I should say.
ZIMMERMAN: Indeed. In many ways, for many of the reasons that Professor Smith cited, January, in retrospect anyway, seems like an inevitable—the inevitable, hopefully, culmination of really a multi-year, extremely sophisticated disinformation apparatus that has also played a huge role, I think, in polarizing the country. So Jair Bolsonaro really begins his national rise at a time when the way that one conducts politics in Brazil completely changes. Since Brazil returned to democracy, the way that you won elections was essentially by growing through a party system.
There are many parties in Brazil. Many of them have fused, many have died, many have evolved. But nevertheless, you come up through them because you get access to public resources in a way that doesn’t exist in the United States, that enables you to grow a state-wide, or city-wide, or nation-wide profile. Because Brazil has always allowed for, during political campaign seasons, a certain amount of free advertising time, both on television and radio, on the basis of party’s representations in the legislature.
And this was really the means by which Brazilian politicians introduced themselves to the populace. And for most of that period of time, there were really only two or three television channels and radio stations that dominated those mediums. And that’s all gone now, with social media. Jair Bolsonaro had very little public airwave time in the election that got him all the way to the presidency. But he has developed an incredibly sophisticated social media political messaging apparatus—YouTube, WhatsApp, Telegram. In 2018, it was these mass messages being sent around, and then being forwarded around by family members via WhatsApp. Sort of the second evolution of using social media for the express means of political disinformation, after the 2016 U.S. campaign where Facebook was the primary mechanism for it.
And part of that was talking about how the system was rigged. Part of that was talking about all of this corruption that we just discussed in the governments prior. And part of that, yes, was that we can’t even trust the election results. And so this fraud narrative, as Dr. Smith said, it started before the last presidential cycle. And it was maintained as a narrative even though Bolsonaro became president, against all the odds. And increasingly the rhetoric ramped up, as he looked to be in trouble from COVID, from a decimated economy, from polarization that he can’t fully control and that had a counter reaction that also helped explain, in part, Lula’s restoration after he had really sunk to new lows in terms of his own political negativity ratings within the country.
So much so that someone like Bolsonaro was able to win for exactly that reason. And so as part of the final stage of the campaigning, it became: You cannot trust the elections. And we are citing very obscure and, admittedly, sort of poorly worded language in the Brazilian constitution, ushered in after the dictatorship—some of which is a relic, frankly, of when there was a king from the Portuguese empire. It talks about, in Article 142 of the Brazilian constitution, a “moderating power.”
This used to be the aristocrat, poder moderador, but which has been interpreted as a potential mechanism by which the military, of called upon by the president, or the judiciary, or congress to step in to reestablish order, could lead to some sort of new constitutional process, annulling Lula’s victory, potentially restoring Bolsonaro, or something else. But at least something else that wouldn’t be as left or anathema to what these groups want to see in the executive branch.
And so all the conjecture about some sort of uprising, in some way or form, it was very clear to many of us what it was going to look like and what it was hoping to accomplish. But in broad strokes, there was a sense that if we can create enough of a ruckus, if we can create enough disorder we can create a public rationale to bring certain elements—it was never monolithic—of the intelligence establishment, security establishment, perhaps the military, other sub-regional leaders along with in saying: “Hey, something’s really awry here. We need to create a different type of constitutional order, election process, rethink how we check these things.” And that was sort of the vague rationale for doing something.
Everyone thought that would, of course, happen while Bolsonaro was still president. No one still, as far as I know—it’s an unfolding investigation, so many chapters still to be written—no one fully knows why it happened after the transition had happened. I’ve heard everything from that was always the plan to it was literally that security was too tight on the day of, and that January 8 was the first day that they could penetrate the public buildings. I think that’s a story still to be told. And at some level, yeah, this was an attempt to create enough chaos to see if enough elements of Brazilian society would consider some sort of never fully defined plan B. And it was their version, although their process and the timing was totally different, of going after the electoral certification process at Congress and Vice President Pence at that time, in the U.S. context. Those were the objectives, at the end of the day.
FASKIANOS: This is fantastic. I’ve got more questions, but let’s go to our group. You can either raise your hand and I’ll call on you, or else you can write your question in the Q&A. There are a couple in the chat. So if you want to write a question or make a comment, put it in the Q&A box. But I will read those.
So I’m going to first go to John Chane, who has raised his hand. If you can unmute yourself. You still need to unmute yourself, John. OK. Let’s see. I’m going to give him one more—that is not working. If you want to type your question.
There is in the chat a note from, let’s see, Rita Hipolito. And she says: It’s important to mention the growth of religious hatred that members of African-based religions suffered during the Bolsonaro government. So much so that the first law that Lula signed established a day of religions of African origin in January 6. Is this something, Amy Erica, you can talk about?
SMITH: Yeah, briefly. So this animosity between religious conservatives, especially Evangelical groups—especially within and among Evangelical groups, especially neo-Pentecostal groups, and members of African-based religions is longstanding in Brazil. It predates Bolsonaro. There has been intense skepticism between these groups—well, with the skepticism more strongly on the side of Evangelicals being skeptical of Afro-Brazilian groups. And effectively, Evangelicals and Pentecostals framing Afro-Brazilian religious groups as “devil worship.”
The animosity has intensified in the past five or six years, as the sort of culture war has built up. One has to at least briefly mention the longstanding racial discrimination and racial prejudice in Brazil, which is certainly part of this. But it goes beyond racial discrimination and racial prejudice, to sort of, I’d say, a very religious kind of debate over revealed truth and those kinds of things. So this hostility has reached the point where—well, actually, twenty years ago—a major Evangelical leader, Edir Macedo, the bishop of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, destroyed some African icons on TV. This is the first major incidence of interreligious, I guess, violence—a form of interreligious violence in Brazilian public media.
But the incident, in which Edir Macedo destroyed Afro-Brazilian religious icons on TV was only sort of echoed and continued. That kind of interreligious conflict continued to be a part of Brazilian political culture. And it has intensified. We now have periodic violence against not just attacking religious icons and religious symbols, but actually temples for Afro-Brazilian terreiros, they’re called. So effectively, religious facilities for Afro-Brazilian groups, sometimes attacking actual religious services of Afro-Brazilian religious groups. So, yeah, there’s been a fair amount of religious violence. And it has been gradually increasing in Brazil, substantially increasing now over the past few years.
The establishment of a day of religions of African origin, an official day to recognize religions of African origin is, of course, important. And it’s also not by itself going to stop violence against these groups, in part because the violence is lawless. More needs to happen in order to stop that violence.
ZIMMERMAN: Sure. And I’ll try to add to that one, and also I see we have questions about Bolsa Familia and the environment as well. So I’ll try to take all in one. I agree with really most of what Professor Smith just said. I would argue—or, not argue—I would just add that it goes even beyond, of course, notwithstanding the focus of the question, it goes even far beyond Afro-Brazilian communities and beliefs. We are talking about one of the most religiously pluralistic and diverse [places], and ethnically too.
I mean, I think we’re all increasingly horrified by the reports coming out of the Amazon right now, which leads to the climate question, and the opening, burgeoning investigation by the Brazilian judiciary into the Bolsonaro administration, now past, possibly on suspicion of genocide for the way that they treated and provided public assistance to the Yanomani tribe. So, a number of other minority communities in Brazil have traditionally historically had a pretty rough run of it. And as Dr. Smith just alluded to, that’s an entirely separate conversation and area of rich academic research and focus.
But it permeates, I think, throughout today. And so much of what’s involved in the polarization of public discourse is, of course, pitting groups against each other—us versus them—in sort of increasingly demonizing ways. And I think we’ve seen in many different political, cultural, religious contexts around the world that, unfortunately, there’s a very real correlation to that and violence, societal violence. Brazil, I think, is no exception. So that ties, I think, a bit to climate and Bolsa Familia.
Bolsa Familia is no longer called Bolsa Familia. We’ll see if Bolsa Familia gets named back. Bolsonaro changed it as part of his marketing campaign to try to own and improve his standing politically, support levels with lower-income Brazilians. It’s been—it was expanded during the pandemic through emergency spending measures. Bolsonaro had indicated if reelected that he would bring it down a bit, and that that temporary expansion would not be permanent. Lula was able to secure, as really his first negotiation with Congress, an additional year of that expanded funding.
To be clear, it will never go away. We’re talking about what level does it get funded at. And this is a major, major piece of his political platform. Undoing the backsliding that Brazil has seen in terms of anti-poverty, I think, as you write, is probably his single highest domestic priority. Eliminating food insecurity, upping education levels, investing in education, public health care. These are all things that have traditionally really animated and motivated (inaudible) as well as his broader political movement and party, the Workers’ Party.
If that’s a preferential option for the poor, I’m not sure I would use exactly that language, but I think that using the levers of the government to ameliorate socioeconomic disparity has always been Lula’s top domestic priority throughout his entire trajectory as a politician, dating back to his time as a union leader, which Dr. Smith alluded to at the beginning of our conversation. So, preferential or not, it’s what he considers his base, socioeconomically. There is an objective need by most any macroeconomic indicator that you want to look at over the last couple years. And I would expect that space to be very busy in terms of his domestic focus in these initial years.
In terms of climate, I’m somewhat optimistic, though Lula’s track record on climate is mixed, historically. This is, I think, a politician and a president who believes in climate change, doesn’t deny its devastating impacts. That’s, at least, a good place to start. When he was president [previously], he enacted a number of policies that were really effective. We saw sustained declined in rates of deforestation under his presidency, almost for a decade straight.
But that stalled, and then started to reverse. And that was before Bolsonaro, although then it got far, far worse under him. Again, it just shows that it’s a constant fight. It need a lot of attention. A lot of the government agencies that work on that, which are some of the most specialized in the world, were hollowed out in terms of staff and budgeting. And not unlike some of the reports we heard about what happened in federal agencies in the United States, like the EPA, for example, in years past. So this is going to take a while. He’s putting in a lot of people who have a good track record, who believe in this.
And I think he realizes that it is also a gateway to him reestablishing Brazil’s global leadership. And that is something that he very much wants. He wants Brazil back amongst that first tier of countries dealing with the world’s issues. And I think that he saw how much Bolsonaro’s track record, or lack thereof, on climate, made Brazil a pariah, along with a lot of the other issues that we’ve been talking about. But climate was also first and foremost, right? And so I expect to see a bit of a change. Though he will never do anything that could be construed as compromising Brazilian sovereignty, which is always the international debate over the Amazon.
And in the past, this motivated decisions from him that were controversial, that led to deforestation, like the creation of the mega Belo Monte Dam, which occurred under his and Dilma Rousseff’s government. And which he saw as vital to sort of the socioeconomic development of a region which is the poorest sub region in Brazil. I think it’s a new day. I think that we have reason to believe that we will again start to see falling rates of deforestation in the Amazon. But it’s a Herculean effort, and one that, appropriate within a Brazilian context, does require, I think, international support and intention, and for many years to come.
SMITH: Can I just briefly answer?
FASKIANOS: Yeah, go ahead. Go ahead.
SMITH: Can I briefly answer Ralston Deffenbaugh’s question as well?
SMITH: Because I think the core of the question is, what is the role of the Catholic left in the policies of Lula’s early administration. So to answer Mr. Deffenbaugh’s question, I looked at his bio. I think you’re at the Lutheran World Service. To answer Mr. Deffenbaugh’s question, there were historically strong ties between the Catholic left and the early days of Lula’s political activism and of the Workers’ Party, and his early presidency. Would we say that the Catholic left is directly responsible for Bolsa Familia? I would not say that. But I would say that notions such as a preferential option for the poor were part and parcel of the milieu. They were inherent in the milieu of the early days of the Workers’ Party.
And Lula has long had strong ties to a number of liberation theologian thinkers. And so, yeah, I would say that—can be considered a preferential option for the poor—that I’m not sure that I would say that this is specifically a policy of the Catholic left. But I would say that it is something that grows out of an administration that was strongly tied in its early days and in its development to the Catholic left.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next to Reginaldo Braga, if you could unmute yourself.
BRAGA: Yes. Thank you so much.
FASKIANOS: And identify yourself, please.
BRAGA: Absolutely. Reginaldo Braga. Native of Brazil. U.S. citizen after almost thirty years. Faculty of religion and education at an African American institution here in the South.
I’m very curious. Our take on the political and social processes of Brazil started, I would say, rather recently. I’m very curious on the comments also, as we would bring together our domestic policies, as you, Nick, suggested, and our foreign policies and our, United States—or force of the United States—interested on what has been going on in Brazil. Take, for instance, if you look at the upcoming relations of Brazil-U.S., I would be very curious. Many of us would still remember the NSA case that pried on Dilma Rousseff.
Many of us would remember the case that was made to Lula in the times of Bill Clinton, even, to disarticulate arguments of Brazilian further international policies. And the questions of the deep-sea reserves. Which ended up bringing to us, all of us, a sense that effective regime change ended up happening in Brazil with Dilma Rousseff. And a very curious aspect of the effective invalidation of the popular vote, which since the time of Citi Group, Citi Corp reports on plutocracies, has posed the question of are we really going into this reengineering of democracy and enabling the ability of individuals as such.
So I’m very curious of these forces. If you think about religion, for years then monies and articulations, there is a big back and forth from right-wing, or more on the religious side—on the right-wing religious side of the United States, going also to the United States. I’m curious to see that conversation of our own forces’ participation and where we are with our domestic policy and foreign policy intersecting.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Who wants to take that, start? Nick? You’re unmuting first.
ZIMMERMAN: Yeah. I mean, I’d be happy to. I mean, Reginaldo raised a number of issues in the bilateral relationship. I confess, I’m not sure I heard much of a question in there. I’m not sure—you’re just curious about how the leaders will talk about issues of democracies, given that there have been tensions in the relationship in the past? Do I understand you correctly? Is that right?
BRAGA: I think that we can go with that. I’m concerned with the engineering and the perceptions of our own senses of defense of democracy. Because it’s not just a matter on the Brazilian case. The Brazilian case, as Roberto DaMatta would probably say—you probably have encountered him already—there is an underside, or there is a distorted mirror to the U.S. democracy too. I mean, you can raise the question. To me, it’s very concerning to see that an entire election, and following the demise of Dilma Rousseff, the very invalidation of the social mandate that the elections were given were systematically disassembled. And that’s—
FASKIANOS: Thank you. OK, thank you.
ZIMMERMAN: OK, I think I have a little bit of a better sense. So first of all, I would agree with Reginaldo that a lot of inflection and reflection needs to occur in the United States with respect to the state of its democracy. I actually think that’s where I started my comments, when I talked about how much the political bodies of the two countries have increasingly reflected each other, at least dating back, I would argue, four or five presidential cycles. And so in no way was I suggesting that—and I never said this—that the conversation about democracy between President Biden and President Lula should only be about Brazilian democracy.
And in fact, based on the comments that I’ve seen from both leaders, that is the intent of neither for the conversation. It’s actually to kind of come together, and commiserate, and talk about what can be done about these issues. The U.S. Congress, Democratic congressional leaders, have talked about, for example, sharing their lessons learned now that it’s concluded into how they conducted their investigation into January 6, if that would be of some sort of interest to their counterparts in Brazilian Congress. That’s one possibility. Perhaps Brazil and the United States can work together to start strengthening, through resourcing and technical capacity training, right, beef up election monitoring and observing organizations to make sure that we’ve got more of an infrastructure, both on the ground but also in terms of communications to debunk some of the myths about election fraud.
All of these are examples. I have several others. But they’re based in real conversations that are being thought through and discussed at various different levels in the capitals of both countries. So just want to clarify there. I think Reginaldo perhaps interpreted my commented in a different way, because actually in many ways I think we agree. And the fragility that we’ve seen in the last several years about U.S. democracy in part is why I think the Biden administration has come out repeatedly in public, unlike many of Brazil’s other closest parties, to defend its electoral process, quickly recognize Lula’s victory, and make it such a priority to have him come up in the very first weeks of his presidency.
I think the traumas that the two countries’ democracies have experienced in years past is why there might be an opportunity for a new kind of relationship, which has always been marked by great tension, as Reginaldo and others have noted, and also profound areas of collaboration. That’s the nature of the beast. Democracy and geopolitics is complicated. And when you’re talking about two of the five or six, depending on how you classify it, democracies in the world, their interests are never going to fully align. That’s the case with the U.S. and India, China, the EU. That has been, it will continue to be the case, with Brazil. That’s all the more reason for why it’s important that this visit’s happening now. And I hope there are many more to come.
I’ll stop there. I know we’re running out of time. I’m sure Dr. Smith will want to jump in too.
FASKIANOS: Yes, well, I’d like to get in one more question, if we can. And Katie Burns, who’s at the U.S. State Department.
Based on your analysis, how might the Lula administration engage, or not, on questions of indigenous spirituality as an arm of how it engages on freedom of religion or belief policies, or otherwise? Climate, environment, protection of sacred land, for instance? Especially considering the establishment of Ministry of Indigenous Peoples and burgeoning investigation into abuses against the Yanomami community. There’s a lot there. We don’t have very much time, but. Amy Erica, do you want to go first? And maybe sum up—
SMITH: Oh, that’s a huge question. And it’s a fantastic one. How might the Lula administration engage? I anticipate that the Lula administration will be highly sympathetic, certainly in terms of sort of the level of policy rhetoric will be highly sympathetic to support for indigenous spirituality. This is part of the historical tendency of the Brazilian left and center-left, is support for non-Christian religious groups and spiritualities. I also see that the support for indigenous spirituality will go along with support for indigenous rights and indigenous lands, more broadly.
One of the things that’s happened in Brazil is that there’s a very strong association—I think this is underlying Katie’s question—is that there’s a very strong association between support for the indigenous and support for the environment. There are studies that show conclusively that protection of indigenous lands and territories is really, really good for the Brazilian environment. The more demarcation you have, and the more empowered indigenous groups are to protect that land, the better things are for the Brazilian Amazon, and the rainforests in general, beyond the Amazon.
So, yes. I anticipate that the Lula administration will, at the level of rhetoric, strongly support indigenous spirituality, and also support demarcation that’s related to indigenous understandings of—when I say “demarcation,” I mean demarcation of territory. Demarcation of indigenous reservations. So support for demarcation of indigenous reservations, that’s driven, in part, by indigenous understandings of spirituality.
I would say there is a tension here that just occurred to me. That there’s also going to be a tension with Evangelical groups, because Evangelicals perceive their mission as being—or, one of their missions—as being evangelization within indigenous territories, and possibly that there are potential conflicts that will emerge from this. I suspect that Lula’s going to try to thread the needle and work with Evangelical groups, while also ultimately siding with indigenous groups, for the most part.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. And, Nick, do you want to add to that?
ZIMMERMAN: I just—yeah, thank you. (Laughs.)
FASKIANOS: Fantastic. And we are at the end of our hour. So, unfortunately, we can’t get to the final question there. So my apologies. But thank you both for this really terrific conversation, to everybody who joined with their written questions and verbal questions. We appreciate it. You can follow Amy Erica Smith’s work on her website at amyericasmith.org, and Nick Zimmerman’s work at wilsoncenter.org. So go there to see what they’re writing about and saying. And you can follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program on Twitter at @CFR_religion. And please do reach out to us. Write to [email protected] with any suggestions or questions. Thank you, again. We hope you will join us at our next Social Justice Webinar on social safety nets. It will take place on Thursday, February 23, at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time. You will get that invitation under separate cover.
So, again, thank you to Nick, and Amy Erica, and to all of you. Have a great day.
SMITH: Thank you, everybody. Bye.