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Lula is back on the scene

The Brazilian election and its consequences

Lula da Silva speaks to supporters in Sao Paulo, Brazil, after polls closed on Oct. 30. Associated Press/Photo by Andre Penner

Lula is back on the scene
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On Oct. 19, Brazilian presidential candidate Luiz Inacio da Silva—known to millions simply as “Lula”—published a public letter pledging that he would not restrict religious freedom if elected. This past Sunday, Lula narrowly won Brazil’s presidency, an amazing feat in itself since he was in jail for corruption just a few years ago. But, why was it necessary for Socialist Lula to make a grand pronouncement about religious freedom in the final days of the campaign? What are we to make of the fact that a dozen Latin American countries now have Socialist regimes in power?

In his victory speech on Oct. 30, Lula asserted, “I will govern for 215 million Brazilians, not just those who voted for me. There is no such thing as two Brazils. We are a single country, a single people, a great country.” Clearly, however, Lula’s campaign advisors realized that many practicing Catholics and evangelical voters were not convinced of Lula’s good intentions, hence Lula’s Oct. 19 statement on religious freedom, “My government will not adopt any policies that hurt religious liberty or create obstacles for churches to function freely.”

Lula’s Socialist Workers Party is a contradiction. On the one hand, its anti-poverty advocacy has made it popular among many Catholics and some evangelicals among the country’s poor. Lula himself rose from humble beginnings, worked as a miner, and lost a finger in an industrial accident. At age 77, he is a walking rags-to-riches story, and now, after a corruption scandal and imprisonment, he is Brazil’s comeback king.

On the other hand, as scholars point out, Lula’s party has taken militant stands favoring abortion rights and LGBTQ policies, which are deeply offensive to morally orthodox Catholics and, especially, the majority of Brazil’s evangelicals. Earlier this year, Lula stated his support for abortion as a “right” and then backtracked, saying he was personally against abortion. Religious people worry that a win by Lula’s Workers Party may result in them being targeted when speaking out on corruption or social issues, as has happened in Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.

Lula served two terms as president (2003-2010) and then was succeeded by his former chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff (2010-2016). Rousseff was impeached and the Workers Party tainted when the scale of its corruption was uncovered. In what the Wall Street Journal calls the “largest corruption scandal in Latin American history,” the party used contracts and kick-backs across many sectors of the economy to entrench itself and assure election victories. Lula went to prison for 19 months but was released on a technicality.

The playbook seems to be to win a narrow victory in a national election and then use coercion and corruption to keep one’s party in power.

This brazen corruption and lawlessness is endemic in the Socialist strategy of Lula’s confederates, from Nicaragua to Venezuela. The playbook seems to be to win a narrow victory in a national election and then use coercion and corruption to keep one’s party in power. True, the Socialist pledge to redistribute wealth is greeted enthusiastically by many of Latin America’s most vulnerable citizens, and Lula and others have seen some economic successes. For instance, incomes rose during Lula’s first presidency, in large part driven by a commodity economy joined to easy Chinese loans and investment. But that social spending largesse often results in massive debt and inflation, particularly when economic conditions change (as occurred with the 2008 global economic crisis).

Consequently, the fact that Socialists are now running a dozen major Latin American countries is deeply worrying when it comes to the rule of law and when fundamental rights such as religious freedom, freedom of speech, and a free press are at stake. An example of this occurred in October when Lula’s allies on Brazil’s election commission attempted to shut down news reporting of Lula’s criminal record. Today, the Socialists hold sway in Mexico, Peru, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, and beyond.

Lula won the presidency with 50.9 percent of the vote over sitting president Jair Bolsonaro’s 49.1 percent. Bolsonaro, a former Army officer and conservative Catholic married to a well-known evangelical, will leave office with a mixed record. For instance, the economy, battered by COVID-19, has a lower inflation rate (7 percent) than the United States. Bolsonaro is often cited as anti-environment for his pro-business stance and the continued deforestation of the Amazon, but there was more deforestation during Lula’s first term in office. As one newspaper reports, Bolsonaro’s “shoot from the lip rhetoric” caused problems at times.

Perhaps most importantly for Bolsonaro’s constituency is the fact that Lula had no coattails in this election. In provincial and legislative elections three weeks ago, Bolsonaro’s allies were victorious across the country and will have a majority in the national legislature. Thus, when it comes to the rule of law, fundamental human rights, and religious freedom, it may be possible for elected officials to hold Lula accountable to be the president “of a single Brazil” and protect the religious liberty of all citizens, churches, and faith-based organizations. What happens in Brazil will not stay in Brazil, so the situation there deserves our attention. Lula is back on the scene, so watch closely.

Eric Patterson

Eric Patterson is president of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C., and past dean of the School of Government at Regent University. He is the author or editor of more than 20 books, including Just American Wars, Politics in a Religious World, and Ending Wars Well.

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