“To further tackle environmental crime and assaults on the rights and way of life of indigenous people, Lula has created a new department of the federal police focused on the environment and the Amazon.”
By Tim Young
It’s one hundred days since Lula da Silva took office as president of Brazil, having defeated extreme right winger Jair Bolsonaro at the polls in October 2022.
Lula’s victory was relatively narrow, winning on the second round by 51 to 49 per cent, in an election revealing the deep divisions that Bolsonaro’s increasingly autocratic rule had fostered in Brazil during his tenure. But Bolsonaro-supporting parties won the largest bloc of seats in Congress, making the Right a significant obstacle to structural change. Supporters of Bolsonaro supporters also won the Governships of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Minas Gerais, the three wealthiest states in Brazil.
But Lula’s victory did not dissuade Bolsonaro from trying to get the Superior Electoral Court to rig the election in his favour, nor did it deter pro-Bolsonaro protestors unsuccessfully storming the offices of the National Congress, the Presidential Palace and the Supreme Federal Court a week after Lula’s installation as president.
Lula’s response was to remove the head of the military, Julio Cesar de Arruda, for stopping the police from arresting far-right rioters, as well as over 80 military officials from the presidential palace and other key areas.
Lula is now facing how to tackle the damage wreaked by Bolsonaro’s government in many areas of Brazilian life. During his term, environmental deforestation increased massively, while a wave of attacks on Brazil’s indigenous communities, extrajudicial killings and hate crimes created fear in swathes of the population.
Bolsonaro’s disastrously negligent approach to the pandemic led a congressional panel to recommend criminal charges be brought against him. His failure to respond to the health crisis led Brazil to register the third-highest number of confirmed cases and second-highest death toll from COVID-19 in the world, exacerbating pre-existing rates of poverty and inequality.
Key early actions by Lula have involved reversing a number of Bolsonaro’s reactionary presidential decrees. Eight state-owned companies will no longer be privatised; financial support for the protection of the Amazon will be reinstated; measures on illegal mining have been repealed; and the issuing of new gun permits has been suspended.
Beyond that, to implement his commitment “to end hunger in this country once again”, Lula has relaunched the Bolsa Familia (Family Fund) that he first introduced during his first two terms of office (2003-2010).
Some 21 million Brazilian families will receive a monthly basic subsidy of US$115, increasing by US$29 for each child under six years of age. The programme is aimed at some 60 million Brazilians suffering from poverty, at a cost of about 1.5% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
The pandemic also revealed the urgent need to address health inequalities in the country. Building on the ‘More Doctors’ programme launched by then President Dilma Rousseff, but run down under Bolsonaro, the new ‘More Doctors for Brazil’ programme is creating 15,000 new vacancies for professionals with a degree in medicine, aiming to raise the programme’s intake to 28,000 by the end of the year.
This will provide guaranteed primary care health services for 96 million people, particularly for those in the most distant municipalities and on the outskirts of the big cities who are currently poorly served.
Lula and his Vice President Geraldo Alckmin have also shown a lead by receiving Covid booster shots, against Bolsonaro’s refusal to be immunised, in a fully funded programme designed to emphasise the importance of vaccinations.
Lula has also set up new Ministries to address deep-seated problems. The promise to create a Ministry of Indigenous affairs to help restore rights and protections that were undermined by the Bolsonaro government has been fulfilled, while Anielle Franco, sister of the murdered activist Marielle Franco, has taken office as Brazil’s Minister of Racial Equality.
Under Bolsonaro, Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency, Funai, was prevented from fulfilling its remit of protecting Indigenous communities’ lands from invasions by outsiders. It has now been set back to work under Joenia Wapichana, the first ever Indigenous woman elected to Brazil’s Congress, and renamed as requested by Indigenous people’s leaders.
To further tackle environmental crime and assaults on the rights and way of life of indigenous people, Lula has created a new department of the federal police focused on the environment and the Amazon. In January he declared a humanitarian crisis in Yanomami territory, where gold miners’ lawlessness was severely impacting on local communities.
Swift action has now ousted almost all illegal gold miners from the territory, with six more reserves targeted for similar action this year. International cooperation on law enforcement in the region is being sought, and the government is also studying new laws to stamp out illegal gold mining.
Regionally, Lula has restored diplomatic relations with Venezuela and is expected to put his weight behind renewed efforts for regional integration as a defence against external interference. Internationally, high-profile trips to key trading partners the US, Argentina and China have been designed to repair Brazil’s standing which suffered so much under Bolsonaro.
Much has been done already but Lula will undoubtedly face challenges to his programme – and his authority – in the coming period. Bolsonaro, who left Brazil for Florida hurriedly before the handover of office, has recently returned, despite facing a number of criminal inquiries, including an investigation into his alleged role in the storming of Brasilia’s government institutions.
International solidarity against any resurgence of far-right violence and intimidation remains vital.