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Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s return to frontline politics was a bombshell for Brazil. In April 2021, the Brazilian Supreme Court annulled a series of corruption convictions that had excluded the leftist former President from national elections in 2018, saying a biased judge on his case had compromised his right to a fair trial. The decision set Brazil on course for a showdown between Lula—as he is universally known—and current far-right President Jair Bolsonaro in the October 2022 elections.
Lula, who officially launches his campaign on May 7, promises to bring Brazil back to the good old days of his 2003-2010 presidency, which he wrapped with an 83% approval rating. That would mean reviving an ailing economy, saving a threatened democracy, and healing a nation scarred by the world’s second-highest COVID-19 death toll and two years of chaotic pandemic mismanagement. So far, his promises are resonating: Lula is polling at 45% compared to Bolsonaro’s 31%. But the gap is narrowing.
TIME staff writer Ciara Nugent sat down with Lula in late March, in the São Paulo headquarters of his Workers’ Party (PT), to speak about his time in prison, the war in Ukraine, and whether his plans for the country are based on more than nostalgia. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
TIME: When the Supreme Court restored your political rights last year, you were already preparing for a quieter life away from politics, according to Brazilian media. Did you immediately decide to return?
In truth, I never gave up. Politics lives in every cell of my body, in my blood, in my head. Because the issue is not politics itself, but the cause that brings you to politics. And I have a cause.
When I left the presidency in 2010, I was not planning to be a presidential candidate again. But in the 12 years since I left office, I see that all the policies I created to benefit the poor—all our social inclusion policies, everything we did to improve universities, technical schools, improving salaries, improving the quality of jobs—all that was destroyed, dismantled. Because the people who started to occupy the government after the coup that took Dilma [Rousseff] out, were people who wanted to destroy all of the things that the Brazilian people had won after 1943.
There is an expectation that I would become President of Brazil, again, because people have good memories of the time when I was President. Because people had jobs. Because people had better wages, because they had wage increases above inflation. So I think people miss that, and they want those things improved.
Brazil is facing a very different situation today than when you won the presidency for the first time in 2002—in terms of the economy, political polarization, the international situation. Can you do as good a job as you did the first time?
In American football, there is a player. As it happens he’s ended up with a Brazilian woman. A model. And he’s been the best player in the world for a long time. In each game he’s going to play, his fans demand that he plays better than he did in the last one. With the presidency it’s the same thing. I am only running because I can do better than I did before.
I’m sure that I can resolve [Brazil’s] problems. I’m certain that our problems will only be solved when poor people are participating actively in the economy, when poor people participate in the budget, when poor people are working, when poor people can eat. That is only possible if you have a government that is dedicated to the poor.
Many people in Brazil say that there were many incarnations of Lula, particularly on economic policy. Which Lula do we have today?
Look, I am the only candidate with whom people should not be concerned about that. You know why? Because I’ve been a President twice already. And we don’t discuss economic policies before winning the elections. First, you have to win the elections. And then you have to know who you will have in your team and what you will do. But if you have questions about me, look at what happened in Brazil when I was President of the Republic. Look at how the market grew. Brazil was only doing [a few] IPOs. Under my government, we had 250. Brazil had a debt of $30 billion, and after my government, we started loaning money to the IMF. Brazil didn’t have a single dollar of hard currency reserves. Today, we have $370 billion in hard currency reserves. […] So you have to understand that instead of asking what I will do, just look at what I’ve done.
During your first presidency, oil, among other products, powered a lot of that economic success. Now, with the climate crisis, we’re trying to use less oil. The front runner in Colombia’s May election, Gustavo Petro, has proposed an anti-oil bloc, in which countries would immediately stop exploration for oil. Would you join?
Look, Petro has the right to propose whatever he wants. But, in the case of Brazil, this is not for real. In the case of the world, it’s not for real. We still need oil for a while, you can’t just…
But the idea is to continue extracting and using the oil they’ve already found, and stop exploring for new deposits. Would you consider that?
No, as long as you don’t have alternative energy, you will continue to use the energy that you have. Think of our dear Germany: Angela Merkel decided to close all the nuclear power plants. She did not count on the war in Ukraine. And today, Europe depends on Russia for energy. What you can do is begin a long-term process to reduce [the need for oil] as you scale up other alternatives. You cannot imagine the United States stopping its use of oil from one day to the next.
I want to speak about the war in Ukraine. You have always prided yourself on being able to speak to everyone—Hugo Chavez as much as George Bush. But the world today is very fragmented diplomatically. I want to know if your approach still works. Could you speak to Vladimir Putin after what he’s done in Ukraine?
We politicians reap what we sow. If I sow fraternity, solidarity, harmony, I’ll reap good things. If I sow discord, I’ll reap quarrels. Putin shouldn’t have invaded Ukraine. But it’s not just Putin who is guilty. The U.S. and the E.U. are also guilty. What was the reason for the Ukraine invasion? NATO? Then the U.S. and Europe should have said: “Ukraine won’t join NATO.” That would have solved the problem.
Do you think the threat of Ukraine joining NATO was Russia’s real reason for invading?
That’s the argument they put forward. If they have a secret one, we don’t know. The other issue was Ukraine joining the E.U. The Europeans could have said: “No, now is not the moment for Ukraine to join the E.U., we’ll wait.” They didn’t have to encourage the confrontation.
But I think they did try to speak to Russia.
No, they didn’t. The conversations were very few. If you want peace, you have to have patience. They could have sat at a negotiating table for 10, 15, 20 days, a whole month, trying to find a solution. I think dialogue only works when it is taken seriously.
If you were President right now, what would you do? Would you have been able to avoid the conflict?
I don’t know if I’d be able to. If I was President, I would have phoned [Joe] Biden, and Putin, and Germany, and [Emmanuel] Macron. Because war is not the solution. I think the problem is that if you don’t try, you don’t fix things. And you have to try.
I sometimes get worried. I was very concerned when the U.S. and the E.U. adopted [Juan] Guaidó [then leader of Venezuela’s parliament] as President of the country [in 2019]. You don’t play with democracy. For Guaidó to be President, he would have to be elected. Bureaucracy can’t substitute politics. In politics, it’s two heads of state who are governing, both elected by their people, who have to sit down at the negotiating table and look each other in the eye and talk.
And now, sometimes I sit and watch the President of Ukraine speaking on television, being applauded, getting a standing ovation by all the [European] parliamentarians. This guy is as responsible as Putin for the war. Because in the war, there’s not just one person guilty. Saddam Hussein was as guilty as Bush [for the outbreak of the 2003 Iraq war]. Because Saddam Hussein could have said, “You can come here and check and I will prove that I do not have mass destruction weapons.” But he lied to his people. And now, this President of Ukraine could have said, “Come on, let’s stop talking about this NATO business, about joining the E.U. for a while. Let’s discuss a bit more first.”
So Volodomyr Zelensky should have talked to Putin more, even with 100,000 Russian troops at his border?
I don’t know the President of Ukraine. But his behavior is a bit weird. It seems like he’s part of the spectacle. He is on television morning, noon, and night. He is in the U.K. parliament, the German parliament, the French parliament, the Italian parliament, as if he were waging a political campaign. He should be at the negotiating table.
Can you really say that to Zelensky? He didn’t want a war, it came to him.
He did want war. If he didn’t want war, he would have negotiated a little more. That’s it. I criticized Putin when I was in Mexico City [in March], saying that it was a mistake to invade. But I don’t think anyone is trying to help create peace. People are stimulating hate against Putin. That won’t solve things! We need to reach an agreement. But people are encouraging [the war]. You are encouraging this guy [Zelensky], and then he thinks he is the cherry on your cake. We should be having a serious conversation: “OK, you were a nice comedian. But let us not make war for you to show up on TV.” And we should say to Putin: “You have a lot of weapons, but you don’t need to use them on Ukraine. Let’s talk!”
What do you think of Joe Biden?
I actually made a speech praising Biden when he announced his economic program. The problem is it’s not enough to announce the program, you’ve got to execute it. And I think Biden is going through a difficult moment.
And I don’t think he has taken the right decision on the war between Russia and Ukraine. The U.S. has a lot of political clout. And Biden could have avoided [the war], not incited it. He could have talked more, participated more. Biden could have taken a plane to Moscow to talk to Putin. This is the kind of attitude you expect from a leader. To intervene so that things don’t go off the rails. I don’t think he did that.
Should Biden have made concessions to Putin?
No. In the same way that the Americans persuaded the Russians not to put missiles in Cuba in 1961, Biden could have said: “We’re going to speak a bit more. We don’t want Ukraine in NATO, full stop.” That’s not a concession. Let me tell you something: if I were President of Brazil and they said to me, “Brazil can join NATO,” I’d say no.
Because I’m a guy who only thinks about peace, not war. […] Brazil doesn’t have disputes with any country: not with the U.S., not China, nor Russia, nor Bolivia, nor Argentina, nor Mexico. And the fact that Brazil is a peaceful country will allow us to reestablish the relationships we created between 2003 and 2010. Brazil will once again become a protagonist on the world stage, because we will prove it’s possible to have a better world.
How will you do that?
We need to create a new global governance. Today’s United Nations doesn’t represent anything anymore. The U.N. isn’t taken seriously by governments today, because each one makes decisions without respecting it. Putin invaded Ukraine unilaterally, without consulting the U.N. The U.S. is used to invading countries without asking anyone and without respecting the Security Council. So we need to rebuild the U.N., to include more countries and more people. If we do that, we can start to improve the world.
In Brazil, during the pandemic, the Black population had a higher risk of death than white people, and a higher unemployment rate because of the pandemic as well. And Brazil’s police-violence problem has only worsened during the Bolsonaro government. What will you do to improve the world for Black Brazilians specifically?
I read a lot about slavery when I was in prison. And sometimes it’s difficult for me to understand what it means to have had 350 years of slavery. It’s difficult for me to understand that slavery is in people’s minds. And on the outskirts of Brazilian cities, we have thousands of young people dying almost every month, every year. It cannot continue. When I was President, we enacted a law to tell African history in Brazilian schools. So we would not see Africans as inferior people. So you know, we have to have this type of education at home and in schools. But Bolsonaro woke up hatred, prejudice. And there are other Presidents in Europe, in Hungary. A lot of fascists, Nazis, are popping up across the world.
Is Bolsonaro to blame for racism in Brazil?
No, I wouldn’t say he is to blame for Brazil’s racism. It is chronic in Brazil. But he stimulates it.
You have gone through a lot of personal tragedies in the last five years. Has that changed you in any way?
No. I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t wounded, that it didn’t make me very nervous when the liars mounted this scheme to convict me. I was aware of what was happening in Brazil, I knew that the reason for Dilma’s impeachment had to continue. I mean, it made no sense to impeach Dilma, and two years later, I would be President again. So of course, they had to take me out of the game. But they had no reason. They cannot stop me from running for President. So what did they do? They set me up, they framed me using lies. To put me in jail. Now I am free and all of my trials have been annulled.
Yes, the convictions have been annulled. But how did that period impact you?
I spent 580 days in jail. I read a lot. I reflected a lot. I was prepared to leave prison without feeling any resentment, only remembering that it was a part of history. I cannot forget it. But I can’t put it on the table every day. I want to think about the future.
For you to understand my life, I only ate bread for the first time when I was 7 years old. My mother, many times, didn’t have anything to put on the stove for us. And I never saw her desperate. She always said: “Tomorrow we’ll have enough. Tomorrow will be better.” And that was ingrained in my consciousness, in my blood. That’s how I am. There are no problems you can’t overcome.
I feel proud to have proven that a metalworker without a university diploma is more competent to govern this country than the elite of Brazil. Because the art of government is to use your heart, not only your head.
You’re getting married soon. Can you talk a bit about your fiancée?
I don’t like to talk about her. She can speak for herself.
Have you learned anything from her?
I have. When you lose your wife, and you think, well, my life has no more meaning. Then suddenly, this person appears who makes you feel like you want to live again. I’m in love as if I were 20 years old, as if it were my first girlfriend. I am going to get married in the most peaceful way possible, and I’m going to run a happy campaign.
A guy as happy as I am doesn’t have to rage, doesn’t have to speak badly about his opponents—let them do what they want. If I can, on the campaign, I will speak only about love. I don’t think it’s possible to be a good President if you only feel hate inside you, if all you want is revenge. No, you have to think about the future. The past is over. I will build a new Brazil.
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Write to Ciara Nugent/São Paulo, Brazil at email@example.com