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Brazil after Bolsonaro: Lula plants green shoots of hope

Monique Sochaczewski
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Britain’s moment of reckoning with the Windrush generation

Published: 14 September 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

In his third term, the popular but flawed leader appears to be serious about addressing Brazil’s environmental and social problems.

The years 2019-22 were grey ones in Brazil. During most of that time there was a pandemic but the main difficulty for many was having Jair Bolsonaro as president.

A politician with almost 30 years of parliamentary experience, he presented himself as an outsider. An extreme right-winger, Bolsonaro gathered support from farmers, evangelicals, the military, and even part of the Jewish Community. These were four years of fake news and hate speech in the media.

Policies favouring arming the population and extensive deforestation were on the political menu. Bolsonaro mismanaged the pandemic, advising against the use of masks and taking too long to seek vaccines – the official death toll was 700,000. There were attempts to dismantle culture, education, science and technology, human rights, and racial and gender equality policies. As a woman, a Jew, an academic, a mother, and a person who believes in – and needs – democracy, I suffered every day. 

This year began with the inauguration of Luís Inácio Lula da Silva as president of Brazil, his third term in office. My feeling since then is of breathing again, literally. There is a return of public policy efforts to correct inequalities and social wounds. It is not a paradise and there is a certain disenchantment with Lula due to his limitations.

The environment is the main point of difference between Lula and Bolsonaro.

He has a preference for appointing to important positions those who were loyal to him during his time in prison due to corruption allegations, and with the most conservative National Congress in Brazilian history, Lula is obliged to make concessions on important issues.

The political landscape is much improved but could be better. This government has the most female ministers in Brazilian history – an important step – but there is still no gender parity. It is a pity Lula has not chosen a female Foreign Minister, correcting the shameful fact that Brazil has never had a woman in charge of this ministry.  

The environment is the main point of difference between Lula and Bolsonaro. Early this month I spent a few days in the city of Belém do Pará, in the Brazilian Amazon, teaching a short course named “Middle East in Museums” at the National Meeting of International Relations Students, which for the first time took place in the Amazon.

This region comprises half of the Brazilian territory but only 10% of the population. Belém will host COP30, the global climate change conference in 2025 and is pursuing a leading role in the environmental debates, such as the Amazon Dialogues and the Amazon Summit that was held simultaneously with the students´ meeting.

I believe there is a correct emphasis in Lula's search for a decisive contribution to an urgent global problem and that Brazil can recover a protagonist position in this issue. And that could even give him the Nobel Peace Prize that he seems to crave so much.

Spending time in the Amazon made me understand the importance of the voice of the regions residents on their issues, whether as academics, activists, or artists. And this is especially important for residents of São Paulo, Brasília, or Rio de Janeiro, who are generally self-absorbed. Staying in the region also allowed me to better understand the impact of the Venezuelan humanitarian crisis, since the entry point for refugees on Brazilian soil is in the Amazon.

The Amazon is home to a significant Jewish community, perhaps the oldest in Brazil.

They normally follow the Pacaraima route at the border and then go to cities such as Boa Vista, Manaus or Belém. In local conversations, I realised the complexity of this crisis. Among the refugees, there are, for example, Warao indigenous people. Many can’t speak Spanish, needing interpreters for basic needs. And most do not have documentation and so cannot resolve their legal issues.  

The Amazon is also home to a significant Jewish community, perhaps the oldest in Brazil. Members of the local community told me that there are about 800 Jews in Belém. The community was established in the early 19th century. It has three synagogues, a community centre, a regular and a complementary school, and some cemeteries.

About 90% of Belém´s Jews are descended from Moroccans who were drawn there by the “rubber boom” from 1879-1912. The remaining 10% are Ashkenazi. They are almost entirely self-employed professionals, working as doctors, engineers, educators, and public servants.

Some of them work in trade and others in agribusiness. I was happy to learn that those in agribusiness generally exploit nuts and palm oil, which means products from the “standing forest”, and not connected to deforestation. In general, they are conservative in Judaism, keeping kashrut and attending synagogues even for Shabbat, in addition to the chagim. They seek to maintain Jewish-Moroccan cuisine and customs, even though local religious leaders are almost entirely of Chabad background.          

According to the 2010 census, there are about 107,000 Jews in Brazil. Like most communities, it is plural, with diverse interpretations of what Judaism is and how to act politically. The Jewish education I received in Brazil and in Israel always made me more attentive to Tikkun Olam's issues. I interpret Tikkun Olam as a social action that seeks social justice.

And with the many problems of the Lula III government – he ended the Amazon Summit speaking dubiously about oil exploration in the region, for example – I see better possibilities for seeking to solve the country’s many historical social problems.

As a university professor, I can't create broader changes, but where I receive a space to occupy, I join those who try to show that Brazil is a country of many peoples, including Jews. These people have been here a long time, including in the Amazon region, which plays a prominent role in Brazilian foreign policy and global concerns. We can be part of the fight for a greener world.

Photo: A supporter of the President of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, holds a banner at the Portuguese parliament, where he spoke in Lisbon, April 25, 2023 (EPA/Antonio Pedro Santos)

About the author

Monique Sochaczewski

Monique Sochaczewski is a Professor in Law, Justice, and Development at the Brazilian Institute of Teaching, Development, and Research (IDP) and a Senior researcher at the Brazilian Center for International Relations (CEBRI). She has written widely on the Middle East and the Ottoman presence in Brazil.

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