An audience of several hundred supporters applauded enthusiastically when Fernando Haddad, the former major of São Paulo and losing presidential candidate in Brazil’s 2018 election, entered the People’s Forum in midtown Manhattan Thursday for his first international public appearance since the election.
“This is a place where Haddad is our president,” one of the organizers screamed into the microphone as he welcomed to the stage the main opponent to the new far-right president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro.
On Oct. 28, Brazilian voters elected Bolsonaro with 55 percent of the votes. He is known for his hate speeches against minorities and his sympathy towards the country’s military dictatorship.
Haddad, who belongs to the leftist Workers Party, discussed what caused the dramatic change in Brazil’s political landscape during a public conversation with the journalist Laura Flanders at an event co-sponsored by Jacobin magazine, a quarterly magazine of the American left, and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, an international non-profit institution affiliated with Germany’s Left Party.
Media and commentators called October’s vote the most important election in the history of Brazil’s new democratic period as it represented a big shift from the country’s more moderate past. Over the last decades, Brazil was governed by two main parties: Haddad’s Workers Party, since 2003, and the center-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party, from 1995 to 2002.
Both parties were recently caught in a multi-billion-dollar corruption scandal, which ultimately resulted in hundreds of convictions against top-level politicians and businessmen, including Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the very popular Workers Party leader and former president, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison on charges of corruption and money laundering.
“Lula would have won for sure if he had run,” Haddad said. He referred to the electoral court’s ruling that forbid Lula to run for a third term as president under the Brazilian law Ficha Limpa(“Clean Record”), under which convicts are ineligible to hold public office. Despite the prison sentence, the support for the former Brazilian president remained very high with supporters calling the imprisonment “unfair,” “a political decision” and in Haddad’s words a “persecution.”
Haddad reminded the New York audience that the United Nations Human Rights Committee, a group of independent experts, had supported Lula’s right to run. In its statement, the committee had requested “Brazil to take all necessary measures to ensure that Lula can enjoy and exercise his political rights while in prison.”
According to Transparency International, a worldwide coalition against corruption, the perception of corruption in Brazil’s public sector was quite high in 2017, scoring of 37 in a scale from 0 to 100, where 0 means “highly corrupt.”
Some critics argue that Haddad’s soft stance against corruption in his own party and lack of self-criticism might have played a role in the election’s result. At the forum, Haddad claimed that he, and the party, were self-critical on a number of occasions.
“We acknowledged errors in economic policies,” he said. “They ask the Workers Party for self-criticism but they don’t ask it to other people.” While Haddad admitted that the party could have dealt with the issue of corruption in advance, he also said that it was too easy to generalize.
“I don’t want to pay for something I did not do,” he said.
According to the people attending the event, one of the reasons Brazilians voted for Bolsonaro was to see a change in the political class.
Jeronimo de Moraez, a photographer who arrived in the United States 11 years ago, voted for Haddad in the election. He said anyone in the Workers Party “would have had to bear the cross of the corruption scandal.”
De Moraez, along with many others, noticed a similarity between Bolsonaro and U.S. President Donald Trump. “People didn’t want a politician,” he said. “They wanted someone who would come in and break the old system.”
According to a 37-year-old Brazilian couple, who did not want to be identified because they feared repercussions, the extremist vote was the result of people’s dissatisfaction with the Workers Party and concerns about the increasing violence in the country.
“Bolsonaro promised radical solutions,” they said.
Brazilians attending the event said they were very concerned that, with the new president, Brazil would regress in social policies. According to Haddad, the government will “recover an obsolete vision of the world.”
Bolsonaro, who in 2014 told a Brazilian congresswoman, “I wouldn’t rape you because you don’t deserve it,” became infamous for his offensive comments against minorities and his extremely conservative position on social rights.
“This man does not represent me,” said Zuleide Hughton, a visual merchandizer who left Brazil 17 years ago. She added that she was now concerned that the country will turn into a dictatorship and that people will not be able to express themselves.
While Hughton left Brazil many years ago, she said that this election was going to affect her anyway.
“Emotionally,” she said. “Trump’s election affected me. I feel like I don’t have a country.”
The former major of São Paulo also pointed out that other factors contributed to Bolsonaro’s victory and his loss: the failure of neoliberalism, the economic crisis, the rise of religious right in the country as well as the spreading of fake news on social media.
Victor Fontoura, an Haddad supporter, said that while the talk was an interesting analysis of what happened in the elections, he would have liked to hear a comment about the future steps. “In 2020 there will be the municipal elections,” he said. “What should we do with the left?”
Header photo: Fernando Haddad and Laura Flanders at the event “What Went Wrong When Brazil Went Right?” (The Ink/Valeria Piantoni)