The dismantling of Brazil’s democracy, which culminated in the jailing of former president Lula Da Silva as he looked certain to be reelected, is the subject of a new English-language investigative podcast.
Cícero Ezequiel Filho lay beneath the sweltering sun of Brazil’s capital, Brasilia. He wore khaki shorts, John Lennon glasses and a long white beard, which stretched far below his chin and over a red long-sleeved shirt with the face of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on the front.
When I met him in August 2018, Cícero had been outside Brazil’s Supreme Court for two weeks. He refused to eat until former president Lula was free.
Lula had been jailed four months earlier, after he was convicted by a biased judge on suspect corruption charges, with no material evidence.
Now, union members and urban and rural social movements had descended on Brasilia to march to the country’s electoral court to register Lula’s candidacy for the 2018 presidential elections, despite his imprisonment.
The crowds had carried Cícero with them through the streets of Brasilia in a make-shift hammock, because he was too weak to walk.
Now, back on the hard concrete in front of the Supreme Court, a small red umbrella covered his face from the sun. Signs in red, black and white were strapped to the chair beside him, reading ‘Free Lula’ or ‘Political Prisoner.’ A security guard watched from behind a long metal fence, beside an oversized granite statue of a woman, seated, blindfolded, holding a sword.
‘I’m strong,’ he said in a voice so soft that it was hard to hear him over the din of constant traffic and occasional tourists who spoke loudly and stared at him curiously from a distance. ‘When you fight for justice. When you fight for a country, to rescue the country’s democracy, that’s what carries us on.’
In 2016, a conservative congress had impeached then-president Dilma Rousseff, in what was clearly a congressional coup. Lula represented hope for the country’s return to democratic order.
Cícero was 61. He had worked for more than three decades as a banker. Now, he had pushed that life aside. He was one of seven people on a hunger strike to demand Lula’s freedom.
‘We understand that Lula is a leader who could unite the country.’
Lula likely could have, but he was not given the chance. He was blocked from running in the 2018 presidential race due to the corruption conviction. It opened the door to far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who won the presidency on 28 October 2018, in a race marred by violence, hate crimes, fake news and an illegal direct messaging campaign over WhatsApp.
Two years later, Lula is now free, but Bolsonaro has set the country ablaze. He has stacked his government with military officials. He’s gutted environmental and indigenous agencies, rolled back labour rights, pushed privatisations and development in the Amazon, empowering large landowners and illegal land-grabbers to force their way into conservation areas and indigenous territories. Deforestation and fires have spiked to their worst rates in a decade. Like Trump, Bolsonaro has normalised white supremacists, peddled fake news, downplayed the coronavirus pandemic amid a continually rising death count and used conspiracy theories to attack science.
Meanwhile, the judge who convicted Lula, Sergio Moro, joined Bolsonaro for more than a year as his justice minister. He has now accepted a director’s position in the United States at Alvarez & Marsal, a US consulting firm which oversees Odebrecht, the multi-billion dollar Brazilian construction firm that Moro took down with his anti-corruption investigation. The Brazilian bar association has prohibited Moro from practicing law at Alvarez & Marsal because of a conflict of interest.
‘I’ve never seen things like this. The intentional hate. The conservative backlash. The rollback of rights. All inspired by the US government and this wave of neoconservativism,’ Cícero said in 2018. ‘It seems the right has been greatly inspired by Donald Trump.’
It has, and it continues to be, despite Trump’s loss in the November elections.
This is the focus of a new investigative podcast, called Brazil on Fire, which explores the roots of Brazil’s turn toward fascism under President Jair Bolsonaro and the deep connections with the United States. The 11-part series takes listeners across Brazil to cover Bolsonaro’s rise to power, the motivation of his supporters and the communities that are holding on, resisting or trying to fight back.
I produce and host the podcast. I’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to help cover the cost of development and production.
In the series, listeners hear stories such as Cícero’s. They’ll meet protesters outside the jail holding former president Lula, victims of Brazil’s brutal 21-year dictatorship and Bolsonaro supporters in the south. They’ll visit the birthplace of Brazilian Nazism, evangelical churches, Indigenous villages in the Amazon and traditional Black communities that are under threat of removal due to US-Brazil agreements.
15 minutes into my 2018 conversation with Cícero, he started to cry, as our conversation turned to the grave inequality of the country.
‘I’ve been sleeping out here under the open sky for 14 days,’ he said. ‘There are people making $10,000 a month. Maybe that’s not much in the international market, but when you compare this with people who are making minimum wage or receiving just $15 a month through the Bolsa Familia government programme. And they think that’s wrong.’
He continued, staring ahead at the long glass façade of the modernist Supreme Court building.
‘Lula invested in hospitals, health, infrastructure and education,’ he said. ‘He brought water to the northeast … Now, he’s a political prisoner to stop him from winning the election. They’ve tried to kill him politically – a trophy for a judge, despite the lack of proof.’
‘I can’t agree with injustice,’ he said.
Cícero held out his hunger strike for 29 days. When he flew back to his home state of Paraíba, in northeast Brazil, he had lost 30 pounds. He was met and celebrated at the airport by union leaders, social movements and members of the Workers Party.