Nov 7, 2022

Brazil's new (old) president.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Image: Biblioteca (BCN) Congreso Nacional de Chile from Valparaíso, Chile
President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Image: Biblioteca (BCN) Congreso Nacional de Chile from Valparaíso, Chile

Plus, how do you research candidates for the midterms?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

🇧🇷
Today, we're covering the return of Lula. We also have a reader question about how to prepare for the midterms, a contest to see what reader can guess where I am, and the results of our poll from last week.

On the road...

It's election week and I'm on the road. Shoot me a reply to this email with a guess on where I am (city and state), and I'll send a free Tangle hoodie to the first reader who guesses correctly (answers will not be accepted from family and friends, who may have insider information). Tomorrow, I'll reveal the answer and the winner. Good luck!


Poll results.

Last week, we asked readers what they wanted us to cover in Tangle. Several readers wrote in asking to see the results, curious what the Tangle community picked, so we've published them below. I was surprised to see how high Brazil's election ranked, which is why we are covering it today (even though it’s last week’s news):


Quick hits.

  1. Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears poised to return to power after his conservative coalition won a majority in Israel's parliament. (The return)
  2. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton is telling donors he does not plan to run for president in 2024. (The announcement)
  3. Twitter is rolling out "Twitter Blue," a service that requires users to pay $7.99 per month for a blue verification check mark. Separately, the company is now asking some fired workers to return to the office. (Twitter blue)
  4. Sean "Diddy" Combs has acquired cannabis companies in New York, Massachusetts and Illinois for an estimated $185 million. (The purchase)
  5. Two people died and dozens were hurt after tornadoes ripped through northeast Texas and southern Oklahoma over the weekend. (The tornadoes)

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


Today's topic.

Brazil. Last week, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva defeated incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro in a tight race. "Lula," as he is often called, managed to edge Bolsonaro with 50.9% of the vote to Bolsonaro's 49.1%, winning by a little more than two million votes, the closest election in Brazil's history. Lula’s margin of victory was fewer votes than the number of nullified ballots. Bolsonaro became the first president in Brazil to fail to win re-election in the 25 years since a constitutional amendment first made re-election possible.

Last week's final tally came after Bolsonaro outperformed polls in the first round of voting, where da Silva won 48% of the vote to Bolsonaro's 43%. With neither candidate hitting 50%, they faced off again in a runoff.

Da Silva, 77, was first elected president of Brazil 20 years ago, and last served from 2003 to 2010. His return to office is the culmination of a remarkable political comeback after being imprisoned for corruption in 2018. While da Silva is often described as a "leftist" politician, he has vowed during this campaign to work with centrist and moderate parties during his tenure.

Bolsonaro, a nationalist and right-wing president, will exit office after four years. His presidency was marred by his mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic, in which Brazil's economy cratered and nearly 700,000 Brazilians died. He also oversaw the worst run of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest in 15 years. However, he won many Brazilians over by defending conservative values in the country and positioning himself as a bulwark against the left-wing politics of the past. Heading into the election, he warned voters that the race may be derailed by election fraud.

Da Silva, meanwhile, previously oversaw a massive social welfare program that elevated tens of millions of Brazilians to the middle class. When he left office in 2010, he had an 80% approval rating. However, his reputation was tarnished after being arrested in 2018 and imprisoned for 580 days over corruption and money laundering convictions. His party, the Workers Party, was caught in a cash-for-votes scandal, while da Silva and numerous other Latin American politicians were caught up in a scheme where large companies were paying off politicians in exchange for government projects.

Initially, those charges would have prevented Lula from running for office again. However, in 2019, the journalist Glenn Greenwald published leaked documents that showed the judge overseeing the case was passing on investigative leads and advice to prosecutors. Some began describing da Silva as a political prisoner, and Brazil's top court eventually nullified the charges, citing the bias of the judge. That ruling allowed da Silva to run for president for the sixth time.

While campaigning this year, da Silva once again pledged to focus on the poor — saying he would raise the minimum wage and increase spending on poverty.

While nationalist sentiment is ascending in Europe and other parts of the world, da Silva's victory is symbolic of a much different reality in Latin America. With recent leftist victories in Chile, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico and Peru, every major economy in Latin America will now be led by a leftist government when da Silva takes office on January 1.

Though Da Silva prevailed in the election, challenges remain in governance. Scores of Bolsonaro allies won races in Congress across the country, and Brazil is deeply divided. China, one of Brazil's biggest trading partners, is also undergoing an economic slowdown. Some 33 million Brazilians (of 215 million) are living in poverty. Da Silva is going to have to win over many opponents in order to implement key parts of his agenda, like eliminating the income tax for anyone earning less than $950 a month and increasing taxes on the rich.

Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions to his victory from the left and right, then my take.


What the left is saying.

  • The left is hopeful about Lula's return, but worried about what it might mean for the war in Ukraine.
  • Most express relief Bolsonaro is gone.
  • Some praise Brazil for a peaceful transfer of power, despite Bolsonaro’s initial silence.

In CNN, Arick Wierson said Brazil is bidding farewell to the "Trump of the tropics."

"On one hand, Lula’s victory marked a sharp rebuke of Bolsonaro’s irreverent and often-times controversial governing style, which earned him the derisive moniker as the ‘Trump of the Tropics.’ Not only was Bolsonaro in fact endorsed by former US President Donald Trump, but like Trump, he was widely criticized for his handling of the coronavirus which resulted in nearly 700,000 deaths in the country, according to the World Health Organization. Moreover, Bolsonaro’s aggressive anti-LGBT agenda, decidedly anti-environmental policies and authoritarian tendencies made him something of a pariah in the international media," Wierson said.

"The bad news is that, now come January 1, when Lula is sworn in for his third term as President, he will have to find a way to govern a country that is deeply divided and highly mistrustful of the other side," Wierson said. "Unlike in his past victories where Lula came into office with a clear mandate, winning over 60% of the votes in both 2002 and 2006, this time not only did Lula eke out the slimmest of victories, but he will face a congress that is still very much aligned with Bolsonaro. Moreover, with the down-ballot results of Sunday’s run-off elections for governorships across the country, it’s clear that allies of Bolsonaro will be in power in 14 of Brazil’s 27 states including the most economically important states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais."

In The Washington Post, Mac Margolis said this was a win for the center.

"Rather than careen left to counter Bolsonaro’s extremism, [Lula] yanked his campaign hard toward the middle," Margolis said. "The result was an unlikely coalition that gathered under a single tent establishment economists, disillusioned centrists and the hard left. Lula named as his running mate former São Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin, a center-right social democrat. He reeled in Simone Tebet, a former presidential hopeful from the conservative Brazilian Democratic Movement Party who had long criticized Lula and the corruption that flourished during about 14 years of Workers’ Party (PT) governments.

"Lula’s return will not guarantee governability or the end of political loathing and conflict," he added. "The array of political forces he has coalesced will prove challenging to hold together, much less lead. Governing Brazil calls for power-sharing, which is too often a fast pass to corruption. It also demands fiscal sobriety — a challenge in a country recovering from the pandemic, where legislators are practiced in holding presidents to ransom. Leftist partisans can rightly celebrate their unprecedented democratic coalition as a firewall against right-wing extremism. Yet to hold that compact together Lula will need to summon all his pragmatism and political acumen, both conspicuously absent in Bolsonaro’s Brazil."

In MSNBC, Julio Ricardo Varela said that despite the warnings of Bolsonaro refusing to accept a loss, Brazil's democracy looks more stable than America's.

"However, Bolsonaro's agreeing to a peaceful transfer of power hasn’t stopped noted American 'Stop the Steal' election deniers from calling for a military coup in Brazil to protect Bolsonaro," Varela said. "On Sunday, once it was clear that Bolsonaro would not catch up to Lula’s lead, far-right election denier Ali Alexander was urging the 'brothers of Brazil' to 'take to the streets' with a 'military standby,' noting on Truth Social, with no evidence at all, that 'Joe Biden’s team is currently STEALING the Brazilian election for socialist Lula. Literally a COUP.' Alexander was demanding an audit of the vote, a baseless trope being regurgitated by the likes of right-wingers Steve Bannon and Tucker Carlson.

"Like an even more twisted statement of manifest destiny, the United States has had a shameful history of bulldozing through the political wishes of its southern neighbors while all the time boasting that it believes in democracy and that democracy here is better than democracy anywhere else," Varela added. "Meddling in Latin America’s political affairs and sometimes propping up dictators while purporting to be a lover of democracy has always been an obvious American hypocrisy. But there is a particular irony here in watching American conservatives, who used to boast that America’s chief export is democracy, rally to export election denialism."


What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right say Brazil could be in trouble, and worry about the left-wing takeover of Latin America.
  • Some argue that Bolsonaro got results but failed to sell them to the public.
  • Others criticize the Biden administration and Brazil's government for silencing questions about the election.

The Wall Street Journal said Brazil is "gambling again" on a leftward turn.

"Mr. da Silva, who served two presidential terms from 2003-2010, won with his appeals to the poor despite his conviction for corruption," the board said. "Before his Workers’ Party (PT) ceded power in 2016, it orchestrated the largest corruption scheme in Latin American history, using the national development bank, the state-owned oil company, Congress and private contractors. The money machine was designed to entrench his party in power. Mr. da Silva and his accomplices were caught only because prosecutors found a money trail, and an honest judge allowed them to follow it—a minor miracle given Brazilian history. Lula’s 2017 corruption conviction was overturned on a technicality but he was never exonerated.

"The pandemic made change harder, but [Bolsonaro's] government achieved significant deregulation and fiscal reform. He spent liberally to sustain businesses and households during peak Covid-19, but he later cut spending by paring credit subsidies to agriculture and industry, slowing the growth of social assistance and reducing government payrolls," it added. "Fiscal restraint took pressure off the central bank, and inflation has been coming down. At about 7% it’s now lower than in the U.S. Mr. Bolsonaro had a good economic story but he struggled to tell it against the media and elites who disliked his social conservatism and portrayed him as a threat to democracy. His shoot-from-the-lip rhetoric didn’t help and was especially unpopular with women. While Amazon deforestation continued in his presidency, its pace was faster in Lula’s first four-year term. Yet Mr. Bolsonaro was tagged as an enemy of the rain forest."

In The Washington Examiner, Lawrence J. Haas said Lula could pose some serious challenges for the United States.

"Lula’s victory will nourish a growing challenge for the United States," Haas wrote. "It means that the region’s seven largest countries now all have leftist governments. Washington will not be able to navigate regional politics through its traditional strategy of trying to isolate far-left regimes. This U.S. challenge, moreover, comes as China, Russia, and Iran — a growing axis of anti-American activity — are increasing their economic, military, and diplomatic influence across the region... Lula’s victory could further nourish China’s regional influence since he likely will be more enthused about Chinese-Brazilian ties than was Bolsonaro. Russia, too, is working more closely with authoritarian governments in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba.

"Once upon a time, U.S. policy toward Central and South America focused heavily on isolating the far Left, whether the Castro regime in Cuba for decades, Nicaragua’s Sandinistas in the 1980s, or the autocrats in Venezuela more recently. With Lula’s victory, however, Washington faces a growing risk of its own hemispheric isolation," he wrote. "Driven by the economic distress imposed by COVID-19, voters across South America have taken a consistently leftist turn in recent years… To be sure, Lula’s victory gives Washington and Brasilia opportunities for cooperation, particularly on environmental issues, since he supports strong action to combat climate change and almost certainly will reverse Bolsonaro’s policies enabling deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. Still, Lula’s victory will further complicate Washington’s approach to the region."

On Fox News, Tucker Carslon said there are two reasons you should care about what is happening in Brazil.

"The first is that the result of this election will determine the extent of China's influence in the Western Hemisphere," he said. "If Bolsonaro is determined the loser and da Silva does become the president of Brazil, that means that left-wing governments loyal to China outside of our sphere of influence will control all of South America. Brazil was the last holdout, also the biggest and most significant country in South America. Bolsonaro, alone in South America, stood in the way of total Chinese hegemony there. It's our hemisphere.

"The second reason you should be paying attention to this is that the crackdown on free speech in the wake of Brazil's contested election is a result of policies from our country," Carlson said. "The Biden administration has already announced that Bolsonaro lost and then threatened Bolsonaro with consequences if he tries to contest the result of the election in his country. The State Department, the Biden State Department, put out a statement saying that Bolsonaro's defeat "reinforces" trust in democratic institutions. Really? This is an election that is contested. The demonstrations in the streets prove that. That has not been audited. That apparently cannot be audited by fiat and that you’re not allowed to talk about. How does that restore your faith in institutions? No. Only one thing restores your faith in institutions and that's transparency."


My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. It is meant to be one perspective amid many others. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, you can reply to this email and write in. If you're a paying subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • Lula is a mixed bag for the U.S.
  • It's a positive development for climate change, and the peaceful transfer of power is good for stability in Brazil while undermining allegations of election fraud.
  • It could get complicated given Lula's attitude toward Russia and China.

Whenever there are major political changes in a country that the United States operates closely with, there are always a few framing thoughts I like to consider. How does this political leader view the U.S., and how will their policies immediately impact us? How does this leader work with U.S. allies and adversaries, and will their rise "help" or "hurt" us? And what kind of imminent, potent political issues in the U.S. will be impacted by these changes?

Notably absent from this framing is what this means for Brazil and its people. Which is intentional. I think if I were to opine here about what da Silva's victory will mean for Brazilians or how they should feel, it would be an act of hubris too great even for someone who shares their opinion publicly on the news five days a week. I don't know or understand Brazil's domestic politics nearly well enough to take a position there, and there are plenty of other writers more qualified than I am to share those thoughts.

What I can share are some reactions on how Lula's return relates specifically to the U.S.

The good: For starters, the transfer of power is happening peacefully and with little upset. Why does this matter? Because many right-wing commentators here in the U.S. have been rattling the cages on purported fraud, and because this election is a reminder of how to navigate those allegations. There were five million votes that were purposely left blank or spoiled by voters, according to reports on the ground, so there are naturally going to be a lot of questions. But so far there is little evidence (that I've seen) of any impropriety.

In the same vein, it's impossible to say for sure why Bolsonaro is not challenging the results as some expected he might, but the obvious hypothesis is that he is isolated. His allies are not rallying around calls to upend the democratic process — they're simply preparing to fight da Silva's presidency via democratic means. However you feel about da Silva, that is good news for democracy.

This is also good for the climate fight. Da Silva has been steadfast in his support for protecting the Amazon rainforest, which — believe it or not — is crucial not just to Brazil's ecosystem but also the planet's. This is not a fight over how sustainable electric vehicles are or how much greenhouse gas emissions a country should have. It's simpler than that. The Amazon is a huge carbon sink for the planet, absorbing heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in biomass. Along with preserving its millions of unique species, simply protecting it from deforestation will benefit all of us in the long term.

So that's the good news.

The bad? Well, da Silva's last term oversaw widespread corruption throughout Brazil. Whether he was directly involved or not — and the degree of his culpability — is still debated in some circles. What is not debatable is that when he was president, corruption thrived. Corruption breeds distrust from the people, and distrust breeds unrest. Unrest in Brazil would be bad for Latin America and bad for us. In those simple, crude terms, da Silva is a risky president.

It's also true that in the new world alignment we are witnessing, it's likely that Lula will draw closer to Russia, China, and Iran. He has long said he viewed Zelensky "as responsible as Putin" for the war in Ukraine, and plenty of columnists view Lula's victory as great news for Putin. Campaigning in wartime is different from leading, so we'll see what Lula actually does and what influence he has, but there is no doubt he could join a growing list of countries that stand in opposition to the U.S. position on the war. His election means China's influence in Latin America is almost certain to grow, which could threaten certain interests the U.S. has — especially when it comes to competition for the ever-more-valuable lithium needed to power batteries.

All told, it's a decidedly mixed bag.


Your questions, answered.

Q: Is there any place you recommend to get a relatively unbiased view of candidates on my 2022 midterm ballot? I started to fill out my ballot in advance, but it’s a lot of effort to Google 50+ people for smaller positions that I haven’t heard about.

— Rob from Austin, Texas

Tangle: I get this question a lot. The truth is there are not a ton of great unbiased resources out there like this, despite such a massive demand for them. I think part of the reason it's so hard to find in one place is that there are just so many candidates and races. For instance, there are 435 representatives in the House up for election every two years — which implies at least 870 candidates, and usually more when you take into account third party candidates and others.

Then there are governor's races, state legislature races, local city races, and more. So one website would have to host tens of thousands of candidate profiles (in an unbiased manner) all in one spot. It's a huge task.

But there are plenty of good resources out there. For starters, there are apps and websites like Ballotpedia (where you can view your own personalized sample ballot), ActiVote, and OnTheIssues, all of which try to pool together information about specific candidates and ballot initiatives. This is a good place to start. Figure out who is on the ballot and what issues are in play.

Then, I'd check your local papers. Local news outlets still do an admirable job keeping you apprised of what each candidate stands for and how they may impact your day-to-day life. Combined with the resources above, you should be able to get a clear picture of what is going on. My advice: Put aside an hour today or early tomorrow and just do the digging if you haven't yet. It isn't easy, but a little legwork is definitely worth it.

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Under the radar.

President Biden's top national security adviser Jake Sullivan has been engaged in confidential conversations with top aides to Russian President Vladimir Putin over the last few months. The Wall Street Journal is citing U.S. and allied officials, who say the previously undisclosed talks have been taking place in an effort to reduce the risk of a broader conflict in Europe and ensure that Moscow does not use nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction. The White House has not acknowledged any communications between Sullivan and senior Russian officials since March, and both sides have declined to confirm or deny the report. The Wall Street Journal has the story (paywall).


Numbers.

  • One. The number of days until election day.
  • 40,786,501. The number of early votes cast, as of Monday morning.
  • 44%. The percentage of registered voters who said they believe “The federal government is controlled by a secret cabal.”
  • 37%. The percentage of Democrats who said they believe that.
  • 53%. The percentage of Republicans who said they believe that.
  • 54 in 100. The number of times Republicans win the Senate in FiveThirtyEight's 40,000 simulations of the 2022 midterms.

Have a nice day.

415 million people have been lifted out of poverty in India over the last 15 years, according to the United Nations. The incidence of poverty dropped from 55.1% in 2005-2006 to 16.4% in 2019-2021, a new report says, indicating one of the most remarkable drops in poverty ever recorded. While the effects of Covid-19 on poverty cannot yet be calculated, analysts are hopeful much of the progress will remain. India focused on four poverty reduction programs to achieve its goal: Sustainable livelihood programs through natural resources (like farming), girls’ education, rural development, and better funding for civil society development programs. The Economic Times has the story.


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