Lula da Silva: “Both sides want to win, but a war doesn’t always need a winner”

The president of Brazil assures EL PAÍS from Madrid that the agreement between Russia and Ukraine is possible. “That’s why I try to do my part,” he argues

Lula da Silva
Brazilian President Lula da Silva meets in Madrid with EL PAÍS for an interview; April 26, 2023.JAIME VILLANUEVA
Pepa Bueno

Brazil has emerged from its Bolsonaro-era isolation led by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who says he wants to spearhead a peace agreement between Ukraine and Russia. Lula is known for off-the-cuff remarks, but is now choosing his words carefully to cement his place as a chief mediator between the two warring countries. Still, his ambiguous statements and puzzling equanimity have caused some irritation in diplomatic circles recently.

EL PAÍS interviewed the Brazilian president as he began a state visit to Spain, while back home former president Jair Bolsonaro was testifying in court about his alleged role in inciting rioters to attack government institutions a week after Lula took office. Lula sounded several warnings about the rise of right-wing extremism in the world and said the principal aim of his third presidential term is to create quality jobs and establish a new business-labor relationship. He also challenged us to check at the end of his term how much Amazonian deforestation has improved.

Question. Mr. President, you are arriving on a continent where no can see any light in this war. Any attempt to end the war will generate high expectations, and you are now leading an international peace initiative for Ukraine and Russia. You have condemned the invasion, but you have also criticized countries like Spain who send arms to Ukraine. When an invaded country asks for help, what should others do? Sit on their hands or help the country that was attacked?

Answer. The first thing to understand is that this war should never have started. It started because there is no longer any capacity for dialogue among world leaders. Brazil condemns it because Russia has no right to invade Ukraine. The Russians are wrong. The rest of us now have a choice: either feed the war or try to end it. I am more interested in talking about ending this war. Nobody is talking about peace, only me, and I’ve met with [world leaders] like Biden [USA], Scholz [Germany], Xi Jinping [China] and Macron [France]. We need to get together and end this conflict, but it can only be done at the negotiating table. That’s what I want to do.

The European Union is an important asset for the entire world, and I think Europe should assume a balanced mediation role. Europe got involved very quickly [in the war]. So it’s important to find leaders who want to talk about peace. China, Mexico, Indonesia... we need to engage countries that are not directly or indirectly involved, as well as those who support Ukraine because they are against the Russian occupation. We have to unite all these countries. Next week I am going to talk to [French President Emmanuel] Macron and other presidents to find a path to peace. There is a battle underway with right-wing extremists – fascism and Nazism are back. We cannot have another war in Europe. Didn’t we learn this lesson from the two world wars? With more peace, the world will be more productive and just. That is what I’m proposing and defending.

Q. Of course, we all need to strive for peace and stop this war. But in the meantime, do we leave the Ukrainians to fend for themselves while Putin bombs them?

A. When [the chancellor of] Germany visited Brazil, he asked us to send Ukraine the tank ammunition that we bought from them. I told Scholz that I wouldn’t do it because if Russia sees Ukraine using Brazilian weaponry, then Brazil has now entered the war. And if you’re part of the war, then you can’t talk about peace. I want to engage countries that are not linked to the war. If we succeed in achieving peace, it will be good for humanity. Otherwise, this war will never end, because Putin thinks he’s right and Zelenskiy is justified in defending his invaded nation. So, who is going to put an end to the war? I am worried that this war is linked to political interests and election strategies. That has happened before in the world, and I don’t think it’s right that no one is attempting to build peace. I am going to try. I know Brazil is not on the United Nations (UN) Security Council, but the permanent members of the Council are not seeking peace. The UN still maintains a political structure established in 1945, but those geopolitics are long gone. We have to adapt the UN to 2023.

Q. I suppose that’s what you mean when you talk about a more just and equitable international order. But I don’t want to leave the subject of Ukraine just yet. On April 25, you said that an end to the war depends on Ukraine recovering its territorial integrity and Russia keeping Russian territory. What exactly do you mean by “Russian territory?”

A. Russia has been in Crimea for a long time and has invaded other territories. I don’t know what type of agreement Zelenskiy and Putin are going to accept. Putin certainly doesn’t want NATO on Russian borders, and Zelenskiy certainly doesn’t want an occupied Ukraine. So impartial outsiders are the only ones who can forge an agreement to stop this war. Don’t ask me how – first we have to sit down at the negotiating table. Both sides want to win, but a war doesn’t always need a winner. Stop fighting, come to an agreement and get everything back to normal. I believe it’s possible because it happened after World War II. The European Union is proof of our capacity and intelligence as human beings to work together. Russia and Ukraine can do this and I intend to help them.

President Lula da Silva and Pepa Bueno, editor-in-chief of EL PAÍS at the Palace Hotel in Madrid; April 26, 2023.
President Lula da Silva and Pepa Bueno, editor-in-chief of EL PAÍS at the Palace Hotel in Madrid; April 26, 2023. JAIME VILLANUEVA

Q. I understand you don’t know yet how you are going to achieve peace. Nobody knows. You talked to Zelenskiy and sent an envoy to talk to Putin. Must Putin stop bombing Ukraine to begin peace talks?

A. We have to convince him, because he is not there yet. That’s the dilemma – people start wars without knowing how to stop them. We just have to sit down and talk. I was pleased to see Xi Jinping visit Russia. I sent Celso Amorim [foreign policy advisor to Lula] to meet with Putin, and in a few days, he’ll also meet with Zelenskiy. And so we are building the pillars. Macron is also interested in building peace. Another war in Europe seemed unthinkable, yet there it is. Peace may seem impossible, but we’re going to do it. We need more people striving for peace instead of throwing fuel on the fire.

Q. Many countries would probably applaud the more equitable international order you are proposing at the UN. What is the role of human rights in this new international order?

A. For me, respect for human rights is the top priority. Brazil will not enter any negotiation that does not consider human rights. And war is an abrogation of human rights. We must stop the war, because you can rebuild a house, a bridge, a road, but you cannot resurrect lives.

Q. I ask about the new international order because clearly China must have a role in it. But it’s a country that imprisons activists and lawyers, and nobody really knows what’s happening to the minorities in Tibet. How forcefully should respect for human rights be articulated in this new international order you are advocating, which seems to be moving forward?

A. No one should think that China is the only one to blame for what is happening in the world. The problem is not just China – it’s the US, France, the UK... the permanent members of the UN Security Council must take the initiative. An example of why we need global governance is climate change. We make and implement decisions in our respective countries, but business interests fight these measures and they never get done. That’s why I advocate more robust governance, especially on climate and economic issues.

Q. Spain will assume the presidency of the EU Council in July, and there are high expectations the MERCOSUR-EU trade agreement can finally be ratified in the next six months. But it’s still facing resistance on both sides of the Atlantic. Do you think it will be ratified?

A. I am happy that Spain is assuming the presidency. I had hoped it would be signed in 2006-2007 when Zapatero [José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero] was in office. Now it’s 2023 and the current shape of the trade agreement is unacceptable, so we are going to propose changes. As soon as Spain takes over, I intend to find common ground between the EU and the MERCOSUR nations. It’s important to learn where France stands because it has always been very rigid about agricultural concessions. A good agreement is when both parties win. Brazil needs to become an industrial country again: 30% of our GDP used to come from industry and now it’s down to 11%. I am going to work hard to ratify an agreement this year. There is willingness on the MERCOSUR side; now we have to see what the EU wants.

Q. In your previous administration, you set a goal that fewer Brazilians should go hungry. And you did it – millions achieved food security. What is your priority in this presidency?

A. We are still far from attaining the employment levels we want. We have 11% unemployment in Brazil. When Dilma [Rousseff] left office [in 2016], we had 4.3% unemployment. My goal is to grow the Brazilian economy and encourage more private investment. In May, we are going to present a package of infrastructure projects to attract foreign investors, especially from Spain. That is one reason for my visit. I’m also here to learn about the agreement between the Spanish government, Congress, labor unions and the “app” businesses – it’s an agreement that legalizes the lives of all the [app delivery drivers].

In my first presidency, we not only ended hunger, but we increased the quality of life of Brazilians. But we’ve taken several steps back since then. There are still 33 million people experiencing hunger in Brazil. We need quality jobs and to create a new relationship between business and labor because the union structure has been dismantled in Brazil. Democracy thrives when we have strong labor unions and a dialogue between employers and workers. It’s simple – Brazil needs to grow and for that to happen, the government must work to establish trust and credibility with the private sector. This will lead to external credibility for Brazil.

Q. The European Parliament has approved a ban on importing products from deforested areas. The Amazon basin suffered a lot during the Bolsonaro years. You promised zero deforestation by 2030 – how are you going to do it?

A. It’s a campaign commitment that I intend to keep. Deforestation and burning must be banned. Brazil has 30 million hectares [74 million acres] of degraded land. Not a single tree should be cut down in my country because we don’t need to – Brazil is already the world’s largest producer of animal proteins. We need to improve our agricultural production to feed Brazilians and people in other countries, but we must preserve the environment and indigenous lands. This is our moral, ethical, political and environmental duty. When I leave office, you will see if I was successful.

Lula da Silva
Lula da Silva in Madrid on April 26, 2023.Jaime Villanueva

Q. The European and American continents have a common problem. In fact, it’s a global problem that extends into Portugal, where you recently made a state visit. I’m talking about the intolerance of the far right. You heard their protests during your speech to the Portuguese parliament on April 25, the anniversary of the Carnation Revolution [in 1974, that overthrew the authoritarian regime in Portugal]. You experienced an attempted right-wing coup in your own country a week after taking office. Is democracy secure in Brazil?

A. It is not just Brazil. We must save democracy all over the world because right-wing extremists are in Spain, Portugal, France, Germany... Only democracy can establish and preserve individual freedoms. A metal worker can only become president in a democracy. Spain knows all about authoritarianism. In Portugal, only eight people were making noise during my speech. I don’t know how what they said to their children, who may have seen their parents acting in this ridiculous manner on television. The far right is often barbaric – we saw it with Hitler. And that type of fascism can take hold in any country.

Q. What was Bolsonaro’s role in the January 8 assault in Brasilia?

A. I have no doubt that he tried to stage a coup. It was planned for my inauguration, but there were too many people watching that day, so he waited a week. I saw it all on television – they stormed the Planalto Palace [the president’s workplace] and our security forces were negligent there. They broke into the National Congress, the Supreme Court and the palace. There are people in jail now for what they did that day. We are looking for those who funded it all, such as those who paid for the buses that transported the rioters to the capital. The Secretary of Security for Brasilia is in jail. We are convinced that it was all organized by Bolsonaro and his team. He has been charged with 34 crimes and more charges are coming, as well as international lawsuits. He is also accused of causing the [pandemic] deaths of over 300,000 people, because he failed to buy enough vaccines and the right medications.

Q. After Biden’s recent announcement of his intent to run for reelection, will you do the same?

A. I can’t think about that now. It has only been four months since I started my term. What I must do now is to shape a more democratic Brazil for our people, with more equitable wealth distribution, better education and greater happiness. That is what I will try to do. And I ask for God’s help every day.

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