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As Brazil’s COVID-19 cases surge, Lula slams Bolsonaro for pandemic response

Brazil’s coronavirus crisis is one of the world’s most dire. The country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has long minimized the pandemic and the seriousness of COVID-19. Now, a popular former president is re-emerging on the Brazilian political scene -- and levying criticism at Bolsonaro for his handling of the situation. Amna Nawaz spoke recently with former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Trump counts Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro as an ally and kindred spirit.

    But not even their closeness prevented Mr. Trump from saying yesterday that he's considering banning Brazilians from traveling to the U.S. The coronavirus crisis in that country is one of the world's most dire by several metrics.

    Bolsonaro is also coming under attack by a popular former Brazilian president, who is reemerging on the political scene after being released from prison.

    Amna Nawaz spoke with Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva late last week.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In late 2019, former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known widely just as Lula, walked out of prison after 580 days, and stepped right back onto the political stage.

    Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (through translator): Today, I'm a guy that doesn't have a job, a president without a pension, not even a television in my apartment. My life is totally blocked.

    The only thing I'm certain of is that I have more courage to fight than before.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    His top targets? The current president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, and his allies, whom Lula claims wrongfully convicted him of corruption in 2017, a conviction he's now appealing.

    Today, the focus of Lula's criticism is Bolsonaro's mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (through translator): We have an invisible enemy which we do not know. We do not have the medication to cure it.

    And many leaders, such as the president of Brazil and the president of the U.S., are not treating it seriously, with the necessary precautions to face the pandemic.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    To date, more than 18,000 Brazilians have died of COVID-19, and the virus is running rampant through vulnerable communities, the sprawling, crowded urban areas known as favelas and among indigenous communities in the Amazon and other remote regions.

    The death toll in Latin America's largest country is now the sixth worst in the world. The total number of infections ranks third globally. But experts believe the government is likely vastly underreporting the number of cases, and fear what will follow.

    Do you believe that Brazil will become the next global epicenter for this pandemic?

    Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (through translator): I think Brazil runs the risk of becoming the next epicenter of the pandemic.

    The country alone has more people contaminated and deaths than all of South America. The problem we have in Brazil — and this is my present concern — is that the pandemic is beginning to reach the poorest places and peripheries throughout the country.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Like President Trump, President Bolsonaro downplayed early concerns over the virus. He clashed with health officials, firing his first health minister, who criticized his approach.

    His second health minister stepped down after just one month on the job. And he's peddled misinformation, leading both Facebook and Twitter to remove his posts saying the drug hydroxychloroquine was — quote — "working in all places."

    Bolsonaro, who's so far been unable to make good on his promise to fix a faltering economy, has also pushed for Brazilian businesses to reopen, mimicking President Trump's message.

  • President Jair Bolsonaro (through translator):

    People are dying. They are. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. But more will die, much, much more, if the economy continues to be destroyed by those measures.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And, just like Trump's supporters, Bolsonaro's backers have taken to the streets, in defiance of local social distancing orders.

    Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (through translator): President Bolsonaro likes to copy, to repeat President Trump's actions. That is, President Bolsonaro believes President Trump is a higher being, so he simply copies everything Trump says.

    And Bolsonaro does not discuss the pandemic. He discusses any topic. He offends the Supreme Court, native indigenous peoples, blacks, women, Congress, Senate, the opposition, governors, mayors, but he does not take care of the pandemic.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In recent weeks, though, Lula has escalated his attacks, saying in one recent interview that Brazilian society has the — quote — "right to remove Bolsonaro."

    You don't have votes in Congress to impeach him. He's unlikely to step down. So, what exactly are you calling for when you say that society has the right to remove President Bolsonaro.

    Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (through translator): I think it is very difficult for any president to continue in office doing what Bolsonaro is doing in Brazil.

    He is not governing Brazil. He is constantly producing fake news. He spends the nights writing tweets. He does not wear a mask. I think, and society expects, the House of Representatives should start an impeachment procedure to discuss whether this man has the necessary political conditions to continue to governing this country.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I just want to be clear about this, President da Silva. You are calling for the impeachment process against President Bolsonaro to begin; you believe that should start?

    Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (through translator): I think, if Bolsonaro continues to act irresponsibly, as he has been doing, the people will not accept him for three more years.

    I am not in favor of removing a president every year through an impeachment process. I am in favor of a government that truly governs the country, respecting democracy.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Lula himself has faced some of the same criticism.

    Despite leaving office after two terms with sky-high popularity, he was ensnared years later in a massive corruption and bribery scandal. Lula maintains he did nothing wrong.

    Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (through translator): For the past four years, I have been asking them to prove any one of the charges held against me. So far, nothing has been proven.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And in another recent twist, the judge who convicted Lula was later handpicked as justice minister by Bolsonaro. And just last month, he resigned, saying the president pressured him to fire the police chief.

    Even today, Lula remains popular among Brazilians, and, when pressed, would neither confirm nor deny he would run again when Bolsonaro's term is up in 2022. But he is still making the pitch directly to Brazilians, begging them to once again believe in his Workers Party, known as the P.T., by its Portuguese initials.

    Why should they believe things would be any better today, at this moment of crisis, under the Workers' Party or under you, under anyone else?

    Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (through translator): I will tell you something. First of all, people should believe in the P.T., because it was the party that brought the greatest social inclusion in Brazil's history.

    That is, in 13 years, we did what had not been done in the last 100 years in the country. We invested the most in employment, education, health, electrical power, and social improvement for the poor. That is why they should believe.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A former leader reemerging to fight once again amid political turmoil and the uncertainty of a pandemic now setting its sights on Brazil.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz.

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