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Lula’s Revival Spells Trouble For Bolsonaro

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: A Brazilian judge quashes former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s corruption conviction, Biden to grant temporary protections to Venezuelans in U.S., and Senegal’s opposition calls for more protests.

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Judge Opens Door for Lula Presidential Bid

A Brazilian Supreme Court judge has annulled the corruption convictions that have kept Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the president of Brazil from 2003-2010, out of politics since 2018. The surprise decision means that da Silva, commonly known as Lula, is now cleared to run for office, shaking up the political landscape ahead of presidential elections in 2022.

President Jair Bolsonaro has attempted to play down the news of Lula’s newfound political freedom. “I think the Brazilian people don’t even want a candidate like that in 2022, much less think about his possible election,” he said on Monday, adding that Lula’s administration was “catastrophic.”

Should Lula run again, the ruling is a direct threat to Bolsonaro’s reelection chances. Lula had led in the polls in the 2018 election campaign before his first corruption conviction prevented his candidacy. A poll taken by O Estado de S. Paulo last week found Lula was the only candidate in the current field who could beat Bolsonaro: 50 percent said they “would certainly” or “could” vote for Lula versus 38 percent for Bolsonaro.

Still got it? That poll’s results, although positive for Lula, illustrate how years of corruption inquiries have tarnished the reputation of the former union leader since 2011, when he left office with approval ratings over 80 percent (Bolsonaro’s approval rating is currently 40 percent). Back then, Brazil was enjoying a commodities boom, and the unemployment rate was roughly half what it is today. At a G-20 meeting, then-U.S. President Barack Obama referred to Lula as “the most popular politician on earth.”

The polarization of the Brazilian electorate also indicates that a Lula victory in 2022 is far from guaranteed. As well as receiving the highest ratings in the O Estado de S. Paulo poll, he also received high negative ratings; 44 percent of respondents said they would never vote for Lula. In the same poll, 56 percent said they would never vote for Bolsonaro.

Space in the center? The choice between two extremes could fuel the rise of centrist candidates as October 2022 approaches. The freshness of the coronavirus pandemic in voters’ minds will determine whether Luiz Henrique Mandetta, a health minister turned fierce Bolsonaro critic, or João Doria, the São Paulo state governor who secured Chinese Sinovac vaccines, could remain in the spotlight long enough to mount a serious challenge.

It’s the economy, stupid. Despite the political battles ahead, a Lula presidency could be good news for Brazil’s economy. Speaking on the phone from Rio de Janeiro, Catherine Osborn, the author of Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief, told me that after Bolsonaro’s interventionist streak—seen most recently in his nomination of a general to run state oil firm Petrobras—a Lula presidency may be an improvement.

“I think it’s possible a Lula administration could be more of a ‘rational’ economic actor as far as markets are concerned,” Osborn said. “But that all depends on whether it’s the Lula of 2002 or the Lula of 1989.”

(At least one sector of Rio welcomed Monday’s news: Our call was repeatedly interrupted by neighbors screaming “Out with Bolsonaro!” and “Lula Livre!” from their windows).

What We’re Following Today

Venezuelans in the U.S. The Biden administration is to grant temporary protected status to Venezuelans already living in the United States, mostly in South Florida. The measure confers residency and work protections to an estimated 320,000 people for the next 18 months. Colombia recently announced a similar, albeit more generous, move granting legal status to 1.7 million Venezuelan refugees for a ten-year period.

The U.S. decision comes as a senior administration official on Monday criticized the sanctions regime imposed on Venezuela as ineffective and said they are under review. “The United States is in no rush to lift sanctions,” the official said. “But we need to recognize here that unilateral sanctions over the last four years have not succeeded in achieving an electoral outcome in the country.”

U.N. Afghan envoy in Doha. Deborah Lyons, the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative for Afghanistan, is expected to meet with representatives from the Afghan government and Taliban today in Doha, as the United States pushes a multilateral approach to resolving peace talks between the warring sides. Lyons is also expected to meet with U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad who traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan over the past week as part of the renewed U.S. campaign. 

Senegal protests. Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko was released from custody on Monday following days of protests sparked by his arrest. Sonko had been arrested on charges of rape, an allegation he describes as politically motivated and an effort by President Macky Sall to silence him ahead of elections in 2024. Sonko’s supporters have called for three days of protest this week, raising fears of escalating violence after eight people were killed in clashes with security forces last week. 

EU’s vaccine warning. European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen has warned that last week’s decision by Italy to block a coronavirus vaccine shipment to Australia was not “a one-off,” as the EU leader shifted blame on the bloc’s slow rollout to pharmaceutical suppliers. AstraZeneca has “delivered less than 10 percent of the amount ordered by the EU for the period from December to March,” she said on Monday, a shortfall of 90 million doses. Von der Leyen said she expected the EU to begin receiving 100 million doses per month from various suppliers from April onwards.

Power sharing in the Eastern Mediterranean. Cyprus, Greece, and Israel are on track to build the world’s longest undersea power cable as they signed an agreement to link their electricity grids on Monday. The $900 million Euro-Asia interconnector project will connect EU member Cyprus to the European continental grid for the first time, as well as provide backup power for Israel in the event of emergency. The project is expected to be operational in 2025.

Wealthy visitors to Thailand now have the option of spending their 14-day mandatory quarantine on a yacht as part of a new program to boost tourism to the country. Prospective seafarers will be equipped with an electronic wristband that will track the wearer’s vital signs as well as GPS coordinates—even when at sea. Thailand’s tourism minister proposed a separate plan last week to allow tourists to spend their quarantine period in the country’s beach resorts. The need for unique approaches is particularly acute in the southeast Asian nation: Only 6.7 million foreign tourists visited Thailand in 2020, following a record 39.8 million tourists in 2019.

That’s it for today.

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