After Bolsonaro, Can Lula Remake Brazil?

Governing after four years of divisive rule will be a profound challenge. “The weight on my back is greater,” Lula said.

Following a prison term, a fraught election, and a near-coup, the third-time President takes charge of a fractured country.

All around the immense city of São Paulo, posters on telephone poles display a Pop-art image of the newly elected President of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—Lula, as he is universally known. His head is crowned by dark curls, his face adorned with a red star, a symbol of his Workers’ Party. It is a vision of Lula in his early days: the left-wing idealist, the charismatic strike leader, the prophet of an imaginary future in which Brazil would become a center of social justice where no one went hungry, the rain forest was protected, and the enmity between races and classes dissolved. It is an old cliché that Brazil is the country of the future—a future that will never arrive. It is also true that the colossus of Latin America has not fulfilled many of its people’s hopes.

For generations of Brazilians, Lula is the country’s most familiar public figure. He served two previous terms as President, from 2003 to 2010. In 2018, he was imprisoned on charges of money laundering and corruption. Lula denied any wrongdoing, insisting that he was the victim of a political revenge scheme. His candidacy represented an almost unprecedented comeback.

After a long career of constant crisis, of triumph and embattlement, Lula looks his age. He is seventy-seven, short and sturdy, with a rooster’s erect posture and puffed-out chest. His hands are tough, like a boxer’s, but his skin is pale, and his curly hair has gone thin and white. When I saw him last November, a few days after he won the Presidential election, he entered the living room of a hotel suite in São Paulo surrounded by a phalanx of aides and security guards. He was dressed in a politician’s gray suit jacket and slacks, which he seemed to wish he could trade for his customary guayabera and jeans.

Lula looked not just exhausted but also unwell. In 2011, barely a year after he broke a half-century smoking habit, he had received a diagnosis of throat cancer and undergone chemotherapy. Doctors urged him to take special care of his throat, but of course he had ignored them during the campaign, and often when he spoke now his voice was reduced to a gravelly, theatrical growl. During his victory announcement, he seemed to strain to produce an impassioned whisper.

Lula’s campaign speeches suggested that he was engaged in an existential conflict. His opponent was Jair Bolsonaro, the incumbent, a right-wing populist who had become known as “the Trump of the tropics,” and as one of the hemisphere’s most controversial leaders. Like Trump, he had come to power by appealing to voters who were outraged by abortion rights, gay marriage, and sex education in primary schools. Throughout his career, his rhetoric was often hateful. He once dismissed a female legislator by saying that she was “not worth raping, she is very ugly.” On the subject of homosexuality, he said, “If your child starts to become like that, a little gay, you beat him and change his behavior.” In office, he allowed corporations to hack away at the rain forest virtually unimpeded, and police to shoot suspects without restraint. Responding to the covid-19 pandemic, he was neglectful and often cruel, telling his citizens, “Everyone has to die one day. We have to stop being a country of sissies.” Brazil has had nearly seven hundred thousand reported deaths, second only to the United States.

Lula, in his campaign, had talked in almost messianic terms about his desire to “rescue” Brazil. He had also begun to speak about God, his age, how he felt lucky to have endured his adversities. On the night he finally won, he said, “They tried to bury me alive, but I survived. Here I am.”

When I’d last seen Lula, in December, 2019, he had appeared vigorous and relatively youthful. Now, despite his campaign rhetoric, he seemed a little overwhelmed by the prospects he faced in his mission to save Brazil. Sinking into a chair and exhaling heavily, he said that he’d been on the telephone all morning with world leaders who’d called to congratulate him. When I asked what political initiatives he had planned, he spoke almost by rote, as if still on the campaign trail. But when I said that, outside Brazil, many people expected him to rescue not just his country but the global environment, by reversing the deforestation of the Amazon, his eyes widened almost fearfully, and he exclaimed, “Yes, I know!” Reaching over to grab my knee, he leaned in and began speaking intently of reshaping the country. “People are very optimistic about our governance,” he said. “People are expecting something to change, and it will change.” This was the Lula from the Pop-art poster, the leftist crusader who had enthralled Brazilians since his first appearance on the national stage, forty years earlier. But now the country around him was different, divided sharply between those who loved him and those who despised him.

On New Year’s Day, Lula was inaugurated in the capital, Brasília, a sprawling city carved from the forest in the late nineteen-fifties. In a speech from the Planalto Palace, a modernist building that contains the Presidential offices, he made an attempt at conciliation. “There are not two Brazils,” he said. “It is of no interest to anyone to live in a family where discord reigns. It is time to bring families back together, to remake the ties broken by the criminal spread of hate.”

A week later, Bolsonaro supporters swarmed the capital, arriving on more than a hundred buses from around the country to overturn what they insisted was a stolen election. Shouting, “Overthrow the thieves!” and “We will die for Brazil!,” they invaded the Presidential offices, the Supreme Court, and the legislature, setting fires and smashing whatever they found.

At Lula’s order, Brazilian authorities moved swiftly to turn back the siege, arresting more than fifteen hundred protesters and promising an inquiry into the origins of the violence. Lula also orchestrated a display of unity: dozens of government leaders, including some loyal to Bolsonaro, walked arm in arm across the vast plaza that connects the Planalto Palace with the Supreme Court. It was an effective gesture—a reminder of the street protests that had helped establish his reputation decades before. But Lula seems conscious that making the country function after four years of authoritarian rule will be a profoundly larger challenge. “My responsibility is much greater now,” he told me. “The weight on my back is greater.”

Last October 1st, the day before voting began in the Presidential election, Lula stood in the back of a pickup truck as it rolled along Rua Augusta, a narrow street in São Paulo known for its bars, sex shops, and raucous night life. Crowds had gathered along the sidewalks and on apartment balconies, and more clogged the street around his truck. Brazilian elections have two rounds, but any candidate who wins a simple majority in the first round can clinch the Presidency. Lula, who is at his best in a throng of supporters, was hoping to inspire voters to put him in office without delay.

Electoral rules forbid candidates to speak to voters on the last day of the campaign, so Lula waved silently and blew kisses. The crowd was noisy, though: music was pounding from speakers on his vehicle, and people in the streets were dancing. Suddenly, Lula began jumping around the truck, like a kid in a mosh pit. At his encouragement, his campaign ally Fernando Haddad, two decades his junior and a head taller, began jumping, too. As they bounced, more or less in time to the music, onlookers cheered them on. Video of the spectacle soon spread on social media.

It was a moment of buoyancy in a contentious campaign, one that had divided voters over questions about what kind of a country Brazil is and what kind it should be. Lula’s followers tended to be younger, more multiracial, and lower-income, with a considerable L.G.B.T.Q. contingent; Bolsonaro’s skewed older, whiter, and wealthier. As Lula’s rowdy cavalcade made its way down Rua Augusta, a Bolsonaro procession traversed a nearby avenue, accompanied by squads of hard-faced men on motorcycles.

Most polls suggested that Lula would win by a comfortable margin. But it was uncertain whether Bolsonaro would honor the results of the election if he lost. Like Donald Trump, with whom he had established a close rapport, Bolsonaro had long questioned the security of Brazil’s electronic voting machines—even though they had affirmed his victory in the previous election. In 2021, he told a group of loyalists that he saw only three possible scenarios for himself in the election: victory, arrest, or death. He appeared to be prepping his supporters, the bolsonaristas, to reject any result that favored Lula. He had also hinted repeatedly that the armed forces, where he had a great deal of support, would back him in a contested election. His minister of security, a hard-line former general, made threatening remarks about the possibility of military intervention.

In the United States, Trump’s allies helped amplify Bolsonaro’s arguments. On Fox News, Tucker Carlson warned that Lula would be a puppet of the Chinese President, Xi Jinping. “Allowing Brazil to be a colony of China would be a significant blow to us and potentially a very serious military threat,” he said. “The Biden Administration appears to be in favor of it. One person who is emphatically not in favor of it is the President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro.” (Days before, Carlson had conducted a fawning interview with Bolsonaro, suggesting that he was a better leader than the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, and posing with him for pictures afterward wearing an Indigenous feather headdress.) The former Trump official Steve Bannon stoked fears that Lula intended to cheat his way to power: “Bolsonaro will win unless it’s stolen by, guess what, the machines.”

With concerns growing, the Biden Administration quietly deployed visiting emissaries, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, to warn Bolsonaro, his senior officials, and the military not to interfere in the election. As a U.S. official familiar with the outreach told me, “We made a concerted policy to let them know where the lines were for us. The outcome of the election was their business, but what we cared about was that the process be respected. We think they listened.”

Brazil’s Supreme Electoral Court also joined the effort. Its head justice, Alexandre de Moraes, moved quickly to engage the armed forces, inviting them to participate in an election-transparency commission. To defuse Bolsonaro’s claims, he also arranged for the military to inspect a number of voting machines on Election Day. The proposal drew criticism from advocates of electoral independence, but the armed forces agreed. Whatever else might happen, it seemed, they were unlikely to launch a coup.

The concerns about the stability of the government were not frivolous. Democracy has tenuous roots in Brazil. From 1964 to 1985, the country was ruled by a military dictatorship, whose officers harshly oppressed labor unionists, clergy, academics, and the country’s tiny contingent of Marxist guerrillas. Nearly five hundred people were killed, and thousands were imprisoned and tortured—including Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s successor as President, who was captured when, as a young woman, she was an urban guerrilla.

Some of Brazil’s neighbors suffered far worse. In Argentina, between nine thousand and thirty thousand people were tortured, murdered, and “disappeared” by the military. But, while Argentina reckoned with the regime’s atrocities in a series of trials, Brazil left its military untouched, passing a law in 1979 to provide amnesty for abuses. As an institution, it has expressed no remorse.

The relatively unexamined legacy of Brazil’s dictatorship, in which the hard-right military attacked both leftist protesters and democrats, still informs the country’s politics. Bolsonaro, a former Army captain, was an eager participant in the dictatorship, and during a twenty-seven-year stint in parliament often called for a return to military rule. In one famous outburst, he said that the military had not gone far enough—that, if only it had killed thirty thousand more people, Brazil’s problems with leftists would have been solved. In 2016, when Brazil’s Congress impeached Rousseff, Bolsonaro cast his vote in the name of a notorious military colonel who had commanded the unit that tortured her.

Lula, on the other hand, is Brazil’s archetypal leftist. He was born poor, the sixth of seven children. His parents worked as farmers in famine-stricken Pernambuco, a state in the northeastern part of the country. When Lula was a young child, his father set off for São Paulo, in pursuit of a more stable livelihood, and found work as a day laborer. By the time the rest of the family could join him, when Lula was seven, he had found another woman and started a new family. For four years, they all lived together until Lula’s mother could find another place—a cramped room behind a bar.

Lula did not learn to read until he was about nine, and he quit school soon afterward. He worked as a street vender, a shoeshine boy, a warehouse laborer, and, eventually, a machine operator in a screw factory. At nineteen, he damaged the little finger on his left hand in an accident with a mechanical press. He couldn’t get medical treatment until the next day. To his dismay, the doctor performed a full amputation. In time, his opponents came to deride him as Nine-Finger.

He soon got involved in trade-union politics, organizing protests outside factories and displaying a gift for oratory. He was imprisoned for leading an illegal strike but emerged after a month, and by the waning years of the dictatorship had become a prominent labor leader in São Paulo. In 1980, as the armed forces prepared to relinquish power, he founded the left-wing Partido dos Trabalhadores, the Workers’ Party, known as the P.T. He soon began running for political office, and, over the years, whether winning elections or losing them, he has become the undisputed leader of the Brazilian left. “There’s no one else of his stature in the hemisphere,” a Western official who has met with him several times said. “He’s the boss.”

As the returns came in for the first round of voting, Lula’s campaign team gathered in a São Paulo hotel. In a briefing room, scores of journalists, hangers-on, and politicians crowded around a huge television screen, watching as the tally tipped toward one candidate, then the other. The sound in the room tracked the results: agitated silence when Lula was trailing, laughter and cries of “Lula-la!,” a refrain from an old campaign song, when he took the lead.

By early morning, Lula had 48.4 per cent of the votes—five points ahead of Bolsonaro, but short of what he needed to win the Presidency in the first round. Moreover, Bolsonaro had attracted many more voters than pollsters had predicted. Lula’s team was realizing not only that a second round was going to be necessary but that, even if their candidate won, Brazil had become a vastly different country from the one he had presided over twelve years earlier.

Lula left office in 2010 with a historic eighty-eight-per-cent approval rating. The economy had boomed during his tenure, thanks in large measure to surging commodities prices, a significant oil discovery off the coast, and the explosive growth of China, a major buyer of Brazilian exports. In 2010, the rate of economic growth was 7.5 per cent, the highest in decades. Brazil belonged to a group of fast-growing nations known as the brics—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. But, since then, the economy has slumped, and Brazil, once the world’s fifth-largest economy, is now its ninth.

Bolsonaro worked to make Brazil friendlier to business, but many of his supporters were more energized by his prosecution of a culture war. He had won the Presidency in 2018 with the backing of the powerful consortium known as the three B’s: beef, Bibles, and bullets, signifying agribusiness, the evangelical church, and the arms lobby. In public appearances, his characteristic gesture was shooting make-believe pistols. He enjoyed widespread support among law-enforcement groups, especially the military police, which have a reputation for indiscriminate force and for involvement in organized crime.

In office, he expanded police departments and gave them wide leeway in dealing with criminals. In 2020 and 2021, police in Brazil killed more than six thousand people a year—six times the total in the United States. Bolsonaro also loosened gun laws, arguing that citizens needed to defend themselves against criminals and left-wing land invaders. Registered gun ownership grew sixfold while he was in office; gun shops and shooting ranges flourished.

It is illegal in Brazil to make racist remarks, but Bolsonaro regularly found ways to insult his country’s nonwhite inhabitants, saying that members of Afro-Brazilian communities were “not even good enough to breed” and that the Indigenous were “increasingly becoming human beings just like us.” Refugees were “the scum of the earth.” Violence against these communities, and against L.G.B.T.Q. people, surged during his tenure.

Soon after Lula took office, Bolsonaro supporters stormed the federal district of Brasília, calling for military intervention. Photograph by Antonio Cascio / Reuters / Redux

As Bolsonaro’s popularity grew, Brazilian politicians on the right began proclaiming their adherence to bolsonarismo. In the recent elections, candidates sympathetic to his ideas had done unexpectedly well, taking a majority of Senate and gubernatorial seats. One of those who won legislative posts was Eduardo Pazuello, an Army general who for a time ran Bolsonaro’s calamitous response to the pandemic. Another was Ricardo Salles, Bolsonaro’s first environment minister, who left office while under investigation for conspiring to traffic Amazonian hardwoods. (He denies the allegations.)

In São Paulo state, Brazil’s largest electoral constituency, the returns were mixed. The capital swung to Lula. Smaller cities and the countryside went to Bolsonaro, as they had in many other places where ranching and agribusiness drive the economy. In the campaign press room, Lula professed confidence: “We’ll have to fight on, but we’ll win.” His protégé Guilherme Boulos put it more starkly. Running against Bolsonaro, he said, was “a war between democracy and barbarism.”

Lula began running for President as soon as he was able. He launched his first campaign in 1989, just a year after a new constitution, adopted as Brazil returned to democracy, made it legal for leftist parties to run for office. He lost narrowly to Fernando Collor de Mello, a sharply dressed young proponent of free-market ideas. Collor de Mello resigned two years later, brought down by a corruption scandal. (He was later acquitted.)

Lula ran again in 1994 and 1998, and lost both times to Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a left-wing scholar who had once marched alongside him in street protests. As President, Cardoso moved toward the center, supporting the privatization of several major government-owned corporations. Lula remained a committed leftist, assailing the “neoliberal” reforms that swept the region, with American encouragement. While Cardoso became friendly with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, Lula was more philosophically aligned with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez.

But when Lula finally won the Presidency, in 2002, he showed a surprising pragmatism, along with a political survivor’s wiliness. He weathered a scandal involving a scheme to buy legislators’ votes, which became known as mensalão, or “the big monthly payment.” Though several of his closest deputies were implicated, he was not charged. In the same years, he launched a cash-transfer program, known as Bolsa Família, that lifted some thirty million Brazilians out of extreme poverty, and initiated an ambitious program to bring electricity to neglected areas of the countryside. During his tenure, the illegal destruction of the Amazon rain forest decreased dramatically, as he implemented programs to police the region and designated several million acres as conservation areas and as reserves for the Indigenous.

Lula’s personal warmth is probably his greatest political asset, and, unlike other Latin American leftists of his generation, he showed an exceptional ability to work both sides of the political aisle. Despite his opposition to the Iraq War, he cultivated a genial relationship with George W. Bush. When Barack Obama shook hands with Lula for the first time, at a G-20 summit in 2009, he told officials there, “I love this guy. He’s the most popular politician on Earth.” (In fact, the two didn’t get along that well; Lula told me that he had a better rapport with Bush, who, notwithstanding their differences, was a guy you could have a barbecue with. Obama, for his part, wrote in his memoirs that Lula was “impressive” but “reportedly had the scruples of a Tammany Hall boss.”)

At times in last year’s campaign, though, Lula seemed to have lost his easy dexterity. At a television studio in Rio, I watched him take part in the last of three Presidential debates. Bolsonaro’s insistent theme was that if Lula won back the Presidency Brazil would become like Venezuela—a byword for failed left-wing politics. Bolsonaro strutted grimly around the studio, calling his opponent “a thief, a traitor to the fatherland, and an ex-prisoner.” Lula sputtered outraged denials and shouted back that Bolsonaro was “shameless, repulsive,” and unfit to hold the Presidency. Few of Lula’s loyalists were happy about his performance. While Bolsonaro was characteristically vulgar, Lula had reacted badly to his attacks, and failed to express any new ideas or policy initiatives.

Bolsonaro’s accusations—he called Lula a “national embarrassment”—are complicated by the fact that corruption has been endemic in Brazil for much of its modern history. The government owns large sectors of the economy, and many legislators expect to be compensated for their coöperation. “Parliament is either subservient or rebellious,” José Eduardo Cardozo, a lawyer and a prominent Brazilian politician, told me. “And, when it is subservient, it is because it participates in the government—it has the money. If it’s not participating, it wants the government out.”

Lula, in his two terms, managed to cultivate the legislature while avoiding the consequences of the mensalão vote-buying scandal. His successor, Dilma Rousseff, lacked his nimbleness. “She was not a woman who liked to talk to parliamentarians,” Cardozo, who also served as Rousseff’s minister of justice, told me. “She was a cadre who thinks about politics, but who does not perform politics.”

Rousseff was Brazil’s first female President, and a formidable figure. After her early stint as a Marxist guerrilla, she had spent three years in prison, before going on to serve as Lula’s minister of energy and his chief of staff. When she became President, though, the economy was beginning to stagnate, and in her second term a crash in commodities prices meant that Brazil had less money coming in. Street protests became commonplace. So did maneuvering by her political opponents to unseat her. Even her Vice-President, Michel Temer, supported calls for her impeachment, ostensibly for manipulating the country’s budget.

One irony of those years is that Lula and Rousseff strengthened the judiciary, which made corruption more visible in their own government. Under Rousseff, the federal police began a series of investigations known as Lava Jato, or Car Wash. For several years, a team led by a judge named Sergio Moro operated out of Curitiba, in the conservative south of Brazil. It investigated corruption across Latin America, bringing down powerful C.E.O.s, government officials, and even several foreign Presidents for their involvement in money laundering and bribery.

Many of the schemes were linked to Brazil’s state oil firm, Petrobras, and to the construction giant Odebrecht, both of which had thrived during Lula’s tenure. Moro accused Lula of being the mastermind of an international conspiracy, and a years-long investigation began. In the end, the charges were narrow: Moro alleged that Lula was illicitly promised a beachside apartment, and that friends had effectively bought a ranch for his use, where Odebrecht made renovations at the request of Lula’s wife.

In a dramatic televised hearing, Moro coolly interrogated Lula, who angrily denied the charges and demanded proof of the allegations against him. Lula’s supporters have persistently argued that there is little evidence tying him to the properties. But, not long after the hearings, Moro released recordings that his agents had made of phone conversations between Rousseff and Lula, in which she said that she was sending him papers that would secure him a ministerial post. Rousseff said that the post was routine; Moro claimed that she was trying to protect Lula from arrest. A few months later, the legislature forced Rousseff out, and Temer took her place.

Political corruption did not diminish in Brazil. Eduardo Cunha, who had led the congressional campaign against Rousseff, was found guilty of accepting forty million dollars in bribes. Temer himself was implicated, but the same Congress that had voted to impeach Rousseff opted to leave him in office, for the sake of what the presiding judge called the “stability of the electoral system.”

As the 2018 Presidential election approached, Lula remained the most popular politician in the country, with what one poll said was a fifteen-point lead over his closest competitor. But he was increasingly embroiled in criminal investigations. A few months before the voting, police burst into Lula’s house to search for evidence; Marisa Letícia Casa, his wife of four decades, died of a stroke shortly afterward. Lula was convicted of corruption, sentenced to thirteen years in prison, and placed in a federal-police facility in Curitiba.

A contingent of supporters camped outside the fence near Lula’s cell, greeting him every morning with calls of “Good day, Lula.” But Moro’s investigation insured that he was barred from public office, instantly making Jair Bolsonaro the Presidential front-runner. In the election, Bolsonaro secured a narrow victory over Lula’s stand-in, the former São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad. Soon after being elected, he made Moro his minister of justice.

Among the loyalists who visited Lula in prison was his friend Emidio de Souza—a genial, burly man in his early sixties, who has served for years as a state legislator for the P.T. When Lula was arrested, it was de Souza who negotiated his surrender, persuading the police to abide by two conditions: “no haircut, no handcuffs.” He also arranged for Lula to be picked up discreetly, out of sight of a television crew circling in a helicopter nearby, in the hope of avoiding public humiliation.

Still, the arrest affected Lula profoundly. “He expected to be in prison for a week, maybe, or ten days,” de Souza told me in São Paulo. “But his extended imprisonment showed him that the world was going to move against him.” He passed the time by working through an earnest undergrad’s reading list: a history of slavery in Brazil, a treatise on how oil has led to wars, a biography of Nelson Mandela. He continued to follow party politics, de Souza said: “He wasn’t allowed the Internet, but he received daily written reports, news clippings, sometimes analyses of the political situation in the country. He also recorded the P.T. meetings on a flash drive, and then watched them on TV.”

From prison, Lula looked on as Bolsonaro began to generate his own corruption scandals. Though he had campaigned as a reformer, he and his family members were accused of a series of offenses, all of which they deny. Prosecutors allege that two of his sons embezzled public funds, and that an aide involved in one of the schemes funnelled money into an account owned by Bolsonaro’s wife. The family was eventually found to have bought at least fifty-one properties, largely in cash. (Bolsonaro gave a bluff response: “What’s wrong with buying houses in cash?”) To cultivate political allies, Bolsonaro’s administration maintained a “secret budget,” which gave the legislature access to some three billion dollars—a fifth of all discretionary spending—which could be apportioned without oversight.

In June, 2019, the Intercept published leaks of phone messages between Moro and the prosecutors who had tried Lula, which revealed significant ethical lapses. Moro illicitly discussed tactics with the prosecutors; the lead prosecutor expressed doubts that Lula had actually owned the apartment at the center of the case. In other leaks, the Lava Jato investigators admitted that they hoped to bring down Lula and the P.T. The United Nations Human Rights Council subsequently found that the investigation had violated due process.

In November, 2019, Lula was released, after five hundred and eighty days in prison. De Souza told me that Lula insisted he could rebuild his image, saying, “I’m not going to go down in history as a guy who stole.” In his first speech after being released, he called himself “the victim of the greatest legal lie ever told in five hundred years of history.”

I saw Lula a few weeks later, in a hotel overlooking Rio’s Copacabana beach. He was seventy-four—one year shy of the age at which the Catholic Church would no longer allow him to be a bishop, he joked. He said he’d been working out and felt fitter than he had in years. He had also fallen in love, with Rosângela (Janja) da Silva, a sociologist and a Workers’ Party member twenty-one years his junior; her daily letters had sustained him in prison, he said. He was still legally barred from politics, but he made it clear that he would return as soon as his prohibition was lifted. “If I were a candidate in 2022, I would surely win,” he said. “Because there is a faithful relationship between the Brazilian people and me.”

When Lula won the second round of voting, on October 30th, the crowds in São Paulo were ecstatic. From a two-story soundstage above Avenida Paulista, the city’s main thoroughfare, Lula waved and blew kisses, as his supporters danced and sang and waved flags bearing images of his face. His voice cracked with exhaustion and emotion as he declared, “Brazil is back!”

For many Brazilians I spoke with, though, the main reason for celebrating Lula’s victory was not that it would return the P.T. to power but that it would prevent another four years of Bolsonaro. João Moreira Salles, a documentary filmmaker, the founder of the magazine Piauí, and an astute political observer, told me, “That he could win in these conditions is nothing short of stunning. But we might remember the election as the most admirable part of Lula III. Winning was indeed epic. Governing might be a lot less rewarding.”

Lula’s team was uneasy. He had won by just over two million votes, making this the closest election in Brazil’s history. Bolsonaro had not conceded, and his supporters insisted that the election had been rigged. Along with a large contingent of bolsonarista truckers, they swarmed onto highways to block traffic and, in some cases, to erect burning barricades, halting commerce across the country.

For days, Bolsonaro remained out of sight and issued no public statements. Finally, he made an appearance at the Planalto Palace, apparently under pressure from allies. In a brief, stiff ceremony, he suggested that his supporters had every right to express their anger, but should not block the roads: “Our methods should not be those of the left, which have always been bad for the populace.” As soon as Bolsonaro was finished, he turned and walked off, while his chief of staff remained to say that officials from the current administration would be meeting with Lula’s team to begin handing over power.

There was going to be a transition, it seemed. But, within days, the mobs that had occupied the country’s highways had moved to new positions outside military garrisons. There, they set up camps and demanded an intervention to stop Lula—the thief, the Communist—from taking away their country.

Outside the main gates of the Southeast Military Command, a sprawling Army headquarters in São Paulo, several hundred bolsonaristas held a daily vigil. Men and women draped in Brazilian flags or wearing the national colors of yellow and green stood chanting, “S.O.S., armed forces!” Some held fists in the air. Several knelt to pray, their eyes closed and their arms outstretched in the fashion of Pentecostalism, which has a large following in Brazil. Some had their faces contorted in expressions of pain; others looked to Heaven, beseechingly.

Men strode in front of the chanting crowd, urging them on. When I approached several women to ask why they were there, demonstrators nearby became hostile, screaming at them, “No talking!” With rising hostility, the crowd began to yell, “Go away, dirty press!,” until I backed off.

As I left, I passed a clothesline strung between trees, which was hung with soccer jerseys, many of which were emblazoned with a 10—the number of Neymar, Brazil’s soccer star, who had recently declared that he was a bolsonarista. Alongside them was a green-and-yellow banner that read, in English, “Our flag will never be red. Out Communism.”

All over the country, crowds had gathered to protest and to pray for an intervention. In the U.S., Tucker Carlson broadcast their claims of fraud on his show. On November 2nd, he said, “According to official tallies, a convicted criminal and avowed socialist called Lula da Silva beat the incumbent President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, by a narrow margin this weekend. And yet millions of Brazilians—millions—don’t believe that’s what actually happened. . . . There are questions about whether all the ballots had been counted. Why so many were thrown out. Millions. And whether election laws were violated in the process. So we can’t render judgment on those questions, but if you care about democracy, if you think the process is essential, then you would look into those allegations.”

Steve Bannon echoed Carlson. Just days after he was convicted of refusing to testify before Congress about his role in the January 6th insurrection, he went on social media to claim that Brazil’s election “was stolen in broad daylight.” He called Lula “a Criminal Atheistic Marxist” and the pro-Bolsonaro demonstrators “freedom fighters.”

Brazil’s military had largely remained quiet throughout the monthlong electoral process. A week after the second round of voting, it still had not produced the results of its inspection of voting machines. In São Paulo, Lula admitted to feeling fretful about the delay. “This report should have been delivered before the elections,” he said.

His concerns extended beyond the silence of the military. When I told him about the protesters outside the Army garrison, he turned grim. “I think we need to find out who is financing and who is feeding them, because this is not spontaneous,” he said. The day before, he’d had a discouraging talk with the governor of Pará state, in the Amazon. “When police went and tried to unblock the roads, demonstrators shot up their car,” he said. “The entire country is like this. And Bolsonaro has locked himself inside his house. We are not used to this kind of thing here. Since the return of democracy, elections have always been respected.”

Lula mentioned reports that pro-Bolsonaro police around the country had interfered with his voters on Election Day, and had assisted bolsonaristas who blocked the highways. Lula said that he wasn’t worried about being kept out of office: “It may be difficult, but, you see, the law exists to give guarantees to society.” The problem was instability, and Bolsonaro’s seeming willingness to deploy the police to keep Lula out of office. “This election was atypical,” he said, “because it was the candidacy of a candidate against the state—an absurd thing.”

Like many others, Lula likened what was happening in Brazil to the Trump phenomenon in the U.S. January 6th had established a destabilizing precedent all over the world. “Whatever disagreements you may have with the United States, it still represents the face of democracy on planet Earth,” he said. “When the most important country fails to exercise democracy, you are giving an endorsement to all the crazies in the world.”

In speeches, Lula often raises the need to address hunger in Brazil, describing it as an unassailable moral imperative. He talked at length about hunger when we met in 2019, and with increasing emotion in his campaign appearances last year. In our interview after his recent victory, it came up when I questioned him about Ukraine. A few months earlier, he’d made acerbic remarks about Volodymyr Zelensky, and had seemed to suggest, as Vladimir Putin had, that the United States was partly responsible for the conflict. Apparently eager to set the issue aside, Lula told me that he intended to talk with Zelensky and Putin, and with Biden as well, but that all he cared about was “world peace.” Soon enough, he returned to the issue of hunger. “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t betray these people,” he said, tears welling in his eyes. “I’ll have to fight with the markets sometimes, but people have to be able to eat again. I don’t want anything much, but people have to have hope again, and a full belly, with morning coffee and lunch and dinner.”

Lula remains an earnest believer in the leftist project in Latin America. But, as Cardozo, Rousseff’s minister of justice, told me, “Lula is not a man who theorizes about politics like Lenin or Trotsky. He is a pragmatist, a trade unionist.” He added, “He is also a political genius and a charismatic man. Inside the P.T., everyone below Lula fights against one another, but not against him. That’s how he conserves his power.”

Lula’s team is mostly made up of fairly doctrinaire leftists, but he has brought in some ideological diversity, in an effort to reassure the business lobby and other conservative interests. His Vice-President is Geraldo Alckmin, a center-right physician who once ran against him for President. His minister of planning and budget is Simone Tebet, who leans to the right on the economy. But Cardozo suggested that he’d need to go further to cultivate people who disagreed with him. “The extreme right is going to be strong and make permanent efforts to destabilize things. To keep the P.T. in its place and the extreme right in its place, he will need a broad alliance,” he said. “You can’t put out a fire with alcohol.”

A couple of days after I met Lula in São Paulo, he travelled to Brasília, hoping to widen his network of allies. Even as he had retaken the Presidency, Bolsonaro’s party had won ninety-nine seats in Congress, forming the largest bloc in the lower house; in the upper house, it secured fourteen of eighty-one seats. For Lula to run the country, he would have to make a deal with the Centrão, a shape-shifting coalition of right-of-center parties that have come to wield extraordinary power in the capital. The Centrão has few ideological allegiances; its members’ main imperative seems to be exchanging their votes for lucrative concessions for their constituencies, and for themselves.

But the Centrão was increasingly aligned with the hard right. It had voted out Rousseff in 2016 and then protected her successor, Temer. It had also effectively partnered with Bolsonaro when he joined one of its parties, the Partido Liberal, to run in last year’s election. Brazilian politicians change parties often. Bolsonaro has belonged to nine. The leader of the lower house of Congress, Arthur Lira, has belonged to five. Lira was a main beneficiary of Bolsonaro’s “secret budget,” and the person Lula most needed to cultivate on this trip. Judging by their encounter, Lira was eager to make a deal; he came out of Congress to greet Lula warmly.

But Valdemar Costa Neto, the president of the Liberal Party, had decided to stick with Bolsonaro. A canny, amiable man in his seventies, Costa Neto was a former Lula ally; in 2012, he was convicted on money-laundering charges related to the mensalão scheme, and spent two and a half years in detention before he was pardoned. “I had to rebuild the Party when I got out, because my image was destroyed,” he told me. The Liberal Party had traditionally leaned to the center, but he had shifted it right, and eventually the affiliation with Bolsonaro had paid off. “Now we have ninety-nine congressmen,” he said, scribbling figures on a scrap of paper to demonstrate how much funding they were bringing in. He explained brightly, “We have to make room for the extreme right now.”

Costa Neto said that he had nothing against the new President. Smiling, he told me that Lula had recently asked if he would back his coalition, but he’d shown him the math and Lula had understood. But, he added, Bolsonaro didn’t approve of him talking to Lula: “Bolsonaro’s not like you or me. He’s not normal.”

Costa Neto said that he thought Lula had won the election fairly. He recalled telling Bolsonaro to accept the results, relax, take a break, become the honorary president of the Liberal Party, and rebuild for the next elections. But Bolsonaro truly believed he had won, he said—he was wounded and “really depressed.” Costa Neto threw up his hands in exasperation. At Bolsonaro’s insistence, he had hired a company to investigate his claims of voting-machine fraud, and, Costa Neto said, it had come back with “troubling data.” He explained vaguely that the issue had to do with voting machines that had inexplicably identical serial numbers. In a few days, he said, he was going to hold a press conference on the matter.

He confessed to feeling anxious, because the claim of fraud would surely bring “three times as many people onto the streets as those already camped out in front of the Army bases.” But Bolsonaro was an important ally, and Costa Neto had promised to advance his cause. A few days later, he held his press conference. The claim was quickly rejected by Brazil’s electoral tribunal; the military had already assessed its sample of voting machines and declared Lula the legitimate winner. Still, the report generated a flurry of headlines—enough to feed the bolsonaristas’ conviction that there had been a conspiracy.

On the afternoon of January 8th, Bolsonaro supporters poured into the federal district of Brasília, overrunning the complex that houses the three branches of government—the Three Powers, as they are known. In the plaza, protesters gathered to confront soldiers protecting the buildings. Others prayed, or yelled slogans: “Brazil was whored out by those nasty, corrupt people!” Rioters forced their way in, shattering windows and setting fires. The district police, led by a former Bolsonaro official, offered little resistance, and sometimes provided aid.

Marina Dias, a Brazilian journalist, was near the Ministry of Defense when she saw an older woman dressed in a camouflage shirt, of a kind that bolsonaristas wear in tribute to the armed forces. The woman said that she had been camped out at the military headquarters in Brasília for two months. She had joined the protest on the eighth to urge Bolsonaro to hide; she explained that Alexandre de Moraes, the head of the Supreme Electoral Court, was conspiring to have him killed.

Dias, like other observers, was confused by the timing of the riots. Why wait until a week after the inauguration? When she asked the woman if she was inspired by the January 6th insurrection in the U.S., another protester yelled, “Don’t answer her! She’s a journalist, a leftist!” Sensing a threat, Dias walked away, but she was surrounded by bolsonaristas, and someone tripped her. “I fell to the street, where people kicked me and punched me,” she told me. “Two men tried to protect me, saying, ‘You will kill her and ruin our movement.’ ” But women were scratching her, pulling her hair, grabbing for her phone. Someone snatched her glasses, broke them, and yelled, “We have to kill her!”

Finally, a military officer forced his way through the crowd and pulled her away. As the officer escorted her off, “people yelled that I was a whore, and someone threw a bottle of water at me,” she told me. “It was clear they felt like there would be no punishment.”

On the day of the insurrection, Lula and Janja were visiting the city of Araraquara, in São Paulo state, five hundred miles away. But they were able to monitor the situation, an aide told me. One of Lula’s bodyguards entered the Planalto Palace, recorded the rampage, and shared it with the President in real time. No one noticed the bodyguard, the aide said, because “they were all filming themselves, too.”

Outside the President’s offices, on the third floor, the rioters wrecked furniture and destroyed art: a seventeenth-century French clock, a painting by Emiliano Di Cavalcanti, an ancient Chinese vase. The vandals broke nearly everything they encountered, but they were stopped at a glass door outside Lula’s private office by his personal security team—a group of longtime loyalists, which includes a former federal police officer who oversaw Lula’s imprisonment and then went to work for him after he was freed.

From São Paulo, Lula and his team worked to assert control, starting by organizing the dismissal of the Bolsonaro official who led the district police and replacing him with a loyalist. As they scrambled, Lula received a phone call from his minister of defense and the chief of staff of the armed forces. They proposed that he sign a “law-and-order assurance”—a directive that would effectively hand them power to reëstablish control. Lula refused, fearing that it was the first step in a coup. Instead, he ordered military police to retake the buildings of the Three Powers. The Supreme Court and the Planalto Palace were quickly secured, and then officers turned their focus on Congress, deploying horses, water cannons, and pepper spray to clear the building and the roof. As helicopters dropped tear gas, protesters ran, coughing and struggling for air. By about seven o’clock that evening, the building had been cleared.

Despite the ferocity of the violence, many Brazilians believed that it was less an attempted coup than an act of political theatre. People took selfies and FaceTimed friends. One rioter, streaming video as he entered Congress, asked viewers to subscribe to his YouTube channel. Venders sold spectators grilled chicken and cotton candy. “On the surface, 1/8 was a resounding failure,” João Moreira Salles said. “The mob ransacked empty buildings and didn’t even try to occupy them. It was more of a simulacrum of a coup, a spectacle—a coup for the Instagram age.”

The lawlessness of the attack had demonstrated Bolsonaro’s hold on his loyalists, but it had also damaged him politically. “It means the end of Bolsonaro as a democratically viable candidate,” Moreira Salles argued. Soon after the elections, Bolsonaro had fled to Florida, and reportedly was staying near Orlando, as the guest of the Brazilian mixed-martial-arts fighter José Aldo. After four turbulent years as President, he suddenly didn’t seem to have much to do. He looked for a church to join. One afternoon, he was spotted sitting alone at a KFC, eating fried chicken out of a box. Admirers reported, with astonishment, that they had been able to drop by his house for a chat. “He’s completely isolated, and his influence is reduced to the fringe of Brazil’s extreme right,” Moreira Salles said. “Flying to Disney when the going gets tough is not exactly conducive to becoming the next strongman.”

The Biden Administration has said that it would take seriously a request to extradite Bolsonaro, but Lula has not yet submitted one. Even from Orlando, though, Bolsonaro can have an effect on Brazilian politics. Like many of his supporters, he is a skilled provocateur. During his Presidency, his opponents faced such vicious attacks online that Brazilians spoke about a clandestine “office of hate,” run by Bolsonaro’s allies. The P.T. is less adroit on social media. (Its leaders are largely older; one told me that sixty is considered young.) Members of Lula’s administration told me that the solution was greater regulation of the media, particularly on the Internet. “You can allow total freedom, but you cannot allow evil, hatred, the encouragement of lies to gain space,” Lula said.

In Moreira Salles’s view, people who were radicalized online were unlikely to succeed in toppling the government. “The danger is of an endless repetition of smaller January 8ths around the country,” he said. “Roads blocked, refineries occupied, that sort of thing. If they can’t seize power, then the next best thing is to make the current Presidency utterly chaotic.”

Still, the threat of political violence remains real; in December, police stopped a bomb plot against Lula. People close to him are particularly concerned about the military, and perplexed by its reluctance to quell the violence on January 8th. It has bases near the Three Powers buildings, and its troops secured the compound during a demonstration in 2017—but this time, despite repeated requests in the preceding days to step up security, it had intervened late, and seemingly halfheartedly. At least fifteen members of the military and the security forces are linked to the insurrection, including a retired senior officer of the Navy and a retired general of the Army reserves.

On Paulista Avenue, in São Paulo, a raucous crowd celebrated Lula's victory in the Presidential election. Photograph by Larissa Zaidan.

When Bolsonaro was President, he handed over large swaths of the government to the armed forces, appointing more than six thousand military personnel to the civilian bureaucracy. To assert control, Lula knows that he will have to purge some officers and cultivate many others. It will be delicate, unpopular work. “The armed forces didn’t join Bolsonaro’s efforts to remain in power, otherwise he would still be in Brasília,” Moreira Salles said. “But they are not coming forward to condemn the events of January 8th. Lula has to decipher this silence and bring the military to his side. It’s going to be one of his hardest tasks. History shows that the armed forces in Latin America are not guarantors of democracy.”

Some of the politicians who benefitted from Bolsonaro’s rise are figuring out how to keep up their momentum without him. Sergio Moro, the judge who put Lula in jail, was for a time a kind of folk hero for right-wing Brazil. In the recent election, he launched a campaign for President before dropping out to support Bolsonaro, whom he coached through the debates. He also ran for the Senate, and won a seat, representing his home state of Paraná, in southern Brazil.

I met him in his office in Curitiba, the state capital, in a modern tower that stood above a downtown of tidy lawns, churches, and steak houses. A neatly groomed man with a deacon’s seriousness, he was imperturbable as we talked about his role in the political combat of the past few years.

When I asked why he had agreed to serve as Bolsonaro’s justice minister, Moro said that he had hoped to do some good for the country: “Who wouldn’t try that?” Before 2018, he said, he’d known almost nothing about Bolsonaro. When I noted that Bolsonaro was already famous for offensive behavior, Moro fidgeted. “I heard from a lot of people who said, ‘I’m relieved that you’re joining the government, because you will be the voice of moderation.’ And I never endorsed any kind of attacks, verbal attacks of the President against women or anything like that,” he said.

Moro pointed out that he had quit his post after a year and a half, after Bolsonaro forestalled a police investigation into one of his sons’ activities. When I asked if he believed that Bolsonaro was guilty of the offenses he had been accused of, he nodded. Then why had he rejoined him during the debates with Lula? “I have never recanted what I said in the past,” he said. “The past is the past. But, if you have a second round with two options, you need to make a choice.” But why imprison one politician you regard as corrupt and aid another? “Well, we are talking about different levels of corruption. And you need to consider other issues. I don’t believe in the economic thoughts of the Workers’ Party.”

Moro did not deny that Lula had won the election, yet he spoke sympathetically about the people who questioned his legitimacy. “I am against any kind of violence or any kind of coup,” he said. “But there are a lot of people unsatisfied with the return of Lula, because there’s this perception that the corruption scandals were not solved in a proper way. So these people believe that Lula should never have been a candidate.” Even before January 8th, he acknowledged that the protesters had “committed some mistakes.” But, he said, “I believe Brazilian democracy should give these people an answer and understand them, and not treat all of them as kind of villains. They are not. They have families—they have children.”

People close to Lula were grappling with the same essential concern: How could they bring Bolsonaro voters over to their side? Lula’s protégé Guilherme Boulos is a forty-year-old activist and politician. We met for breakfast in a buffet-style “kilo” restaurant, where customers pay according to the weight of the food piled on their plates. He lamented, “Before, the opposition was, if you will, civilized. We have a real problem in the countryside.”

As the founder of the Homeless Workers’ Movement, Boulos spent years organizing takeovers of disused buildings to provide shelter for Brazilians in need. He won a legislative seat in the recent elections, and will work closely with Lula. When I asked about the bolsonaristas, he said, “We have to learn to talk to those people.” But he suggested, in the tones of a New Yorker talking about Texans, that Brazil’s rural areas were effectively a different country. “It’s a mostly right-wing culture, which revolves around the idea that one’s properties must be protected from left-wing land invasions,” he said. “Its economic program is neoliberal, and it is socially moralistic. Therein lies our problem: the left hasn’t attended to this sector, and it really has to, if it wants to defeat bolsonarismo.”

Lula, he said, “has an extraordinary capacity to govern and to articulate points in common with different sectors.” But the past four years had made bridging the differences much more difficult: “Bolsonaro didn’t govern—he set out the guideposts for an ideological battle, and he almost beat us by nearly winning reëlection!”

Boulos estimated that bolsonarista extremists represented ten to twelve per cent of the Brazilian population: “These are the people who don’t believe in the pandemic, who defend the use of torture, and who believe that the Earth is flat.” The key, he said, was to improve their economic opportunities. “There are those who say Brazil has increasingly become a polarized country. I’d argue that it’s always been polarized. Think of it: this country is the third-largest food producer in the world, while thirty million of its citizens go hungry, and one per cent of the population owns most of the resources. Of course there’s going to be polarization!” He reminded me that when Lula left office the electorate had overwhelmingly supported him—“because their lives were better!” Now, though, there was less money flowing; the economy was in a downturn, and the country was still recovering from the pandemic. “Lula’s margin of maneuverability will be reduced,” he said.

In the weeks after Lula won the election, he often seemed as if he hoped to simply return the country to the time before Bolsonaro took over—when the Amazon was less imperilled, the economy was thriving, and Brazil was in a cohort of fast-ascending countries. “It was the best moment of social rise of the poor people in Latin America,” he told me in São Paulo, adding, “Let’s recover the brics!”

Four days after the January 8th insurrection, his administration released its economic plan, which called for restoring the Bolsa Família, increasing aid to the poor, rolling back privatization, and increasing taxes on gasoline. According to Brian Winter, the editor of Americas Quarterly and a longtime analyst of Brazilian politics, “The announcements basically got a C-plus from the markets—nobody too excited, nobody too upset.” But Winter was not optimistic that Lula’s government would be able to spend its way out of a decade-long slump.

Recovering the Amazon will be harder still. During Bolsonaro’s term, as ranchers and miners cleared land, fires consumed an area of rain forest estimated to be the size of Belgium. The region is rife with anti-government sentiment, and Lula and his allies are effectively asking residents not to take advantage of the valuable resources around them. One rancher I spoke with said, “How can you live on top of a treasure chest and not be able to do anything with it?”

Lula’s environment minister is Marina Silva, who served for five years during his first tenure but resigned in frustration over his desire to balance conservation with development. Now Lula had called her back, promising a zero-tolerance policy on deforestation. Silva, a rubber tapper’s daughter of Black Brazilian descent, is an evangelical Christian, a soft-spoken, long-haired woman in her sixties. At her office in Brasília, she told me that she hoped to expand sustainable agriculture while halting illegal deforestation. She acknowledged that there would still be violations of environmental laws, and that the process would take time. “We won’t be able to do this in four years—that would be utopian,” she said. “The problem during Bolsonaro was that the transgressors had total impunity. With Lula, at least, the expectation of impunity will end.”

Lula and his aides are conscious that the world will judge them less by the details of ordinary governance than by their handling of monumental crises: the collapse of the environment and the near-collapse of democracy. Simone Tebet, his planning minister, told me, “President Lula’s big problem is not just economic. He can solve the problem of inflation, the problem of unemployment, reduce social inequality, reduce the percentage of poor people in Brazil. But, if you don’t work on political pacification and unity, in four years’ time bolsonarismo will come back with force.” At seventy-seven, Lula had only one term left, and a great deal to do, Tebet reasoned. “He wants to clean the soul of Brazil,” she said. “He wants to halt injustice. I have no doubt that he will assemble a team for this. What worries me is whether he will have the strength, ability, discernment to understand that his main role is not just these four years. It is building bridges so that we can, in 2026 and 2030, have democratic governments in Brazil.”

Jon Lee Anderson


Davos 2023: Recession casts long shadow over opening of WEF summit

DAVOS, Switzerland, The prospect of imminent global recession cast a long shadow over Davos on Monday as participants gathering for the opening of the World Economic Forum's annual meeting counted the likely cost for their economies and businesses.

Two-thirds of private and public sector chief economists surveyed by the WEF expect a global recession this year, with some 18% considering it "extremely likely" - more than twice as many as in the previous survey conducted in September 2022.

"The current high inflation, low growth, high debt and high fragmentation environment reduces incentives for the investments needed to get back to growth and raise living standards for the world's most vulnerable," WEF Managing Director Saadia Zahidi said in a statement accompanying the survey results.

The WEF's survey was based on 22 responses from a group of senior economists drawn from international agencies including the International Monetary Fund, investment banks, multinationals and reinsurance groups.

Meanwhile, a survey of CEO attitudes by PwC released in Davos on Monday was the gloomiest since the "Big Four" auditor launched the poll a decade ago, marking a significant shift from optimistic outlooks in 2021 and 2022.

The World Bank last week slashed its 2023 growth forecasts to levels close to recession for many countries as the impact of central bank rate hikes intensifies, Russia's war in Ukraine continues, and the world's major economic engines sputter.

Definitions of what constitutes recession differ around the world but generally include the prospect of shrinking economies, possibly with high inflation in a "stagflation" scenario.

On inflation, the WEF survey saw large regional variations: the proportion expecting high inflation in 2023 ranged from just 5% for China to 57% for Europe, where the impact of last year's rise in energy prices has spread to the wider economy.

A majority of the economists see further monetary policy tightening in Europe and the United States (59% and 55%, respectively), with policy-makers caught between the risks of tightening too much or too little.

"It is clear that there is a massive drop in demand, inventories are not clearing up, the orders are not coming through," Yuvraj Narayan, deputy chief executive and chief financial officer of Dubai-based global logistics company DP World told Reuters.

"There are far too many constraints imposed. It is no longer a free-flowing global economy and unless they find the right solutions it will only get worse," he said, adding the group expects freight rates to drop by between 15% and 20% in 2023.

Few sectors expect to be totally immune.

Matthew Prince, chief executive of cloud services company Cloudflare Inc (NET.N), said internet activity was pointing to an economic slowdown.

"Since New Year's, when I catch up with other tech company CEOs, they're like, 'have you noticed the sky is falling?'" he told Reuters.

PwC's survey found confidence among companies in their growth prospects dropped the most since the 2007-08 global financial crisis, although a majority of CEOs had no plans to cut the size of their workforce in the next 12 months or to slash remuneration as they try to retain talent.

"They're trying to do cost reduction without human capital changes and large layoffs," said PwC global chairman Bob Moritz.

Jenni Hibbert, a partner at Heidrick & Struggles in London, said activity was normalising and the executive search firm was seeing "a little less flow" after two years of strong growth.

"We are hearing the same mixed picture from most of our clients. People expect a market that’s going to be more challenged," Hibbert told Reuters.

Nowhere is the real-world impact of recession more tangible than in efforts to tackle global poverty.

Peter Sands, executive director of the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, said overseas development aid was being cut in budgets as donors started to feel the pinch, while recession would hit local health provision hard.

A common concern among many Davos participants was the sheer level of uncertainty for the year ahead - from the duration and intensity of the Ukraine war through to the next moves of top central banks looking to lower inflation with deep rate hikes.

The chief financial officer of one U.S. publicly traded company told Reuters he was preparing widely-varying scenarios for 2023 in light of economic uncertainty - in large part related to how interest rates will trend this year.

While there were few silver linings on the horizon, some noted that an all-out recession could give pause to the policy-tightening plans of the U.S. Federal Reserve and other major central banks that is making borrowing increasingly dear.

"I want the outlook to become a little weaker so that the Fed rates start going down and that whole sucking-out of liquidity by global central banks eases," Sumant Sinha, chairman and CEO of Indian clean energy group ReNew Power, told Reuters.

"That will benefit not just India but globally," he said, adding the current round of rate hikes was making it dearer for clean energy companies to fund their capital-intensive projects.


The Biggest Environmental Problems of 2023

While the climate crisis has many factors that play a role in the exacerbation of the environment, there are some that warrant more attention than others. Here are some of the biggest environmental problems of our lifetime, from deforestation and biodiversity loss to food waste and fast fashion.

Global Warming From Fossil Fuels

At the time of publication, CO2 PPM (parts per million) is at 418 and the global temperature rise is 1.15 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels.

The last time carbon dioxide levels on our planet were as high as today was more than 4 million years ago. Increased emissions of greenhouse gases have led to a rapid and steady increase in global temperatures, which in turn is causing catastrophic events all over the world – from Australia and the US experiencing some of the most devastating bushfire seasons ever recorded, locusts swarming across parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, decimating crops, and a heatwave in Antarctica that saw temperatures rise above 20 degrees for the first time. Scientists are constantly warning that the planet has crossed a series of tipping points that could have catastrophic consequences, such as advancing permafrost melt in Arctic regions, the Greenland ice sheet melting at an unprecedented rate, accelerating sixth mass extinction, and increasing deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, just to name a few.

The climate crisis is causing tropical storms and other weather events such as hurricanes, heatwaves and flooding to be more intense and frequent than seen before. However, even if all greenhouse gas emissions were halted immediately, global temperatures would continue to rise in the coming years. That is why it is absolutely imperative that we start now to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, invest in renewable energy sources, and phase our fossil fuels as fast as possible.

Poor Governance

According to economists like Nicholas Stern, the climate crisis is a result of multiple market failures.

Economists and environmentalists have urged policymakers for years to increase the price of activities that emit greenhouse gases (one of our biggest environmental problems), the lack of which constitutes the largest market failure, for example through carbon taxes, which will stimulate innovations in low-carbon technologies.

To cut emissions quickly and effectively enough, governments must not only massively increase funding for green innovation to bring down the costs of low-carbon energy sources, but they also need to adopt a range of other policies that address each of the other market failures.

A national carbon tax is currently implemented in 27 countries around the world, including various countries in the EU, Canada, Singapore, Japan, Ukraine and Argentina. However, according to the 2019 OECD Tax Energy Use report, current tax structures are not adequately aligned with the pollution profile of energy sources. For example, the OECD suggests that carbon taxes are not harsh enough on coal production, although it has proved to be effective for the electricity industry. A carbon tax has been effectively implemented in Sweden; the carbon tax is US$127 per tonne and has reduced emissions by 25% since 1995, while its economy has expanded 75% in the same time period.

Further, organisations such as the United Nations are not fit to deal with the climate crisis: it was assembled to prevent another world war and is not fit for purpose. Anyway, members of the UN are not mandated to comply with any suggestions or recommendations made by the organisation. For example, the Paris Agreement, an agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, says that countries need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly so that global temperature rise is below 2 degrees Celsius by 2100, and ideally under 1.5 degrees. But signing on to it is voluntary, and there are no real repercussions for non-compliance. Further, the issue of equity remains a contentious issue whereby developing countries are allowed to emit more in order to develop to the point where they can develop technologies to emit less, and it allows some countries, such as China, to exploit this.

Food Waste

A third of the food intended for human consumption – around 1.3 billion tons – is wasted or lost. This is enough to feed 3 billion people. Food waste and loss account for a third of greenhouse gas emissions annually; if it was a country, food waste would be the third highest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind China and the US.

Food waste and loss occurs at different stages in developing and developed countries; in developing countries, 40% of food waste occurs at the post-harvest and processing levels, while in developed countries, 40% of food waste occurs at the retail and consumer levels.

At the retail level, a shocking amount of food is wasted because of aesthetic reasons; in fact, in the US, more than 50% of all produce thrown away in the US is done so because it is deemed to be “too ugly” to be sold to consumers- this amounts to about 60 million tons of fruits and vegetables. This leads to food insecurity, another one of the biggest environmental problems on the list.

Biodiversity Loss

The past 50 years have seen a rapid growth of human consumption, population, global trade and urbanisation, resulting in humanity using more of the Earth’s resources than it can replenish naturally.

A recent WWF report found that the population sizes of mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians have experienced a decline of an average of 68% between 1970 and 2016. The report attributes this biodiversity loss to a variety of factors, but mainly land-use change, particularly the conversion of habitats, like forests, grasslands and mangroves, into agricultural systems. Animals such as pangolins, sharks and seahorses are significantly affected by the illegal wildlife trade, and pangolins are critically endangered because of it.

More broadly, a recent analysis has found that the sixth mass extinction of wildlife on Earth is accelerating. More than 500 species of land animals are on the brink of extinction and are likely to be lost within 20 years; the same number were lost over the whole of the last century. The scientists say that without the human destruction of nature, this rate of loss would have taken thousands of years.
5. Plastic Pollution

In 1950, the world produced more than 2 million tons of plastic per year. By 2015, this annual production swelled to 419 million tons and exacerbating plastic waste in the environment.

The world generates 300 million tonnes of plastic waste each year. Image by Vincent Kneefel

A report by science journal, Nature, determined that currently, roughly 14 million tons of plastic make their way into the oceans every year, harming wildlife habitats and the animals that live in them. The research found that if no action is taken, the plastic crisis will grow to 29 million metric tons per year by 2040. If we include microplastics into this, the cumulative amount of plastic in the ocean could reach 600 million tons by 2040.

Shockingly, National Geographic found that 91% of all plastic that has ever been made is not recycled, representing not only one of the biggest environmental problems of our lifetime, but another massive market failure. Considering that plastic takes 400 years to decompose, it will be many generations until it ceases to exist. There’s no telling what the irreversible effects of plastic pollution will have on the environment in the long run.


Every hour, forests the size of 300 football fields are cut down. By the year 2030, the planet might have only 10% of its forests; if deforestation isn’t stopped, they could all be gone in less than 100 years.

The three countries experiencing the highest levels of deforestation are Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia. The Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest – spanning 6.9 million square kilometres (2.72 million square miles) and covering around 40% of the South American continent – is also one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems and is home to about three million species of plants and animals. Despite efforts to protect forest land, legal deforestation is still rampant, and about a third of global tropical deforestation occurs in Brazil’s Amazon forest, amounting to 1.5 million hectares each year.

The world has been chopping down 10 million hectares of trees every year to make space to grow crops and livestock, and to produce materials such as paper.

Agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation, another one of the biggest environmental problems appearing on this list. Land is cleared to raise livestock or to plant other crops that are sold, such as sugar cane and palm oil. Besides for carbon sequestration, forests help to prevent soil erosion, because the tree roots bind the soil and prevent it from washing away, which also prevents landslides.

Air Pollution

One of the biggest environmental problems today is outdoor air pollution. Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that an estimated 4.2 to 7 million people die from air pollution worldwide every year and that nine out of 10 people breathe air that contains high levels of pollutants. In Africa, 258,000 people died as a result of outdoor air pollution in 2017, up from 164,000 in 1990, according to UNICEF. Causes of air pollution mostly comes from industrial sources and motor vehicles, as well as emissions from burning biomass and poor air quality due to dust storms.

In Europe, a recent report from the EU’s environment agency showed that air pollution contributed to 400 000 annual deaths in the EU in 2012 (the last year for which data was available).

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, attention has been put on the role that air pollution gases has in transporting the virus molecules. Preliminary studies have identified a positive correlation between COVID-19-related mortalities and air pollution and there is also a plausible association of airborne particles assisting the viral spread. This could have contributed to the high death toll in China, where air quality is notoriously poor, although more definitive studies must be conducted before such a conclusion can be drawn.

Melting Ice Caps and Sea Level Rise

The climate crisis is warming the Arctic more than twice as fast as anywhere else on the planet. Today, sea levels are rising more than twice as quickly as they did for most of the 20th century as a result of increasing temperatures on Earth. Seas are now rising an average of 3.2 mm per year globally and they will continue to grow up to about 0.7 metres by the end of this century. In the Arctic, the Greenland Ice Sheet poses the greatest risk for sea levels because melting land ice is the main cause of rising sea levels.

Representing arguably the biggest of the environmental problems, this is made all the more concerning considering that last year’s summer triggered the loss of 60 billion tons of ice from Greenland, enough to raise global sea levels by 2.2mm in just two months. According to satellite data, the Greenland ice sheet lost a record amount of ice in 2019: an average of a million tons per minute throughout the year, one of the biggest environmental problems that has cascading effects. If the entire Greenland ice sheet melts, sea level would rise by six metres.

Meanwhile, the Antarctic continent contributes about 1 millimetre per year to sea level rise, which is a third of the annual global increase. Additionally, the last fully intact ice shelf in Canada in the Arctic recently collapsed, having lost about 80 square kilometres – or 40% – of its area over a two-day period in late July, according to the Canadian Ice Service.

Sea level rise will have a devastating impact on those living in coastal regions: according to research and advocacy group Climate Central, sea level rise this century could flood coastal areas that are now home to 340 million to 480 million people, forcing them to migrate to safer areas and contributing to overpopulation and strain of resources in the areas they migrate to.

Bangkok (Thailand), Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), Manila (Philippines), and Dubai (United Arab Emirates) are among the cities most at risk of sea level rise and flooding.

Ocean Acidification

Global temperature rise has not only affected the surface, but it is the main cause of ocean acidification. Our oceans absorb about 30% of carbon dioxide that is released into the Earth’s atmosphere. As higher concentrations of carbon emissions are released thanks to human activities such as burning fossil fuels as well as effects of global climate change such as increased rates of wildfires, so do the amount of carbon dioxide that is absorbed back into the sea.

The smallest change in the pH scale can have a significant impact on the acidity of the ocean. Ocean acidification has devastating impacts on marine ecosystems and species, its food webs, and provoke irreversible changes in habitat quality. Once pH levels reach too low, marine organisms such as oysters, their shells and skeleton could even start to dissolve.

However, one of the biggest environmental problems from ocean acidification is coral bleaching and subsequent coral reef loss. This is a phenomenon that occurs when rising ocean temperatures disrupt the symbiotic relationship between the reefs and algae that lives within it, driving away the algae and causing coral reefs to lose their natural vibrant colours. Some scientists have estimated coral reefs are at risk of being completely wiped by 2050. Higher acidity in the ocean would obstruct coral reef systems’ ability to rebuild their exoskeletons and recover from these coral bleaching events.

Some studies have also found that ocean acidification can be linked as one of the effects of plastic pollution in the ocean. The accumulating bacteria and microorganisms derived from plastic garbage dumped in the ocean to damage marine ecosystems and contribute towards coral bleaching.
10. Agriculture

Studies have shown that the global food system is responsible for up to one third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, of which 30% comes from livestock and fisheries. Crop production releases greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide through the use of fertilisers.

60% of the world’s agricultural area is dedicated to cattle ranching, although it only makes up 24% of global meat consumption.

Agriculture not only covers a vast amount of land, but it also consumes a vast amount of freshwater, another one of the biggest environmental problems on this list. While arable lands and grazing pastures cover one-third of Earth’s land surfaces, they consume three-quarters of the world’s limited freshwater resources.

Scientists and environmentalists have continuously warned that we need to rethink our current food system; switching to a more plant-based diet would dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of the conventional agriculture industry.

Food and Water Insecurity

Rising temperatures and unsustainable farming practices has resulted in the increasing threat of water and food insecurity and taking the mantle as one of the biggest environmental problems today.

Globally, more than 68 billion tonnes of top-soil is eroded every year at a rate 100 times faster than it can naturally be replenished. Laden with biocides and fertiliser, the soil ends up in waterways where it contaminates drinking water and protected areas downstream.

Furthermore, exposed and lifeless soil is more vulnerable to wind and water erosion due to lack of root and mycelium systems that hold it together. A key contributor to soil erosion is over-tilling: although it increases productivity in the short-term by mixing in surface nutrients (e.g. fertiliser), tilling is physically destructive to the soil’s structure and in the long-term leads to soil compaction, loss of fertility and surface crust formation that worsens topsoil erosion.

With the global population expected to reach 9 billion people by mid-century, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) projects that global food demand may increase by 70% by 2050. Around the world, more than 820 million people do not get enough to eat.

The UN secretary-general António Guterres says, “Unless immediate action is taken, it is increasingly clear that there is an impending global food security emergency that could have long term impacts on hundreds of millions of adults and children.” He urged for countries to rethink their food systems and encouraged more sustainable farming practices.

In terms of water security, only 3% of the world’s water is fresh water, and two-thirds of that is tucked away in frozen glaciers or otherwise unavailable for our use. As a result, some 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to water, and a total of 2.7 billion find water scarce for at least one month of the year. By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages.

Fast Fashion and Textile Waste

The global demand for fashion and clothing has risen at an unprecedented rate that the fashion industry now accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions, becoming one of the biggest environmental problems of our time. Fashion alone produces more greenhouse gas emissions than both the aviation and shipping sectors combined, and nearly 20% of global wastewater, or around 93 billion cubic metres from textile dyeing, according to the UN Environment Programme.

What’s more, the world at least generated an estimated 92 million tonnes of textiles waste every year and that number is expected to soar up to 134 million tonnes a year by 2030. Discarded clothing and textile waste ends up in landfills, most of which is non-biodegradable, while microplastics from clothing materials such as polyester, nylon, polyamide, acrylic and other synthetic materials, is leeched into soil and nearby water sources. Monumental amounts of clothing textile are also dumped in less developed countries as seen with Chile’s Atacama, the driest desert in the world, where at least 39,000 tonnes of textile waste from other nations are left there to rot.

Of the 100 billion garments produced each year, 92 million tonnes end up in landfills.

This rapidly growing issue is only exacerbated by the ever-expanding fast fashion business model, in which companies relies on cheap and speedy production of low quality clothing to meet the latest and newest trends. While the United Nations Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action sees signatory fashion and textile companies to commit to achieving net zero emission by 2050, a majority of businesses around the world have yet to address their roles in climate change.

While these are some of the biggest environmental problems plaguing our planet, there are many more that have not been mentioned, including overfishing, urban sprawl, toxic superfund sites and land use changes. While there are many facets that need to be considered in formulating a response to the crisis, they must be coordinated, practical and far-reaching enough to make enough of a difference.


Over three billion people around the world rely on fish as their primary source of protein. About 12% of the world relies upon fisheries in some form or another, with 90% of these being small-scale fishermen – think a small crew in a boat, not a ship, using small nets or even rods and reels and lures not too different from the kind you probably use. Of the 18.9 million fishermen in the world, 90% of them fall under the latter category.

Most people consume approximately twice as much food as they did 50 years ago and there are four times as many people on earth as there were at the close of the 1960s. This is one driver of the 30% of commercially fished waters being classified as being ‘overfished’. This means that the stock of available fishing waters is being depleted faster than it can be replaced.

Overfishing comes with detrimental effects on the environment, including increased algae in the water, destruction of fishing communities, ocean littering as well as extremely high rates of biodiversity loss.

As part of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 14), the UN and FAO are working towards maintaining the proportion of fish stocks within biologically sustainable levels. This, however, requires much stricter regulations of the world’s oceans than the ones already in place. In July 2022, the WTO banned fishing subsidies to reduce global overfishing in a historic deal. Indeed, subsidies for fuel, fishing gear, and building new vessels, only incentivise overfishing and represent thus a huge problem.

Cobalt Mining

Cobalt is quickly becoming the defining example of the mineral conundrum at the heart of the renewable energy transition. As a key component of battery materials that power electric vehicles (EVs), cobalt is facing a sustained surge in demand as decarbonisation efforts progress. The world’s largest cobalt supplier is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where it is estimated that up to a fifth of the production is produced through artisanal miners.

Cobalt mining, however, is associated with dangerous workers’ exploitation and other serious environmental and social issues. The environmental costs of cobalt mining activities are also substantial. Southern regions of the DRC are not only home to cobalt and copper, but also large amounts of uranium. In mining regions, scientists have made note of high radioactivity levels. In addition, mineral mining, similar to other industrial mining efforts, often produces pollution that leaches into neighbouring rivers and water sources. Dust from pulverised rock is known to cause breathing problems for local communities as well.

What Can I Do?
On A Personal Level

Ways to approach climate action within our personal lives (hint – it evolves personal action but is not focused on small behavioural changes, which whilst worthwhile will not get us there):Joining a community can be one of the best ways to increase your impact.
First, it can enable you to make hundreds of connections in one go.
Second, a group of people working together can have more impact than individuals. If you are not already, take action by becoming an EO Member to support our mission to encourage a billion climate activists.
If you’re a younger read ask your parents to take action by bringing your whole family on board as a Family Member.
Reflect on the concept of Effective Altruism, a project that aims to find the best ways to help others, and put them into practice.

On A Professional Level

Ways to approach climate action within the workplace:Maintain your career path but consider donating a portion of your income to organisations that are focused on achieving meaningful & impactful goals and call out your boss if the company or organisation you work for does not have clear policies that will result in reduced harm to the environment and a pathway to Net Zero.
Ask your boss to support EO by bringing the whole team onboard with EO company membership – and take action together.
Reconsider your career path, with excellent advice here.

On A Political Level

Ways to approach climate action as a voter or political actor (even if you can’t vote):Protest – make your feelings known – become a vocal and passionate advocate with friends and family (without being over pushy) of the need for climate action. We need a billion activists to turn this ship around.
Join organisations that are organising climate actions and protests locally, whether in your city, district, or even at school.
Vote (if you can) for politicians who will champion effective climate action by governments.
Vote for parties or organisations that espouse self-reform and the adoption of ‘Ministers of the Future’ into government.

Deena Robinson
Deena was previously a journalist in South Africa and before that, dabbled in radio and print journalism in Australia. She has a Bachelor's Degree in Journalism and Criminology and has a passion for the environment and how it intersects with social issues.