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Maduro Like Bolsonaro? Lula's Double Standard On Democracy

Brazilian President Lula da Silva's goodwill toward the Venezuela's President Maduro, in spite of the signs Maduro might hijack the 2024 general elections, suggests Lula has a problem with Western-style liberal democracy, even after he has criticized his predecessor for the same thing.

image of the President of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, during a press conference alongside the President of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva​.

May 29, 2023, Brasilia: The President of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, during a press conference alongside the President of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Frederico Brasil/ZUMA
Marcelo Cantelmi
BUENOS AIRES — Almost simultaneously on the last day of June, Brazil and Venezuela blocked the political paths of two prominent opponents of the countries' socialist governments. In Brazil, ex-president Jair Bolsonaro, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's right-wing predecessor and often dubbed the "tropical Trump," was banned for eight years from holding public office, which means he could not run in the 2026 presidential elections or the municipal polls of 2024 and 2028.

In Venezuela, authorities slapped a 15-year ban on María Corina Machado, a former legislator and a favorite to unite the opposition in the general elections scheduled for 2024. She was thought to have a good chance of stopping President Nicolás Maduro's new attempt at reelection.

Our great Argentine novelist Jorge Luis Borges observed, a little ironically, that history loves symmetry, though in this case the coincidence is, frankly, haphazard. The big difference between the disqualifications is that in Brazil, the judiciary acted against Bolsonaro in a country where the due process of law, and thus personal rights and pertinent evidence, are respected.

Venezuela, which the Left has governed for 20 years with a mix of iffy elections and brazen shenanigans, emulated its friend and ally, Nicaragua, which is excluding all opposition from politics to ensure the regime's perpetuation in power. The ban on Machado – a member of the Vente Venezuela (Come On Venezuela) party – was political, though clear reasons were not given. In Brazil, the judiciary was doing its job, while in Venezuela, despotism was briskly at work.

This coincidental tale of two cities is interesting for exposing the enduring immaturity and contradictions that afflict our region. For while Lula welcomed the triumph of legality in Brazil, he decided, perniciously, to side with the Bolivarian state and against the law in Venezuela, by keeping quiet about Machado.

Just last May, he cheerfully hugged Maduro at a summit in Brasília, welcoming him back into the regional fold and declaring his faith in Maduro's democratic credentials. Charges against Venezuela's rights violations were part of a "hostile narrative," he said then, regardless of all the reports on unjustified jailings and informal prisons.

He has gone further now, comparing those who challenge the legitimacy of Maduro's 2018 reelection, with the crowd of Bolsonaro supporters who stormed public buildings in Brasília on Jan. 8. "Didn't we have a citizen here who wouldn't accept the electoral results," Lula asked most recently, "didn't we have a little man who tried to carry out a coup on January 8? Some people just won't accept election results."

Old grudges

The president's vision of events is not entirely sound in structure. When he was taken to court for suspected involvement in acts of corruption, he claimed it was a bid to prevent him from running in the 2018 presidential elections. His supporters insist he would have won those elections, in spite of the economic wreck left by his successor, Dilma Rousseff. It wouldn't be far-fetched to say Maduro is doing the same with Machado, though without the legal rituals of the Brazilian prosecutor Sergio Moro, all of which were revoked by the supreme court.

Today, legitimacy is the fruit of fundamental, democratic values

Has Lula kept quiet about Machado simply because she is a liberal, not a socialist, or is his bombastic support for regional socialism an awkward bid to distract from the spending cuts the state of the budget will impose on him? Is he doing all this for ideology's sake, or simply to dissociate himself from Bolsonaro's hatred of the Venezuelan regime?

Sources from the Worker's Party have said his warm words for the ruler of Venezuela had been misconstrued. What they were in fact, they say, was a bid through visible respect and cordiality to inspire that leader to rise to the same level and push his country back onto the path of democratic governance.

photo of the President of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, embracing the President of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva\u200b.

The President of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, embracing the President of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Nicolás Maduro/Instagram

Political quagmire

It was a hint then, or part of a subtle strategy. Maduro missed both in any case, as the warm embrace in Brasília did nothing to soften him. Upon returning home, he ordered a clean-out of the National Electoral Council, sacking all opposition directors and handing the authority over to his power-broking wife Cilia. The barely-legal ban on Machado followed soon after, effectively removing, for now, the prospect of a free and fair election next year.

Venezuela may become Lula's weakness. Government sources have told me he has ignored the colleagues and friends who have advised him to steer clear of the Venezuelan quagmire, as it could drain political capital. Indeed, he has rattled nerves further by observing that "democracy is a relative concept."

He used to say that his prosecution and efforts to exclude him from front-line politics were harmful to Brazilian democracy, and recently asked, where were his present critics when his rights were being violated?

He is resentful over his imprisonment then, and rancor (holding a grudge) may have blinded him to the fact that today, legitimacy is the fruit of fundamental, democratic values. These are not relative and cannot be reduced to appearances — like the sham elections held in many states — wherein reason is subjected to cynical opportunism.

Socialism is not an alibi

Machado recently told Clarín she may, in time, publicly urge the Brazilian president and other leftist presidents to act on their pledge (made last April in Bogotá) to pressure "their friend" Maduro to assure free and fair elections. She has said she would not obey the ban, and will thus need all the backing she can get in the fight to prevent Maduro from perpetuating himself in power.

By now, these leaders should have understood the dead weight of populist methods. Socialism shouldn't be used as an alibi to defend rights abuses, as Chile's President Gabriel Boric, a critic of Venezuela, has said.

Lula has clumsily nuanced his neutral posture over the ban, recently telling Argentina's President Fernández at the Mercosur summit, "we're not hiding Venezuela's problems," but that he wasn't entirely familiar with details of the Machado affair and in any case, "you cannot count some people's shortcomings but not those of others."

One wonders whether Lula is uncomfortable with liberal democracy. It is a matter of conviction, not of "knowing the details."

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Wagner Group 2.0: Why Russia's Mercenary System Is Here To Stay

Many had predicted that the death last month of Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin meant the demise of the mercenary outfit. Yet signs in recent days say the private military outfit is active again in Ukraine, a reminder of the Kremlin's interest in continuing a private fighting formula that has worked all around the world.

Photograph of a Wagner soldier in the city of Artyomovsk, holding a rifle.

Ukraine, Donetsk Region - March 24, 2023: A Wagner Group soldier guards an area in the city of Artyomovsk (Bakhmut).

Cameron Manley


“Let’s not forget that there is no Wagner Group anymore,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had declared. “Such an organization, in our eyes, does not exist.”

The August 25 statement from came less than two days after the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the infamous Russian mercenary outfit, as questions swirled about Wagner's fate after its crucial role in the war in Ukraine and other Russian military missions around the world.

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How could an independent military outfit survive after its charismatic founder's death? It seemed highly unlikely that President Vladimir Putin would allow the survival of a group after had launched a short-lived coup attempt in late June that most outside observers believe led to Prigozhin's private airplane being shot down by Russian forces on August 23.

"Wagner is over,” said the Kremlin critic and Russian political commentator Maksim Katz. “The group can’t keep going. There’s the possibility that they could continue in parts or with Defense Ministry contracts, but the group only worked with an unofficial agreement between Putin and Prigozhin.”

Yet barely a month later, and there are already multiple signs that the Wagner phoenix is rising from the ashes.

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