SÃO PAULO – Ciro Gomes has long had one of the sharpest tongues in Brazilian politics. And he was clearly in top form when he spoke to AQ about his presidential campaign, and his rivals, in this October’s election.
Third in most polls, with about 10 percent of the vote, Gomes is currently seen by analysts as the most likely candidate from the Brazilian left to make a second-round runoff. But he is unconvinced by the label. “My project is the center-left. Very clearly,” Gomes said. “Brazil does not need, and cannot endure, a leftist government.”
In an hour-long interview, Gomes was also critical of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is currently in jail on corruption charges, and said he did not expect his endorsement in the first round. He provided extensive details on his economic agenda, evoked Adolf Hitler while discussing right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro, and offered “total” support for the “Car Wash” corruption investigation.
A lawyer by training, Gomes has held numerous positions in government, including finance minister, governor, and mayor. Now 60, he says he’s prepared for the top job. “I’m going to win the election,” he said. “You’re talking to the next president of Brazil.”
This interview, which took place on June 14 in São Paulo, has been edited for brevity and clarity. Hyperlinks have also been inserted for readers seeking additional context.
AQ: I would like to speak a little bit about your relationship with the market, with investors, especially foreign investors. With regard to foreign investors, what would be your main areas of focus?
CIRO GOMES: So, Brazil traditionally welcomes foreign direct investment, right? There are American companies that have been here for over a century. There are Dutch companies, there are Swedish companies, there are German and Italian companies. They are very welcome. We will continue this tradition of being receptive to foreign investment.
My concern is that gross capital formation in Brazil is very low, 15 percent of GDP at most. We are feeding the illusion that we will be saved from this contradiction by foreign investments, especially in non-tradable sectors. This is unsustainable. Why? Because when you invest in non-tradables you generate an external liability, in dollars, to be remunerated in dollars, and you do not have the dollars to pay that.
AQ: Your government would seek to reduce the level of imports?
GOMES: Yes. It is natural for a country like Brazil to worry about the fact that in 1980, 30 percent of our GDP came from our own industry. Today only 11 percent of Brazilian GDP comes from manufacturing. The idea that we are going to pay for a modern mode of consumption – air conditioning, mobile phones, fibers, petrochemicals … all imported – with iron ore, soya and crude oil, is illusory. It does not add up.
Today President Donald Trump is discussing restrictions on semi-finished Brazilian and European products. Is America, one of the largest industrial economies in the world, starting a trade war with the world and Brazil? Is a country like ours, with 207 million people, going to be vulnerable? We have to have an industrial policy of foreign trade.
AQ: Tell us more about your macroeconomic plans.
GOMES: Unlike the neoliberal myth, the level of a country’s gross capital formation is not the result of chance, it is a consequence of political arrangements, institutional arrangements that the government does or does not make. In Brazil, there are some obvious movements. For example, a funded pension scheme. For example, a more progressive tax system, which taxes investment less, taxes consumption less, and taxes the speculative retention of big investments in property and capital more.
AQ: And the Ciro Gomes who said (in 2002) “I don’t give a damn about the market”?
GOMES: I am the same person, but that was (taken out of context) … What if Congress supports (a proposal) and the market does not? I’ll bargain with everyone (but) I do not accept, simply and purely, the tutelage of the financial market. I have no prejudice, no antagonism, no group of interests, but this, as far as I am concerned, is a democracy. And democracy means power to the people.
AQ: Let’s talk a little bit about property rights. Today, investors do not care much whether the politician is center-right or center-left, but they do believe property rights are very important. You told Reuters you would reverse the privatization of oil assets if elected. Is that correct?
GOMES: Did not you see anything else besides that statement? Did you not see a comma, did you not see it (would be done) with the proper compensation? The rest is intrigue. I answer because I think and I speak.
Our country made a law, which I helped to write, called the Lei de Partilha. Under this law, we give 70 percent of the free reserves to foreign capital. We reserve 30 percent of the reserves for Petrobras and the national market. I am convinced that Brazil is living under a coup. What does the coupmonger (NOTE: Gomes was apparently referring to President Michel Temer) do? He approves a law, repealing the Lei de Partilha.
To be clear to the foreign investor, I am announcing and I will repeat to you: all Brazilian oil fields that were sold abroad after the coup and after the repeal of the Lei de Partilha, shall be expropriated – with due compensation.
AQ: Are you concerned about the reaction?
GOMES: Yes, I understand that there will be a reaction, but my boss is the Brazilian people. I have no prejudice against anyone, I have the greatest respect for everyone, but this is a country that will not let itself be pushed back to the international division of labor of the 19th century.
AQ: Do you believe pension reform is necessary?
AQ: What is the difference between your plan and Temer’s?
GOMES: I’d say I’m the only one who has a plan … Brazil is one of three countries in Latin America that insists on a distribution system for social security. Argentina, Venezuela and Brazil. It is not by chance that the three are in absolute illiquidity. And one of the strategic reasons for this illiquidity is the illusion that this system works with old, aging demographics, and more than that, operating in an environment of informality, automation, mechanization, and brutal unemployment rates.
When we set it up there were six workers employed to finance a retiree. Today, there are one and a half employed workers on average to finance a 73-year life expectancy. This system is not reformable.
We need to evolve into the globally preferred system, which is the capitalization system. So this is the step I’m going to propose. It is said this step is not possible, which is part ideological and part ignorance.
AQ: There will probably be room for just one candidate from the left in the second round. Will it be you or a PT (Workers’ Party) candidate endorsed by Lula?
GOMES: I think Lula will endorse a PT candidate and it will be a disaster for them.
AQ: Do you have the ability to unite the left?
GOMES: That is not my project. My project is the center-left. Very clearly. Brazil does not need, and cannot endure, a leftist government. Brazil needs a project that brings together the practical interests of those who produce and the practical interests of those who work.
AQ: You have been publicly critical of Lula. Why? What specifically did he do wrong?
GOMES: Lula for me is not a myth. Lula is an old friend of 30 years with whom I agree and disagree. I think Lula had made some serious mistakes throughout his life. For example, the PT, under Lula’s direction, was against the Constituent Assembly. And today the PT is against all changes to our Constitution. That is, he is defending a constitution that he refused to sign.
We stabilized the currency after 20 years of excessive inflation, and the PT were against it.
AQ: Did Lula have an opportunity to do more against corruption during his rule?
GOMES: Lula had all the power in the world to reform the country. And he opted for a project of (building) power. And that has been the Brazilian tragedy.
AQ: As president, what would be your attitude with respect to the “Car Wash” investigation?
GOMES: Support. Total support. Brazil is trying to establish that impunity is no longer the reward for crime by the powerful sector of our elite. But we’re still very far from that.
AQ: Is Jair Bolsonaro a threat to democracy? Why?
GOMES: Not so much him, he is a caricature. Luckily for us, he is very unprepared, very inconsistent, very baseless.
I have reread Churchill’s biographies. Churchill saw in advance what Hitler represented. Chamberlain made deals with Hitler. And Churchill suffered the bread that the devil kneaded. He saw the danger of the Nazi fascist snake that led to World War II. Of course, it is an exaggerated comparison, but the values of intolerance, hate, misogyny, discrimination against gays and women, militarism, all this is very powerfully there, galvanizing around this caricature. So it is less about him and more about the egg of the serpent of Nazism, of fascism, that we must treat as a serious threat.
AQ: Is there a risk of a new dictatorship?
GOMES: Yes, of course. We are in Latin America.
AQ: Polls show that you might face Bolsonaro in the second round.
GOMES: I would defeat him. Me and anyone else, I guess. The majority of Brazil is democratic.
AQ: How would it go? Do you believe that you can easily win?
GOMES: Not easily. But I believe it is possible and more than possible, it is necessary to defeat the set of ideas that he represents.
GOMES: He represents more the negation of politics, more the protest against the collapse of widespread corruption, more the nonsense of unconventional, politically incorrect language, as an expression of protest. But the real vote is not a protest vote.
And he now, wisely, is avoiding scrutiny. He does not go to the discussions, he does not go to the newspapers, he does not go to the debates. But in the second round, there will be no escape.
Sandy is an independent journalist based in Rio de Janeiro who reports on politics and human rights in Brazil for Time Magazine, Al Jazeera, the BBC and other outlets. He tweets @mattsandy.