File picture: Reuters/Washington Alves – Former Brazilian president and current presidential candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva kisses the hand of a child during a march in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais state, Brazil, last week.
By Paulina Villegas
They camped outside the prison for 580 days. Each morning, they chanted, “Good morning, president”, loudly, so he could hear them.
When former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva emerged from the federal police headquarters in Curitiba on November 8, 2019, freed after serving more than 19 months on charges of corruption and money laundering, the hundreds of supporters waiting for him erupted in cheers. And the lion of the Latin American Left resumed campaigning for the office he held from 2003 to 2010.
“They didn’t lock up a man,” he declared that day. “They tried to kill an idea. But an idea can’t be destroyed.”
Now, Lula, who was convicted in Brazil’s sprawling Operation Car Wash scandal but released when the Supreme Court ruled that he had been denied due process, is on the verge of completing a stunning political resurrection. He won the first round of the presidential election this month, with more than 48% of the vote, and polls show him ahead for the second round against President Jair Bolsonaro on Sunday.
Lula, who turns 77 on Thursday, holds a singular place in Brazil’s history. His Workers’ Party, which he co-founded in 1980, when the country was ruled by a military dictatorship, has won four of the nine presidential elections since democracy was restored in 1985. During his two terms, Lula himself presided over a period of prosperity, fuelled by a global commodities boom that lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty. Former US president Barack Obama once called him “the most popular politician on Earth”.
“He is in every Brazilian,” said Duke University historian John French, the author of “Lula and His Politics of Cunning: From Metalworker to President of Brazil.” “Everyone recognizes his deep voice, his smile, his sense of humor.”
Beloved by millions of Brazilians and despised by millions of others, Lula is typically described in hyperbolic terms: He’s a champion of social justice and protector of the poor – or a corrupt leftist radical who would lead the country to financial and moral bankruptcy.
“Lula is the people,” said Juno Rodrigues Silva, the owner of the restaurant Gijo’s in São Bernardo do Campo on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, its walls covered with pictures of the former president.
“He has a love for the people and people adore him back, and, throughout the years, he has remained the same person.”
Silva, who met Lula in 1969 when both were metalworkers, was the only person received at Lula’s São Bernardo apartment on the eve of the 2002 election, in which he won the presidency. He had asked Silva to bring him beef chops and wine, according to the newspaper Folha de S Paulo.
Years later, they remain friends, Silva said.
“When he was president, there was no lack of rice, no lack of beans. He wanted everyone to eat barbecue every day,” he said. “Today, people are abandoned, eating garbage, picking up leftovers from the trash, and buying just the bones. This is what Bolsonaro serves to the poor people of Brazil.”
But to Deborah Guzman, Lula represents everything she rejects: Same-sex marriage, communism and drugs. The 45-year-old homemaker in Brasilia cited false claims on social media that Lula planned to legalise drugs and persecute or ban religion. (His campaign has denied any such plans.)
Guzman also pointed to the corruption in Lula’s and other Workers’ Party administrations. “Only in Brazil can we consider re-electing a man who was in prison, and who wants to turn this place into Venezuela,” she said. She said she did not believe the annulment of his conviction meant he was not guilty.
Lula has been campaigning since he left prison three years ago to reassert himself as Brazil’s dominant political figure, giving speeches, holding rallies and forging alliances in the Brazilian Congress. Legions of supporters have been elated that the man who they insist was the victim of a right-wing political ambush was back.
Lula has pitched himself to voters as the one who will restore stability after the nearly four chaotic and isolating years of Bolsonaro. He promises to tackle hunger and homelessness. He has vowed to raise taxes on the rich, increase the minimum wage, and expand social spending to lift millions out of poverty. He has vowed to make the environment a priority by cracking down on illegal mining and other crimes in the Amazon and reversing Bolsonaro-era policies that have weakened protections and enabled growing deforestation.
But he could not legally run for office until the Supreme Court annulled his conviction last year. The court ruled that the trial judge had been biased against Lula.
The Operation Car Wash investigation into bribery and corruption has ensnared scores of politicians and business executives in Brazil and across Latin America. Lula was convicted of receiving more than $1 million of bribes in the form of a beachfront apartment. He denied the property was his.
To many Brazilians, Lula is a thief who was released on a technicality, not because of innocence. The revelations left him and the Workers’ Party weakened and fuelled massive protests that led to the 2016 impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff.
Lula’s message of social mobility and empowerment continues to resonate with millions in a country increasingly marked by growing inequality.
He began his political career as a metalworkers union leader in the 1970s and ‘80s, when he helped organise massive strikes in defiance of the dictatorship.
French said Lula’s stamina, charisma and ability to bring people together enabled him to defy the authoritarian state, cemented his influence and opened his path to the presidency.
“His capacity to speak with, not at, people, and to create shared political meaning was fundamental to his political triumphs,” he said.
But it is Lula’s story that, for many Brazilians, embodies the hopes and dreams of the nation: striving against all adverse circumstances, surmounting crisis after crisis, always growing. He was born to illiterate parents, left school after the fifth grade and shined shoes as a child but became a skilled metalworker, a powerful union leader and eventually president.
As Brazil’s first working-class president, Lula made the struggles of the poor central to his government; he pushed social initiatives credited with lifting millions out of poverty while enabling more low-income and Afro-Brazilian students to access higher education. He left office with an approval rating above 85%.
“Not only did he put three meals a day on millions of poor people’s plates, but they were then also able to start buying cars, access a loan for a house, which invigorated the economy even more,” said the journalist Fernando Morais, the author of the biography “Lula”.
Years after Lula left office, many Brazilians credit his social and economic policies with transforming their lives. Jorge Freire, born into a poor Afro-Brazilian family, said Lula’s quota programmes for underserved students enabled him to attend university.
“I am a fruit of Lula,” said Freire, a 39-year-old cultural event producer. “He is the reason I am middle-class now,” he said.
Critics say Lula did little to dismantle power structures that allowed systemic corruption to persist, structures from which they say he benefited. They credit much of his success to an accident of timing: His administration coincided with a regional commodities boom that fuelled economic development and helped pay for social programmes.
After the first-round of this year’s election, on October 2, Lula was endorsed by two key politicians: Simone Tebet, who finished third in the first round with 4% of the vote, and former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, an influential figure in business circles who said he would vote for Lula in the name of “a history of struggle for democracy and social inclusion.”
Villegas is a reporter overing breaking news and national enterprise stories for The Washington Post. Gabriela Sá Pessoa in São Paulo contributed to this report.