Comment Writer Samir Sehgal details the reinstatement of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s political rights, arguing that after years of corruption scandals and the COVID disaster under Bolsonaro hope may be on the horizon for Brazilians
After three failed attempts, in 2002, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, more commonly referred to as Lula, won the Presidency of Brazil. Lula first attempted a run in the 1989 Elections, just four years after the end of Brazil’s twenty one year military dictatorship, finishing in a close second to conservative Fernando Collor, who would later resign the Presidency under threat of impeachment related to corruption allegations. He later admitted to colluding with Rede Globo television network, the largest in Latin America and second largest in the world, to smear Lula and the Workers’ Party he represented.
Lula was no stranger to class conflict, having previously been an active figure in the labour movement under the dictatorship. He rose through the ranks to become President of the Steel Workers’ Union in Sao Paulo, using his position to apply pressure to the regime through pickets and large strike actions, for which he was briefly imprisoned. Unfortunately for Lula and Brazil, this would not be the last time he saw the inside of a Prison cell.
After his stint in prison, Lula and his comrades founded the Workers’ Party (PT), an unabashedly socialist party in a country where leftist activism often resulted in imprisonment or worse, and the CUT trade union centre which united the various unions of the country under one umbrella organisation. Lula did not stop there, he ran for Congress in the 1986 Elections, winning the most votes of any of the candidates in the country. In this new Congress, Lula and the PT were given a role in drafting a new constitution but were nevertheless disappointed with its lackluster enshrinement of farmer’s rights. However, in the spirit of compromise, Lula and the PT supported the constitution, after ensuring strong constitutional guarantees for industrial workers’ rights. By this point in his career, Lula was the congressional leader of the PT in Congress and its National President, making him the ideal candidate for the Presidential Elections.
After the disastrous Presidency of conservative Fernando Cardoso (1995-2002) which saw the deepening of privatisation programs, taking particular aim at the steel industry and therefore Lula’s old union and the devaluing the Brazilian currency, the Real, which led to a financial crisis, the country was ready for a shift in political ideology. Lula took the initiative, pointing out that public debt had risen by 25% despite the austerity policies and ultimately beating Cardoso’s would-be successor by a 23% margin, giving Brazil its first ever socialist government.
Lula’s presidency was marked by a sudden turn in Brazil’s fortunes, becoming the standard-bearer for a new and distinctly working-class social democracy, not in the strain of Hugo Chávez nor Tony Blair. Brazil paid off its debts to the IMF in 2005, becoming a net creditor by 2008, lifting Brazil’s credit score from ‘speculative’ to ‘investment’ grade. Lula’s government also ran consistent surpluses continuing into the 2008 Financial Crisis, while keeping inflation below the Central Bank’s targets. More shockingly, simultaneously Lula was able to massively alleviate the suffering of those in poverty in Brazil. Through programs such as Fome Zero and Bolsa Família, the welfare state was greatly expanded, lifting twenty million people out of acute poverty.
In a fashion similar to the United States, Presidents are limited to two consecutive terms, therefore despite Lula’s huge popularity, he stepped aside for his Chief of Staff Dilma Rousseff, who would win election and re-election in 2010 and 2014 respectively. It was under the Presidency of Lula’s successor that the corruption scandal that engulfed Brazil’s political class would come to light. Known as Lava Jato or ‘Operation Car Wash,’ to summarise, the scandal mostly surrounded the state-owned oil company Petrobas, whose executives had received bribes in return for awarding contracts to construction firms at inflated prices, the loser in the deal being the taxpayer. The investigation initially revolved around allegations of money laundering, however, the operation expanded massively in scope to cover corporate embezzlement as well as bribery of political officials. The amount of funds was also astronomical in scale, with an estimated US$2.5 billion being misappropriated, with penalties in the tens of millions being repaid by the US SEC and DOJ, who were also implicated, and over half a billion US$ directly from the Brazilian government. Politicians across Brazil’s establishment were targeted for indictments, including Rousseff, her Vice President at the time, Michel Temer, our old friend former President Fernando Collor and of course, former President Lula.
Initially the ‘Car Wash taskforce’ was widely viewed as apolitical and positive for Brazil’s future. It was thought that the task force had exposed corruption and demonstrated that the political elites and business magnates of Brazil were not above public scrutiny and the hammer of the people’s justice. This feeling was short-lived. Glenn Greenwald, then an investigative reporter for The Intercept intercepted documents in 2019 that allegedly implicated the Attorney General, supreme court judge, and former head of the ‘Car wash taskforce’ Sérgio Moro in a political hit against Lula, Rousseff, and the Workers’ party. The documents appear to show that Moro had passed ‘advice, investigative leads, and inside information to the prosecutors’ so as to steer both the judicial system and the public towards Lula and the PT and away from the corporations and conservative figures indicted. The documents note the specific intention to ‘prevent Lula’s Workers’ Party from winning the 2018 elections.’ In an example of alleged judicial malpractice, Moro reportedly wiretapped Lula’s and then-president Dilma Rousseff’s phones, then leaked recordings of their conversation to the media. To me, it seems this was but a sliver of the bullying and ‘judicial terror’ extolled by Moro, not limited to pre-emptive detention and threats to family members of PT officials.
You see, Operation Car Wash must be taken into context within the political climate of 2015-2018 in Brazil. The economy entered recession in 2015 as a result of the collapse in global oil prices in the previous year leading to economic anxiety, only for Lava Jato to provide an ideal place to vent frustrations, the political class, and ‘the system’ more generally, which led to demonstrations across the country. Rousseff’s polling numbers collapsed but that was not the least of her worries, for she was impeached by a Congress controlled by the right-wing parties in 2016, to be replaced by her conservative VP Temer who used his new position to gut protections for the Amazon rainforest and allow the forceful removal of native peoples to the Amazon territories.
This chaos gave space for the far-right, a common theme for anyone with an eye on international or domestic politics over the past decade. The face of that far-right was Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain during the dictatorship, a proponent of Christian theocracy, a renowned homophobe, misogynist, proponent of political violence against his opponents and someone who has previously supported using birth control on poor people. Bolsonaro’s rise was meteoric, however, after Lula declared his intention to seek a third non-consecutive term, Bolsonaro’s polling began to falter to the benefit of Lula who led on a promise to restore Brazilian social democracy. It was then when the supreme court imprisoned Lula and banned him from politics, leading to Brazil electing an open fascist as President in 2018. Moro would soon leave the courtroom serving as Bolsonaro’s first Attorney General where they proceeded to dismantle Brazil’s strict gun laws, gut pensions and welfare, further disenfranchise Brazil’s native peoples as well as Brazil’s sexual and ethnic minorities. Most strikingly has been Brazil’s horrendous response to the Covid-19 Pandemic, fostering over 300,000 deaths and 12.5 million cases nationwide, in what Lula would dub the ‘biggest genocide in our history.’
Amongst this dire situation, a country broken by an incompetent fascist government, with an economy in tailspin and nothing short of a ‘global pariah,’ as it was described by Bolsonaro’s own foreign minister, there was a ray of light. On March 8th all of Lula’s convictions were overturned and 5 days later Moro was officially made a suspect for judicial corruption, simultaneously making Lula available for election in next year’s presidential elections. His first course of action was to make a speech at the metalworkers’ union headquarters in São Paulo where all those years ago he had risen to national prominence as their union President. Lula made clear he intended to make the botched Covid-19 response a central tenet of his campaign, no doubt taking inspiration from Joe Biden’s victory against demagogue Donald Trump last year, and the Brazilian people seem to agree with Lula, with recent polling giving him as much as a 10% lead over Bolsonaro.
In conclusion, the story of Lula is one of a movement of workers against the forces of reaction but most importantly against the institutions of liberalism. It was not by tanks and bullets that Lula’s movement was deposed but gavel and articles. It was the centrist, the moderate, and the ‘sensible’ figure that opened the door to Bolsonaro and his politics. Brazil’s neighbour Bolivia experienced a similar phenomenon, with a leftist government overthrown by flimsy ‘constitutional’ means only for the socialists to storm to power in last year’s elections. All the while the international press and major organisations like the OAS celebrated the coups. If Lula is to return to power he should take a leaf out of Bolivia’s book and ignore the international liberal order and ensure those who sought to undermine the will of the people face justice, for as long as Lula represents progressive change, the witch hunt will never cease.
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