April 7th was a momentous day in modern Brazilian politics. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, affectionately known as ‘Lula’ to his many supporters, turned himself in to authorities outside of the place where his career in politics began four decades before, the ABC Metalworkers Union in a suburb of Sao Paolo
Da Silva made a final impassioned speech to the large crowd that separated him from law enforcement, who had been waiting to take him into custody since 5 PM on Friday, April 6th. The peaceful standoff came after an order from Sergio Moro, a federal judge, that the former president turn himself in to begin a 12 year prison sentence on corruption charges.
It was a poignant moment, not only because it seemed to signal the end of an era, but also because it came as the former President mourned his deceased wife on what would have been her 68th birthday.
“I will not stop, because I’m not a human being,” Lula told his supporters, “I’m an idea, an idea that is mixed with all of your ideas.”
The arrest order came after the country’s Supreme Court split six to five, denying da Silva’s request to remain free while he appeals his conviction as part of the ongoing “Car Wash” (Lava Jato) investigations, which began as an inquiry into corruption at the state owned oil company, Petrobras. Interestingly, the investigations came about as a direct result of anti-corruption legislation passed by Lula and his successor in office, Dilma Rousseff.
The investigation soon widened to include members of the Workers Party that Lula founded and, eventually, the former President himself. The case that led to his imprisonment concerned a large engineering and construction firm, OAS, who were given contracts in exchange for what the court was told was a free condo.
When one looks for pictures of this building that we are told the Chief Executive of a country of almost 208 million risked his freedom and reputation for, it’s revealed as a somewhat run down looking triplex in the coastal town of Guaruja.
After Lula was taken into custody, activists from the homeless workers movement (MTST) occupied the Guaruja apartment and one of their leaders Guilherme Boulos, took to social media to ask a pertinent question, “If [the apartment] is Lula’s, the people can stay. If not, then why is he in jail?”
As recently explained by historian and journalist Vijay Prashad, the case against Lula mainly relied on one untrustworthy witness, “A convicted executive of OAS whose prison sentence was reduced for his statement against the leader, gave evidence against Mr. Lula Da Silva. The presiding judge in the trial, who has demonstrated on wiretaps his partisanship against Mr. Lula da Silva, accepted the statement and convicted him. Appeals were denied and considerations of habeas corpus rejected.”
The former President’s arrest follows the 2016 impeachment of Rousseff, who was president from 2011 to 2015, after Lula finished his second term. She was removed from office for what some have called ‘creative accounting’ practices, drawing on state institutions to cover temporary budget shortfalls in social programs.
Meanwhile, the current, unelected, president of Brazil, Michael Temer, appointed after Rouseff’s impeachment, has managed to maintain his office despite numerous accusations of much worse corruption, including an incident in which an aide of his, Rodrigo Rocha Loures, surrendered a bag full of cash to federal police, who alleged it was, “hush money meant for former House Speaker Eduardo Cunha.”
At the end of March, Cunha, who led the impeachment process against Rousseff and was also caught up in ‘Operation Car Wash’, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for taking $1.5 million in bribes, “for his role in an oil exploration contract Petrobras struck in the African nation of Benin”.
Lula, 72, who was still leading by a substantial margin in national polls in his stalled run for a third term in office in the election to be held in October when he was taken into custody, faces more corruption charges in a separate case, meaning his time at the pinnacle of Brazil’s politics could be drawing to a close. This leaves the country’s embattled left with one main question: what comes next?
For the Workers Party, the battle will continue, at least for the time being, as expressed in a statement the PT made shortly before Lula’s detention that said, in part, “The Brazilian people have a right to vote for Lula, the candidate of hope. The Workers’ Party will defend his candidacy in the streets in all circumstances, until the end.”
This loyalty may be a tactical mistake, but it’s still understandable, not only among his political colleagues but also and more crucially, his supporters. Besides creating the Bolsa Familia to offer cash support to the country’s poorest citizens, Lula is credited with education reforms that have already led to much better outcomes for the country’s working class and poor.
Interviewed by the UK Guardian, 20 year old Wesley Andrade, who may not have been able to attend university if not for scholarships introduced by da Silva’s government explained why, despite the corruption allegations, the former president remains the most popular politician in the country, “He did a lot for Brazil, for inequality, for the poor people; he reduced radically inequality and hunger in the country.”
One possible candidate being put forward to replace Lula is Fernando Haddad, a former Mayor of Sao Paulo and the Education Minister under Dilma Rousseff. As reported by Channel News Asia, Haddad is aware he faces an uphill battle, telling the outlet, “We are seeing both the left and the right divided, with many candidates. With the exception of Lula, no one has more than 20 percent voter support.”
Dictatorship in the wings?
Unless the Brazilian left can somehow free Lula or consolidate around another candidate, the field may be left open to a man who would have been unthinkable even a few years ago; a racist, sexist apologist for the country’s former military dictators and long serving member of the country’s lower house of government, the Chamber of Deputies, Jair Bolsonaro.
In the first poll after Lula surrendered to police, Bolsonaro is at 17%, technically tied with Marina Silva, a former Environment Minister who placed third in the 2014 election, in a very crowded field. Under Brazil’s electoral system, if one candidate doesn’t get 50% of the vote, a runoff will be held between the two highest vote earners.
Bolsonaro doesn’t have the migration issue that the current U.S. President rode to power, so he’s turned his fire on the country’s constitutionally protected but still marginalized communities, indigenous people and quilombolas, the rural descendants of the last slaves in the Americas, who weren’t freed until 1888.
Speaking at the Hebraica club in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, in a shockingly typical remark, the Ferderal Deputy told his audience, “You can be sure that if I get there there will be no money for NGOs. If it depends on me, every citizen will have a firearm in the house. There will not be a centimeter demarcated for indigenous reservations or for quilombos.”
While Brazil is generally viewed as tolerant in terms of sexual orientation, legalizing gay marriage in 2013, it’s also a country that saw a 30% increase in the murder of members of the country’s LGBTQ+ communities in 2017, with 447 killed. Bolsonaro, the man who would be the president of all Brazilians, has said on the record that he believes that homosexuality can be “beaten” out of children.
While Deputy Bolsonaro has been speaking in this manner for many years, the similarity to other voices on the new right in Europe and North America can’t be denied. This larger political trend may help explain the current rise of a man dismissed as a joke just a few years ago.
While the rightwinger is now facing charges of hate speech brought by Brazil’s Attorney General, Raquel Dodge, that could see him jailed for up to three years, it’s unlikely his case will be heard before the election. Due to his current lawmaker status, the country’s back logged Supreme Court will decide whether or not he stands trial.
If he manages to get through this process unscathed, and whether he becomes president or not, Bolsonaro will only widen the civic fractures that have worsened over current President Temer’s time in office. While it is rarely covered in the English language press, police shootings, especially of youth of color, are an even greater problem in Brazil than in the U.S. In the first two months of this year, there were 182 fatal police shootings, mostly of poor black men in the favelas in Brazil’s major cities, especially Rio de Janeiro, where the military has been deployed to ‘fight crime’.
With the left under siege and in retreat throughout most of Latin America, the dream of more just and equal societies that the far from radical Lula represented for many seems further away than ever. With a demagogue like Bolsonaro waiting in the wings, growing violence against activist communities and judicial coups targeting even the most moderate political voices of progress, it appears that, in Brazil, as in faraway Honduras, the rollback of rights and benefits for poor and marginalized communities, most just recently won, proceeds with grim consistency.