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Brazil: Lula’s last stand

Even behind bars, he is still the most popular candidate. Will he be allowed to stand?


São Paulo, 16 April. Lula disappeared into the federal police building in Curitiba on 7 April and nobody knows when he will be seen again. Two days before, after the Supreme Court refused to grant him a habeas corpus, the PT’s presidential candidate had bunkered down at the HQ of the metalworkers union in São Bernardo, surrounded by thousands of loyal supporters who filled the streets around the squat blue building. Judge Sergio Moro had given him until 6 p.m. on Friday 6  April to turn himself in and begin serving his 12 year sentence.  When I looked at the images of the union HQ I remembered the day, 40 years ago, when I had made my way to this same building – then a lot smaller and scruffier – to interview the up and coming, dynamic black bearded leader of the   metalworkers union, whose fiery rhetoric was inspiring the workers. Lula spoke of the need for a ‘strike’ – a taboo word under the military regime, which had banned them. Less than six months later, ignoring the ‘pelegos’ (the old-style, corrupt trade union leadership), he led the movement for a pay rise which brought all the big car factories in the region to a standstill.  It was a decisive step in challenging the military, and would lead to the creation of the PT and the CUT. The region became known as the ‘Republic of São Bernardo’, with Lula its undisputed leader.

You will all become Lula

Now 40 years later, here was Lula, aged 72, Brazil’s most popular president in recent times, back where he began his political career, facing a prison sentence of 12 years. Refusing to meekly submit to Judge Moro’s timetable, Lula instead commanded an emotional last act of defiance, mixing a memorial service for the first anniversary of his late wife Marisa’s death – a death he blames on the stress of false accusations – with a political rally. Surrounded by elected PT office holders from all over the country, he called on everyone to carry on the fight for a fairer Brazil. “From now on, all of you will become Lula… They have to learn that the death of a combatant does not stop the revolution.”
The full text of Lula’s speech (in Portuguese) can be read here. He endorsed two young presidential hopefuls from left-wing parties, Guilherme Boulos of PSOL and Manuela d’Avila of the PCdoB, while reserving a more muted endorsement for Fernando Haddad, São Paulo’s ex-mayor, who is expected to substitute Lula as presidential candidate on the PT ticket. Then after savouring his last few minutes of freedom, lunch with his family and even a short siesta, Lula calmly walked out and climbed into one of the waiting cars of the Federal Police. A convoy of black cars, red lights flashing, then swept through the streets as dusk fell, heading for Congonhas, the São Paulo airport. Again, I was reminded of earlier days, in 1985, when I watched Tancredo Neves’ body being driven through the streets of Sao Paulo from the hospital where he had agonized for weeks, to the same airport, to be flown to Brasilia for burial.  Tancredo had fallen ill on the eve of being sworn in as president, but I could not help feeling the same sensation, the end of hope, a man destined to be president heading instead for the grave, literally in Tancredo’s case, metaphorically in Lula’s.  This time the plane was  heading not north to Brasilia, but south to Curitiba.
With great power comes great responsibility – a spiderman quote favoured by Judge Moro
There Lula disappeared into the web carefully spun by Spiderman, aka judge Sergio Moro. Television news programmes repeated ad nauseum the measurements of Lula’s special cell, 15 sq. m., the fact that he had his own bathroom , that he wouldn’t have his head shaved or be made to wear prison uniform, that he could watch TV, as though all this compensated for an imprisonment  considered by many legal minds to be wrong  and by his supporters as blatant political persecution. The worst deprivation for a political leader is isolation. Lula is allowed visits only by lawyers and family. A group of governors and senators belonging to PT and allied parties, who travelled to Curitiba to visit him, were barred by the judge.

A race without the favourite?

Sociologist Laymert García believes Lula’s imprisonment is the logical culmination of the coup practised against Dilma.  ‘It’s obvious that they wouldn’t have deposed president Dilma to then hand the government over to Lula.’ The latest opinion poll shows that Lula, even behind bars, silenced, still leads the race, with 31%.  His removal from the presidential race will disenfranchise millions of Brazilians, who believe that only Lula can bring back the good times they briefly enjoyed during his government, and do not understand why so many politicians from other parties are accused of corruption in other parties and yet remain free. The other candidates, left, right and centre, all hope to inherit a share of his votes.  But quite a few political analysts believe his name can still appear on the ballot papers, even if he is in prison. Only when the Electoral Court decides to bar him from running, a decision which could take months, will he be definitely out of the race.  Without other strong candidates on the left or the centre, the ultra-reactionary populist Jair Bolsanaro, second place in the polls, sees his chance.   As in 1989, when Lula first ran for president, and was cheated out of victory by TV Globo’s manipulation of the debate and production of fake news, Brazil begins an election campaign with over a dozen candidates jockeying for position, without a clue as to who will win.

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Jan Rocha's Blog

Jan Rocha is a former correspondent for the BBC and the Guardian and lives in São Paulo, Brazil. She is the author of a number of LAB books, and contributes this regular column for LAB, known for its incisive analysis of current Brazilian politics.

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