President who transformed Brazil makes last stand as jail looms
Carlos Roberto da Costa was among about 2,000 diehard supporters of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva who on Friday formed a human shield around the former Brazilian president they still worship.
Mr Lula da Silva, widely regarded as one of the most influential leftwing leaders of modern Latin American history, was weighing his options, holed up inside a trade union office in a gritty suburb of São Paulo. A judge had the previous day ordered the former labour boss to hand himself in by 5pm on Friday to begin serving a lengthy jail sentence for corruption.
“The people are staying here to protect him,” Mr Costa said of Mr Lula de Silva, a giant of Latin American politics who towered over Brazil’s political scene for more than four decades.
“His salvation is our salvation.” Mr Lula da Silva is used to dramatic changes in his fortunes. But rarely has he faced a day as bleak as this.
During his eight years in power that ended in 2010, he used the wealth created by the global commodities supercycle to transform one of the world’s most unequal countries by ramping up spending on social programmes for the poor.
For a time, the expert trade union negotiator brought the two seemingly irreconcilable Brazils together — the extreme poor and the extreme rich.
By the time he left office as one of the world’s most popular presidents with more than 80 per cent support in the polls, he had used his overwhelming charisma, which combines personal familiarity with humour and empathy, not only to win over Brazilian voters but even the world’s elite leaders, including then US President Barack Obama.
“Lula’s presidency was a time of incredible prosperity in Brazil for people who had been left out for a long time,” said Jason Marczak, director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Centre at the Atlantic Council think-tank.
“There is great love and admiration for Lula among large swaths of the Brazilian population.” The former president’s life story cemented his popularity among poorer Brazilians.
One of eight children, his family arrived in São Paulo in southern Brazil from the country’s poor north-east on the back of a truck. He barely finished primary school before he began working, eventually getting a job as a metalworker, where he lost a finger on the shop floor.
After winning office in 2003, he confounded those who feared his socialist agenda by installing technocrats to key economic positions.
They pursued a business-friendly agenda while Mr Lula da Silva increased social spending.
As a result of his policies, Brazil’s lower middle class by the end of his rule in 2011 had risen for the first time to well over half of the population, according to figures from Marcelo Neri, an economist with Brazilian academic institution FGV EPGE.
His fall came from the corruption scandals that had always dogged him. Most of his senior lieutenants were jailed for a vote-buying scandal in 2005.
Then, as part of Brazil’s biggest corruption investigation, known as Lava Jato, or Car Wash, Mr Lula da Silva was last year convicted of corruption for receiving favours from construction companies and sentenced to 12 years in jail. Despite the conviction, his supporters remain convinced he has done no wrong. They say that at least he spent the money on the poor, unlike other Brazilian politicians.
Most still support his plans for a political comeback in elections due in October, now rendered highly unlikely by his imminent jailing. “He is seen as a Robin Hood among his supporters because he at least thought of them and tried to channel support to them,” said Mr Marczak.
At the union headquarters in the São Paulo suburb of São Bernardo do Campo, Mr Lula da Silva was unruffled by the crisis, his supporters insisted. As of Friday afternoon he had still not decided whether to hand himself in or force police to come and arrest him.
“He is calm, cracking jokes, making fun of people,” said João Carlos Gonçalves, a friend and general secretary of union Força Sindical. But for his supporters, the move to jail him is no joke, with many cursing Sérgio Moro, the judge leading Lava Jato who issued the arrest order. “No one remembers the judge who arrested Mandela but people remember Mandela,” said Manuela D’Avila, presidential candidate of the Communist Party of Brazil, who was keeping vigil with the ex-president. “People remember who fought on the side of the people.”