How Lula became a symbol for democracy – and its destruction

. Apr 06, 2018
lula arrest sergio moro Lula: the most divisive politician in Brazil
lula arrest sergio moro

Lula: the most divisive politician in Brazil

Leading the charge on Operation Car Wash, Brazil’s long-running investigation into high-level political corruption, Judge Sergio Moro has ordered that ex-President Lula’s prison sentence should begin today. Lula has until 5 p.m. to turn himself in to the police.

The announcement, which came at 6 p.m. yesterday, It brought as much desolation as it did celebration for Brazil. Lula had come to symbolize two vastly different concepts for Brazilians, splitting public opinion down the middle. Among conservative Brazilians, Lula had become a symbol of the country’s persistent political corruption. But for the left, he represented the hope that social mobility and greater equality was possible.

</p> <p>This divide reveals itself starkly in Brazil’s voting intentions ahead of October’s elections. The former president captures approximately 34 percent of the country’s vote – but his appeal is strongest among a vastly under-represented demographic. A working-class man from the poor Northeast who had never had access to a real education, Lula’s meteoric rise through labor unions turned him into an underdog politician who pushed for progressive policies.</p> <div class="infogram-embed" data-id="150480c3-960e-43f9-9ece-39b6425e9e40" data-type="interactive"></div><script>!function(e,t,s,i){var n="InfogramEmbeds",o=e.getElementsByTagName("script"),d=o[0],r=/^http:/.test(e.location)?"http:":"https:";if(/^\/{2}/.test(i)&&(i=r+i),window[n]&&window[n].initialized)window[n].process&&window[n].process();else if(!e.getElementById(s)){var a=e.createElement("script");a.async=1,,a.src=i,d.parentNode.insertBefore(a,d)}}(document,0,"infogram-async","//");</script> <p>To hold up the former president as a pure symbol of either corruption or progress, however, is problematic. Just as the left refuses to critically examine the corruption charges against the former president, the right declines to evaluate just how much social progress and economic growth were brought to Brazil by Lula’s two terms.</p> <h3>Hero or villain?</h3> <p>As president, Lula’s governments can be credited with greatly increasing social inclusion. He tackled Brazil’s horrific poverty levels head-on through highly innovative and well-run programs such as Bolsa Família. He fought for a massive expansion of the access to universities and technical schools. Human rights became an important item on the government’s agenda. The minimum wage was raised successively each year, which acted as an indirect transfer of wealth.</p> <p>In fact, the Lula government chipped away at the <a href="">country’s notorious inequality</a> in a way never seen before or since, according to research from think tank Fundação Getulio Vargas. By the time he left the government in 2010, Lula had an 80 percent approval rating and Brazil had its highest GDP in a quarter of a century.</p> <p>But fast-forward six years to March 2016, when Lula was first summoned to testify as a defendant in the Operation Car Wash proceedings, and his symbolism began to shift for the Brazilian people. Last year, he was convicted of corruption for using his political influence to benefit construction behemoth Odebrecht – the nail in the coffin being a triplex apartment in São Paulo state, apparently part of the exchanges.</p> <div id="attachment_3496" style="width: 878px" class="wp-caption alignnone"><img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-3496" loading="lazy" class="size-full wp-image-3496" src="" alt="pt lula" width="868" height="644" srcset=" 868w, 300w, 768w" sizes="(max-width: 868px) 100vw, 868px" /><p id="caption-attachment-3496" class="wp-caption-text">The Workers&#8217; Party has no heir to its brightest political star</p></div> <p>His name was first muddied by his involvement in a 2005 vote-buying scandal in Congress, known as the <em>‘Mensalão’</em> (big monthly stipend). In its attempts to secure the congressional majority necessary to pass Lula’s agenda, the Workers’ Party adopted an ends-justify-the-means approach. The justification went something like this: ‘Congressmen are corrupt and conservative; therefore, we need to bribe them if Lula’s government is trying to change the country.’</p> <p>For the Brazilian right, this was already evidence that he was cut from the same cloth as the rest of the country’s politicians: he came at a price. By the time he left office, Lula’s cohort had transformed into a segment of the ruling class that included billionaires, industrialists, and agribusiness moguls. The former president himself was unable to escape the cliché, and wound up becoming a part of the system that he was supposedly fighting to change.</p> <p>Just as his symbolism of his legacy differs widely among Brazilians, Lula’s imprisonment also represents equally problematic perspectives as the presidential elections approach. For some, the imprisonment represents a functioning democracy and an independent judiciary. For others, it means barring the most popular presidential candidate from the race, thereby signaling a death knell for Brazil’s democracy.</p> <p>Polls show that without Lula, Brazil’s left will be divided between more minor candidates. The country’s barriers to entering politics have resulted in a crisis of representation, with most Brazilians feeling unable to identify a candidate that represents their background or ideals.</p> <p>The only certainty that comes from Lula’s imminent jail time is that Brazil’s <a href="">2018 election</a> will be even more volatile than predicted.

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Ciara Long

Based in Rio de Janeiro, Ciara focuses on covering human rights, culture, and politics.

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