Lula in prison

Print edition : May 11, 2018

Lula (in blue, centre) being carried by supporters shortly before he surrendered to the police. Photo: Francisco Proner/REUTERS

Lula delivering a speech on April 7 at the headquarters of the Metal Workers Union, Sao Paulo, from where he started his political career. Photo: Andre Penner/AP

A Lula supporter in tears as she listens to his speech at Sao Paulo. Photo: Andre Penner/AP

The sentencing of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, considered Brazil’s most popular leader, marks the end of a virtual coup by the right-wing elite and the concurrent rise of the military.

On April 4, Brazil’s Supreme Court rejected the habeas corpus plea filed by former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to postpone his imminent arrest. Lula surrendered peacefully to the police two days later to start serving a 12-year prison sentence. There was high-octane drama before the former President, who served as head of state from 2003 to 2011, surrendered. Thousands of his supporters gathered in Sao Paulo, at the headquarters of the Metal Workers Union, from where Lula had started his illustrious political career. His supporters blockaded the entry points and prevented the police from arresting their leader. Before voluntarily turning himself in, Lula attended a church service on the birth anniversary of his wife and former comrade in arms, Marisa Leticia, who passed away last year. The prosecution mounted against him, Lula said, was an attempt to stop him from realising his vision of providing the poorest of Brazilians a better life.

Lula’s achievements

The Workers’ Party (P.T.), during its more than a decade-and-a-half in government, lifted over 30 million poor Brazilians into the ranks of the middle class. The education and health sector, in particular, became much more accessible to the poor and the needy. The Brazilian economy, when Lula was at the helm of affairs, grew at a steady 7.5 per cent every year, creating 2.5 million new jobs. Lula rightfully boasted in 2010 that Brazil at the time enjoyed “one of the lowest rates of unemployment in the history of humanity”. Lula played an important role in the formation of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) grouping, which today has a significant role in world politics. It is no secret that the West had looked askance at the emergence of this new grouping which had the potential to challenge the global financial institutions patronised by the United States and its allies.

Slow-motion coup

Before going to jail, Lula once again reiterated that he was the victim of a witch-hunt. He accused the state prosecutors and judges of prosecuting him despite knowing well that he had no real case to answer. His conviction and sentencing marked the end of a virtual slow-motion coup mounted by the Brazilian elite more than two years ago. It started with the ouster of Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s successor, on trumped-up charges two years ago and has culminated in the long-term incarceration of Lula. Both Lula and Dilma Rousseff belong to P.T. Lula, who had announced his candidacy for the presidency last year, was a virtual shoo-in for the post again. He was leading his nearest rival by more than 20 percentage points in the opinion polls. Lula had left office with a record popularity rating of over 80 per cent. American President Barack Obama once described Lula as “the most popular politician on earth”.

When the endgame began earlier in the year, even the pretence of judicial fair play was given up. The only charge of corruption against Lula was that he accepted a seaside flat as a quid pro quo for contracts granted to one of Brazil’s leading construction companies. The flat in question was not even in the name of the former President. Top politicians, many of them Ministers and most of them belonging to right and centre-right parties, have been caught up in the much bigger “Lava Jato” (Car Wash) scandal in which millions of dollars were given as bribes. But many of them remain in office. The current President of Brazil, Michel Temer, was catapulted to the presidency under dubious circumstances. Opinion polls have shown that he has now become the most unpopular President in the country’s history, with his popularity ratings not even in double digits. He has himself been accused of receiving huge kickbacks. Despite graphic video and audio evidence showing his culpability, he continues in office. In January, a three-judge panel upheld the verdict against Lula delivered by a lower court. Lula, who had already announced his candidacy for the presidential election, appealed to the Supreme Court to allow him to remain free until his other pending appeals were heard by the courts. All his appeals were summarily rejected. It was evident that the right-wing Brazilian elite did not want a credible left-wing candidate in the presidential race.

Military muscle-flexing

On the day that Brazil’s Federal Supreme Court was due to deliver its judgment on the issue of sending Lula to jail on trumped-up corruption charges, the head of the Brazilian Army, General Eduardo Villas Boas, issued a statement saying that the military “along with all good citizens, repudiates impunity and respects the Constitution, civic peace and democracy”. This was a none-too-subtle message to the Supreme Court to not bow to public opinion or ask too many questions about the charges against Brazil’s most popular politician. Another senior general, Luis Gonzaga Schroeder, was even more direct. He issued an explicit warning that if Lula was elected President again, it would “be the duty of the armed forces to intervene to restore order”.

Many senior army officers were quick to show support for their boss. “We are in the trenches together!! We think alike!!! Brazil above all” tweeted another general. The Supreme Court bench may have ruled in favour of Lula but for the blatant arm-twisting by the powerful security apparatus. The bench ruled 6-5 in favour of sending Lula to jail. The deciding vote was cast by Chief Justice Carmen Lucia Antunes Rocha at the end of a long hearing that lasted until midnight.

Interestingly, the Supreme Court had dismissed corruption charges relating to the Lava Jato investigations against Aecio Neves, a prominent centre-right politician, in February. He is currently in jail after being convicted on another charge of misappropriating millions of dollars of public funds. Pedro Barusco, former head of the public sector behemoth Petrobras said that the bribe-taking had started during the centre-right presidency of Henrique Cardoso in the mid 1990s. Barusco alleged that the Lava Jato investigation team had only asked him to confess to corrupt activities starting from the time Lula took over the presidency. Lava Jato’s chief prosecutor, Judge Sergio Moro, is known to have close connections with Washington. He is a frequent guest speaker at functions organised by neoliberal American think tanks. Moro’s wife runs a law firm which negotiates plea bargains with politicians charged under the Lava Jato investigations. Ironically, Barusco has been let off lightly by the judiciary. He is under house imprisonment. He is allowed to go out during the day and has to return home by 8 p.m. every day.

Lula had built up an insurmountable lead against his nearest opponent in the opinion polls. The presidential election is due to be held in November. Lula’s closest opponent is Jair Bolsonaro, a retired army officer who is openly nostalgic about the bad old days when Brazil was under a brutal military dictatorship. The military dictatorship ended in 1985. Lula was among the leaders of the working class who led the long struggle to overthrow the right-wing military rulers. Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, was tortured in jail by the military. Bolsonaro, the military’s preferred candidate for the presidency, does not shy away from racist rhetoric and is openly contemptuous of Brazil’s underclass. In the third week of April, he was finally charged by the government with inciting hatred and discrimination against blacks, indigenous communities, women and the LGBT community. If convicted, Bolsonaro could face three years in prison along with a hefty fine.

Virtual military rule in Rio

Sadly, the military has once again become a key player in Brazilian politics as it rushes to shore up the country’s discredited elites and oligarchs. On February 16, President Temer ordered the deployment of the army in the state of Rio de Janeiro to enforce law and order. General Walter Souza Braga Netto was appointed by a presidential decree as the military man in charge of Rio, Brazil’s second biggest city. The city, which had hosted the Olympics just two years ago, has been plagued by crime, fuelled by drug cartels, for many years now. The current government is apparently taking a leaf out of the book of countries such as the Philippines, where the security services have been allowed to use extrajudicial methods to deal with criminals and drug pushers. As it is, a black citizen is killed in Brazil every 21 minutes. Most of the criminal gangs are concentrated in the “favelas” (slums) that dot the city. The majority of the residents there are blacks.

“Rio de Janeiro is a test lab for Brazil,” Gen. Netto has warned. On March 14, Murielle Franco, an elected Rio City councilwoman, was gunned down. She was a prominent black left-wing politician who opposed the deployment of the military in her city. She had made her reputation by highlighting the atrocities committed by the police forces in her city. The army general has been given more powers than the elected Governor of the province. Flavio Dino, the Governor of Maranhoa, said that the decree issued by the President imposing virtual military rule on Rio province was unconstitutional. Dino, who belongs to the Brazilian Communist Party and was a former judge of the Supreme Court, is an expert in constitutional law.

The Supreme Court’s judgment does not legally bar Lula from running as of now. The court has left that decision to the country’s Election Commission, but a recent “clean slate” law bars candidates who are convicted of crimes from running. It is highly unlikely, given the current vindictive political climate in Brazil, that Lula will be allowed to run. “The Brazilian people have a right to vote for Lula, the candidate of hope,” the Workers’ Party said in a statement. The party has vowed to “defend his candidacy in the streets and in all spheres”. The statement went on to add that “he who has the backing of the people, who has the truth on his side, knows that justice will ultimately prevail.” In one of his last statements to his supporters, Lula urged them not to view him as an individual but “as an idea that is mixed with all your ideas”. Protesters blocked roads in 11 Brazilian states to show their anger at the arrest of their leader.

Lula has been sent to a prison in Curitiba. He has been given a room along with an attached bathroom and toilet. The 72-year-old iconic leader of the Left in Latin America will languish in a solitary cell that is two floors above the regular prison cells. He has been given access to a television set and books. The first book he started reading in prison was The Backward Elite by the well-known Brazilian sociologist Jesse de Souza, a book which forcefully argues that the so-called Operation Lava Jato was part of an elaborate conspiracy by the Brazilian elite to consolidate its grip on power and wealth. As Dilma Rousseff put it: “Lula has become a political prisoner, victim of relentless persecution by adversaries who resorted to the judiciary to silence him, destroy him, in an effort to discredit his role before history and the Brazilian people.”