The Fall of a Hero: Lula, Brazil’s Most Popular President, sentenced to nearly ten years in jail following corruption charges

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who served as Brazil’s President 2003-11, has been found guilty on corruption and money-laundering charges with a sentence of nine years and six months in jail. With Lula in the pipeline for an extraordinary return to politics and the overwhelming favourite to win the 2018 Presidential election according to opinion polls, his lawyers and many of his supporters have categorised his conviction as a judicial coup to veto his return.


Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – Brazilian President 2003-2011

Lula came under investigation in April 2015 for 2011-14 for lobbing on behalf of the company Odebrecht in order to gain public contracts in foreign countries whilst also getting finance from the BNDES (a Brazillian federal department). This saw Odebrecht’s president arrested for paying $230m in bribes to politicians. As part of “Operation Carwash” (Operação Lava Jato), less than a year later,  the Federal Police of Brazil raided Lula’s home and heavily questioned him for accepting illegal bribes from state-controlled oil company Petrobras for the benefit of his party and campaigns. With his handpicked presidential successor Dilma Rousseff appointing him as Chief of Staff to the Presidency, a position with holds legal immunity from all prosecutors except from the Supreme Federal Court, in March 2016, Supreme Court judge Gilmar Mendes suspended the appointments on legal grounds.

In March-April 2015 President Rousseff herself suffered the indignity of millions of protesters on the streets  against her own alleged political graft in the Petrobras scandal when she was part of its board of directors 2003-10, although no evidence was able to implicate her. In December 2015, a special committee in the Chamber of Deputies held hearings regarding an impeachment petition, and charges were accepted by the Senate in April 2016 after the lower house voted by the required majority of two-thirds. On the 31st August, the Senate voted 61-20 in favour of her removal from office on the grounds of breaking budget laws, and vice Michel Temer was sworn in (Temer himself is now at immediate risk of impeachment on corruption charges).

This lay the foundations for a formidable federal prosecution surrounding corruption charges beginning in September 2016, with Lula himself now portrayed as the ‘maximum commander’ of the Petrobras affair. Federal judge Sérgio Moro then accepted money-laundering prosecutions against Lula and his wife, Marisa Leticia Lula da Silva, as part of the Operation Lava Jato scandal.

Thousands of supporters and now former president Rousseff gathered outside Lula’s closed trial in Curitiba, and he was found guilty of accepting bribes of 3.7 million reais from construction company OAS and improvements to his beachfront house in exchange for lucrative deals from state-enterprise Petrobras. He subsequently recieved his 9.5 year sentencing on July 12th, and is currently free in anticipation of his appeal. Furthermore, he awaits four more trials for money laundering, influence peddling and obstruction of justice.

“President Lula is innocent. For over three years, Lula has been subject to a politically motivated investigation. No credible evidence of guilt has been produced, and overwhelming proof of his innocence blatantly ignored,” they said. “We will prove Lula’s innocence in all unbiased courts including the United Nations.”

Lawyers Cristiano Martins and Valeska Martins

As such a popular figure in Brazil, leaving office with a 80.5% approval rating unheard of in most Western democracies, Lula’s conviction has come under much controversy. Born into the slums of north-east Brazil, Lula rose to politics through the union movement and in 1975 was elected president of the Steel Workers’ Union of São Bernardo do Campo and Diadema. He was integral to the organisation of union activity and major illegal strikes in the years of Brazilian military rule and, in 1980, he founded the Worker’s Party, alongside fellow leftists, trade unionists and intellectuals. Since a US-backed military coup d’etat ousted President João Goulart in 1964 and put an end to his policies of wealth and land redistribution, socialising the profits of large companies to improve the lives of ordinary citizens, no leftist had held the Brazilian presidency. Goulart had been presented as a “socialist threat” by US-backed rightist agitators in Brazil. Once conservative forces took power, a military caucus was able to impose retired generals as president until direct elections in 1989, a product of popular struggle led by Diretas Já! (Direct [Elections] Now!), of which Lula was a key member. His party was able to gain guarantees of workers’ rights in a new constitution, although his attempt win the presidency was unsuccessful in favour of business-friendly and establishment-backed candidate Fernando Collor de Mello (who in 1992 resigned on threat of impeachment for embezzlement of public money).

He won Presidential office at his fourth attempt in 2002, and his social policy delivered economic prosperity and dragged tens of millions of Brazillians out of poverty and heavily increased the middle consumer class. He vowed to eradicate hunger through the Fome Zero (no hunger) and the widely praised Bolsa Familia (family allowance) programmes, with $646 billion reais (US$353 billion) pumped into the economy via the Growth Acceleration Program to improve infrastructure and create jobs. Within two years the government had reached a budget surplus, and by 2005 paid off all debts to the IMF two years ahead of schedule, gaining the confidence of market-forces previously dismayed by his radical  agenda. The Mensalão scandal, in which lawmakers were allegedly paid to vote for government measures, did not affect his decisive re-election in 2006. By 2008 Brazil was a net-creditor, following years of enormous debt. Improving the lives of millions of Brazilians, taking 20 million out of poverty, he was a hugely popular and untouchable figure in command of Brazil’s political system. The Brazilian press seized upon Lula in 2008 when he predicted the global financial crisis would be a mere ripple “uma marolinha” to his economy, but was proved right, when effective economic stimuluses kept the economy in good health whilst other major western economies went into recession. He transformed Brazil into a trading nation, improving relations across South America, holding pragmatically positive relationships with figures as varied as Hugo Chavez and George W Bush with stature on the world stage through strong economic growth and establishing Brazil as the 8th largest world economy. He helped to heal tensions between Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela, had a strong presence in the UN and is widely credited with brokering a nuclear-fuel swap deal between Iran and Turkey and visited 80 countries during his presidency. His over 80% approval rating in his final months in office proved him as Brazil’s most popular president, now faced with nearly ten years in jail.

Foto: Ricardo Stuckert/Presidência

“That’s my guy right there…The most popular politician on earth.”
President Obama greets President Lula at the 2009 G20 Summit in London

A dense dispute has now arose between Lula loyalists and the judiciary, with accusation of direct prevention of his 2018 candidacy, in which he pledged to “do more and do better”. He had previously demanded the reinstatement of Rousseff, citing the fact that she had been elected by 54.5m citizens in 2014. Lula’s defence argue that the three-story beach apartment couldn’t be a bribe as it is registered in the name of OAS with financial rights in a federal bank account. Brazil’s Popular Front has called for mass demonstrations in Salvador, São Paulo and Brasilia in response to the ruling. Judge Moro is accused of political bias, unfairly targeting prominent members of the Worker’s Party, whilst many others see him as a hero who’s finally cleaning up the corruption which has plagued Brazilian public life, sending dozens of politicians and top businessmen to jail (he has subsequently risen in the polls for the 2018 presidential race, though he declines he will enter politics). One protester in Sao Paulo of the Landless Workers Movement, argued that the judiciary is acting as a political party on an “agenda of removing workers’ rights, as happened yesterday when the Senate approved one of the cruellest labor reforms in Brazil’s history” with “indications that Judge Sergio Moro collaborates with the interests of North American imperialism and the financial system.” With the USA being part of many political coups and capitalist regime change attempts in Latin America over recent years, the Guatemalan coup 1954, Bay of Pigs 1961 and of course the 1964 Brazilian coup to name but a few, Latin American socialists are bound to feel deep distrust, with Bolvian President Morales accussing the Brazilian establishment of an anti-democratic witchhunt against his socialist contemporary. Lula awaits his appeal defiantly, addressing his loyal supporters and slamming the deceitful judiciary which has damaged, and possibly stopped in his tracks, his return to the presidency. He proclaims “if they think that with this sentence they will take me out of the game, let them know that I’m in the game,” to a rally one day after his conviction.

With the Lava Jato investigations now much wider than the Petrobras scandal, for example JBS, the world’s biggest meat company, was found to have paid in bribes $185m to hundreds of politicians, many critics believe these intense probes are an attempt to wipeout the political class rather that apply the law in earnest. Plea-bargaining has been used by Attorney General Rodrigo Janot to extract pleas on politicians in response to immunity, as seen with the CEOs of JBS against President Temer. The fact charges against the right-wing Temer (who is polling single-digits) were rejected by Constitutional Justice Committee of Brazil’s Lower House on July 13th by 40 votes to 25, has led to suggestions that the impeachment of Rousseff and pursuit of Lula was the result of a parliamentary coup to oust the left.

The warring forces of Brazilian politics have been faced with a rising judiciary which seeks to expose and dismantle the institutional corruption which has been in place for many years. The judiciary have sought to create transparency with the mass support of the Brazilian people, creating a irreversible stand-off between political loyalty to Lula, a man who has given so much to the Brazilian people, and the principle of the political class remaining under the Rule of Law. Outward judicial activism is controversial across the world, especially in the USA, and these scandals set precedent for the question of political accountability across the free world.


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