On Thursday 5 April 2018 a Brazilian Federal Judge, Sergio Moro, rejected any bid to delay the sentencing of Lula da Silva, the former Brazilian President. Instead the judge, shockingly, gave Lula, a hugely popular figure in Brazil, 24 hours to surrender himself and begin his 12-year jail sentence.
Lula da Silva has been subject to ongoing political persecution by a right-wing and very white elite elite since 2014, three years after the end of his last presidential term. That persecution extended to his successor, former political prisoner Dilma Rousseff. Rousseff was removed from office under highly dubious circumstances, often termed a “soft coup”, in 2016 and replaced with Michel Temer, a right-wing representative of the white elite. He immediately appointed an overwhelmingly white and all-male cabinet – the first since the ‘70s – and began to actively roll back the social progress achieved under Lula.
The charges against Lula are so obviously lacking in legal credibility, and so obviously politically motivated, that the highly respected international human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson has taken Lula’s case to the UN Human Rights Commission. Robertson believes the accusations and that the manner in which the case has been handled violates Lula’s fundamental rights. The situation is compounded by the abundant evidence of extravagant corruption by Temer, as well as many other leading members of the white oligarchy.
The imprisonment of Lula is a last-ditch attempt to crush Lula’s growing popularity ahead of the elections in October. Lula had intended to stand as a presidential candidate. The imprisonment of Lula on entirely dubious grounds is not just an attack on Lula as a person. It is an attack on the Workers’ Party, and the Brazilian left more broadly. It is an attempt to restore the authority of the white oligarchy. This is not an isolated attack on democratic forms of working-class power in the region.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the overwhelmingly popular and elected President of Haiti, was removed from power by the US military in 2004, in a coup backed by a number of pseudo-progressive NGOs. There is a long history of these kinds of machinations going back to 1973 when Salvador Allende, the elected president, was removed from power in another US-backed coup.
Lula was born to a very poor family in 1945. He received no formal education, only learning to read at the age of 10. As a young boy of 12 he worked as a shoe shine vendor. At 14 he began formal work in a factory. A factory floor accident while assembling car parts led to Lula losing his little finger.
Soon after this incident Lula began to rise within the labour movement in Brazil. He rose in the ranks of the Steel Workers’ Union, eventually serving as its president in 1975 and 1978. He was briefly jailed by the military dictatorship in the 1970s. His union work was the precursor for the development of Lula as the presidential candidate for the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) or Workers’ Party, which was formed in 1980 with strong support from unions, social movements and progressive intellectuals. By 2003 Lula would become the president of Brazil, serving two successful terms, which not only witnessed the growth of the Brazilian economy but a radical improvement in the lives of the working class and the poor.
Even conservative statisticians concede that under Lula’s presidency over 40 million Brazilians were lifted out of poverty. Under Lula’s stewardship Brazil created millions of jobs and unemployment fell from 12% to below 6%. Poverty fell by 27% due to pro-working-class reforms, including a raise in the minimum wage.
With the “Zero Hunger” project more than 12 million families had three meals a day. In addition to this Lula invested heavily in education. The president who never had an opportunity to go to university built more universities and technical schools than any other Brazilian leader. In addition, he put in place badly needed affirmative action policies that allowed the poor and black population of Brazil to have a chance to access quality education, even at private institutions.
Under Lula inequality declined in Brazil. There was also progress on the question of race.
Brazil is a deeply racialised society. Brazil has the second largest population of Africans in the world after Nigeria and, since the end of slavery in 1888, a deeply entrenched system of racial subordination has subjected black Brazilians to widespread impoverishment, poor healthcare, a broken education system and ruthless police violence. The move against Lula, the PT and the wider left in Brazil, including trade unions and social movements, has returned authority to a corrupt, right-wing white oligarchy.
Across the world the tyranny of capitalism marches on measuring success by the growth of profit rather than the quality of the lives of the most dispossessed in society.
India, whose economy under the fascist regime of Modi is routinely lauded by economic pundits as a model of success, has just recorded the highest unemployment rate in the world. In rural India, where 70% of the population live, 833 million people are living on fewer nutrients than they did 40 years ago. Despite the growing economy, malnutrition rates are almost double that of sub-Saharan Africa. The huge boom for Indian elites is a direct result of the impoverishment and exploitation of millions of ordinary Indians. But power relations in the world are such that a decent man, a man of the people like Lula is persecuted while a fascist like Modi is feted and rewarded.
From Allende to Aristide to Lula, the lesson for us in South Africa is clear – elites, at home and abroad, will only accept democracy when it produces outcomes conducive to elite interests. Any real attempts to foster socialism, or even just a more equitable society, will result in an alliance between local elites and imperialism with the aim of restoring the status quo.
As we work to unite trade unions, social movements and progressive intellectuals into a force for socialist change in South Africa we need to learn the hard lessons from the experience in Brazil. For a socialist project to succeed here it will not only have to win mass support. It will also have to dismantle the material power from which a pro-capitalist backlash will emerge. Racial capitalism must be undone, not tinkered with.
Before handing himself over to start his second jail sentence, this time under an unelected oligarchy rather than a military dictatorship, Lula wrote a letter to his comrades. It reminds us that the fight for justice for the working class and the poor will not be easy.
I’ve thought a lot about the paths that our lives take. The future, after all, does not seem to be such a distant place, does it?
It’s not that my life has been easy… Far from it.
I’ve felt what happens to a forgotten people in the skin, but I know that no clothing is so heavy that it can’t carry it.
Whoever has survived after passing through so much hardship learns, from an early age, that honour is our most valuable asset.
Along the way, I’ve met many people who only needed an opportunity to walk with their own legs and have the dignity to build their own lives.
A country with no hunger, with a school, a house and a job for everyone.
I look back and see that I could have done more. It was always possible to do more. But the opportunities that we created in a country that is so unequal and unjust still seem greater than our difficulties today.
I have already been imprisoned once. My life was turned upside down. My family was persecuted and I lost my eternal companion… I am not afraid of what lies ahead.
If I only have one minute of life left, this minute will be used to fight for the dignity of our people, and to defend our honour.
It’s the honour of a boy who crossed the country to overcome hunger and became a shoe shine boy. Of an adolescent who became a young factory worker. Of a man who became a father and fought against all forces to represent the Brazilian people.
During the afternoons of uncertainty in my youth I never imagined it could be possible. But it was. I became the President of the Brazilian people.
Those who condemn me without proof know that I am innocent and I governed honestly.
Those who persecute me can do what they want to me, but they will never imprison our dreams.
An affectionate kiss from Lula. DM
Vashna Jagarnath is a senior lecturer in the Department of History. She writes and researches on Indian Cinema, the colonial public sphere and the History of Africana Intellectual Thought with specific focus on Marxist ideology within Pan Africanism. She is associated with Numsa Movement for Socialism Task Team [MFS] and Numsa Research and Policy Institute [NuRPI].