Lula is Free!
“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.”
These words were written in a letter to his comrades by the former president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, just before handing himself over, on 5 April 2018, to begin a 12-year jail sentence. The charges against Lula were so plainly lacking in any legal credibility that they were roundly condemned by international legal experts of the highest integrity and standing.
The sentence handed down to Lula was the culmination of ongoing political persecution by the growing fascist forces in Brazil. We should not forget that Jair Bolsonaro, the current leader of those forces, is openly nostalgic for the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985.
On the afternoon of Friday 8 November 2019, Lula was released from prison, where he had been held in solitary confinement, following a ruling by the Federal Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled that any prisoner who had not exhausted their appeals process was to be immediately released. This ruling was not just a historic ruling for Lula but, according to Ana Paula Vargas and Vijay Prashad, “about 5,000 Brazilians — mostly poor and black — can be released based on the Supreme Court’s decision”.
“Many of them have not been previously afforded the presumption of innocence, and large numbers of them have been in prison without proper legal defence.”
Since he was first elected to the presidency in 2003, Lula, who began his working life on the streets of Sao Paulo at the age of 12 and eventually became the leader of the metalworkers’ union, was perceived as a profound threat to the white oligarchy that has run Brazil since the days of slavery.
From a political base in the metalworkers’ union, Lula won support from the broader working class, including the rural movement of the landless and the movements of the urban poor. A charismatic figure, he developed a unique ability to unite and galvanise the left, and, in office, achieved impressive reductions in poverty and progress against the deep-rooted racism of Brazilian society.
The persecution of Lula began in earnest in 2016 when the right-wing forces realised that although Lula had not held the presidency since 2010, he continued to be the figure that could unite the industrial working class, the rural peasantry and the urban poor in a progressive alliance.
To stop the advances of working-class, poor and black Brazilians, the judicial system was captured, contorted and bent into the service of the right-wing white elites. Judge Sérgio Moro led the crusade against Lula, a crusade backed to the hilt by the corporate media houses owned by the old white elites.
Moro began his persecution of Lula via a now-discredited anti-corruption campaign known as Operation Car Wash. Lula constantly affirmed his innocence and no evidence has been provided to show any guilt on his part. In an article published in 2017, international human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, QC, noted that despite the media onslaught against Lula, 42.7% of Brazilians still believed in his innocence. Robertson also noted the serious flaws in the Brazilian judicial system, flaws that have their roots in Portuguese colonialism:
“Brazil maintains an antiquated system for investigating and judging criminal offences, which it inherited from Portugal in the early 19th century (but which Portugal itself has long since abandoned). This system offers no separation between the role of the investigating judge, who supervises and approves the work of the police and prosecutors, and that of the trial judge, who should hear the case without bias or preconceptions. In Brazil, both of these roles are played by the same person, even when, as in Lula’s case, the investigation has included prejudicial findings against Lula by the judge.”
On 4 June 2019, some of Moro’s correspondence was leaked by Intercept. The leak not only demonstrated that Moro had advised prosecutors on how to deal with Lula but, also, that his actions were politically motivated. It should be recalled that as soon as Jair Bolsonaro, often described as a fascist, came into power at the beginning of 2019 he appointed Moro as the justice and public security minister.
The persecution of Lula was not incidental, casual or even solely a matter of personal animus. It had a clear strategic goal and was at the centre of a campaign by the white right-wing elites to restore their power. To them, Lula was not just dangerous because he was a leftist economic reformer sympathetic to trade unions and social movements. Lula was dangerous because he challenged the hegemony of white supremacy and its economic and cultural system.
It is important for South Africans to understand that Lula did not simply challenge the old order with radical rhetoric not matched with concrete action. On the contrary, Lula’s government materially built the power of the impoverished, working-class, black and indigenous populations of Brazil.
There are many who argue that Lula should have taken more decisive steps to dismantle the power of the old oligarchy and that leaving important parts of its power intact left him and the progressive project that cohered around him, vulnerable. But it cannot be denied that under Lula hugely significant gains were made for the majority of Brazilians.
Lula’s commitment to the working class and to the most dispossessed was not solely theoretical. His politics were deeply rooted in his own life experiences. Lula was born into a very poor family in 1945. His parents were illiterate and Lula himself had no formal education. His first job, while still a child, was as a shoeshine vendor on the streets. As a young man, he rose through the ranks of the metalworkers’ union, becoming its president in 1975.
After being jailed during the military dictatorship, Lula worked tirelessly to build the power of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), or the Workers’ Party, which was formed in 1980. In 2003 Lula would become the president of Brazil for two very successful terms, radically improving the lives of more than 40 million Brazilians who were lifted out of poverty. Lula created millions of jobs and unemployment fell below 6% and poverty by more than 27%. Under the “Zero Hunger” project more than 12 million families were guaranteed three meals a day.
Lula did not only invest in improving basic living conditions. He also made major investments in education and enabled significant access to universities by poor and black Brazilians for the first time.
As in South Africa, the racial logic of Brazilian society runs deep. The roots of the racialisation of Brazilian society lie in an extensive and brutal system of slavery abolished in 1888. This history has accumulated into the present in a way that fundamentally shapes the social, political and economic lives of Brazilians today. Lula’s presidency and charisma constituted a direct challenge to the elitist and racist logic of Brazilian society. This was the primary reason why the old white oligarchy wanted to destroy his reputation and to remove him from society.
In these dark days, with outright fascists in power in Brazil and India, a right-wing buffoon like Boris Johnson in office in the United Kingdom, and the execrable Donald Trump in the White House, the release of Lula from prison is a real moment of hope. Immediately after his release, Lula went to celebrate, and strategise, at the headquarters of the metalworkers’ union. This was a powerful statement of intent.
Breaking any link in the chain that the far right is tightening around the world is progress for all of us. Brazil may be far away geographically, but it shares many similarities with South Africa. These include a devastating colonial past that continues to shape much of the current structure of both economies and societies. There is much that we can learn from the Brazilian experience.
There are real prospects that Lula’s charisma, extraordinary popular support and moral authority can re-energise and unite the left in Brazil and remove Bolsonaro from power. If this happens it will be a moment of global significance and one that we should seek to learn from in our own struggle to build the power of the working class and confront the onslaught of global capital and the right-wing. DM
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