Lula Lost, But Brazil’s Democracy Has Won

By going to jail, the former president signaled his respect for the rule of law.

Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva gestures to supporters at the headquarters of the Metalworkers' Union on April 7, 2018 in the Sao Bernardo do Campo section of Sao Paulo, Brazil after a warrant for his arrest was issued. The  former president told the crowd "I will comply with their warrant."
Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva gestures to supporters at the headquarters of the Metalworkers' Union on April 7, 2018 in the Sao Bernardo do Campo section of Sao Paulo, Brazil after a warrant for his arrest was issued. The former president told the crowd "I will comply with their warrant." (Victor Moriyama/Getty Images)

Since 2014, when the story of a massive corruption scandal known as Operation Car Wash broke, it has been common to hear the most illustrious personalities in Brazil asking: “Where will this end?” But underneath that question lies their true preoccupation: “Will they catch me?”

Last week, the ensuing investigation culminated with the jailing of ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who left office in 2011 with 80 percent approval ratings and is still considered Brazil’s greatest political leader. This marks the first time a court has condemned a Brazilian head of state for corruption.

Operation Car Wash has also led to the incarceration of some of the country’s corporate giants, who were masterminds of a corrupt machine dating back to the 19th century. Brazil’s culture of political and business corruption may have been wounded, but we cannot assume that it has been destroyed. Two of current President Michel Temer’s ex-ministers are now behind bars, and his former minister of sports is the son and heir of a politician under house arrest.

Before turning himself in, Lula gave a speech in which he described himself as a victim of injustice after having worked to improve the lives of the poor. During his administration, quality of life did indeed improve for the poorest Brazilians in social and economic terms. Nevertheless, the court condemned Lula to 12 years in prison after he was found guilty of receiving a $600,000 apartment from a contractor.

The Car Wash investigations demonstrate that during Lula’s Workers’ Party administration there was a billion-dollar network of corruption in operation, on a completely different scale than what had occurred under previous governments. It was larger, and it was commanded by Workers’ Party leadership. Perhaps Lula’s greatest mistake occurred in 2005, when he was faced with the initial evidence of corruption within his political machine. Instead of cutting loose those who had been accused, he embraced them.

As always happens when Lula suffers a defeat, the press announced his political demise. But, just as Mark Twain once quipped, the report of his death may be an exaggeration. After all, Lula considers himself a “walking metamorphosis,” praising his own capacity to change opinions with the times.

In his last speech before the metalworkers’ union, where he began his political career, Lula was in top form. Six times he repeated that he had a dream (to improve the lives of the poor). Later, departing from Martin Luther King Jr., he praised the invasions of landed estates and buildings. He even mentioned the tactic of using burning tires to blockade roads, a strategy that demonstrators backing Lula had used to obstruct traffic in various Brazilian states.

Such episodes show the degree to which leftist political movements have been radicalized, but also demonstrate that the Workers’ Party dream of mobilizing massive crowds in the streets to defend Lula didn’t quite materialize. Around the union headquarters where the ex-president spent two days before going to jail, only 5,000 activists gathered, many of them brought in from other cities.

Even if a judicial appeal frees him, Lula cannot be a candidate in Brazil’s October presidential election. A January poll suggested that 37 percent of voters would have supported him. It is unclear where those votes will go; so far, the candidates from the center and the left have been mediocre. And those satisfied with Lula’s exclusion from national elections find themselves facing a dilemma at the polls, too.

In numerical terms, the best-placed candidate appears to be an ex-Army captain, Jair Bolsonaro, with 20 percent support according to recent polls. Unfortunately, his paleolithic platform resembles that of Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte. Meanwhile, the current president, Michel Temer, has signaled that he might contest the election, albeit as a lame duck. At the moment, 72 percent of citizens think Temer’s government is “bad” or “terrible.” Furthermore, he has already survived two allegations of corruption brought by the Office of the Attorney General, leading to speculation that a third could be in the works.

As if Bolsonaro’s popularity weren’t bad enough, Temer has been making gestures toward the military himself. Having supported a military dictatorship that lasted from 1964 to 1985, the Army was silent until the beginning of this month. However, on the eve of judgment in one of Lula’s appeals before the Supreme Federal Court, the Army’s commander released a surprising statement assuring Brazilians that the Army stood against “impunity.” It was a signal to the 11 ministers of the court. If the same statement had been released just four days later, it would have been perceived as a warning to President Temer’s close friends who are being investigated for corruption rather than a reference to Lula.

For those who look at Brazil from afar, it may appear that in the past two years Temer has taken the country off former President Dilma Rousseff’s ruinous path of high inflation and recession — a disaster that could not be blamed on international factors. Temer has controlled inflation, and last year the economy grew by 1 percent.

But for those who study Brazil from within, the country seems dangerously divided. While Lula was traveling through the south of the country last month, three bullets struck a bus in his caravan. Elsewhere, vandals smeared red paint on the building that is home to the Supreme Court chief justice who upheld Lula’s prison sentence.

Brazil’s political divisions may not be as severe as those in the United States. Nevertheless, some Brazilians are starting to draw analogies between the current standoff and the chaos that led the military to intervene in the political process in 1964. Then, in the name of democracy, those generals were celebrated; the result was 21 years of dictatorship.

One of the greatest scholars of that era, the late American professor Alfred Stepan, argued that the Brazilian democratic regime of the 1960s collapsed when the principal players on the country’s political stage ceased to be interested in the preservation of democracy.

By entering his cell, Lula has sent the opposite signal. And in so doing, he has strengthened Brazil’s democracy. Indeed, by turning himself in to the Federal Police, he has demonstrated that he continues to play the democratic game.

This article was translated by Alexandra Joy Forman from the Portuguese.

Elio Gaspari, a columnist for the Brazilian newspapers O Globo and Folha de São Paulo, is the author of a multivolume history of Brazil’s military dictatorship.