At the G20 meeting in London on 2 April 2009, the new US president, the first black American to win the White House, was the star of the show. The cameras were understandably following his every move as he attended his first major conference overseas. However, Barack Obama had a different view.
As Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the man simply known as Lula, arrived at the meeting, Obama gestured to the cameras. “That’s my man right there,” the US President remarked as he pointed at the approaching president of Brazil. “The most popular politician on earth,” Obama declared. And he was factually correct.
At the time, Lula, into his 7th year in office, was riding high on the polls with more than 70 per cent approval rating in his country, the fifth most-populous country on Earth — one-third of Latin America’s population. Thus, mathematically, Obama’s statement was accurate. But that still is an understatement of the stature of Lula in Brazil at the time.
The man’s charisma was overwhelming he could not do no wrong. He acted with an absolute impunity even when he took on the church, over the right to abortion, and angered Pope Benedict XVI in a 2007 meeting telling him that religion had no business in public life.
The fact that Brazil is world’s most populous Catholic state on earth didn’t matter. Lula must have felt invincible. And he was right, although few years later he learnt the hard way that even as invulnerable someone seemed as he did, elected presidents have some limits.
The leftist union leader, and former steelworker, served two terms — from 2003 to 2011. His election in 2003 was the biggest coup for the traditional left in Latin America since the Cuban revolution in 1959. In that year he led his Workers’ Party to huge gains in the general polls.
Lula is a founder of the party, a left-wing party “with progressive plans”. The party was formed in 1980 by a group of university professors, leftist intellectuals and labour leaders and activists, including Lula, as a response to the military rule at the time.
During his two terms in office, Lula lived up to the promise of his election campaign. His administration drove a faster-than-expected economic recovery, helped by the commodity boom in the first decade of the millennium. He injected billions of dollars into social programmes, which helped bring millions of people out of poverty. He increased the minimum wage above the rate of inflation and expanded the state’s social security net. When he left office in 2011, his approval rating was unprecedented — more than 80 per cent.
The poster child
With that kind of unparalleled support, which Obama was referring to, Lula was ‘the poster child’ of the left in Latin America, a movement that traces its roots to more than a century. Although few leftist parties have come to power in the region, but winning in Brazil was certainly a stunning event.
The Left rose to power in many countries in Latin America in the postcolonial era, between the two great wars. However, as the Cold War raged on, the US made sure that its southern hemisphere was completely on-board its global crusade to eliminate pro-Soviet tendencies, seizing on the reputation of the few ruling socialist parties as pro-Communist authoritarian regimes.
The US-led ‘conservative’ tide saw the emergence of violent despotic capitalist regimes that crushed any left-leaning dissent movement. The tide began with the US-supported military coups in Peru and Venezuela in 1947. Guatemalan leftist president Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown in 1954 by, according to recently released documents, a CIA covert operation. A military dictatorship was installed, led by Carlos Castillo Armasa, famous for his Hitler-style moustache!
However, the financial crises of the 1980s led the people to shun the free market policies, the neoliberal economic, corruption-laden enterprise that dominated the region under US hegemony. Rising state debt and soaring inflation crippled the conservative governments and led to the resurgence of the Left parties.
But it was a short honeymoon as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the entire Socialist camp in the early 1990s put the Left again on the run. Buoyed by its historic Cold War victory (Francis Fukuyama called it ‘the end of history’), the US was again the leading actor in Latin America, for another decade at least.
Again, the free-market reforms promoted by the US and allied regimes in South America failed to fly. On the contrary, it led to an economic crisis after another. Most famous was the Argentinian collapse in 2002. It was called the Argentine Great Depression — similar to what is currently happening in Lebanon, the Argentinian peso, which was pegged to the US dollar, lost two-thirds of its value overnight, and the banks refused to let investors withdraw their money.
The country plunged into daily violent protests, thousands of businesses closed, unemployment rocketed, and huge numbers of people fell below the poverty line as the inflation rate surpassed the 40 per cent mark.
The Pink Tide
By the end of the decade, a new, smarter, breed of leftist leaders emerged in the region such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia. It was a new leftist wave, the Pink Tide as it is called in the continent. And it was crowned with the rise of one Brazilian union boss, Lula da Silva, who unlike those two radicals, had sought with other like-minded politicians to redefine the new leftist movement, particularly on two fundamental points: the adherence to democratic values and the commitment to a more mixed economy — while sticking to welfare state principles, encouraged and even promoted private business ventures and lobbied for foreign investment.
His formula succeeded in transforming Brazil from a developing country into an emerging economic power and an effective member of the G20, the 20 biggest economies in the world. It also made Lula the most popular president in the history of Brazil. His popularity numbers are historic records that are unlikely to be beaten, says his biographer, comparing him to Pele, the football legend whose statistics remain unbeaten decades after the Brazilin player retired.
“He’s the Pelé of international presidential electoral politics — nobody has a record like he does anywhere in the world,” John D. French, the author of ‘Lula and His Politics of Cunning: From Metalworker to President of Brazil’, noted in a recent interview. The book is an amusing journey, with all its ups and downs, in the life of Lula, born in 1945 to illiterate parents who migrated to Sao Paulo.
According to French, Lula “learnt to read at ten years of age, left school at fourteen, became a skilled metalworker, rose to union leadership, helped end a military dictatorship — and in 2003 became the thirty-fifth president of Brazil.”
The unique thing about Lula, French argues in his book, is the Brazilian leader’s ability to “speak with, not at, people and to create shared political meaning, [which] was fundamental to his political triumphs.”
But like most epic journeys, Lula’s has had its inevitable dramatic twist — the fall from grace. That happened four years ago. Six years after he left the presidency, and helping his protégé Dilma Rousseff becoming a president, he faced a criminal investigation accusing his administration of a large-scale corruption.
He all along claimed that it was a politically motivated ploy by the right to undo what he had done in the past decade. In July 2017, he was convicted of bribery and money laundering and sentenced to 9 and a half years in prison. “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,” his lawyers argued.
The judge who convicted Lula and many senior officials of his administration was certainly not above suspicions, it turned out later. In 2018, he was appointed as justice minister by the new right wing president Bolsonaro.
Conviction and return to public life
However, in January 2018, an appeals court upheld Lula’s conviction and increased his sentence to 12 years and one month in prison. Rousseff too was impeached and then replaced by her deputy, whom she accused of orchestrating the entire thing. The day Lula was convicted, the market rejoiced, the currency spiked and the stock market soared to record high. His opponents thought the Lula story was over.
But the mythically popular Lula, there had to be another dramatic twist — the comeback. It happened in March 2020, at the height of the pandemic. Supreme Court justice Edson Fachin, tasked with reviewing the case, annulled the verdicts and ordered the release of Lula.
By quashing the entire case, the judge effectively restored the former president’s civil and political rights — meaning that Lula can run for office again. The presidential elections are in October this year. Lula have yet to announce his candidacy. But Brazilians know he will run. He is coming back with a vengeance and seems to have won the polls 10 months before they opened.
The left is leading on the ascendance again in Latin America. With the waning of the Trump-inspired phenomena worldwide, the right in South America is on the run. In December 2021, Chile and Honduras shunned right wing leaders and voted for leftist presidents. The shift to the left, however, will not be complete without the return of its posterchild — Lula da Silva.
At his first trial in 2017, Lula told the judge he will be back. “What is happening is not getting me down, just motivating me to go out and talk more. I will keep fighting.” And he did.
According to a poll released last month, almost half of Brazilians said they would vote for Lula, who is not officially a candidate, compared to 21 per cent for current president Bolsonaro. The story of Lula is not over.