Few people have traveled the world so much and seen as little outside of hotels, palaces and offices as Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (76 years old, Garanhuns, Pernambuco). He was already the former president of Brazil when, on an official trip to India, he did not reserve a single moment outside the official agenda, not even to make a brief getaway and visit one of the most beautiful monuments in the world. “In recent years, Lula has done nothing but politics. He does not take advantage of any trip to see anything. In India he did not even see the Taj Mahal. He stayed in the hotel receiving politicians, ”reveals his biographer and friend Fernando Morais, who has followed in his footsteps for a decade, over the phone.
Politics is the fuel that feeds this pragmatic and chameleon-like man who, after his fall from grace, stars in the most unexpected political resurrection of recent times. He caresses a third term at the head of the first power in Latin America, which he governed between 2003 and 2010.
Imagining the current scenario would have sounded delusional four years ago, when the metal worker turned union leader who founded the Workers’ Party (PT) was practically a political corpse. Jailed for corruption six months before the elections, he could not even vote in the elections won by an extreme right-wing politician nostalgic for the dictatorship, Jair Bolsonaro, 67 years old. Lula had already known prison during the military government.
Now, four years later, the polls place the Pernambucan 12 points ahead of the far-right before the elections on October 2, in which the Congress, governors and state parliaments are also elected. If no candidate gets half plus one of the valid votes, there will be a second round four Sundays later. The two favorites are old acquaintances of the electorate. For Lula —which in Portuguese means squid— it is his sixth choice because, before winning twice, he lost three. He was about to leave, but the Cuban Fidel Castro convinced him with the argument that he could not betray the working class.
Lula entered history in 2003 when he became the first —and so far only— worker to preside over this class-oriented and unequal country like few others. For a part of his compatriots, he is the hero who lifted millions out of poverty and gave them unimaginable opportunities for their elders. For others, he is the leader of a gang of looters of public money in the Petrobras oil company (although the convictions for corruption that led to 20 months in prison were annulled or archived). He always proclaimed his innocence and his confidence in justice.
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For more than three decades, he has been the central figure in Brazilian politics. For better or worse, almost everything revolves around him. Hardly anyone disputes that he is a skilled negotiator, charismatic, empathetic, cunning, and a great storyteller. At school he already stood out for his oral and written expression, even though he was not a good student, according to his biographer.
The PT is the most solid party in Brazil, but it is no longer the powerful electoral machine of Lula’s best years. Its territorial power has been diminishing since the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in 2016. He or his allies govern five states, all in the poorest Brazil, and since the last municipal ones they have not managed a single one of the capitals; just a handful of municipalities totaling four million among a population of 210 million. The party, after all, is a personal formation. His parliamentary group, one of the largest with 56 seats, failed to establish itself as a powerful opposition to Bolsonarism. That role was assumed by Lula when he was released.
His speeches include constant references to Doña Lindu, his mother. That illiterate and severe woman who managed to raise her seven children after leaving an abusive husband was called Eurídice Ferreira de Melo. And when journalists ask him about her spending ceiling, Lula usually slips away and says that she learned to manage money thanks to this housewife in a poor home. Although the economic power feared him as radical, he was quite orthodox even though he implemented policies for a slightly fairer distribution of income: with the progressive governments, the average income of Brazilians rose 38% more than inflation, but that of the poorest increased much more, 84%, according to the Workers’ Party.
For many of the most needy Brazilians, Lula is one of their own because he knows misery. Born in the interior of Pernambuco, a land ravaged by poverty and drought, he was seven years old when, in 1952, he traveled with his mother and brothers in a van for 13 days to reach the thriving São Paulo in an exodus of Northeasterners to the south. They settled next to the second family created by his father, Aristides, a longshoreman who made an effort to feed all of his offspring while treating them with a cruelty that bordered on sadism, Morais says in Lula, Biography Volume 1 (Planet in Spanish; Companhia das Letras, in Portuguese). Life was hard, but there were opportunities. Lula took advantage of them. He worked as a shoe shiner and errand boy before entering a vocational school, his springboard for employment as a turner. In that role he lost his left little finger. Bolsonaro usually calls him “nine fingers”.
He likes to listen to countless opinions before deciding. He handles ambiguity well and is a politician who moves among paupers, bankers or kings without seeming like an impostor. His is “a multiple personality,” emphasizes Morais, who also highlights his ability not to hold a grudge. Not even his time in jail soured his character. “He has more ability to make alliances with former enemies than most people I know,” he says of his friend.
Just look at who he has chosen as his travel companion. His vice-presidential candidate is Geraldo Alckmin, a former adversary in the 2006 presidential dispute, a historical figure of the center right, 70 years old, who in the previous electoral campaign even said of him: “After ruining the country, Lula wants to return to power, to the scene of the crime”, a phrase that Bolsonaro now uses to attack the duo.
Lula is also “stubborn”. He was still in jail when he said: “I’m going to leave here to contest the Presidency of the Republic,” recalls the journalist who speaks with him even in this final stretch of the campaign.
When he entered prison in 2018, Lula thought that it would be a matter of days, but it was 20 months. Enough time to write hundreds of letters to his girlfriend Rosángela Silva, Janja, 55 years old, with whom he has just married. And to read like never before, with a Portuguese dictionary and an atlas. Those readings that “gave consistency to his principles and objectives”, says Morais, who adds: “he left much better than he entered”. He was not afraid to ask his lawyers questions such as: “Explain one thing to me, what is this history of identity politics?” Nor does he digest well other issues of modernity such as the use of mobile phones. And it irritates him greatly that in the middle of meetings those present consult the phone screen.
Much admired abroad, Obama said of him in a huddle at the G20: “I love this guy. He is the most popular politician on earth!” The following year he left power with an 87% popularity rating, as he loves to remember. After touring the world as a former president, he ended up sunk in the quagmire by that hurricane that was the Lava Jato corruption scandal. As loved as hated, the resentment towards Lula and the PT subsided slightly after his release from prison. There is no shortage of Brazilians scared by Bolsonaro who will vote for him despite being convinced that he was not a politician of integrity.
Father of five children, life has given him other blows. His first wife passed away along with the baby they were expecting. The second, Doña Marisa, in full judicial harassment. She overcame laryngeal cancer.
He is excited by the heat of the rallies, the direct contact with the people, which the pandemic, and now security, complicate. But no one remembers her in earthly activities such as going to the supermarket, the movies, a restaurant or the Corinthians stadium, the legendary Socrates team of which she is a fan.
Before entering prison, in 2018, he still played a few soccer games with friends (in one he met Janja) and some Saturdays he would organize a barbecue at his house with old comrades from the times when they fought the dictatorship by strike. Not even that anymore. Just politics. Always accompanied by his wife, he is on a mission to defeat Bolsonaro, save democracy and return to power to “reinclude the poor in the budget and that all Brazilians eat three meals a day.” He himself has said that he is aware of the magnitude of the challenge in these times, which are no longer those of the bonanza generated by raw materials. “That’s why I do gymnastics every day.” To serve Brazil. And rewrite his story.
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