Brazil’s Lula: leftist giant on the brink of tumbling

May 10, 2017 11:03 am
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When Lula left office, he was credited with an economic boom that had helped lift tens of millions of people from poverty. His popularity ratings were at 80 percent/AFP

, SAO PAULO, Brazil, May 10 – A former shoeshine boy and steelworker who rose to become one of Brazil’s most popular presidents, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva now risks seeing his reputation shredded in humiliating fashion.

Lula faces five corruption trials and on Wednesday he was to go before crusading Judge Sergio Moro, head of Brazil’s huge “Car Wash” graft probe, on one of them.

Overview
  • Lula is, characteristically, fighting back.
  • He denies all charges of bribe taking, money laundering and influence peddling, insisting that he is the victim of a politicized judiciary.
  • But he has already fallen a dizzying distance since the glory days of two terms in office between 2003 and 2010.

If Lula is found guilty in any of the cases, he would risk being barred from seeking a comeback reelection in 2018, and even face imprisonment.

Lula is, characteristically, fighting back. He denies all charges of bribe taking, money laundering and influence peddling, insisting that he is the victim of a politicized judiciary.

But he has already fallen a dizzying distance since the glory days of two terms in office between 2003 and 2010.

When Lula left office, he was credited with an economic boom that had helped lift tens of millions of people from poverty. His popularity ratings were at 80 percent.

However, the economy dived under his hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, and last year she was stripped of the presidency after an impeachment trial on charges of budget irregularities.

With Lula and scores of other politicians now sucked into Brazil’s biggest ever corruption scandal and his Workers’ Party being annihilated in elections, things could hardly seem grimmer for the blue-collar hero.

Few, though, would entirely count him out.

Street vendor, party founder

Lula grew up in deep poverty, the last of eight children born to a family of farmers in the arid, hardscrabble northeastern state of Pernambuco.

He had little formal education as a boy, quitting grade school to help his family get by.

When he was seven, his family joined a wave of migration to the industrial heartland of Sao Paulo state, where he worked as a shoeshine boy and street vendor before becoming a metalworker.

He rose to become president of his trade union less than a decade after joining.

He was the force behind big strikes in the 1970s that challenged the military regime. And in 1980, he co-founded the Workers’ Party, first standing as its candidate for president nine years later.

He made three unsuccessful presidential bids from 1989 to 1998, each time chipping away at the establishment parties and the idea that a poor, uneducated labor leader could never be president of Brazil.

The fourth time, in 2002, he succeeded, taking office on January 1, 2003.

‘Rock star’ president

Lula calmed market fears of a radical surge to the left by adopting fiscally responsible policies and a calm, pragmatic approach.

He also had the good fortune to preside over a so-called golden decade for Latin America, when China’s ravenous demand for raw materials propelled the region’s economies to a historic period of growth.

Brazil’s economy hit an impressive 7.5 percent growth pace in 2010, his final year in office.

Despite a series of scandals in his first term most notably a congressional vote-buying case that felled his chief of staff  Lula coasted to re-election in 2006.

Brazil’s first democratically elected leftist since the end of the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, he was so widely admired as president that Foreign Policy magazine called him a “rock star.” His US counterpart Barack Obama once referred to him as “the man.”

The constitution limited him to two consecutive terms, but he cemented his legacy by helping Rousseff into power.

Divider in chief

Post-presidential life proved fraught. In October 2011 he was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx and successfully underwent chemotherapy.

Lula retains a hard core of support and leads polls ahead of next year’s elections. However, he has sky high negatives too, inspiring near hatred on the right.

When his wife Marisa Leticia Lula da Silva died in February after a stroke, allies of the ex-president claimed that “persecution” by corruption prosecutors had contributed to her death.

And on the other side of the divide, opponents accused Lula of using the personal tragedy to boost his image.

Even personal tragedy had become politics.

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