Few people have traveled so much around the world and seen so little outside of hotels, palaces and offices as Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, 77, originally from Garanhuns, Pernambuco state. He had already been president of Brazil when, during an official trip to India, he didn’t even find a few hours of leisure. “In recent years Lula has only devoted himself to politics. In India he didn’t even visit the Taj Mahal. He stayed in the hotel to receive politicians ”, reveals his biographer and friend Fernando Morais, who has been following him for ten years now.
Politics is the fuel that feeds this pragmatic and chameleonic man: after his fall from grace, he was the protagonist of the most unexpected resurrection of recent times. On October 30, Lula won the presidential elections and won a third term at the helm of Brazil, the first power in Latin America. He had already been president from 2003 to 2010.
His victory four years ago seemed unimaginable: Lula, a metalworker turned union leader, one of the founders of the Workers’ Party (PT), was in fact politically dead. Jailed for corruption six months before the 2018 elections, he could not even vote in the presidential elections won by Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right politician nostalgic for the military dictatorship. But this time in the runoff on October 30, Lula obtained 50.9 per cent of the votes, beating Bolsonaro by just over one and a half percentage points. The difference is more than two million votes.
After the first round, the Brazilian election campaign turned into a dirty war: every means was used to destroy the opponent’s reputation. Misinformation and lies on social networks are widespread, but Lula realized it late. “I did not imagine the power of lies circulating on cell phones,” she admitted at an event to debunk fake news and attract the vote of evangelicals. And she made a confession: “I’m analog, I don’t have a cell phone. I use those of others “.
For Lula this was the sixth election: before becoming president in 2003 and being reconfirmed in 2006 he had lost three times. He wanted to give up running again, but Cuban leader Fidel Castro convinced him to try again, because he couldn’t betray the working class.
Lula went down in history in 2003, when he became the first – and so far the only – president of the working class to lead Brazil, a class-oriented country with profound inequalities. For some Brazilians he is the hero who lifted millions of people out of poverty and gave them unimaginable opportunities in their parents’ days; for others he is the leader of a gang of thieves who stole public money from the state-owned oil company Petrobras (even though the bribery convictions that kept him in prison for nineteen months have been overturned or dismissed). and to have faith in justice.
For more than thirty years he has been the central figure of Brazilian politics. For better or for worse, almost everything revolves around him. Very few question that he is a skilled negotiator, a charismatic, empathic, cunning leader and a great storyteller. His biographer says that at school Lula was already distinguished by his ability to express himself verbally and in writing, even though he was not a good student.
The PT is the strongest party in Brazil, but it has lost power compared to twenty years ago. Its territorial strength declined after the ousting of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016. The PT and its allies govern four states, all in the poorest part of the country. And since the last municipal elections they have not administered even one of the capitals, only a handful of municipalities for a total of four million inhabitants out of a population of almost 215 million people. Ultimately, the party is a personalist formation. His parliamentary group – one of the largest, with fifty-six seats – failed to establish itself as an opposition to Bolsonaro. Lula did it once he got out of prison, in November 2019.
His speeches include constant references to his mother, an illiterate and strict woman who raised seven children after leaving her abusive husband. When the reporters ask him about the state budget, Lula replies that she has learned to manage money thanks to the example of her mother, a poor housewife. In 2003 the markets and the business elite feared him, thinking he was an extremist, but Lula turned out to be a fairly moderate leader, even as he pursued policies for a more equitable income distribution. According to the PT, under progressive governments the average income of Brazilians increased by 38 percent compared to inflation, but that of the poorest rose much more, by 84 percent. Many poor Brazilians consider Lula one of them, because he has known misery.
Born in Pernambuco, a poor and drought-stricken state, in 1952 he traveled with his mother and siblings in a van for thirteen days to São Paulo. He was seven years old. Morais says they settled in the home of their father’s second family, a longshoreman who struggled to feed his children and treated them badly. Life was hard, but there were opportunities and Lula took them. She worked as a shoeshine and delivery boy before entering a vocational school, which he needed to find a job as a turner. A job that cost him the little finger of his left hand. Bolsonaro often calls it “Nine Fingers”.
Lula likes to hear many opinions before making a decision. He is good at staying vague and knows how to move among poor people, bankers and kings without looking like an impostor. He has “a multiple personality,” says Morais, who also emphasizes his ability not to hold a grudge. Even his time in prison didn’t change his character. “He can make alliances with former enemies more than most people I know,” he says.
◆ October 30, 2022 Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, of the Workers’ Party (left), was elected president with 50.9 percent of the vote. Outgoing far-right leader, ** Jair Bolsonaro **, got 49.1 percent of the vote. With his election, the major economies of Latin America will be led by left-wing governments: Alberto Fernández in Argentina, Gustavo Petro in Colombia, Gabriel Boric in Chile and Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico. There have been hundreds of roadblocks of truck drivers and Bolsonaro supporters in twenty-two states in Brazil since October 31. Dozens of flights were canceled. The outgoing president only spoke on November 1, two days after the vote. He did not condemn the truckers’ protests and did not specifically name Lula, but his spokesperson said he will begin the transition process. Among the main problems that Lula will have to face from January 1, 2023 is hunger, which today affects more than thirty million Brazilians.
Just look at who you have chosen as your travel companion. His vice president will be Geraldo Alckmin, a former opponent in the 2006 presidential elections, a center-right politician who had said of him: “After having ruined the country, Lula wants to return to power, at the crime scene.”
Lula is also stubborn. He was still in prison when he said: “I will get out of here to run for the presidency of the republic.” When he was arrested in 2018, he thought he would be out in a few days. Instead he remained in prison for nineteen months. Enough time to write hundreds of letters to his girlfriend Rosângela da Silva, Janja, 55, whom he recently married, and to read about her as never before. Those readings “gave substance to his principles and goals,” says Morais. He does not digest some issues of modernity, such as the use of cell phones. And he gets particularly annoyed when someone looks at the phone during a meeting.
He is a leader admired abroad. Former US President Barack Obama said of him, speaking informally to the G20: “I love this man. He is the most popular politician in the world ”. When he left the presidency in 2010, he had an 87 percent approval rating, as he himself likes to remember. After touring everywhere as a former president, he ended up in the swamp of the corruption investigation lava jato. He is much loved and equally hated, even if after his arrest and imprisonment the resentment towards him and the PT has partly subsided. His life held difficult trials for him: his first wife died along with the child they were expecting. The second, Marisa Letícia, died in 2017. Lula fell ill with laryngeal cancer and recovered.
He loves the warmth of speeches and direct contact with people. But no one remembers seeing him intent on earthly activities such as going to the supermarket, the cinema, the restaurant or the stadium of the Corinthians, the São Paulo team for which Lula supports and which in the eighties was led by the footballer Sócrates (famous for the experiment of Corinthian democracy).
Before being arrested in 2018, Lula still played a few games of football with friends and on Saturdays he organized a barbecue at his home with old comrades who had opposed the military dictatorship with strikes. Now he is dedicated only to politics. During the election campaign he was always accompanied by his wife and repeated that his mission was to defeat Bolsonaro, save democracy and return to power to “include the poor again in the budget and ensure that all Brazilians can eat three times a day” .
The new president is well aware that a difficult challenge awaits him, because the international context has changed since the early 2000s, when the country could count on the boom in raw materials. “That’s why I do gymnastics every day,” he said. To serve Brazil. And rewrite its history. ◆ _fr _