Can a free a Lula stop Brazilian fascism?

(Written by LSE Alumnus Pedro Llullier Rosa)

After 580 days of being a political prisoner in a federal precinct in the southern Brazilian state of Paraná, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was released on the late afternoon of Friday, November 8th, following a hotly-argued Supreme Court decision. Leaving the complex, Lula met with a crowd of his supporters, who had held vigil there since the day of his arrest; his release created an outpouring of support and relief by an embattled left throughout the country (and overseas, from figures such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders), being celebrated online as well as offline in peaceful street demonstrations.

The next day, his speech at a metalworkers’ union in the state of São Paulo, where he started his political career, was televised live by most major national networks – there, he attacked sitting President Jair Bolsonaro for his dismantling of social institutions, for the growth of unemployment and informal labour, and for his links to paramilitary groups in Rio de Janeiro. Claiming to have “74 years of age, but the energy of a man of 30 and the eagerness of a man of 20”, Lula made a clear statement: he is back on the political scene.

Lula’s prison sentence had been, in many ways, a shaping aspect of Brazil’s political climate. The result of a rushed – and, as confirmed by a series of leaks, politically motivated – process that prevented him from running for President in the 2018 election, it had also severed much of the left’s capacity for unified articulation.

Large street protests and widespread outrage against education cuts, police brutality, and the government’s encouragement of the Amazon fires, combined with record-low approval ratings and growing international ostracism, could only barely be utilised by a fierce but politically weak leftist presence in Congress.

Meanwhile, constant infighting among the ranks of the far-right – between a conservative legislature and military, a neo-fascist foreign ministry, and an ultra-liberal economics team – had been kept in order by the figure of President Bolsonaro. 2019 has been a year of indignation, frustration and powerless anger for any Brazilian sympathetic to social justice.

After Lula’s release, however, a new spirit seems to be gradually sweeping the nation; people, even news anchors from networks that had campaigned for his arrest, already seem eager to slip and refer to Bolsonaro, not him, as “former President”. The mood for the last few days has been lighter and happier, and some younger people have even adopted the expression “to free Lula” to indicate going for a hard night out.

The government’s reception of the news, of course, has been more chilly: after a day in silence (which many Brazilians also saw fit to celebrate), Bolsonaro gave a speech urging his supporters to not lose sight of “command” and “commit friendly fire”, and to not “provide ammunition to the scoundrel, who is momentarily free but loaded with guilt”.

He also took the opportunity to bold-facedly thank for his own election the judge that had sentenced Lula to prison: his appointed Justice Minister, Sérgio Moro, idolized by the right. At 27.4% approval, Bolsonaro’s ruling strategy is to double down on playing to his hardline base of support. Such a base might be further inflamed by a free Lula – but it is to be seen if this will be enough to preserve his governability against the former President’s skill for conciliation.

This photo, by Estadão photojournalist Gabriela Biló, captures Bolsonaro’s reaction upon receiving the news of Lula’s release. Besides him, his Education Minister, Abraham Weintraub.

Lula’s massive popularity has a good reason, rising from his achievement of dramatically changing the course of Brazilian policy at a time of social crisis – making the government move towards including poor and disadvantaged populations for the first time in history after he, from a poor upbringing himself, rose to the Presidency. He has the charisma to bring large popular support to leftist positions and demands, and he is an expert at forging deals to turn them into real change.

Even at his lowest, he was still forecast to handily beat Bolsonaro in the ballot. But to portray the two as polar opposites would be misleading – because, while Bolsonaro represents one of the furthest extremes of reactionary politics today, Lula falls short of a revolutionary figure or harbinger of socialism. Out of prison, people will have to confront that the real Lula might be quite different from what they projected onto him.

And this is the contradiction of Lula’s release for the left. While his massive support among populations his government raised from poverty is something no one else on the left has been able to fully replicate, his coalition had also included banks, national businesses, and powerful centre-right opportunists, all of which contributed to the parliamentary coup which ousted his successor in 2016.

When Lula says in many of his speeches that he “showed it was possible to raise Brazil from poverty”, the second, unsaid part of that sentence is “under a neoliberal framework”. By stopping shy of social reform, he allowed certain populations to remain marginalised, key structural problems unaddressed and powerful interests unchecked – all the while not creating the kind of subversive, de-colonial national consciousness seen in other countries in the region, such as is currently being used in Bolivia to mobilise against their illegitimate government. When he mellowed from his radical stance of the 80s and 90s to be elected in 2002, he sowed stability. He reaped jail and Bolsonaro. It is a latent concern, in a country so rudely made aware of what its elites are capable of at their most barbarous, that he will make the same mistakes again.

It is too early to tell, and the timing too politically delicate, but it is the hope of many that Lula has learned to listen to his critics.

Photo by Thiago Bernardes (FramePhoto/Folhapress).

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