‘Our phoenix’: The astonishing comeback of Brazil’s Lula

Four years ago, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s reputation and political future were in tatters. After an unlikely rise from poverty to union leader to Brazil’s presidency, the man universally known as Lula had landed in prison.

On Sunday – in yet another twist – Brazil’s voters chose him by the narrowest of margins to once again lead the world’s fourth-largest democracy. He will also be putting his legacy on the line.

“They tried to bury me alive, and I am here,” Lula said in a speech on Sunday night after results confirmed his third presidential win. “I am here to govern in a very difficult situation. But I have faith in God that, with our people’s help, we will find a way out for this country.”

Lula’s life has unfolded in such a unique, extraordinary way that it strains credulity.

His family moved from poor northeastern Brazil to Sao Paulo state in pursuit of a better life, following his father, who had travelled south years before. Upon arriving, however, they found he had settled down with another woman. Lula’s mother was left alone to raise eight children, of whom little Lula was the youngest.

With his family pressed for money, he became a metalworker at age 14 in the gritty outskirts of Sao Paulo. It was a physical job that cost him his left pinky finger. He became a union leader in an era when Brazil’s manufacturing workforce was still vast and translated into political power.

He made his first presidential run in 1989, which he lost — along with two subsequent races.

Finally, in 2002, he claimed victory and became the first worker to assume the nation’s top job. He was re-elected four years later, defeating his rival Geraldo Alckmin, who this year became his running mate.

Times were good during Lula’s presidency. Commodities exports to China were surging, filling government coffers, and a vast welfare programme lifted tens of millions of Brazilians into the middle class. Lula left office with an approval rating above 80 percent. Then-US President Barack Obama called him “the most popular politician on Earth”.

His hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, was elected in 2014.

In Rousseff’s second term, however, a sprawling corruption investigation ensnared top politicians and businessmen alike. It plunged her administration – along with Lula and the rest of the Workers’ Party he founded – into disgrace.

Revelations of systemic kickbacks in exchange for government contracts were followed by a deep, two-year recession, which many blamed on Rousseff’s economic policies and turbocharged resentment of the Workers’ Party. She was impeached in 2016 for breaking fiscal responsibility laws regarding management of the federal budget.

Then Lula was sentenced for corruption and money laundering and confined to a 15sq-m (160sq-ft) room on the fourth floor of a Federal Police building in the southern city of Curitiba. That sidelined him from the 2018 presidential race and cleared the way for Jair Bolsonaro, then a fringe lawmaker, to cruise to victory. Lula’s political legacy was in tatters.

Supporters of Brazil’s former president and presidential candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva gather on the day of the presidential run-off in Sao Paulo, Brazil [Amanda Perobelli/Reuters]

His personal life, too, was blown to pieces. His wife passed away, which at the time he blamed on the strain caused by the investigation.

Eventually, he started exchanging love letters with a woman named Rosângela da Silva, nicknamed Janja. Their relationship blossomed thanks to Lula’s then-lawyer, Luis Carlos Rocha, who visited him every weekday.

Rocha acted as their courier, hiding Janja’s letters inside his jacket pocket where guards wouldn’t check. He told The Associated Press he saw Lula’s face light up with each envelope he delivered.

“God willing, one day we will publish [the letters],” Lula said at a rally in September. “But only for people aged over 18.”

The Supreme Court also started assessing the legality of Lula’s convictions, which it eventually annulled on the grounds that the presiding federal judge had been biased and colluded with prosecutors.

After 580 days of imprisonment, Lula was a free man – free to marry his girlfriend and free to run for the presidency. That didn’t stop incumbent Bolsonaro, who was seeking a second term, from reminding voters of Lula’s convictions at every turn, warning that electing him would be like letting a thief return to the scene of the crime.

It revitalised semi-dormant sentiment against the Workers’ Party. A large number of Brazil’s voters still has only disdain for Lula, but the same can be said for Bolsonaro. Ultimately, the presidential race came down to the wire. Lula was elected for the third time with 50.9 percent of the vote. It was the tightest election since Brazil’s return to democracy more than three decades ago.

During his victory speech, Janja was by Lula’s side as she was throughout his campaign. She shed tears, and she wasn’t alone.

“I cried when he was jailed. Now I cry because he will take Brazil back to normal,” said Claudia Marcos, a historian who joined thousands of other people to celebrate the leftist’s victory on Sao Paulo’s main boulevard. “He can do it. He has the charisma to do it.

“He is our phoenix. The most important president in Brazil’s history.”

At the Workers’ Party’s headquarters on Sunday, Lula read out a long, carefully written speech promising to unite Brazil. He will take office on January 1, and has said he won’t seek re-election. That means this presidential term could be his final act.

“It is not the number of years that makes someone old. What makes you old is the lack of a cause,” said Lula, who turned 77 three days before the vote. “Brazil is my cause. The Brazilian people are my cause.”

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