Lula Goes to Prison, Deepening Brazil’s Political Crisis — as Military Waits in the Wings

Brazil's most popular politician reported to prison as emboldened generals are flexing their political muscles again.

Photo: Francisco Proner/Coletivo Farpa

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is in prison. On April 7, the former president of Brazil was incarcerated in a federal police building after 48 hours of a sort of self-banishment. He sought refuge with the metallurgical workers union of São Bernardo do Campo, where he began his political career in the 1970s. Lula emerged only after negotiating with the federal police and disobeying the deadline set by the court to turn himself in. But in a final moment of defiance, the ex-president delivered an emotional speech at an open-air mass in memory of his deceased wife, who would have celebrated her birthday that day, as the nation watched live on TV.

The day was a fitting nod to Lula’s 40-year run in Brazilian politics and was an inflection point for Brazil. Decades of political turns of fortune brought us to where we are today, having moved from military rule to an emerging democracy and now backsliding. Brazil’s oligarchs have reclaimed power, despite the absence of democratic legitimacy, while the most popular politician in the country over the past decade and a half has been thrown behind bars for the foreseeable future. The nation is now asking itself: What comes next?

Now that the former president is out of the picture, the extreme right is gaining strength — and, with it, the force of the Brazilian military.

The country’s politics are in disarray: Lula consistently led the polls for this year’s upcoming elections and had a real chance to be re-elected for a third term. Now that the former president is out of the picture, the extreme right is rapidly gaining strength — and, with it, the force of the Brazilian military.

The days Lula spent cloistered at the union were intense. He confined himself in the building with politicians, friends, and lawyers, and poked his head out the window a few times, waving to the crowd that was supporting him day and night as they contemplated how to proceed. After the deadline came and went, and then the mass, he decided to step outside. His first attempt to leave the union headquarters was blocked by Workers’ Party activists who, from the outside, removed an iron gate where Lula’s car was going to pass by and blocked its exit — a perfectly cinematic scene.

When Lula finally made his way out, he left on foot, wading through the adoring crowd towards the police vehicles and was literally lifted on the shoulders of his supporters. An aerial photo of the moment would be, for Lula’s supporters, a final image of his martyrdom: their leader surrounded by his people, a sacred cow ready to be touched.

The last image of Lula before entering prison was of his arrival at the federal police building in Curitiba. Even this stirred controversy: Much of the media used the grim, subdued image of Lula at the police building rather than the triumphant images from the union headquarters. And the trip between the two locations became a point of contention, too: Television stations had broadcast an image of a modern jet that was initially supposed to transport him, yet the former president had been flown from São Paulo in a single-motor propeller plane. The airplane switch was ominous, an apparent reflection of the intense pressure coming from large swaths of the judicial and criminal justice communities that does not look kindly on those convicted in Operation Car Wash, known in Portuguese as Operação Lava Jato — an investigation that uncovered widespread corruption in Brazil.

Much of Brazil’s left expects that Lula will get out of prison, at least provisionally. But accomplishing that will be challenging. While the crimes for which he was convicted do not merit such harsh penalties, multiple other legal proceedings are still unfolding. Lula is 72 years old, and is likely to spend the rest of his days bouncing between courts.


As his supporters carry him away after a speech, Lula becomes emotional as he bids farewell in front of the metalworkers union, in São Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, on April 7, 2018.

Photo: Christian Braga/Coletivo Farpa
What will become of Brazil without Lula as an active political player? The left’s odds are diminishing. The Workers’ Party has not put forth a natural successor, instead expending all its energy to set Lula free. Caught up in their fervor, it appears that it never considered the scenario of having to put forward another candidate. No candidate from other left-leaning parties can hold a candle to his popularity.

With a disempowered left, two main dangers loom — both of which leave the country staring down the rifle barrels of the armed forces.

The first is a dramatically increased role for the military in public discourse, which is already underway. Though largely silent since the end of the military dictatorship in the 1980s, Brazil’s generals were cast back into politics by current President Michel Temer. The president called on the military to occupy Rio de Janeiro and oversee the city’s previously lacking public security infrastructure. The generals answered the call and have become increasingly assertive.

Though largely silent since the end of the military dictatorship in the 1980s, Brazil’s generals were cast back into politics.

The night before Brazil’s Supreme Court voted against a habeas corpus request from Lula, the army commander, Gen. Eduardo Villas Bôas, tweeted, “I assure the nation that the Brazilian Army shares the desire of all citizens of good standing to repudiate impunity and respect the Constitution, social peace, and democracy, while remaining attentive to its institutional missions.”

The message, within the context of Brazilian politics, was thickly coded. “Citizens in good standing,” or “cidadãos de bem” in Portuguese, is how a certain segment of Brazilians refer to themselves — namely those who share a hatred of the left and rail against an imaginary “communist threat” that actually don’t exist in Brazil of these days. They also tend to support expanded gun rights; oppose human rights, which some on the right describe as “only useful for defending criminals”; and embrace “the only good criminal is a dead criminal” as a sort of unofficial slogan.

The anchor of Brazil’s most widely watched television news program, on the Rede Globo network, read Villas Bôas’s tweet on air in his signature authoritative baritone. It was the last news item of the broadcast, and the journalists offered it without any commentary, criticism, or mention of the potential repercussions of the commander’s words. It was as though the voice of God had urged the 11 Supreme Court justices to “do the right thing” by sending Lula to prison.

The day before the ominous tweet, there was an equally alarming incident. In the early morning, just hours before a national protest planned by right-wing movements, one of Brazil’s most prominent newspapers, Folha de São Paulo, tweeted, “Protests lead top military brass to assess declaring a state of siege.” The disconcerting news, however, was part of an ongoing retrospective project: The newspaper had tweeted a story from exactly 50 years ago to the day, during the military dictatorship. Perhaps it was a prank, but in an age when so many people read only headlines — or tweets — it seemed like the paper was talking about a real threat from the army on the day of Lula’s sentence.

That same day, the front page of Folha featured a call for Brazilians to attend anti-Lula protests: “No one is above the law,” it read. Some people tried to place the message in context, pointing out that it was an advertisement placed by a right-wing group, not an editorial — as if the approval of such an ad were, like getting wet on a rainy day, simply inevitable.

Afterward, a different national newspaper, O Estado de São Paulo, published yet another military message. Through its wire service, which distributes news to dozens of media outlets nationwide, O Estado published the opinion of a reserve general, who said that if Lula were to be granted impunity, “the only recourse remaining would be an armed response.” The newspaper did not explain the logic of interviewing a general without a command, like dozens of others to be found in Brazil and who could well have differing opinions.


Police form a barricade around the federal police headquarters in Curitiba, Brazil, where Lula is being held, on April 8, 2018.

Photo: Rodrigo Felix Leal/Futura Press/Folhapres
An “armed response” is not the military’s only recourse. Beyond occupying ministries, secretariats, and other government positions in a sort of postmodern version of a military coup, the Brazilian military could come to power another way: through the election of Jair Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro, a captain in the reserves, is the greatest beneficiary of Lula’s absence on the presidential ballot. He sits comfortably in second place in the polls, far ahead of any candidate vying for third. If elected, he will try to impose his militaristic agenda.

A member of Brazil’s Congress for almost 30 years, Bolsonaro has only passed two pieces of legislation. He is inept, but a rousing speaker: He promises to “finish off the bandits,” “arrest all of those who are corrupt,” and restore an imaginary time of “law and order” that supposedly existed during the military dictatorship.

The Brazilian military could come to power another way: through the election of Jair Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro, of course, hates LGBT people, black people, and other minorities. He is openly hostile to the concept of “rights” unless preceded by the word “gun.” On several occasions he has publicly defended torturers and assassins as if they were national heroes. During his vote in favor of Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, he dedicated a moment to one of the men who tortured the former president while she was a political prisoner. In other words, he is like a disease that presents itself as the cure — claiming to mend a society that he actually wants to rip apart.

He was long regarded as a joke, but then Bolsonaro proved to be a convenient alternative for those who believed that corruption — represented, in their minds, by Lula and the Workers’ Party — can be dealt with by waving a magic wand. For the likes of Bolsonaro and his ilk, that wand would be the military’s guns: The end of corruption is possible only with a cavalier dose of violence.

Bolsonaro and Lula are not comparable, but they do resemble one another a great deal on one crucial point of realpolitik, which no other candidate has at this time. Bolsonaro offers what Lula represented for many years: a consistent vision of the future for those willing to believe in it. But Bolsonaro seeks to implement this vision with practical, albeit bizarre, actions; with concrete, albeit deceptive, promises; with visible enemies, though they are victims of injustice; and with a bit of the sort of dream that people sometimes permit themselves.

Lula’s rule offered years of an economic and social bonanza, despite the endless criticisms of his administrations. With Bolsonaro, the dreams of many Brazilians will be hijacked; his delusions are clearly nightmares, a dystopian world with dictatorial tones that would push Brazil into the trash bin of history once again. His is a future for those who believe that a dictatorship will be a dictatorship only vis-à-vis “the others” — that it will somehow limit its powers, directing them only “against the bandits.”

With the left in tatters and the moderate right lacking any apparent alternatives, that dystopia is lurking just around the next corner.

Top photo: After his last speech before turning himself into the federal police, ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, is carried back to the metalworkers union, in São Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, on April 7, 2018.

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