What We Talk About When We Talk About Lula

By Edmund Ruge

Last week former Brazilian President Lula Inácio da Silva got sentenced to nine and a half years in jail. He allegedly received an apartment complex in return for government contracts to Brazilian construction firm OAS.

Depending on who you read, the conviction is either

  1. A groundless sentence handed down by a partial judge in an attempt to keep Lula out of the 2018 election

  2. The natural pinnacle of Brazil’s anti-corruption investigation Lava-Jato and proof that no politician is above the law

Whichever view you ascribe to, this is big.

However, what’s missing right now from most headlines and op-eds is a bit of historical perspective. 2018 will be pivotal, and this is a big moment for Brazilian courts. But Lula’s conviction and potential arrest mean much more.

O Pai dos Pobres

Last summer I spent several weeks interviewing Brasilia’s lower-income elderly on life trajectories and health. What struck me most about our conversations was that whenever I asked about favorite presidents, I got two names: Lula Inácio da Silva (2003 - 2011) and Getúlio Vargas (1930 - 1945, 1951 - 1954).

This should tell us something about why Lula’s recent conviction is such an issue: Brazil’s working poor haven’t had a president in their corner since the 1950s.

Given, Vargas is one of the most controversial figures in Brazilian history. Legitimate anti-Vargas criticism ranges from attacks on his populist tendencies and authoritarian-cum-corporatist repression, to his economic short-sightedness and inflationary spending. He was far from perfect.

And yet, he was the only Brazilian president in 100+ years to champion the cause of the poor -- even if only in name -- until Lula.

The “soft-authoritarian” president/dictator created Brazil’s Ministry of Labor, Commerce, and Industry, driving government advocacy for workers’ rights. He consolidated the country’s diffuse labor laws, codifying social protection on a national level and creating now sacred Brazilian institutions like the 13th salary and the Government Severance Indemnity Fund (FGTS). With the creation of Brazil’s National Steel Company (CNS) and National Oil Company (Petrobras), he stoked Brazil’s first real industrialization. With his developmentalist approach, he earned the moniker “the father of the poor.”

His fall and eventual suicide led to decades of overheated growth, instability, and later military rule. When the military dictatorship miraculous economics faltered at the hands of the Latin American Debt Crisis, Brazil accepted IMF-imposed austerity, paying off its debt rather than investing in health, education, and infrastructure.

Post-military presidents came from the old political families and spent their time fighting foreign debt, deflecting corruption charges, or tackling inflation.

And then there was Lula.

Lula the 6th of 23 children. Lula who sold peanuts and cassava in the streets as a kid. Lula who lost his pinky finger to a bandsaw. Lula who taught Brazil that you could come from the bottom and still make it.

As former US President Barack Obama told us, “that’s the guy.” That’s the guy that pulled millions out of poverty and into the middle class. That’s the guy that enshrined Bolsa Familia* as the reference for all future conditional cash transfer programs -- using less than 2.5% of the budget. That’s the guy that convinced the world you could have growth and redistribution at the same time.

That’s the guy we’re gonna lock up?

Yes, he is almost certainly guilty. Abundant evidence makes the apartment his. Should the current case fall apart, he has four other charges awaiting him.

That said, convicting Lula means much more than denouncing corruption or keeping a polarizing former president out of the 2018 elections.

Convicting Lula means tying the knot on Michel Temer’s year-long crusade to upend advancements in social progress hailing all the way back to the Estado Novo.  

Last fall’s fiscal spending cap means desperately needed spending on healthcare and education won’t increase in real terms for decades. This month’s labor reform bill, now signed into law, takes major constitutionally-awarded labor rights (some hailing back to Vargas’ labor codes) and opens them up to employer-employee negotiation. Meanwhile, 71%% of Brazilians disagree with the Temer’s slated pension reform.

All of this by an almost certainly more corrupt, politically deaf, unelected president with single digit approval ratings. And in the name of fiscal stability, low inflation, and foreign investment? The Washington Consensus?

Yes, the post-Lula PT ran the country into the ground. Yes, politicians across the entire spectrum are under investigation for corruption. Yes, Lava-Jato must continue. But recognize that justice need not be at ends with social progress.

Until recently, Getúlio Vargas’ social policies remained ingrained in Brazilian culture as essential components of the Brazilian development. Fortified by the 1988 constitution, they provided the backbone for Brazil’s inclusive growth in the early 2000s. Likewise, Lula’s efforts and legacy must be taken seriously. Though tainted by corruption, they represent massive strides towards more equitable, more humane growth.


*Lula merged and ramped up three Cardoso-era programs with his recently created Zero Fome initiative*


Edmund Ruge is Lead Fellow at the Met Society. Follow him on Twitter @edmundruge