The Meaning of Lula’s Conviction

Lula's conviction could shore up Brazil's bickering ruling class while further fragmenting the Left.

A young Lula in Rio de Janeiro. Clóvis Ferreira / Flickr

After almost thirty years of trying, the Brazilian forces of reaction have convicted the Workers’ Party (PT) leader and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Lula is the leading candidate for the 2018 general elections, and if his conviction stands, it blows open the race, forcing the PT —  and the wider left — to seriously reconsider its strategy. The PT without Lula is like the 2014 Brazilian football team without their star player Neymar, and that culminated in the darkest day in Brazilian sporting history: the historic 7-1 rout by Germany.

The parliamentary coup of 2016 was carried on the back of anti-corruption protests that targeted the PT. These were stoked by the regular leaking of corruption revelations to the media by the Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) investigations. But if Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment last year was the coup’s principle maneuver, Lula’s conviction now looks like its completion.

But as with everything else in Brazil’s interminable, accelerating crisis, nothing is guaranteed. The future will be determined as much by popular mobilization against neoliberal reforms as by ongoing conflict within a fracturing ruling class.

Twists and Turns

Lula’s conviction comes at a strange time for the Brazilian left, which, just two months ago, seemed to be back on the up, mounting a historic general strike in which over forty million workers participated and major protests in the capital, Brasilia, in which three government buildings were set on fire.

A few weeks later, the brothers at the head of JBS, the world’s biggest meatpacking corporation and based in Brazil, entered into a plea bargain in which they spilled the beans on President Michel Temer — the unelected president spearheading drastic neoliberal reforms — and his corrupt dealings, sparking talk of impeachment. The tables seemed to have turned.

Yet that energy quickly dissipated. A second general strike called for June 30 saw little mobilization, with major PT-aligned unions pulling out at the last minute, and was immediately seen as a complete failure.

The explanation for this disaster lies in part in the role and calculations of the PT among the broader left. The PT, which has long had a bureaucratic side despite its radical history and popular-left image, fears that destabilization and new elections might undermine an orderly transition back to a Lulista presidency in 2018.

At the local level, the PT has maintained its old alliance with the PMDB, the same party that impeached Rousseff and installed Temer in the presidency, and hopes to return to power with that alliance intact. This has demoralized the Left. While Lula’s conviction might trigger a new round of mass protest, it would merely mask the Left’s fragmentation.

Fractions and Pacts

Lula’s conviction comes in the midst of the Lava Jato anti-corruption investigations, which began in 2014. They escalated over the past three years, drawing ever-greater numbers of leading politicians into its dragnet. And yet it seemed mostly to target the PT while letting other parties off the hook. The process has been widely denounced for its partiality, overreach, and trial-by-media spectacle.

Lula was first arrested — without charge, the result of a sort of “bench warrant” — in March 2016, a media coup for those moving to impeach his fellow PT leader Rousseff using inflated accusations of corruption. Many claimed that Lava Jato was advancing a rule by judiciary that would reverse rather than deepen democracy in Brazil.

In the name of fighting corruption, an empowered independent judiciary could be beholden to corporate or sectoral interests. As a counter-majoritarian institution it could additionally, through selective prosecution, seek to destabilize elected representatives. Rather than citizens holding representatives to account, unelected judges are.

In recent weeks, however, the Lava Jato task force — the darling of the upper-middle class — has been wound down, with many of its responsibilities dispersed among the Federal Police around the country. Although the government argued this was in order to lessen its workload, investigators themselves protested that this was actually clipping the wings of the most dynamic anti-corruption unit in the country.

The suspicion is that the Temer government is seeking to curtail the actions of the Federal Police. For example, the force last month refused to issue passports due to a “lack of budget” in an apparent demonstration against the federal government’s cuts in funding to the police. The termination of Lava Jato also marks a defeat for the attempt by a younger section of the elite to renew the Brazilian establishment through the vanguard of the radical judiciary.

This all speaks to a fractious atmosphere within the Brazilian establishment. But it’s not just the PT which has been thrown into crisis by the corruption investigations. The Brazilian elite has historically displayed an extraordinary degree of intra-class solidarity; recent corruption investigations have shattered that unity.

The Brazilian political class, the judiciary, and major companies — in particular the enormous media conglomerate Globo — are now at odds with one another. Globo wants to resolve the crisis by restoring credibility to the political system through backing the Lava Jato investigation.

Shrewd capitalists like JBS’s Joesley Batista, who handed over the tapes that could provide the basis for the prosecution of Temer, are more than willing to feed their political allies to the crocodiles if it keeps them out of prison. In such cases, the threatened Brazilian political class cries “judicial overreach” in a desperate attempt to avoid jail.

This has had the nasty effect of overlapping the interests of the PT’s leadership with those of the very same gangsters who removed it from power. There have even been reports of meetings between Lula, Temer, and former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, suggesting an impending elite pact against the investigations. Such a pact would also scupper the streets’ demands to remove Temer from power, end the neoliberal reforms he and the PMDB are pushing, and prove a setback for the call for “diretas já” (direct elections now).

But even if Lula manages to successfully appeal his conviction and run in the 2018 election — a contest he would most likely win, according to most polling — it is unclear whether a PT government would diverge from the path set by Temer. The party’s program has reverted to simply an affirmation of Lula’s leadership abilities and charisma, and neither the party nor Lula has committed to overturning the despicable array of austerity measures and labor reforms implemented by Temer and his cronies.

It is hard to identify any potential successor among the ranks of the PT; with its younger leaders being bureaucrats, technocrats, or ensnared in Lava Jato, the party simply lacks the political talent it once had after over a decade and a half in power and can no longer rely on the trade union movement or its social movement allies to produce the next generation of petista cadre.

The grassroots PT and extra-PT left, meanwhile, rather than mounting an alternative to the austerity measures that have been passed by congress over the past months, is faced with the prospect of the national agenda again being dominated by Lula, and are hesitating as to how to respond. Rather than superseding the conciliatory approach pioneered by the PT — a necessary stage for Left revitalization — the PT and its allies may now spend its time mobilizing in defense of Lula. They do so with the fear that without Lula in the running, nastier, “anti-establishment” candidates like the proto-fascist Jair Bolsonaro might have a chance at winning the presidency.

Rouba Mas Reforma

The Brazilian left-wing economist and columnist Laura Carvalho recently described Temer’s governing philosophy as “rouba mas reforma” (robbery, but with reforms), a play on the traditional slogan of Brazilian machine politicians, “rouba mas faz” (he steals, but gets things done). Temer, who is barred from running again, can afford to be unpopular in passing “necessary measures” destroying retirement benefits and creating a permanently precarious labor market.

It is surely not accidental that Lula’s sentencing came less than twenty-four hours after the senate passed these disastrous labor reforms. Any sooner and it may have brought a stronger response from the PT.

Instead, with the PT ensnared in its fight against corruption charges, the neoliberal reforms passed — handing the radical judiciary its final coup de grace.

Of course, many on the center and right remain free. Defeated 2014 presidential candidate senator Aécio Neves — the AJ Soprano of Brazilian politics and a man previously caught with over 445 kilograms of cocaine paste in a helicopter — is once again sitting in the senate after having been briefly threatened with arrest.

Brazil’s political class is comprised largely of degenerate failsons. Brazil’s powerful business families have traditionally sent their least talented sons into politics so as to keep them away from the family business. The elite has rarely shown itself capable of advancing Brazilian development.

The architects of the coup are not the Machiavellian conspirators depicted by some of the Left, but an opportunistic gang that overthrew a democratically elected president in a tantrum designed to avoid prosecution. This makes a progressive movement to demolish the structures of corruption all the more important.

A popular anti-corruption movement would thus draw upon the strong Brazilian traditions of popular democracy and mass struggle by putting forward political and media reform. The objective would be to confront the elite stranglehold on the Brazilian political system rather than relying on unelected judges or a messianic leader. Building a movement against reactionary and technocratic attacks on democracy now requires a bold vision willing to challenge the very structures of Brazil’s republic.