In Lula’s Place

How a housing-justice movement in Brazil is exposing the political contradictions of Lula's imprisonment.

From left, Manuela d'Ávila, Lula, and Guilherme Boulos in São Bernardo do Campo, São Paulo, in April 2018. Mídia NINJA / Flickr

When Brazil’s former president and Workers Party (PT) leader Lula was arrested on April 7, it was mostly based on evidence, presented by the media-star judge Sergio Moro, that he had allegedly received a triplex apartment in exchange for favoring certain public contracts. Around a week after his arrest, the apartment was occupied by the Homeless Workers Movement (MTST), Latin America’s largest working-class movement for housing rights.

All MTST had to do was sever the few wires connected to the building’s electromagnetic lock. Five minutes later, flags from the housing movement and allied organizations were flying from the balcony. The group has undertaken many occupations in order to push housing demands, but this one was unique. Back in January, Lula had tweeted that if the apartment really belonged to him as prosecutors claimed, then perhaps Guilherme Boulos, MTST’s national coordinator, should organize to occupy it. He was reiterating the request he made personally at an urban occupation last year.

The MTST’s occupation, then, constituted a clever form of political theater. Since Lula had publicly invited them to enter it, if it was really his, their actions would have been perfectly legal. And the police’s eventual eviction of the activists meant an implicit admission that Lula did not have rights to the property. “If it’s Lula’s, it’s ours!” read the movement’s banners; “If it’s not, then why is Lula jailed?”

The apartment was key to the investigation that resulted in Lula’s imprisonment, although judicial experts have stated there’s no material evidence proving that Lula accepted it or that it was part of any quid pro quo agreement. The main evidence at hand is the testimony of Leo Pinheiro, the former CEO of one of the construction companies investigated in the Lava Jato corruption inquiries, who made the claims as part of a plea bargain with Judge Moro.

Lula’s arrest came after a series of escalating attacks from the Brazilian right. The ruling elite has compensated for its failure to put forward a clear project — reflected in the absence of a strong center-right presidential candidate — by engaging in political violence. In March, Rio city councilor Marielle Franco of the Party for Socialism and Freedom (PSOL) was executed. She was known for challenging Rio’s policing apparatus, and the bullets found at the scene were linked to the Military Police (PM). As the Right got to work defaming her memory, bullets were fired at Lula’s campaign bus in the south of the country. Then the head of Brazil’s army, General Vilas Boas, took to Twitter to call for the Supreme Court to deny Lula’s upcoming habeas corpus request. This set off a series of supporting tweets by other armed forces officials and right-wing leadership in what can be described as a barely concealed threat of military intervention.

It is in this context that the MTST, and others on the left, have made their defense of Lula. They see his imprisonment not just as an attack on the Workers Party but on democracy itself.

Brazil’s Housing Movement

Lula’s arrest on April 7 barred him — Brazil’s most popular candidate — from running in the presidential elections this October. Officially, he’s still the Workers’ Party (PT) candidate, but unless his forthcoming appeals are successful, the possibilities for election and holding office are slim to none.

As his arrest approached, Lula established his political headquarters in the São Bernardo do Campo Metalworkers’ Union, a place of significance for the PT and Lula, who used to lead the union. After rallying over twenty thousand supporters to São Bernardo and delivering one of the most rousing political speeches of his forty years in politics, Lula handed himself over with his dignity intact to the Federal Police.

Those who expected a massive show of support for the former president were disappointed. The Workers Party spent its fourteen years in power channeling popular discontent through state institutions, and has now lost its ability to mobilize. To some it’s ironic that the MTST emerged as Lula’s most effective defender. During the Rousseff and Lula governments, the movement was regarded as a staunchly independent socialist grouping. It was never perceived as a pro-PT social movement like the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) or the trade unions that built the PT from scratch.

The PT’s inaction is partly due to its leadership’s exaggerated faith in the judiciary. The party’s top brass believed, until the very last minute, in the possibility of winning its appeal in the Supreme Court (STF). It was opposed to calls for civil disobedience. Despite the STF’s role in toppling former PT president Dilma Rousseff, a significant number of the party’s parliamentarians still believe that the only way to free Lula is by lobbying the courts and avoiding the streets.

The protest at the Metalworkers Union was instead driven by MTST activists, many of whom participated in the recent Povo Sem Medo (People Without Fear) occupation at São Bernardo. As always, the majority of People Without Fear occupiers were not homeless, but people inhabiting precarious housing; who are unable to pay rent and often live with extended family. It was made up of almost thirty-three thousand people, lasted for close to six months, and was the largest in Brazil’s history of urban movements. While the state of Sao Paulo is only 37 percent black, the occupation was 62 percent black. With unemployment affecting over 41 percent of participants — more than double the state average — the occupation served as a direct expression of the economic crisis. Around a third lived on less than the minimum wage of $280 a month.

The occupation forced the center-right São Paulo governor Gerardo Alckmin to cede four plots of land, upon which houses for working-class families will be built via the PT-instituted Minha Casa Minha Vida (My House My Life, MCMV) affordable housing program. This is an example of how MTST’s nonviolent occupations pressure different levels of Brazil’s complex government structure — where federal, state, and municipal powers often work at cross-purposes — to catalyze housing policies and reduce social inequality. They also highlight the Brazilian constitution’s clause on the “social function” of land, which makes land speculation illegal.

Members from other MTST occupations also contributed to the core of pro-democracy activists who camped around the Metalworkers’ Union. Among the most actively engaged were those from the eight-thousand-person strong New Palestine Occupation, in São Paulo’s southern periphery. Located in a three-hundred-thousand-square-kilometer piece of land in the violence-ridden Jardim Angela neighborhood, New Palestine is surrounded by favelas housing over two million people. When the movement occupies idle land like this, it doesn’t mean it intends to build houses there. The goal is not to create new favelas, but organize communities to apply pressure for quality affordable housing financed through the MCMV grants.

MTST occupations are also a space for education, health care, and even judicial public services. Young volunteers, usually left-wing students from Brazil’s public universities, contribute not only to music and sports education but also basic literacy courses and school support for old and young. Volunteer public defenders, doctors, and nurses also join in every month. The movement dedicates special attention to mental health support, not just by encouraging mental health professionals to participate, but also by making demands around the issue. It is no coincidence that its leader Guilherme Boulos, now a pre-candidate for president with the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL), is a trained psychoanalyst who first joined the movement in his youth.

Mobilization and Exhaustion

By occupying the triplex, MTST activists exposed the weakness of the prosecution’s claims.

According to prosecutors, over $100,000 in luxury kitchen items allegedly selected by Lula’s late wife Marisa Leticia should have been laying in the apartment. But MTST militants only found an average-sized fridge, a microwave, and a small oven. A $200,000 renovation, which prosecutors claimed was personally organized by Marisa Leticia, was further proven nonexistent given the flat’s decaying appearance. In addition to providing new photos and evidence for Lula’s legal defense — who, up until now, has not been able to view the apartment — the occupation seems to have reenergized left-wing mobilizations.

Just a day later, for instance, the Landless Workers Movement occupied the farm of Oscar Maroni, a congressional candidate and convicted pimp who last month held a lewd party celebrating Lula’s arrest. There have also been numerous demonstrations against Globo, the monopolistic media group associated with the criminalization of Lula and the PT. In Curitiba, Moro’s conservative home city and the site of Lula’s jail, the former president’s supporters have organized a camp attracting activists from across the country. Argentina’s 1980 Nobel Prize winner, Adolfo Esquivel, and Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff (a religious figure associated with Pope Francis) were among those who recently took part in activities in the camp after being denied the right to visit Lula. In line with growing right-wing violence, shots were fired at the camp on April 28, critically injuring a Lula supporter. And a May Day event in Curitiba attracted roughly twenty thousand people.

That said, the broader left is exhausted after two years of defeats, so mass demonstrations or strikes against today’s attacks on democracy are unlikely. Until October, the country’s political energies will probably be channeled into the elections.

A Realignment of Forces?

The Workers’ Party has established hegemony in national elections by defeating the Right four separate times — in 2002 and 2006 with Lula, 2010 and 2014 with Rousseff. This indicates progressives might stand a chance this time around. Yet it’s still unclear if Lula will be able to communicate during the electoral period. While polls indicate his replacement will reach the second round, the former president’s absence will cast a pall over the whole left.

On the day of Lula’s arrest, after a ceremony honoring his late wife Marisa Leticia, the historic popular leader gave what might have been his last public speech. In passing, he mentioned São Paulo’s former mayor Fernando Haddad — the PT’s rumored replacement candidate — and the Communist Party of Brazil’s presidential candidate Manuela D’Avila.

Yet it was the MTST’s Guillherme Boulos, who Lula described as “a comrade with the highest of qualities,” that received the bulk of the PT leader’s attention. “Never give up,” Lula told Boulos. “You have a bright future, my brother.” Lula’s support would be a game changer for the young candidate, but the current electoral perspectives for his party, PSOL, are slim. For PSOL and the rest of the Brazilian left, the immediate future looks uncertain.

Still, a reorganization of progressive forces in Brazil might already be taking place. Since last year, the Vamos platform, an initiative which brings together not only the MTST and the PSOL, but also the left wing of PT, has debated the possibility of new post-PT left. Brought together by Boulos’s charismatic leadership, it might provide a long-term solution for the current crisis.