Lula Livre Was Just the Beginning

Lula is finally free. Now, the mass movement of millions that made his release possible will have to press on to dismantle the entire Bolsonaro regime.

Former Brazilian president Lula da Silva gestures to supporters at the headquarters of the metalworkers' union where a Catholic mass was held in memory of his late wife, on April 7, 2018 in the São Bernardo do Campo section of São Paulo, Brazil. (Victor Moriyama / Getty Images)

Lula is finally out of jail — although, as both Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn made clear yesterday, he should have never been there in the first place. It has become increasingly evident that Lula never had a fair trial. He was, in fact, a political prisoner — a victim of lawfare: the manipulation of judicial institutions for politically motivated persecution.

Since Lula’s imprisonment, documents released by Glenn Greenwald and the Intercept have shown that the judge and prosecutors were colluding, constructing the case together, and calculating their actions for maximum mediatic and political impact. The messages show the then-judge Sérgio Moro — now minister of justice in the extreme right-wing government of Jair Bolsonaro — instructing and advising the prosecution, at the same that he was publicly pretending to be a neutral and technical arbiter.

It is now clear, as former president of Ecuador Rafael Correa has recently stated in an interview to Jacobin: “if [Lula] hadn’t been jailed, he would be president of Brazil, but instead we have the fascist Jair Bolsonaro as president, and the judge who jailed Lula is a minister.” Armed with this new information, Lula is now waging a judicial battle to annul the whole trial, as Sérgio Moro could not be regarded as an impartial judge.

But that is not why Lula was released this Friday. On Thursday night, the Brazilian Supreme Court finished its much-anticipated deliberation on whether defendants could be imprisoned before appeals to higher courts had been exhausted. On a six to five vote, the court ruled that such incarceration was unlawful until final appeals were exhausted — which is, in fact, what the constitution states quite clearly. Less than twenty-four hours later, Lula was speaking to a euphoric, red crowd outside the federal police headquarters, after 580 days of imprisonment.

Lula’s Long Fight

This is not the first time that Lula was imprisoned. He was first sent to jail almost forty years ago, while Brazil was still under military dictatorship. Then, Lula was leading the largest industrial workers’ strike in the country’s history.

Born into one of the poorest areas of Brazil, Lula had migrated with his family to São Paulo as a young boy, and eventually became a metalworker in one of the most densely industrialized regions of the world: São Paulo’s ABC district. Under the military dictatorship, strike action was illegal, but since 1976 the Brazilian working class had been creating new forms of industrial action and militancy inside the factories, which forged a new generation of confrontational trade unionists. Lula was a product of this wave of class insurgency that eventually entered in articulation with a network of social movements and catalyzed the return to democracy in Brazil.

In 1980, Lula was imprisoned by the organ of political repression of the military regime under the infamous National Security Law after seventeen days of strike action. His conviction was for “disturbing public order,” and he spent thirty-one days in jail without a trial. This show of force from the regime, however, backfired badly, prompting marches and others mobilizations of solidarity, strengthening and further politicizing the workers’ movement, which gained support from broad sectors of Brazilian society. When leaving jail, Lula declared proudly: “if I had to go to jail again for the same motives, for representing the demands of my class, they can arrest me another five hundred times.”

That very same year, 1980, Lula was pivotal in the creation of the Brazilian Workers’ Party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores or PT. The Workers’ Party was created as the result of the confluence of social and popular movements, composing a diverse and heterogeneous coalition including progressive sectors of the Catholic Church (inspired by Christian social teaching), democratic forces resisting the dictatorship, militant trade unions, community associations, revolutionary socialist organizations, and a diverse array of civil society actors from the feminist, environmental, black liberation, and gay rights movements to human rights defenders.

Around the core of an industrial workers’ leadership, a complex web of social demands for rights and recognition coalesced into a mass party of the working class, with Lula, from the beginning, playing the role of a catalyst and unifier. Its founding manifesto, launched a few months prior to Lula’s imprisonment, opened with the line: “The Workers’ Party arises from the need felt by millions of Brazilians to intervene in the social and political life of the country in order to transform it. The most important lesson the Brazilian working class has learned in its struggles is that democracy is an achievement that we either build with our own hands or it will never come.” Freedom, the manifesto continues, is never a gift, given from above, but always the doing of our own collective action.

A lot of things have happened during those almost four decades separating these two episodes of Lula’s imprisonment. The Workers’ Party has grown to become the hegemonic force in Brazilian life, finally gaining the presidency, with Lula himself, in 2001. In this process, it morphed into a much more ambiguous political force. It retained strong links with trade unions and social movements, and still today has a mass membership. Crucially, it contributed massively to alleviating poverty while in office, nearly eradicating hunger and pursuing a policy of full employment which pushed wages upward.

But the overall politics of the PT governments were conciliatory and never represented a clear rupture with neoliberalism. Lula’s approach in power was incremental and careful, and the promise of mass democratization and structural transformation of Brazilian society, that inspired the formation of the Workers’ Party, was never realized.

In the end, it was the political right that abandoned the democratic pact of the post-dictatorship era, first with the parliamentary coup against President Dilma (the first woman president of Brazil, also from the Workers’ Party) and then with the politically charged judicial process against Lula, culminating with his imprisonment in 2018. It was this latter transgression against democracy that ultimately prevented Lula from running in a presidential election in which he was leading in every poll. The Brazilian elite is no longer willing to compromise.

Brazil’s Elite Revanchism

But why do elites still fear Lula? It’s common to hear in Brazil that Lula arouses a kind of instinctual class hatred on a subrational level: the wealthy few don’t really have anything to fear from Lula (after all, he governed with them!), but they cannot but despise him for his humble origins and manual worker background.

Maybe there is something to that. But the street party that spontaneously erupted after his release, the enthusiasm that many in the working poor still feel toward him, points to another explanation. Lula symbolizes the menace of working-class politics. It is no coincidence that he chose the building of his trade union (the metalworkers’ trade union) as a bunker to rally his supporters during the days just before his imprisonment, and no coincidence that it’s to that trade union he returned after leaving prison. It is there, surrounded by workers and activists, that Lula feels most at home. It was in that trade union, Lula sometimes says, that his life acquired meaning.

In a recent letter, addressed to the UK Labour Party’s annual conference and published in Tribune, Lula wrote: “I was a union leader, I helped create the Workers’ Party (PT), and had the honour of being elected and reelected president of my country. Never before had a factory worker reached the highest office in Brazil. For that reason, I needed to prove that the working class is capable of governing.” He means that, and he is proud of that. It is his nature, to his bones.

In his last speech, before going to prison, Lula comforted the crowd in front of the metalworkers’ trade union by saying: “The powerful few may kill one, two, or three roses, but they can never stop the spring from coming. And our struggle is for the spring.”

Yesterday, we saw roses of solidarity coming from committed left leaders around the globe, such as Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, and Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau. But in Brazil, we are still searching for the spring. Under an authoritarian government that becomes ever more repressive as it doubles down on austerity policies, privatization, and precarization, we will need as much international solidarity as possible. The Brazilian working class and the Left are under attack of a vicious political project that is globally articulated with the most reactionary currents in the world. We can only beat the populist right with an internationalist working-class movement. Our weapon is solidarity, our struggle is international.