Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known as Lula, just took office for a third term as president of Brazil. His return to power is a stunning revival of political fortunes, coming after he spent 580 days in jail following an unethical, politically motivated prosecution.
Lula’s inauguration is good news for Brazilian democracy. Former president Jair Bolsonaro was closely associated with Brazil’s murderous right-wing paramilitaries, and he has nothing but praise for the dictatorship that once ran the country. It was an open question whether he would abide by the result of the election.
Lula taking office is also good news for the planet, given the importance of the Amazon rainforest to combating global climate change. Bolsonaro oversaw the destruction of vast swaths of the Amazon and would surely have doubled down on that policy if he’d been reelected (or managed to hold on to the presidency by force).
But what I found myself thinking when I saw the footage of Lula’s inauguration on Sunday was something far more personal. As Lula was languishing in prison, my late friend and collaborator Michael Brooks did more than perhaps anyone else on the American left to bring attention to Lula’s case.
He would have been overjoyed right now.
What Lula Accomplished
Lula’s life story is inspiring. Born into extreme poverty, he was illiterate until the age of ten. He grew up to be a metalworker and then a leader of Brazil’s labor movement, which played a crucial role in the struggle against the right-wing dictatorship that ruled the country until 1985. He helped found the Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT) in 1980 and, after years of organizing, led the PT to power as its presidential candidate in 2003. He served until 2011.
In a letter from prison to the conference of the UK Labour Party in 2019, Lula reflected on what his presidency had meant. “Never before,” he wrote,
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, and that governing for all, but with special care for the neediest, will always be the surest path to building a more developed and just country.
To be clear, Lula didn’t govern as a fire-breathing radical. He didn’t go around nationalizing industries or smashing the traditional institutions of the Brazilian state. While the PT had been founded as a socialist party, Lula toned down his rhetoric to reach the presidential palace. He governed as a moderate social democrat, delivering modest reforms within existing institutional frameworks.
Nevertheless, those reforms had a tremendous impact given Brazil’s extreme levels of poverty and economic inequality. Over his tenure, he slashed hunger, provided new educational opportunities for working-class Brazilians, and lifted tens of millions of people out of poverty.
A Soft Coup
When Lula was term limited out of running for a third consecutive term, he was succeeded by his Workers’ Party comrade Dilma Rousseff, who governed the country until she was impeached in 2016 on grounds so transparently spurious that the proceedings can only be described as a soft coup. Independent auditors later cleared her of charges of breaking Brazil’s budgetary laws, but the damage was done — and anyway, no one was under any illusions about why she was being removed from office.
One right-wing congressman was particularly blunt about his motivations. Bolsonaro, then serving in the Chamber of Deputies, infamously dedicated his vote to the memory of Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, “the terror of Dilma Rousseff.” Colonel Ustra was the head of the secret service that oversaw the detention and torture of a vast number of leftists — including Rousseff herself — during the military dictatorship.
As moderate as the PT’s record had been in office, their reforms were enough to infuriate Brazil’s oligarchy. When I interviewed Brazil-based journalist Glenn Greenwald about all of this years ago, he told me that a common complaint among Brazilian right-wingers was that “the airports look like bus stations now” — in other words, now that more poor kids could go to college and join the middle class, the country’s racial and economic hierarchies were under threat.
Even after Rousseff’s impeachment, the Workers’ Party might easily have regained power. Lula was eligible to run again, and it looked like he might win easily. But he was arrested, allegedly for corruption, and convicted in a process that later leaks revealed to be corrupt and politically motivated. Officially, he was accused of accepting upgrades on a modest seaside apartment he could have bought many times over if he’d been so inclined. As with Rousseff’s impeachment, the nominal charge was largely beside the point.
Michael and Lula
I met Michael Brooks in 2018. I’d been listening to his show TMBS (The Michael Brooks Show) for perhaps a month or two by the time we met — which meant that I already knew much of the story sketched out above.
I’ll admit that when I first started listening, I didn’t understand why he was spending so much time on Lula’s case. I can remember putting in my headphones and firing up a TMBS episode one night while I was walking my dog and thinking, “Oh, come on. We’re going to do the Lula story again?”
I certainly agreed that Lula had been done an injustice. But the world is full of injustices — why was Michael putting so much emphasis on this one in particular?
Little by little, though, and long before I started collaborating with Michael and doing my own weekly segment on his show, his passion for Lula’s story rubbed off on me. The first article I wrote for Jacobin was about Lula. Michael and I ended up cowriting another Lula article, and another on the history of US efforts to topple or undermine democratically elected left governments in Latin America.
Whenever I would visit New York, I would stay at Michael’s apartment. On the next-to-last of these visits, in January 2020, he was getting ready to fly to Brazil to interview a recently released Lula. I can still remember how excited he was about that.
The following month, after he had conducted the interview, a framed photo of Michael with Lula was on display in his apartment. Michael had his arm around the former president’s shoulder, and a smiling Lula was holding a TMBS T-shirt.
What Michael Saw
Michael died from a blood clot that summer. Calling his death “unexpected” doesn’t begin to cover it.
He was thirty-six, a few weeks shy of his next birthday.
His media career was still in its early stages, and I have no doubt that he had a fraction of the audience he would have built if he’d lived even another five years. But in that summer of 2020, remembrances and tributes poured in from a wide variety of sources — and none would have meant more to him that this one:
This year I met this young American, a journalist, who turned out to be a friend, who I thought that we would meet again. How is it possible? My heart and prayers go to his family and friends. May his passion for social justice be remembered and inspire people around the world. https://t.co/OgGmzh5kMl
— Lula (@LulaOficial) July 20, 2020
Michael was an avowed Marxist. The long-term horizons of his politics were more radical than the incremental reforms Lula was able to enact in his first two terms in office. But he was excited about Lula not just because of the tremendous effects even those measures had on the material conditions of working-class Brazilians — or the profound danger posed to Brazil and to the world by the Bolsonaro presidency or the inspiring nature of Lula’s story — although those all shaped how he felt.
Michael was profoundly interested in how socialists could better communicate and connect with ordinary people, and he saw that Lula was one of the most effective political communicators on the global left. He’d often reference how Lula could talk convincingly and movingly about material politics — about making sure everyone had enough money for beer and coffee and enough free time to play soccer and spend time with their kids.
He would have loved the speech during the most recent presidential campaign where Lula rhapsodized about how everyone should be able to grill barbecue for their families on the weekend and wash it down with cold beer. And it’s both wonderful and painful to imagine him watching Lula’s inauguration last Sunday.
Outgoing Brazilian presidents are supposed to pass the presidential sash to their successor. In this case, that didn’t happen. Looking to skirt various criminal investigations, Bolsonaro fled to Florida. Instead, Lula accepted the sash from “the Brazilian people” in the person of a thirty-three-year-old sanitation worker.
Anyone who listened to Michael Brooks’s show heard him say “Lula Livre” (“Free Lula”) many, many times. I wish he’d lived to see Lula Presidente.