Jail Term to a Third Term: The Story of Lula's Historic Comeback
(Bloomberg) -- During his bleakest days, one of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s favorite cooks traveled 800 miles (1,290 km) from the capital to the city where he was imprisoned for graft to make him a rabada, a typical Brazilian dish of oxtail.
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Maria de Jesus Oliveira da Costa, 68, known as “Aunt Zelia,” had to pay a hotel manager in Curitiba to use the kitchen to prepare the meal. Once it was ready, she put the dish in a lunch bag and sent it to the former president’s cell.
“I didn’t want to see him in jail,” Zelia said at her simple restaurant near the presidential palace in Brasilia, in between serving tables and chatting with customers. “But I sent a letter along with the food.”
Displays of solidarity by supporters like Zelia, many of whom mounted a vigil outside the jail, sustained Lula through his incarceration, helping him over the intense lows and enabling him to launch his bid to recapture the presidency.
With his second-round victory over Jair Bolsonaro, Lula, 77, is set to return to the helm of Latin America’s largest economy having pulled off one of the most spectacular political comebacks in Brazil’s history.
And yet the narrow nature of his win, with Bolsonaro coming within touch of an upset, shows the deep well of conservative values that pervades Brazil, a reality that Lula can ill afford to ignore. The question is how his experience will shape his response to the daunting challenges ahead in a very different country to the one he first led two decades ago.
There’s no doubt the 580 days Lula spent behind bars in 2018 and 2019 marked him for life. When the country turned its back on 14 years of a leftist government and elected Bolsonaro, 67, a far-right former army captain, Lula’s friends feared for his mental health.
The worst moments came with losses. In the space of four months in jail, the former president saw an old friend, a brother and a grandson die.
“That affected him a lot,” said Julio Bersot, 70, a close friend to Lula for some four decades.
In his first days in prison, he received a 1,000-page tome about Portuguese colonization and slavery in Brazil, despite not being much of a reader. “When I got this book, I wondered how long I’d be in jail,” Lula posted on social media last year.
He went on to read 41 books, mostly biographies, of leaders including Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and Carlos Marighella, who led an armed movement against the Brazilian military dictatorship. He also received 25,000 letters sent by friends, fans — and his future wife, Janja.
“From the vigil to the reading of dozens of books to friends who did not abandon him and to Janja: all that was fundamental for Lula,” said Bersot.
Back in the presidential palace, he’ll inherit a very different Brazil to the one he used to govern. It’s a deeply polarized country, scarred by identity politics and economic inequality that festered during a calamitous pandemic. As of Monday morning, Bolsonaro had yet to concede. The incoming president won’t have a lot of space to maneuver.
Still, Lula’s journey is one of extremes; at times, his story seemed too good to be true. A poor migrant from the impoverished northeast who as a boy worked as a shoe-shine, and who lost a finger operating a factory machine, he rose to become the only Brazilian president of the democratic era to hail from a humble background.
“This is my man right here, I love this guy,” Barack Obama told his Brazilian counterpart at the Group of 20 summit in London in 2009, calling Lula “the most popular politician on Earth.”
It wasn’t entirely a joke: Lula left office in December the following year with an approval rating around 90%, having groomed Dilma Rousseff as his successor. She would become Brazil’s first woman president.
Then it started to unravel. The commodities boom that had driven growth during the Lula era sputtered out, and the country sank into a political crisis amid a corruption probe known as the Carwash Operation. Dilma was impeached and removed from office in 2016.
The investigation reached Lula that same year. He was charged with corruption and money laundering and sentenced to 12 years in prison by the federal judge, Sergio Moro, who ended up serving as Bolsonaro’s justice minister.
That looked like the end of the story. In reality, it was a new chapter.
The day the former president went to jail, hundreds of people gathered outside the police building where he was being kept in a middle-class residential neighborhood in the southern city of Curitiba, chanting “free Lula!”
From that moment, many decided they would only leave when he got out. A camp was formed, managed by labor unions and other movements. Lula could hear three daily chants from his cell: “Good morning, President,” “Good afternoon, President,” and “Good night, President.”
“Some people think I hate Curitiba because I was in jail here,” Lula said at a campaign event there in September. “I have gratitude for this city, and affection for the men and women who spared no effort to keep asking for my freedom in the 580 days I was here.”
Among the hundreds of supporters camped out was a sociologist and Workers’ Party member called Rosangela da Silva, known as Janja.
Lula’s wife of 43 years, Marisa Leticia, had died of a stroke at the age of 66 during the investigation. He’d been widowed for over a year when he was arrested.
“I wrote love letters to Janja and I let the hate out of my chest,” he said in a local radio interview in July, two months after they married. “Now I’m only love.”
Love alone won’t be enough for the political fight ahead. Lula was released on a technicality in November 2019, and lived hermit-like with Janja away from the spotlight until 2021, when his conviction was quashed by the top court, freeing him to run.
In office, he’ll face a hostile congress, while the three most populous states, including Sao Paulo, are held by the opposition. Across the country, a sizable minority think their once-and-future president is corrupt. His policies are vague, beyond the desire for social justice, and lean heavily on his past achievements with little to say about a new administration. Yet he needs to pay for his campaign pledges on social benefits, and to try to bridge the political divide if he’s to have any chance of success.
The next government will have to be a coalition that restores Brazil “to the normality of democracy,” with social inclusion at the heart of its economic policies, Edinho Silva, Lula’s campaign chief, said in an interview.
“Lula knows that Brazil is going through a complex moment that will require a broad coalition that mobilizes the entire democratic camp,” Silva said. “He will lead, negotiate and build this coalition.”
That’s a change from the firebrand image of his youth, when he challenged the military dictatorship by leading huge labor strikes, and founded the Workers’ Party under the banner of putting “ethics in politics.” It took three runs at the presidency, and 12 years, to finally get the top job.
That’s how long it took him and his party to understand that they needed to adopt a more measured stance to dismiss investor concerns and get elected. In office, he kept markets on board while working for the poorest in society. It’s an indication that he’ll retain the moderate coalition forged during the campaign into his third term.
“Lula has gone through glory and misfortune and knows that he cannot run the government with leftist friends alone,” said Adriana Dupita, Brazil economist with Bloomberg Economics. “There will be a commitment to move to the center.”
Lula has made it clear that he will lead Brazil for the next four years only. Some in the Workers’ Party see Janja, 55, who’s been a strong presence during the campaign, as his successor in 2026.
Before then, we’re likely to see an older but wiser Lula who is impatient to get things done and intent on shaping his legacy for good.
“He is a different Lula,” said Thomas Traumann, a Rio de Janeiro-based communications consultant who has advised former presidents including Dilma. “He knows that it is his last chance, a Lula of just one more term.”
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