Lorena Faria travelled more than 100 miles by bus last week to hunker down with thousands of protesters outside the metalworkers union headquarters in São Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, in support of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
“[He’s] responsible for taking me out of my humble beginnings,” says Ms. Faria, a Portuguese language teacher from the rural town of Capivari, and the first in her family to receive a university degree. She raises her fist and yells out in encouragement, “No surrender!”
But on Saturday, Lula, as the two-term president and former union boss is popularly known, did just that. He turned himself in for a 12-year prison sentence for corruption charges related to the sweeping Car Wash investigation into kickbacks, which has landed 123 politicians and business leaders behind bars with sentences totaling over 1,800 years.
Lula is the first former president in Brazil to be convicted of corruption, and arguably the most high-profile case in all of Latin America in recent years, overshadowing even scandals that led the president of Peru to step down just last month. In a moment when Latin Americans are taking to the streets to speak out against corruption, from Mexico to Argentina and Honduras to Brazil, Lula’s presence behind bars is symbolic of the region’s broader fight for transparency.
Voters across Latin America say they’re watching Brazil’s high-profile investigations and arrests with admiration – and in some cases, jealousy – for a judiciary that can hold the powerful accountable. But deep divisions have emerged in Brazil over the legitimacy of Lula’s arrest. It sheds an important light on the complicated and deep-seated nature of corruption here, and the politicization that many see motivating the judicial process.
“People are fed up with corruption, but there’s a certain element of ‘they’re all corrupt,’ ” says Christopher Sabatini, a Latin America lecturer at Columbia University and executive director of the regional analysis portal Global Americans. While leftists like Lula and former President Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached in 2016, have fallen from power over corruption, others like conservative President Michel Temer have been able to ride out serious allegations. The sense that corruption is everywhere gives more leeway to politicians like Lula, who may have a rap sheet, but also have a legacy of helping the poor, analysts say.
“Lula is still remembered favorably by constituents who see his indictment and conviction as politically motivated. It reinforces the injustices many feel from the ruling class.”
After four years of powerful Brazilians falling at the hands of the Car Wash scandal, Lula was convicted of corruption and money laundering last July. He is fighting the charges, claiming his innocence, but last week the Federal Supreme Court rejected his appeal to remain free while continuing to fight the rulings.
He was ordered to turn himself in for detention by Friday afternoon. But Lula defied authorities and hunkered down at the union headquarters, where he started out as a leader some 50 years ago. His ardent followers rallied around the building, with many tearfully swearing to prevent his arrest. “We’re here and we’re not scared to fight,” supporters chanted while waving Workers’ Party (PT) banners and keeping federal police at bay.
Many supporters acknowledge Lula’s conviction, but given the sweeping corruption surfacing in Brazil, those like Omar Aparecido, an unemployed civil engineer, feel Lula deserves a pass.
“Corruption has stolen our economic future and livelihoods,” says Mr. Aparecido, selling fruit sorbets to the hordes of Lula supporters over the weekend.
“Losing my job isn’t Lula’s fault; it stems from the corrupt system that has been entrenched for decades in our society,” he says. Although he’s against the “rot” of corruption – and acknowledges that Lula has been convicted of it – he believes the man who led Brazil between 2003 and 2010 is the only person who can “stop injustice in society from prevailing.”
Lula was once dubbed “the most popular politician on Earth,” by former President Barack Obama. But his humble beginnings as the son of illiterate farmers and later a metalworkers’ union leader make his life story both relatable and aspirational.
His two terms in power are defined by progressive social programming and a booming economy. He is credited with helping lift some 20 million Brazilians out of poverty and into the middle class. He paid off Brazil’s International Monetary Fund debt in full and helped put Brazil on the geopolitical map, winning an Olympic bid and putting the nation forth as a an emerging economic power.
A January poll ahead of Brazil’s October presidential election showed Lula polling number one with roughly 34 percent support, according to São Paulo-based research group Datafolha. Extreme right-wing candidate Sen. Jair Bolsonaro was second with roughly 16 percent support.
“Lula may be considered corrupt,” says Claudio Couto, a political scientist with the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV) in São Paulo. But “when you consider that everyone is corrupt in our society, when one of the corrupt politicians presents you something that makes sense in terms of public policy and political ideology, then you say, ‘Well, this guy is corrupt, but he is corrupt in a way that I can forgive and understand,’ ” Mr. Couto says.
Brazil ranked 96th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perception Index. Brazilians scored their public sector as a 37 on a scale of 0-100, where zero is “highly corrupt.”
Lula argues his conviction is a political scheme designed to keep him out of presidential office. Important players have fallen on both sides of the political spectrum, but the timing of Lula’s imprisonment has some observers scratching their heads.
“The rush to put Lula behind bars is extraordinary. The judiciary leap-frogged some two hundred other cases to issue this arrest,” says Gustavo Sampaio, a constitutional law professor at Fluminense University in Rio de Janeiro. “The timing is an important key that opens the door to who becomes Brazil’s next president.”
Interest and 'jealousy' abroad
Despite the political chasms in Brazil that have deepened with Lula’s detention, anti-corruption investigators and activists across the region are eagerly watching this process.
Salvador Camarena, an investigative journalist for the nongovernmental organization Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity, says those watching Brazil from afar are “trying to see more than just the end of the movie.”
That’s how he describes Brazil’s feat of putting a high-powered politician behind bars on corruption charges. But there were a lot of “scenes” that led to this point, and civil society in Mexico and elsewhere can learn from them.
“We are watching with interest, and in some moments with jealousy,” Mr. Camarena says. “But we also try to remember that Brazil’s path has been carved out over many more years [than Mexico’s anti-corruption fight] through the construction of an independent system of prosecutors and judges with institutional strengthening,” he says.
Mr. Sabatini says it’s not unusual to hear people in other Latin American countries look to Brazil with envy: “At least Brazil is pursuing the corrupt” is a common refrain, he says.
The irony is that a lot of strengthening of the judicial system took place under Workers’ Party leadership, which is important, he says. Five of the six justices that voted to deny Lula’s most recent appeal, for example, were appointed under PT leadership.
“The PT was sort of bitten by their own professionalized judiciary that they helped build,” he says.
“It’s a success story.”