SAO PAULO – Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a former metalworker who rose to become one of the most popular presidents in Brazilian history, now sees his legacy under threat after being implicated in a huge corruption probe.
Lula, as he is known to all in Brazil, left office in 2011 as a blue-collar hero who presided over a watershed boom and helped lift tens of millions of people from poverty.
He was so widely admired as president that Foreign Policy magazine called him a “rock star” and his U.S. counterpart, Barack Obama, called him “the man.”
Known for his charisma and common touch, Lula’s popularity in Brazil and the success of the economy during a period of high commodities prices helped him ride out numerous corruption scandals. When he stepped down after two terms, he basked in 80 percent popularity ratings.
But five years after helping handpicked successor Dilma Rousseff take his place in the presidency, graft allegations have left him fighting for his reputation — and potentially his freedom.
The gruff, bearded leftist was briefly detained for questioning Friday in the investigation into a massive embezzlement and bribery conspiracy centered on state oil company Petrobras.
Prosecutors accused Lula, 70, of accepting “many” favors from corrupt construction companies seeking Petrobras contracts. They also suggested that they are looking at an allegedly more central role played by Lula in the scheme that has already seen charges against scores of people, many of them politicians and businessmen closely tied to Lula’s Workers’ Party.
Lula, who was not charged, has rejected any involvement in the Petrobras scheme.
Hundreds of supporters gathered outside his house in Sao Paulo on Saturday in a show of support, a day after his supporters and opponents clashed outside his home.
Senior judges, meanwhile, voiced concern over Lula’s detention, even as they threw their support behind the corruption investigation.
Supreme Court Justice Marco Aurelio Mello told CBN Radio on Saturday that “nothing justified the use of force” when police picked up Lula unannounced from his apartment.
Even Justice Gilmar Mendes, who has publicly said there is strong evidence the Workers’ Party used graft proceeds to fund electoral campaigns, called Lula’s interrogation in police custody a “delicate” situation.
The federal judge who ordered Lula to be brought in for questioning, Sergio Moro, said on Saturday that steps had been taken to protect Lula’s image during the operation, and he expressed regret that it sparked violence.
Lula grew up in deep poverty, the last of eight children born to a family of farmers in the arid, hardscrabble northeastern state of Pernambuco.
He had little formal education, quitting grade school to help his family get by.
When he was seven, his family joined a wave of migration to the industrial heartland of Sao Paulo state, where Lula worked as a shoeshine boy and street vendor before becoming a steel worker.
As a teenager, he lost the little finger on his left hand in a machine accident. But in an early sign of his toughness, he not only persevered but became president of his trade union, less than a decade after joining.
He was the force behind big strikes in the 1970s that challenged the military dictatorship in power at the time. And in 1980, Lula founded the Workers’ Party, first standing as its candidate for president nine years later.
Lula made three unsuccessful presidential bids from 1989 to 1998, each time chipping away at the establishment parties and the idea that a poor, uneducated labor leader could never be president of Brazil. The fourth time, in 2002, he succeeded, taking office on Jan. 1, 2003.
“The majority of the population has given me the opportunity to prove that a mechanic shift worker can do for this country what the elite never managed to do,” he said at the time.
Lula soon calmed market fears of a radical surge to the left by adopting fiscally responsible policies, dark suits and a calm, pragmatic approach.
He also had the good fortune to preside over a so-called golden decade for Latin America, when a rising China’s ravenous demand for raw materials propelled the region’s economies to a historic period of growth.
Brazil’s economy hit a breakneck 7.5 percent growth in 2010, his final year in office.
Despite a series of scandals in his first term — most notably a congressional vote-buying case that felled his chief of staff — Lula coasted to re-election in 2006.
He became a star of the emerging markets boom of the 2000s, reinforcing alliances across the world’s developing nations.
Constitutionally limited to two consecutive terms, he cemented his legacy by helping Rousseff into power.
But his life since he stepped down has been fraught with difficulties. In October 2011 he was diagnosed with cancer in the larynx and successfully underwent chemotherapy.
Although he has flirted repeatedly with the possibility of running to succeed Rousseff in 2018, he is an increasingly divisive figure, loved by his leftist, working-class base but loathed by the more well-off.
With Brazil’s economy in deep recession, Rousseff highly unpopular, and the Petrobras corruption scandal heating up, Lula’s political mastery has never been under greater challenge.
He was defiant after his release from police questioning.
“I escaped dying from hunger before I was five. That was one miracle. The second was getting a diploma as a metal worker. Another was getting a political conscience.
“Another was founding a party. Another miracle was getting to the presidency of the republic and I was better than all of them — the political scientists, doctors and lawyers who presided over the country,” he said.
“It’s not all over as I thought,” he added. “It’s time to start again.”