Few politicians have endured a more stunning fall from grace than former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. During his term in office, he was a progressive hero who championed the poor while raising his country to undisputed prominence in Latin America. Last week, Lula (as he is commonly known) was convicted on charges of corruption and money laundering and sentenced to nine years in prison. While he accuses the prosecution of political motives, Lula was likely guilty of the charges — because the political system in Brazil, like other countries of the region, suffers from endemic corruption and there has been no other way to rise to (or stay in) power. Brazil’s voters must now decide if that is enough to prevent his resurgence and return to power.
Lula’s biography is a heartwarming tale. He was born in poverty — the first Brazilian president with those origins — and possessed only a fourth-grade education (some reports say he had just two years of schooling). He was a former shoe-shine boy, steel worker and labor organizer who founded the Brazilian Workers Party, which he used as a platform for four presidential runs: He lost three times before prevailing in the 2002 election. He was re-elected four years later in a landslide, with support from all parts of Brazilian society.
Lula’s reign is rightfully applauded as an extraordinary time for Brazil and Brazilians. At least 30 million people were lifted out of poverty and joined the middle class during his presidency. He established social safety nets and transfer programs that won international acclaim and recognition by institutions such as the World Bank and the United Nations. By the end of his second term, Time magazine identified him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world and one prominent leftist intellectual called him “the most successful politician of his time.”
For all the credit that Lula deserves, it is also important to recognize that he benefited from powerful international tailwinds. His presidency coincided with the international commodities boom of the first half of the 2000s, a phenomenon that Brazil was exceptionally well placed to exploit. Yet Lula also enjoyed a popularity rating of 80 percent when he left office, despite a global financial crisis that colored the last two years of his administration. No matter what the cause, he was doing many things right.
After leaving the presidency, he served as chief of staff of his designated successor, Dilma Rousseff. Her tenure ended in scandal and impeachment, with the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, which were intended to showcase Brazil’s success, instead highlighting its dysfunction. Brazil is now in the third year of the worst recession in its recorded history, tarnishing the progressive legacy in general and that of Lula, too.
Brazil’s economic travails track the country’s political difficulties. The country is enmeshed in a scandal that has tarnished its entire political class along with its most important economic entities. Prosecutors have uncovered a system of kickbacks and payoffs from state contractors that has resulted in indictments of hundreds of individuals from all political parties in every part of the country.
Lula has been accused of five sets of corruption charges and the ruling last week addressed just the first: allegations that he was given the equivalent of $1.2 million in improvements to a beach apartment in exchange for steering a contract from Petrobras, the state-run petroleum company, to a particular engineering firm. Lula denies the charges, counters that they are politically motivated and says he will appeal the conviction. He insists that he will run for president in the 2018 election, although the conviction, if finalized, would bar him from political office.
Lula believes that is the real purpose of the prosecution. He believes that his supporters will see through his opponents’ political agenda and keep faith in him and his commitment to leftist politics. Plainly, some of them have. Lula won 30 percent of the vote in a June poll of prospective candidates for the 2018 ballot. Some of his supporters dismiss even the substance of the crime, arguing that all politicians are corrupt, the system requires it and that it did not stop Lula from doing something for them.
They are correct, although it is also a damning critique of Brazilian politics. Politicians are not supposed to govern for the purpose of self-enrichment, incidental or deliberate, discrete or systemic. Invariably, such rationalizations become an end in themselves. Governing in the age of democracy should benefit the people and the national interest, not the bank accounts nor the beachfront apartments of those in power.