ShankerSpeak: Lula, a ‘boy’ at 75

He had an outstanding run as the President, bringing 20 million citizens out of poverty and achieving the lowest unemployment rates in the country’s history

Lula da Silva
Lula da Silva

Abhijit Shanker

“Those in power can kill one, two, or three roses, but they will never be able to stop the coming of spring” -- Lula da Silva, former President of Brazil.

Jair Bolsanaro, Brazil’s populist right wing leader and current President, has actively dismissed the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, deriding it as “mere sniffles” and advised his countrymen, “we all have to die sometime.” Further, he called for a national day of ‘’fasting and prayer’’ to “free Brazil from this evil.”

He also called the citizens “sissies” for their demand for vaccines and claimed getting vaccinated would turn them into crocodiles. More recently, however, he has been embroiled in a $316 million vaccine scandal, over a deal with the Indian vaccine manufacturer Bharat Biotech that makes Covaxin.

The Brazilian Congressional committee first blew the horn on this scandal after being suspicious of its terms with Bharat Biotech. The price the Indian firm was charging seemed way above the mark, and the fact that it had not cleared clinical trials was the most troubling. Earlier, Mr. Bolsonaro had rejected Pfizer’s repeated offer of vaccines for Brazilians.

The President now finds himself in a soup, as he is paranoid in anticipation of the presidential elections, scheduled for August 2022. Crowds on the streets of Rio De Janeiro are back, almost as if they had never left, when their protests had landed Mr. Bolsonaro the presidency. The difference, five years ago, was that the crowds were protesting the former President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who was then imprisoned and released 18 months later. Silva’s incarceration was the result of a sustained witch hunt which impeached his successor, Dilma Rousseff, and mounted the corruption accusations against the former President. Dilma is Lula’s protégé.

Lula, as Silva is popularly known, is now 75. Given his age, asked whether he is giving the impending elections a thought, he remarked he is “a boy compared to Joe Biden, at 78”. The former US President Barack Obama once hailed Lula as the “the most popular politician on earth”. His impoverished family moved from the hinterland in 1948 to São Paolo in an open truck, and he became the voice of the metal workers in the 1970s and 1980s, forming the Workers Party in 1980.

Jair Bolsonaro
Jair Bolsonaro
Rodrigo Paiva

He is said to have become interested in politics after visiting the Brazilian Congress and realising that out of the 433 members, only two represented the workers. He ran for the Presidency in 1989, 1994 and 1998, losing each of the elections. Lula then entered into an alliance with the PMDB party in 2002 and was anointed Brazil’s President in 2003.

Lula simply sought to make capitalism more egalitarian. He had an outstanding run as the President, bringing 20 million citizens out of poverty and achieving the lowest unemployment rates in the country’s history.

Under Lula and his successor, Dilma Rousseff, Brazil increased its spending in education by 453% from $17 billion in 2002 to $94 billion in 2013. When it came to allocating the budget for health services, they increased from $28 billion in 2002 to $106 billion in 2013. The GDP of the country went from $2800 in 2002, to $11,200 in 2013. The country also became the eighth largest economy globally under their combined leadership.

Lula left office in 2011 with 87% approval rating, one of the highest for any head of State, globally, when he appointed Dilma Rousseff as his successor and the country’s first female President. Dilma took Lula’s vision forward and achieved great successes in the ensuing years. However, in trying to confront a recession through austerity measures, her popularity numbers plummeted to 9%. She narrowly won the 2014 elections but was impeached by the Congress, leading to early elections in 2016, which was won by Jair Bolsonaro.

Lula had announced himself as a candidate in that election, and was polling much higher than Bolsonaro, who was crawling at 20%. In came Sergio Moro, a Federal Judge who changed the game in favour of the conservative Right winger Bolsonaro, and away from the workers of the country. A massive media campaign was launched, allegedly funded by the corporates. Apparently, the rich were not happy at sharing the pie with the workers of the country. The Right wing did its part in nullifying the protests, emphasizing nationalism.

One of the tricks in any authoritarian’s playbook is to control the Judiciary, which happened in Brazil. The federal judge, Sergio Moro, investigating the oil bribery case ‘Operation Carwash’, which ultimately landed on Lula’s doorstep, pronounced him guilty and barred him from contesting the 2016 elections.

Predictably then, Moro was appointed the Minister of Justice in Bolsonaro’s government. Proclaimed a hero by the media at the time, his ratings have since plummeted and he is said to be contemplating resigning from the government. In any democracy, the judiciary should keep a distance from governance and the lure of a post retirement largesse.

More recently, perhaps in recognition of his poll numbers and the looming defeat, Bolsonaro has called the electronic voting machines rigged, and has called for cancelling the elections altogether. These are worrying signs from the man who has been dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics”.

All signs point towards his days being numbered, and Lula’s return to power as imminent. The one thing that wannabe dictators don’t realise is that all power in the world ends somewhere: from Benito Mussolini, the father of Fascism, to Donald Trump, who continues to loom large in a deluded world. As they say, it’s only a matter of time. Everything else, is a construct.

(The author worked for the United Nations for more than a decade in New York, serving as UNICEF’s Chief of Communications.)

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