SAO PAULO (HPD) — Four years ago, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s reputation and political future were in shambles. After an unlikely rise from poverty to union leader and president of Brazil, the man known universally as Lula ended up in prison.
On Sunday, in a new twist, Brazilian voters narrowly elected him to lead the world’s fourth-largest democracy again. His legacy will also be at stake.
“I consider myself a citizen who has had a process of resurrection in Brazilian politics, because they tried to bury me alive,” Lula said in a speech Sunday night after the results confirmed his third electoral victory. “I am here to govern in a very difficult situation. But I have faith in God that, with the help of our people, we will find a way out for this country.”
Lula’s life has developed in such an extraordinary way that it is hard to believe.
His family moved from Brazil’s poor northeastern region to Sao Paulo state in search of a better life, following his father, who had traveled south a few years earlier. But when they arrived they discovered that he had settled with another woman. Lula’s mother was left alone to raise eight children, of which Lula was the youngest.
Since he needed money, he became a metal worker at the age of 14 in the industrial outskirts of the metropolis. It was a physical job that cost him his left little finger. He became a union leader in an era when the manufacturing workforce was still huge in Brazil, bringing political clout. He ran for president for the first time in 1989, but lost, as did his next two attempts.
Finally, in 2002, he won and became the first worker to assume the government of the country. He was reelected four years later against his rival Geraldo Alckmin, who this year became his running mate.
Exports of raw materials to China were growing, filling government coffers, and a massive welfare program lifted tens of millions of Brazilians out of poverty. Lula left office with an approval rating of over 80%, and was described by then-US President Barack Obama as “the most popular politician on Earth.” His chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, was elected in 2014.
But in Rousseff’s second term, a huge corruption investigation was swept up to bring suspicion to politicians and businessmen alike. His government, like Lula and the rest of the Workers’ Party he founded, fell from grace.
Revelations of systematic bribery for government contracts were followed by a deep two-year recession that many blamed on Rousseff’s economic policies, fueling resentment toward the Workers’ Party. The president was dismissed in 2016 for failing to comply with fiscal responsibility regulations in her management of the federal budget.
The former president was then convicted of corruption and money laundering and confined to a 15-square-meter (160-square-foot) cell on the fourth floor of a Federal Police building in the southern city of Curitiba. That sidelined him from the 2018 presidential campaign and cleared the way for Jair Bolsonaro, then a lawmaker at the extreme end of the political spectrum, but one he won handily. Lula’s political legacy was in tatters.
His personal life also fell apart. His wife died, something he attributed at the time to the pressure caused by the investigation.
Little by little, hope came. He began exchanging love letters with a woman named Rosângela da Silva, nicknamed Janja. Their relationship flourished thanks to Lula’s then-lawyer, Luis Carlos Rocha, who visited him every weekday.
Rocha acted as a faithful messenger, hiding Janja’s missives in his jacket pocket, where the guards wouldn’t look. He told The Associated Press that with each colored envelope he handed out, he saw Lula’s face light up.
“God willing, one day we will publish (the letters),” Lula said at a rally in September. But only for people over 18 years old.
The Federal Supreme Court also began to review the legality of their sentences, which were finally annulled on the grounds that the federal judge who presided over the case had not been impartial and conspired with the prosecution.
After 580 days in jail, Lula was a free man. Free to marry his girlfriend and free to stand for election. That did not stop current president Bolsonaro, who was seeking a second term, from reminding voters of Lula’s convictions at any opportunity, and warning that electing him would be like allowing a thief to return to a crime scene.
That reignited simmering sentiment against the Workers’ Party, and the fact that many Brazilians still look down on Lula is a crucial reason why the duel between the two political titans grew even closer.
In the end, the difference was minimal. Lula won his third election with 50.9% of the vote. It was the closest election since Brazil restored democracy more than three decades ago.
During his victory speech, Janja was by his side, as he was during his campaign. She was crying overwhelmed by emotion. And she wasn’t the only one.
“I cried when they jailed him. Now I cry because it will return Brazil to normality. He can do it, he has the charisma to do it,” said Claudia Marcos, a 56-year-old historian who joined the thousands of people celebrating the leftist’s victory on Sao Paulo’s main boulevard. “He is our phoenix. The most important president in the history of Brazil.”
At his party headquarters, Lula read a long, carefully written speech on Sunday promising to unite Brazil. Seeking redemption, he will face a much more challenging environment—economically and politically—than the one he experienced during his most recent term in office. He will take office on January 1 and has said he will not seek re-election. That implies that this presidential term could be his final act.
“What makes someone old is not the number of years. What makes you old is the lack of a cause,” said Lula, who turned 77 three days before the vote. “Brazil is my cause. The Brazilian people are my cause.”
Associated Press writers Daniel Politi in Curitiba and Diane Jeantet in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.