SAO PAULO, Brazil — A man once able to gather hundreds of thousands of supporters at spontaneous rallies and inspire mass strikes that paralyzed Latin America's largest economy was sentenced to nine years in prison on corruption charges Wednesday with little fanfare. Luiz Inacio da Silva, popularly known as Lula, was Brazil’s most popular president and shepherded the country through an economic boom from 2003 through 2010.
On Thursday, Lula vowed to put Brazil’s poor back at the center of politics and run for the presidency in 2018.
“If anyone thinks with this sentence they took me out of the game, they should know, I’m still playing,” he said at a rally surrounded by supporters. “The people do not need to be governed by a member of the elite but by someone who knows what hunger and unemployment are.”
But the muted response to Lula's arrest from his supporters shows just how far the once-beloved politician has fallen. The union leader who rose to fame as a champion of the masses was charged with money laundering and corruption, the signature crime of Brazil's elite. As the country tries to shake off a third year of political and economic crises, disillusioned Brazilians are abandoning the optimism of the Lula era.
Paulista Avenue, a major thoroughfare in Sao Paulo and the site of mass protests and scuffles when the former president was arrested last year, was largely quiet, save for the 4,000 or so supporters who braved the frigid winter air to voice their objection to the sentencing.
“He is a ghost of who he was,” said Lucas de Aragao of the Brasilia-based consulting firm Arko. “The state of the economy under Lula brings back good memories, but people will not go to the streets organically to defend him.”
Lula, who awaited the verdict privately at his nonprofit institute in Sao Paulo, was said to have taken the news serenely and did not make any public statements, joking the next day that he was too busy watching a soccer game to address the media. His lawyers blasted the decision as politically motivated and baseless, and his leftist Workers' Party emphasized that the verdict would be appealed. Lula is expected to remain free while the appeal process goes forward.
A shoe-shiner with a fourth-grade education, Lula was the Brazilian dream incarnate. He rose to the presidency as an underdog, vowing to represent the rights of a working class struggling with inequality. After founding the Brazilian Workers' Party and fighting as a member of the radical left, Lula embraced Brazil’s business sector in the early 2000s and won his two mandates by landslides.
During his administration, 36 million people were lifted out of poverty through wealth-transfer programs like his Bolsa Familia, which were widely praised by the World Bank and the United Nations.
He gained as much favor abroad, where he sold an image of a country on the cusp of greatness to crowds of investors drained by downturns in Europe and the United States. Brazil soon won an investment-grade rating, along with winning rights to host the Olympics and World Cup.
But the gains would be short lived. His ally and successor, Dilma Rousseff, was not able to keep up the pace of the Lula years, and the country quickly sank into its worst recession on record. With Rousseff’s 2016 impeachment, the left fell out of favor with most Brazilians, who filled the congress and city governments with center-right politicians.
Lula, who left office with an approval rating of over 80 percent, suddenly found himself at the center of Brazil’s largest corruption investigation on allegations that he had orchestrated a massive kickback scheme during his presidency, whereby politicians traded deals with state-owned companies for financial favors.
Yet Lula remained Brazil’s most charismatic leader and the left’s best hope for another win at the presidency in 2018. Despite the investigation, the former president led the polls for prospective presidential candidates, sweeping 30 percent of the vote in a June poll.
But whether the successes of his mandate still have enough gas to drive him back to the presidency remains to be seen. He is convicted of accepting $1.1 million in favors from construction company OAS in return for helping arrange lucrative deals with state oil company Petrobras.
Even if the former president is able to win the support of the Brazilian people, his legal troubles may curb his political ambition. If an appeals court holds up Wednesday’s ruling, Lula will be barred from serving in public office for 18 years. The former president also faces four other corruption cases.
On Thursday, he urged his supporters to take to the streets and demand that he be allowed to partake in the next elections.
“Those declaring the end of Lula will fall flat on their face,” he told the crowd. “The only ones who can declare the end of Lula are the Brazilian people.”