The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Out of prison, former president Lula wants Brazil back. But is the feeling mutual?

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva speaks to hundreds of supporters at the Patio do Carmo square in Recife, Brazil, on Nov. 17. (Carlos Ezequiel Vannoni/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

RECIFE, Brazil — The spectacle known as Lula is on the move. People in red are massing in the streets. There are demands to remember the poor. And Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the leftist former president of Brazil, is again looking out over the throngs and booming into a microphone.

“The fight is not over!” he told thousands of cheering supporters here this week. “The fight cannot end because we still want more!”

Years out of office, days out of prison, one of Latin America’s most influential leaders is attempting a kind of comeback. Released this month after serving 580 days for corruption and money laundering, the 74-year-old politician is free to give speeches like the one at this seaside city on Sunday — at least until he exhausts his appeals.

Brazil’s ex-president Lula, once the world’s ‘most popular politician,’ surrenders to face prison time

Lula was released on the grounds that he had been denied due process. His conviction was not overturned, and he faces eight other cases. The uncertainty of his legal situation underscores his political limitations and the obstacles that lie before him in his quest to reassert himself as Brazil’s dominant political leader.

He’s out of prison, but he hasn’t been exonerated. He’s back on the public stage, but he’s appearing only where he’s assured of a warm welcome. He’s spent much of his adult life either running for or serving as president, but his criminal record now bars him from doing so.

“He’s free,” conceded President Jair Bolsonaro, his right-wring nemesis. “But all of his crimes continue to tail him.”

Even some on the left aren’t rejoicing at his return. “Snake charmer,” one prominent center-left politician here called him last week.

Since the moment of his sudden release Nov. 8, Lula has been tweeting, giving speeches and commanding rallies. Now he’s trying to forge alliances in congress. It’s clear he wants Brazil back. But is the feeling mutual? Or has Lula, who left office in 2010 with an 80 percent approval rating, become too polarizing, too closely associated with scandal and corruption, to ever again command widespread support?

In recent polls, 58 percent of Brazilians said they had a negative impression of him; 34 percent had a positive impression. By that measure, he is less popular than Bolsonaro, the nationalist who defeated Lula’s hand-chosen successor last year in a landslide.

“He remains one of the most influential political actors in Brazil, but he’s been weakened — severely weakened,” said Matias Spektor, an associate professor of international relations at Fundação Getúlio Vargas in Sao Paulo. “He understands he’s a wounded animal.”

And now, to “lick his wounds” and “regain his strength,” as Spektor put it, Lula has returned to the base of his political power, Brazil’s northeast, where he was born into poverty, the seventh of eight children. He has publicly floated the idea of settling somewhere in the vast region, which is poorer, blacker and less developed than the wealthier southeast, where he now keeps his home in the state of Sao Paulo.

Here, Lula is less a politician than a social phenomenon. The 11 states won last year by Fernando Haddad, the presidential candidate of Lula’s Workers’ Party, were clustered together in the northeast, where many voted out of allegiance to Lula.

As the first working-class president, Lula made the travails of the poor central to his governance, pushing through social initiatives credited with lifting millions out of poverty.

“Lula did this,” said Marcos Costa Lima, a political scientist at the northeastern University of Pernambuco. “And for this population, they live better because of him. They have cars. They have houses.”

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva released from prison

The story of Lula — who has little formal education, shined shoes as a child, lost a finger in an automobile parts factory as a young worker but rose to the presidency — has long been the story that northeastern Brazil has wanted to tell about itself: always on the make, always striving, always climbing.

“He is the example and the image of the northeastern Brazilian,” said Alexandre Bandeira, a political strategist in Brasilia. “From poor origins, he became the commander of a country. The symbolism is very strong.”

Although Lula has lost support, analysts say his enduring message — of social mobility and gumption — could again find a wide audience.

Even in a country defined by inequality, the chasm between rich and poor is rapidly expanding, the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics reported last month. A record 13.5 million of the country’s 209 million people are living in extreme poverty, the institute found. Half of them live in the northeast. The unemployment rate has been above 10 percent for years.

“Many Brazilians who overcame poverty have fallen into debt and back into poverty,” Bandeira said. “It is for these hopeless people that [Lula] will target all of his speeches.”

And so it was again on Sunday night in Recife, 150 miles from where Lula was born, that he condemned in his largest speech since his release what he perceived as the mounting impoverishment of Brazil under the Bolsonaro administration.

“I am seeing the country being destroyed — our culture destroyed, science and technology destroyed, our universities, our jobs, the hope of Brazilian society,” he said. “I am seeing salaries disappearing and retirement getting further out of reach. I am seeing we are having difficulty reacting.”

The crowd chanted his name. They called him the “warrior for the Brazilian people.” Many had waited for hours in the sun and the rain to hear him speak. Some had traveled long distances to see him. Many spoke of Lula in the abstract: He was more than just himself. He was them, too.

Marcos Antonio Cavalcante Dantas, 59, traveled seven hours from rural Rio Grande do Norte to see Lula.

“When he was released, I cried,” he said. “I was so emotional. Because Lula is the people.”

“It wasn’t just the liberation of Lula,” agreed Thaisa Queiroz de Lima, 21. “It was the liberation of the people.”

“I am black,” said Mirela Fadias, 27. “Who else talks about minorities without him? No one. With him free, all of us minorities are free, too.”

Many called on Lula to run for president once more. That’s not out of the question, but the possibility is remote.

In 2016, six years after he left office, Lula was caught up in Brazil’s sprawling Operation Car Wash corruption investigation, accused of peddling government influence for renovations to his beachfront property.

Supporters say his conviction was rigged. The investigation was overseen by then-Judge Sérgio Moro, whose impartiality was cast into question this year by leaks that suggested he had given advice and information to the prosecutors who tried cases in his courtroom.

Bolsonaro, formerly a fringe lawmaker, won the presidency last year largely by campaigning against corruption. He named Moro his justice minister.

Moro said this month that he would not be commenting on Lula’s release.

“I do not respond to criminals,” he tweeted. “Some people just deserve to be ignored.”

Some have suggested the leaks revealed by the Intercept could give Lula an opening to overturn his 2017 conviction. Brazilian law now bars him from seeking office for eight years from that conviction.

Others say the legal and political hurdles to running again will probably be too high to overcome and Lula’s likeliest future role will be as kingmaker, not candidate.

“I don’t think he’s running for the presidency of Brazil in 2022,” said Dawisson Belém Lopes, a political scientist at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. “But the Workers’ Party needs him sane and sound. As history proves, he’s a party guy and will serve this purpose until his last day on Earth.”

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