Luis Inacio “Lula” Da Silva attending the inauguration of the new leadership of the Brazilian Workers’ Party on July 5, 2017. Dilma Rousseff sits next to him. Photo credit: Associated Press. Source: MSN
The Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) anti-corruption probe might have fried its biggest fish yet: Luiz Inácio “Lula” Da Silva. In a judicial bombshell, the former Brazilian president has been found guilty of accepting $1.2 million in kickbacks and sentenced to almost 10 years in prison. An appeals court must now either uphold or reverse the verdict, a process that can take months; in the meantime, “Lula” is still a free man. If he does end up in the slammer after the appeals process concludes, it would not be the first time: in 1980, “Lula” was jailed for leading a metalworkers’ strike that the Brazilian government, led back then by the military, declared illegal.
“Lula”‘s side sees the ruling in question as the result of a political persecution. The chair of the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT), which “Lula” founded and in which he currently serves as honorary president, said that it was all to sideline him from next year’s presidential election (indeed, if the ruling is upheld by the appeals court, he will be barred from running). One of the defense lawyers declared shortly after the verdict was announced that “Lula” was a victim of “lawfare”, or the cherry-picked use and deliberate abuse of judicial procedures against political opponents, adding that there was no evidence to sustain the conviction besides speculation and a probably fraudulent testimony by a co-defendant. Impeached president Dilma Rousseff called the ruling “a judicial absurd” and the leader of the PT caucus in the Brazilian Senate called for massive street demonstrations in defense of “Lula”.
Back in March of last year, I uploaded two posts on my Facebook account about this trial. I stated on the first post that there may be reasonable doubts on the motivations of the prosecutors; in this occasion, “Lula”‘s defense team gave a very credible case along those lines. The defendant himself, though, accepted (although briefly) an appointment as Rousseff’s chief of staff, and in my other post I thought that it was an act of cowardice that gave the impression that there was something to hide, very conveniently, behind the cloak of ministerial immunity. But fortunately enough, and according to Reuters, “Lula” eventually gave a defiant, fierce, and long defense (five hours worth of testimony) at this trial, indicating that he did something I also said on that FB post he had to do: confronting his accusers head on. On my first post, I stated that a guilty verdict would be the downfall of a “human success story”, provided that the accusation held water. The case presented by “Lula”‘s defense team in regard to a conviction without hard evidence to sustain it is disturbing enough to entertain the possibility that the prosecution did not play by the rules (see also this post), although the case for that being a political hit job is, at this point, just as speculative. Simply put, who would benefit from “Lula” being barred from the presidential race? The presiding judge, Sergio Moro, who denies being driven by political motivations? Acting President Michel Temer, fearing that the PT is out for his head after pushing Rousseff out of the president’s seat? The Globo media group, which is accused of mudslinging “Lula” to no end? The US, which to this date still has as Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs a holdover from the Obama administration that Donald Trump may possibly substitute for someone else? To whom or what is the smoking gun pointing to?
That brings us to another point. In an op-ed for the daily Folha de São Paulo published the following October (translated here), “Lula” gave his explanation for what is behind all this legal brew-ha-ha:
I try to understand this (witch)hunt as part of the political dispute, although it is a repugnant method of struggle. It’s not Lula they wish to condemn: it’s the political project that I represent, along with millions of Brazilians.
I talked already about the political project he represents, but a few parts of that blog post will be restated and expanded upon because of their direct relevance to this turn of events in the Twilight of the Brazilian Gods. In the op-ed, he calls his political project “a fairer Brazil, with opportunities for all.” Deep down, it is a social-democratic project. There is nothing wrong with social democracy in principle, but its ancillary social expenditures are so significant that they can become unaffordable on the long term without a humming economy. Fortunately for him, “Lula” was able to deliver millions out of poverty by taking advantage of the deluge of profits coming from Brazil’s share of the Latin American commodity boom of the early 2000s, itself a case study in a mainstay of classic liberal economic theory: Ricardian comparative advantage. In that sense, “Lula”‘s political project could not have come at a better time. Moreover, unlike Hugo Chávez, “Lula” did not deliver any diatribes against “the rancid oligarchy”, as he may have done in his younger years as labor leader and founding father of the PT. As a matter of fact, in the same way that it happened to some of Latin America’s new left parties, the trauma of military rule served to moderate the PT – and “Lula” himself – very significantly in regard to their views on the political system and economics – briefly put, social and economic welfare would be espoused through liberal-democratic procedures and would not entail the end of market economics. The epitome of this transformation was “Lula”‘s very own “Letter to the Brazilian People”, which he made public after winning his first presidential election to calm down markets by promising that the new government would continue to honor its foreign debt obligations and all existing agreements with that pillar of neoliberalism, the IMF. In all, because “Lula” never meant to take Brazil far from the economic orthodoxy that creates the inequality of opportunity he always begrudged, his political project is seen by some as insufficiently transformative. Nevertheless, this project is what “Lula” and his supporters believe is being shunned from the upcoming presidential election by the guilty verdict he was served. How this harmlessly reformist project became in the eyes of its followers (and perhaps its detractors) as revolutionary as chavismo is not clear.
Assuming that “Lula” is correct and the political hit job in question consists in suppressing progressivism for the sake of oligarchic interests, it stands to reason that he is no Chávez (and certainly no Maduro), so the Brazilian oligarchy may well be overreacting. Besides, whatever gains were made at the Brazilian stock market the moment “Lula” was found guilty (reportedly, session highs) can be easily wiped out by what a political scientist with the Getulio Vargas Foundation – a top Brazilian university and think-tank – described to Reuters as “a situation of extreme political tension” the country just entered into, which includes a presidential race so widely open that a real political outsider may win it all, given that other contenders from Brazil’s fragmented partisan mainstream are implicated in corruption scandals. Instability and unpredictability are never good for business, so someone or something may have shot himself, herself, or itself in the foot by hauling “Lula” to jail.
To be continued, no doubt.