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Shoeshine Boy, Union Leader, President of Brazil: A Portrait of Lula da Silva

Lula da Silva grew up in poverty and became president of Brazil. During the military dictatorship, he fought for democracy and workers’ rights. As president, he helped millions of Brazilians out of poverty. Lula was imprisoned by a rigged trial. After his release, he is campaigning against the far-right Bolsonaro for president of Brazil. He won the first round of voting as the candidate of the Workers’ Party (PT) by a margin of 6 million votes. A runoff election will follow on Oct. 30, 2022.

Lula was born Luiz Inácio da Silva in 1945 in the poor northeast of Brazil. His nickname Lula (pet name for Luiz) was given to him by his mother. He stuck to this name, even in his political career.

Difficult childhood: Lula started working at the age of 12
He grew up in poor circumstances. Lula’s father moved to the industrial belt of São Paulo while he was still a child in order to find work. His mother followed her husband a few years later with Lula and his seven siblings. By then, however, Lula’s father already had a new wife and broke off contact with his family. This further worsened the family’s economic situation. Because the family could not afford the school fees, Lula attended school for only a few years. At the age of 12, he started working to support the family. Lula worked in a laundry, as a messenger boy, and as a shoeshine boy.

After a few years, he was able to get a job in a metal factory, as well as complete an apprenticeship as a metalworker in a state vocational school. As a worker in the metal factory, he had his first contact with the trade union movement. The connection to the unions was to shape the rest of his life.

At this time, Lula da Silva married Maria de Lourdes. Just two years later, she succumbed to a hepatitis infection during pregnancy after the family could not raise the money needed for treatment.

Lula the union leader
Shortly after joining the metalworkers’ union, the charismatic young worker was persuaded by his colleagues to take a leadership position in their union. Thus, in 1972, Lula was elected general secretary of his metalworkers’ union in the São Bernardo do Campo and Diadema regional group. Lula became interested in politics when he learned that only two of the more than 500 members of the Chamber of Deputies were working class people.

At the time, Brazil was under a military dictatorship. As in many other Latin American countries, the dictatorship in Brazil was backed by the United States. The right-wing military dictatorships were supposed to be a “bulwark against communism” in the Cold War. In Brazil, there was no democracy, no freedom of expression, and the economy served the richest of the rich as well as U.S. interests. Opponents of the military dictatorship were persecuted. Thousands were tortured, hundreds murdered. Especially, the rights and demands of workers were a thorn in the side of the dictatorship.

Lula became the face of the workers’ uprising against the dictatorship. He organized numerous demonstrations and led a huge strike movement in 1979. For his involvement, Lula was arrested and spent several weeks in prison.

In order to better organize the workers against the military dictatorship, Lula da Silva founded the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), the Workers’ Party, together with companions from the labor movement. The party fought for an end to the military dictatorship and for democratic socialism. In the cities, the PT organized primarily the industrial workers; in the countryside, it was the small farmers and the propertyless agricultural workers.

His marriage to his wife Marisa Letícia Rocco, with whom he had five children and who became one of his most important companions, also took place during the military dictatorship.

Lula the President
Weakened by an economic crisis, pressure from the labor movement, civil society and the international community led to the end of the military dictatorship in 1985. Free elections were held, in which the military’s candidate for the presidency was soundly defeated. Lula subsequently ran unsuccessfully three times as the Workers’ Party candidate for the presidency. During this time, he and his party moved away from socialist ideas and aggressive rhetoric toward social democratic ideals and a unifying demeanor. Lula thus also managed to build a cautious relationship of trust with industry.

This new orientation led to a brilliant electoral success in 2002. Lula was elected in the second round of the presidential election with 61 percent. However, the Workers’ Party did not have a majority in Parliament. In order to govern effectively, Lula da Silva entered into an alliance with establishment parties from the political center and center-right. He was criticized for this, especially from the left wing of his party and civil society organizations. To the criticism, Lula replied:


Lula was committed to fighting poverty in Brazil as well as protecting the Amazon. Under his presidency, massive progress was also made in gender equality, the protection of indigenous communities and Brazil’s position in the international community. Lula’s social programs and strong economic growth during his term lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty and transformed Brazil from a developing country into an emerging economy.

Lula was re-elected in 2006 with a large majority. He left the presidency in 2010 with an approval rating of 87 percent. This makes Lula one of the most popular politicians in history. Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party succeeded Lula and also governed for two terms.

Brazil between poverty and wealth
Brazil is one of the countries with the greatest inequality in the world. In Latin America, only in Colombia is the difference between poverty and wealth as great. On the one hand, there are families who live in incredible luxury. They owe their wealth to plantations, construction companies and mines and have often been part of the country’s elite for generations. On the other hand, there are millions of Brazilians who regularly don’t even have enough to eat. Many of them are Afro-Brazilians or indigenous people. Many of them live in the poor north of the country.

Lula’s social reforms
The goal of Lula’s government was to fight hunger and inequality in Brazil. This was to be done primarily with the help of three programs: Fome Zero, Bolsa Familia and Minha Casa, Minha Vida.

The goal of Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) was to end hunger in Brazil. The program recorded which households in Brazil were suffering from hunger. They were provided with food or food vouchers directly by the state. In addition, restaurants with particularly low prices were introduced (People’s Kitchens) and investments were made in sustainable agriculture.

Support for poor sections of the population was further expanded with the Bolsa Familia family allowance program. Families whose income per family member is less than about 46 euros per month receive money from the state to raise them above the poverty line. The Bolsa Familia program also guarantees access to rights such as education (school fees), health (child vaccination) and other state aid. However, these extensive social aids account for only 0.5 percent of Brazil’s gross domestic product.

The Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life) program built apartments and houses throughout Brazil. Not only did this combat massive homelessness, but it also helped middle-class families build a home.

The impact of Lula da Silva’s social programs can be seen. Under Lula’s leadership, poverty in Brazil was cut in half, from 40 to 20 percent. The percentage of hungry Brazilians was reduced to less than 5 percent. Brazil disappeared from the United Nations world hunger map for the first time.

Protection of the Amazon
Environmental protection, and especially the protection of Brazil’s rainforests, was a pillar of Lula’s government. During his presidency, deforestation of the Amazon was massively reduced. In addition, environmental protection agencies were greatly expanded under Lula. Illegal deforestation or gold mining in the Amazon could thus be better combated.

Lula also championed environmental protection at the international level. He committed Brazil to stricter environmental protection measures at the environmental conference in Copenhagen. He also demanded that the rich industrialized nations make a greater contribution to environmental protection.

Lula’s environmental policy was not without controversy, however. Environmental organizations in particular accused him of inaction and of representing industrial interests. When Lula announced the construction of new dams as well as roads and canals in the Amazon region, his environment minister Marina Silva left the government.

Operation Car Wash—Investigation against Lula
A billion-dollar financial scandal rocked Brazil during the term of office of Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff: Operation Car Wash. Billions in bribes were paid to politicians and companies through the semi-state-owned oil company Petrobras. The procedure was mostly similar: Petrosbras awarded contracts to construction companies at inflated prices. Contractors and politicians then divided the additional revenues among themselves.

Numerous companies and several political parties were involved in this corruption case. The investigating public prosecutor’s office quickly focused on ex-President Lula da Silva. He was accused of being “godfather” to a political mafia that stole from the oil company to cement the political power of their Workers’ Party. Specifically, Lula was accused of having foisted contracts on a construction company. In return, he allegedly received a three-story apartment in a seaside resort near São Paulo. The trial was led by Judge Sergio Moro, who gained international notoriety in the course of the investigation.

During the trial of Lula, his wife Marisa Letícia Rocco died of a stroke.

Bolsonaro becomes Brazil’s new president
After Lula’s expulsion, the far-right Jair Bolsonaro won the 2018 presidential election. After his election victory, he made Sergio Moro, the judge who convicted Lula, his justice minister and endowed him with far-reaching powers. Bolsonaro, an ex-military man, curtailed the social reforms of his predecessors, espouses misogynistic and homophobic positions, and glorifies the violence of the military dictatorship:


His presidency saw record deforestation in the Amazon and numerous fires, largely due to slash-and-burn operations. Probably the worst chapter of his presidency, however, may be his handling of the Corona pandemic. Nearly 700,000 Brazilians died from the virus, and 35 million fell ill. Bolsonaro dismissed the pandemic as a “small flu” and actively blocked the fight against it by preventing lockdowns and delaying vaccine supplies.

Bolsonaro cites former U.S. President Donald Trump as a great role model.

Revelations and Lula’s release
Even before Lula’s conviction, there were suspicions that the trial of the ex-president was politically motivated and aimed at preventing him from returning to power in 2018. A year after the election, the research platform The Intercept published leaked chats that put Judge Sergio Moro and the prosecution in severe distress. The revelations show that Judge Sergio Moro was not impartial, but actively collaborated with the prosecution to put Lula behind bars before the 2018 election. Moreover, the leaked chats showed that the charges against Lula were made up out of thin air.

As a result, Lula da Silva was released after 580 days in detention. On the day of his release, thousands of supporters gathered outside his prison. In a speech, Lula told them:


All of Lula’s convictions were overturned by the Supreme Court. The court under Sergio Moro had no jurisdiction over the case. In addition, partiality of the judge was found. However, it is not an acquittal. Lula could be tried again in the competent court in the capital, Brasília. However, this has not happened so far (end of September 2022). The annulment of Lula’s conviction allows him to run in the 2022 presidential election.

The old, new president? Lula wants to fight for environmental protection
If Lula is re-elected president, his focus will be on environmental protection and inflation. Under his presidency, no more trees are to be allowed to be cut down in the Amazon. Instead, he wants to reforest parts of the rainforest that have already fallen victim to deforestation. There are to be higher penalties against illegal logging and gold mining. In addition, a ministry for Brazil’s indigenous population is to be created to better protect their livelihoods. Lula also wants the oil company Petrobras to invest in alternative energies and thus create green jobs.

To fight inflation and its effects, Lula wants to revive and expand the social programs from his time in office. He also wants Petrobras to sell oil and gas at cheaper prices to the Brazilian people.

Incumbent Bolsonaro has repeatedly attacked the electoral system due to his opponent’s clear lead, and has hinted at the possibility of a coup by the military if he fails to win the election. Despite Bolsonaro’s strong backing among the armed forces, however, the likelihood of a military coup is considered low if Bolsonaro is defeated.

Presidential Election: Lula Wins the first Round
The first round of presidential elections in Brazil have been beaten. The national electoral authority TSE announced that incumbent Jair Bolsonaro received 43.2 percent of the vote (51.0 million absolute), while his challenger Lula da Silva received 48.4 percent (57.2 million absolute). Because neither candidate reached the necessary 50 percent, the election will go to a runoff on October 30, 2022.

In the simultaneous elections for the Senate, Bolsonaro’s right-wing forces and allies won 19 of the 27 seats up for grabs. The right is also likely to have performed strongly in Brazil’s lower house. The Workers’ Party (PT) again made gains in the capital Brasilia and metropolitan areas.

Political observers fear that Bolsonaro, a right-wing extremist and ex-military man, could use the relatively small gap to refuse to recognize the final results of the election at the end of October. Similar to Donald Trump in the U.S., Bolsonaro had already cast doubt on Brazil’s electoral system in the run-up to the election, calling the electronic ballot boxes unreliable and open to manipulation without presenting any evidence.


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