Lula, the coup and the Left

Brazil’s former president Lula is now confined in his specially prepared cell in the headquarters of the Federal Police in Curitiba. This ended a weekend of high drama following his defiance of Judge Moro’s order to surrender himself by 5 pm on Friday. His arrival at the place where he is to begin a sentence of twelve years and one month for corruption and money laundering was marked by celebrations on the part of his many enemies in Paraná, and by an apparently unjustified use of tear gas by the police against those who had turned out to support him at the moment in which he lost his freedom. Yet Lula had made brilliant political use of the additional hours of freedom that he had enjoyed in the headquarters of the Metalworkers’ Union of the ABC region in São Bernardo do Campo, São Paulo.

Surrounded by a multitude that included militants of the PSOL and PCdoB as well as petistas, Lula participated in an ecumenical mass in memory of his wife Marisa, followed up with a speech that reiterated his call for unity of the Left against the coup, embracing the young presidential candidates of the PCdoB, Manuela D’Ávila, and PSOL, Guilherme Boulos, as well as paying homage to Dilma Rousseff and the other major PT figures also at his side. The message in São Bernardo do Campo was crystal clear: Lula had reconnected with the more radical social movements that had often felt marginalised whilst the PT was in national government, and was explicitly endorsing calls for a less compromising left-wing political project to reshape Brazil’s future. Although his own fight for social justice was not over, he made a point of presenting a new generation of leaders who would ensure that it would be carried forward whatever now happened to the person of Luis Inácio “Lula” da Silva.

Lula’s final hours of freedom were very much about strengthening his political myth, in the place of its birth in his days as a trade union leader who had been imprisoned under the dictatorship. Presenting himself as the victim of an unjust political persecution by anti-democratic and socially regressive forces, Lula takes his place alongside João Goulart and, most of all, Getúlio Vargas, in the pantheon of friends of the people taken out by an elite mired in class and racial prejudice and willing to sacrifice both people and nation for its own narrow economic advantage. It seems inevitable that Lula’s myth will outlive him and continue to influence Brazilian politics in the future even if he is denied another shot at the presidency as a result of this conviction and incarceration.  His myth is especially powerful because he was much more than a friend of the poor and underprivileged. He was the people, a working class man born into poverty who became a two-term President of the Republic and widely admired and influential international statesman. It is precisely this that Brazil’s elite and the more prejudiced sectors of the middle class find it impossible to stomach, and why antagonism to Lula expresses itself through the most despicable expressions of the politics of hate, exemplified by  contemptible social media comments made at the time when his wife and comrade in struggle became fatally ill and throwing of stones and firing of shots at buses carrying Lula’s supporters on his recent tour of southern states.

The attack on Lula’s personal integrity has, however, always been part of a systematic attempt by the forces behind the coup to destroy his party and even moderate centre-left political agendas. Hence the attempt by the Lava Jato prosecutors to brand the PT’s governance as criminal despite the fact that there was never much doubt from the beginning that the corrupt practices of which PT politicians were accused cut across the entire political spectrum. Now that much more evidence of this has come to public attention, the PT’s main rival in recent presidential contests, the PSDB, finds itself as unpopular with electors as the MDB, the party of the deeply unpopular president installed by the coup, Michel Temer.  The selective focus on the PT adopted by Moro and the Curitiba prosecutors at the start of their investigations differed radically from the more even-handed approach towards the entire political class adopted by the Italian anti-corruption investigators that they claimed inspired them.

Lula’s refusal to play Moro’s game and hand himself in without further resistance did produce some immediate dividends in terms of contesting the coup narrative. With the Globo network shut out, he could get his message across through the far more sympathetic TVT network (which broadcast it live via YouTube and its smartphone app). A complete video recording of his speech is available here. This enabled him to highlight the politicisation of the judiciary in a context in which he had the perfect opportunity to recapitulate his own narrative, highlighting his political achievements on behalf of working people since the days of the dictatorship and asserting his innocence of the charges on which he had been convicted as a victim of politically motivated lawfare, not only on the part of Moro and the Curitiba prosecutors, but also on the part of the Porto Alegre appeal court that had extended his original sentence. The judicialisation of politics has not worked out in an entirely smooth way from the point of view of legitimising the coup. In particular, the events of the previous week had hardly enhanced the reputation of Brazil’s Supreme Court. Its president, Cármen Lúcia, had systematically blocked efforts by some of her colleagues to force a general review of the constitutionality of imprisonment following rejection of an initial appeal by a second instance court but before possible additional appeals to higher courts had been exhausted. Moro was only able to issue his order for Lula to be taken to gaol because a majority on the Supreme Court had voted against Lula’s lawyers’ habeas corpus petition. Rosa Weber, one of the Supreme Court judges appointed while Dilma Rousseff was president, provided this majority against Lula by adopting the bizarre argument that although she was personally against imprisonment after a second instance appeal, she was voting against this conviction in the case of Lula because she wished to respect the principle of collegiality. Since half of her colleagues, including the PSDB-aligned Gilmar Mendes, had declared themselves in favour of granting the habeas corpus, it was difficult to grasp how “collegiality” could rationally consist in giving the other side of the argument a majority.

Backstage and frontstage, the judicial system had been under extreme pressure, not simply from the pro-coup media and social movements propagating hate politics against Lula and everything he stood for, but also from an extraordinary intervention from the military high command. That, together with growing evidence of the not so hidden hand of the US Right at work, reinforced the feeling of many that parallels with 1964 were becoming ever stronger. The persecution of Lula has increased doubts about the existence of a rule of law and effective separation of powers in post-coup Brazil both at home and abroad. Moro’s methods of arriving at a conviction in the absence of real proof of the ex-president’s guilt have been widely criticised by Brazilian and international jurists. CLACSO Buenos Aires has published a very useful collection of essays on this theme, available open access in Portuguese, Spanish and English. The English version can be downloaded here. Judge Moro’s lack of interest in taking the defendant’s right to a full defence seriously has become notorious (and was manifest again in the indecent haste with which he issued his arrest order after the Supreme Court decision). But it was equally evident in the proceedings of the appeal court in Porto Alegre, which had not accepted Moro’s judgements on some other occasions but nevertheless bought the whole of this legally and procedurally dubious judgement hook line and sinker. The unanimity of the judges in converging around a clearly prepared common ground added to the impression of politicisation already given by the extraordinary speed of the treatment of Lula’s case. There seem to be ample grounds for a higher court to reject Lula’s conviction over the triplex apartment that he never owned as unsafe, and that might still happen at some time in the future. But imprisoning the PT leader now makes it almost certain that he can be removed from the 2018 presidential electoral contest by further judicial moves. So the forces behind the coup process are probably content with the way things are going despite Lula’s relative success in making further political capital out of his persecution.

The argument that imprisoning Lula shows that nobody is above the law and that the justice system is determined to stamp out political corruption would obviously be more plausible if more decisive moves had been made to investigate and judge leading politicians in other camps against whom there appear to be stronger prima facie cases on the basis of information already made public. Yet even if some further gestures were to be made in terms of trying to demonstrate “balance”, this would not compensate for the self-evident prioritisation of Lula as target in the Lava Jato investigations in Curitiba and the serious deficiencies in the case for his conviction. Furthermore, however unpopular the political class as a whole may have become, and however unpopular the economic and social agenda of the coup continues to be, what is ultimately at stake now is the immediate future of democratic life in Brazil.

The only near certainty about the 2018 electoral process was that Lula would win a third term if he were allowed to stand. Now that this seems less likely than ever, there is considerable speculation about whether his removal will strengthen or weaken the campaign of the candidate currently second-placed in the polls, the fascist Jair Bolsonaro, and about how a potential Lula vote might redistribute itself. The PDT candidate, Ciro Gomes, might be an alternative centre-left choice, but his failure to support Lula in his hour of need is likely to prejudice many PT voters against him, and the PT itself has so far refused to contemplate a plan B. Lula himself has been very warm towards Guilherme Boulos of the PSOL, although on Saturday he also went out of his way not to offend the PCdoB, longstanding PT allies. Both these parties need to have their own candidates in the elections, because the right in congress has worked hard to change the rules to weaken the representation of the smaller parties of the left. It is difficult to imagine that their candidates could make a rapid breakthrough in national presidential elections, even if the Left succeeds in realigning itself around a common programme in the longer term and a new generation of national leaders manage to enhance their profiles and convince lower class voters that they can offer a viable alternative in terms of securing economic and political stability and concrete results in terms of delivering greater prosperity with greater equality. This is something that it took Lula himself a long time to accomplish, of course, and the coup has demonstrated that even a government that tries to practice conciliation is vulnerable to expulsion from power under the current institutional order. Any government that tried to roll back the coup’s so-called reforms would certainly have a fight on its hands, not least because it seems unlikely that elections will change the orientation of a legislature that is largely captured by interests favourable to advancing the coup agenda.

In the last analysis, a vote for Lula is also a vote for Lula as an exceptional figure in Brazilian political life, not a vote that can be easily be transferred to a more radical left-wing alternative. Some Lula voters might even vote for Bolsonaro, but many more are likely to cast a null or blank vote if they are denied the opportunity to vote for the candidate of their choice. As things stand it is not easy to see how the coup can orchestrate a smooth transition of executive power into the hands of a popularly elected president  who would be as amenable to its programme as the unelected Michel Temer has been. Some people have expressed doubts about whether the scheduled elections will actually take place, but as things stand, without Lula, most possible outcomes seem manageable from the point of view of the golpistas. Gaoling Lula gives the forces behind the coup a breathing space to work on solving this problem, one way or another. Despite the passions evoked by the brief act of resistance in São Bernardo do Campo, and spontaneous demonstrations in support of it in many Brazilian cities, we have yet to see the kind of massive display of civil disobedience that might still stop the coup in its tracks. With unemployment on the rise again, a growing number of families being returned to the poverty from which they were lifted under PT rule, and an ever more violent and authoritarian deployment of the military and police security forces to stifle dissent, backed up by a transparently class- and race-biased justice system that has always been dedicated principally to controlling and punishing the poor, the immediate scenario is not positive, even discounting the manipulation of popular sentiment by the mainstream media and ultra-right wing purveyors of “fake news” through social media channels.

Nevertheless, imprisoning Lula has almost certainly enhanced rather than diminished his singular position in Brazilian history and ensured that his symbolic and mythical influence in Brazilian politics will remain potent for the next generation. It remains to be seen how well he will be treated, what kind of voice he can retain from his prison, and indeed, how long his incarceration will last, along with his good health, bearing in mind that he is not a young man. Despite the obvious parallels with Vargas and Goulart, Lula’s personal situation is now rather more like that of Antonio Gramsci, locked away by the fascists in what proved a vain attempt to stop one of Italy’s finest intellects functioning but which did put an end to his active role as a political leader. Yet since Moro failed to nail his target convincingly by international legal standards, and subsequent events have only served to make the mechanics of the coup process and the politicisation of the justice system more visible, Lula has not been abandoned by his mass base, nor disowned even by more radical left-wing leaders who had been strongly critical of the PT in power.  And although they may be repressed temporarily, in the longer term it is not likely to be easy to silence the demands for greater social justice and tolerance that, for all their failings, PT governments did foster.