Lula for beginners

A parallel between Brazil's history and the story of its most charismatic leader
09 April 2018

The forces that shaped modern Brazil made the rise of a figure such as Lula da Silva all but inevitable. Conditions in Brazil today mean his imprisonment is certainly not the end of this chapter in the nation's story. Pablo Gentili, Executive Secretary of the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO), analyses the  parallel between Brazil's history and the story of its most charismatic leader.


Lula, Ricardo Stuckert (CLACSO)
Lula, Ricardo Stuckert / Photo credit CLACSO

“Brazil is not for beginners,” Tom Jobim asserted with his ruthless poetic style.

Attempting to understand a country such as Brazil requires an immense capacity for sociological imagination. Today’s Brazil retains the historical marks that shaped its social genesis. Brazil is reliving the past, day after day, in the arrogance of the elites, the persistence of structures of slavery, and the systematic disregard for democracy and the rights of most of its inhabitants, who have been transformed into aliens within a nation and without a homeland.

Brazil's history has been shaped by brute force and garlanded with indulgent narratives that have attempted to explain the unexplainable. In short, even if nothing works, Dios y la alegría son brasileños (God and joyfulness are Brazilians): What more could anybody ask for?

Brazil is a country whose independence was proclaimed by a prince, the son of the king of Portugal, who declared himself “constitutional Emperor” and perpetual defender of the nation. It is an independent country that was born as an empire--an empire that remains today ruled by its owners.

Thus, democracy has been an exceptionality in Brazilian history. Lacking political and social democracy, Brazil invented so-called “racial democracy”, a doctrinaire fiction that could have served to build the pretence of an egalitarian society, but which became the myth that conceals an institutional racism that transforms millions of humans beings into subjects of disdain and exclusion. In the nation with the world’s second-largest black population, history is written by whites, power and wealth are amassed by whites, and opportunities are always seized by whites. The white population, composed of those who live indifferent to violence and the segregation of many silenced, invisible, and abandoned citizens: the poor, the black, the peasant, the indigenous, the raped women and girls, the homeless, the landless, the people without names and without rights.

Brazil is a continental country with a history plagued by coups and plagued with lies. When in 1964 the military overthrew João Goulart, a democratically elected president, they promised to restore constitutional order in just one day. The regime remained in power for 21 years. The first editorial of O Globo (Brazil’s main daily paper) after the coup proclaimed a “resurgent democracy.”

And democracy re-emerged, indeed, but only two decades later and based on legislation that demanded collective forgetting of and impunity for military crimes. No one would be judged. No one convicted. Power was delegated, without any popular vote, to an indirectly elected president who died before taking office, thus transferring the mandate to an expressionless and grey landowner who was also a mediocre poet and the feudal heir to one of the country’s most impoverished regions. Democracy wanted to resurface, but could not.

The first presidential elections since 1960 would be held only in 1989. For almost 30 years Brazil had just managed to live on the margins  of representative democracy. The elites, however, claimed that the period of dictatorial exception was a true economic “miracle”, by which a nation able to grow more than 30 percent in just one year could be transformed at the same time into one of the most unjust and unequal societies on the planet.

The rupture

Brazilian history since the 1990s is more or less common knowledge. First, Fernando Collor defeated Lula in a presidential election with support from the Rede Globo media conglomerate. Collor was impeached and removed, and Itamar Franco assumed as president, who did almost nothing in office, although he was good-natured (and liked to be photographed beside young women without underwear, which made many think he was a good president). Itamar was succeeded by the prince of sociologists, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who also defeated Lula and demanded that those who knew his academic past forget everything he had written before being elected. In 1998, Lula was again defeated by Fernando Henrique, who, besides pushing forward a plan for privatisations, never reversed, and in some cases worsened, the already deteriorating living conditions of the poor. During his two terms, poverty grew or remained stable. By 2002 31,8 percent of the population lived in poverty. That year, Lula finally won the presidential election.

The decline of the Cardoso government meant the exhaustion, or at least the profound deterioration, of a model of accumulation and domination that had prevailed since the democratic transition. Despite the crisis of the regime, Brazil’s elites hoped that Lula would not mean a threat to their corrupt and selfish interests. They had reasons for such hope. Lula, a former metalworker leader, had written a letter to the Brazilian people in which he promised not to threaten the wealth and properties of the rich, but to develop instead a programme of social inclusion that would be beneficial for the whole country. The elites believed Lula’s pledge either because they had no other choice or because they thought that they finally had defeated him. We may never know, but we do know that the former leader of the metalworkers’ union was true to his word and developed an unprecedented programme of social reforms, with exceptional results.

Poverty dropped significantly, falling by 73 percent in 12 years. So-called chronic poverty fell from almost ten to one percent. Income levels increased across all social sectors. The income of the richest grew 23 percent, while for the poorest, the increase was 84 percent. Brazil ceased to be included in the humiliating Map of Hunger published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), expanding opportunities and welfare conditions hitherto unimaginable for the country's poorest sectors.

But the great social, educational and economic indicators, and ultimately the excellent social performance of his government, was not what endowed Lula with immense recognition and approval. What transformed him into a real myth, leading to a sort of personality cult and great popular admiration, was the founding nature that his mandate had acquired. The poor might not interpret social or economic conditions with the theoretical tools and the cryptic data used by intellectuals, but they are not less subtle or insightful when it comes to understanding their own social reality.

The poor know, for instance, that income has to do with their abilities and welfare opportunities. Thus, they operationalise such knowledge based on very specific indicators. For example, having access to more and better educational levels, accessing credit that would allow them to buy a house or basic consumer goods, have electricity, sanitation, drinking water and – when they exaggerate their welfare aspirations – travel to visit their loved ones by plane.

All this, which constitutes an inventory of basic rights and opportunities in any modern republic, had never been accessible to millions of Brazilians. Lula's government, and subsequently Dilma Rousseff, his successor, offered for the first time an effective opportunity for self-recognition as citizens to a huge contingent of people who had been despised, discarded and humiliated by the elites that pretended to ignore their existence as subjects of rights, or simply as human beings with unsatisfied basic needs.

Lula came to repair such historic injustice and he did it with a huge capacity for management and the exercise of strong political leadership, bot inside and outside the country.

Lula's overwhelming strength took the indolent and ignorant elites by surprise. They had assumed that a metalworker with no university education would fail in his efforts to direct the destiny of the tenth economic power on the planet.

Within a decade, Lula and Dilma reduced the housing deficit that affected the poorer sectors of the population by 53 percent . They built more than 1,700,000 dignified housing units, universalised access to electricity (in a country with immense inequality in the provision of energy services), significantly increased the percentage of households with access to water, doubled the number of university students, and built more universities and technical schools than ever before in the history of the country until 2002. All these policies were the result of putting the poor at the centre of the national budgetary priorities, especially benefiting rural people, women, youth, the indigenous and black population.

If one tries to understand Brazil from the perspective of an Argentine analyst, even taking into account huge differences and historical specificities, one could say that the role assumed by Lula can be better compared to that of Juan Domingo Perón in the 1940s, rather than the role played by Néstor Kirchner in the decade that followed the crisis of 2001. President Kirchner assumed an exceptional responsibility in undertaking the foundation of a republic built on pillars of equality, human rights and social justice. He did it with a great capacity for public management, governing a country in ruins, but taking as a reference an idea and a historical trajectory (Perón’s project) that he believed should be recovered or refounded.

But Lula is different. Lula is a founder. He is the great democratic architect of a Brazil that never existed.

For us, Argentines, the powerful and forceful slogan that states that "the homeland is the other" (“la patria es el otro”) is the emotional synthesis of a decade of achievements that we have conquered collectively; a synthesis that acquires a sense and a referentiality in a common past that vividly embodies the need to build a new present. It is a past that is projected and mirrored in the great democratic leaders of our national history (Hipólito Yrigoyen, Juan Domingo Perón, Evita Perón, Héctor Campora, Raúl Alfonsín), as well as in the victims of the dictatorship and in our heroic mothers and grandmothers (Madres and Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo). It is the possible future that faces a real past.


Brazil did not have the same past as Argentina or anything comparable to it. Only half a century later than Argentina, Brazil fulfilled the mandate often assigned to popular governments in Latin America: to install, build and defend a republican, modernising and democratic order, against the predatory barbarism imposed by backwards-looking elites who seem nostalgic for the Middle Ages.

Lula founded a republican Brazil. He is a leader who is unwilling to accept that there cannot be room for everyone in a country of equals and a leader who, openly and without hypocritical remorse, is not afraid to declare his confident that everyone can live better, that the poor should eat well, live well, send their children to universities, and own the houses in which they live. Lula has no aspirations to become another fashionable hippie preaching against consumerism. He knows that the poor are essential players in  realising the possibility of a dignified life, beyond simple false promises.

Why did Judge Sérgio Moro imprison Lula Moro without any proof other than his personal conviction? Because it has been the strategy that the (unproductive and predatory) financial powers, the great communicational monopoly that is the Globo Network, and conservative political sectors (including former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso) have found to end what they believe is an unacceptable precedent that would challenge that selfish and petty Brazil structured around privileges rooted in the country’s history. They do not accept Lula’s return to power. They believed that the coup against Dilma Rousseff would sink him forever. They were wrong. Now they believe that by imprisoning him he will be silenced. They are wrong, again.

They want to put an end to the stubborn and persistent metallurgist union leader who seems to be never willing to surrender and hand over the weapons of dignity, trust in politics and confidence in the value of popular mobilisations. But they also want to kill all the Lulas to come. They want to end what they see as a fatal virus against their privileges and corrupt impunity: the possibility that many may think that if a metalworker without formal schooling, a poor migrant from the impoverished Northeast region, could govern the country, others like him might also do so.

They are imprisoning Lula, but they imprison an idea. They seek to imprison the future. They will fail. There will be no jail space for the multitude of free men and women, who continue to struggle to build a future that belongs to them, that nobody can take away.