Shooting Lula


Human Wrongs Watch

By Pablo Stefanoni*

Lula_bancada_PT_Senado_Câmara-2015_06_29_(cropped)

**Lula in June 2015. | Valter Campanato/ABr | Agência Brasil | Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil license.

As expected, the Supreme Federal Court of Brazil rejected the writ of habeas corpus presented by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s lawyers after he had been sentenced by two different courts of justice to 9 years first, and then to 12 years.

The offense attributed to him is that of having improperly received a three-floor apartment on the beach from the Brazilian construction company OAS in exchange for certain advantages while in government.

Five judges were for and five against Lula’s appeal, so it was for the president of the court to break the tie and she sided against Lula.

Five judges were for and five against Lula’s appeal, so it was for the president of the court to break the tie and she sided against Lula.

 The debates were broadcast live on TV – a peculiarity of the Brazilian court system – for hours on end, during which several types of arguments – legal, historical and political – were put forward and the decision to maintain the 2006 jurisprudence prevailed.

The public character of the hearings obliged the judges to argue in favor and against Lula’s appeal. Presumption of innocence and impunity were the two poles between which they had to decide whether Lula should go to prison any time soon or later on.

However, as reflected in the judges’ interventions, the decision had to be taken in a tense environment, beleaguered by pressures, and in the context of a dangerous shift in Brazilian politics towards public and shameless interference by the military.

Hardly veiling his intentions, the Army Chief of Staff, General Eduardo Villas Bôas, said on Twitter that the institution “repudiates impunity and respects the Constitution, social peace and democracy” – a clearly intimidating message.

“We are with you in the trenches! We think alike! Brazil above all!”, added enthusiastically General Antonio Miotto. Another high-ranking officer mentioned swords and horses prepared for combat.

With Lula leading all the polls with a 37% voting intention, the former president’s trial has long been perceived by his followers as a well-aimed shot to get him out of the race.

What is more: as a revenge from the elites against the worker-president, a child from the poor Northeast who later became a pugnacious trade-unionist in the ABC Region of São Paulo, who took millions of his countrymen out of poverty and opened a way for them to material and symbolic social advancement.

So, the image of Lula arrested under the dictatorship has become a piece of evidence of his continuing and permanent persecution. And in Latin America as a whole most of the Left inscribes this judicial process inside the broader struggle between the people and the oligarchy.

In Latin America as a whole most of the Left inscribes this judicial process inside the broader struggle between the people and the oligarchy.

In fact, it is hard to sustain this at face value. From the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, Lula and the Workers’ Party (PT) established often unclear relationships with the Brazilian business community, and their policies contributed to the expansion of several trans-Latin corporations, such as the now famous Odebrecht, and the JBS meatpacking giant.

The PT got also entangled in agreements with the old politics, which it was unable to reform.

Lula’s current legal situation cannot obscure the story of all these years – a hyper-pragmatic PT’s “neo-developmentalist” efforts and its links with the Brazilian bourgeoisie – and this is why it is not so easy to establish a connection between Lula today and the worker leader he used to be, much in the same way as Dilma Rousseff who, in the midst of her impeachment process, was no longer the post-leftist technocrat who had handed over the Ministry of Economy to neoliberals, but the thick-glassed guerrilla of the old days, who appeared on the dictatorship’s police files.

Even though this current Lula, reconstructed by himself and the Left, is unrealistic, and even though the PT has been involved in several corruption scandals, it is nevertheless a fact that anti-Lulism is the vector for the powerful un-egalitarian and reactionary forces which have marked the history of Brazil and are extremely active in the present.

It is significant that the very moderate PT experience is today being described as “Communist” and labeled a “trade union dictatorship” in a markedly anti-plebeian context which bears the stamp of a substantial part of the Brazilian elites’ traditional racism and classism.

In truth, the Lava Jato scandal has brought down several once-powerful figures, such as Eduardo Cunha himself – who masterminded the parliamentary coup against Rousseff – and business leader Marcelo Odebrecht, and this cannot be attributed to the anti-PT war. But it is no less true that class revenge is latent in the imaginaries created around the fight against Lulism as a political and social phenomenon.

The Brazilian case shows that the fight against corruption can coexist with strong democratic and institutional deterioration.

The murder of councilor Marielle Franco; blatant corruption – involving from President Michel Temer to most current MPs and governors and officials at all levels -; the expansion of the freedom to publicly defend the military dictatorship; and denunciation being turned into a bazaar where information is traded for benefits in judicial sentences in opaque ways: all of these are signals warning of the de-democratization of the country.

The candidate currently in second position in the polls for the October elections, Jair Bolsonaro, is a clear expression of this degradation. A former Army officer with an anti-corruption and anti-elite discourse, Bolsonaro is the mouthpiece of the far Right and his rhetoric is permanently spiced with homophobic, racist and misogynist outbursts.

Jair Bolsonaro, second in the polls for the October elections, has famously declared that the dictatorship’s error was torturing instead of killing, and that he would rather have a gay son of his killed in a accident than seeing him with another man.

He has famously declared that the dictatorship’s error was torturing instead of killing off its opponents, and that he would rather have a gay son of his killed in a accident than seeing him with another man. He also told a woman MP that she was too ugly to be raped. Voter intention for him is currently at 18%.

Faced with this type of scenario, some in the national-popular Left – particularly in Argentina – use the term “Honestism” (which was actually coined by Martín Caparrós, in Argentinismos, to refer to the superficial way in which criticism of Menem failed to question the established economic-social model).

The term is now used to refer to the anti-corruption discourses containing an anti-political vein which end up elevating entrepreneurs or powerful people who, eventually, end up defending the rich and do not improve the republic nor public decency (like Temer or Mauricio Macri).

In Italy, “Justicialist” Mani Pulite ended up destroying the traditional parties, which coexisted with the Mafia, and handed over the prime-ministership to … Silvio Berlusconi. There is undoubtedly some truth in the critique of the de-politicized versions of the fight against corruption, which are based on the naive perception that without corruption there would be more economic development and “the poor would live better”.

Clearly, development happens when development policies are being applied, some countries actually develop with a significant degree of corruption (South Korea), and “putting a stop to stealing” does not magically translate into building sewers in Latin America’s popular suburbs.

But it is no less true that the anti-Honestist Left (not Caparrós) tends to over-expand these truths up to the point of giving up the challenge of building a new public ethic, often disregarding – or even being unable to see – genuine social demands opposing corruption in politics.

The most emblematic case in this regard is that of Kirchnerism in Argentina, almost neutralized by a way of financing politics (and not only politics) which is very easy to prosecute after losing power.

On the other hand, it is not true that the fight against corruption is always a “Right-wing” thing. It was not in Argentina during the 1990s against Menem, it was not more recently in Guatemala against the far-Right Otto Pérez Molina, and is not today in Mexico, where Andrés Manuel López Obrador uses a fair dose of “Honestism” in his presidential campaign.

“If they jail me, I’ll become a hero; if they kill me, I’ll become a martyr; and if they let me free, I’ll become president”, Lula said while touring Brazil to recover political mystique.

Something similar happens with the republican discourse: it looks like an obstacle to progressive change while in government, but it is fundamental if we are to maintain social and democratic conquests when government is in the hands of Conservative forces.

“If they jail me, I’ll become a hero; if they kill me, I’ll become a martyr; and if they let me free, I’ll become president”, Lula said while touring Brazil to recover political mystique.

The Brazilian political scenario is now more uncertain, for it remains to be seen what strategies the PT will deploy – beyond insisting on Lula’s candidacy in order to show that he is being proscribed -, if support for extremist Bolsonaro grows, and if it is possible for moderate presidential candidates to emerge and take advantage of Lula’s vacancy, and – importantly – what will be left of Lula’s power if his lawyers fail to have him released from prison soon.

____

This article is being published as part of the partnership between Nueva Sociedad and democraciaAbierta. You can read the Spanish original here.

About the author

*Pablo Stefanoni — Journalist, economist and Doctor in history. He currently serves as editor-in-chief of the journal New Society (Friedrich Ebert Foundation). 

He was the director of Le Monde Diplomatique-Bolivia and member of the editorial board of the weekly Pulse. He is the co-author of the The Revolution of Evo Morales and Debating Bolivia.

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