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Why A Tainted Lula Could Be Back As Brazil President

Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was detained as part of a widespread corruption scandal at state oil giant Petrobras. But the probe could actually prove to be the spark to help him succeed Dilma Rousseff.

Lula last April
Lula last April
Clóvis Rossi


SAO PAULO — A slew of reactions has followed Friday's detention and questioning by police of former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, as part of a long-running investigation into corruption at state oil giant Petrobras.

For starters, officials from the country's Workers' Party, which Lula helped to found, said they suspected the police action was a pre-emptive strike against the party's probable candidate for the 2018 presidential election. And this speculation isn't entirely baseless.

Jude Webber wrote in the Financial Times that recent signs that Lula was interested in running for president again would now seem "dead and buried" in the face of the corruption probe.

Sorry, but I disagree. The latest poll from the Datafolha institute shows that Lula has 20% support among voters a full two years out, which is an excellent starting point for a potential candidate, especially one who has been dogged for months by accusations. As a matter of fact, Lula himself seems to hold the same view. "I won't bow my head," he said from the Workers' Party headquarters after he was released by police, explaining that what happened had instead "ignited in him the flame to keep up the fight."

All that was missing from his comments was an official announcement of his candidacy.

We've seen the pattern before. Lula's early prestige in 1980 came only after another episode in which the police went after him. That time, he was actually arrested, caught in the act, unlike last week's warrant which simply forced him in to testify in the investigation. Back in 1980, Lula was the spearhead of a 17-day union strike. Labor courts found the strike illegal, and he was arrested and jailed for a month.

But there's a monumental difference between the Lula who was jailed 36 years ago and the 70-year-old man who recently said he would keep up the fight. Back then, his friends were blue-collar workers with rough hands. I was a witness for the defense of that group when they appeared in court for "subversion." I saw first-hand Lula's transformation into a loyal friend of contractors whose horse-trading and promiscuity with successive governments he and his metalworker comrades used to denounce.

"Our thief..."

But the transformation is a natural one in Lula's case. Even during his union days, he used to say that he wanted blue-collar workers who were building cars to have enough money to buy them. It's therefore understandable that he had the same wish for himself, especially given that he considers himself to be privileged, having survived in an environment in which dying young was common. His wish became so true that he now brags about being among the world's highest paid speakers, second only to former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

In other words, suspicion of corruption may not be politically lethal for Lula. After all, the mensalão, the previous scandal involving his Workers' Party, didn't stand in the way of his 2006 reelection. The reason is simple: There's a widespread feeling that all politicians are thieves. So even if Lula is ultimately found guilty of foul play, he would be seen as "our thief," the politician who boasted about lifting 40 million people up to the middle class, no matter how shaky the definition of the term.

The problem for Lula isn't that he's been taken in for questioning, but that three million people have already returned to poverty because of his successor, one he believes he helped get elected. That's to say nothing of growing unemployment, which is now close to 10%.

In any case, his statement at the Workers' Party headquarters and the announcement that he's ready to get back to business represent no less than the beginning of a campaign to succeed President Dilma Rousseff. In 2018 or, perhaps, even before.

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This Happened—November 29: Robert McNamara Resigns

Updated November 29, 2023 at 12:00 p.m.

As a key proponent of expanding the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara became the target of much the ire of the U.S. anti-war movement. He finally resigned after being the longest serving Secretary of Defense.

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