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Schulz visits Brazil's ex-President Lula in jail

Carolina Chimoy with Louisa Wright
August 31, 2018

It was billed as a sign of social democratic solidarity in times of rising right-wing populism: The former leader of Germany's SPD has paid a surprise, and controversial, visit to Brazil's jailed ex-President Lula.

SPD politician Martin Schulz
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Rodriguez

Martin Schulz visits Lula

European politicians are usually in the habit of giving the presidential palace in Brazil a wide bearth these days. Current incumbent Michel Temer has faced accusations of leading a "criminal organization"; his predecessor Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016; and the most popular politician in the country is serving a 12-year jail sentence for corruption.

On Thursday, Martin Schulz, the former head of Germany's Social Democrats (SPD) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel's main challenger in the 2017 elections, visited former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in prison.

"No power in the world can prevent me from telling a man who I have known for many years and who I trust: I believe you," Schulz told DW outside the prison in Curitiba in the southern state of Parana. "I encountered a very brave and fierce man today."

The current leader of the SPD, Andrea Nahles, asked Schulz to make the trip ahead of Brazil's presidential election on October 7. Schulz described the vote as being of "global imprtance."

Ex-President Lula behind bars

Campaigning from his cell

Lula has been in jail since April, following a ruling by Judge Sergio Moro that found him guilty of money laundering and accepting bribes from a construction company. The former president and his supporters have rejected the verdict. 

Despite the charges, he remains the most popular politician in the country. Lula's Workers' Party (PT) registered him as their main candidate for the election. Latest polls suggest he is on course for 40 percent of the vote.

Race against time

The PT believes the judicial proceedings against Lula are an attempt by the political right to get leftist Lula kicked out of the presidential race.

Brazil's electoral commission is expected to throw out Lula's candidacy on the grounds that the law does not allow people with criminal records to run for president. The court has to announce its decision by September 17.

The PT is hoping external political pressure will get Lula out of prison and back in the presidency, making Schulz's visit particularly welcome. He has met with Lula several times, both as former president of the European Parliament and as leader of the SPD.

Schulz told DW he wanted to set an example with his visit, adding that it is particularly important in times of increasing right-wing populism to stick together as social democratic parties.

Read more: Opinion: Lula, Brazil's tragic hero

Divided nation

Brazil, like many democracies in Latin America, is a deeply-polarized society.

Just behind Lula in the polls, and potentially the next president of Brazil, is right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro of the Social Liberal Party.

Bolsonaro speaks highly of the military dictatorship that ran the country between 1964 and 1985 and has made derogatory remarks about women, foreigners, people of color and homosexuals in the past. In his speeches, the "Donald Trump" of Brazil repeatedly distances himself from the so-called political elite.

Read more: Opinion: What path will Brazil take?

Facts: The echelons of corruption

Intervention unwanted

When DW asked people in the streets of Curitiba about what they think of a German politician visiting Lula's 15-square-meter cell, most people responded with annoyance.

"Schulz should bother more about the cohesion of the social democratic party in his own country," one passer-by told DW.

Another pointed out that Brazil is a sovereign country and does not need the intervention of external politicians, saying that it is all a PR stunt by the Workers' Party.

But in the Lula camp, the visit from Germany was greeted warmly. Among a circle of 15 Lula supporters, Schulz gave a short, but enthusiastically-received speech.

There then followed a lunch date with PT Secretary General Gleisi Hoffmann. "Martin, next time we will eat with Lula at the [government palace in Brasilia] Palacio do Planalto,"  she said. Schulz responded with a smile.

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