He spent 580 days in prison on corruption charges. Now he is back as Brazil's president for the third time. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, often known simply as Lula, was considered politically dead after his conviction. But then the country's highest court overturned the verdict because of procedural errors and Lula embarked on a stunning comeback.
From penniless to party founder
It was not the first time he succeeded against the odds. Born on October 27, 1945, in a small town in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, he was the seventh of eight children of poor farm workers. When Lula was seven, he, his mother and siblings traveled hundreds of miles in the back of an open truck to join his father in the economic metropolis of Sao Paolo.
Lula only attended school for a few years as he had to contribute to the family income at an early age. Later, he trained as a metalworker, and it was then that he came into contact with the trade union movement, subsequently rising to become one of its leaders. In 1980, the political party "Partido dos Trabalhadores" (Workers' Party, or PT) was born of the ongoing discontent among the trade unions and various social groups. Lula was one of the party's founding fathers.
Golden days for Brazil
After three failed attempts, Lula won the presidential election in 2002. In his eight years as Brazil's head of state, he established an impressive political legacy. Lula succeeded in overcoming the so-called "stray dog complex" — the way Brazilians had seen themselves and their country for decades — and made Brazil more influential on the international stage.
He pursued a foreign policy that included greater rapprochement with other Latin American states. The BRICS countries — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — also established a closer relationship while he was in office. In 2004, Brazil narrowly missed out on becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
However, Lula is probably best known for his social programs, such as the "Bolsa Familia" (literally: "family wallet"), which tied welfare payments for impoverished families to children's school attendance. Through these programs, Lula raised around 20 million people in Brazil out of poverty during his first two terms as president, constituting a major population shift from the lower to the middle class.
Lula also presided over the unparalleled rise of Brazil's semi-governmental oil company Petrobras as it discovered new oil fields and developed innovative extraction techniques. These euphoric years culminated in Brazil's selection as host of both the 2014 men's football World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. The economic policies of Lula's government cushioned the impact of the 2008 global economic crisis, and in 2010 Brazil's gross domestic product grew by as much as 7.5% — the strongest such increase in the South American country since 1986, according to the World Bank.
Lula's social policies and the flourishing economy, combined with his charisma — he was known for using simple and accessible language, even when talking about complex issues — gave him record approval ratings of up to 87%. This also allowed him to install his preferred successor, Dilma Rousseff, as the party's presidential candidate in the 2010 elections. The Brazilian constitution did not permit Lula to run again after two consecutive terms.
Stumbling blocks, scandals, and collapse
However, Lula experienced more than just triumphs. In June 2005, halfway through his first term, it emerged that the government was making monthly payments to deputies to secure the necessary parliamentary majorities. This bombshell, dubbed the Mensalao scandal, resulted in many politicians ending up behind bars. Jose Dirceu, Lula's cabinet chief, was identified as the head of the cross-party bribery network. Lula maintained he never knew about it.
Lula's period of both private and political tribulation began only after his first time as president. In 2011, he was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx, from which he managed to recover. It was in March 2014 that the enormous political controversy known as "Operation Car Wash" started to unfold. It began as an investigation into money laundering at a car wash, where there was also a bureau de change. Gradually, however, the vast extent of the case became apparent: institutionalized corruption involving the Petrobras oil company and perpetrated by several parties, including the ruling PT. By this time, Lula was no longer in charge; Rousseff had been president and leader of the PT for three years.
Rousseff's government was already weakened by the deteriorating economy and growing public discontent, which had erupted in nationwide protests the previous year. At the time of the October 2014 election, political divisions in Brazil were deeper than they had been in decades. Rousseff was eventually re-elected by a wafer-thin margin of just 3.3%.
In the years that followed, things took a turn for the worse, both for the PT and for Lula. Impeachment proceedings were initiated against Rousseff in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, and in August 2016 she was removed from office. Shortly afterwards, Lula, whom Rousseff had recently appointed as her chief of staff, was also charged with corruption: He was accused of being the mastermind behind the Petrobas bribery scheme.
In 2017, Lula's wife of 43 years, Marisa Leticia, died of a stroke. Nonetheless, the 71-year-old launched a new bid for the presidency and went on the campaign trail. But the legal ice was growing thin: Lula was repeatedly called to testify in court as part of Operation Car Wash, he was accused of accepting renovations to a luxury apartment in exchange for lucrative contracts awarded by Petrobras to the OAS construction company.
Lula consistently protested his innocence, and described the sensational proceedings as a political witch hunt designed to prevent him running for president again, but to no avail. The former president was eventually found guilty and sentenced to 12 years and one month in prison; the length of the sentence was revised several times.
After a warrant was issued for his arrest, Lula, surrounded and protected by supporters and party friends, let the deadline pass by a day, ensuring that the media spotlight was on him, before handing himself in on April 7, 2018. He was way ahead in the polls at the time, and even tried to continue campaigning from his 15-square-meter cell. However, Brazil's Superior Electoral Court denied his candidacy just five weeks before the presidential election, and the PT's replacement candidate, Fernando Haddad, lost to the far right-winger Jair Bolsonaro.
Triumphant return to power
As populist Bolsonaro took over the presidency, Lula's case continued to move through the courts. The ex-president was provisionally released in November 2019 when Brazil's Supreme Court had ruled that defendants convicted in courts of the first and second instance did not have to go to prison until all their appeals had been exhausted.
Then, in early March 2021, a Supreme Court judge overturned all four corruption convictions against Lula, ruling that the court in the southern city of Curitiba where the trials had been held had not had the required jurisdiction. A month later the plenary session of the Supreme Court confirmed this decision, and Lula da Silva regained his political rights.
He was sure to make use of those rights and registered as a candidate for the 2022 election to stand against Bolsonaro. Yet the many allegations and court cases over corruption meant that Lula was no longer able to draw as much direct support as he used during his first stint in office. Many Brazilians might have voted for him simply because he was seen as having the best chances of defeating Bolsonaro, rather than because they fully backed Luna himself.