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Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva celebrates his election victory in October 2022
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva celebrates his election victory in October 2022Image: Andre Penner/AP Photo/picture alliance
PoliticsBrazil

Brazil's Lula da Silva: the communist who wasn't

Oliver Pieper
December 29, 2022

Supporters of Jair Bolsonaro have branded incoming president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva a communist. Half the country has fallen for the smear campaign, though Lula's track record speaks for itself.

https://p.dw.com/p/4LXxt

When supporters of Jair Bolsonaro wake up after a raucous New Year's Eve party, they might not only face a hangover. They could, in fact, be confronted with a veritable nightmare: Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the man who they claim plans to ban churches and feels drawn to Satanists, this "godless communist," will be sworn in as Brazil's new president on January 1, 2023.

But is there any truth to these accusations? Will 77-year-old Lula, who founded Brazil's Workers' Party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) and served as president from 2003 to 2011, try to introduce communism when he returns to office in 2023?

This is a prospect Fernando Morais finds unthinkable. "Lula was never a communist, and he will never be one. Throughout his life, he never had any ties to the Communist Party."

Fernando Morais sitting at a desk, pointing
Lula biographer Fernando Morais knows Lula's thinking and political legacy better than manyImage: privat

Few people in Brazil know Lula as well as Morais. The writer has known Lula for about 50 years. He knew him when Lula was still a simple factory worker. He has also written a noteworthy biography about the former president, who is about to return to power.

On the evening before Lula was arrested for alleged corruption in 2017, Morais asked him whether he was a communist at heart. To which Lula drily replied: "There were half a million workers behind me in 1980 and I prevented a strike. I would have started a revolution if I had been a communist. But what did I do instead? I founded a party and trade union headquarters."

A union leader, not a revolutionary

In 1975, Lula was elected as head of the Metal Workers' Union. Five years later, Lula founded the Workers' Party. After the end of Brazil's military junta (which ruled from 1964 to 1985), Lula became a delegate in the constitutional assembly of the Brazilian Congress in 1987.

Bolsonaro supporters keep drawing attention to this period in Lula's career, before his mercurial political rise, when Lula expressed admiration for the Cuban government and openly criticized the Brazilian military regime, which jailed him for five weeks in 1980.

"Lula's older brother Frei Chico tried to get Lula to join the Communist Party on several occasions. He had the opportunity to work for a clandestine Marxist organization, too. But he [Lula] never wanted that," says Morais. "Lula said anyone who wants to listen to him [speak] should join the union, because he would not speak secretly on street corners, but preferably in front of thousands in stadiums."

Social democrat who was friends with Germany's Schmidt

Since becoming a politician, Lula's positions have become increasingly centrist. He would probably be a good fit for Germany's center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). It's little wonder, then, that Lula was a personal friend of the late German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who was a Social Democrat.

A tired-looking Jair Bolsonaro seen from the side
President Jair Bolsonaro was a populist right-wing president, many would even consider him to be far-rightImage: Andressa Anholete/Getty Images

During his time as president, Lula enacted liberal economic policies. At the same time, his government funneled considerable funds into social programs like the Zero Hunger initiative.

When he enacted an ambitious program to reform social insurance in 2003, Lula removed far-left members from his party who refused to vote on the measure. Not only that. Brazilian banks and major companies recorded record profits during Lula's reign.

Fernando Morais says Lula "announced he will resign from the presidency only when each and every Brazilian has three meals a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. He will continue what he has worked towards in the past: to end hunger. Lula no longer needs to prove he is the opposite of a communist."

No second Venezuela

Even so, many people in Brazil are frightened by the idea of communism — not unlike in the US, where the Republicans have been accusing Democrats of communist tendencies for decades. Why is it that merely mentioning Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela stokes such strong antipathy among center-right Brazilians? And how is it possible that Lula, who governed the country of 214 million for eight years, implementing successful political and economic policies, is still branded a communist?

"I think these campaigns mobilize people," says Oliver Stuenkel, a professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo. He closely monitored the presidential election campaign and heard from many Brazilians in recent months who voiced their fear of communism.

"How great is the danger that Brazil will install a political system similar to Cuba's? This is very unlikely," says Stuenkel. "But conservative voters and the military are still very fearful of communism." It is a vague fear, he adds. "Communism is like a rallying cry that gives a campaign a central theme."

Tried and tested: stoking fear of communism

Stoking fear of communism is nothing new. Ever since the 1960s, far-right elements in Brazil have used this fear to attack enemies and intimidate the middle class. Bolsonaro supporters today view anyone who opposes weapons sales and police violence as a communist.

Police face off a large crowd of Bolsonaro supporters
Bolsonaro supporters sparked unrest in December 2022Image: Adriano Machado/REUTERS

"Of course nobody thought property will be nationalized when the Workers' Party wins, but Bolsonaro backers consider Lula a left-wing radical, just like [US President] Joe Biden, incidentally," says Stuenkel. This is, he adds, "mainly because he [Lula] and the Workers' Party never distanced themselves from more radical systems like the one in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, or condemned their governments."

Until this day, many Brazilians fear the left wants to retake power guided by radical left-wing ideas. But political scientist Stuenkel says attempts to discredit Lula as a communist will likely fizzle out. "I assume this will go back and, eventually, many will realize that they are being ruled by a left-wing rather than communist government," says Stuenkel.

This article was originally published in Geman.

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