Despite being in jail, former President Lula remains Brazil's most influential — and divisive — politician. DW's Rio columnist spoke to opponents and supporters and found a country split irreconcilably down the middle.
He has been incarcerated for two months now, serving a 12-year sentence for corruption. Yet Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will still be the crucial factor in October's presidential elections. The latest polls suggest 30 percent of voters will cast their ballot for his candidate.
How people view the former president is now a major battlefield in a society that was never cohesive and has been dominated for the better part of 500 years by antagonisms, contradictions and extremes. There has never been a collective idea of a civic and positive nation.
When I think about what keeps Brazil united, only the language, the national football team and that peculiar pride of being Brazilian come to mind. Is there anything beyond those that everyone can agree on?
I asked two completely different people about Lula. The only thing they have in common? They both say they're proud to be Brazilian. And with their polar contrasts, they make Brazil what it is.
Gustavo Chavaglia lives in the small town of Ituverava, in upstate Sao Paulo. Here, sugarcane dominates both the economy and the landscape. "Farming is and was responsible for our country's food security — and its oversupply for the trade balance surplus," says the 48-year-old president of the Brazilian Association of Sao Paulo's Soya Producers.
Chavaglia is a descendent of European immigrants, drives an SUV — and is a white man. When we first meet, he's wearing a broad-collared shirt, jeans, leather shoes, and an expensive watch. I see a confident, friendly and polite man - and it's obvious that he doesn't like Lula or the Brazilian Workers' Party (PT). "Our flag is green and yellow," he says. "It's not red."
He complains of the "electoral populism" hallmark of the Brazilian left-wing. His criticism doesn't stop there: He rejects environmentalists, to whom he refers as pseudo-enviros; the Landless Workers' Movement (MST) and indigenous movement activists saying "they don't work."
Across rural Brazil, ranch owners and white farmers commonly refer to people in social movements as "bums."
To Chavaglia, it's a good thing - and fair - that Lula is in jail. "Enough with populists," he says. "We don't feel like celebrating. Rather, we're outraged at the appalling actions of the political class."
He claims farmers have been misunderstood for years: "In every government since 1985, farmers have survived and adapted to a lack of farming public policies."
And he discards my counter that agriculture seems to have benefitted hugely from the policies of the last 20 years.
Lula's PT only oversaw an economic boom thanks to the legacy of the previous government, he says. To Chavaglia, PT's 13 years in power can be summarized in two words: "Mismanagement and irresponsibility."
A parallel universe
Quenia Emiliano only lives around 500 kms away from Chavaglia — but she might as well inhabit a completely different world. The 28-year-old shares an apartment with her brothers in Rio's Riachuelo neighborhood, and is currently working as an intern at the public prosecutor's municipal office in Rio de Janeiro as she finishes her law degree.
When she introduced herself on her first day at the office, people were surprised. Emiliano is black. "White people hold all positions of power in Brazil," she says. "Black people are left to work in crappy public services."
We meet after work and she is wearing an elegant green dress with African patterns, red earrings and nails. Her father was a street vendor and her mother was a care worker. Her great-grandfather was a slave.
Eloquent and determined, Emiliano looks to have a bright career ahead of her as a lawyer, all because of one man: "President Lula!"
She is eternally grateful to him, saying he brought about hope and opportunity for millions. Emiliano has just returned from a trip to Europe - the first member of her family to travel outside her home country.
"I was born in this country," she says, "poor, black and into a humble family. Right from the get go, I knew I had to fight to survive. There often wasn't enough to buy anything to eat, drink or to wear. Working and studying were the only path to a better life but it was the Lula government that allowed me to get to university and got me where I am today." Emiliano believes she was only able to study due to FIES, a government loan fund to help students attend private higher education universities.
As with Gustavo Chavaglia, Emiliano's background and her personal experience are key to her perception of Lula's case. To her, it's a politicized and strategic arrest: "It's part of the coup. They want a poor country, a country where only white, rich people can study."
Philipp Lichterbeck moved to Rio from Berlin in 2012. Since then, he's been writing about Brazil and other Latin American countries in the German press. You can follow him on Twitter at @Lichterbeck_Rio.