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Lula - Brazil's tragic hero

July 13, 2017

Whatever the final verdict against former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, it won't diminish his enormous contribution to the country's political life, says DW's Astrid Prange.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva while president of Brazil
Image: Reuters/P. Whitaker

Brazil has pulled the pedestal out from under its hero. Nine years and six months in prison - that's the devastating sentence handed down to former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. A father figure who ruled the country from 2003 to 2011, Lula has been found guilty of corruption. The verdict from famed anti-corruption judge, Sergio Moro, is explosive. Lula is a political legend in Brazil, and this is the first time a former president has ever been convicted.

But the verdict will not unleash a political earthquake. Moro has ruled that Lula can remain free pending an appeal. Had he not done this, there would have almost certainly been a political outcry. Lula is still one of the most popular politicians in the country. And as long as the last word remains unspoken in his case, he can run for the 2018 election.

Beacon of hope for the poor

The 71-year-old political veteran can look back on an awe-inspiring career. He fought against the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1989. He organized a powerful trade union movement and founded the Workers' Party (PT), which governed the country for 12 years. His biggest success: Thanks to transformative social programs, he helped more than 20 million people escape poverty.

Prange de Oliveira, Astrid App photo
DW's Astrid Prange

Lula stepped up, because he wanted to free his country from what he referred to as its "stray dog complex." His choice of words also says a lot about himself. As a child born into abject poverty in the northeastern part of the country, he had to fight against the prejudice of others, as well as his own feelings of inferiority. A metalworker and unionist in the presidential palace? That was once unthinkable in Brazil.

Now he's facing a fall from grace. Lula is in a fight to salvage not just his political legacy, but also his personal life. After a battle with cancer and the death of his wife, Marisa, the court's verdict is a tough blow.

Lula's numerous supporters are intent on defending "their" father figure. For many, his sentencing feels like an attack on themselves. After last year's impeachment of Lula's hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, they see the current trials against Lula as a political witch hunt.

Who will land behind bars next?

But Lula's political opponents are also holding their breath. They must now be asking themselves who will be imprisoned next. There's a corruption probe against current President Michel Temer. And the former speaker of the lower house of the Brazilian Congress, Eduardo Cunha, is in custody after being sentenced to more than 15 years behind bars on corruption charges. Brazil's political class is on edge. A total of 82 people have so far been charged in connection with the ongoing probe into the country's corruption scandal, known as "Operation Car Wash." Eleven of them have already been convicted.

The verdict has turned Lula into a tragic hero. Tragic not just for Lula himself, but for all of Brazil. Because in this politically polarized country, the condemnation of the former president is often unjustly extended to his policies. Lula has made an enormous contribution to Brazil over his lifetime, and his achievements are deserving of continued recognition.

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