Watch: Interview with Brazil’s ex-president Lula from prison, discussing global threats, neoliberalism, Bolsonaro, and more


Among the planet’s significant political figures, no one is quite like Lula. Born into extreme poverty, illiterate until the age of 10, forced to quit school at the age of 12 to work as a shoe shiner, losing a finger at his factory job at 19, and then becoming a labor activist, union leader, and founder of a political party devoted to a defense of laborers (the Workers’ Party, or PT), Lula has always been, in all respects, the exact opposite of the rich, dynastic, oligarch-loyal, aristocratic prototype that has traditionally wielded power in Brazil.

That’s precisely what makes Lula’s rise to power, and his incomparable success once he obtained it, so extraordinary. And that’s what, to this very day, makes him so worth listening to regarding the world’s most complex and pressing political questions: As the ascension of right-wing nationalism and populism at times seems unstoppable, Lula is one of the world’s very few political figures of the last several decades able to figure out how to win national elections in a large country based on left-wing populism in the best sense of that term.

So unlikely was Lula’s rise to power that he ran for president, and lost, three times before finally being elected by an overwhelming margin in 2002 and then reelected by an even larger margin in 2006. His eight-year presidency, despite being marred by corruption scandals long endemic to Brazilian politics, was a stunning testament to the power of politics to improve the lives of people and transform a country: implementation of innovative social programs that lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty and created opportunities and hope for a huge segment of the population which, for generations, had none.

So bold and charismatic was Lula’s leadership that it not only transformed the lives of millions but also the perception of Brazil itself: both domestically and globally. Brazil was awarded the World Cup and then became the first South American country to host the Olympics. Tens of millions of Brazilians who resigned themselves to eternal, inescapable deprivation began to believe for the first time that a brighter future was possible. When Obama saw him at the G-20 summit in 2008, he anointed Lula “my man,” adding: “He’s the most popular politician on Earth.”

Obama was right: By the time he left office in 2010, Lula had an approval rating of 86 percent. And in a highly patriarchal country, he chose as his successor a little-known PT minister, Dilma Rousseff, who in 2010 was, with Lula’s vehement support, comfortably elected as the country’s first female president and then reelected in 2014. Somehow, a pro-worker leftist party founded by an impoverished labor leader became the dominant political force — winning four consecutive national elections and restoring Brazil’s belief in itself — in an oil-rich country long notorious for its extreme inequality of all types.

But then, just as quickly and dramatically as Lula built these successes, everything fell apart: for Lula, for Dilma, for PT and, most tragically, for Brazil. During Dilma’s presidency, the economy collapsed, millions returned to unemployment and poverty, an epidemic of street violence emerged, Dilma’s approval ratings dropped to near single-digits, she was impeached during her second term under highly dubious circumstances, and a routine investigation of money laundering through a car wash in the mid-sized Brazilian town of Curitiba quickly exploded into a massive corruption scandal. Aptly referred to as Operation Car Wash, or Lava Jato, it implicated and sent to prison Brazil’s richest and most powerful figures, including the billionaire funders of multiple parties, PT’s leaders, and, finally in March 2018, Lula himself.

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