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Lula behind bars in Brazil: A deathblow for Latin America’s left?

Brazil’s ex-president and leftist icon Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva flew in Saturday to the prison in Curitiba where he is due to serve his 12-year sentence for corruption, following days of drama that marked the downfall of once one of the world’s most popular politicians.

world Updated: Apr 08, 2018 12:15 IST
Agence France-Presse, Montevideo
Lula da Silva,Brazil,Lula in jail
A supporter of Brazilian former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva holds a sign with his image during a Catholic Mass in memory of Lula's late wife Marisa Leticia in the Metallurgical Union, in Sao Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, after judge Sergio Moro issued a warrant to send Lula to prison, on April 7, 2018. (AFP)

With his ambitious social programs, his international standing and his extraordinary fate, Brazil’s ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was a potent symbol of Latin America’s defiant left.

Seeing him end up in jail is likely to deal a heavy blow to a generation of leaders.

Impact on Latin American left

“It is certainly a shock to see the man who, more than anyone, pioneered the ‘new left’ surge in Latin America, being sent to prison,” said William LeoGrande, an expert in South American politics at the American University School of Public Affairs.

His demise comes some two decades after Latin America was swept by the so-called “pink tide” that brought leftwing leaders to 15 of the region’s countries.

“Lula is the candidate of the reformist, non-revolutionary left, more market-friendly. This more moderate left appears beaten, defeated because it bet on playing the democratic game and now it appears that these rules have harmed it,” said Patricio Navia, an academic adviser at CADAL, the Center for the Opening and Development of Latin America.

“And as a result, it will become more radical.”

Brazilian ex-president (2003-2011) Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva waves to supporters after attending a Catholic Mass in memory of his late wife Marisa Leticia, at the metalworkers' union building in Sao Bernardo do Campo, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on April 7, 2018. Brazil's election frontrunner and controversial leftist icon said on Saturday that he will comply with an arrest warrant to start a 12-year sentence for corruption. (AFP)

Whether it’s the Odebrecht scandal, the economic downturn in Venezuela or Lula’s conviction, they all point to a similar conclusion, said Francisco Panizza, professor of Latin American politics at the London School of Economics.

“These episodes reinforce the idea that the Latin American left has come to a sticky end: with these corruption scandals, leaders in jail or the economic crises in Brazil and Venezuela,” he said.

“It is something that (the left) will struggle to overcome.”

A new martyr?

With his charisma, his trademark white beard and his crowds of adoring followers, Lula could easily continue to stir up the national and regional political scene from his cell.

“Clearly, for many leftist movements, what’s happened in Lula’s case is political persecution in order to remove him. The problem with this argument is that it doesn’t expand beyond leftist circles,” said Panizza.

And for many, he still remains a hero, said Peter Hakim of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.

“When Lula was president, the life and prospects for the poor – the very poor, Brazilians of colour – was better than it had ever been: more jobs, higher pay, more social programs, expansion of education,” he told AFP.

A supporter cries as he listens to former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's speech at the headquarters of the Metalworkers' Union while in Sao Bernardo, Brazil, on April 7, 2018. (Rodrigo Capote /Bloomberg)

As the first Brazilian head of state to come from the working class, Lula combined business-friendly economic policy with social-welfare programs that helped lift tens of millions of people out of poverty.

On Thursday, however, the Supreme Court rejected Lula’s request to delay implementing his 12-year sentence for corruption while pursuing appeals against his 2017 conviction.

If successful, it could have afforded him several more months of freedom, likely further bolstering his chances in the upcoming presidential election in which he is the frontrunner.

“What the court managed to do was to convert the October election into a referendum on Lula,” Navia said.

The end of the left?

Hakim has little doubt that putting Lula behind bars signals the death of the left in Latin America.

“The death of Fidel (Castro, Cuba’s revolutionary hero), the gigantic failure of (longtime Venezuelan socialist Hugo) Chavez and (current President Nicolas) Maduro, the caudillismo of (Nicaragua’s Daniel) Ortega... have together pushed the left to its weakest point in my memory,” he said.

“It’s hard to imagine any resurgence, even recuperation.”

Although there may yet be another cycle, “it’s hard to see what the left has to offer these days, unless it embraces markets, mainstream economic management and democratic government, as in Uruguay and Chile – and, to a great extent in Brazil, during the Lula presidency,” Hakim added.

Demonstrators protest against former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in front of the Federal Police headquarters, in Curitiba, Brazil, on April 7, 2018. (Reuters)

Others are less pessimistic.

“It’s not the end of the left, but the end of a left – that which fought dictatorships and which benefited from the export boom” of raw materials in Latin America in the decade after the millennium, Navia said.

But for Leogrande, it is poverty that will keep the left in business.

“So long as Latin American societies are marked by poverty, inequality and social exclusion, there will always be a challenge to the status quo from the left,” he said.

First Published: Apr 08, 2018 12:15 IST