Unable to contact the outside world for almost one year, forced into silence in the Federal Police headquarters in Curitiba, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva still makes an impact on the lives of many Brazilians. At 73 years of age, the former president has never stopped inspiring feelings and opposing opinions. On one side are those who acknowledge that great part of the population benefited from his policies or felt firsthand how their living conditions improved during his two terms in office. On the opposite side are those who echo a story according to which Lula was a setback for the country, trying to tarnish his image at all cost.
While this is a constant narrative in the ex-president’s political life, he is undeniably a huge part of the country’s history. Many are the reasons why Lula is not forgotten by the people and is always under the spotlight of the media. Campaigns, political rallies, legal cases, police investigations, and sharp public speeches. These are the images that usually emerge when Lula is the topic. Throughout his life, the image of a man who lives and breathes politics often outshines Lula as a father and grandfather figure. But subjectivities, religious beliefs, and opinions – the basic pillars holding up every political man’s formation – make him human like everyone else.
His first public appearance after he was imprisoned was at the cremation ceremony of his grandson Arthur Lula da Silva, who died at age seven with hospital-acquired infection. A federal court allowed the ex-president to attend the ceremony.
As he walked out of the police car into the cremation room, supporters and journalists were able to see him for a few seconds. He waved weakly, not hiding the pain of a grandparent who had just tragically lost a grandchild. “I have never seen my dad so sad in my whole life. Ever,” said Lurian Lula da Silva, his eldest daughter. “He said it was not fair, that it was not the natural order of things, that those who are older should go first, that he could not understand. He told Arthur to wait for him in heaven, that he would bring the documents proving his innocence to him.”
Lula was allowed only one hour and thirty minutes to mourn with his family. “It was not enough. He had been in prison for almost a year, away from his family. Away from his grandson’s daily life,” Lurian said.
Not only was the ex-president deprived of freedom while his case was still pending appeal in higher courts, this is the third time he lost a family member in three years. In February 2017, almost a year after judge Sérgio Moro compelled him to testify, his wife Marisa Letícia Lula da Silva died from a stroke. In January this year, he was not allowed to attend the funeral of his older brother, 79-year-old Genival Inácio da Silva, who died of lung cancer.
“He resists for those who have gone and for those who are still here,” Lurian said. She says she doesn’t know how her father manages to stay strong to fight for his freedom and to bring back a different project for society. “Everyone says, ‘Lurian, be strong, because he is big.’ And he really is. A person like him – as a man, a parent, a politician – only comes around once in one hundred years. He has survived everything. He has survived poverty, famine, discrimination, persecution, dictatorship. There is something about him, and the entire Silva family, that he tries to keep his spirits up in times of pain to be able to resist,” his eldest daughter says.
Historical photos of Lula are always crowded, full of people hugging him. He has an undeniable ability to communicate with the people. After he was arrested and deprived of contacting his family and the people, he found a way to express himself about what is happening in Brazil through letters and notes, writing to keep standing up for what he believes. “He has always been on the side of the people,” says Paulo Okamotto, president of the institute named after the former president. “He knows he is beloved and appreciated by workers. And that helps him stay composed to endure hardships in life. That’s what has been keeping him strong.”
Okamotto also says that “the last few years have been a long ordeal for Lula,” whom he says “knows the Brazilian people deeply.” “Anyone who has met Lula and talked to him could see how he treats people, how much he cares, how much he loves, because he is a one-of-a-kind politician. He does politics with a capital ‘P.’ The legacy Lula has created and still creates comes from what he does,” Okamotto argues.
Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s successor in the presidential office, says the Workers’ Party leader was underestimated by the elite, who never really accepted how a retirante nordestino, a poor migrant from the dry backlands of Brazil, could have such huge political ability and receive public acclaim. “I had the opportunity and the honor to witness Lula’s leadership be recognized many times, the applause and excited praise he received in meetings abroad. When they realized how big Lula was, the Brazilian elite turned its disdain into a dangerous mix of hatred and fear.”
Rousseff, who was tortured during the Brazilian military dictatorship, says that while Lula is also enduring a kind of torture, as he is being held in solitary confinement, separated from the people, those violations are actually what push his resistance. “The distress, the injustice, and the torture actually make the will to fight and survive grow inside of us, so we can overcome and defeat our persecutors. Not through strength, but through the high road we’ve taken, showing that, as we stayed alive, holding our head up high, staying sane, and keeping our principles strong as we know we are on the right side of history. That’s exactly Lula’s case,” she says. “He knows that, in that little cubicle he was thrown in, he is with millions of Brazilian men and women who love him. People who admire him, and people who know that, in this historical moment, without him, the country will keep crumbling down.”
Opinions about Lula abound. And even those who criticize him don’t have enough arguments to deny that Brazil’s history many times goes hand in hand with Lula’s own story. “He is the son of Mrs. Lindu. He persists, resists, he knows he will fight until the end, and he will leave that place an innocent man,” his daughter Lurian affirms.
Edition: Anelize Moreira | Translated by Aline Scátola