Lula Was Here

Lula speaks to a crowd of people from a podium by a parked bus

Lula speaking to the crowd

The town’s been talking about it–rightfully so–all week ever since the loudspeaker-car drove around town announcing it on Monday. “Lula’s coming!”

For those of you not immersed in Brazilian politics, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva–better known as “Lula” because Brazilians love their nicknames–was President of Brazil for two terms, from 2003 to 2011, and many credit him and his policies for pulling the nation out of poverty and into BRIC status. He tapped a successor, Dilma Rouseff, who was woefully inexperienced and inept in national politics, and she was recently impeached on grounds of corruption, only to be replaced by Michel Temer. Dilma and Lula are of the “PT- Partida Trabalhista” (Worker’s Party) and Temer is of the opposing Brazilian Democratic Movement Party. All are under investigation for corruption, as are all the potential successors to Temer were he also to be impeached. There. You’re up to speed.

So the fact that such a significant figure was making a tour stop in our tiny little town was significant. Even if you didn’t agree with him.

The location of the campaign stop was a local roadside eatery with a big parking lot. People were starting to line up alongside the road at 9 a.m. when I drove into town to go to work. By noontime he had started speaking, so I wandered down on my lunchbreak to listen. I can’t vote, but it’s worth seeing history in person.

cars parked along the road and people gathered to hear Lula speak

the roadside gathering

They rolled into town in three buses emblazoned with “Lula throughout Brazil.” The crown was about 200 people (our town can do better, I’ve seen more) but it was a decent crowd for noontime on a workday in the sun.

Who was this man that has mythic status in Brazil, I wondered?

I only had to listen to five minutes of his speech to understand. After he stepped down as president, he fought off a bout of throat cancer. There was a time in there that it was pretty touch-and-go. So his speaking voice was never pretty, but these days his voice sounds like gravel crunching in motor oil. Dark. Deep. Rough. Spiced with proletarian phrasings. He has a slight lisp and mumble and an occasional cough so that it’s sometimes hard to make out what he’s saying, but the energy is unmistakeable. This man is preaching. And he’s preaching revolution in the slang of the working class, people.

Here’s some excerpts (the full video in Portuguese is below).

He spent a lot of time defining his base, separating rich from poor.

“I know that many times the people are tired of keeping the faith…. I know that many times the people are born poor, become poor teenagers, work in a uniform, and the expectation is that nothing’s ever gonna get any better….

“We hafta have a lot of faith, we hafta have a lot of willpower because who is it that depends on us? It isn’t the rich people that depend on us, they don’t like us and they don’t need us! (lots of applause) Who likes us is this country’s the working class, it’s the people who work in the factory, that guy who works in the fields, that guy who works in the store, that guy that who works in the school, that guy who teaches, it’s that guy that works as a bricklayer’s assistant, that guy who sells stuff under the table, that guy who works selling things on the streets. All those who sweat to eat a mashed piece of bread each day.”

“I remember in 2003 I created the Bolsa Familia (Family Allowance)… and the rich of this country started in saying that I was creating a bunch of do-nothings. The rich got squeezed and looked at the Bolsa Familia and said that people didn’t want to work anymore, that there wasn’t anybody who wanted to work as a maid, nobody wanted to work cutting sugar cane, no one wanted to work anymore in heavy labor jobs, and it was true! Cutting sugar cane isn’t decent work for any human being!”(lots of applause)

“And we know what it means here for the poorest cities of this country what it is to earn just minimum wage. We know what it means to people who earn the money for breakfast every day, who bring it home for lunch, bring it for dinner, and those that never went hungry, they don’t know what that is. Those who never went hungry and never saw a child sleep with a awful growling belly and drink a cup of milk and eat a spoonful of beans. The rich don’t know what I’m talking about. They have no idea what I’m talking about and in reality we managed to make this country more dignified, for people to create more, to work more, people even went to trade school, poor people started to get into the universities, and what’s happening now? We’re losing that again. We’re losing it. People are losing jobs, they’re destroying workers’ rights….”

He laid the recent economic downturn at the feet of his opponents, the rich.

“The truth is that they want to fix this economic crisis created by the rich on the backs of the workers.”

“And we can’t let this country suffer a backslide. When we learn to have breakfast, when we learn to have lunch and dinner, when we learn to have our own house, clean and all our own, when we learn to eat well for lunch and dinner, when we learn to have our kids in school, we don’t wanna go back. We weren’t born to be poor. And nobody likes to be poor. Nobody’s proud of being poor. What we want is opportunities to do good in life…. They think that poor folks don’t need much. That poor folks don’t care. Poor folks can eat anything. Tough meat! Second-grade beans! Second-grade rice! … They think that poor kids don’t have the same right same right to eat yogurt or Danoninho [a brand of children’s yogurt]… Shoot! We have the same right to eat this every day and that’s why we need to lift up the poor folks. That’s why I came to the Jequitihonha Valley, that’s why the Jequitihonha Valley isn’t poor, it’s only poor in the heads of those running this country that never saw the Jequitihonha Valley.” (wild applause)

He mentioned the recent investigations:

“You see it on the television every day. Every day there’s twenty minutes attacking Lula on the Globo network, every day a prosecutor says this, a prosecutor says that, ‘Lula has an apartment complex,’ ‘Lula has a vacation home,’ ‘Lula did I don’t know how many things wrong,’ and up until now the only person who’s been tried, the only person who has had proof was me–the proof of innocence!

“I’m not above the law… Now, I don’t wanna be the victim of an eternal lawsuit with the courts. If there’s any proof of a single misplaced real in my life, I will have the courage to return and say I’m sorry to your faces…. And you’re gonna see that we in the PT will be proven innocent. They invaded my house, they entered my house thinking that [my wife] Marisa had money, lots of jewels,  that we had dollars. They didn’t find anything, and they didn’t have the courage, didn’t feel ashamed enough to say sorry to Brazil, and to Mrs. Marisa, whose unexpected death was definitely because of her suffering.”

His wife recently died of an aneurysm. Some say that it’s stress that killed her. But he’s not looking for revenge.

“I’m not the sort of man to hold grudges. I’m not the sort of man to get revenge. I just want justice.”

Except that he is.

“I just want that those people some day have the dignity to come on television and say that they’re gonna apologize to Lula….”

“They’re trying to do this to try to keep me from being a candidate in 2018…. They already told lies in February and threw out Dina [Dilma]. They’re gonna invent another lie to keep you from voting. And why are they stuffing that ballot box? Because they know there’s only one person in this country, candidate or possible candidate who knows the soul of our people.

Right! Exactly! That man who already was president and who already took care of the people. Because you can’t just govern, you have to take care of the people, and I want to live for you. I’m going to fight! Fight until the very last consequence to be candidate!”

He closed with a love song to the working class.

“And if I come back as a candidate, I’m gonna win. And when I win this country is gonna smile again…. The small businessman is gonna keep selling, the humble start-up is gonna get his investment, the kids are gonna have better schools, the poor kids are gonna go to university, and people are gonna have the money again to travel by plane.

(Wild applause)

“Look, this is what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna move that poor guy up one more rung on the social ladder. Because everybody has the right on Sundays to eat a yummy roast chicken.  To eat a farm-raised chicken with okra. To eat a big ol’ plate of pasta with steak. For everyone to be able to live a life that is clean and what we deserve.”

“And when they see you walking down the street they think, ‘That poor guy, that hopeless man, he doesn’t know anything,’ because they don’t know that guy is a Lula voter. And because they don’t know that it’s you who guide me in politics and who give me the strength that won.

(Looks at the crowd tenderly) Not me–I’m the result of your growth!

Thank you comrades of Padre Paraiso!”

 

Hoo! Heady stuff!  As someone who has spent a lifetime working on campaigns and listening to organizing speeches, I can say: this is a master at work.

If you’re a fan, it’s intoxicating. If you’re against him, it’s enough to turn your stomach.

And not everyone is a fan. This was his reception in nearby Governador Valadares: “Thief!” “Thief!”

 

Let’s look at his statements: He’s right. He’s a self-made man who rode into office on a wave of support from the poor folks, and the rich people did clutch their pearls like the world was ending. Except that it didn’t, and the policies passed during his administration did HUGE amounts to pull Brazil out of poverty. Middle class Brazilians drive cars now where they once longed to own a motorcycle. Mr. Crônicas tells me that everyone used to buy chicken feet in the markets for stew; you’d be hard-pressed to find a bag of chicken feet in a grocery store or butcher’s. The Bolsa Familia (which gives a monthly subsidy to families with kids in school) saved many families from starvation. He began the workings (and Dilma completed them) to legalize domestic workers like maids and babysitters, freeing many from slave-like conditions and giving them footing to advocate for decent wages and hours. He did a lot for the country, and for workers. Almost nobody will deny that. He and his immediate family hasn’t been caught with extraordinary amounts of money, despite all the best attempts. His family is rich, but that could just be attributed to a president’s wages and influence. Those that favor him say that the investigations and negative news coverage are strategies to keep the poor out of political power, a way of curtailing socialist progress in favor of maintaining the rich’s strangle-hold on Brazil. 

On the other hand, it’s really hard to imagine someone that high in Brazilian politics who’s not got their hand in the proverbial cookie jar. A lot of the powerful PT politicians were caught rolled up in the recent Petrobras scandal–nicknamed the Lava-Jato (“Car Wash”) investigations–where government contracts were blatantly bought and sold.  So the question with Lula is a lot like with Nixon–how much did he know? It’s hard to imagine he had no idea.

And it is possible to imbezzle money in Brazil and not have it in your name. In fact it happens all the time. Before I walked down to the rally, a family friend dropped a bombshell–“I’ve got a million reais property in my name.” I was gobsmacked. This is a guy who goes to work all dusty every day. I’ve known him for years. How? “Oh, it’s not mine. This rich family friend asked me to put it in my name because all his kids already had lots of property in theirs.” “That guy?” remarked another friend, “You can drive through X farming neighborhood for miles, and it’s all his property.” See how it works? So everyone knows it very well could be that Lula’s not innocent–he’s just really smart. 

And then some people don’t care. “They’re all dogs, Malvina,” one friend remarked. “They just throw us the bones of the cow once they’re done. I like Lula because he at least threw us some bones with some meat still on them.” 

So the question is, will Lula make it into a third presidency? It certainly looks like he’s got the taste for power and is starting to rally his troops. And what will that mean for Brazil if he does?

What do you think? Would you vote for him?

 

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Comments

  1. Malvina, I’m catching up on my reading list and I was so happy to read this post! I’m trying to educate myself on Brazilian politics, since this has been my home for 2.5 years and will be my home for the foreseeable future. “I like Lula because he at least threw us some bones with some meat still on them.” This is entirely how I view Lula. It’s undeniable that his policies had an incredible impact on the poor and middle class here. My husband told me stories about visiting friends’ houses as a child with his mother’s rule in the back of his head: “Eat as much as you can there, because I can’t guarantee there will be any food here.” I think in GV, people have really lost touch with that memory. My brother-in-law in his early 20s grew up with Bolsa Familia (as well as part of our income from the United States). His life was much more cushioned than my husband’s. He supports Bolsonaro. He believes Bolsonaro is untouched by corruption. I believe, as you said, “it’s really hard to imagine someone that high in Brazilian politics who’s not got their hand in the proverbial cookie jar.” I don’t think Bolsonaro is clean. I don’t think Lula is clean. But I do think that Lula was the first president in Brazil to put the needs of the poor and working class first. And while it goes against my moral compass to say this, I’m willing to put up with Lula’s corruption if it means average Brazilians are lifted up too. I fear that Bolsonaro will be Brazil’s Trump. (Also, here in GV, people will complain about ANYTHING. Our current mayor has been improving the infrastructure all over the city and yet, it’s not enough. “Well sure he paved the roads in half the neighborhoods and created safe walkways in the favelas, but this one street over here is full of potholes!” As if everything can be done at one time. As if we haven’t already seen an incredible improvement in the city during his tenure. And if you’re not convinced about the attitude in this city – try to sell something in the Facebook Bazar. 😅)

    • My husband tells a similar story of going to relatives’ homes to visit and asking them what was in cans of food on the shelf because he was hungry and hoping they would take the hint and open something. The deep poverty wasn’t that long ago… I’m really relieved that I can’t vote in Brazil! I don’t know which way I’d decide to go. For now, I’m happy just to describe what I see. So good to hear from you!

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