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Former Brazilian President Behind Bars, How ‘Lula’ Went From A Beloved World Leader to Prison Stripes

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, simply known as Lula, surrendered to police last week in the southern city of Curitiba. He was convicted of corruption and is due to start his new life behind bars, facing a nine-and-a-half year sentence.

According to a BBC report, Lula was holed up in the Steelworkers Union headquarters, hiding for two days after the local court set a deadline for his surrender.

Before surrendering, the first Brazilian president originating from the working class maintained his innocence, saying that the bribery case charged against him was politically motivated.

“I will comply with the order and all of you will become Lula,” the 72-year-old told a cheering crowd in Sao Bernardo do Campo.

The Car Wash Operation: The most massive corruption scandal ever in South American history

In July 2017, Lula was found guilty of receiving a luxury apartment as an illegal gift for contracts awarded to OAS, the Brazilian conglomerate, with the state-owned oil firm Petrobras. One of the world’s most popular politicians was dragged into Operation Car Wash (more commonly known as Lava Jato in Portuguese), Brazil’s most massive corruption or graft scandal. The operation started in March 2014 at a petrol and car wash complex in the country’s capital, Brasilia.

The operation initially focused on agents known as doleiros (black market money dealers), who used small businesses to “rinse” the profits of a criminal act. The police soon found out that the probe evolved into one of the most complicated graft investigations in Latin American history, with dealers working for several executives at Petrobras.

Based on the investigation, several construction firms in Brazil were alleged to have paid millions of dollars in bribes to secure an agreement with the state oil giant. They then inflated funds for construction work, line items including such expenditures as exploration vessels and refineries; the remainder of the funds would later be distributed evenly among co-conspirators, including funding pro-government political parties’ campaigns. One of the parties receiving funds was the Workers’ Party, where Lula had his origins.

Politicians weren’t the only beneficiaries of the deal–everyone linked to the contracts received bribes in many forms, ranging from cash to luxury goods, such as Rolex watches, luxury cars, and even helicopters.

Petrobras’ Director of Refining and Supply Paulo Roberto Costa admitted that he had received a Land Rover after awarding contracts to construction firms, informing the corruption task force that the case was much bigger than they had imagined.

According to an Aljazeera report in March, more than 150 individuals have been arrested or prosecuted for their involvement in the jaw-dropping scandal.

The case also put Brazilian President Michel Temer under pressure. In May 2017, a report stated the president was recorded having a conversation where he approved the use of bribes to stop witnesses from testifying against the scandal. Temer denied the allegations and refused to step down from his presidency.

The impact of Lula’s imprisonment on Brazilian politics

Lula’s arrest will change the country’s political landscape ahead of the poll in October, considering he was planning to run for president before he was brought to prison. According to Brazilian law, a person is banned from running for public post if he or she is convicted of criminal charges.

Polling in January showed that the charismatic leader would have won the ballot by a landslide.

With Lula in jail, supporters of the Workers’ Party are waiting to see who their replacement may be. Potential candidate nominations include Fernando Haddad and Jaques Wagner, though neither politician is likely to match Lula’s charisma and popularity, a product of his welfare programs that lifted 20 million of Brazilians out of poverty during his presidency.

“The party doesn’t have many options because Lula was so central and important. But you can’t keep insisting on Lula forever,” says Carlos Melo, a political science professor at the Insper Institute of Education and Research in Sao Paulo.

Jair Bolsonaro, a former Army captain, came second in polls after Lula in the pre-election survey. Brazilians often compare the candidate to U.S. President Donald Trump due to Bolsonaro’s support for Brazil’s military dictatorship and as well as his history of racist comments.

Many analysts, however, predicted that voters would prefer left-leaning contenders such as Guilherme Boulos and former minister Marina Silva. Still,  Bolsonaro’s image is relatively improved after Lula’s arrest, though nothing is guaranteed in politics and only election day can reveal the winner.


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Yasmeen Rasidi

Yasmeen is a writer and political science graduate of the National University, Jakarta. She covers a variety of topics for Citizen Truth including the Asia and Pacific region, international conflicts and press freedom issues. Yasmeen had worked for Xinhua Indonesia and GeoStrategist previously. She writes from Jakarta, Indonesia.

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