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Lula’s imprisonment and the crisis in Brazil

Sean Purdy, PSOL, São Paulo

April 11, 2018

On Saturday, April 7 ex-Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party (PT) turned himself into the federal police soon after a militant rally attended by tens of thousands of supporters who had camped out for two days in front of the Metal Workers’ Union in an industrial suburb of São Paulo. Many in the crowd tried to block his exit, arguing that he should resist the police, reflecting the rage felt by party members and supporters over the unjust arrest of the most important left-wing politician in Brazilian history and the clear frontrunner in this year’s presidential elections.

The Landless Workers’ Movement blocked more than 50 highways in six states and several unions promised to organize strike actions to protest Lula’s arrest. Militant demonstrations were organized in hundreds of cities across the country. The photo of Lula on the shoulders of his supporters soon before his arrest starkly highlights the widespread support for the PT leader.

Political arrest

Lula’s arrest comes after a two year legal battle against trumped up charges of bribes and money laundering supposedly organized during and after he left the presidency in 2011. He was condemned for nine years in prison for supposedly receiving a three-story beachfront apartment from a large construction conglomerate in exchange for facilitating lucrative contracts.

How should socialists respond to Lula’s arrest?

We must clearly oppose the persecution and criminalization of Lula and the PT. Lula was convicted on what many jurists and analysts, even many critics of the PT, have called flimsy and highly political, reflecting the well-established links of the trial judge, Sergio Moro, with the political right. It is no surprise that the first high-profile prisoner of this judge’s notorious “Car Wash” anti-corruption campaign is Lula, the left-wing politician far ahead in the polls for this year’s presidential elections.

It is abundantly clear that the Car Wash investigation represents the judicialization of politics — that is, the dependence on the courts in deciding fundamentally political questions. Lula was condemned with little evidence while dozens of right-wing politicians have been favored by judges with whom they have documented personal and political relationships. The conviction of Lula, who is consistently in first place in the polls, is about taking him out of the presidential race in 2018.

Lula and the PT

Lula was imprisoned because he symbolizes a militant left-wing tradition of the poor and the oppressed in Brazil. Born desperately poor in the northeastern region of Brazil, Lula became a trade union leader in the 1970s in the Sao Paulo industrial region, leading a series of important strikes that eventually led to the overthrow of the military dictatorship in 1985. Founder of the PT and the main trade union federation, CUT, Lula served two terms as president from 2002-2010. Buoyed by Brazil’s favourable position in the international market and moderate social reforms, Lula left office in 2010 with a 86 per cent approval rating.

In addition to PT members, socialists in PSOL (The Party of Socialism and Freedom) and independent trade unionists and social movement activists were among the most ardent supporters on Saturday’s demonstrations in support of Lula. In fact, PSOL’s presidential candidate, Guilherme Boulos, was alongside Lula throughout the two-day standoff in the Metal Workers’ Union. We need to defend democratic freedoms and denounce the arbitrary, unjust, and hypocritical practices of the “Car Wash” investigations.  

Yet this does not mean that the Left should support Lula’s and the PT’s dead-end reformist political project. Even after the impeachment of President Dilma Rouseff in 2016 and the brutal attacks on labour and social rights by the illegitimate government of Michel Temer, the PT has refused to shift from its “soft neoliberal” politics based on alliances with big corporations and so-called centrist parties.

It has failed to adequately address the cozy relationships that it cultivated with corrupt centrist political parties. Even after the 2016 coup led by the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) and other centrist parties, the PT continues to ally with these parties on the state and municipal level, caving into the cretinism of mainstream parliamentary politics in the country.

The CUT, the main trade union federation allied to the PT, has only reluctantly mobilized against the draconian cuts of the Temer government. After a hugely successful general strike against the Temer government in April 2017, the federation has stalled on any further action.

Unfortunately, activists to the left of the PT are severely divided. There are two positions which we should not fall into.


The first is the failure to denounce the class-biased persecution of Lula and the PT, arguing that the PT dug its own grave and betrayed the working class. This argument ignores that the one-sided judicial harassment of the PT is an attack against all workers and the left. If Lula, a long-time conciliator in the trade union bureaucratic tradition, has been the subject of such a concerted right-wing attack by the right and the corporate media, imagine a left-wing political leader dedicated to a militant fight back against the neoliberal agenda?

The impeachment of President Rouseff in 2016, the drastic attacks against labour and social rights by the Temer government and the judicial and media offensive against Lula and the PT have fed the rise of extreme right-wing and even fascist political groups. Left-wing militants have been physically attacked and beaten. Legislative initiatives attacking social rights and feminist, LGBT and anti-racist activism have proliferated at the local and state level all over the country. Second in the polls for president this year, Jair Bolsonaro, is an ex-police officer with an openly racist, homophobic and misogynist platform. The police continue to murder poor and Black people when they are not brutally attacking political demonstrations with tear gas, truncheons and rubber bullets. Solidarity in the broader left against the conservative tide in Brazilian politics and society is essential.     

But an equally mistaken position is to cave into the reformist politics of the PT, calling for a false united front of the left. The fact is that the PT has not changed its politics of capitulation to neoliberalism. We must not forget that it was the Dilma Rouseff government who first launched drastic austerity policies in favour of financial capital soon after she was elected in 2014 on a platform of advancing labour and social rights. It is no surprise that she chose Michel Temer, a pork-barrel politician from a centrist, pro-capitalist party, as her running mate. His and his party`s betrayals of the PT do not seem to have phased PT leaders: until today the PT maintains plans to ally with such parties at the state level in the elections later this year.

A united front will inevitably divide the left even further and bury any left-wing politics under the banner of the business-as-usual reformism of the PT.


PSOL, the largest left-wing alternative outside the PT, is still small with a fraction of the numbers of the PT, minimal parliamentary representation and nowhere near the influence of the PT in the unions and social movements. Yet it continues to grow and recently received a boost with the election of the leader of the homeless workers` movement  (MTST), Guilherme Boulos, as presidential candidate and of Sonia Guajajara, an indigenous leader, as vice-presidential candidate.   

PSOL has a different program than the PT: it has a clear anti-capitalist program, arguing for a raise in salaries, including the minimum wage, a decent public healthcare and education system, defending the rights of Indigenous peoples and environmentalists, advancing agrarian and urban reforms as well as political reforms to guarantee popular participation in politics. PSOL is dedicated fully to the struggle against racism, homophobia and sexism.  

The political and economic crisis is far from being resolved. Such a resolution will depend on the capacity of social movements, unions, and left parties to block the attacks on labor and social rights and construct a viable political alternative.

The PT’s politics of class conciliation and the embrace of neoliberalism shows the need for a socialist political alternative. This will not come through the prejudiced Brazilian judiciary and their flimsy charges against Lula nor through the adoption of the reformist project of the PT.  

Register now for Join the Resistance: Marxism 2018, a two-day conference April 27-28 in Toronto, including the session “How do we stop the far right,” “The fight against racism” and “Revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx.”

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