Curitiba, Brazil—Lula’s freedom was never a foregone conclusion—even after Brazil’s Supreme Court decided last Thursday that it was unconstitutional to jail defendants before they had exhausted their appeals. This included former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and roughly another 5,000 people in detention around the country. Legally, they should have been freed, but justice, particularly in Brazil, doesn’t just happen.
After the Supreme Court decision, leaders of the Landless Workers Movement and Lula’s Workers Party called for supporters to descend on the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba. People poured into the Santa Candida residential neighborhood surrounding the prison and joined a community of Lula supporters who had been protesting there for 19 months.
In front of the jail, rows of cameras on tripods were pointed at the entrance, waiting. Lula’s lawyers visited him in the morning, and announced that they had asked a local Curitiba court to release him immediately.
Spontaneous cheers and “Free Lula” chants erupted every few minutes from a crowd that would grow to more than 20,000 people, according to organizers. People in red shirts walked in half-euphoria, half-daze, still disbelieving that Lula might really be free within a few hours.
“We could not be happier,” Pauliana Silva Gonçalves told me, her fist raised before the prison walls. She wore a black shirt with a white image of Lula’s face. She wiped away tears under thick sunglasses. “Our voices are filled with the freedom of our companion Lula da Silva. We’ve been here for 580 days, resisting.”
Lula had been incarcerated since April 7, 2018. The charge was corruption: accepting a beachside apartment from a company seeking government contracts. But the evidence was weak. Lula maintained his innocence, and so did his supporters.
Gonçalves arrived the day after he was imprisoned with others from the Brazilian state of Espirito Santo, more than 800 miles away. She had been here ever since. The night the helicopter arrived carrying Lula to his cell, his supporters launched an around-the-clock vigil just outside the federal police prison. Hundreds arrived and pitched their tents on the sides of the streets of the middle-class neighborhood. Gonçalves was one of them.
“We will only leave Curitiba when Lula is freed,” said Lindbergh Farias, then a Workers Party senator, on April 8. They kept their promise. The vigil would become ground zero for left organizing around the country.
On May 1, 2018, Brazilian unions held the country’s first united Workers Day rally in decades in Curitiba. Thousands came. They returned for major actions every few months: New Year’s, the anniversary of Lula’s imprisonment, Lula’s 500th day in jail.
Those at the vigil—sometimes dozens, sometimes hundreds—continued to demand Lula’s freedom, day after day. They rallied. They sang. They held workshops, trainings, and endless other activities. They were physically attacked. They were threatened with eviction. In the early days, many camped. Others found places to stay. They created lives there, met spouses. One couple had a little girl. And still they cheered good morning, afternoon, and evening to Lula, every day. The former president said he could hear them from his cell. He said it gave him strength.
The fight to free Lula became the key mobilizing issue of the Brazilian left. Free Lula committees sprung up across the country. They held their own local rallies and events. On Lula’s birthday, October 27, his supporters celebrated with events and all-day concerts in more than 80 cities. Leading international figures visited him in jail, including Noam Chomsky, who called Lula “the world’s most prominent political prisoner.”
Lula was no average leader in Brazil. He was the country’s charismatic working-class hero, who for many has near mythic status. As a metalworker in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he led massive union strikes that would mark the beginning of the end of the military dictatorship. He founded the Workers Party, and was finally elected president in 2002. During his two terms, he lifted millions of out poverty, and left office at the end of 2010 with an approval rate nearing 90 percent.
Neither he, nor his Workers Party, were perfect. They were criticized for losing touch with their base, embracing big agricultural companies, and pushing development at the cost of local communities. There were scandals; there was a recession; and there was corruption, though it was across the political spectrum. The media and the political opposition blamed it on the Workers Party. And they impeached Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, in 2016, under politically motivated charges of manipulating the budget, the cover for the congressional coup.
The incoming government of Michel Temer rolled back social programs, sold off state infrastructure, froze public spending for 20 years, and embroiled itself in an even bigger web of scandal—kick-backs, graft, and extortion.
Lula was seen as the answer. The man who could set the country back on track. Even from behind bars, he led all of polls heading into the 2018 elections. But then he was blocked from competing.
Now, he was free. At just after 5:30 pm on Friday, Lula stepped from the building in a gray shirt and a black suit coat, flanked by his top Workers Party allies.
The crowd exploded. Shouts. Tears. Rolling chants of “Lula!” or “Free Lula!” echoed off the surrounding buildings.
He walked out the gates and into a sea of people. They squeezed and rushed. Lula pushed forward, half walking, half carried by an ocean of supporters, arms raised above their heads, cell phones filming the momentous occasion.
This would mark an end and a beginning, potentially shifting the country’s political dynamics.
Lula’s freedom is certainly a boost for the Brazilian left, which has been facing an ongoing attack from the government of Jair Bolsonaro. Lula has the ability to speak like no one else to Brazil’s poor and working class.
Bolsonaro has the most to lose from Lula’s release, and he called an emergency meeting to discuss it with military officials the following day. Meanwhile, publicly Brazil’s Trump-like president remained uncharacteristically silent about Lula for almost two days. When Bolsonaro finally did comment, he—also uncharacteristically—called for restraint.
Some analysts, however, believe Lula’s freedom could also be a blessing in disguise for the far-right president, helping to unite the government camp by giving them a vocal and prominent enemy.
Bolsonaro’s government has been plagued by infighting among the disparate groups in its coalition: the military, the evangelicals, the devotees of Bolsonaro’s far-right philosophical guru Olavo de Carvalho. According to reports, Bolsonaro’s relationship with the military, which holds dozens of top posts, is at its most strained since he came to power. And infighting in Bolsonaro’s own Social Liberal Party reached a crescendo last month, when Bolsonaro expressed disgust over numerous impasses over control of the party and its finances. Today Bolsonaro announced he would quit his party and form a new one.
Despite the Supreme Court ruling permitting his release, Lula still has numerous charges and accusations against him. His lawyers are now working to clear his name, based, in part, on revelations by The Intercept Brasil, which show clear bias against Lula and the left by former judge Sergio Moro—now Bolsonaro’s justice minister—and the country’s anti-corruption task force, which schemed in private WhatsApp messages about how to keep the Workers Party from returning to power.
Overturning Moro’s conviction looks far more plausible now than earlier in the year, before the release of the Intercept Brasil leaks. Already, the Supreme Court has annulled a number of Moro’s decisions, in a major blow to the highly politicized Car Wash operation.
For Bolsonaro’s far-right supporters, this is a sign of the Supreme Court’s complicity in impunity and its willingness to turn the country back to the dark days of lawlessness. They have often called for the court to be impeached or removed. They railed against the court’s 6-5 decision, which allowed for Lula’s release, as an unconscionable act of impunity. The hashtag #STFVergoniaNacional (#SupremeCourtNationalShame) was trending on Twitter. At a right-wing rally in Curitiba, the day after Lula’s release, protesters threw tomatoes at blown up pictures of the six Supreme Court justices who voted for the decision that would release Lula.
For Bolsonaro’s base, Lula is the head of a cabal, the epitome of Brazil’s corrupt and criminal political system, which has run Brazil into the ground. For his supporters, he is a hero who has once again returned to bring them hope and lift them out of despair.
Now, Lula says, “I’m back.”
The day after his release, he led a huge rally outside the ABC Metalworkers union, where he got his start, in Sao Bernardo do Campo, São Paulo. Speaking to a sea of red-clad supporters, Lula told the crowd, “Biologically speaking, I’m 74 years old, but I have the energy of a 30-year-old.”
He attacked Bolsonaro for pushing privatization, cutting pensions and social programs, and for his alleged ties to the paramilitaries accused of killing the black LGBT Rio de Janeiro city council member Marielle Franco, last year. He announced that the left would take back the presidency in 2022 and confirmed that he would be touring the country.
“I want to build this country with the same happiness that we built it when we governed this country,” Lula told supporters. “The only thing I’m certain of is that I have more courage to fight than before I left.”