The shock from left-leaning establishment reporters came loudly on Wednesday: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — the “charismatic,” “widely popular,” “iconic,” “commanding” Lula — would finally have to face justice for one of the most expansive corruption schemes in Latin American history.
Lula, the socialist president of Brazil from 2003 to 2011, was convicted of accepting $1.1 million in bribes through the scheme known as “Operation Car Wash.” During his tenure, politicians allowed private contractors to grossly overcharge on projects linked to Petrobras, the state-run oil company. In exchange — and to guarantee further contracts — the contractors would kick back millions in the extra profits, prosecutors claim. As Petrobras is a state company, the money came from the Brazilian taxpayer.
Lula was sentenced to nine and a half years in prison and barred from running for public office for twice that — nineteen years. He faces four more trials on other corruption charges. As his case remains on appeal, he announced his official candidacy for president in the 2018 elections on Thursday.
The conviction has petrified the Brazilian political establishment and baffled American and Western publications, which had taken Lula’s self-crafted image as an honest progressive reformer at face value. Lula’s downfall, many claimed, was all of Brazil’s, not just that of his enablers on the left. His crimes would damage the reputation of the Brazilian people, not socialists, on the world stage.
That framing could not be further from reality. In entrusting their judiciary to a judge like Sergio Moro, who handed down the conviction, the Brazilian people are adding to the mounting evidence that they will no longer tolerate corrupt leftist hucksters who portray themselves as men and women of the people. In taking to the streets for a millions-strong protests to oust Lula’s successor, former Marxist guerrilla Dilma Rousseff, Brazilians have clearly set a mandate for new, robust, free, and fair institutions. The shame here does not lie with Brazil, but with the global left, who nurtured and uplifted Lula, egging him on as he hitched Brazil’s wagon onto the fates of some of the world’s worst political actors.
Do not expect to see the mainstream media condemn the extreme leftist movements of 2000s South America for Lula’s crimes. Bloomberg, for example, has already referred to Lula as “iconic” in two articles since his conviction, predicting in one that “the downfall of its most iconic political figure will only reinforce the nation’s sense of disillusionment and potentially pave the way for a maverick candidate in 2018.” Nice try, but Brazil’s decades-old institutional rot is not a story about Trump.
That article also quotes a Columbia University professor who describes Lula as “the icon of Brazil’s success.” That professor, Christopher Sabatini, also surfaces in the New York Times as “executive director of Global Americans, a research group in New York.” Sabatini calls Lula’s reputation “Brazil’s reputation. He was a brand. Brand Brazil.”
The UK’s The Guardian cites another professor, Carlos Melo, who laments that the guilty weight on Lula’s shoulders is “not just for him but for the country.” The piece itself wistfully notes: “No other Brazilian politician in recent decades has been able to capture popular imagination with such verve.”
The Times piece, meanwhile, credits Lula for raising “Brazil’s profile on the world stage” and calls him “a widely popular figure” and “one of Brazil’s most commanding political figures, a charismatic leader who grew up poor, challenged the military dictatorship and nurtured global ambitions for his nation.” The Times lauds Lula for “a social transformation that lifted millions from poverty in a nation with one of the world’s biggest disparities between rich and poor.”
Most egregiously, the Times refers to Lula’s corruption as “relatively modest.”
The Times has reason to defend Lula: like Venezuelan despot Nicolás Maduro and his mentor Fidel Castro, Lula da Silva has found a home in the newspaper’s pages. In 2013, Lula wrote an obituary of late dictator Hugo Chávez for the Times, where he praised the man responsible for turning the wealthiest nation in Latin America into a place where fifteen percent of the population eat garbage to survive.
“Mr. Chávez’s social campaigns, especially in the areas of public health, housing and education, succeeded in improving the standard of living of tens of millions of Venezuelans,” Lula wrote in the New York Times. “Those tasks have gained new importance now that we are without the help of Mr. Chávez’s boundless energy; his deep belief in the potential for the integration of the nations of Latin America; and his commitment to the social transformations needed to ameliorate the misery of his people.”
Lula’s questionable ties were not limited to Venezuela. The former Brazilian president was a close ally of the Cuban Castro regime, traveling to Havana and posing for chummy photos with Fidel Castro, toothy grins on display. Their 2010 meeting, a joint statement read, was “emotional” and “an expression of the existing friendship between the two leaders and the brotherhood that unites the two countries.” Lula’s Workers’ Party lined the Castros’ pockets by purchasing a major stake in Cuba’s doctor slave trade, putting Brazil’s native doctors out of their jobs.
Lula’s attempt to join ranks with regional leftist leaders was expected. His outsized effort in forging alliances with communist states and rogue leaders outside the region, however, did more to prove his intentions were far from benefitting the Brazilian people, but rather bolstering the global anti-American leftist alliance. Lula actively sought closer trade ties with China and welcomed Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to Brasilia (Assad, in turn, called for a permanent Brazilian presence on the United Nations Security Council).
Like Chávez, Lula also welcomed a greater Iranian presence in South America, even as mounting evidence surfaced that Iran’s government had a role in the deadliest terrorist attack on the hemisphere prior to September 11, 2001.
Lula welcomed then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Brasilia in 2009 and attempted to establish himself as the mediator par excellence on the Iranian nuclear issue. President Barack Obama, who had shortly prior to Ahmadinejad’s visit referred to Lula as “the most popular politician on earth,” appeared more than happy to oblige. “It is important that someone sits down with Iran, talks with Iran and tries to establish a balance so we can get back to a kind of normality in the Middle East,” Lula said of his meeting with Ahmadinejad before it occurred. He told Ahmadinejad he supported Iran’s nuclear program.
The global left rewarded this behavior. Institutions like FIFA and the International Olympics Committee granted Brazil their flagship tournaments. In granting the 2016 Summer Olympics to Rio de Janeiro, the IOC said in a statement, “we found behind Lula a dream of a city and also a dream of a nation… One reason is the social inclusion for the youth of Brazil and the youth of Rio.”
The Olympics, we now know, did nothing good for the youth of Rio. Rio de Janeiro declared a fiscal emergency. The state was left so destitute, Rio police resorted to asking residents to buy their police stations toilet paper. Rio’s iconic Maracana stadium was looted and left in tatters, much like the rest of Brazil post-Lula.
As Lula attempts a historic political comeback, few in the mainstream who once praised him will go through the effort of telling the real story of his presidency, of recalling his role in wrecking Rio de Janeiro or turning Iran into a regional power in Latin America. They cannot ignore the outrageous corruption he now stands convicted of, but they will pretend to have never seen it coming. As with Rousseff, the Brazilian people appear poised to ensure the real story is told.