São Bernardo do Campo (Brazil) (AFP) – “Helping Lula is helping the people. We will resist with him!” insists a young woman, one of thousands of supporters encamped outside a union building where Brazil’s ex-president has been holed up ahead of his imminent arrest for corruption.
Since Thursday, when a judge issued an arrest order for the controversial leftist icon Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on corruption charges, supporters have flocked to his side at the metalworkers’ union in the southern city of Sao Bernardo do Campo, where he took refuge.
It was here in the working-class suburbs of Sao Paulo that he cut his teeth as a union leader during the military dictatorship, experience which eventually propelled him to the presidency, where he served between 2003 and 2010.
And it was here that he turned when the arrest order came, with several thousand of his supporters setting up a human cordon around the glass-fronted building, transforming it into an improvised fortress against the authorities.
For two days, the 72-year-old leader was holed up on the second floor, receiving only a privileged few — political leaders, lawyers, union officials and family — while he ignored a Friday deadline to turn himself in to start 12 years of prison.
On Saturday morning, when he finally stepped out to attend a Catholic Mass in the street in memory of his late wife, he won a rock star’s welcome.
“Free Lula, free Lula!” the crowd chanted as he launched into an hour-long speech declaring his innocence on charges of bribe-taking, but pledging to surrender for arrest.
– Music, songs, rousing speeches –
Until then, there hadn’t been a word from the man who had been Brazil’s most popular president and, despite his legal problems, is front-runner for October’s presidential elections.
His silence stood in sharp contrast with the rowdy atmosphere outside, where Brazilian funk, samba, protest songs and speeches blared from the public address system.
Inside the building, which was almost completely plastered with posters reading: “No prison for Lula,” a motley array of supporters had set up camp.
History student Flavio Bento, 25, was trying to get some rest after a seven-hour bus ride from Rio de Janeiro with the Union of Socialist Youth.
A handful of T-shirts inside his rucksack served as a pillow and a couple of flags were laid out as a makeshift mattress.
Others brought milk of magnesia, a common antidote against tear gas, which they expected to be used if the police turned up.
“We must always be prepared. We live in a state of exception in which the constitution has been torn up,” Bento told AFP.
“We always say: we are not afraid to die, the revolution must follow,” said Bento, the first in his family to get to university, thanks to a grant system established by Lula.
Upstairs, 64-year-old retiree Clara Pinol, who arrived on Thursday evening with a group of activists from the Workers’ Party, sat at a plastic table chatting with a group of women.
“Many of the youngsters are sleeping on the wooden stage but if I do that, I’ll never get up!” she grinned.
“So I’m not sleeping, but I just want to be here.”
– Easing tension with Samba –
Despite fears that the police would attempt to arrest Lula, a handful of people took to the floor to dance samba, the music echoing all the way through the building.
Among the crowd was Ulises de Castro, a 50-year-old car factory worker, who danced energetically with two friends.
“It’s one way the trade union is managing to make people happy. Here there are people who have gone many hours without relaxing, without eating, without showering,” he told AFP.
“We’re very worried and moments like this help us to be more united.”
In the background was a famous samba chorus: “Sadness, please go away.”